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The woman in the bed
Virginia Beach, Virginia, 1952
We lived in a house not far from the ocean. Next door to us lived the Hermans. Rather, they had a summer house next to ours. They came from Suffolk every summer to escape the heat for three months. (I would have been six or seven then.) The Hermans had two boys our age, Steve and Tommy. My brother and I went to their house a lot, sometimes as early as 6:30 in the morning, sneaking into the boys’ room through the open back window. Unless Mrs. Herman discovered us. “No visiting before 7,” she’d say. Out we went. We waited outside restlessly until Steve and Tommy told us the clock had moved far enough. Then we crawled back in. They had a radio in their room, and they loved to play WRAP, the black radio station in Norfolk. You could hear singers on that station you couldn’t hear on any of the white stations. Steve and Tommy also had a sizeable collection of 45rpm records. We could, and did, spend entire mornings with them listening to, and talking about, music. By music, I mean rock ‘n’ roll. We loved going there.
Occasionally, if it was later in the day, I would enter by the front door, the back window ingress not being necessary at that point. When I did, I saw, as I walked in, a bedroom to the left. That door was always open. I saw a bed, but not the kind of bed I was used to. It was a raised bed. With, I think, a crank at the foot. Only later, when I was bigger, did I realize this was a hospital bed. In it, was a woman. An older woman. Very old, older even than my grandmother, or at least she looked so. She had the sheets to her chest. Everything was white in the room, except her face and hair. There was a table next to her with all sorts of accoutrements. Kleenex, medicines, water, I don’t recall what else. What I do recall is the woman. She was wan, sad-looking. Not moving. Just there. Was she breathing? I guessed she was. I don’t know if she saw me or not. In the middle of the day, she was in bed. Why? Why wasn’t she dressed and walking around the house like Steve and Tommy’s mom? Or like everybody else.
“Who is that?” I asked Tommy, who had come to meet me.
“What’s the matter with her?”
“Will she get better?”
He didn’t answer.
“Why is she here? Why isn’t she in the hospital?”
“Come on back to my room,” he said. “I’ve got the new Fats Domino.”
I took one last look. There was something I couldn’t understand in the room. I didn’t know people grew so old that they couldn’t take care of themselves. I was frightened of her. Or of something. Maybe it was the strangeness of that room, of that woman making me look at her, making the room go under my skin. It was strong, whatever it was. Stronger than my summer morning of music. Stronger than the routine of my life at home. Somehow this was connected to me, but I had no idea how, or what that meant.
One day I came over, and the bed was gone.