For a couple of hours, we heard nothing. He was up there, sleeping it off. I wondered when I would see him.
Our upstairs bathroom has two doors. I had entered through door #1, while door #2 remained closed. I was putting my contact lenses into my eyes, when he lurched in through door #2, looking like he'd been deposited there by a tornado belching up its unwanted offerings. He was wearing a snappy new pair of pajama pants but otherwise looked unwashed and miserable. His eyes looked like fried eggs sprayed with shellac.
"Why, hullo," I said. He promptly screamed like a little girl who has seen a spider.
"I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry," he mumbled, and then he repeated one of his favorite maxims: "People scare me."
He used to say this a lot when he first moved in with us. You'd surprise him at a bend in the stairway and he'd shriek and flutter back against the peeling walls, whispering People scare me. We have two stairways in our house, front and back, and so he'd take to creeping down one when he knew the other was occupied, just to avoid unforeseen meetings. No matter how innocuous your behavior, if he ambled into the kitchen and saw you there frying up an egg he'd gasp and flail backward as if spying a predator with a baseball bat.
"What, you didn't expect to see me?"
"It's just that...people scare me."
He told me once why it was. He did it to stop himself from immediately beating the tar out of whomever innocent had startled him. His natural reflex was to launch himself into kill mode, and to arrest this impulse he had developed a highly-tuned startle reflex, so that the first impulse became "scream like a tiny girl in panties" while "destroy the enemy" moved into second place. While in Vietnam, he had been taken prisoner for several weeks. They had sliced both his Achilles tendons so that he couldn't run away, and then they punched and kicked him until he spat blood.
But on this morning in the bathroom, I didn't know that story yet. I turned to him and said, "So, I hear you were in the hospital?"
He shook his head vigorously. "No way, no way. Hospital? Pffah! I missed my flight, man. It's my friend. The friend I was staying with. She got me all upset. She pushes my buttons, man, she pushes my buttons!" And he jabbed at the air vigorously.
"So you weren't drunk and strapped down by EMTs and carted off to Bellevue?"
"Crazy talk," he said. "Lies!"
"What about your tooth?" I said.
He said: "I am dead inside. I am just dead inside. My toof hurts."
I prodded at my contact lens until it made purchase with my eyeball.
"What will you do about your tooth?" I asked.
"That bitch ruined it all!" he said, running his hands through his now-short hair. "She was out to get me, let me tell you. She set me up. She ruined me. She ruined my life. Lies. I mean, she called an ambulance on me. Who would do that? WHO would do that?"
"Maybe she was trying to help?"
"Help? She was trying to ruin my life. She was trying to see me destroyed. This is what happens when you trust people, Miss Jennifer. This is what happens when you are a nice person. Oagh, my toof!"
I couldn't look at him anymore, so I backed away and darted downstairs. I heard him shuffling and mumbling about upstairs. Then I heard him plodding back to the attic. My husband sent him an email. It told him that we knew the true story and, while we loved him, he must not drink one more drop of alcohol. If so, he would be out. Last chance. And he didn't come out of the attic—not at all—for two more days. I swear I didn't hear him come out to urinate, or anything. He didn't eat a scrap.
I asked a friend for some advice and she said: "He's up there detoxing. Your home has now become a halfway house, a rehab facility. With three kids under the age of 10 under the roof. I guarantee that you are not prepared to handle this. This man needs medical supervision. You should get him to a hospital."
I looked upwards, to the attic, and thought of the ominous and terrible task of extracting the Manny and delivering him to a nearby hospital, with no medical insurance. I thought of the only possible recourse if he should come barging down in a drunken apoplexy, which was calling the police. That would truly "ruin his life." I thought about the fact that it was only 6 degrees outside. Drunks die in the snow.
I thought about the fact that once, when Manny was a very young boy, he had seen an old man stumble off some apartment steps in the cold. The old man had fallen and his teeth had been knocked out—bang!—on the concrete, and he had died right there at Manny's feet. And Manny had wanted to tell someone, anyone, but his adoptive parents (distant relatives of some sort, as his biological parents had been murdered by Stalin) didn't love him and didn't care about anything he had to say or think.
He said to me, "What a world. What a world! I watched that old man die, and no one cared."
I looked up toward the attic and simply waited.
|Oh, what a world! What a world!|