Like a Good Neighbor

by Jody Sperling

Just as I was finally drifting to sleep, I heard a knock on my door. I looked at my alarm clock and groaned. It would sound in four hours. I considered not getting up, but after everything that had happened earlier, it seemed like a bad idea to ignore it. I threw on a robe and answered the door. Gerald, my neighbor, stood in front of me anchored to the floor, his feet, in the pair of pink bunny slippers I had lent him. He was holding his temple and wobbling like a tide. All I could think to say was, "Gerald, you're bleeding again."

"Bleeding?" he questioned plaintively.

"What happened to your bandages?" I asked him, knowing when I left his apartment earlier I had dressed his cut.

His response didn't shock me. I wish it would have.

"I thought maybe you could tell me."

"Gerald?" I opened the door a few inches and stepped closer. I reached up toward his brow and pushed back a tuft of hair that was affixed to his temple with dried blood to see how the cut looked. "It's two in the morning," I said. I could tell by the way he stepped back that I had hurt his feelings.

"I'm sorry." His gaze fell. He stared at the slippers on his feet like he was confused.

When I found him lying on the ground outside our apartment building he was motionless. My first thought was that he was dead, but he called out to me. He told me he fell from the stairwell. When I asked him how, he didn't seem to know, but he did complain about his head and how cold he was, especially his feet. The fact that I'm a nurse should have informed my behavior from that first moment, but instead I was in too much of a hurry to get to bed. He was alive and talking. How bad could it be? Moreover, I had a big interview for a position in management the next morning, it was already late, and I wanted to be fresh.

"I didn't think to check the time." He scratched at his belly, a hairy barrel of a beer gut exposed beneath the plain white, too small t-shirt he wore. "These aren't my slippers you know."

"Of course they aren't," I assured him. "They're mine. I found you out back lying on the ground. Don't you remember?"

"No. I don't remember," he said.

"You were lying there, and I was about to call an ambulance, but you reached your hand out and called my name." In retrospect, it would have been faster to call 911, but I thought at the time that my best chance to get to bed quickly was to deal with the situation myself. I knew if I called an ambulance for a concussion that it would be at least an hour's wait and more time to give comments. If I took him to the hospital, I'd be in a waiting room until dawn.

"I did?"

"You did. And I asked you if you were okay. You said you were fine, only your feet were cold." As a nurse, especially one hoping to make management, I should have known better—I did know better.

He kept asking questions trying to figure out what had happened. I wasn't paying attention. With my department meeting in the morning looming, I had neglected to give good care to my own neighbor. "You told me you fell over the railing and bumped your 'noggin.' You were adamant that I call it your noggin and you kept telling me that your feet were cold." I reported these details to Gerald as I might to a paramedic, but recoiled at myself for ignoring the obvious signs that had pointed to head trauma.

Gerald kept massaging his neck. "I have diabetes," he mumbled.

"Oh." I paused. "You really don't remember anything?" I asked, hoping maybe I was wrong, that he didn't have a concussion. "Diabetes—"

"Um." Gerald interrupted me. "I'm kinda, well, I'm curious," he let go of his shirt. "It's just the blood and everything. You didn't call an ambulance?" His words stung like a purposeful jab.

"You were in the middle of explaining how you fell," I justified, "and then you just shrugged and started walking toward our building. I followed in behind you and kept trying to get you to talk. When you got to your apartment, I waited for you in the doorway because you hadn't invite me in." Here was a man, my neighbor, who had been in a pile, bleeding, on the ground, confused when I found him, a diabetic, and I was so worried about getting to bed, that I played it down to get things resolved. This wouldn't be a story for my interview.

"Okay?" Gerald shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "You still didn't call an ambulance?"

I almost screamed at his implicit accusation. For being such a dud of a man, he was clever at hurling guilt like a device of torture. "Did you want me to Gerald? I'm sorry. I was trying to be a good neighbor." I lied (as much to myself as Gerald). "And you invited me in." I redirected the focus to the fact that I had gone above and beyond the neighborly requirement. "You turned around and I was standing right here—" I pointed at the landing in front of his doorjamb, "—and you just said, 'Well, are you coming in or not?' and I didn't know what to do, so I came in. I asked you where your First Aid was, and I helped you bandage the cut on your head." While I had been dressing his cut I told myself there wasn't enough blood to be worried about a real head injury, knowing that blood had little if anything to do with the such an evaluation. "After you were cleaned up, you asked me if I needed anything to drink, and I said no and you went to the fridge and took out a jar of pickles and drank from it." I had rationalized that odd behavior by recalling a similar tendency my grandmother once had.

Gerald winced. "That would explain the mess in my refrigerator. I must have spilled the jar when I put it back."

"I asked if you were worried about a concussion," I continued, purposefully ignoring his housekeeping detail in order to avoid a protracted conversation that would delay my return to bed. "But you said if you could just warm up your feet you would feel fine. I suggested that you could put on a pair of socks, but you weren't satisfied. I suggested two pairs and I thought you might cry. I asked you what you wanted and you told me slippers would suffice. I asked you where you kept your slippers and you said you didn't have any."

All for that silly meeting, I had ignored my training. I had stood in front of a man who had clearly sustained a concussion and done nothing. What I had done was to rush him off to bed, the very thing I knew not to do for anyone who might even possibly have head trauma.

"I went to fetch a pair of my own slippers." I told Gerald. "I came back with the only pair that I figured might be big enough for your feet: my pink bunny slippers. I sat you down and put them on your feet. You thanked me and asked me to tuck you in." I emphasized the last point feeling a hint of self-satisfaction amidst a sea of guilt. "Which I did."

I guess that makes sense," Gerald concluded. He scratched his belly again. "I guess I can give you these back." He pointed at the slippers. "My feet aren't cold anymore."

"I'm not in any rush to get them back," I said, kicking myself for hoping again that he would let me go to bed.

"Say." He whispered. "That had to be pretty awful for you huh?"

"I'm just glad I could help." I didn't ask if he was okay.

"I've got a bit of a headache," he told me, as if to highlight my lack of compassion. "But it could have been worse huh?"

"I imagine." I kept the smile pasted on my face wondering if I was truly a bad person for what I had done.

"I better let you get to bed; it's terribly rude of me to wake you like this. Thanks for all you did." He smiled like he wanted to say something, but I stepped back into my apartment, said good night and shut the door knowing I wouldn't sleep anymore that night.

BIO: Jody J. Sperling lives in Omaha, Nebraska with his lovely wife, and attends the University of Nebraska, Omaha in pursuit of a Bachelor's in Fine Arts. His stories and poetry have appeared in The Linnet's Wings, Eunoia Review, and The Metropolitan.