Growing up, I used to fall asleep during nearly every car ride.I would hear my father getting ready to leave while we were still inside, the jingle-jangle of his keys hitting his Molson Canadian bottle-opener keychain, the sound of him patting his pant legs to check his pockets for his wallet, and his bare feet padding around turning into the sound of hiking boots meeting the faux tile floor. Those sounds became my lullabies, and once I was finally buckled into my Toy Story themed car seat the view of the moving Rocky Mountains out my window became my bedtime story, and I always drifted off to sleep before I got to hear the ending. I would wake up as the car came to a stop and the old, loud engine ceased its coughing, always very confused as to where I was, not knowing just how I had gotten there. This happened often, but that feeling of discombobulation never became something I got used to.
Years passed and not only did I grow out of my inability to keep my eyes open when on four wheels, but my family also grew out of our Denver, Colorado ranch house and traded it in for another rancher in suburban Pennsylvania. Gone were our latin neighbors with their yelping puppies and loud fights at night and gone were my friends that taught me how to double dutch and blow bubbles with almost a full roll of bubble tape in my mouth. Our new neighbors were unfamiliar, they all looked the same to me, and what seemed to be worst of all to a six year old like myself, they were ancient. They lived in a retirement home in the cul-de-sac of my new neighborhood, so I couldn’t use the communal basketball hoop up there or ride my bike around the circle without their so-called wise, all knowing eyes watching my every move.
Tenants moved in and out of the building and for the most part, I never recognized anybody. I had heard kids in the neighborhood saying that loads of them died everyday, along with tales of them wearing dirty “grown-up diapers” for days without being changed and eating animals’ livers as opposed to whatever part is was that we ate. In turn, my view of the Sunrise Retirement Home was a morbid one to say the least, with death around every corner and the sickening smell of lukewarm creamed corn and animal organs throughout the building. I never went in and I never really saw anyone come out, besides a visitor or two every once and awhile. My mom and dad had offered to take me there a few times after hearing me whine incessantly about the “annoying old hags,” a term I had learned after watching a Mary-Kate and Ashley Halloween movie constantly for about three weeks in the middle of the spring. I denied immediately, but they went on to tell me that most of the people who lived there had something called “Alzheimer’s disease,” which made them forget things easily and that I should be polite to them and smile. I didn’t understand why being old and forgetful called for me to be nice and cheery but I nodded my head and agreed.
More time passed and I made new friends, found new loud neighbors, and the elderly people up the street became a mere backdrop, hardly ever crossing my mind. About a year after I had moved into my new house, I finally felt comfortable enough with my new neighbors to invite myself over to swim in their above-ground pool. I peered out my bedroom window, swerving my vision in between the trees and the unfinished wooden fence and saw that a bunch of the neighborhood kids were out swimming. I pulled on my pilled one piece, grabbed my hot pink goggles, and headed over. After what seemed like hours of Marco Polo and unhygienic water-spitting, my pruney fingers and I were ready to go home.
I had forgotten a towel and knew my mom wouldn’t be happy if I came into the front door soaking wet, so I snuck around to the back yard, hoping to find a towel in the laundry room before my mom had any idea that I was even home. As I snuck across the front yard, spy-walked past my mom’s gold, dent-covered minivan, and through the gate to the backyard, I noticed that the back door was already faintly ajar. I figured that one of my younger siblings had just left it open, or maybe that my mom was in there doing laundry and needed some fresh air, so I continued on without hesitation. I walked in, the glistening drops of slightly chlorinated water falling to the floor from my body, and ran straight into an aloof, confused, old woman.
“Hello, sweetie, I was going to fold my laundry, but I can’t find the…” she began. Immediately, I knew exactly where she had come from, the scary building on the hill had lost an occupant.
“MOMMY!” I burst into tears, eyes wide open, as the strange, empty-eyed woman smiled at me, her too perfect teeth reminding me of the fact that she probably had none of her own. My mom arrived quickly, out of breath, with my younger sister on her hip, licking peanut butter off of a big serving spoon.
My mother somehow kept her cool as I gazed wide-eyed at our unexpected visitor, feeling an uneven mixture of terror and awe at the strangeness of the situation. A diaper wearing, organ eating, “old hag” was in my house… and I had no inclination to hide and cower in fear. After finding out that the aloof old woman was named Catherine and that, although she used to live in a house just like ours, she now lived up the road in “that hellhole her son-in-law suckered her into going to,” although she could not recall his name.
“I’m so sorry…I.. I don’t know how I got here…I didn’t…” Catherine mumbled as she held the tears back as best as she could. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would make someone like Catherine live up on the hill.
We decided to drive Catherine the short way back, me still in my bathing suit, towel-less. We walked, for what seemed like years, to the front desk of the retirement home that I had once feared and hated so much.I watched Catherine anxiously avoid the eyes of her fellow “hell-hole” inhabitants, wishing her son-in-law wasn’t such a jerk. The smell of mashed up, flavorless food made me gag after just minutes; didn’t he know that no one should have to live where it smells like that? We explained what had happened as the fat receptionist sighed, put down her frozen coffee drink, and announced on the PA system that the “patient had been found.”
“Her name is Catherine.” I informed the receptionist, leaning up on my tiptoes to see her over the tall, cold, steel desk. I looked around for Catherine as we walked out, and spotted her sitting silently in an armchair that looked uncomfortable. I waved goodbye, but Catherine didn’t see me, she was busy staring listlessly at whatever Everybody Loves Raymond rerun the staff had decided to put on. We left the building, the car began to move and the retirement home became a backdrop. I woke up in my driveway feeling aloof, wondering what Catherine was doing.