My mother looked pleased, but puzzled.
"How did you know I was here?" she asked.
I rolled the dinner tray away from her bed, and attempted a cheerful smile. "We brought you here, remember?" I had ridden in the ambulance with her, two days before.
Her face clouded. "No," she said. "No, I don't remember." Troubled, for a moment, but then it was too much effort, and the trouble faded away.
A few moments later, she embarked on a narrative that I could not follow at all. Her eyes all the time on the television bolted to the ceiling, showing a young couple laying a tile patio. They were laying this tile very seriously, and the voice-over spoke in hushed, important tones, as though it was a historical documentary about, say, building the Burma Road. I had tried to turn the television off when I came in, but the only control I could find just switched channels. It was supposed to alter the volume, too, but those buttons seemed not to have any effect. So the television whispered along with all of our conversation. Somebody, she was telling me, had made her do something she had not wanted to do.
"Was that physical therapy?" I asked. She didn't answer for a little bit. Then she resumed: "They tried to tell me I was in a hospital!" she said, and smiled. Was it indignation? Did she know it was a hospital now? Was it a joke about how out of it she had been? Or was she fishing to see where I thought she was? I was at a loss for words. I smiled encouragingly, I hope, though I daresay it was wanly.
Later I understood that she had been made to sit upright for an hour, and that she thought she was in a furniture store. Very tired of it, and she wanted to go home: why did we just keep on hanging around?
Occasionally I struck a theme that interested her, and I could see, almost as a physical transformation, the intelligence return to her face. Something about Tory's shyness. A mention of Alan liking having grown taller than his mother. Anything having to do with psychology or personality. I wished I had thought to bring a quilting book -- color and design were the other things that might have fetched back that brief intelligence. I labored on, but I've never been good at making conversation, and anyway there are very few things we are both interested in. At the lulls of the conversation, which were frequent, she would read aloud the sentences the nurses had written on the whiteboard, or the little signs posted here and there. Was there a response to them that we were supposed to be sharing, or was it entirely automatic? I couldn't tell.
Finally she said, during one of those quick returns of intelligence, "Well, you better be getting home."
"I suppose I had better," I said, feeling relieved, and guilty at feeling relieved. "Can I bring you anything, before I go?"
This question seemed to strike her as very odd -- perhaps we were still in the furniture store -- but she shook her head. I leaned over to give her the odd half-hug that hospital beds grudgingly permit, and went out. I tried half-heartedly to catch the eye of one of the nurses, to ask about my mother's condition, but none of them looked my way. And I was too tired. Martha was better at that sort of thing, anyway.
As I shuffled down the long corridor to the elevators, I thought of how hateful, and how familiar, the smell of hospitals has become to me. It was hard for me to imagine thinking it was someplace as pleasant as a furniture store.