Page 17 of Overload


The chair's electric components were connected by a cord to a wall power outlet.

"Hello, Miss Sloan," Nim said. "I'm the electric man."

The smile widened. "Do you work on batteries or are you plugged in too?"

Nim grinned in response, a trifle sheepishly, and uncharacteristically he had a moment's nervousness. He wasn't sure what he had expected but, whatever it was, this exquisite woman before him was completely different. He said, "I'll explain."

"Please do. And won't you sit down?"

"Thank you." He chose a soft armchair. Karen Sloan moved her bead slightly, putting her mouth to a plastic tube extending on a gooseneck. She blew softly into the tube and at once her wheelchair swung around so she was facing him directly.

"Hey!" he said. "That's a neat trick."

"I can do lots more. If I sip instead of blow, the chair moves backward."

She showed him while be watched, fascinated.

"I'd never seen that," he told her. "I'm amazed."

"My head is the only part of me I can move." Karen said it matter-of-factly, as if speaking of a minor inconenience. "So one learns to do some necessary things in unusual ways. But we got sidetracked; on were going to tell me something. Please go on."

"I started to explain why I came," Nim said. "It all began two weeks ago, the day we had the power failure. I saw you as a small red circle on a map.

"Me-on a map?"

He told her about the Energy Control Center and GSP & L's watchfulness over special power users, like hospitals and private homes with life-sustaining equipment. "To be honest," he said, "I was curious.

That's why I dropped in today."

"That's nice," Karen said. "To be thought about, I mean. I do remember that day-well."

"When the power went off, bow did you feel?"

"A little frightened, I suppose. Suddenly my reading light went off and other electrical things stopped. Not the respirator, though. That switches over to battery right away."

The battery, Nim observed, was a twelve-volt type, as used in automobiles. It rested on a tray, also fixed to the wheelchair at the rear, below the respirator mechanism.

"What you always wonder," Karen said, "is how long the power will be off, and how long the battery will last."

"It ought to be good for several hours."

"Six and a half when fully charged-that's if I use the respirator only, without moving the chair. But when I go out shopping or visiting, as happens most days, I use the battery a lot and it gets run down."

"So if a power cut happened, then . . ."

She finished the sentence for him. "Josie-that's who you met coming in-would have to do something quickly." Karen added knowledgeably, “The respirator draws fifteen amps, the wheelchair-when it's in motion-another twenty."

"You've learned a lot about the equipment."

"If your life depended on it, wouldn't you?"

"Yes, I expect I would." He asked her, "Are you ever alone?"

"Never. Josie is with me most of the time, then two other people come in to relieve her. Also, Jiminy, the janitor, is very good. He helps with callers, the way he did with you." Karen smiled. "He doesn't let people in unless he's sure they're okay. You passed his test."

They went on chatting easily, as if they had known each other a long time.

Karen, Nim learned, had been stricken with poliomyelitis just one year before the Salk vaccine went into widespread use in North America and, with Sabin vaccine a few years later, wiped polio from the landscape. "My bug bit too soon," Karen said. "I didn't get under the wire."

Nim was moved by the simple statement. He asked, "Do you think about that one year much?"

"I used to-a lot. For a while I cried over that one-year difference. I'd ask: Why did I have to be one of the last few? And I'd think: If only the vaccine had come lust a little sooner, everything would have been different. I'd have walked, danced, been able to write, use my bands . . ."

She stopped, and in the silence Nim could hear the ticking of a clock and the soft purr of Karen's respirator. After a moment she went on, “Then I got to telling myself: Wishing won't change anything. What happened, happened. It can't be undone, ever. So I started making the best of what there was, living a day at a time, and when you do that, if something unexpected happens, you're grateful. Today you came." She switched on her radiant smile. "I don't even know your name."

When he told her, she asked, "Is Nim for Nimrod?"

"Yes."

"Isn't there something in the Bible . . . ?"

"In Genesis." Nim quoted, "'Cush also begat Nimrod who was the first man of might on earth. He was a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord."' He remembered hearing the words from his grandfather, Rabbi Goldman. Ile old man had chosen his grandson's name-one of the few concessions to the past that Nim's father, Isaac, had allowed.

"Are you a hunter, Nim?"

On the point of answering negatively, he remembered what Teresa Van Buren had said not long ago: "You're a hunter of women, aren't you?" Perhaps, he thought, if circumstances had been different, he would have hunted this beautiful woman, Karen. Selfishly be, too, felt sad about that year-too-late vaccine.

He shook his head. "I'm no hunter."

Later, Karen told him that for twelve years she had been cared for in hospitals, much of that time in an old-fashioned iron lung. Then, more modem, portable equipment was developed, making it possible for patients like herself to live away from institutions. At first she had gone back to live with her parents, but that hadn't worked. "It was too much of a strain on all of us." then she moved to this apartment where she had been for nearly eleven years.

“There are government allowances which pay the costs. Sometimes it's tight financially, but mostly I manage." Her father had a small plumbing business and her mother was a salesclerk in a department store, she explained. At the moment they were trying to accumulate money to buy Karen a small van which would increase her mobility. The van, which Josie or someone from Karen's family would drive, would be adapted to contain the wheelchair.

Although Karen could do almost nothing for herself, and had to be washed, fed, and put to bed by someone else, she told Nim she had learned to paint, holding a brush in her mouth. "And I can use a type writer," she told Nim. "It's electric and I work it with a stick in my teeth. Sometimes I write poetry. Would you like me to send you some?"

"Yes, please. I'd like that." He got up to go and was amazed to discover lie had been with Karen more than an hour.

She asked him, "Will you come again?"

"If you'd like me to."

"Of course I would-Nimrod." Once more the warm, bewitching smile. "I'd like to have you as a friend."

Josie showed him out.

* * *

The image of Karen, her breathtaking beauty, warm smile and gentle voice, stayed with Nim through the remainder of the drive downtown. He had, lie thought, never met anyone quite like her. He was still thinking of her as be left his car in the parking garage of Golden State Power & Light's headquarters building, three floors down from street level.

An express elevator, accessible only with a key, operated from the parking garage to the senior executive offices on the twenty-second floor. Nim used his key-a status symbol at GSP & L-and rode up alone. On the way, he remembered his decision to make a personal appeal to the Sequoia Club chairman.

His secretary, Victoria Davis, a young, competent black woman, looked up as lie entered his two-room office. "Hi, Vicki," he said. "Is there much in the mail?"

"Nothing that's urgent. There are some messages, though-including several saying you were good on TV last night. I thought so, too."

"Thanks." He grinned. "Welcome to my fan club."

"Oh, there's a 'private and confidential' on Your desk; it just come. And I have some things for you to sign." She followed him into his inner office. At the same moment a dull, heavy thud occurred some distance away. A water carafe and drinking glasses rattled; so did the window which overlooked an interior Courtyard.

Nim halted, listening. "What's that?"

"I've no idea. There was the same kind of noise a few minutes ago. Just before you got here."

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