It was during one of those Rockford Files car chases on TV that Mrs. Leonard Y. Silver knocked on my door. I didn’t hear it at first because Mrs. Silver’s three knocks coincided perfectly with that three-chord banjo stinger that signaled Rockford’s temporarily evading his pursuer. Those car chases get my blood racing, my palms sweating, every time. Call me an easy mark for manipulative, harmonica-driven music tracks.
But then she knocked again, ever slightly more insistently. Reluctantly, I clicked “mute” and answered the door. She was a little woman, Mrs. Silver, short and thin and frail and balding. Her skin was as thin as she was. Even though she was wearing an old beige robe, much too large and heavy for her, it seemed like I could see through it to her blood, lying there in her veins, her bones held together mostly by habit.
I’d never really noticed Mrs. Silver before. Occasionally, I’d hear muffled sounds through the wall, so I knew people lived in 2C, and the cooked cabbage smell that sometimes came through the wall made me think they were elderly. Also, I knew from the name on the mailbox that the muffled sounds probably came from Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Y. Silver. Based on the type on the card that was wedged into their mailbox’s name slot—it looked closest to “Academy Engraved” in my Mac’s font library—I had this picture of Mr. Leonard Y. Silver as a Nineteenth century English banker or something. A couple times, I’d heard people out in the hall, then a jostle of bags, then a door opening, then a jostle of bags, and then the door closing. I never really thought about whether that was one of their children or grandchildren delivering groceries or a home-care worker or maybe even Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Y. Silver themselves. It just never occurred to me to think about it.
It was that kind of apartment complex.
When I was in elementary school, we knew everyone in our six-unit apartment building: the Blasbergs and Rose Schaper downstairs, Ann and Al Unterman across the hall, and the Blackschlegers and the Taufmans upstairs. And when I graduated from college, just married, we often visited friends in apartment developments where there was a party every night in somebody else’s apartment, where everybody knew your name.
This wasn’t like that, the apartment complex where I lived for a few years between marriages. It was a complex of about fifteen buildings, each with ten apartments. I knew Harriet across the parking lot because she worked up the street at Miller’s where I often ate breakfast. And I knew Cindy in the next building because my future brother-in-law Paul was dating her. But otherwise, not so much. We pretty much kept to ourselves. Or, if people did socialize with each other, they didn’t tell me about it.
So there she was, this little old lady, standing at my door with a vacant look in her eye. Her husband had fallen, she said with a German accent. He was too heavy for her to lift, she said. Could I come and help? She didn’t introduce herself, either by name or by apartment; I only inferred that she was Mrs. Leonard Y. Silver because the door to 2C was standing open.
I don’t watch what they used to call daytime television, but I’ve watched enough to know that its commercial world is full of people with high blood pressure, acid reflux, diabetes, and depression; people who need special bathtubs, motorized scooters, and stairlifts; people who have fallen and can’t get up. Sometimes I feel so badly for them and their predicaments that I have to mute the sound and leave the room. So when this woman — Mrs. Leonard Y. Silver —came to my door and said in her German accent that her husband had fallen and couldn’t get up, it took me a minute to shift mental gears and realize that this wasn’t a commercial, a break between Rockford Files acts, that this little old lady with the vacant stare was really standing at my apartment door, telling me that her husband had fallen and couldn’t get up.
“Is he hurt?” I asked, my rational, analytical brain kicking in. There’s a line from Zorba the Greek, I can’t remember if it was the movie or the book, “You think too much. That is your trouble. Clever people and grocers, they weigh everything.” Maybe I should’ve been a grocer.
“No, he’s just sitting there,” she said.
“I’ll be right over,” I said, looking over my shoulder at the TV. That’s so like Rockford, I thought, catching a shot of him getting out of his gold Firebird. Sometimes, I just want to yell at him through the TV screen, Don’t go into your trailer! The same guys that roughed you up outside the restaurant are waiting for you in there, and this time, they’re not only going to beat the crap out of you, but they’re going to break a bunch of your furniture, as well!
“Let me just get my shoes,” I said. The building’s carpeted stairways and landings were stained and scuffed; they looked like they hadn’t been seriously cleaned in years. I certainly wasn’t about to step into that hall in my bare feet.
