A season when no one should be alone
His principal unhappiness was with the slowness of the days.
The food was tasty enough. His apartment, though small, was nicely appointed. The afternoon programs arranged by the staff were well intentioned and sometimes even amusing.
Part of the problem, he thought, was the name of the place, Elysian Fields, which in Roman myth was where the souls of the heroic and the virtuous went to rest through all eternity.
Arthur had been a bond trader, an occupation not usually associated with either virtue or heroism. And he was still active in his 80s. He hadn’t come there to rest, but to quit mowing the lawn and cooking for himself.
What’s more, he was alone now, and had been these last two years.
He had imagined the hurt would heal. But then the holiday season would come around, or the date of their anniversary. Or he’d notice a pair of Canada geese grazing by the pond on the grounds of the retirement center – creatures that he knew mated for life. And memories of his own sweet, paired years would come flooding back.
The phone by his chair rang.
“Your ride’s here,” said the girl at the front desk. “Would you like a little help?”
“No,” he told her. “Tell him I’ll be right down.”
He rechecked the items in his small bag: shaving kit, spare socks, sweater in case the weather turned, a Ziploc with his bottles of prescription pills, the notebook he never was without. And a single photograph in a frame.
Then, locking his apartment, he took the elevator down.
“Mind if I sit up front?” he asked the cabdriver.
“OK. Just let me move some stuff.”
Arthur settled on the passenger side.
The retirement center was in a pleasant rural setting 30 minutes out of the city.
“Out the front drive,” Arthur said, “and left to the interstate. Then north into town.”
“I’m concerned,” Ellie Mercer, one of the residents, told the manager on duty. “Very concerned.”
“About Arthur Hoff. He wasn’t at dinner last night.”
“I know. He went out yesterday. He took a cab somewhere.”
“But he wasn’t at breakfast either. And he never misses breakfast.”
“Well, it could be he’s visiting family.”
Miss Mercer shook her head.
“He doesn’t have any.”
“None at all? I knew he’d lost his wife.”
“And there weren’t children, or any brothers or sisters.”
“That’s sad,” said the day manager. “I wasn’t here yet when he came to us. What else do you know about him?”
“Not much. We talk from time to time. He’s a nice man, but he gets sad.”
A bit later the manager went to the files, to see what more she could learn. The Mercer lady, it turned out, was right. In his folder the entry on the “Contact” line had been whited out.
All she could find was a telephone number, with the area code in a different state. Maybe it’s a friend, she thought. She tried it, and got the recorded message.
The number you dialed is no longer in service. Please check the directory and try again.
The retirement center was part of a national chain, and the man in the corporate headquarters was furious at the news.
“Tell me about him,” he demanded. “Is he a chronic problem?”
“No, not at all,” said the manager.
“Is he senile? A wanderer? Does he get confused?”
“No, he’s very organized. A little stubborn sometimes, but he’s quite collected.”
The tone of the executive’s voice hardened.
“I hope you realize how damaging something like this can be. Our reputation is our most precious asset. If this ends up badly, I’m holding you personally responsible.”
“But there was nothing I could…”
The next sound she heard was the click of him hanging up.
The inner city was a part of town that Arthur didn’t know well, and lodging of a class he hadn’t stayed in before.
“You want it for the night?” the motel check-in clerk had asked him. “Or by the hour?”
It said something about the neighborhood. He dropped his bag in the room, then went back down to the waiting cab.
“Look, mister,” the clerk said as he started to the door. “I’d be a little careful out there, dressed like you are – suit and nice coat and all.
“Just watch yourself.”
Your hair turns gray, Arthur thought, and they assume you’re helpless.
“Take Main Street north,” he told the cabbie. “Then west on the freeway. I’ll direct you from there.”
“Where we headed?”
“Hospital,” Arthur said. “It’s close.”
The driver looked at him in the rearview mirror.”
“You sick or something?”
“Not a bit. You drive. I’ll tell you when we get there. It’s not far.”
They passed boarded-up houses. Then a man shoulder-deep in a trash bin.
“Next corner, take a right,” Arthur said. And they made the turn. “This is it.”
The original street-facing part was built of red brick and limestone, and had classical pretensions. Enormous concrete pillars framed the entrance. Behind loomed the hospital’s new addition, a great airy glass rectangle.
“It’s where I started,” Arthur said.
“You’re a doc?”
“Not hardly,” he said. “Doctors matter. All I did was make money.”
“But you said…”
“I was adopted out of here. Some folks looking for a throwaway kid. Good people. I was what they got.”
“So you just wanted to see the place?”
