By Leah Eichler
“Ma’am, I’m glad you are home. There’s an issue with my door.”
Karen forced a smile at her tenant, who poked his head through his door as soon as he heard her walk up the steps to her own. He’d only been living in her basement apartment for three days but already there were issues. Maybe her mother was right; there was something odd about that man.
“I just got in Sunny. I’ll get to it as soon as I can.” Karen juggled her groceries in one arm as she searched for her key inside her purse. Ma’am. All day people called her nurse and now ma’am. I’m younger than him, she huffed to herself.
She placed her groceries on the floor next to a purring Bronte, the name a nod to her scholastic achievements. Not that anyone remembered that anymore. The phone rang before Karen could give her a scratch.
“How did you know it was me?”
“Because you always call me after my shift. Always.”
“Well, honey, I worry about a single girl walking home all alone. And your neighbourhood —”
“I’m 27, Mom. And my neighbourhood is just fine. I’m only a few blocks from the hospital and I could buy my own house here. How many of your friends’ children can say that?”
“Well, many of them own homes, dear, just with their husbands and not in areas full of, you know, immigr —
“Wait, I didn’t get a chance to ask if that doctor was on shift, Dr. —
“Love you,” Karen said, cutting her off as she put the receiver back on the handle.
Out of her entire high school class of ’74, Karen was one of only six girls who pursued higher education, attending George Brown College’s School of Nursing, and specializing in paediatrics. She served as valedictorian. Twice. But in her family’s social circles, Karen’s single status made her a pariah. At temple over the High Holidays, she overheard one of her former classmates refer to her as an Old Maid. Screw them, thought Karen. I have financial independence. When I retire, I can travel the world. They’ll be stuck babysitting grandkids and sucking old man balls.
“Ma’am,” she heard Sunny, softly knocking on the door. He used a towel to buffer his skin from touching the wood. Karen had seen him do it before. She sighed loudly before opening the door.
“How can I help you, Sunil?” Karen reverted to his proper name, the one on his checks, hoping to impose an air of professionalism. It was a long shift at work; she needed a bath. And maybe wine.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but you said you’d look at my door.” He stood patiently, his hands crossed in front of his chest, the towel firmly in his grip.
“Sunil, I saw you open your door, and close it, so it must work.”
“Yes, ma’am but please —” he indicated for her to follow him to the downstairs apartment. Karen obliged in her bare feet. Shoes felt like too much of an effort. At his door he pointed to the knob.
“Do you see? In the keyhole, there’s a black, oily substance —”
Karen kneeled down and squinted. She wondered if this were some sort of joke. Sunny did not strike her as the joking kind. He was a computer scientist, he told her, working for a company called Micro Computing Machines. His speciality was something called COBOL. She wiped the keyhole with her scrubs, and Sunny gasped as a tiny blot of oil stained her shirt. He nodded his head eagerly, leading Karen to worry that perhaps he was losing his mind.
“I knew it, I knew it,” Sunny said with relief. “Someone is trying to kill me.
The row houses on McCaul Street always struck Karen as locked in time, like an archeological artifact. Unlike the house she grew up in, in north Toronto, these had history. When a “for sale” sign went up on the one smack dab in the middle, Karen jumped into action. Buying a house gave her roots. For the first time in her life, she could imagine her future. On Friday night, during Shabbat dinner, she delicately broached the idea with her parents. Her mother gasped and began fanning herself furiously with a serviette.
“That’s close to Kensington Market. Such a dirty neighbourhood. Besides, don’t you still want to find a husband, honey?”
“I can still find a husband, Mom,” Karen lied. She knew a husband was nowhere in the picture. She made her peace with that. In fact, this relieved her from any wifely duties, she imagined.
Her father kept silent, pushing his plate away as he poured himself a glass of port.
“Dad, you are going to need to co-sign. The bank …”
“Anything you need, sweetheart,” he replied, without looking up. Her dad knew, Karen told herself. He always knew. After that, her mom fell silent.
