There was a Ten Minute Tire on the corner of Conway Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue, right where the old Blockbuster Video once stood. The service bay was open and he could see a man inside the garage, sitting atop a stack of tires, staring down at something in his lap. Business was apparently slow.
Mason waited for the light to turn red then jogged across the intersection. He’d been wandering aimlessly for an hour. Sightseeing. Delaying. It was time to ask for directions.
He studied the man as he crossed the parking lot. Clean-shaven head with a graying beard and a thick neck. There was something familiar about him but Mason couldn’t quite line up his face with a specific memory. As he drew near he saw that the object in his lap was a phone.
“Excuse me, can I see your Yellow Pages?”
“Yeah, right,” the man smirked, not bothering to look up. “What is this? 1995?”
Mason didn’t move. He just stood there watching him swipe his grease-blackened index finger across the screen. Then it hit him. “What prison were you at?”
That got his attention. “Santa Rosa,” he said, his expression guarded. “You?”
“I’ve been to Santa Rosa,” said Mason, “the main unit. But I served most of my time in the triangle. Union. Columbia, the rock.”
“Rough spots,” said the man. “How long were you in?”
Mason shook his head.
The man whistled.
Standing there, he realized it wasn’t the man’s face that was familiar. Just the eyes, maybe the hard set of his jaw. He had a look that was distinctly prison. Mason knew it well.
“When did you get out?” the man asked.
“Wow. Congratulations,” he chuckled. “Look, phone books are pretty much dead out here. Who are you trying to call?”
He was already tapping away on his phone. “Is she local? Sounds like a stripper name. No offense. I’ll check Facebook. But I have to warn you. Things change. I only did five years and my ex old lady was married with a kid when I got out.”
“Harmony Meadows Assisted Living Village,” said Mason. “It’s a nursing home. I just need the address.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Here we go. I got it. 5250 Tamarack. Know where that is?”
Mason shook his head.
He tapped and swiped a few more times and held up a map display. “It’s out by the fairgrounds. See, this line here is Conway Boulevard. That’s the road right there at the light. Go eight miles west then turn right on Tamarack. It’s two miles north of the intersection.”
“Eight miles west on Conway, right on Tamarack, two miles north of the intersection. Thanks.”
“Wait a minute,” the man said. “You’re walking?”
Mason glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah.”
“But it’s ten miles away.”
He paused, balancing on a yellow parking bumper. “You said you were at Santa Rosa, right?”
The man nodded. “Last year.”
“Then you know that two and a half times around the track at the main unit is a mile.”
“I guess so.”
“So what we’re really talking about is twenty-five laps. Not even running. Just a morning walk. I think I can handle it.”
“You sure?” The man called after him. “I could get you an Uber.”
Mason shook his head and waved him off. Uber? He had no idea what he was talking about.
Conway Boulevard, one of the town’s main arteries, was a four-lane thoroughfare that snaked between the hospital and mall, arched high over the train tracks, descended into a long stretch of bars, pawnshops and used car lots, wound its way through the warehouse district, then straightened over the faint rolling hills of Westgate where the sidewalks ended and blue collar homes and small businesses were spaced along the roadside.
The miles evaporated behind him. He walked on auto pilot. In the tall grass of right-of-ways, over limestone driveways, and unmarked orange clay turnoffs. His mind unspooled in every direction, past, future and lateral present.
A caution light blinked up ahead. A horizontal green street sign hung from the cable. Tamarack Road. He was surprised to have covered so much ground so quickly. It wasn’t even noon. He reined in his thoughts as he cut through the parking lot of a hardware store and began the last two miles of his journey.
For Mason Foster, getting out of prison was not the proverbial finish line. Nor was pacing the familiar perimeters of his childhood home. Though these milestones were thrilling and humbling and beautiful, he knew he would not be completely free until he hugged his mother again.
