Chapter 31 – The Empty Chair

The Empty Chair

Saturday

Walden rubbed Jon’s shoulder to wake him. Jon’s eyes opened slowly; it took a minute to recognize his grandson. Jon rubbed his chin with one hand, rubbed his chest with the other.

“I heard they’re waiting for you in the Sunroom, Afi. Let’s bring your book, they’d like to hear more about Snorri, the nurse said.”

“I’m not dead,” Jon mumbled. His eyes widened; a bit of a smile formed.

“What?” Walden wasn’t certain he had heard his grandfather correctly.

Jon was stiff from being so long in his chair. Walden helped him stand. It took several steps to work out the kinks.

“The trouble with falling asleep is that your old body takes advantage when you’re out of it. Got a cramp in my left foot and one in my right calf. Hurt yourself when all you’re trying to do is sleep. How did I get so old so quick Wal?” Jon complained that everybody in this place was old, just hoping to make it painlessly into death. “Not me. I’m making it to the century. Then you’ll see.”

“Ninety-nine Afi and you’re still in better shape than anybody in the place, except maybe those young nurses. I hope I’m as fit when I’m you’re age. Geez, I hope I make it to your age.”

Each day the walk felt longer, as if the hallway was stretching. Each day the sounds of activity seemed more muted, further away, but the smell of disinfectant never waned, in fact the acrid odor seemed to grow more intense. The smell of impending death.

‘It’s like they’re trying to scrub us away, to cleanse us from the earth or something. Like you have become a stain on life when you get too old.’

They passed Mrs. Krantz, who was walking in continuous circles between her room and the next.

“What are you doing?” Jon asked.

“Looking for Gladys,” she said.

“She’s dead,” Jon replied.

They continued on. A dull throb came to life in Jon’s right knee and crept slowly up his leg. Each new ache angered him, as if his own body were betraying him. He slapped at his traitorous leg.

“What on earth are you doing Afi?”

“Nothing. It’s nothing.”

“You’re hitting yourself.”

“No I’m not.”

Halfway down the hall Jon stopped in front of Mrs. Chin’s room.

“See, there’s another one,” Jon whispered out the side of his mouth. “She reminds me of Marta, a student of mine from way back. You never knew her of course. Marta was young, from Brazil, poor Marta, and this woman Mrs. Chin is old, as you can see. Elderly I think we should call it, sounds better, kinder. We’re sort of friends.”

Walden looked through the doorway where Jon was looking. An empty wheelchair was parked, the door open, curtains pulled wide, daylight filled the room. A light breeze made its way through the open window.

“Who?” Walden asked.

“Her, the little old Chinese lady, there,” Jon whispered as he tilted his head toward the open doorway. “Mrs. Chin. Her name is Gim Toy.” Jon snickered, covering his mouth. “Funny name eh? Gim Toy.”

Walden knew that his grandfather had grown more forgetful sometimes and often remembered things differently than they were, but this was the first time Walden observed his grandfather seeing someone that wasn’t there. He looked at the wheelchair trying to envision a small Chinese lady seated there, then at his grandfather smiling at an imaginary friend.

“There’s nobody there Afi. The room is empty.”

Jon’s smile faded. The image of Mrs. Chin, with her serious expression, grew gradually fainter until she became just a wisp and then was gone and Jon saw the same empty wheelchair that Walden saw.

“She’s not there is she Wal?”

“No Afi, there’s nobody in this room.”

“Jesus Christ. Not only is my body failing me, but my bloody mind is also going too.”

“It’s okay Afi. C’mon let’s go to the Sunroom.”

“Poor Mrs. Chin. All she wanted was to go home. That’s all she ever talked about, mostly. She was the 4th  lady.”

“The 4th  lady?”

“At supper. Breakfast too. With the white haired ladies. She pretended she didn’t speak English but she was quite fluent. What a sly trickster,” Jon chuckled.

Jon told Walden how Mrs. Chin was one of four ladies assigned to be table companions and take their meals together. So they could have some social interaction, have friends and be like normal people. It was obvious she had some mild dementia, she talked about ghosts and her mean children. Poor thing just wanted to leave this prison and be on her own and mind her own business. Same thing he wanted. But Jon wasn’t going to have that discussion again. It was pointless, the older you get the less power you have, the less say you have over your own life. Wasn’t fair.

“Yes, obvious dementia but she seemed happy enough, except for the betrayal by her own family. Greedy entitled children,” Jon told Walden. “That’s the problem when you give them everything they want when they’re growing up. Better to be poor rather than privileged; it’s a better way to learn your life lessons, a better way to make you a decent human being. You’re not like that are you Wal?”

“Like what?”

