My friend Jeff Whitley was a general building contractor around the time I was, and he told me this story.
He was converting a garage into an apartment on 5th or 6th Avenue, just off Lake Street. At the end of a day’s work, when all his guys had taken off and Jeff was about to lock up, an old woman appeared at the door.
“She must have been in her eighties,” Jeff recalled. “But she still looked good – slim, good posture, high cheekbones, bright eyes. Must have been a knock-out years ago. She wore a heavy overcoat over pants and a sweater. All of it looked high-quality but ancient. ”
She was lost, she told Jeff. She couldn’t find her house. Could he possibly help her?
What was her address? asked Jeff.
Jeff offered to drive her around in his truck in the hope she’d recognize her street, then her house. “I had an old mother back home in those days,” he said to me, as if having to explain his good-heartedness.
They drove around for half an hour, he said, through a bone-chilling January dusk, winding around Lake and Clement Streets, further and further toward Land’s End. And all that time the old lady rubbed her forehead, saying what a dumb-head she was to have forgotten her own address, Jeff telling her not to worry about it, that they’d surely find her house, but all along wondering what he’d do if they didn’t.
Somewhere out around Tenth and Lake she cried out, “This is my street! Turn here! Go down the block. Oh, there it is! Stop! Stop!”
Jeff pulled up in front of an old gray Victorian, a place that to his professional eye had been let go long enough and if not looked after soon would go down hill suddenly, a thing that happens with houses, not so different from people.
“Are you sure this is your place?” Jeff asked, for some reason dubious.
“Sure,” the lady chirped. “Look,” she said and fished a ring with about a dozen keys on it out of her coat pocket. “I got the keys to the place! See?”
She bounced out the door and thanked Jeff and said she was ok now. But Jeff, sensing something was off, insisted on climbing up the front steps to the door with her. There the lady fumbled and fumbled, failing to get any of the keys to fit the key-hole, till Jeff asked her again if she was sure this was her house.
She looked at Jeff “like I was crazy,” he told me. “Sure!” she said. “What do you think, I don’t know my own house?”
Just then neighbors came out on the front porch next door, a man and a woman, “pretty old themselves,” said Jeff. “They looked at us very strangely.”
“Mary,” they said to the old lady. “How are you?”
“Oh, hi,” answered Mary, looking at the couple blankly. “Fine. Fine. This nice fella brought me home.”
Then she went right back to it and just then a key did slide into the keyhole, and did turn, and the door swung open.
“Tell you the truth, I was surprised,” Jeff told me. “That this was her house and that she had keys for it and everything. It just didn’t feel right.”
At the door he mumbled something about having to get home himself, but Mary pulled his sleeve and said no, no, she was so grateful to him, she wanted very much to give him a glass of wine, he had time for one glass of wine, didn’t he?
Jeff said the old lady looked so happy he didn’t have the heart to say no. So he went in. Right away he saw that though the place had furniture, chairs, a table, and so on, an old tv, dusty paintings on the wall, it looked as if no one had lived in it for years. And smelled it. Not that it stank exactly, he said, though in one room he could detect something foul beneath the smell of Lysol. But in all the other rooms it was as if the windows had been sealed shut for months and months and he “could smell the paint on the walls.”
Meanwhile Mary told him to sit down at the kitchen table while she rummaged around in the cabinets for ten minutes, muttering where was that bottle of red, where were those wine-glasses? She finally turned to Jeff and asked, “What kind of Italian woman am I, I can’t even offer a gentleman a glass of wine?”
At that moment, said Jeff, the front door swung open and in came a woman followed by a man, both around Jeff’s age. They stared at Jeff, and they stared at Mary. “They didn’t look happy,” Jeff said.
The woman said to Mary, “Momma, what are you doing here?” Then she turned to Jeff. “And who the hell are you?”
The man, the woman’s husband, said nothing, Jeff told me. “He wouldn’t even look me in the eye.”
“Oh,” said Mary. “This gentleman brought me home. I’m trying to give him a glass of wine, but I can’t find any. I can’t even find a wine-glass, for God’s sake!”
This didn’t seem to satisfy the younger woman at all. She continued to glare at Jeff, while he lamely tried to explain things.
“Then, just to round things off,” Jeff said, “this gorilla blows through the door, one of those no-neck guys in a wife-beater shirt in mid-winter, with big tattoos yet. I thought I was going to have to fight my way out of that nut-house.”
While the gorilla stared at Jeff “in a very bad-assed manner,” the younger woman said the neighbors had telephoned her to say “some strange guy was going into our house with mama!”
“Yeah,” the gorilla growled. “They called me too!”
But Mary went over to the gorilla and gave him a hug, called him “Sal,” and asked him to run out and pick up a bottle of wine, “But good stuff! None of that junk!”
Meanwhile Jeff got a word in edgewise to the woman, who turned out to be Mary’s daughter Lois, and told her Mary had walked into his work-site on Fifth and Lake saying she was lost and would he help her, etcetera, etcetera. “That cooled her down a bit,” said Jeff.
And since Mary and Sal were “doing a kind of dance,” Sal saying “Ma, ma,” over and over while shuffling around and Mary hanging on to his big arms saying, “Go, Salvatore. Get us some wine. Good stuff. Do you hear me?” – Jeff figured it was a good time to blow. And “with a little wave,” he did.
A week later Sal showed up at the work-site “looking embarrassed.”
“My sister told me where you were working,” he explained. Then he apologized for what he called “the misunderstanding. It was my mama, yuh know? I didn’t know what to think.”
Jeff said it was ok, he had a mother too.
Then Sal told Jeff what happened. Three years earlier he and his sister had taken Mary out of that house and placed her in the care of The Little Sisters of the Poor on Lake Street, a Catholic old folks home. He pointed behind him. That sprawling institution was just visible from the garage door. Mary had been getting too confused to be left alone, he said. “She was loosing it in every direction,” was the way he put it.
The place had a good reputation, the Sisters were kindly, but Mary hated being there. Every Sunday afternoon when he visited her, Sal said, she asked him when she could go home. It was a heart-breaker, he said. But what could could they do? The last straw was, in his words, “when she took a dump in the broom closet. Yeah, no kiddin’. But my mama’s got guts, yuh know? The day she come over here to you, she snuck out when everybody else was eating their supper. And think about it. She was a mess when me and Lois got her out of the house, that night. She stank like a toilet. But she still had the moxie to hide a set of house-keys in her pocket!”
And the house had just sat there because Sal and his sister
were deadlocked over what to do with it. She wanted to sell. He didn’t.
And what about Mary? Jeff asked. Where was she now? How was she doing?
Sal shook his head and looked away. “She’s back with the Sisters,” he said. “She ain’t happy about it.”
“I’ll bet,” said Jeff.