The house was already divided into two units when she purchased it. At night, after her bath, Karen would walk downstairs with a glass of wine and sit on the dusty floor, imagining all the ways she could redesign the suite and then rent it out. Old Maid, she snuffed. More like Old Maid with wads of disposable income. She called a contractor whose name was posted on an electrical pole on her walk to work the next day.
Out of all the applicants for the basement apartment, something struck her about Sunil. He was quiet, respectful and spoke with the eloquence of an Oxford professor. When she asked him about his background, he said he was from Uganda.
“So, you’re Muslim?” Karen asked nervously. Growing up, Muslims were only second the Nazis.
“Christian, actually. My grandparents on my mother side were Hindu.”
She breathed a sigh of relief. “Sorry, that was rude. My parents are devout Zionists. I grew up with a healthy dose of propaganda.”
He smiled kindly. “My family was also sympathetic to Israel. Actually, my brother worked in the airport during the raid at Entebbe. He could see the plane and everything.”
“Really, wait until I tell my parents. They love that movie.”
“Yes, it was quite dramatic. Unfortunately, after the rescue, my brother was accused of being a spy for Israel and executed.”
“Yes, by firing squad. Then his wife and son were found dead shortly after.”
“My goodness, I’m so sorry.”
Sunil looked as if he were restraining tears. Karen caught people crying all day long in her job and thought she was immune to other people’s emotions but Sunil’s story, the sheer barbarism, struck a chord in her.
“He always wanted to emigrate here,” Sunil said trying to compose himself. “Sometimes I wonder, if maybe I should have been the one working at the airport, and he the one still in school,” Sunil said, looking off. He exhaled deeply. “Anyhow, I know your people suffered your own tragedies. Perhaps, one day we can compare them.”
Karen wanted to respond that she and her family never suffered from anything. Sure, maybe a hundred years ago some distant family member died in a pogrom but no one that Karen or her parents could name. The worst tragedy to befall then was being denied membership in a country club.
“The apartment is yours if you want in, Sunil. I hope you will be very happy here.”
They shook hands. If only the Temple crowd could see me now, Karen thought to herself mischievously.
Karen washed her hands aggressively the day after the keyhole incident. Sunil struck her as strange but also exceptionally intelligent, maybe even a genius. He chose his words carefully and handled the few artifacts in his spartan apartment with the caution of a museum curator. He kept just one mug, one dish, one bowl. A chair and table. A bed with one sheet and a simple blanket. When Karen asked him about getting a television, he replied that he preferred to read or meditate in his down time. Maybe he knew something she didn’t? Germs live on every surface in a hospital, and she looked at the hardware on the doors at work very differently after Sunny stared at his in horror.
Karen’s rounds kept her busy that morning. Triplets born prematurely and still covered in dusty afterbirth, suffering from jaundice and in need of light therapy. A child just diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, who screamed in horror as she stared at the needles she will need to use the rest of her life. Then the forgotten toddler with spina bifida in room 1945 who kept getting abandoned at the hospital. She almost never made a sound.
Karen stared at the doorknob at 1945 for a few seconds before opening it with a tissue and it surprised her to find a family member there. If memory served her right, this woman was the child’s grandmother, or maybe grandmother’s sister. Karen noticed the woman’s dirty boots on a chair, almost touching the bed, and resisted shouting at her to remove them. The old woman smelled like baked good. Foreign foods were not permitted in the hospital, but Karen normally made some exceptions. Today, however, everything unaccounted for perturbed her.
“I. Can. Do. It,” this grandmother said to her, in painfully broken English, as she reached for the jar of baby food in Karen’s hand. The woman’s hands looked oily with cream; her Auschwitz tattoo peaked through her sleeve as Karen reluctantly handed over the bottle.
“How do I know you will feed her?” Karen surprised herself when she asked the question. Why wouldn’t she feed her? But after Sunil’s story, a darker logic began to wash over her. The child was a burden to them, a sign of some mistake.
“I’m checking later, ok? Diaper must be dirty, ok?
The old woman nodded as she sat on the hospital bed. Karen wondered what germs her street clothes carried.
