O’Grady sits in the armchair with the reading lamp on. The clock tells him it is 10:45, and the light from the window tells him it is morning. The armchair is new, bought just a few weeks ago, and so it puzzles him that the armrests are threadbare. They don’t make them like they used to.
His memory weighs on him. Yesterday he carried the baby from the kitchen to the dining room to the living room and around again, over and over, but she wouldn’t stop crying. He told the baby to shut up, and he shoved her in his wife’s arms, too roughly, and left the house. He went for a bike ride. He rode past the manure-smelling strawberry field thinking about his crying baby and what a beastly bad husband and father he was.
O’grady is humming a tune when Helen enters the room. “Time to go,” she says.
He looks at the clock: 10:55. He looks out the window: morning. He is embarrassed to admit that he has forgotten where they are going, so he just says, “Okay,” and gets up, turns off the reading light, and is startled when he looks at Helen. She looks a lot like his wife, but she’s obviously much older. “Who are you? Where’s Helen?” he asks. She turns away from him and tells him to put on his jacket.
O’Grady looks out the window from the passenger seat of a car. This is the town they moved to after they got married three years ago, but it has already changed so much. This used to be a field where Mexicans picked strawberries, their faces shaded by wide-brimmed hats. Didn’t it?
(He wasn’t paying attention. He hit a patch of loose gravel on the side of the road. He fell.)
Now the strawberry field is a parking lot. “Costco? What the hell is Costco?” he asks the old woman driving the car. He does a double take. “You look so much like my wife Helen,” he says.
“I get that all the time,” she says, smiling faintly.
O’Grady sings along with the car radio. “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down. Like a bridge…” When Jessie was a newborn, just home from the hospital, he sang this song to her.
O’Grady holds the door open and follows an old woman into the antiseptic stink of the lobby. “Did Aunt Judy have another stroke?” he asks the old woman, but then realizes his mistake. “Sorry! For a second I thought you were my wife!”
The woman looks at him sadly as a nurse approaches and takes gentle hold of his arm.
“See you Tuesday,” says the old woman, and she leans towards him as if to kiss him on the lips. He recoils and turns his face to the side, and she only manages to peck him on the cheek. She turns and heads for the door.
O’Grady lets out an embarrassed laugh and remarks to the nurse, “That was weird.”
“I hope you enjoyed your visit, Mr. O’Grady. You’re just in time for lunch.”
“What? I’m not eating lunch here. This place stinks. Helen!” Wasn’t that his wife?
A beefy man stiffens and makes a move towards him. The nurse raises her hand to tell him to relax. “Just give him a moment,” she says.
O’Grady inspects his plate: a meat-like substance swimming in grayish sauce aside a sad pile of rubbery cauliflower florets. In his glass: water.
“It’s salisbury steak.” An old man across the table points at the “meat” with his fork. “You like it. Every day it’s the same. You frown at it, you poke at it, and then you eat it and you like it. Every day the same.” The old man shakes his head. He has a bulbous nose, a sagging neck, and a shiny bald pate. O’Grady decides to humor him.
He begins to eat. He likes it. He thinks about the day before when he shoved that poor baby, little Jesse, her face red and wet with tears, in his wife’s arms. He could have hurt her. And Helen, she’s been so tired, even less sleep than him. He should apologize, get down on his knees and apologize to that woman.
“I need to see my wife.”
“Oh, you’ll see her this afternoon, and you’ll apologize to her.” The old man took a drink of water. “Only it will be your daughter you apologize to. I’d explain, but it wouldn’t make any difference. Every day the same!”
Crazy old man.
“What was that, daddy?” asks Helen.
“What? I didn’t say anything.” O’Grady responds.
Helen sighs and leans back in the chair. They’re in a large beige room with old people milling around in bathrobes, reading, watching a TV that hangs from the ceiling in the corner. There is an upright piano against the wall.
“You look different, Helen. New hairstyle? And that outfit is strange.”
“Jessica!” cries an old, bald man, shuffling over. “You are a vision! And a wonderful daughter.” She stands and offers him her hand, which he kisses.
“Wait, why does he call you Jessica?” asks O’Grady.
“And every day she visits, and you ask the same questions!” says the bald man.
O’Grady is confused. The woman said something and the man said something, but like smoke in the air their words disperse. For a second he grasps at them, but then forgets what he was grasping for.
Helen and a bald man stand looking at O’Grady somewhat expectantly. “Helen, you look different.” Helen sits down with a sigh, and the old man shuffles away.
“Listen, Helen, about yesterday, I was tired. But it’s no excuse. I wore a groove in the floor carrying Jessie around, and just when I thought she was going to stop crying she screwed up that little face of hers and started in again. I know you needed a break, and I couldn’t do it. I was selfish.”
“It’s okay daddy.”
“I want to stop disappointing you. I love you, and I love Jessie.”
“I know daddy.”
“And that’s what I wanted to say. Why are you calling me daddy?”
Helen wipes her left eye with the heel of her hand. “Because I love you too.” She stands up and leans down to kiss him. He tilts his head up to meet her lips, but she plants the kiss on his forehead. “Do you want to play the piano?”
“I don’t know how to play the piano.”
O’Grady notices a piano up against the wall of the room. It’s strange: he knows he can’t play, and yet his hands itch looking at it.
“Go ahead,” says Helen.
“I can maybe hammer out chopsticks, at least.”
O’Grady sits in front of a piano, his hands poised above the keys, displaying an intention and purpose of their own. He is bothered, vaguely, by the blue veins and crepe-paper wrinkles on the back of his hands, but he begins to play.
“When you’re weary,” he sings, “feeling small…” Helen is there, and she sings along. He has not known her to sing before. “When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.” The notes follow from one to the next, like stepping stones across a river, though he cannot see the shore on either side.
Some others stand around the piano. “Does he know any other songs?” asks a woman in a bathrobe. A bald man smiles. He appears to be weeping. “Every day the same,” he says.