Sam Caldwell had warned him to brace for the dementia. He nodded politely at her words but she was wasting her breath. He’d been bracing since the diagnosis, since her last confused letter. He knew her mind was broken. This fact of life had been absorbed, grieved, and reconciled years ago. But as the Harmony Meadows sign appeared on the horizon, a seedling of hope sprouted in his heart. Maybe the sight of her only son would prove to be galvanic, causing long darkened neuro-tunnels to light up. His pace quickened.
Memories of his mother unlocked and cascaded through his mind in a rush of images and emotion. Her running beside his bicycle when the training wheels came off, taking pictures on the first day of school, birthday parties, nature walks, foot races in parking lots, her face in the audience at school plays, her face in the stands at football games, her face on the front row at every court appearance. Mom.
Maybe there was a chance.
He realized what his mind was doing – this insurrection of hope. He tried to snuff it out before it could gain traction.
Don’t be stupid, Mason. She has an incurable brain disease. There is no chance.
But the mind, emboldened with optimism, would not go quietly.
Don’t underestimate the power of the bond between mother and son. Not just power. Magic. If a mother can summon the strength to lift a two-thousand-pound car to save her child, or fight off lions in the wild, or endure the flames of a house fire … if the connection is so powerful that when the child is shot or stabbed or beaten that, across the country, the mother simultaneously buckles in pain. If all this is possible, then maybe, just maybe…
Harmony Meadows Assisted Living Village was a collection of log cabin style buildings, set back a hundred yards from the road and barely visible through a fortress of pines. A circular driveway looped beneath a canopy at the entrance. On each side of double wooden doors with thick green, diamond-shaped glass inlay, twin potted yews stood sentry.
Above him, a black plastic orb was mounted just below the right angle where wall and roof met. He recognized it instantly. The same cameras were installed at every prison dormitory in the state after a media storm of abuse allegations and murders.
Although Mason distrusted millennial technology, he was relieved to see the camera. He knew from experience that video surveillance was an effective insurance policy against human cruelty. Especially in institutions.
He pulled open the door. The log cabin theme was consistent throughout. Paper pumpkins and ghosts dangled from varnished trusses. A stone hearth and brick chimney disappeared into the apex of the ceiling. Leather couches and tables fanned with magazines and brochures filled the spacious lobby. The scent of Pledge filled his nostrils.
A plump black woman with soft eyes and Don King hair smiled from behind a counter. She wore a maroon polo shirt with Harmony Meadows embroidered over the pocket in gold cursive.
“Whew! Would you just look at all those tattoos!” She shook her head. “Young people today. At least you don’t have any on your face. My grandson put one right under his eye. His eye! Why would such a handsome young man do that to himself?”
Mason shoved his hands in his pockets, not sure how to respond. He was forty-eight years old, certainly no expert on young people. He glanced at the video monitors behind the counter. “I’m here to see Ava Foster. My name is– ”
“I know who you are, baby. Mrs. Caldwell said you’d be along sooner or later.” She pushed a clipboard and pen toward him. “Just sign this.”
Mason scribbled his name, almost adding his DC number before catching himself. Those six digits had been attached to him for so long, they were going to be hard to shake. Muscle memory.
“I’ve already notified the doctor that you’re here,” she said. “He should be along any minute. Meantime, those magazines are all current and there’s a coffee machine in the corner.”
Across the room, a door squeaked and a cigar stub of a man in jeans and cowboy boots strode toward him with a hand extended.
“Well that was fast,” she said.
“Mr. Foster? Myles Jennings. Good to meet you.” His handshake was firm.
“Come on,” he said from under a thick salt and pepper mustache. “Your mother’s in her room. I’ll take you.”
The rear door opened to a sidewalk that led to a much larger building. Beyond that, he could see people playing shuffle board and tennis. A botanical garden with benches and fountains sprawled as far east as he could see.
“We also have an Olympic-sized pool, a driving range, and a bowling alley,” said the doctor. “Many of our clients are in perfect health. They’re just here for the camaraderie and amenities.”
The ominous however was left unsaid.
Two twentyish nurses in scrubs and crocs were exiting the building as they arrived. Mason held the door.
