by Amy Sampson-Cutler
Dorthea had never felt so happy in her life. Not that she could remember, anyway. Window shopping on the streets of Manhattan, she wandered into a bookshop. This shop was different than other bookshops – it had a bohemian feel. Tapestries hung on the walls, and the scent of lavender and vanilla hung in the air from a scented candle near the checkout.
Over the smell of the candle she could detect an older smell – the musky scent of old books. A used bookstore, she thought, that makes sense.
Choosing a title from the shelf of old books, Dorthea found a dimly lit corner of the store with a wicker ottoman and sat down to read. Since she was a young girl, she could get lost in a good story. The story she chose on that day was a book of deceit, of grand illusion and the struggle to fit in.
Dorthea wouldn’t normally sit like that in a bookstore. She would pick out a few books, flip through them quickly right there in the aisle, and purchase them before going home to get lost in the story. Possibly because this was a used book store, she felt comfortable touching the pages. She lifted the book to her nose and imagined that she could not only smell the old book, but the story as well. Damp, musky leaves of a forest combined with an animal scent, feline perhaps. Possibly it was a combination of the fact that the books were used and this store was so inviting, Dorthea settled in, tucking her feet up under her legs.
It would have been a perfect day, except that what Dorthea’s mind could not grasp was that she was indeed in a library. The Alzheimer’s did that to her sometimes: put her in places where she wasn’t, confusing details and twisting her own sight. The library was quiet that day, with only Sondra working at the desk. She watched the old woman shuffle in, wearing loose green sweatpants and a pink cardigan. She kept an eye on her as she slowly wandered the aisles, finally choosing The Complete Aliceby Lewis Carroll. When the old woman meandered over to the sitting area, Sondra made a task of shelving some returned books nearby.
The woman had beautiful grey hair, Sondra noticed. It was well-kept, brushed straight and tucked behind her ears. The mismatched outfit didn’t quite jive with such precisely styled hair, in her opinion, but Sondra has gotten herself into trouble before by being too nosy, so she tried not to wonder too much about the woman, even as she noticed the woman’s right foot trying to move to the top of the chair, like she was trying to casually tuck her feet. They kept twitching together, raising up a bit before falling back to the floor.
The woman must have felt Sondra staring at her, because she suddenly turned to face her. Sondra found herself looking into milky blue eyes. Fumbling for what to say, a simple “Hello, lovely day,” was all she could manage.
“Ich bitte um Verzeihung?” the woman asked, confused.
Sondra found herself hugging the book she was holding to her chest. Unable to pull away from those eyes, she tried again. “I see you’re reading about Alice. Do you need any help?”
Dorthea dropped the book to her lap, closed her eyes, and said, “Ich kann Sie nicht verstehen.” Over and over, “Ich kann Sie nicht verstehen,” “Ich kann Sie nicht verstehen.” What started as a soft chant grew in volume, she shouted “Ich kann Sie nicht verstehen,” hands covering her face, book falling to the floor. In her head, she shouted the same words that she spoke aloud, “I do not understand!”
Sondra dropped to her knees in front of the old woman. She thought the woman may be speaking in German, but she did not know for sure. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, let me help you,” she pleaded. The woman was sobbing now, repeating that same phrase and patting down her beautiful hair as if in slow motion. As she picked the fallen book up off the floor, Sondra noticed a Medical ID bracelet on the woman’s wrist. Gently, she took her hand and held it closer to her so that she could read the bracelet. Dorothy Schmitt, Shady Oaks, Alzheimer’s Patient stood out in bold letters.
Sondra held the woman’s soft hand in her own. She expected it to feel dry and wrinkled, but she swore if she closed her eyes those hands would feel like her grandson’s skin, smooth and soft. “Dorothy,” she whispered, “it’s ok.”
At the sound of her name, Dorthea winced. “Dorthea Schmittendorf,” she said with a nod. “Dorthea.”
Sondra smiled. It was not hard to put together what had brought Dorthea into the library. The Shady Oaks Retirement Home was only a few blocks away, and so she must have snuck past the front desk and wandered into her library. Looking at the ID bracelet once more, she wondered about the shortened version of Dorthea’s name, and thought that something like that was typical of an old age home that did not put their patients’ needs first, not even above the staff who most likely couldn’t be bothered to learn a name like Schmittendorf.
Knowing that she would have to call the home and tell them where their missing patient was, Sondra decided that particular task could wait a few minutes. She got Dorthea settled, brought her some tea, and flipped through the pages of the book with her. After a while, Dorthea seemed to see the library for the first time. She smiled, and reached for her new friend’s hand. As their eyes locked, one set a deep brown and one milky blue, Dorthea spoke her first English words in months. “Thank you, my friend.”
Sondra squeezed Dorthea’s hand, and Dorthea squeezed back. In an instant, she was back in the Manhattan bookstore, with her new friend.
AMY SAMPSON-CUTLER is enrolled in the Creative Writing MFA program at Goddard College in Vermont. A Ski Area Manager in New York, she spends every moment she can reading, writing, and spending time outdoors.