The morning of the day Bob Comet first came to the Gambell-Reed Senior Center, he awoke in his mint-colored house in Portland, Oregon, in a state of disappointment at the fact of a dream interrupted. He had again been dreaming of the Hotel Elba, a long-gone coastal location he’d visited at eleven years of age in the middle 1940s. Bob was not known for his recall, and it was an ongoing curiosity to him that he could maintain so vivid a sense of place after so many years had passed. More surprising still was the emotion that accompanied the visuals; this dream always flooded his brain with the chemical announcing the onset of profound romantic love, though he’d not known that experience during his time at the hotel. He lay in his bed now, lingering over the feeling of love as it ebbed away from him.
Bob sat up and held his head at a tilt and looked at nothing. He was a retired librarian, seventy-one years of age, and not unhappy. His health was sound and he spent his days reading, cooking, eating, tidying, and walking. The walks were often miles long, and he set out with no destination in mind, choosing his routes improvisationally and according to any potentially promising sound or visual taking place down any potentially promising street. Once he’d witnessed an apartment fire downtown; the hook-and-ladder brigade had saved a baby from an uppermost window and the crowd on the sidewalk had cheered and cried and this was highly exciting for Bob. Another time, in the southeast quadrant, he’d watched a deranged man determinedly ripping out the flower beds in front of a veterinarian’s clinic while dogs looked on from the windows, craning their necks and barking their sense of offense. Most days there was not so much to report or look upon, but it was always good to be in motion, and good to be out among the population, even if he only rarely interacted with any one person. He had no friends, per se; his phone did not ring, and he had no family, and if there was a knock on the door it was a solicitor; but this absence didn’t bother him, and he felt no craving for company. Bob had long given up on the notion of knowing anyone, or of being known. He communicated with the world partly by walking through it, but mainly by reading about it. Bob had read novels exclusively and dedicatedly from childhood and through to the present.
On this day, Bob was fed and out the door before nine o’clock in the morning. He had dressed according to the weatherman’s prediction but the weatherman was off, and so Bob had gone into the world unprepared for the cold and wet. He enjoyed being outdoors in poor weather but only if he was properly outfitted; in particular he disliked having cold hands, which he did have now, and so he entered a 7-Eleven, pouring himself a cup of coffee and lingering by the newspaper rack, warming himself while gleaning what news he could by the headlines. The cashier was a boy of twenty, friendly but distracted by a woman standing at the rear of the store facing a bank of glass doors which gave way to the refrigerated beverages. She wore a matching pink sweat suit, bright white sneakers, a mesh-back baseball hat, and a pair of dark sunglasses, and she was standing still as statuary. It was the outfit of a toddler or a teenager, but the woman had a shock of frizzy white hair coming out from under the cap, and must have been in her sixties or seventies. The cashier appeared concerned, and Bob asked in a whisper, “Everything all right?”
“I don’t think it is,” the cashier whispered back. “I mean, she doesn’t seem to be on anything, and her clothes are clean. But she’s been watching the energy drinks for forty-five minutes, and I’m worried she’s going to freak out.”
“Have you tried talking to her?”
“I asked if I could help her find something. No response.”
“Want me to go check in with her?”
“What if she freaks out?”
“What do you mean by ‘freaks out’?”
“It’s things I can’t even talk about in polite conversation. And the cops won’t come unless there’s a weapon involved. You know how many ways there are to freak out without a weapon? Literally one million ways.”
All the time they were speaking they were watching the woman. Bob said, “I’m going to go check in with her.”
“Okay, but if she starts freaking out, can you try to get her through the doors?” The cashier made a corralling gesture, arms out. “Once she’s in the parking lot she’s out of my domain.”
Bob moved toward the figure in pink, humming benignly, both to announce his arrival and identify himself as a friend. “Oh, hello,” he said, as if he just noticed her standing there. She didn’t respond in any measurable way, her features hidden behind the cap and hair and sunglasses. “Is everything all right today, ma’am? Anything I can help you with?” Still no reaction, and Bob looked to the cashier, who touched his own shoulder in a gesture communicating his belief that Bob should give the woman a shake. Bob didn’t shake her but rested his hand on her shoulder; the instant he made contact she became activated, like a robot coming to life, turning away from Bob and walking deliberately down the aisle and right out of the store. Bob watched her go. “What should I do now?” he asked the cashier.
“I don’t know!” the cashier said. He was happy the woman was gone but also happy that something interesting had happened.
