Margaret Donnelly, the administrator at TenderNest Assisted Living, tells Hector that his mother has not eaten breakfast for going on three days.
Each Saturday morning, Hector makes the drive from Bozeman to Billings to see his mother. Two hours each way, less if the weather is clear; more if there’s snow on I-90. His job keeps him in Bozeman. He works lift maintenance year-round at Big Sky. He calls it ‘Big Money.’
Margaret said that when the new aide has come in to help her out of bed she pulls away and says she is not getting up, not hungry. But then, later, she goes to lunch. No problem with dinner either. She checks out fine health-wise.
Hector’s mother has Alzheimer’s. Most everybody there does. She was never easy to live with. Quick to anger. Bridled at criticism. Fearful. You’d never know if she’d pull away or lash out. But she seemed less so now. Almost childlike. The work of the disease, Hector thinks. Indiscriminate. Patchy, like paint peeling here and there off the side of an old barn.
Hector asks his mother about breakfast. She says they don’t feed her anymore. Turns her head away from him. Looks out the window, past the gaunt Sansevieria plant she brought from home. Her eyes are rimmed with red. She looks tired. Her lips pursed.
The aide comes to the door. “Mr. Garcia”
She is a tall, dark, black woman in a neat white uniform. At the sound of her voice Hector’s mother flinches. Buries her head into her shoulders. Her eyes close tightly.
‘It’s okay, Mami” he says,“está bien. Es nada.” He touches her shoulder and tells the woman he’ll be right there.
She is concerned, wants to help. He thanks her. “My mother is so… unpredictable. You never know with her, what goes on…”
Before he leaves for home he goes to see Margaret. “It’s about my mother,” he says. “There was an incident,” he tells her, “a long time ago.”
“When I was very young, maybe five or six, after my father was discharged, so that would be in ’49, we were living in GI housing outside of Camp Bullis. Near San Antonio. Four families sharing a common courtyard. All of our front doors facing one another.”
“Hector,” Margaret starts to interrupt, “What does this…”
“Wait,” he tells her. “This is important. I have to tell you. The courtyard was dry, hard-packed dirt, tan with a yellow cast, and we all shared one washing machine. Out there in the yard. All the four families.
“One of the families facing the courtyard was black. Their entrance was the one furthest from ours. They had a boy. He was about my age and his mother let him sit on the concrete stoop outside their door. Anyway, this one day, while my mother was doing the wash, I was sitting on the stoop in front of our place just like he was and I waved and he waved back. And he put one hand behind his back and I did the same. Touched his nose, I did the same. And I picked up a pebble and tossed it in to the yard and he did too.”
“Please, Hector, how is this at all about your mother and breakfast?”
“I threw a stone and it hit the boy in the face, on his forehead, and it started to bleed and he started screaming and I ran to my mother and the boy’s mother came out and saw her son and saw me and saw my mother; saw me clutching her leg around her dress, and she picked up her boy and carried him over to us and she was crying and yelling at me, “What did you do to my son?” And screaming at my mother and leaning into her so hard my mother’s back was pressed against the washing machine and the boy’s blood was dripping on her and the woman was yelling, “Look what he did. Look what he did to my boy.” And I felt my mother trembling and holding me tight against her and she was crying, ‘Para te. Stop it. No me pegues! Don’t hit me! Basta, Basta! Enough, enough!’“
“I saw that same look on my mother’s face today when she heard the aide call my name. I saw her cringe. I am ashamed for her sake and for the aide’s sake. I know it is hurtful and not right. My mother is old and she has lost most of what she knows, and so much of who she is now comes from way back. It is no excuse, I know, but maybe it is something.”
“It may be. And if we find that it is, we will work out. We will,” she says.
“I was afraid to tell you this because you might think she’s a racist. I don’t think she is. I don’t know.”
“Hector, I understand. Please trust me. Nobody here thinks your mother is a racist. The people here, like you say, are here but then they are not here. Not who they were or who they grew to be. I am sorry for her and for you to have had this experience. Back then, and now.”
“But, please Hector,” she leans forward, “listen to me, as strong as this memory is for you, is there anyway of knowing at all if it has anything to do with your mother’s not going to breakfast? There are fifty, a hundred things, it could be.”
Halfway home, stopping in Big Timber to pee and get coffee, he looks at himself in the mirror, Shakes his head. “Good Christ!” he says, “Where the hell did that all come from? Where in the good god-damn hell did that all come from?