An old man slips from reality and follows a familiar voice home one last time.
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The glass door slowly rolled open and Clarence Jenkins walked outside and stood for a moment. The clear blue sky and brilliant sun were stunning. His eyes gradually adjusted from the dimly lit rooms they had known for the past two years. Clarence surveyed the sloping manicured lawn and long winding driveway that led to the highway below. With an unsteady gait, he began to make his way down the hill.
As he walked, he sensed an easiness that he hadn’t known for years. He felt a strong warm breeze on his skin and he stopped, closed his eyes and inhaled.
The sweet scent that hung in the air reminded him of his childhood seventy years ago. Clarence thought of long summer walks home along the dirt road to his grandmother’s house. He imagined the red-winged black birds perched on the fence posts and rusting barbed wire lining the roadside fields. He smiled, picturing his grandmother sitting on her front porch peeling potatoes while she waited for him. She had been more like a mother to him. He was only six years old when his mother went away, and his grandmother was the only family he ever knew.
His feet moved ahead slowly, scuffing the hot asphalt. He shuffled toward a wooden bench in the shade of an old oak tree and sat down to catch his breath. He’d already ventured farther from his room than he’d been in months. That’s when the doctors began to put restrictions on him. Although he’d protested and denied the nurses reports of his unusual behavior, the staff had to limit his movement to the north wing of the building.
Most of the time, Clarence had been content watching reruns of Matlock or sharing stories of his youth with neighbors. But recently, every so often in the middle of a conversation, the face in front of him would become distorted, slowly taking on the characteristics of someone from his past. The first time it happened it was just for a second or two. But in the past few months the episodes had become longer in duration. Now, one minute he would begin a conversation with his roommate about the cafeteria food, and five minutes later he'd be talking with his cousin who died in 1944.
He sat for a while with his head back, eyes focused on the dancing branches above. Somewhere beyond the dark green canopy, a noisy crow broke the silence of the lazy Monday afternoon. A little red Honda rounded the curve in the driveway in front of him and sped up the hill. He recognized the woman in the car as one of the aides on his floor, and for the first time he realized that he was somewhere he shouldn’t be.
At the staff station on the north wing, two young women huddled over their cell phones and shared pictures of their children and pets. A timer on a microwave buzzed and someone went to get their lunch. For Jen Lee it was the first day on the job, and she was feeling pretty good about how things were going. Since 8:00 AM she’d learned the phone system, familiarized herself with the computer system and completed the first few hours of orientation. She’d met most of the staff and could see herself fitting in here. This was her first full-time job. Until now, she’d worked at a daycare while she went to a community college and waitressed part time on the weekends. This job was the first step toward her independence, and she was eager to succeed.
At 1:45, lunch had been over for about an hour, and the staff was into the afternoon routine. One of the aides, an older Asian woman, came to the staff station and asked if someone had come to visit Mr. Jenkins today. The question was met with puzzled looks since nobody had been to visit Mr. Jenkins in the past two years. A quick check of the visitors log showed that no one had been on the unit all day. The staff was sent to check all the patient rooms and bathrooms as well as the day room and dining hall. Within a few minutes, it was clear that Mr. Jenkins had left the building.
Jen knew immediately what had happened. Her stomach dropped, and she felt like she was about to lose her lunch. Her station was closest to the door, and she was responsible for monitoring patients entering or exiting the wing. Although it was a responsible task, it wasn’t very difficult. Anyone entering or leaving had to walk within three feet of her work station. Her chair was facing the door so she would surely see any activity, and there was a door-bell that chimed whenever the door opened. But it was her first day on the job. In an effort to make a friend, she’d strayed over to the main station and started a conversation with a coworker.
What was intended to be a one-minute break developed into an extended visit, sharing life histories and discovering that the two women had actually dated the same boy five years earlier in high school. By the time all the pictures had been shared, and the women were caught up on the most important details of each other’s lives, ten minutes had slipped by. She realized that she’d left the door unattended, and in the excitement of the moment, she didn’t hear the door bell.