“Right. This is a memory trip. We’ve got a couple more stops.”
“You’ll be needin’ me the rest of the day then?”
“Yes. And again tomorrow and the day after for sure.”
“I don’t know,” the driver said. “Tomorrow’d be OK. But Saturday’s different. I don’t usually work Christmas Eve. I got family.”
“Not too much past noon,” Arthur told him.
“A little more than that, maybe. But I promise I’ll make it worth your while.”
“OK, then. I guess I’m your guy. So where next?”
“You know that big shopping center right off the interstate? There’s a toy store at the end. I’ll be there a while.”
Arthur fished out his wallet and handed the cabbie a twenty.
“It could be close to an hour,” he said. “Get yourself some supper and come back around seven.”
“And that’ll be it?”
“No. We’ve got a couple more stops.”
“There’s my house,” Arthur said. “The one with boarded-up windows. That’s where I grew up.”
Broken houses and weedy vacant lots alternated along the street.
“It’s a tough neighborhood,” said the driver.
“Now, yes. But it wasn’t then. It was a good place to be a kid.”
“So where else we going?”
“You know that little park down by the train station?”
“Sure. I used to get a lot of fares down there, back when there were trains.”
“And the park’s right across the street,” Arthur said.
“Yeah, I know the place.”
“I met a girl there – in that park. And up the hill from that, there’s a church.”
The driver shook his head.
“I don’t know the church.”
“Well, that’s where I married her. It was a long time ago. Anyway, we’ve got one more place to go”
The large building faced the street, but its grounds were fenced, so the driver parked on the drive outside the gate. There was a microphone on the gate post, with a button to push.
“Yes,” came the voice.
“It’s Arthur Hoff,” he said.
“And your business?”
“I called a little while ago,” he said. “And I talked with a lady there.”
“Just a minute, please,” said the receptionist.
It was more than a minute, but finally a buzzer sounded and the gate swung open.
The place had a run-down look. But it was clean on the inside. The person in charge, an imposing African-American woman, came out to meet him at the desk.
“Yes,” he said. “And I’m sorry to come so late in the day, but I had some errands.”
“It’s not a problem.” She put out her hand. “I’m Ardell James. It was I who spoke to you on the phone. And the time is perfect. The children have eaten. They’re with their teachers now.”
“How many are there?” Arthur asked.
“It varies,” she said. “But right now it’s 47.”
“That many! We might need two buses.”
“I thought I explained.”
“Not really. You said something about a party.”
“That’s sort of it,” said Arthur. “Is there a place we can talk?”
“My office,” she said. “It’s this way.”
They passed down a hallway whose walls on both sides were covered with photographs.
“We call those our graduates ,” she told him.
“So what are the ages?” he asked. They all looked to him to be maybe 4 to 6 years old. Or possibly as much as 8. “And what do you mean by graduates ?”
“It’s only a way of speaking. It just means when they leave us – when we’re able to place them.
“That’s when their pictures go on the wall.”
“And they come to you how?”
“Different ways. From Child Services – that’s the county. From adoptions that didn’t work out. Some just abandoned, or taken by the court from parents who were incapable or not responsible.
“And some – a very few, but some – were born here. This used to be a lying-in place for young girls in trouble and nowhere else to go.”
“Lord God,” Arthur Hoff was thinking. “And for me, a crib in a hospital infant ward, then two good people who picked me up and took me home. I was a lucky one.”
The photos on the hallway walls framed a mix of races and expressions – some frightened, others cheerful, a few melancholy and some expectant.
“We’ll need to send attendants with you,” Miss James told him.
“And of the 47,” she said, “I’m thinking 20 or so will be about the right age.”
“Then probably one bus will be plenty.”
“And two of my nurses will accompany the group.”
He put out his hand to Miss James.
“Ten o’clock Saturday,” said Arthur.
“I’ll have them ready.”
Ellie Mercer scolded him at breakfast that Friday.
“You had us all worried half to death!”
“For what?” Arthur poured syrup over his waffle. “I’m an adult. I can look out for myself.”
“But you were gone Wednesday night, and you weren’t here yesterday morning. Then out all day again – not a word to anybody. And I guess you just waltzed in sometime late last night.”
“Not late. Middle of the evening.”
“Well, I’d call that pretty darned inconsiderate.”
“You needn’t have worried. I just had some business to tend to.”
“Really! What kind of business?”
“Private business. Important business. And I have some more to deal with today.”
“Well, good for you! I’m impressed!”
And with that Ellie Mercer marched away from the table, her breakfast half eaten.
As Arthur had expected, it would be another long day. But now that the cabbie understood what they were about, he had no complaint.
