The Professor's Stay
Graphic by Kyle Hemmings. Detail. Click for full image.
"C'mon, baby, get up off the floor that way. Do something with your life instead of moaning and groaning."
"Why, Emma? I want to know why. Why can't I just stay here?"
"Because we ain't got no choice in the matter while we can."
"I guess you're right."
"Of course I'm right. Quit being a fool and get up."
"But I feel so comfortable." I rocked on the floor in her room.
It was thickly carpeted with a fresh, clean smell.
"I can do that here, can't I?"
"Sure you can. But I wished you wouldn't. You better than that. C'mon, now, get up." She offered me a thin, bony hand, but I didn't take it. I got up on my own power and faced her, the tiny black woman in her room.
"Here I am. Up."
"Uh-huh. You is up." She looked me up and down, once. When she talked, a jagged line of teeth appeared in her mouth.
They were bright and clean.
"Well, now, why you say those things?"
"You know that's what we're supposed to do, Emma. We're supposed to be truthful. Why do I shock you?"
"Because it seem you trying to beat everybody, saying you the worse human being on the earth then telling us stuff that ain't never happened. You exaggerating. That ain't the point, baby."
"Even if you feel awful inside and think these stories are more real than what's going on in your life? I exaggerate to get at the truth."
"I don't know why you lying, really, but I know you ain't all bad. Look at you standing here all hangdog like you worse than one of them serial killers. Just ain't the truth, baby. Ain't nothing like you at all."
I took her hand in mine and bowed down before her. "Emma, my friend, you speak more wisely than Solomon. I came in here and collapsed because I feel all done. I just don't know what to do anymore."
"Just breathe, baby, just breathe." She began to do it in front of me, breathe in and out as I held her hand.
The little woman in the gingham dress and the middle-aged man in the corduroy sport coat with the plaid pajama bottoms exercised their right to live in her room that morning.
The door to the hall invited a few spectators, but they didn't stay long. Just poked a head in and said hi and asked if we were doing all right and ambled down the hall when we both hardly stopped to say: "Yes."
She opened up in group, and I followed her with fury. What we said remains a secret. It's part of the process by which we come to know each other unguarded. It's lawfully guarded, too. Nothing is to exit the room after the circle of bodies lifts up from the chairs and disperses. We return to our own rooms down the hall on the special floor of the hospital. We all cracked up. We all decided to get better or got put there by our families or the state. Some of us rebelled and remained sullen, but most of us complied and did our best to get to know each other.
I smiled at her in the pale sunlight entering the room.
"You okay, baby," she said, little old black woman with magic in her, holding both hands now, standing in front of me, smiling away with her broken teeth looking better than ever. "You gonna be all right as long as you decide to be."
"And you, Emma?" I smiled back.
"I'm gonna be all right as long as I can help people."
"But that's why you're here, you know. You helped everybody but yourself. You helped them help themselves to you."
"Aw, you funny," she said, covering her mouth now, first time ever. "You make me laugh. I guess that's true."
"Sure it's true," I said, "truer than true."
"I guess we all got our troubles," she said.
"We sure do. Shall we go to lunch?" I offered her my arm, and we walked down the hall to the cafeteria at the end of it. You might have seen us from behind if you just stepped out of the elevator to visit a relative or friend, the professorial type with a bald spot in the weird getup of PJ's and elbow-patched sport coat and the little old black lady in gingham and tennis shoes, barely touching his arm, moving away from you with slow, easy steps. With luck, you caught her smile, beautifully broken, and his glance, with something like love, taking her in.