Karen exhaled deeply as the doctor on duty gave her a suspicious smile.
“Your head’s not in the game today, Nurse. What gives? Boyfriend troubles?”
Karen forced a smile and started to walk away.
“What’s his name,” the doctor yelled after her. “I can talk some sense into him.”
The rest of the day went as planned. Intubating a nine-year old patient with a severe allergic reaction, to a three-year old with Leukemia reacting poorly to treatment and an eight-year-old who needed a cast after falling off a slide. Karen was just finishing writing up her reports when she noticed that her beeper in her purse was going off. Sunil.
“Another day, another dollar, am I right, honey?” The head nurse said, looking down at Karen. Karen smiled, searching for the right words. She always replayed these conversations in her head late at night in bed.
“The parents’ did it, you know. I hope that’s in your report.”
“Which parents? Did what?”
“Broken arm kid.”
“How do you know?”
“That one was easy to call. Once you’re in this job long enough, you are no longer surprised by the creative ways people try to hurt each other.”
At that moment, the normally silent spina bifida baby shrieked at the top of her lungs, as if punctuating the statement. Karen watched as the grandmother slinked down the hallway and into the elevator, pounding on the buttons until the door closed.
“Ma’am, ma’am,” Sunny yelled while Karen was still a few houses away, groceries in hand. She added on to her daily purchases some heavy-duty cleaners and a bottle of good, old-fashioned vinegar. As Karen approached the door, she saw that Sunil’s doorknob lay in pieces on a towel that reminded her of an examination table. Sunil donned clear plastic gloves, and Karen could spot blood on his fingers.
“What are you doing?”
“When I tried to lock up this morning, I noticed a sheen on my key. The substance inside the keyhole penetrated all the way. I wanted to make sure I got it all.”
“Have you been doing this all day? Did you even go to work?”
“Not today, this is more important. Don’t you agree?”
Karen pulled out the cleaning supplies and left them beside Sunil as she ran upstairs to change. Bronte purred; the phone rang.
“How did you know it was me?”
Karen sighed. “I need to call you back. I’m dealing with an issue here with my tenant.”
“With the African man? What happened?”
“That’s Africa, is it not? You know your mother isn’t as stupid as you think.”
“Sorry Mom, it’s just that he’s convinced that someone is injecting a poisonous substance into his keyhole.”
“What, no! Mom that’s crazy. It’s probably WD-40.”
“Well, maybe you should call the police anyway?
“Why? That’s nuts.”
“Honey, isn’t someone always trying to kill them?”
“Good-bye, Mom,” she huffed before hanging up and hurrying back downstairs Each piece of the doorknob now sat in various bowls of vinegar, like some bizarre science experiment. Sunil watched them keenly.
“Did you ask the contractors about the oil?”
“I did, they said they most likely lubricated the lock before leaving,” Karen lied. The truth is, when she called them, they took her question for a sexual invitation, and asked if she called because she needed some other hole oiled. She hung up quickly.
Sunil nodded sleepily, shaking himself awake every few minutes.
“Sunny, you are exhausted. Why don’t you go to bed? Do you know how to put the doorknob back or shall I call someone?” Karen dreaded the answer, not wanting to hire yet another creepy contractor.
“I can do it tomorrow.” He pushed open the door with his shoulder while Karen carried in the bowls of vinegar behind him.
“Do you want me to treat your hands?”
Sunil shook his head no. “It’s only from washing. I’m not hurt.” He poured himself some milk and sat in the only chair.
“You know, you remind me a bit of my brother’s wife. She was also very independent. She could do anything, really –”
Karen kept silent, staring at the windows, which she just noticed were covered by pieces of particle board.
“After my brother was killed, she showed up at my parent’s house, with my nephew. I was the only one home. She was certain someone was out to get them and wanted to stay with me. I told her that was absurd, that I was a scientist, not a political person, and didn’t want to get involved in anything illegal. She begged and tried pushing my nephew into my arms. He was scared and crying —
Sunil stopped to take a sip. He drank the milk as if it were a healing elixir.
