The wind howled and brown leaves danced on the streets. It was early fall, too cold to be sleeping on a sidewalk but that’s where they found him. His age was hard to tell—70 maybe 80—his face dirty and scarred, likely from years of placing last in disputes. He wore a thin overcoat with no buttons, a stained t-shirt, pants layered with dried mud, mismatched shoes and one sock.
Constable Helmer brought him in and dropped him in a chair. “No one’s reported missing,” he said. “We tried the hospital but he isn’t hurt or sick. The shelter doesn’t want him. Out of his mind, old and senile, beyond help they said. So, I guess he’s yours.” He set a cloth bag on the desk and turned to leave. “Those are his things. You might want to hold your nose when you look inside.”
Harriet, our receptionist, dumped the contents. There wasn’t much: a half-pack of peanuts, two dimes, the other sock and an outdated food voucher with a name on it, Michael Travis Edwards. She made a face at the sock. “His first initials are M.T. I think that’s a good name for him.” She wrote Empty Edwards on the intake form and that’s what ended up on the door of his room.
The diagnosis of old and senile seemed correct. He didn’t talk but he slurped loud and slow, with no sign that he tasted the food a staff member spooned into his mouth.
We developed a routine for him. The orderlies bathed him every Monday, or more often if his odor became strong enough to power his wheelchair. Dressed in pajamas and a bathrobe, he spent his days in the darkened TV room. Occasionally, someone turned on the set but his eyes, fixed and dead, stared through the different hues cast across his face by the flickering channel. Raising your voice produced no reaction and he didn’t move when someone wiped his face or combed his hair. He appeared to have been a tall man but he had folded into himself so his straggly white hair barely showed above the back of his chair. We all agreed that, except for a stubborn pulse, Empty had stopped living. That was it, part of the furniture in front of the TV, all day every day. Not one of us thought he’d last the winter.
Only once did I see a glimmer. Mrs. Collins, one of our long-termers, was wheeled into the TV room by two giggling grandkids who squealed and chased each other in circles around Empty’s chair. A small tremor formed on the left side of his face, worked itself across and disappeared somewhere behind his right cheek. That was it, impossible to read: annoyance, fear, longing, it could have been any of those. Just the once, perhaps the fragment of a memory.
One spring afternoon, I was at the reception desk when Helmer and another policeman came in. “We want to speak with Michael Edwards.”
It took a moment to realize they were looking for Empty. “Sure, he’s here but, you must remember, he doesn’t talk. In fact, he’s close to comatose, never leaves his wheelchair.”
Helmer’s partner looked at me like I was unable to tie my own shoelaces. “You’re mistaken. I spoke with him on the phone less than an hour ago.”
I went to the door and checked the TV room. Empty was where he always was. “Come with me,” I motioned.
Empty turned his head and watched us cross the floor. Helmer blocked any escape attempt by placing his foot in front of the wheelchair. “Michael Edwards, you’re coming with us. I’m arresting you on a vehicular homicide charge for the hit and run death of Keri Lachance, age 3, on April twenty-two in the City of Vancouver.”
Empty didn’t move.
“You have to be kidding,” I said. “Vancouver is hours away. Empty can’t walk, let alone drive. Every member of our staff will swear that he’s never left the premises.”
“I admit he doesn’t look good. Nevertheless, he called earlier and confessed. We’ve gotta take him in.”
But they changed their mind after watching Empty for a few minutes, photographing him and quizzing me. “We’ll leave him here for now. He’s not going anywhere and I don’t think we could look after him at the holding center. Call us if anything changes. We’ll try and scare up somebody who knows him.”
Next day, the police in Vancouver updated the press on their investigation and the following morning Empty’s picture and the story were on the front page under the headline, “Senior Confesses to Hit and Run.” It even made television newscasts.
Later that day, I received a call. “My name is Mary McCarter. I saw the story about Mr. Edwards in the paper. I think I know who he is. Can I come and see you?”
Mrs. McCarter was a pleasant lady in her sixties with pinned up gray hair. “I grew up in Calgary,” she said. “I think Mr. Edwards was a neighbor over 50 years ago. I was a young teen and he would have been about 25. There was him, his wife, Estelle and Becky, a daughter about three. Becky was the center of his world. I’ve never seen a father spend more time with a kid. He was always on the sidewalk, in the park or in their yard, pulling her in a wagon, pushing her on a swing, playing tag or hide and seek. He was a long haul trucker and when he came home from the road, Becky would squeal and run to meet him shouting, ‘Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home!’ The whole block could hear her. Estelle was quiet and rarely came outside.”
“Something must have happened.” I said.
“Something did and it was tragic. The way I remember it, Mr. Edwards got into his truck one morning, started it and backed down the driveway. He felt a bump which turned out to be Becky who was playing under the truck.”
“My God! Did she live?”
“Yes, although she was in a hospital for months. I heard she was permanently damaged and would need special care for the rest of her life. She never came home.”
“What happened to the family? Why do you think this is him?”.
“No one, including her doctors, thought that Becky would make it but it was the marriage that didn’t survive. The stress was too much. He became depressed and disappeared. We never heard from him again. People thought he’d committed suicide. Estelle ended up in a home and died there. I have no idea what happened to Becky. The picture in the paper reminded me of him and he’s got the same name.”
We went into the TV room and she tried to coax a memory out of Empty. “Hello Mr. Edwards. Do you remember me… Mary? I used to live next door to you.”
He didn’t flicker and stayed tuned to the blank TV. We had no way of confirming that Empty was the former trucker. The police lost interest after they caught the real hit and run driver in Vancouver.
It looks like we’ve got him for the rest of his days but there has been a change. I returned from lunch one afternoon, about a week after Mary McCarter’s visit. Harriet held her finger to her lips and motioned for me to look into the TV room.
Empty was in his usual spot. Another wheelchair was pulled up beside him and a woman who appeared to be in her fifties was holding his hand. He wasn’t looking at the TV. He was gazing at the woman and tears were flooding down his cheeks.
Harriet whispered behind me. “She just transferred in. Her name’s Becky. Empty says that she’s his daughter.”
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com