At least I can say that the mere sound of her voice no longer alarms me. Perhaps it has become familiar, as has the distinctive shuffle she makes in ascending the wheelchair ramp to my apartment. Yes, there she is, Karen, in what may now be a daily visitation. She is rather the worse for wear, thin to the point of emaciated, toothless and haggard and wrinkled and prematurely aged in all dimensions. Ravaged by drugs, according to my late landlord. Tom devoted much of his remaining life energies to warning me about her. Deathbed words. Don’t let Karen in the apartment. She wants money badly. And in so many words, she is not to be trusted on his premises, around his things, etc. All of which may be something of a rationalization. She is disturbing, our Karen, and that is the trick, to get beyond this.
So we try, she and I. Having seen her approach, I simply urge her down the wheelchair ramp. We shall talk outside, I say, in the sun. This last bit is not uninviting. Why not enjoy a bit of the last days of summer? Why not? The conversation begins with the sort of exchange I have grown accustomed to fielding. Small verbal sallies designed to establish our mutuality. On this occasion Karen remarks that I am on my own a lot, aren’t I? Actually, I am about to go shopping for Jane, and I announce this. August sun sparkling about our faces, the hedges, the pink concrete of this 1950s apartment world.
What did you think of my request for sustenance, she asks. One must give Karen credit for having a few more functioning neurons than appearances would suggest. She’s got the words slightly wrong, or she may have them right. Hard to say. She is acknowledging that I have seen her notes. What did I think? I will also give her credit for something verging on the frank. There is a hard edge to her voice, insistent, perhaps grasping or desperate. Not ingratiating. Just as well. She wants money. My neighbor is playing the piano. The day is warming. Karen tells me she is penniless.
And this moment is genuinely poignant. I have no doubt that is true, this statement. And how she got here, God only knows. But she is here. And I am here too. Having conducted my life in a way that seems superior does not make me superior. Still, it is hard to know what to do. The problem, as I see it, is that these visits are increasing, both in frequency and duration. Alone like her? Hardly, but she does catch me in moments. Sitting at my desk, front door open to the warm summer breezes and, yes, I am here alone at this moment. Vulnerable is what I feel. Although as Jane has pointed out, I could easily knock over Karen with my wheelchair. Burned out and teetering, she is quite vulnerable herself.
‘You’re about my age,’ Karen volunteers. She has me here. For now she states her age, almost 64. Will you still need me, will you still feed me? Having moved substantially off this 64 mark myself, her observation stings. I tell her that I have to go shopping. For Jane. These two facts, that I have a task, that I have someone in my life, perhaps they will serve to separate us. Still sunny. And I could almost speak of this, the fact of the day’s pleasantness. That would be either faux English or churlish or both.
‘I was just kind of letting my thoughts ramble in those notes,’ Karen says. I say that Tom has left no instruction concerning money. The topic only came up by way of a bedside warning, but I don’t say this. The lawyers are taking care of everything, I add.
‘That’s good,’ she says. ‘Better let sleeping dogs lie. Or some such cliché.’
Aware of her own banalities, and she is inclined to utter them, Karen cannot be completely described as not there. Now, she is here, and she wants money, and she wants attention, and really, it is the latter that I cannot spare. Or put more precisely, I do not know how to handle her. And I don’t want to, that is the other truth. So long, I observe, rolling off to buy a couple of little lettuces at the farmers market.
‘I bet you have the same kind of helpers I do,’ Karen yells in my direction. I am maybe a few feet ahead of her, no more. I stop by the tree where Tom’s ashes were scattered, along with those of his mother. There is a small sign still up, printed on a computer by my neighbor Matt. I point this out, but she doesn’t hear, and this seems just as well. The truth is I don’t want her back here. She wasn’t invited to Tom’s little ashes scattering ceremony because…well, she is just too odd and unpredictable and has an unknown level of management requirements. Of the sort I am encountering now. Well, so long, I say again.
‘I can’t drive a car,’ she says, ‘can you?’ Hard to say, I tell her. So long. She yells even louder, ‘we must have been born about the same year.’
I don’t know what it is. Maybe my mother told me it was rude to turn your back on people when they are speaking to you…and this rule is too hard to shake off. I pause again. Yeah, we’re probably both born back there somewhere. She tells me that her health isn’t good. I nod. Goodbye, I say one final time.
‘Are you going off by yourself?’ Yep, I yell. This last question seems sincere. She appears genuinely surprised at this, my weekly, routine roll through the outdoor market. In past exchanges she has volunteered that her brother pays for her attendants. How and why I know such a thing about her defies explanation. We have never had what might be termed a conversation. Her utterances emerge boundaryless. And at this moment boundaries seem very much to the point. She crosses so many, Karen does, albeit inadvertently. My personal safety boundary being the most important. Is she really a threat? Well, the very fact that I have spent this much time with her, not bolting straightaway, this suggests a relaxation on that point. She seems physically harmless…but months ago I did not like being around her on my exercise bicycle outside. Trapped, requiring a delicate physical maneuver to get off the thing, no, the boundaries were too vague. Or do I have this right? After all, a firm voice seems to deter her. No sense in prolonging, or exaggerating, my own sense of helplessness.
For I have decided to give Karen a few hundred bucks. Even without Tom’s instructions. It couldn’t hurt…unless visits like today’s keep occurring. No, there’s no question about giving her money – I will do that. The problem is how. Or is the problem correctly stated? So what if she keeps asking me for money? The real problem is, quite simply, my open door. Things are just a little too accessible with nothing separating me from Karen but a screen. Working at my desk, out of sight of people coming up the ramp to my door, that boundary is weak at the best of times. It seems that to give in one way, I must retreat in another. A reminder that there are lots of desperate people out there, and they need money, but they need more than money. And what’s happening is enough to make the best of us retreat…which only serves to isolate the already isolated, sweep serious problems under the social carpet, and give people like me a false sense of ease. It’s not good to turn one’s back on people, and it can be dangerous to expose one’s front. A genuine dilemma, a matter poised on a knife edge.