The Home for the Elderly was an old-fashioned four-story brick building, not unlike the building in which Billie St. John went to school. She had never been inside but had seen it many times, passing it in the car when she was riding with her mother. She stood on the sidewalk in front of the building, looking up at the windows on the top floor which were just then reflecting the afternoon sun. She took a deep breath and went inside.
Across the lobby from the front door was the reception desk. She went up to it and stood there politely. “Ahem,” she said when the woman sitting there didn’t look at her.
“Yes?” the woman said, barely looking at her. “If you’re selling something, we don’t allow it here.”
“I’m not selling anything,” Billie said. “I’m here to interview a centenarian for a human interest story for my school paper.”
“Billie St. John.”
“We don’t have anybody here by that name.”
“I thought you meant my name.”
“What is the name of the centenarian to whom you wish to speak?”
“I don’t have a name. Just anybody over one hundred years old will do.”
“We have three residents over a hundred. Mrs. Milligan is a hundred and three, Mrs. Oglethorpe is a hundred and one, and Mr. Wellington just turned one hundred.”
“Any of those will do.”
“Mrs. Milligan doesn’t speak, she only babbles. Mrs. Oglethorpe is so blind and deaf she wouldn’t even know you were there. That leaves Mr. Wellington.”
“Go up one flight of stairs and take the hallway to your right and go all the way to the end. Mr. Wellington’s room is 210. You’ll see it.”
“What if he doesn’t want to see me?”
“Just tap lightly on the door. If he wants you to come in, he’ll say so. If he doesn’t invite you in, you’ll know he’s indisposed and you can try again another day.”
She found the room easily enough but suddenly she was afraid. One hundred was terribly old. She had never even seen a person that old before, let alone expect something from them. She wanted to turn around and leave and forget the whole thing, but it would cause her no end of trouble if she did. She would hate having to explain to everybody that she lost her nerve and wasn’t able to go through with it.
The door was partway opened. Through the crack she could see into the room, the corner of a bed and a picture on the wall. She knocked lightly, not wanting to wake up anybody who might be sleeping.
“Yes?” came a voice from behind the door, a voice from which she was able to read nothing.
She gathered her courage, pushed the door open and entered. She saw a withered old man sitting on a chair in front of the window. He was hardly bigger than a twelve-year-old.
“Are you Mr. Wellington?” she asked.
“Who are you?” he asked. “I didn’t send for anybody.”
“I’m Billie St. John. The lady downstairs said you might talk to me.”
“I’m writing a human interest piece for my school paper about a centenarian.”
“About a what?”
“About a person a hundred years old or more.”
“Who said I’m a hundred?”
“Yes, I am, but that’s no reason for everybody in the world to know my private business.”
“Do you want me to go away?”
“No, no, no. If I want you to go away, I’ll say so.”
“Is it all right if I sit down.”
“Oh, by all means! Mi casa es su casa.”
She thought it too familiar somehow to sit on the bed, so she pulled out the chair to the writing desk and sat on it. She cleared her throat and fumbled with her pad and pencil, pulled her skirt down over her knees and looked levelly at Mr. Wellington.
To be so old, he had hardly any wrinkles at all. His skin, which was the color of old paper, was shiny and seemed pulled too tight over the bones of his face and head, as if made of rubber. His head was small and round and reminded Billie of a cat’s head.
“Now, let me see,” she said, looking at her notes. “To what do you attribute your long life?”
“Never getting shot in the head.”
“What has been your greatest satisfaction in life?”
“Outlasting my enemies.”
“Do you have any regrets?”
“Yes. Allowing you to ask me these inane questions.”
“What does it feel like to be a hundred years old?”
“Wait about eighty-five years and you’ll know.”
She looked at him and smiled, thinking that maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad. “But what if I wanted to know now?” she asked. “If you were going to tell me what it feels like to be a hundred, what would you say?”
“Think about a small boat on the ocean,” he said. “It goes the vast distance from point A to point B so slowly that you can’t even tell it’s moving. When it reaches point B, finally, that’s when you are where you are supposed to be. That’s when you’re home.”
She didn’t know what he was talking about it but she wrote it all down anyway.
“Now let me ask you a question,” he said.
“What does it feel like to be you?”
