Henry Jefferson Long sat where he did every day from the time he left the supper table until he fell asleep. Slightly hunched over with milk carton in one hand and half-eaten cookie in the other, his eyes never strayed from the double doors at the other end of the hall.
“The news comes on in thirty minutes Mr. Henry.” Rosetta’s starched white uniform squeaked as she passed by. She didn’t pause for a reply knowing none would have come if she had. Henry Jefferson Long never paid attention to anyone between 5 and 10 PM.
Twenty years before someone named Emily had brought him here, given instructions where to send the bill, left at precisely 5 PM, and never returned. And, for 7333 nights the little man who loved milk and cookies sat just outside his room watching those same double doors. Neither was much different than the day they introduced themselves to each other. The doors never told Mr. Henry what had happened to Emily and Mr. Henry never told anyone anything.
His sandy handlebar mustache quivered and bits of chocolate chip fell like brown dandruff onto his faded housecoat. Rosetta’s eyes caught mine and she shook her head; “He ain’t saying nothing. As long as I’ve been here that’s all that old man does. Sits there, staring at those doors, and muttering to himself.” The rest of her words melded into the noises of the hallway as she moved along with her tray of medications.
I edged closer until I stood almost directly behind his wheelchair. Close enough to hear the methodical crunching of tiny bits of cookie. Close enough to hear the slight rattle of lungs that couldn’t hold out much longer.
“I should of ….” Mr. Henry’s words, not much more than a wheeze, faded away.
Unlike Rosetta and everyone else, long since weary of Mr. Henry’s strange habits and foul temper, I decided to pull up a chair and sit beside him for a while.
“I should of …”
I leaned closer hoping to catch the rest but again his rattling whisper was lost to the noises of clanging bedpans and help bells going off.
We sat, side by side, pretending the other wasn’t there: me watching him from the corner of my eye; him pretending not to see me watching him. Occasionally the double doors would swing open and as they did his dull gray eyes showed a brief sparkle. Then, as the doors closed along with the slight hiss of the pneumatic stop I heard another sound.
“I should of …” The rest of the sentence sounded just like the air escaping the door.
Three months passed that way: Henry Jefferson Long watching those doors and me watching him. Each night, during my break, we would observe the same ritual. In three months all I ever heard him say was, “I should of …”
And then two days ago, something I will never forget happened. I was checking the halls at 2 AM and to my surprise there stood Mr. Henry. He was stooped over propped up by a wooden cane he seldom used. His cheeks were wet with tears as he stared at the double doors at the end of the hall.
“Mr. Henry, what are you doing out of bed without your chair,” I whispered?
“I should of …”
“I know Mr. Henry,” I comforted him. “Come on let’s go back to bed now.”
“I should of …. listened.”
“Listened to what Mr. Henry?” I didn’t expect an answer being more than amazed he had managed to finally finish that one sentence.
He turned toward me; his eyes alive more than I had ever seen. “She told me if I didn’t pay attention I would lose them. I should have listened. I was too focused on what I lost. Told them all to get out of my life and leave me alone. And ….” He looked toward the doors and shook his head. “And … they did.”
A woman named Emily just walked through those double doors a few minutes ago. She said she was here to claim the effects of her father. She said he was never the same after her mother died with cancer. All he could concentrate on was his own grief. His own bitterness.
The doors closed behind her with a sigh as she left. I swear it sounded like Henry Jefferson Long letting out one last, “I should of ….”
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