The inside of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Y. Silver’s apartment looked like the landlady’s place on the old Our Miss Brooks television show, like the stage set for Arsenic and Old Lace, like my grandma’s and my great aunts’ and so many other apartments from my childhood: the overstuffed, lumpy sofa; the two straight-back chairs across from it; the curvy-legged dark wood coffee tables and end tables, the various other tables and table lamps and chairs around the living room, the doilies, the little framed pictures everywhere—mostly black and white or sepia—of old people and children and middle-aged people who looked much older than they probably were, maybe because that’s the way people looked back then or maybe because that’s the way photography technology from that time made them look. A full-sized dining room table, six matching upholstered chairs, and a china closet filled with plates and goblets and tarnished silver serving dishes spilled out of the dining area into the living room. The kitchen sink was overflowing with dirty dishes and blackened pots. The apartment smelled like old furniture, cooked cabbage, chicken fat, and stale air.
“Where’s your husband?” I asked.
“He’s in the bathroom,” Mrs. Silver said matter-of-factly, as if I had initiated the visit. “Would you like to see him?”
Mr. Leonard Y. Silver was, indeed, in the bathroom, sitting in his bathrobe on the floor, leaning against the tub, his long, thin, veined legs sticking out from under his robe and angling around the toilet. He glanced up at me as I came in, nodded the briefest of acknowledgments, and then looked down again. I asked him if he was ok. He was fine, he whispered, he just felt a little wobbly and couldn’t stand up. Mrs. Silver sat down on a little chair just inside the bathroom door. When I asked if he’d like me to help him up, he nodded slightly, once again. I thought about standing over Mr. Silver and pulling him up by the arms, but even though he looked strong enough, I was afraid that his arms might just pull out of their sockets if I put too much strain on them.
I said that I’d try to scoot him forward a little, scooch down behind him, and then ease him up, letting him use the bathtub and my shoulder for support. He didn’t respond, but he didn’t object, either.
“Leonard,” Mrs. Silver said. I assumed that she was going to reassure him, tell him that everything would be ok. “Leonard,” Mrs. Silver said, “the bulb in the lamp on my side of the bed is burned out.”
I gently leaned him forward, managed to squeeze into the space behind him.
“You should call the building manager and get it replaced,” she said to Mr. Silver, as I put my arms under his arms.
As he leaned back against me, I felt his faint inhaling and exhaling.
And then I didn’t feel it anymore.
All his weight was on my chest and arms. All his weight. His mouth was open. I put my hand in front of it. Nothing. I put my ear against his neck. Nothing.
My brain told me that this wasn’t a time for CPR or for an emergency 911 call. My heart, as usual, told me to listen to my brain. Somehow, I knew that this was a time to just sit there on the floor in an old couple’s bathroom, cradling the now dead Mr. Leonard Y. Silver in my lap. He smelled like Old Spice and baby powder.
My mother and her cousins and my grandmother and great aunts on both sides of my family were alarmists, more or less. A child’s cough was always the first sign of some terrible disease that led to death. A husband ten minutes late getting home from work had inevitably been in a fatal car crash. Any grade less than an “A” on a fourth-grade homework assignment meant that years later, colleges would reject you and you’d end up an alcoholic, digging ditches for the entirety of your adult life.
My response to that was to teach myself not to get overemotional about things. Maybe I taught myself too well. Or maybe it has nothing to do with my teaching ability or inability. Maybe it’s just brain chemistry. Maybe I’ve lived all my life with one toe ever so slightly on the autism spectrum.
I’d never watched someone die. I’d certainly never held a person that was dying. I should have been upset; I should at least have shed a tear.
“Sometimes it takes the janitor a while to get here, so you should do it soon,” Mrs. Leonard Y. Silver said to her husband, still talking about changing the burned-out lightbulb.
And I’d never had to break the news to anyone that a loved one had died. I approached the situation the same way I’d taught myself to approach unruly students back when I was a ninth grade English teacher, the way I’d taught myself years earlier to deal with my children when they were toddlers throwing tantrums: dispassionately.
“Has Mr. Silver had any heart problems?” I asked, trying not to sound alarmed.
“Oh yes,” she said, “he’s had several heart attacks, but he takes his pills every day.”
“Do any of your children live nearby?” I asked.
“No,” she said, and let it go at that.
“Oh,” I said.
“Margaret’s daughter Lisa lives over in Pickwick,” she said several seconds later. “She’s such a dear, helps us with our marketing.” So far, she hadn’t seemed to have noticed that her husband was slumped over in my arms.
“Why don’t you call her,” I said, having no idea who Margaret was, “and ask her if she could come over right now. Tell her your husband’s not feeling well and that your neighbor said she should come.”
