Do I mind my own business or do I butt in?

“Is that Lorena?” 

My husband is half-in, half-out the front door, screen bumping at his back.

“Lorena?” 

“You know, the woman in black. With the boots.”

I look over his shoulder and he’s right. It is Lorena, standing on the corner across from our apartment building in the dying light. 

From a distance, standing still, she’s a fashion plate in her black Michael Kors trench coat. It’s slim cut and cinched at the waist, hitting her legs just above the knees. She has black knee high boots with chunky heels that she wears year round, spring, summer, winter and fall. Up close her black dyed hair is grey at the roots, her raincoat is streaked with grime. When she walks she totters along like those Chinese women with their bound and tortured feet used to do, inch by painful looking inch.

Standing on the corner now, she has her purse open on the sidewalk at her feet. Her head spins from side to side, looking up and down the street.

I know her to say hello to, she and Jane, the older lady who lives next door to me, are on-again, off-again friends. Jane’s filled me in on Lorena’s life. A widow, still bereft over the death of her husband five years ago, lonely, she takes a bus somewhere everyday but when Jane asks her where she goes, Lorena will only say, “Oh, you know, that place where all the people go.” Jane confides that Lorena’s power was shut off a couple of weeks ago because she’d forgotten to pay her bill. Jane, a widow herself, has little patience for Lorena’s lapses. 

“That’s what happens when you let the man do everything for you.” 

Jane says when the building management helped Lorena get her power restored, they spotted six rats in her apartment. Spotted or caught, I fret. Jane thinks Lorena is feeding them. 

“Lorena, you okay?” 

Crossing the road, I see the look on her face. It’s relief. 

“I’m lost,” she calls out. She seems surprised to find herself in this position. “I can’t find my house.” 

She lives in a garden apartment, around the corner from ours. Her place is visible, just down the road.

“Oh, that’s okay.” I pick up her purse, it weighs a ton. “I know where you live. Do you have your keys?” 

There’s a Time Warner TV remote control in her bag, a few metal forks, knives, a couple of straws. Three different wallets, plastic, leather, zipped, unzipped, unsnapped. A small round mirror, a tube of lipstick, a blue-green comb.  A couple of loose black and white glossy photographs and credit cards are scattered among the ream’s worth of papers; bills, notes, bank account statements and junk mail. I have to take everything out and lay it on the sidewalk to find her keys. Lorena leans on me, steadying herself on my shoulder. I try to group the items in sensible piles before I put them back in her bag.

She goes back and forth between apologizing and thanking me for helping, between explaining and crying over her husband, Mario. 

“I miss him so much. I told him I’m ready, come and take me with you. But he doesn’t come.” 

The tears that stop and go, flow again.

I think of my mother, the time she left our California home looking for a train to take her into London, the Alzheimers that ultimately erased her identity and I squeeze Lorena’s hands in mine. I can’t bear to think about her future. 

Lorena says she got off the bus and somewhere along the line, the familiar path became not. Here, one short block from her apartment, she doesn’t know which way to turn and she’s frightened to step down from the curb. I call out to my husband to give me a hand and between the two of us, we hobble her home to her apartment.

“Oh I love you both so much!” she says in her vaguely South American accent. “Home, I’m home!” she beams as my husband unlocks her door and we help her up the small step into her unit.

It’s an oven inside, the heat left on high all day, the windows all closed up. I flip the light switch, it works, and I try to hide my shock. It’s not as bad as an episode of hoarders but the place is filled with furniture. Stacks of boxes block one of the kitchen doors. The walls are covered with pictures shrouded in tattered red fabric. I don’t know if they’re covering pictures to protect them from the light, or if they’re all of her Mario and she can’t bear to look at him. The blinds are broken, Pieces of paper taped together with address labels cover a gap where some slats are missing. A shred of yellowed fabric hangs above the corner of the window; it might have been curtains once upon a time but its been ravaged into something unrecognizable now. 

A massive table fills the dining area leaving little room to walk around it. The table is covered with a cloth, crockery, a dying plant and a few unmistakable rat droppings. I try discreetly to draw my husband’s attention to the table but he’s looking at the floor. There are a few small cups of water on the carpet, and in the corner, under a another table, I think there’s a bowl with some sort of food in it. 

“Lorena, do you have a cat?”

And suddenly I see a furry thing slither by in the shadows and almost jump out of my skin.

“Oh, no. That’s just a little bird. I let them in sometimes. Don’t worry, they go away.” 


••••••••••••••

We need to call someone, my husband says. In the morning I get the number for the social worker. She tells me she’s tried to get in to see Lorena but Lorena won’t open her door. Or she’s not home, off on her bus to that place where all the people go. 

“I’ve been over twice. I can’t help someone who won’t let me help them.”

She gives me the number for APS. Adult protective services. It’s not my business. I barely know the woman. I feel guilty for intruding on her life this way. Making judgement, disrupting her peace. Still, I make the call. 

Did I do the right thing?

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