Everyday his mind loses details, crumbling away like the potting soil that he swears holds the biggest heirloom tomatoes you’ve ever seen. And though nothing exists, except a stem and an artery of drying roots, he tends them dutifully with his dinner-fork shovel and an empty cup, sprinkling imaginary water over his bulging, green-shouldered, Cherokee Purples.
He blames his Duty nurse, the one whose name must be Dementia since he hears it whenever she’s around. Sometimes, they whisper her name, even when she’s somewhere else—like he don’t hear so good. (They always plotting.) She’s the one who steals his tomatoes while he sleeps and worse, his memory. That needle of hers makes him forget everything like where in blazes his brown, “church socks” are or where in the Hell Jimmy Lee went.
And that other one, with that clipboard and pen, she’s the one responsible for unearthing those terrible stories, for exposing those roots he’d buried years ago, all those lost moments being exhumed with questions and checkmarks and all because she won’t stop digging ‘round in graveyard dirt. Besides that, he done already told her once how he and the Lord done threw them awful things into the sea of forgetfulness. But here she comes, trawling along the bottom, stirring up trouble and memories, like old bones, bumping against the bottom, swirling in the silt of his watery mind.
And then there’s those first floor Orderlies who call him, The Night Crawler, Runaway Slave, Wandering Black-Jew. They think he don’t see them behind all that cigarette smoke or hear them, shaking with laughter, over how The Black Houdini made it once on the other side. Yes, he made it though the front door like a villain, that heavy one with the tiny wire-meshed window. (There ain’t enough light in this place to grow nothing.) But somehow, he out-flanked them all and got through, using only a folded brochure in the jamb.
And the story goes that Houdini got clean away, a whole two blocks away before the sun went down and he got turned around and agitated and scared, “’Cause he couldn’t find his brother nowhere!” Finally, they called a Code White—A Code White mind you, called on a combative old man, still afraid of sunset, and of them that must’ve got Jimmy Lee, must’ve got him somehow.
And, as they strapped him on the gurney, he rambled about Jimmy Lee, and how it was his own fault. Partly ‘cause Jimmy was the one who said, That he didn't need no Green Book! Said, How he wasn’t scared of them! How he wished they would try and start something with him! And Jimmy Lee drove away at sunset and into that night, black as Jim Crow’s wing. And on he ranted until the words caught in his throat like fish bones, until Dementia came with that blamed needle of hers. It’s okay. Ain’t no tomatoes left no how.
After that, he never walked those long corridors without The Green Book. It showed him how to get to the dining room safely. It showed him which room was okay and which one wasn’t. Showed him all about the hallways where he should and shouldn’t exit, on account of the speed trap and that Cracker Sheriff in the white coat, the one who keeps putting that darn popsicle stick down his throat, and saying, Ahhhh even when his throat was just fine.
And The Green Book tells him how to follow the black lines on the wall, not those white arrows and it warns him not to stop for anyone, for any reason: not the Intake room, where nurses do all kinds of strange things to folks. Not the Saloon, where them tubes hang like Spanish moss on the bayou. Not the toilet neither, where there ain’t no privacy, where they watch you making a sample in a cup.
And The Green Book told him how to take a right at the end of the hall where the board says, Welcome to Mercy Manor! Here, they let you eat in peace. They don’t ask you no questions like: Boy, where you from and Boy, where you headed? And they can cook pretty good here too ’cept their cabbage greens taste like they let white folks loose in the kitchen.
And The Green Book say: when you leave this restaurant—Don’t speed. But hightail it down that hall like they done give you a good dose of Epson salts. And for God’s sakes N-----Don’t Be Caught Here After Sundown. So he wiped his mouth and headed back on down the darkening road looking both ways as he mumbled: If You Can Read…You'd Better Run, If You Can't Read…You'd Better Run Anyway.
The Night staff at Mercy Manor had their orders: Room 106. Better watch him. He’s a Sundowner.