Michael absently ran his fingers back forth over the table. Half was warm, where the sun had shown on it for the past hour, and the other side was cool, where it was under shadow. Michael would run his hand back and forth across the dividing line between the two over and over as he sat, without really thinking about it. It was just comforting somehow. He liked feeling both parts of the table, the warm and the cool. It made him feel more complete.
None of the residents paid any mind. They were used to his fidgety ways, since he’d been coming every Thursday for a while now. But most of them weren’t the type to notice anyway. They were more interested in their bingo, their food, the TV, or being assisted or shuttled here and there by the nurses.
The lady who sat across from him was staring out the window at a robin itching itself with its beak on a nearby branch. The lady turned to him and smiled brightly, pointing to the bird and nodding.
Michael smiled and nodded back.
The lady turned back to the bird and then back to him, smiling and pointing again. Every time he would smile and nod.
Finally, she turned to him and frowned quizzically. There seemed to be something about him that didn’t fit to her.
"You look like a nice young man," she said.
"Thank you," he said back.
"Nice young men shouldn’t be in a place like this," her voice frowned with her words.
Michael smiled, suppressing a chuckle. "What ought nice young men be doing?"
"Working. Going to school. Enjoying life. Wooing a girl," she said quite definitively.
"I have Thursdays off. And I already wooed a girl. She’s my wife, now."
The lady brightened up at this. "Oh, that’s good," she said. "Is she nice?"
"Is she a good cook?"
"Is she pretty?"
"She’s beautiful."
The woman looked very satisfied. "Good," she said with approval. She sat there silently a moment more. She wasn’t frowning, but a new thought came to her.
"Why aren’t you spending your day off with your wife?"
"She works in the morning on Thursdays. And I’m waiting here for someone."
"Oh. Who?"
"My mom."
"Oh!" she said, perking up and looking around. "Does she stay here?"
The lady frowned again. "She should find a better place. It’s not that good here."
Michael suppressed a laugh again. "Really?"
The lady nodded. "They’re always telling you where to go and when. They never let you leave. And the food is terrible but they make you eat at least five bites." She smiled mischievously. "But I fool them. I give them to Martha, who eats everything." She leaned forward, like she was telling a great secret. "We all give our food to Martha."
"My mom told me about Martha," he nodded, grinning.
"I’d like to meet your mom. Will she be here soon?"
"I hope so," he admitted, his face a little more subdued.
Silence passed between them.
"Have you lived here long?" the lady asked. He wasn’t sure if she was genuinely curious, or just trying to make conversation.
"All my life."
"Do you like it here?"
"Not particularly."
"Then why don’t you leave? Never had the opportunity?"
"No, but none of those places have the care for my mom that this place has. And someone has to be here to check up on her."
"Does your wife mind?"
"She wants to be here for her too. They were very close."
"Oh, really?"
"Yes. When I first had a crush on my wife–her name was Mary R. Meadows–I was very shy, and she was very beautiful and popular. I asked her out a couple times, but then I gave up and cut myself off. Eventually, unbeknownst to me, she started liking me. But I was too pouty to notice it."
"Oh dear."
"So, Mary went to my house without me knowing and talked to my mom. The two of them conspired together about how Mary might let me know that I had a chance with her, without making it obvious that’s what she was doing, so I would still have to take the initiative. It worked. And the rest is history."
The lady clapped her soft hands together with the glee of a child. "Oh, good, good. I’m happy."
"My mom was very happy when we announced our engagement. She gave us some very good advice: she said, ‘There is something that binds us all together that is stronger than happy feelings, or caring. It is when you let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no’. When we don’t want to do it, we call it duty. When we want to do it, we call it love.’"
The lady appeared deeply moved. She started look like she was thinking specifically about something. "Do you visit your mother out of duty or love?"
Michael shrugged, sort of sheepishly. "Both, I expect. Some days I don’t want to come and some days I do." Michael realized he was starting to open up a little more than he meant to with her, but didn’t stop. It was therapeutic. "Most of the time she doesn’t recognize me. I spend the time talking to a stranger, whose eyes are far off from anywhere I can reach. But every time I try, groping for a thread of her old self that I can pull back, to where she knows her and knows me and we know each other again. That one moment, when I get it, where she sees me makes all the other moments worth it."
The lady smiled somberly. "Good."
The two of them sat in silence a while. The other noises of the room went on, the TV, other residents, their families and nurses talking, residents chewing, no longer having to compete for space with their conversation. The bird began to chirp again.
"Robin…" she said.
Michael’s eyes darted toward the lady.
"Your wife’s middle name… is Robin."
Michael’s eyes brightened to where he trembled with excitement. He leaned forward abruptly, fighting back a tear, unable to take the excitement. "Yes, yes. That’s what you would call her."
The lady looked up at him, directly in his eyes. There wasn’t anything there yet. But there was something behind the eyes, reaching, climbing, groping in the darkness. Then… they were there: her eyes.
She looked scared. She didn’t seem quite sure. But she was there. And she knew she was there.
She put out her hand and touched his.
The two of them smiled at each other for a while. They didn’t speak. She didn’t want to say anything and he didn’t push it. There was nothing to say. They remembered. And they were.
The robin began to chirp again and his mom turned to it. She turned back to him, smiling knowingly. "She’s a lot like Mary isn’t she?"
Michael smiled. "Yes. Yes she is."
His mom then looked at the bird again, and then looked back at him, smiling and pointing, knowingly. He would nod every time she did, and then she’d look back at the bird.
He ran his finger back and forth across the table again. The sun had moved now, and part of what was under shadow was warm too, though not as warm as the part under light. It was a comfort to feel both parts of the table–the light and the dark–to not just feel one side to it. Whether warm or cold, the table was still the table.
Eventually, his mother turned to him with a quizzical look on her face.
"You look like a nice young man," she said.
"Thank you," he said back.
More in Contemporary…
by Derrick McCluskey
A young and innocent boy tries to cross the border.

by Jack July
Monsters are all too real.

by Chuck Farron
Social justice warfare tends to get out of hand.