It was after 9 at night when they finished their rounds. The crowds in the stores had been miserable, the lines endless. And the wait for the gift wrapping took more time. But the back seat and trunk of the taxi were at last satisfactorily filled.
“How you holding up?” the cabbie asked.
“Fine,” Arthur said. “How about you?”
“I’m good. But you’ve got a few years on me.”
“More than a few.”
They were having their late suppers together, side by side on the stools of a little hamburger diner.
“It’s a good kind of tired,” said Arthur. “And tomorrow’s the payoff.”
The Elysian Fields food service director phoned his room at an early hour.
“I got your message about some guests,” she said.
“It’s this noon, isn’t it? Will it be one table? Or more than one?”
“I’ll be right down,” Arthur said.
The director was waiting when the elevator door opened.
“So,” she said. “what’s the number?”
“You might want to sit down,” he told her.
“I just need to know. We can handle it.”
“All right,” he said. “It’ll be around 25 or 26.”
“Whaaaat?” It was a strangled screech.
“A lot of them kids.”
“That’s impossible! We can’t manage that.”
“Why not? Don’t you have enough servers?”
“Servers, yes! But we aren’t provisioned for such a number. We’d run out of food. We’d need more turkeys. My God, we’d run out of ovens .”
“Just calm down,” Arthur commanded her. “Do what you’d regularly do. I’ll handle the rest.”
“Handle it how?”
“There’s a caterer coming. He and his crew will be here by 11 o’clock with four extra turkeys and the trimmings. Ready to serve.”
The food service manager was near tears.
“This is one of our most important meals of the year,” she said. “And I’m warning you, Mr. Hoff, if this blows up, it’s not going to be on me. It’s on you.”
The staff swung into action, setting extra places.
It was 10 minutes before 11 when the white panel truck with a knife-and-fork logo on its side pulled up the curving front drive.
The tables were decorated, the large Norway pine in the panel of front windows garlanded and lighted. And already some of the early birds had claimed seats at particular tables they shared with special friends.
Meal times at the retirement center were only nominally about nourishment. More important was the opportunity to discuss the latest news, share old memories and reinforce recently made friendships.
Occasionally some of the residents even brought playing cards to the table, pushing plates aside to make room for a game or two of bridge. And thus engaged, those in the room hardly noticed the aproned men and women hurrying through, carrying large, hot containers from the drive to the kitchen.
By shortly after noon, the tables were filling.
Arthur made his way by a side corridor to the kitchen.
“Well…?” he asked.
“It’s under control,” the food manager said. “Thank heavens those people were capable.”
“I checked them out,” he told her. “I knew they’d be. You can relax, now. Relax and enjoy.”
And at that very moment the yellow bus pulled around the caterer’s truck, stopped at the arcaded entry and, with a hiss, opened its door to unload.
Excited children – even well-behaved ones in any real numbers – can make a cheerful racket. Herded by teachers, they found their way to tables. Several they occupied entirely. At others they took empty places with startled residents – startled, but amused.
And after them came the driver, Arthur’s partner from the previous days, and two other men burdened under armloads of packages that grew into a mountain on the skirt of the lighted tree. And as the hubbub subsided, Arthur Hoff stood from his table on the far side of the room and tapped his water glass with the handle of his knife.
“Before we say grace,” he announced, “I want to explain this surprise, and say a few words about these small friends who’ve joined us.”
And the room stilled.
“This season,” he began, “is the most beautiful time of the year. And it’s a time when nobody should have to be alone. But it happens. It has happened to many of us here. In the end, losses come to everyone.”
He drew a slow breath.
“But that should be late in life. It ought not to happen at the very beginning, as it has for these new little friends who are with us now. Today, though, besides each other, they have us. And those of us who’ve lost dear ones, as so many have – as I have – today we have them . We’re not alone, any of us. Today we’re family.”
He sat down, then. Ellie Mercer was at his right, and he felt her hand rest discreetly on his.
“No,” she said softly, “you’re not alone.”
Somehow the meal was consumed, a mystery when taking into account such a ceaseless hum of conversation, and the din of delighted laughter.
Then the packages were gotten from under the tree, distributed and torn open, creating a splendid clutter of ribbons and torn paper.
Children could be seen clinging to the skirts and shirt fronts of gray-haired folk, imagining them to be the parents they’d never really known.
And the ones whose laps they sat on looked down into those small, sweet faces, confusing them with other, different visages of ones they’d seen and loved before.
That was Christmas Eve afternoon at a place curiously named Elysian Fields.
And in a season when no one should be alone, no one was.