I’d come to see my father, a man I hardly knew. I’d grown up with him, here and there, but only knew him as my dad, as a man who worked a job he hated and lived with a woman that wasn’t my mom. People would later tell me how funny he was, how much they enjoyed spending time with him, how adventurous he was. I wondered who they were talking about. But that would be later. For now, I’d come with a second hand book I thought he might like to have read to him and a vague idea that I would try to get to know him, or get to know what was left of his memories of himself.
Instead, as I was walking down the hall looking for room 204B, I heard a familiar voice and quite literally stopped in my tracks. It couldn’t possibly be who I thought it was, but it was very similar. Eerily similar. Far too close to be believed and I simply had to stick my head in to verify that this was in fact a case of my own memory playing tricks on me. Only there, right there upon a hospital bed that couldn’t possibly contain the personality upon it, was Mr. Tucker.
I quickly drew my head back out of the room and flattened my body against the wall outside the doorway. Feeling mildly ridiculous for such a move, I shook myself and realized I was smiling. Of course I was smiling. Who wouldn’t want to run into a man like Mr. Tucker after all these years. You see, Mr. Tucker was my teacher way back when, grade school, must have been third or fourth grade. Back when teachers told every student how perfect they were and every student believed them and adored them for it.
Would I be welcome in the hospital room. Would it be rude to walk in unannounced. What if Mr. Tucker suffered from the wasting away of his brain that my father was battling somewhere along this very hallway. The questions flooded my mind and rendered me immobile until I heard a shout that was so very un-Mr.Tucker-like that the next thing I knew I was within the room to stand witness to what was surely elderly abuse. It wasn’t, elderly abuse that is, it wasn’t at all. It was a young nurse, or perhaps even volunteer or candy striper, I didn’t think they had candy stripers anymore, who was finding that when Mr. Tucker said no, he meant no. She’d have known that if she’d had him in grade school.
I laughed aloud before I could stop myself and the scene froze before me: candy striper’s arms raised in battle with Mr. Tucker’s, a tray of grey food between them and a pink pitcher of ice or water or something precariously teetering on the edge of one of those rolling tables they insisted on providing to every hospital patient, as though anyone ever used them for anything other than setting vases of decaying flowers or the garbage from the latest injection.
“Mr. Tucker,” I said humorously, “you’re behaving badly. Give this girl a break, I’m sure she’s just doing her job. May I be of assistance?”
The young woman looked at me with a bit of relief before turning to Mr. Tucker and saying, “I’ll leave you to your guest, but you must get some of this in you or they won’t let you leave!” She backed away, straightening her uniform, before turning to leave but not before giving me a meaningful look. “I’ll be back in twenty, Mr. Tucker.”
Mr. Tucker rolled his eyes, a move he’d never have allowed from any of his students and I had to suppress another laugh. “Thank you for the rescue,” he said as he leaned forward looking towards the hallway, “and if you wouldn’t mind, there’s a toilet behind that door there you could take some of this and flush it for me.”
“I’ll flush one bite for every bite you take and if she tells me you’re allowed, I’ll give you a candy bar after, deal?”
He smiled and said, “you’re on! Now, you’ll have to forgive me, but I can’t quite place how I know you. Sit, tell me,” he indicated a chair near his bed as he picked up his fork and began pushing food around on the tray trying desperately to hide his look of disgust as he settled on a bite and forced himself to take it. I could see him cringing and figured the best remedy for a bad mean is good conversation.
“I wouldn’t expect you to remember me, Mr. Tucker. My name is Alice, and I was one of your students back in the day. Alice Tanner. I was walking by on my way to visit my father, he’s somewhere along here, when I heard your voice. It was unmistakable,” I smiled.
He smiled, too, and forced a swallow. “Right, that was four bites, I figure that’s about all I can handle unless you’d like to see it again. Off to the toilet with you,” and he handed me the tray.
I had to agree with him, whatever it was they were feeding him looked disgusting and none of it looked like anything I could name which was a bit frightening. I supposed if he was on a diet like this the odds of him being allowed a candy bar were slim to none, but I went to the toilet and flushed away a bit of the food as I’d promised. I returned the tray to the table and myself to the seat.
“Alice Tanner, yes, I’m beginning to see the girl inside the woman. You’re still very much the same, really, your walk. It’s there in your walk. Very determined. Good to see. What have you done with yourself these twenty years, or is it thirty? You’ll have to forgive me as I’ve lost track of time since retiring.”
“I’m surprised you remember me, sir, I never much thought I stood out,” I laughed. “I don’t know that I’ve done much of anything to tell you except that I tried my hand at marriage and failed, tried my hand at travelling and found it wasn’t for me, tried my hand at a multitude of odd jobs and while I’m proficient in quite a few things now because of it I’m not particularly good at anything,” I laughed again, realizing as I said the words that they were true. I realized my eyebrows were raised, I’d surprised myself with my lack of a life, with my inability to recognize my own lifelessness until this moment.
“That, my dear, does not at all sound like the Alice Tanner I remember. Perhaps I have you confused with a different student? Alice Tanner was confident. Independent. She was going to change the world. She told me so herself on a few occasions,” he said, his eyebrows drawn down low, and a glint in his eye. No longer facing me head on, he was giving me a sidelong glance as though his peripheral vision afforded him a bit of time-travelling.