Heavy double doors slowly swing open. A tall old man in a hospital johnny, stooped and gnarled, wanders the long hallway. My mother, half his height, pastel scrubs and permed hair, pulls me past him. “Sit in the day room with the residents. I’ve got to get to work.”

Where my mother works, I follow. My dad, a truck driver, works late. My mom doesn’t believe in outsourcing child care or leaving me home alone, even though I’m in sixth grade. So I’m here with her for a three-to-eleven shift.

She’s already chasing the old man down the hallway. I’m on my own. I wander past the rooms. “They’re residents, not patients,” my mother told me. The rooms are dimly lit. TVs flicker and blare. I catch flashes: an old woman pacing in front of her bed; a middle-aged man talking in hushed tones with someone I think is his father. The smell hits me, piss, shit, stale food, and, over it all, the sharp tang of bleach.

I walk slowly. In the Alzheimer’s unit, everyone does. Except for the nurses’ aides like my mom. They are possessed with reserves of great speed. The rest of us shuffle and wobble, every deliberate movement stretched out over the crawling minutes.

The day room fills up. Dinner arrives promptly at five; from my mom’s stories at home, it takes a few hours to wrangle the residents. I find an empty chair, sit with my backpack in my lap, dig out a Stephen King paperback. Fold myself up tightly, like an armadillo. Around me residents gibber, cry, moan in dissonant tones. A woman stops in front of me, hands balled up and stuffed into the pockets of a rust-colored cardigan. Stares at me as if anticipating revelation.

“Are you my son?”

I pretend not to hear.

“Are you my son?”

I peek over my book. Am I supposed to talk to the residents? What’s the rule for people with Alzheimer’s? Do you agree with whatever they say? Correct them? Is it like waking a sleepwalker? I can only think to apologize.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I’m not your son.”

That’s why I’m here. I’m a son. My mother pitches my hours at the nursing home as a celebration, not a burden. She’s proud of me, I’m handsome, an honor student. Plenty to tout.

I’ve begun to suspect this is about her. I was adopted as an infant. Now, a teenager, it’s clear I belong to some other tribe. Here with an audience, she can pull me closer, fix me in this role. And then I’ll get older, have a kid, and do the same thing. That’s the idea.

“Come here, I’ve got a new resident, and I want to show you off,” she’d say whenever someone arrived at the nursing home.

She says this one summer afternoon. My dad is waiting outside in the car. We’re here only to drop off something my mom forgot at home. Instead, she’s pulling me toward another darkened room. Inside, a TV is on, the sound turned all the way down. On the bed, blankets are piled on top of a woman with white hair and white skin. At first, I think she’s asleep, but then realize her eyes are open. She’s not awake, but not sleeping. I stop in the doorway, but my mother drags me on.

“Hello, Mary!” my mother says loudly. “I’ve got someone I want you to meet!”

I keep trying to plant my feet, to anchor myself to the linoleum. She yanks me along. Turns to me. “Get up close to her bed. Don’t be shy.”

I drift to the bed, my movements dreamlike. I’m an actor. A prop. This is my last step, I think. And then I take another. I glance out the window. Gray clouds are rolling in, the air sharp and bright with electricity.

“Go on, hold her hand,” she whispers. Then, raising her voice, “Mary! This is my son, Larry! Isn’t he handsome?”

Mary’s hand is in mine. My mother stands close by, as if she’s brokering a business deal. I smile weakly. “Hi Mary,” I say.

Her grip stiffens. She stares past me, past the TV, past everything. “What a nice boy,” she whispers. “What a nice boy. He’ll never marry.”

All these futures unspool in my head. Mary’s grip slackens.

Outside, thunder cracks and it starts to rain. We walk into the hallway. “Well,” my mother says flatly. “I guess I’ll see you at home later.”

Larry Clow is a writer and editor based on the New England coast. He has covered the region’s arts and culture scene for more than a decade in a variety of local and regional newspapers and magazines. He’s working on a book about adoption and social media and his writing on adoption has appeared on the blog Secret Sons and Daughters and in Flip The Script: Adult Adoptee Anthology.

Photo by Lauren Crux