I am stopped in the hallway by a short woman hunched over her walker. She grabs my arm with a strength I hadn't expected.
"Do you know where I can get a coke?"
I explain that there is a vending machine down the hall, next to the little country store. She asks me what it offers, and I rattle off the brand names. She digs around in her purse, empty except for a wallet and a few tissues. She hands me a dollar bill, while stuffing several twenties back into her wallet.
As I'm walking towards the vending machines, she says to my back, "I will wait right here for you because I think you need to hear this."
I have never met her before.
I come back with a Dr. Pepper and her change. She argues with me about keeping the 35 cents, telling me that I need to put it with my own money and go buy myself a soda this afternoon. She doesn't introduce herself, but leans forward to focus on my badge. My name sounds like velvet in her mouth.
I open her soda can for her just as she's asking me if I could do it. I sit down across from her, lying my papers next to me, my list of to-do's delayed and abandoned. She begins to tell me about her life, about her daughter, about her husband's job. She tells me that her husband is gone, lost to a heart attack, falling face-first into a flowerbed while mowing the lawn just a few short years after retirement. She is matter-of-fact about this, and while her voice is steady, her eyes tell another story. She leans forward again, grasps my hand and says, "I only had one child. That is what I need to tell you."
I don't know what to say to this. I thank her for sharing with me. I smile. I look down at my shoes. She squeezes my hand and tells me how she was one of 9 children, how she worked for years selling Merle Norman make-up, how she avoids doing laundry, how her daughter doesn't visit regularly, how she often wonders why she bothers remembering at all.
She asks me if I am dating, if I am married, will I have children? I show her a picture of my girl, and she says there is no way I have an almost 5 year old. I explain that I'm registering her for kindergarten in the near future, and she nods, saying "It goes by too fast, and so much of it is painful."
She tells me her daughter is almost 70, and I know I am visible shocked. She laughs, a sound full of windchimes, and tells me she is 102. I crack up, and she nods, smiling sweetly. I tell her she is lovely and strong, and she gets self-conscious, looking down at her blue slippers and knee-highs crumpled at her ankles. She lifts up her shirt to show me that her jeans are loose, and she flashes me. Non-chalantly, she mentions that she forgot to put on a bra.
Then she tells me of the flowers in her yard, at the home she shared with her husband. She rattles off names of flowers, plants, and trees, and glances into the courtyard, taking notice of a gorgeous blooming camelia bush. She is amazed that I know what it is, patting my knee softly.
As abruptly as this began, it ends. She sticks her Dr. Pepper on her walker, and stands up. She adjusts her sweater and jeans, and grabs my hand with purpose. She tells me that she has told me many family secrets, and she's not sure why, other than the fact that "your smile opened up something inside me". As I stumble over words, she asks me to visit her some time, and tells me which apartment is hers. I don't think to ask her what her name is.
As she shuffles off towards the hall containing her apartment, she turns back to me and says "I can always tell a person's strength by their eyes, and the amount of love in their heart by their smile. You have an amazing smile and great eyes."
I thank her again, and stand in the middle of the hallway, watching her walk away. I think back over the last hour, and realize that I've said very little to her, but feel as though she knows me.