He sat down in a chair near the window and looked at me. He was holding an old mystery novel. “John D. MacDonald,” he said. I expected him to ask the price, but instead he looked down and began leafing through the pages. “My mother is reading John MacDonald now.”
He glanced out the window, where the late evening light was streaming in through the dusty glass. “She has Alzheimer’s,” he said quietly. “It’s getting worse all the time. She’ll call my sisters by the wrong names. Or she’ll ask where the grandchildren are, when she’s looking right at them. A few months ago, when we were getting ready to leave, I hugged her. She looked confused, and she said goodbye, but when I looked at the expression on her face, I knew: She didn’t know who I was.”
He looked at the book again and turned the page, not because he cared what was on the page, but because it gave him something to do when he could think of nothing else to say. When he looked at me again, he was smiling. “She always sat in the same chair when she was reading. There was a little table next to it, and that was how you knew what she was reading. There were always two or three books on there, each with a bookmark inside. I never do that, you know? Read more than one book at a time, I mean. I like to finish one story before I move on to the next.”
He closed the book, then held it up and turned it so that the spine was on top. He spread the covers and fanned the pages, as if he were looking for something hidden within, waiting for it to fall out.
“A while back I realized that the same books were always on the table. There was a copy of Watership Down, and an old Ian Fleming paperback, and the MacDonald mystery. These were old ones, from the Sixties or Seventies. The bindings were coming apart, and the pages were falling out. I opened the Bond book, and found pages from another book tucked inside. They were all falling apart, and she didn’t even know what pages went with what story anymore. One of my sisters straightened things up, and now there’s just the one book there. Every time I visit, I look at it, and I search for her bookmark. It keeps moving, but it moves at random. Some days, she’s on page 30. The next week, she might be on page 55. Then I’ll find the bookmark at page 16, and I know: She can’t remember what she has and hasn’t read. But she’s still reading.”
He closed the book and looked me straight in the eye. “She’ll never get to the end of that book. I know that.” He stood up and put the book on the chair. He walked toward the door and pulled it open slowly, then stopped and turned toward me once more. “Maybe that’s not so bad. The story is fresh every day, and it never has to end.”