Clarence listened closely to the sound of the wind moving through the hundred year-old trees that surrounded him. The resonance was soothing and he nearly dozed off, but somewhere from within the sound was the faint trace of a voice. When the wind picked up, the voice was clear. When it slowed, he could barely hear it. It was the same voice he heard some nights as he lay in his bed by the window in his room. He’d tried countless times to identify it, but the walls of the room always muffled it. Now it was becoming more recognizable, and he was on the verge of deciphering it, when the wind slowed and the air became still. He was frustrated. The voice had haunted him for months and he knew that its message was important.
He took a deep breath ,and once again could smell the aroma from his childhood. He imagined his grandmother on her porch again, with her wide white smile and her hands working quickly on the small stack of potatoes at her feet. He loved summer as a child, and his grandmother’s cooking was a big part of it. Her garden was lush with watermelon and cantaloupe, spinach and green beans. Behind the house was the field that contained the sweet corn that was his grandmother’s favorite.
Now Clarence felt a slight breeze pass over him. With it came the sweet humid scent of summer corn growing in the field beyond the driveway. Then a stronger gust, and he recognized the scent and the voice. It didn’t seem unnatural to him to be hearing his grandmother’s voice. It was a relief to know it was her that had been trying to talk to him. He suddenly realized how much he’d missed her. He could hear the smile in her voice as she told him she missed him and wanted to make him a special dinner. She told him that she’d been waiting a long time for him and that she’d been watching him from above. She wanted him to know how proud she was of how he’d lived his life and that she loved him very much. A tear rolled down his cheek and he wished he could hug her. He wiped his eyes and asked her what he could do to help with dinner. His grandmother paused, and with that smile in her voice replied, "I sure could go for some of that fresh corn.”
By now, the entire building was looking for Mr. Jenkins. Jen was with a group of three others walking through the parking lots and peering into the cars. It was 85 degrees and it wouldn’t take long for an old man to get into real trouble if he happened to climb into an unlocked car. The chief administrator was on the phone with the police requesting help to search for his missing resident. In the ten years that he had been at the facility, more than a few residents had wandered from the building. Most were found within a few minutes, and no one had been missing for more than an hour. It was now 2:15 pm, and it was estimated that Mr. Jenkins had been missing for about two hours.
Jen was inconsolable. She thought about her grandfather and how she’d feel if he were the missing man. The other women tried to comfort her but it wasn’t helping. Finally, it was clear that she was more of a hindrance to their effort, and one of the staff led her back inside. She sat at her desk with her hands in her face replaying her actions and in-actions of the day over and over in her head.
The chief administrator stopped by her desk and asked her to recount the events of the morning and afternoon. He put his hand on her shoulder and assured her that everything would be okay. She prayed.
The field was probably close to 100 acres in size. May and June had been wetter than normal, and the corn had gotten off to a good start. Now it was six to seven feet high. When Clarence got to the edge of the field, he began to look for a few good ears for dinner. Most of them weren' t quite mature, and he stepped further into the field. He walked between the rows looking to his left and right without any luck. He heard the wind rustling the floppy green leaves of the corn and listened for his grandmother’s voice. All he heard was the increasing sound of his breathing and the pounding of his heart, as he began to walk faster into the field. He trudged on for a few more minutes and turned around. He took a few steps and looked up. The sun was high in the sky and the corn was providing a little shade, but he was immersed in acres of vegetation, and the intense humidity was beginning to make him sweat. He knelt down to rest and wiped his brow. As he stood up, he lost his balance and began to stumble forward, landing on his hands and knees. He rose slowly and realized he had no idea which way to walk.
He had a vague memory of being in the same predicament when he was a boy, and remembered thinking that if he walked long enough in the same direction he would eventually come to the edge of the field. And so he did. After about twenty minutes he was becoming dehydrated. He stumbled again and this time he couldn’t lift himself up. He lay his head down on the dry and cracking ground and closed his eyes. He could hear the sounds of others nearby in the field, but he was too weak and parched to make a sound. A helicopter circled overhead and he began to dream.
He walked up onto the porch, his head down and his hands in his pockets. His grandmother asked him what was wrong. He said he couldn’t find any good corn and he was sorry to disappoint her. She looked up from the potato she was peeling and held out her arms. Now he could feel her arms around him, and with that embrace, he realized he truly was home.