As soon as Mrs. Silver stepped out of the bathroom to call her friend’s daughter, I contorted my left arm up and over Mr. Leonard Y. Silver’s head, reached into my shirt pocket for my cellphone, and dialed 911. I told the operator that an old man was dead, probably of a heart attack, that his wife didn’t seem to realize that, and that they should send whoever they send to deal with such things. Who was I? I’m nobody, I said, just a neighbor. She told me that I had to give her my name and address, so I did.
“Mrs. Silver,” I said, hearing her puttering around the kitchen, “can you come in here, please?”
“Oh, look at him,” she said, sitting back down on the little bathroom chair, smiling at him there in my arms. “Sometimes he just nods off for a few minutes. Can I fix you a cup of tea?”
“You never know when something serious might happen,” I said to Mrs. Leonard Y. Silver, knowing very well that something serious had happened. “So if there’s anything you might want to say to Mr. Silver, if this were, for example, your last chance to tell him anything or even say goodbye to him, now might be a good time to do that.”
She started talking to him, hesitantly, reluctantly at first, but then she moved into what I assume was her normal cadence. She started talking some more about the burned-out lightbulb and then about the way the morning light came into their apartment on Johanistrasse or something like that, and then I couldn’t much tell what she was talking about, sometimes because she seemed to jump between past and present in the same sentence and sometimes because she moved back and forth between English and German and something else that probably was Yiddish.
I know people who want to experience every aspect of life, from joy to danger to ecstasy to grief. I’ve never felt that need. I’m perfectly happy most of the time to simply hear about the excitement of life from others who have experienced it firsthand.
On the other hand, I love to feel it second hand, a step or two removed. I prefer to let myself feel emotions about virtual rather than actual people and experiences. I feel Adrian Monk’s anxiety when he’s examining a crime scene and there are pictures on the wall that are askew. I feel Jessica Fletcher’s frustration at not being taken seriously by the local police when she so clearly knows more than they do about where the clues lead. I feel Mrs. Maisel’s pain when her former husband Joel tells her that he’s “seeing” someone. I was a puddle when Jo came downstairs and knew immediately from Marmee’s expression that Beth had died. I tear up with joy and righteous indignation at the end of Working Girl when Sigourney Weaver’s character gets her comeuppance and Tess gets her own office. And the multiple levels of internal conflict that Othello and Lear are going through? It just breaks my heart! But if they were real people that I knew, would I feel those same emotions that strongly? Probably not.
I don’t know how long Mrs. Silver talked; at some point, I tuned it out, partly because I wanted to give them their privacy, partly because I was thinking about what I should be doing, what I should have done, what I might have done to help these people, to prevent Mr. Silver’s death.
And partly, I was wondering whether or not Rockford had heeded his father’s advice, although deep down, I knew he hadn’t. I knew from having seen that episode several times before that he’d get beaten up a couple more times but that before they actually killed him, his client, the murder victim’s attractive daughter, would call the police and they’d break in and capture the killers just in the nick of time.
I felt terrible about that, later that day and ever since, that I was thinking about an old TV rerun on the other side of the wall more than about this old man’s death or thinking about how best to console his widow.
Mrs. Silver was still talking to her husband when I looked up and saw two EMTs with their defibrillator and oxygen tank. After one glance, they put down the equipment and wheeled a stretcher in from the hallway. Two police officers arrived soon after. One took Mrs. Silver into the other room; the second stayed in the bathroom and asked me a few questions. The EMTs lifted Mr. Leonard Y. Silver, carried him out of the bathroom, and put him on the stretcher. I stood up slowly, trying to uncramp my joints and muscles from having sat there so long with the late Mr. Leonard Y. Silver leaning against me. The police officer had taken Mrs. Silver into the living room and sat her on the sofa, her back to the EMTs, trying to distract her while they wheeled her husband’s body out of the apartment. She was telling him about the burned-out bulb in the bedside lamp.
At some point, Mrs. Silver’s friend’s daughter came in.
I should have rushed right over. I should have called 911 immediately. I should have tried CPR. I pictured Mr. Silver falling, Mrs. Silver trying to help him, coming to my door. I pictured Mr. Silver dying in my arms. It was like watching a movie in my mind. I should have been more upset about everything that I had just witnessed and everything that was to follow for Mrs. Silver.
I stood up and walked back to my apartment just in time to see Jim’s father Rocky giving him a good talking-to about being too trusting.
No one seemed to notice when I left.