"Mother," Karen protested, "I've said before, there isn't any urgency. I'm managing to get outdoors. Josie goes with me."
"But not as often as you could, or as far as you'd like to go." the mother's mouth set firmly. “There will be a van. I promise you, dear. Soon."
"I've been thinking about that too," Nim said. "Last time I was here, Karen mentioned wanting a van which would hold the wheelchair, and which Josie could drive."
Karen said firmly, "Now will all of you stop worrying. Please!"
"I wasn't worrying. But I did remember that our company-GSP & L -often has small vans which are sold off after they've been used a year or two and are replaced by new ones. Many are still in good condition. If you like, I could ask one of our people to look out for something which could be a bargain."
Luther Sloan brightened. "That would be a large help. Of course, however good the van is, it will need adapting so the wheelchair can go in and be secure."
"Maybe we can help with that as well," Nim said. "I don't know, but I'll find out."
"We will give you our telephone number," Henrietta told him. "then if there is news, you can call us."
"Nimrod," Karen said, "you are truly dear and wonderful."
They went on talking easily until, glancing at his watch, Nim was startled to see how much time had passed since he arrived. He announced, "I have to go."
"So do we," Luther Sloan said. "I am renewing some gas lines in an old building near here-for your gas, Mr. Goldman-and the job must be completed today."
"And in case you think I'm not busy," Karen chimed in, "I have a speech to finish."
Her parents took their leave affectionately. Nim followed them out.
Before going, he and Karen were alone briefly and he kissed her for the second time, intending to do so on her cheek, but she turned her head so their lips met. With a dazzling smile she whispered,
"Come again soon."
The Sloans and Nim had the elevator to themselves going down; all three were briefly silent, each occupied with private thoughts.
Then Henrietta said in a monotone, "We try to do the best we can for Karen. Sometimes we wish it could be more." the strain and weariness Nim observed earlier-perhaps nearer to a sense of defeat-were in her eyes again.
He said quietly, "I don't believe Karen feels that way. From what she's told me, she appreciates your support and everything you've done for her."
Henrietta shook her head emphatically, the bun of hair at her neck emphasizing the movement. "Whatever we do is the least we can do.
Even then it is a poor way to make up for what happened to Karen-because of what we did-long ago."
Luther put a band gently on his wife's arm. "Liebchen, we have been over it all, so many times. Do not do this to yourself. It does no good, only harm to you."
She turned on him sharply. "You think the same things. You know you do."
Luther sighed, then abruptly queried Nim. "Karen told you she contracted polio?"
He nodded. "Yes."
"Did she tell you how? And why?"
"No. Well, not exactly."
Henrietta said, "She doesn't, usually."
They had reached the street floor and stepped from the elevator, pausing in the small, deserted lobby while Henrietta Sloan continued: “Karen was fifteen, still in high school. She was a straight-A student; she took part in school athletics. Everything ahead seemed good."
"The point my wife is making," Luther said, "is that that summer we ourselves-the two of us-had arranged to go to Europe. It was with others from our Lutheran church-a religious pilgrimage to holy places. We had arranged, while we were gone, that Karen should go to summer camp. We told ourselves that some time in the country would be good for her; also, our daughter Cynthia had been to the same camp two years before."
“The real truth is," Henrietta said, "we were thinking more of ourselves than Karen."
Her husband went on as if he had not been interrupted. "But Karen did not want to go to camp. There was a boy she was seeing; he was not leaving town. Karen wanted to stay at home for the summer and be near him. But Cynthia was already away-, Karen would have been alone."
"Karen argued and argued," Henrietta said. "She said being alone did not matter and, as to the boy, that we could trust her. She even talked about having a premonition that if she went as we wished something would go wrong. I have never forgotten that. I never will."
His own experience gave Nim a sense of the scene being described: the Sloans as young parents, Karen barely out of childhood, and the strong and clashing wills-all three so different then from what they had become.
Once more Luther took up the narrative, speaking quickly as if wishing to have it done. “The upshot was, we had a family fight-the two of us taking one side, Karen the other. We insisted she go to camp, and in the end she did. While she was there, and we were in Europe, a polio outbreak happened.
Karen was one of the victims."
"If only she had stayed home," Henrietta began, "the way she wanted . . ."
Her husband interrupted. "That's enough! I'm sure Mr. Goldman has the picture."
"Yes," Nim said softly, "I think I do." He was remembering the verses Karen had written him after Wally Talbot Jr.'s electrocution.
"If only" this or that
On such and such a day
Had varied by an hour or an inch;
Or something neglected had been done
Or something done had been neglected!
He understood better now. Then, presuming something should be said but not sure what, he added, "I don't see why you should go on blaming yourselves for circumstances . . ."
A glance from Luther and a, "Please, Mr. Goldman," silenced him. Nim realized what he should have known instinctively: there was nothing else to say; the arguments had been marshaled before, and emphatically rejected.
There was no way, never had been, in which these two could be relieved of one iota of the burden they carried.
"Henrietta's right" Luther said. "I do think the same way she does. Both of us will take the guilt with us to our graves."
His wife added, "So you see what I mean when I say that whatever we do-including working to pay for a van for Karen-is really nothing."
"It isn't nothing," Nim said. "Whatever else is true, it's a whole lot more than that."
They walked from the apartment lobby to the street outside. Nim's car was parked a few yards away.
"Thank you for telling me what you did," he said. "I'll try to do something about the van, just as soon as I can."
* * *
come to expect, some verse from Karen arrived two days later.
Did you ever run on sidewalks,
Playing the game
Of avoiding cracks?
Or, much later,
Straddle hairlines mentally
And strut vicarious tightropes,
Dreading, yet perversely courting,
Disaster from a fall?
"Disaster" did I say?
An aberrant word!
For there are other falls and penalties
Not wholly catastrophic,
But cushioned by largesse
Of joy and glory.
Filling in love is one.
Yet wisdom cautions:
A fall is a fall
With aftermaths of hurt and pain
Only delayed, not circumvented.
Away with wisdom
Hooray for crazy paving, tightropes, hairline!
Right now, who's wise, or wants to be?
The subject was Tunipah.
"Talking to the Governor of this state about anything," J. Eric Humphrey declared in his clipped Bostonian accent, "has about the same effect as putting one's band into a pail of water. As soon as you take the hand out, the water is exactly the way it was before, as if the hand had never been there."
"Except," Ray Paulsen pointed out, "your hand would be wet."
"Clammy," the chairman corrected.
"I warned you," Teresa Van Buren said. "I warned you right after the blackout two months ago that public memory is short, that people-including politicians-would forget the power shortage and the reasons."
"Memory isn't the Governor's problem," Oscar O'Brien assured her. The general counsel had been with Eric Humphrey during recent sessions at the state capitol, where proposals for new generating plants -including Tunipah-had been discussed. He went on, “There's only one trouble with our Governor: He wants to be President of the United States. He wants it so bad, he can taste it."