“Ladies,” said the doctor.
They smiled in return.
“So how familiar are you with your mother’s situation?”
Mason shrugged. “I know she has Alzheimer’s.”
The doctor nodded. “Among other things. But yes, Alzheimer’s is the most debilitative, and unfortunately incurable, aspect of her condition. Your mother is somewhat of a statistical anomaly,” he glanced over at Mason, “either that or just one helluva a tough woman because she’s been teetering between the middle and late stages since I’ve been here. Seventeen years, January.”
“And that’s uncommon?”
They stopped at a secure door. The doctor waved up at a camera and it slid open, revealing a long corridor. “The average person with Alzheimer’s has an estimated lifespan of about four to eight years after diagnosis.”
Another secure door, another wave. They were now far from the botanical gardens and tennis courts. This part of the facility was less Club Med and more state penitentiary.
A burly male nurse with a goatee and massive forearms thumbed through charts at the desk. The hallway beyond was lined with staggered doors on either side. Some were wide open. In one room, a pale stooped man in a hospital gown stared listlessly through his window. Across the hall, a tiny woman with a puff of white hair lit up when he made eye contact then melted into suspicion. “Damned Jehovah’s Witnesses … stay off my porch!” Two doors down, a young woman was narrating a photo album to a disinterested grandmother who was busy shredding tissue.
The doctor continued. “I’d like to think that our staff and the quality care here at Harmony Meadows are the reasons your mother is defying the odds. In addition to cutting edge medications for memory loss like Aricept and Exelon, we’ve also explored alternative remedies that can boost brain function like coconut oil and fish oil. Our dietician—”
“Are you saying her memory has improved? Will she … remember?”
The doctor paused in the hallway. “No. I wish I could tell you that. I’m just saying that she has lapped the field a few times when it comes to exceeding expectations. Listen, I’m not going to sugar coat it, her memory is severely impaired, her cognitive function has slowed. Lately she has exhibited signs of confusion, disorientation, depression, even aggression. But she’s been living with a brain disease for over twenty years and can still eat and swallow without assistance, can almost walk without assistance, and can communicate with words. In many ways your mother is a miracle of modern medicine.”
“Okay,” said Mason, more to himself than to Myles Jennings.
The doctor nodded at the closed door on the left. “Knock first, she may be indecent.”
A handmade sign was taped on the door. It said Ava in pink letters with a flower drawn beneath it. He raised his hand and knocked gently.
“Who’s there?” said a woman’s voice.
He stuck his head inside. She was sitting in front of a television. Her gray hair was in a girlish ponytail and a patchwork quilt was draped over her small shoulders. The familiar piano chords of The Young and the Restless played at low volume.
“I hope you’re here to fix this cheap…” she searched for the word, “picture box. The sound has been broken for years and no one cares.”
He stepped into the room, leaving the door open behind him. “Let’s see what we can do here. Flat screen televisions are definitely not my specialty, but maybe…” He found the remote on the dresser and increased the volume. “How’s that?”
She pulled the quilt tighter. There was a tremor in her hands. “What time does this restaurant close?”
He sat on the edge of her bed.
She eyed him suspiciously. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He glanced out into the hallway for help but Dr. Jennings was gone. “I just came to check on you.”
She glared at him in silence. After a few moments, her eyes dropped to his arm.
He followed her gaze. A bolt of irrational juvenile fear caused him to flinch, some throwback boyhood anxiety about disappointing mom. He resisted the faint compulsion to hide his tattoos, instead scooting closer to give her a better view.
She looked away.
He held out his arm.
She stared at the television.
“See this one? These praying hands with a rosary? I got it first. And look. Doves! This is a hibiscus flower right here, a pretty lady, the ocean. We’ve got Johnny Cash flippin’ off the camera and check this out,” he said, showing her his wrist. “It’s my favorite.”
Indifferent eyes stared through him.
“Can you read it? It says Ava.”
A spark of recognition flickered and faded.
“Ava.” Her voice was far away. “My name is Ava.”