“Entitled, spoiled. Expecting to have things you haven’t earned.”

“I don’t think so Afi. I hope not.”

“That’s good. It means I did a good job raising your father and he passed all those good life lessons on to you. You’re a good boy and that makes me feel good about myself. I want to go in there,” Jon said. “Into her room. I didn’t even know she had passed. They don’t tell you anything in this place.”

They stepped around the abandoned wheelchair and into the empty room.

“She didn’t need that thing you know. She could walk just fine. Had them all tricked about her English too, but she spoke it just fine with me, had them tricked about her legs but I bet she could beat any of them in a foot race. She must have trusted me, like I was her friend. Now she’s gone and I didn’t even know.”

Jon sat in the wicker chair.

“Lots of them get bitter and angry when they get that way, when their mind goes. Some just become like vegetables. It’s hard to watch if you knew them when they had their marbles and then they didn’t. Makes me scared that could happen to me Wal, just like poor Mrs. Chin. I guess for her, it’s a blessing that she’s gone and doesn’t have to suffer the indignity of it anymore. Those bastard children of hers. She didn’t deserve it.”

Beside the empty bed, sheets and covers stripped away, was Mrs. Chin’s small Chinese waste basket, a golden dragon embossed over the red background. Odd they would have left it. On the floor beside the basket Jon saw what appeared to be a syringe. Like the one Karl Homesman had been joking around with. Empty, spent of any content, no needle affixed to the end, just the plunger inside the hollow clear tube. Jon gasped and held a hand to his chest then pointed to the implement, wiggling his finger as a command for Walden to retrieve it for him.

“My God Wal, he killed her. That bastard killed Mrs. Chin. Evidence. Give it to me.”

Walden took the syringe from the floor and gave it to Jon.

“Someone probably just missed putting it in the bin Afi.”

“Nobody leaves used needles behind Wal; they take them away. It was that bastard Karl, he killed her. She’s probably got needle holes all over herself, probably has the needle tip sticking out of her, broken off when that bastard stabbed her with it. Poor Mrs. Chin, she didn’t deserve to end like that, after everything she sacrificed.”

It was her nearly sixty years of work, running the two Chinese Medicine shops, the one downtown, near their first restaurant and the one in the neighborhood, near the little house. She even took her children with her to work when they were young. A common thing, in that neighborhood of mainly Chinese people. They had lived in the apartment above the Shoppe when they first started out before Fu got the idea to become a restauranteur. Then they bought the little house and eventually the building with the Shoppe and upstairs apartment, that they rented out to another young Chinese couple just starting out.

She knew somethings about the herbs and tinctures from working in her father’s Shoppe when she was young. She learned much more after being able to afford to hire a trained Chinese herbalist. Her real strength was her mind for the business, the dollars and cents, the banking, keeping costs in line and profits steady. She was a ferocious negotiator and never known to come up on the short end of a good deal.

‘We work hard,’ she told Jon. ‘Whole family supposed to work together, but Fu was too soft, let children play instead of work. I go home soon, teach them. Work hard, have respect for old woman.’

“I considered her a friend Wal, because she was like me, in some ways, not like the other people in this place. She just wanted to be back in her own place.”

Jon looked at the empty walls imagining her gaudy things, her possessions that told who she was. All gone now.

“That bastard. I’ll get to the bottom of it.” Despite his phobia, Jon decided he would make the journey down the service elevator to the cold room in the sub-basement. Poor Mrs. Chin would be there. He hoped Karl hadn’t made a bloody mess of her, stabbing her over and over with that damn needle. Jon couldn’t handle gore. He once thought he had a strong stomach but after poor Marta, he couldn’t handle the sight of it. Poor Marta, so many years ago.

“You’ll have to get me a gun.” Jon said.

“What?”

“A gun. You don’t expect me to wrestle that bastard or try to bludgeon him to death.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He’s twenty years younger than me. I don’t have the wear with all to fist fight the man. I’ll need a gun, to shoot him.”

“Don’t get carried away Afi. I’m sure Mr. Homesman didn’t kill anybody. Mrs. Chin just passed away.”

“I’ll see for myself. I’m going downstairs to that meat locker to see what kind of wounds he inflicted on her. Maybe he slipped up and left some evidence, the broken tip off that syringe maybe. Poor Mrs. Chin. I hope there’s no blood. I’ll get the police in here and get him locked up.”

Walden rolled his eyes, concealing it from his grandfather. “You should just let that be Afi.”

“Nope. I’ll say goodbye to my friend. I just hope my old heart holds up in that damn elevator.”

Nurse Shirley, the night nurse, stood in the doorway.

“What are you doing in here?”

“Just visiting with my friend,” Jon said.

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