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Strolling With Alice

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I was walking to my apartment when I saw her coming slowly down the street in her wheelchair. She was wearing a long white nightgown, a thick brown cardigan, and green bedroom slippers. There were two towels folded neatly across the back of her chair. It was five o'clock in the afternoon and about 55 degrees.

She had some trouble wheeling the chair over rough spots in the alley, so she got out and started pushing it. She was conversing loudly with herself. "It won't go down here. Is it all right? Yes, it's OK."

She was quite elderly and frail looking. As I walked by her into my building I wondered where she lived. I got the mail, read it, and went back outside. She was no longer on Estes, so I walked to the corner of Sheridan. I saw her heading north. She was riding in her chair again, pushing the wheels with her hands and using her slippered feet to pull herself forward. People were walking by her like they'd seen this a million times.

I walked up to her and said, "Are you going home? Where do you live?"

She looked scared of me and didn't answer.

"Do you want me to push your chair? I could help you."

She ignored me and continued to push herself. Later I learned that she was fairly deaf and probably couldn't understand anything I had said. But she understood what I was offering and finally said, "You might push too fast." I promised I wouldn't, but she said no. "My husband is coming to meet me. He's walking from the other direction."

"Well, let me push until he comes."

"Look," she said. "Lenny? Are you behind me? Yes, I am. Are we in any trouble? No, we're not. You see? We're not in any trouble. You can go home now."

I decided to go home, use the bathroom, and return. I figured she couldn't get far in a few minutes, but when I came out she was gone. I started after her anyway with that confidence police develop: no one is ever really gone. They may be here or there, dead or alive, but they're not gone.

I found her a couple of minutes later. She had turned west on Touhy.

I stopped to talk to a Polish woman who was landscaping a courtyard.

"Do you know her?" I asked, pointing.

"Maybe from nursing home," she answered. "Home is on Estes. Another is on Sheridan."

"There's one on Estes? Thanks."

I approached the elderly woman again.

"Are you the same one?" she asked anxiously.

"Yes, I stopped to talk to you before. On Sheridan."

"What? I can't hear."

I shouted, but she still couldn't catch it. Finally, I shouted "Same, same," pointing at myself. She nodded.

I tried to get her address.

"Address?" she said. "Thirty-two fifty. Wait. What's our address, Lenny? Thirty-two fifty. Oh yes, it's thirty-two fifty."

I sighed. We were in the 1300 block of West Touhy. Thirty-two fifty had to be an old address.

She pointed west and said, "It's four blocks that way."

"What's the name of the nursing home," I shouted.

"Oh, don't call them," she said. "I'll be in big trouble."

I started pushing her west, pretty sure it wasn't the right direction. If there was no nursing home after four blocks, I would probably have to call the police.

She talked to herself loudly about her husband and the people who knew him when he owned a grocery store. She kept trying to remember if she knew who was pushing her. She kept referring to Roosevelt Road.

Her hands were folded in her lap, and she seemed to be enjoying the ride. "It's nice here," she said with satisfaction. "It's so nice here." Then she turned her head back slightly and said, "Two and half more blocks, we'll be at Roosevelt Road."

I didn't say, "No, we won't." I stopped the chair. She looked very small, and I noticed that her back was slightly humped. I patted her on the shoulder and walked around to face her again. "Do you know the address of the home?" I shouted.

She looked at me very seriously and said, "I'm not going home. I'm going to my mother's house. I'll stay there tonight and take a cab home in the morning."

"Oh dear," I said. We were at Touhy and Ashland.

"Is this too far for you?" she asked. "I can go myself."

She had started pushing the wheels of the chair when I heard loud honking behind me. A small red car pulled up, and through the windshield an angry young woman shook her finger at us. She jumped out of the car and shouted, "Alice, it's cold outside. You shouldn't be out like this." She thanked me for finding Alice.

"Are you from a nursing home?" I asked.

"Yes, I'm the bookkeeper. I'm supposed to be going home now, but I told them I would look for her because I knew her. I knew she wanted to get out."

She looked at Alice's chair and then at the small car.

"I can take her if you tell me where it is," I said. "I'll meet you there."

"OK. Go down to Estes and turn left. You'll see it."

She turned the wheelchair in the right direction for me, and Alice cried out in protest. Then she seemed to accept it. It was getting colder, and she couldn't ride around all night.

Alice went back to talking to herself. "Well, this was fun. This was fun. Are you tired? No, I'm not tired, but I want to go to Michael Reese. Can you take a cab? Yes, I can take a cab."

When we got close to the home, the bookkeeper joined us. She said, "I can take her now."

I ignored her and kept pushing.

She said, "Alice, it's cold outside. You shouldn't do this." Then she turned to me and said, "She hasn't even had her dinner yet. All the rest of them are eating."

"Is that how you found out she was missing?" I asked.

"No, her husband said he couldn't find her."

"Her husband! Is his name Lenny?"

"Yes, Lenny. He used to take her for their strolls. But just right outside here. He would push her. But they can't do that anymore. Now he's in a wheelchair too."

Alice recognized the home. "That looks like the one we came out of. Yes, this is the one. We're visiting here."

The bookkeeper tried to take Alice again, but the ramp was too narrow for both of us. I crowded her out and pushed Alice up to the front door. Lenny was waiting right inside in his wheelchair. I shook hands with him. "She never did this before," he said.

Alice told Lenny that there were two girls with her and that she recognized them both because they had such familiar faces.

I shook hands with Alice and told her I had enjoyed meeting her. Then I said good-bye to everyone. I felt I was starting to look like one of those fictional characters who walk into someone else's house and won't leave.

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