The Perils of Being Neighborly

Today, as I was attempting to write, I heard from outside my window the cries of an elderly neighbor who had fallen hard on the pavement. I ran outside, got down on the ground next to her, and realized that she had severely deteriorated in between the moments I saw her. Had she weighed more than one hundred pounds, I’d be surprised. She wore very dirty clothes, her nails and hair were wild, and her smell was of old booze, new booze, old pain, and new hurt. I helped her to her feet, expecting the young neighbor, who had come outside before me and took her by her opposite side, to guide her back to her apartment.

That was my first mistake, as once I reached my door, I heard her cry out and turned around to watch her stumble backward, down the driveway, and flat on her back into the street. Her head hit the concrete with the sound of a hollowed coconut. She was advanced enough in age where I had to fear the worst—that wasn’t lost on me—and yet, old sadnesses rose up in my heart. The driveway felt like a long hallway in a home long abandoned, where a child walked down in the dark, not knowing what he’d find at the other end, where those cries began.

In a haze of my own regret, I picked her up and held her as the kid ran for a lawn chair. He returned, and I then sat her down and ran for the first aid kit in my closet. I could feel it, like a rock in my shoe, hurting more with each step. Reconnection to the pain I learned, in time, to ignore. I then noticed my young neighbor on his phone, and when I gathered he wasn’t speaking with emergency services, I realized I was the responsible one.

Same as years ago.

I washed off her blood and applied antiseptic to her cuts and scratches, then suppressed the shaking of my hands enough to put small bandages on them. Then I asked her to follow my finger with her eyes to see how badly she could be concussed. I thought of the trials and tribulations she experienced for her to drink and chain smoke herself to death in a dirty hovel with no one but strangers to notice her. I asked her if anyone else was home with her, but my neighbor shook his head. Once she could stand, I realized it was up to me to guide her back to her apartment, and as I carried her to her door, I realized I was afraid of what I’d find when we opened her door. Especially, if what I saw would extend my responsibility beyond the moment.

It looked and smelled like my uncle’s room, where I was left far more than I should have been. Where my attempts to get him to sober up for my visit were always failed. The air tasted of my mother’s boyfriend’s breath, that came at me in toxic blasts of rage when I had to fight a drunken adult to defend what she made indefensible. The dirt on her reminded me of the bums from around the way we used to fuck with when we were young and angry at being left out of the good in the world just for having the wrong skin color.

I got her inside and got the fuck out of there before Mephisto’s little mind game resulted in me being trapped in my past. When the sun hit my face on my side-street in Los Angeles, I actually was relieved I didn’t walk out to the south side of Chicago, circa 1988. She thanked me for helping her, as did my young neighbor, who returned to his smartphone, and he sounded like one of my brothers, who found something better to do when we’d find my mother, laid on the floor.

As I compose this, I can’t get her smell out of my nose, or off my hands. Then I realize, and accept, it isn’t the smell I can’t get off me. It isn’t the smell at all.