“I never told anyone, not even my parents. Days later both their bodies were found in a field.”
“Sunny, you know, it’s not your fault that they died, right? You didn’t kill them.”
Sunil squinted his eyes as if looking at Karen for the first time.
“Didn’t I though? Didn’t I?”
Karen caught Sunil locking up his door the next morning as she was leaving for work. His hands were bandaged, but no gloves this time.
“I see you put all the pieces back. Feel better?”
“Yes Ma’am, I’m fine. My apologies for all the trouble.”
“It’s no trouble at all, Sunny. I want you to be happy here.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Sunny said politely as he began walking towards to his car.
“Karen, the name is Karen,” she said firmly.
In the hospital lobby, Karen spotted spina-bifida’s grandmother, drinking tea or coffee out of a thermos she brought herself.
“Coming up?” Karen asked, hoping to erase some of the abruptness of the other day.
Grandmother shook her head no. “I tell my daughter; I no go inside. I sit here.”
Karen wondered if she thought just being in the building would somehow help spina bifida girl. Then again, her own understanding of how the world works has been stretched lately.
Upstairs, Karen discovered a waiting room filled with children. The staff hurried from room to room, trying to empty beds. The head nurse handed her a clipboard with her charges for the day, telling her to “buckle up. It’s going to be a wild one.”
“What’s going on?”
“Same old, same old. Broken arm boy is back, this time with a black eye. Apparently, he tripped and couldn’t shield his fall because of the cast. He’s alone with mom today. Leukaemia baby needs to go the NICU, I’ve called in the transfer but who knows when they’ll get here. Oh, and spina bifida baby is refusing to eat. We may need to do an intravenous drip if this hunger strike goes on longer.”
Karen thought of the grandmother in the lobby. Maybe she did know.
“Ugh, Happy Friday,” Karen offered
“Happy Friday indeed,” replied the head nurse.
At Shabbat dinner that night, Karen kept quiet as her mother regaled her with her usual stories — who was engaged, who got pregnant and who bought a house. Her dad ate his brisket in silence and as usual, when done, pushed his plate away and poured himself some port.
“Is that African man still living in your basement?” her mom asked, switching subjects.
“He’s Ugandan, Mom, and his name is Sunil.”
“But is someone trying to kill him?”
“I don’t think so. He’s suffered some trauma. I think it’s survivor’s guilt.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s safe for a young lady to be living in such close proximity to a man who is clearly dangerous.”
“He’s not dangerous, Mom.”
“Don’t be so sure,” her dad interjected.
“Dad, you can’t be serious. You think he’s a threat?”
“No, just don’t be so sure someone isn’t trying to poison him. Didn’t a bunch of babies die in your hospital a few years ago from poisoning?”
“Dad! They never proved that it happened.”
“Well,” he said, getting up to light his one cigarillo of the evening. “They also never proved that it didn’t.”
Karen returned home late that evening to find Sunil’s lights on, his door completely removed from its hinges.
“Sunny, what’s going on?” Karen yelled, letting herself in. The few items of furniture were moved into the centre of the living room. The fridge and stove were pulled away from the wall, leading Karen to worry about a gas leak. All his food items sat in piles on his tiny kitchen table. Even wires were pulled out from the walls. The entire apartment smelled overwhelmingly of vinegar and disinfectant.
“Ma’am, I came home today and found the oily substance in the keyhole again, but I know that was just the rouse. They want me to focus on the keyhole, but the real threat is somewhere inside.”
“Inside where? Who is they and how could they have possibly entered your apartment without a key?”
Sunil turned to her and looked at her with pity.
“Sunny, we need to call the police if you really think someone is out to kill you.”
“No, no police. Canadian police won’t understand. They’ll think I’m crazy.”
That’s exactly what Karen hoped they would believe, and perhaps take him somewhere, for help.
“Ma’am we need to put cameras up. I saved the doorknob for you. Maybe there’s somewhere in the hospital you can test the oil and that will give us a clue about what we are dealing with.”
