Reporting for Duty

So, there I was one temperate California morning, possibly in our so-called winter. And as is my wont, rolling about my apartment at 6:30 AM naked. Not that anyone would ever know, I tell myself. So who cares, I also tell myself. Nothing particularly odd about being naked at that hour of the morning. The only oddity having to do with my open-door policy. The only way to get a good flow of ventilation in this apartment is to open both doors, back and front. And so it came to pass, as described in an earlier blog, that there was a voice at the open door.

Jim, was that his name? Or John? I already feel bad about this, my forgetting the young man’s name. I heard him from the kitchen, half alarmed, half embarrassed and entirely uncertain what to do. When you are mostly paralyzed and in a wheelchair, often the first thing that takes over is vulnerability. If something goes wrong, you are up the proverbial creek, paddleless…so don’t be clueless, that is the point. What to do? Well, clearly stop making tea, that was the first step. Grab the nearest kitchen towel – that was the second – and roll toward the front door, crotch covered.

Yes, it was John. I had always imagined that he was half Asian, but no, actually part Native American, I later learned. He had a distinct look about him. And now he had a distinct air about him…distraught. And for want of better words, wild. As though the time did not matter. As though he just needed to come to my door at this hour…which, it turns out, was the 11th. He had something in his hand and proffered it. His keys. He wanted to give me his keys. Would I please take them?

Feeling embarrassed in my nakedness, not to mention overwhelmed, I had not quite approached the door. Now I rolled forward, the screen separating the two of us. What do I recall? A general sense of John wavering, leaning this way and that. And swooping, gesturing with the deep lamentation of arms curving and reaching and expecting nothing but grief. And would I take his keys?

In that moment I was not reaching for the symbol, but it was reaching for me. House keys. Car keys. Keys to the future. Keys to the kingdom. It was key, and it was the keys. And it was 6:30 AM. Thing about John, he had always had such an artless and open way about him, that it was difficult to find my comfort zone in his presence. It was in the walkway in front of my apartment, or maybe in the carport area, that he told me that his boyfriend Charlie was his true life partner. Something in me is formal, excessively so perhaps, but this was just too much information. For one thing, something about my aloof neighbor Charlie made me wonder if he was true with anyone.

John’s earnestness, his open desire to be loved and the degree of his neediness and projected attachment…well, I could personally understand all of it. Which was probably why I didn’t want to know too much about it. Not then, at the unguarded hour of 6:30. But there he was, leaning oddly, perhaps half stumbling, showing me his keys through the screen door. Would I take them? Would I take this much longer, that was my thought. Life should not be this messy.

I must have said something later to Charlie, casually passing him on the way to the carport. Lightly mentioning that John had come by one morning acting a bit odd. He was probably drunk, Charlie said. I admit to a bit of naïveté in this area. Early-morning drunkenness being outside of my regular experience. But this information did not shed much light.

Anyway, that morning, I told John that I did not want his keys. Told him again. And again. Then finally shut the door. He stumbled down my wheelchair ramp. And, in a sense, that was the last I saw of him. In reality, I saw him several times after that, but he never acknowledged our morning encounter, never offered any explanation. Until only a few months ago Charlie mentioned, more or less in passing, that John had died. Of what, I asked. Drink. Cirrhosis.

Which could be the end of the story. Or the start of the next, which has to do with where and how we draw lines. No one can help everyone. And yet there are these occasions, seemingly fated, times when we know that the big Central Casting In the Sky has given us a role. And how would I have played that role?

I can’t imagine this going something like this. I tell John to come inside, sit down on the sofa while I slip on something like clothing. Then I ask some open-ended question. How is it going? No, it’s stupid. What’s happening? Pretty silly also. John, you must be in a crisis, I’m concerned…let’s get you sober, then talk. And talk about what? And what a sober version of John bother to the old wheelchair guy in apartment one? And what if he did? No, my version of this is way too ambitious. Actually the British approach is much more reliable. Come inside and have a cup of tea. And what ensues, ensues. No steering necessary, no comments required. It takes a while to make tea. The water has to boil, then steep, then get poured…and drunk. It has a normalizing quality, all these activities. Just having someone come in your home, maybe that says all that needs to be said. Offering tea sort of de-escalates the situation. Something.

That might have changed nothing. But would have been good experience for me, a trial run in taking chances. For even if I don’t intend it, there is some sort of lesson or example my situation. The guy in the wheelchair who lives with limitations. And there’s the other thing, the one I can’t quite absorb. That John wanted to see me. In his moment of crisis. And I did not sign up for this role, being the go-to guy for life’s darker hours. But it’s happened before, the sort of thing. When you’re drafted, you have to report for duty.

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