Bob said, “I’m going to follow her,” and he left the store.
He walked behind the woman at a distance of ten paces, sipping his coffee, marking her meager progress. It took her full five minutes to travel one city block, at which point she became frozen again, this time at a bus stop, standing outside the glass shelter and looking in at the empty bench. It began to rain and the woman’s sweat suit grew damp. When she started to shiver, Bob approached and draped his coat over her shoulders. But soon he was shivering and damp; when a police car pulled up at a red light, Bob waved to the policeman to get his attention. The policeman waved back, then drove away.
Bob moved to stand under the shelter of the bus stop, facing the woman. His coffee had gone cold in his hand and it occurred to him he hadn’t paid for it. He’d decided his walk had been ruined and that he would cut his losses, forfeit the coat, and taxi home, when he noticed a laminated card hanging from a string around the woman’s neck. He stepped around the shelter and, tilting her body slightly, made to inspect the card. There was a photograph of the woman, in sunglasses and cap, and beneath the photo, a text: My name is CHIP, and I live at the GAMBELL-REED SENIOR CENTER. Beneath the text there was an address, and beneath the address was the image of an imposing Craftsman home with medieval touches—a tower and weathervane, a wraparound porch. Bob recognized the house from his walks, and he said, “I know this place. Is this where you live? Is your name Chip?” A determination rose up in him, and he decided he would deliver Chip to the address.
He took her gently by the arm, pointing her in the direction of the center. Every ten or fifteen steps she paused and groaned, but her resistance was minor, and they made their plodding advancement against the weather. She wanted to go into every storefront they passed, and so Bob had to repeatedly correct her path; each time he did this she became tense and made further groaning noises. “Sorry, Chip,” he told her. “I wish we could stop and browse but they’ll be worrying about you, and we don’t want them to worry, do we? No, let’s keep on, we’re almost there.”
Soon the Gambell-Reed Senior Center was in sight. Bob had walked past the property any number of times, often asking himself what it was, exactly. It stood perched on a hill, looming over its neighbors on both sides and looking very much like the cliched image of a haunted house. There was no signage announcing its function, but hospital shuttle buses and ambulances were commonly parked at the curb, and a wheelchair access path zigzagged up from the sidewalk and to the entrance. Bob led Chip up this path, studying the center as they made their ascent. It looked, he realized, quite a lot like the Hotel Elba; and while Bob took no stock in the unearthly, he couldn’t help but wonder at the similarity between the properties, in connection with his dream of the same morning.
The front door was an imposing barrier of green-painted metals and bulletproof glass, and it was locked. Bob buzzed a doorbell-buzzer and the door buzzed back, unlocked itself with a clack, and swung slowly open. Chip walked in under her own steam, disappearing around a corner while Bob stood by, waiting for someone to come meet him at the threshold; but there was no one, and after a long, ponderous pause, the door began evenly closing. He was about to turn and go when a bellowing male voice from behind hailed him: “Hold that door!” The voice beheld so pure a conviction that Bob reacted without thinking, blocking the sweep with his right foot, which consequently was smashed by such a force of violence that his pain was only barely concealable. The door bounced back and again was swinging open. Meanwhile, the voice’s owner, an abnormally large, that is, tall, broad, wide man in an abnormally large electronic wheelchair, was bearing down on Bob at a high rate of speed and with a look of steely certitude in his bloodshot eyes. As he whizzed past Bob and into the center he pinched the brim of an abnormally large beret in a salute of thanks. The same instant this man entered, there came a call from unseen voices, a calamitous, jeering greeting, a joyful commencement of an earlier communication, as though some new evidence gathered overnight had altered a prior dispute. “Pup pup pup,” the man said, wagging his mitt of a hand to downplay the noise. He drove his chair deeper into the center proper.
A forty-something-year-old woman in pale green scrubs and a beige cardigan was walking up to meet Bob. She asked if there was anything she could help him with and Bob explained about his bringing Chip back. The woman nodded that she understood, but she wasn’t noticeably impressed that Chip had been at large, or that she had been safely reinstalled. She introduced herself as Maria and Bob said he was Bob. When the door began closing, Maria stepped back, hand held aloft in a gesture of neutral farewell; but here Bob both surprised himself and Maria by hop-limping into the center, and afterward stood lightly panting, while Maria considered whether to call for security.
From The Librarianist by Patrick deWitt. Copyright © 2023 by Patrick deWitt. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.