Monday, September 04, 2006

12. Nachos and Next of Kin

After Gregory died, the police could not locate his next of kin from the clues inside his condominium. They talked to Gregory’s landlord, but this was no help. In desperation, they began showing Gregory’s picture around our complex, and a friend of mine recognized him. Darlene told them I was his girlfriend.

But no one was home at my condominium until Monday afternoon, when Helena walked home from the middle school, as she always did. She let herself in, fed our cats, started some nachos and settled in to watch TV.

Gregory, she knew, would be stopping by later so they could go to the airport and pick me up.

Helena had a love-hate relationship with Gregory. On the plus side, he wrestled with her, carried her around on his shoulders (at least, when she was 10 pounds lighter) and helped her with homework in ways neither of her parents could.

But he also competed for my time, got in her face and, when she was smaller, rough-housed too hard and made her cry. Helena expected adults to read her boundaries and got upset when they did not.

When their childish wrestling careened out of control, she would pout and Gregory would apologize in his way, explaining that playing on the edge always held the possibility of slipping over the edge.

But these occasional transgressions never stopped Helena from coming back for more. Anytime he came over, from the moment he stepped through the door to final lights out, she would be after him, baiting him, trying to engage him. She wanted it both ways.

Helena even gave him a nickname, spat out when she was little and he played rough one time too many. She called him “Puke.” The name stuck.

Gregory seemed genuinely to love Helena. Unlike the cross impatience he showed with some people, he put up with Helena the way a cat tolerates the maulings of its young. He almost never got mad, enduring her antics long after someone else would have become fed up.
Only after he died did I come to understand the deeper, softer currents that shaped his feelings toward her.

Just as Helena was about to pull her nachos from the microwave, she noticed a police car parked out front. Curious, she peeked through the curtains, then gingerly pushed open the mail slot to listen. She couldn’t hear what they were saying.
Somewhere inside, she was thinking, “Don’t come here.” But they did. She let them in, shutting the door behind them to keep the cats from escaping, and they explained to her, in as gentle a manner as possible, that Gregory had had a heart attack and died. Her first thought, she told me later, was that it had to be a joke.

“And then I remembered,” she said, “policemen don’t joke.”

She was standing next to the stairs when they broke the news, and she simply sank into the steps. Her heart, she said, “dropped like an elevator.”

All the years of preparing her to be competent and independent coalesced in that moment. Helena didn’t break down. She didn’t cry. Not then. She held like a rock long enough to tell them how to find Gregory’s mother – where she lived and that she was in the hospital for a hip replacement. Helena didn’t know which hospital, but it was a solid lead. It got them started.

The officers apologized to me later for having to tell Helena so bluntly: “We were desperate,” they said. “We had nowhere else to go.” They were surprised to learn she was only 12.

Before the night was over, Gregory’s mother would learn that her only living child, the only remaining member of her immediate family, was dead. And Helena would tell the policemen that I was expecting Gregory to pick me up at the airport in a few hours. But she didn’t know when, the airline or the flight number.

Now the policemen asked her if there was somewhere she could go – a neighbor’s, perhaps – since “Puke” wouldn’t be coming, after all. Considering for a moment, she thought of Darlene. The policemen offered to walk her to our friend’s condo. Before leaving, Helena grabbed her nachos.


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