The Silver Door
by Robert Anthony Siegel
Irene Pruchno had been there almost a full month and was now quite certain that she didn’t like the Jewish Home for the Aged. She didn’t like the silence as she lay in her room at night, unable to sleep. She didn’t like the way the tree outside her window threw shadows on the wall, moving back and forth in the wind. Most of all, she didn’t like the residents—shrunken, hunchbacked, tremulous, hard-of-hearing, foul-smelling, caked with rouge. She disliked them in the morning, when they sat in the dining room in bathrobes and sunglasses, sucking the sugar cubes meant for the coffee, and she disliked them even more at night, when they limped into the dining room wearing too many rings and too much perfume, ate their lamb chops with their hands, and then cracked the bones to suck out the marrow, all while prattling on and on about who was shacking up with whom.
Edna and Jack, whispered one.
Denise and Henry, whispered another.
They burst into a shower of tittering like the tinkle of silver, and then, when the food was all gone, grew hushed and solemn and began talking about the building next door, brown brick with green window frames, a mirror image of their own. That conversation was always the same too, repeated word for word like a reverse Haggadah that could only come at the end of the meal, never the beginning. It was always the same woman who started it off, a very small woman with bright red lipstick that didn’t follow the line of her lips, as if she had applied it in the dark.
This is independent living, she would say.
That is memory care, someone would respond.
You can do whatever you want over here, but forget one thing and they send you over there.
Over there every floor has a door, and every door is locked with a key.
There was a respectful silence, and then they all got up and limped out into the courtyard, Irene following at a careful distance.
It was summer, still light out, the heat of the day over, the garden cool. The residents traveled around the circular path in groups of two and three, tiny creatures in winter coats zipped up to their hairy chins. Irene sat by herself on an empty bench, trying and failing to read her book. Soon, she found herself staring at the door.
The door back into the building was silver, and where a keyhole should have been there was a silver box with a keypad. To get back inside, you had to type in a code, five numbers that were simple and easy to remember and at the same time delicate and jittery and always on the edge of flittering away. Most of the time, her fingers remembered without any prompting, but sometimes she would have to shut her eyes and tiptoe through the space inside her head as if trying to sneak up on five flittery birds.
The residents did not sneak up like she did; they tried to grab the code and cup it tight in their hands. She had watched them walking around the courtyard day after day, repeating it under their breath, faces full of fierce dark concentration. Around and around they went, mumbling, mumbling, and still the numbers broke free. Just a few days earlier, she had watched an old man banging on the keypad till one of the nurses came out and brought him back inside. She had caught a glimpse of his face, the swoosh of white hair blowing in the breeze, the pale blue eyes, innocent and terrified.
Oh, dear, said a voice behind her. They’ll move him to the other building now. And there are so few men here already.
She turned and saw the woman from the dining room looking at her with an odd sort of interest, as if she had something important but perhaps a little difficult to say. Whatever it was, Irene did not want to hear; she dropped her head and pretended to read, and when she looked up again, the woman had left.
In the days that followed, Irene traveled through the halls of the building, determined to find the old man and prove the woman wrong. The problem was that the old man was nowhere to be found and the woman was everywhere, pushing her walker from bingo to mahjong, her laughter curling around corners like a cat. At dinner, she ate rice pudding with her fingers, wiped the bowl clean with her tongue, and then began talking about the other building.
Over there, every floor has a door, she said.
And every door is locked with a key, someone responded.
Listen, you can hear them rattling the handles.
I can hear them, but I can’t make them remember.
There was a pause, and then they all rose and walked out into the courtyard, Irene sitting on a bench while the others started down the path. She held her book open but did not look at it—she had been having trouble reading lately, the words on the page like the faces of strangers, mute. Sleep had been so elusive for so long. She walked over to the silver door, put one finger to the keypad and, because her hand could not remember how to type the numbers, tried tiptoeing through the space inside her head, held her breath, looked right, then left, willed them to appear. But it was too late, they were gone; she could not remember them.
Irene opened her eyes. She felt her heart begin to punch against her chest, harder, harder, as if trying to reach beyond her body into the world. She grabbed the silver door handle, rattled it back and forth, then remembered the old man and stopped, glancing around to see if anyone had noticed.
In that moment, the residents came around the path: a woman in a red coat, another in a gray wool hat, and then the woman from the dining room, the three of them mumbling under their breath, moving their lips in rhythm together, almost chanting as they recited the numbers. Irene watched as they drew closer, and then she listened, imagining she could almost hear them, straining to hear them until she could in fact hear them. Five-four-three-two-one, said the woman from the dining room. Five-four-three-two-one, said the other women. Five-four-three-two-one, said Irene, breathless. She started walking behind them, keeping pace, repeating the numbers until the numbers were making the same circle inside her as she was making in the courtyard, and then she stopped and stood in front of the door, typing them into the keypad. She heard the lock click, felt the door give way, stepped inside and held the door open as the others followed behind in a shower of tittering, like the tinkle of silver.
Thank you to Constance Dahlin
Published on August 31, 2022