A soft knock on the door this evening, I thought it must be the courtly UPS man with a package. I opened the door and there stood my neighbor, the old gent from across the entryway, covered with dried blood.
"Would you please call 911 for me?" he asked in a faint, trembling voice. "I have no phone."
I've said hello to him and seen him looking frail and walking stiffly. He was away for a time -- in the hospital, I suspected -- and an impatient younger man, probably a son, had helped him move belongings out and back in. I've wondered if he had a heart condition.
I had to get him off his feet before he fell again. "Are you dizzy?" I asked.
I grabbed his arm and walked him carefully back into his apartment and sat him down in an armchair. Then I called 911.
"How old is he?" the operator wanted to know.
"Seventy-six," he said.
"Is he conscious and alert?"
"Yeah, but he's having some trouble putting thoughts together." He didn't seem demented, just stunned and in shock.
The fall had happened last night, he said. He'd been knocked out at first, he didn't know for how long. Then he'd been alone in his apartment like that for the better part of twenty-four hours! Not only had he lost his phone, he said he didn't have any heat, didn't know how to report it to management -- how could that be if he wasn't demented? -- and was freezing. How terrible to be old and end up alone like that. Where on earth was his son?
I looked at the top of his blood-caked head. Right on the occiput was a deep, wide, curved gash, black with clotted blood, as if sealed with tar. I was amazed that after that bad a fall and blood loss he'd been able to walk over and knock on my door.
"You're a tough man," I told him.
"Thank you," he said.
"You shouldn't be living alone like this. Don't you have a son?"
"I had a son." He could have been talking about bereavement, but I had an impression of estrangement.
I mentioned tactfully that I'd observed that he had health difficulties.
"I'm an alcoholic," he said.
Ohhhh. "I'm so sorry," was my first genuine reaction, maybe because those words are not spoken by the disease. I have a horror of alcoholism, which has eaten a few friends of mine and been beaten by a few others, but I saw him as separate from it -- its prisoner, its slave, its prey. Little pieces were pattering into place -- the absent family, the centerpiece.
"I've been in rehab twice, but it just . . . didn't . . . work. My ex-wife told me I could come and live in her community in Arizona. She knows about this. (Oh yes, if anybody does.) I told the management here that I'd be leaving at the end of January. I just wanted to stay well so I could get out there. And then I . . . fell . . . apart." Bet he doesn't feel he deserves it, by now. The parasite secretes self-loathing and battens on it.
"There is help, but you have to want it," I said, reciting the lessons of my AA friends. "But you know that."
The EMTs came. They wouldn't say so until I told them about his confession, but they had been there twice before, once for a fall, once for jaguars. Yes, the man had seen jaguars in his apartment. (Wow! Jaguars! For a split second I was like, "I'll have what he's having.") When the EMT reminded him of that, he said, "I was hallucinating."
By that time my karate friend Nathan and his wife were also there. I'd been on the phone with Nathan when this apparition out of Night of the Living Dead appeared at my door. He'd heard me gasp, "Are you bleeding?" and then "I have to help my neighbor," and I'd hung up, so they raced protectively over. (I am so effing competent and independent that I find this protectiveness amusing and touching, at once appropriate and incongruous. It makes me see myself through very different eyes.) Krisztina stayed with Jacques while Nathan and I talked to the EMTs and they tested, probed, and strapped down my shivering, by now sniveling neighbor. One of them, a tall guy with black-dyed Wayne Newton hair, silently held up quite a number of large, empty vodka bottles. I noticed a subtle scolding, shaming tone in the loud way they talked to the old man, and a corresponding shamed-child tone in his answers.
"We've got to get him into detox," Wayne Newton said a few minutes later. "This is the third time we've been here. That's a warning. Next time we're going to find him . . ." Dead, unsaid.
They found his address book, remarkably neat and well-organized, and asked us to find a family member who could commit him involuntarily if necessary. I had a hunch it might not be necessary. There were two or more children, it appeared, but it was the ex-wife Nathan reached; she works in a psychiatric hospital. She expressed great concern, bless her, and said she would probably fly here this weekend.
I want to see my neighbor once more, sober and convalescent and on his way to Arizona, prepared to cry for help whenever the demon tempts or taunts him. I want to say to him, "I regard alcoholism as my personal enemy. I don't want it to get you. Don't you let it get you."
UPDATE: 24 hours later, another knock on my door.
"Who is it?"
" ___________ [Your neighbor]."
I flung the door open and there he was, smiling, all cleaned up, with nine neat stitches in the top of his head like a baseball. Wearing the same pajama top, I think, but all washed. Steady on his feet.
I was astonished. He hadn't seemed all that intoxicated to me last night, but he'd had a hell of a blow on the head and lost a lot of blood. I'd have expected him to be in the hospital, recuperating, for a couple of days, anyway.
He said they'd decided he was OK, and that was what he wanted. He collected his address book from me and said he was going to start making phone calls. I told him to come knock if he needed anything.
A tough man. And stubborn.
There's still a lot of vodka in there.
To be continued?