Page 16 of Overload


Ruth invariably kept quiet at such times, though he wondered occasionally if her silence wasn't really an alliance with her parents against him. Fifteen years ago, when Ruth and Nim were married, Ruth made clear she didn't care one way or the other about Jewish observances; it was an obvious reaction to the Orthodox strictness of her home. But had she changed? Was Ruth, beneath the surface, a traditional Jewish mother, wanting for Leah and Benjy all the trappings her parents' faith demanded? He recalled what she had said a few minutes ago about himself and the children. "In fact they idolize you. Whatever you say, it's as if it came from God." Were the words an artful reminder of his own Jewish responsibility, a silken nudge toward religion? Nim had never made the mistake of taking Ruth's gentleness at its face value; beneath it, he realized, was as much real strength as any person could have.

But apart from all that, Nim knew there was no valid reason not to go to Ruth's parents, as she asked. It didn't happen often. And Ruth demanded very little of him, ever.

"Okay," he said, "Next week's pretty clear. When I get to the office I'll make sure about Friday and phone you."

Ruth hesitated, then said, "Don't bother doing that. Just tell me tonight."

" Why?

Again a second's hesitation. "I'm leaving right after you've gone. I'll be out all day."

"What's happening? Where are you going?"

"Oh, here and there." She laughed. "Do you tell me everywhere you go?"

So there it was again. The mystery. Nim felt a stab of jealousy against the unknown, then rationalized: Ruth had a point. As she had reminded him, there was plenty he didn't tell her.

"Have a good day," he said. "I'll see you this evening."

In the hallway, he put his arms around her and they kissed. Her lips were soft; her figure beneath the housecoat felt good. What a damn fool I am, be thought. Yes, definitely, sex tonight.

10

Despite his haste in leaving home, Nim drove downtown at a leisurely pace, avoiding the freeway and using quiet streets. He employed the time to think about the Sequoia Club, mentioned in this morning's Chronicle-West.

Though it was an organization which frequently opposed the programs of GSP&L, and sometimes thwarted them, Nim admired the Sequoia Club. His reasoning was simple. History showed that when giant industrial concerns like Golden State Power & Light were left to their own devices, they paid little or no heed to protecting the environment. Therefore a responsible restraining force was needed. The Sequoia Club filled that role.

The California-based club had achieved a national reputation for skill and dedication in fights to preserve what remained of the natural unspoiled beauty of America. Almost always its methods were ethical, its arguments judicious and sound. True, the club had critics, but few failed to accord it respect. One reason was the Sequoia Club's leadership, which, through its eighty years of existence, had been of the highest caliber, a tradition which the incumbent chairman-a former atomic scientist, Laura Bo Carmichael-was continuing. Mrs. Carmichael was able, internationally respected and, incidentally, a friend of Nim's.

He was thinking about her as he drove.

What he would do, he decided, was make a direct personal appeal to Laura Bo Carmichael concerning Tunipah and the other two power plants which Golden State Power proposed to build. Perhaps, if lie argued the urgent need convincingly, the Sequoia Club might not oppose the projects or at least would be moderate in opposition. He must arrange a meeting as soon as possible. Preferably today.

Nim had been driving automatically, paying little attention to street names. Now he noticed, at an arterial stop, that he was at the intersection of Lakewood and Balboa. It reminded him of something. What?

Suddenly he remembered. The day of the explosion and power failure two weeks ago, the chief dispatcher had produced a map shoving life-sustaining equipment in use in private homes. Colored circles on the map denoted kidney dialysis machines, oxygen generating units, iron lungs and similar apparatus. At Lakewood and Balboa a red circle had warned of a person dependent on an iron lung or some other kind of powered respirator. The equipment was in an apartment building. For some reason the memory had stayed with Nim; so had the user's name -Sloan. At the time, be recalled, be had looked at the small red circle and wondered what Sloan was like.

There was only one apartment house at the intersection-an eight-story, white stucco building, modest in design but, from its outward appearance, well maintained. Nim's car was alongside it now. A small forecourt contained several parking spaces, two unoccupied. Oil impulse, Nim turned in, wheeling the Fiat into one of the empty places. He got out and approached the apartment house entrance.

Above a series of mailboxes was a score of names, among them "K. Sloan."

Nim pressed a button beside the name. Moments later the front door opened. A wizened old man appeared, wearing baggy trousers and a windbreaker. He looked like an ancient squirrel as he peered at Nim through thick lenses. "You ring Sloan?"

"Yes, I did."

"I'm the janitor. Rings down my place, too,"

"Can I see Mr. Sloan?"

"Ain't no Mr. Sloan."

" Oh." Nim pointed to the mailbox. "Is it Mrs. Sloan, then? Or Miss?"

Unaccountably be had assumed Sloan to be a man.

"Miss Sloan. Karen. Who're you?"

"Goldman." Nim showed a GSP & L identification card. "Am I correct in believing Miss Sloan is an invalid?"

"You could be. Except she don't like being called that."

”How should I describe her, then?"

"Disabled. She's a quadriplegic. Know the difference between that and para?"

"I think so. A paraplegic is paralyzed from the waist down, a quadriplegic through the whole body."

"That's our Karen," the old man said. "Been that way since she was fifteen. You want to see her?"

“Do you know if it's convenient?"

'Soon find out." the janitor opened the front door wider. "Come in. This way."

A small lobby matched the building's exterior; it was simple and clean.

The old man led the way to an elevator, motioned Nim inside, then followed. As they ascended be volunteered, "Place ain't the Ritz. But we try to keep her shipshape."

"That shows," Nim said. The interior brass of the elevator gleamed and its machinery hummed smoothly.

They got out on the sixth floor. The janitor led the way and stopped before a door while he selected a key from a large bunch. He opened the door, knocked, then called out, "It's Jiminy. Brung a visitor for Karen."

"Come in," a new voice said, and Nim found himself facing a short, sturdy woman with a dark skin and Hispanic features. She wore a pink nylon smock similar to a nurse's uniform.

"You selling something?" the question was asked cheerfully, without hostility.

"No. I was just passing and...”

"Never mind. Miss Sloan likes visitors."

They were in a small, bright vestibule which opened onto a kitchen on one side and what appeared to be a living room on the other. In the kitchen, cheerful yellows and whites predominated; in the living room the decor was yellow and green. Part of the living room was out of sight and from it a pleasant voice called, "Come in-whoever you are."

Janitor said from behind Nim. "Got things to do

"I’ll leave you now," the janitor left.

As the outer door closed, Nim stepped inside the living room.

"Hello," the same voice said. "What do you know that's new and exciting?"

Long afterward, and through the months ahead when fateful events unfolded like succeeding tableaux of a drama, Nim would remember this moment-the first in which he ever saw Karen Sloan-in sharply vivid detail.

She was a mature woman, but appeared young and was extraordinarily beautiful. Nim guessed her age as thirty-six; later he would learn she was three years older. Her face was long with perfectly proportioned features-full, sensuous lips, now opened in a smile, wide blue eyes appraising Nim with frankness, and a pert nose, suggesting mischief. Her skin was flawless and seemed opalescent. Long blonde hair framed Karen Sloan's face; parted in the middle, it fell to her shoulders, with golden highlights glinting in a shaft of sunlight. Her hands were on a padded lapboard, the fingers long, nails manicured and shining. She  wore an attractive light blue dress.

And she was in a wheelchair. A bulge in her dress showed that a respirator was beneath it, breathing for her. A tube, emerging below the dress hemline, was connected to a suitcase-like device secured to the rear of the chair. The respirator mechanism emitted a steady bum along with a hiss of air, inward and out, at the normal pace of breathing.

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