In a way, Karen holds the key. She, the aging druggie, toothless, frail and shambling, Tom’s friend, perhaps his only one…. Which is hardly true, for was I not his friend? Perhaps complicated by being his tenant. And a few other things. Like a more normal existence. And even this may not be a fair assessment. Certainly, Karen had access to his apartment. Were I able-bodied the same might be said for me. Or perhaps not. Surely he must have known. The general condition of his place could not have escaped him. My conclusion being that Karen was wrecked enough to gain entrance to Tom’s apartment, the scene of decades of wreckage.
As for the key, somehow it lies in the treatment of her. Don’t let her in the apartment, Tom said hours before his death, she wants money. The latter being perfectly true. Karen wants it, has specified the amount in a series of notes left on Tom’s door. And one of these days, I may just send someone over in person. They will arrive dressed in workman’s garb and hand Karen a letter return addressed to something along the lines of Acme Demolition, San Jose. Which will contain a few hundred bucks. Why not? She can call Acme Demolition’s 800 number all she wants – the Highway Patrol will answer. It’s a way to do the right thing. She was, after all, Tom’s friend. There is no escaping this fact. Or any of the other facts.
Which can be glimpsed on a sunny day, simply by tilting back one’s wheelchair and gazing at Tom’s picture windows. That golden tint isn’t something anti-reflective or insulating. It is nicotine, accumulated over an estimated 20 years, along with standard urban air pollution, dust and the remarkable effects of no cleaning.
Of course, I had to see it. Part of life’s bargain. Even with the door open, casement windows cranked outward for maximum breeze, the stench is everywhere. Nicotine and dust. A good half inch of the latter everywhere. A general sense of the mineral about the place, life slowly being replaced by dust, in gradual fossilization. In the living room, all signs of the living have disappeared. Tom had piled stacks of file folders on the sofa. As though preparing for his death? No, according to my brother, the telltale patterns of dust suggest all these files and records had been there for years. This is where he put stuff. A sofa not for sitting in a sitting room not for sitting. And the guns. We discover another one there, loaded, on the couch.
How many people are there in America, living like this, armed and alone?
A gold watch hanging in a dusty bell jar. A marvelously curvilinear Art Deco radio. The stench of cigarettes and dust has another component, human sweat. But only faint. Karen visited here. God only knows what went on. Which is good. Because I don’t want to know. And it is entirely accurate to say that I cannot imagine. One of my neighbors recognized Karen, says he knows where she lives. Knows she has a caregiver or caretaker. Which is good. Someone to get you dressed, tell you where the door is, make sure you eat. Tom needed a caregiver himself, a sad and essential truth.
It was easy to joke about the apartment under Tom’s, the one occupied by his mother. The stuff of ‘Psycho’ speculations. Was Hazel, deceased in the mid-1990s, still in there? The answer being yes, in the form of her ashes, in an urn. But more present in the actual apartment, which for some strange reason I have not yet seen. For the place is downstairs, only up a couple of steps. No, it’s what one finds there. Jane has described it in some detail, how the place has the freshness of Pompeii. Living moments preserved in volcanic ash. Immaculately clean. Her manicure set open in the bathroom, tooth brush and toothpaste ready for use. Towels folded and clean. Is the table set? Although I don’t know this detail, it would fit with all the others. Possibly. Perhaps with candles. The lost mother, the lost love, it is all very poignant.
As is the picture of Tom’s father, a man who died in 1960. He was an aircraft mechanic, just like Tom. He stands beside a Piper Cub, an old tilted-back propeller airplane with two seats. Tom’s father looks handsome, comfortably proud. A very warm looking man. And inserted into the picture frame is a handwritten note. It is from Tom, his script unmistakable. Written in a bold marker pen. ‘I miss you, Dad,’ it says. The other lost love.
And how did this happen? Tom was married three times. Divorced three times. Bereft twice, that I know of. And the whole thing adds up to this, loose ends, dead ends. And it is up to me, I feel, to make a better ending. Karen being a tiny fiber in the cloth, but there nonetheless. The key to accepting that this crude, rough stuff is part of the weave.