“Sunny, I can’t afford cameras and I have no idea what kind of testing you are talking about. I’m not a detective. I’m a nurse,” she sighed, audibly. “Why don’t you come upstairs tonight. You can have a shower and sleep on my sofa. They won’t find you there.”
Exhausted, Sunil followed Karen up the stairs. While he was in the bathroom, Karen returned to the apartment downstairs to try to put the door back in place. All that work renovating, she thought, for nothing. By the time she returned, Sunil lay under the covers she left on the sofa. Bronte made herself comfortable at his feet.
Karen poured herself a glass of wine from the fridge and sat in her kitchen, hoping Sunil would fall asleep and wake up saner. Maybe then, she can ask him to leave.
Karen looked over at the lump on her sofa.
“You like girls, right? We could get married, you know. I’ll change my name and you can keep seeing whoever you want. This could work out for the both of us.”
To Karen’s relief, Sunny was gone by the time she woke up. She rushed to work and once again spotted spina bifida grandmother in the lobby. Karen decided to avoid her today, but the grandmother hurried over, as if she were waiting for her.
“Give this to the baby,” she said shoving a small box, with a ribbon on it, towards her abdomen.
“What is this? I can’t give her anything.”
“It’s for baby. Keeps her safe.” She opened up the box and a simple red string bracelet lay in the middle. “Please, give the baby,” the grandmother insisted. Karen nodded and grabbed the box, wondering just how much crazy she could tolerate in one weekend.
The head nurse approached Karen as soon as she exited the elevator with her clipboard.
“It’s going to be another busy day, best get cracking. You get some new charges, today. Leukaemia baby finally got the transfer. Mom came back with the broken arm boy and confessed to a nurse. She and the boy are in a shelter so I’m guessing we won’t see them for a while. And spina bifida girl is being picked up by Children’s Aid. They have a foster family waiting for her. She’s still here if you want to say goodbye.”
Karen rushed over to spina bifida’s room. The girl looked different wearing real clothes, rather than a hospital gown. She smiled at Karen. She knew, Karen thought. She knew
“I have a present for you — Michelle.” It occurred to her that after all these months, Karen never memorized her name. “It’s from the lady who comes to visit you.” Karen tied the string around Michelle’s wrist in a solid knot.
“Have a great life, Michelle. This should keep you safe.” Somehow, both of them knew this to be true.
At the end of the day, Karen wrote up her reports on all the new charges. She noticed several missed calls from Sunny on her pager and exhaled loudly.
“More boy trouble?” the doctor interjected. “Maybe it’s time to level up to a real man.”
Karen laughed out loud and replied within earshot of the other nurses, “I’m not interested.”
“In me?” replied the doctor.
“In men! In any of them.”
Karen walked home feeling lighter than she had in many days. She peeked in on Sunny’s apartment and noticed it was completely empty. What a relief, she thought. I’ll look for a handyman tomorrow. Or maybe a handywoman. She let herself into her apartment and Bronte waited for her usual. The phone rang as it always did but Karen let it ring, as she made herself dinner and poured herself a glass of wine. Her house suddenly felt like a home.
As she readied for bed, Karen heard a loud banging at the door and was surprised to see two policemen. She tied her robe tightly around her waist. “Can I help you?’
“Ma’am can you identify this individual?” They flashed her a picture of Sunil, from his driver’s license.
“Yes, that’s Sunny. Sunil. He’s my, was my tenant — “
“He was found dead in High Park. We are running a toxicology report on him now. Yours was the only name and number we found in his wallet. We are going to need you to come down to the station to answer some questions and identify his body.”
“Yes of course, I just need to change.” The policemen nodded, indicating they would wait for her in the cruiser.
Karen pulled on the first item she found in the closet and quickly called her mom.
“Darling, it’s late? What’s going on?”
“Sunny, my tenant is dead. The police are here now.”
“That African man?”
“Mom, he’s Ugandan!”
“Well, honey, what are you worried about, you didn’t kill him.”
“Didn’t I, though? Didn’t I?”