When she realized she couldn’t answer, she squirmed and blushed. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Not so easy to answer, is it? Not so easy to put into words. You have a stomach ache or a headache. You can say you have those aches but you can’t really put them into words, can you?”
“Yes, I suppose it’s a silly question that doesn’t have an answer,” she said.
“Like so many other questions. Questions that don’t have answers.” His attention drifted to a spot on the floor and for a moment he seemed to forget she was there.
“Ahem,” she said. “Did you have brothers and sisters and do you remember much about your childhood?”
“I had three sisters and two brothers and they’re all dead now. I’m the only one left. I don’t know why.”
“Where did you live?”
“We lived on a farm until I was ten years old. My father gave up farming and we moved to town. He worked in a furniture factory. One of my brothers was killed in a car accident when he was eighteen and one of my sisters gassed herself at twenty-four. The man she wanted to marry was already married to somebody else. Am I going too fast for you?”
“No, just give me a minute to catch up. I never took shorthand.”
“After I finished high school I needed to learn a trade of some kind so I could make a living, so I went to mortuary school to become a mortician. Do you know what a mortician is?”
“I didn’t especially want to be a mortician, but I couldn’t think of anything else. In nearly forty years as a mortician I saw the ugliest side of life. I saw wives killing husbands, husbands killing wives, children killed in every conceivable way including at the hands of their parents, men torn to shreds in factory and farming accidents, drowning victims, shooting victims, knifing victims, suicides by poison, suicides by hanging and just about every other way you can imagine. And in all that time I learned one thing: there has to be a God or all the terrible things that people go through are without meaning. I bet you won’t print that in the school paper, will you?”
“After you stopped being a mortician, what did you do then?”
“I don’t remember. I traveled some, read a lot of books, took a lot of naps.”
“How long have you lived here in the home?”
“Longer than I can remember. The squirrels and birds I watch out this window are several generations removed from the first ones I watched. One day soon they’re going to carry me out of here feet first and some other poor old man will take my place in this chair, but I don’t mind.”
“Do you get many visitors?”
“None. That’s the bad thing about living for a hundred years. Everybody you ever knew in your life is dead.”
“Don’t you have any family?”
“I’ve had four wives. You wouldn’t know it to look at me, would you? Not one of them left me or divorced me. They all died on me. I had two sons but they’re dead too. Even my grandchildren are dead. Now why does that happen? Why does everybody die and leave you behind?”
“That’s another one of those questions,” Billie said, stopping her writing and looking at him. “Would you like me to come and visit you sometime?”
He smiled, showing his jagged teeth. “I’m sure you have much better things to do with your time.”
“I could read to you from the newspaper.”
“That’s okay. Visitors are one thing I can do without. I have my squirrels and my birds and a hundred years of stuff going on in my head. And I haven’t forgotten a thing. It’s all right here.” He tapped the side of his head with his fingertip. “My life is nothing now but I don’t mind. I’m tired of the world and of people and I’m looking forward to what comes next. I know you don’t know what I’m talking about but you will someday if you live long enough.”
She closed her pad and stood up and put her coat back on. “Well, I believe that was all I wanted to ask you. I thank you for allowing me to talk to you.”
“Can you use any of that stuff?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I think it’s more than adequate.”
“Will I be able to read the piece that you write for your school paper?”
“Yes, I’ll come by one day and bring you a copy of the paper.”
“That’ll be fine.”
“It’s been awfully interesting talking to you,” she said. “I hope we may meet again.”
She left the room quickly, suddenly embarrassed, before the old man had a chance to say anything else.
As she was passing the receptionist’s desk to leave, the woman called to her.
“Did you get what you wanted from Mr. Wellington, dear?” she asked.
“I hope he didn’t give you a bad time.”
“No, it went fine.”
“They pretend to be annoyed, but they love talking about themselves. They don’t get much attention, you see.”
She went outside and paused on the top step of the Home for the Elderly. She would have something to tell her mother at dinnertime, and together they would write her piece for the school paper. She was certain they would come up with a story so good it would keep her from failing English class.
With the sun going down, the air seemed much colder than before. She pulled her scarf around her neck, put on her gloves, and headed for home in the gathering winter twilight. She didn’t know it, but Mr. Wellington was watching her from his window on the second floor.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp