Any Help She Can Get

Keraa-plunk. Speed bump number one. Keraa-plunk. Keraa-plunk. Numbers two and three. Carol drove slowly around the pink and yellow buildings on the cobbled road that led to her office behind the swimming pool. She was in no hurry. Phil would surely be waiting for her. Lucy would probably be there too. Carol hoped that she was. Phil and Lucy didn’t get along and maybe they would slug it out before she arrived. Maybe one of them would be floating face down in the pool by the time she got there. That was something to wish for.

On the other hand, murder and mayhem would bring the police and the press, and that would certainly mess up the grounds. The gardens arrayed themselves perfectly this morning – nothing out of season, no dead-heads to remind the residents of the passing of time. Mother Nature under control. The grass looked like it had just been mowed and watered (it had), the fountains were spraying just hard enough not to splash anyone, and there were the exact number of exotic water fowl in the ponds necessary to maximize the idyllic while minimizing bird waste. It looked practically perfect, just like it was supposed to look. And perfect was hard enough without a murder investigation or any other disaster – natural or man-made.

When Carol had moved from up north and begun looking for a condominium complex to manage, she had had plenty of choices. She had known, however, that she could not afford to make a mistake. She had her daughter to think about – one move had been hard enough, but two would be disastrous. Carol needed to get it right the first time. She had shied away from retirement villages and assisted living centers in her job search: too many emergencies, too much death and illness. Carol had also opted away from the coast, reasoning that in Florida’s less prosperous inland the hurricane problems would be less and that the atmosphere more laid back. She had been wrong – at least about the atmosphere. With a year’s experience at Orange Grove Gardens (no orange trees in sight – too messy) and after talking to some of her colleagues on the coast, she realized that she had made at least one major error in her assumptions. The kind of folks who could fork over a million dollars or more for a beachfront condo did not spend much time in one place, and they seldom noticed how tall the grass was. Most of the units in her more affordable complex were inhabited by retired people who had no other residences and were there all of the time. All of the time.

She was wrong to have shied away from retirement villages too. People taking that step or signing up for assisted living had accepted the fact that they were old. No one in her condominiums was ready to accept either the coming of age or the fact that their mortal condition was – well – terminal. Her complex was full of the ambulatory old, the modestly retired, who did not have enough money to live on the coast and thought they were too young for retirement complexes or assisted living. Orange Grove Gardens just happened to be a condominium community far from any jobs and in which no young people lived, but it seemed to make a mystical difference to the residents that it did not call itself a retirement village. Few of them – none of the women – had even let their hair go gray. Few of them – none of the men – had gotten used to being unemployed. They were looking for something to do and they lived in this practically perfect place. Key word: practically. And that meant that they came looking for Carol. She pulled into her spot just in time to see Lucy disappear behind the back of the building and Phil come around the other side and flag her down. She rolled her window down to hear what the first complaint of the day would be.

“Look out. Lucy’s back there.” Look out is right, Carol thought.

“Good morning, Phil. Beautiful day. Why aren’t you out fishing?” Phil frequented the local lakes with Chuck when the two of them were speaking.

“Been getting too much sun. Anyway, I need to talk to you. There’s a problem with the generators.”

Generators. They hadn’t visited that old topic for a while. “Do you want to stand out here in the sun and talk or should we go get some coffee? Maybe Lucy could join us.” I’m being cruel she thought.

“Forget Lucy. She doesn’t know anything about generators. She doesn’t know anything about anything,” Phil insisted.

They settled under an umbrella by the pool and Phil proceeded to tell her how he had determined that the generators for the complex were not large enough for an emergency. Phil had been the superintendent of buildings and grounds for a small college in New Hampshire before retiring to Florida a few years ago. It was evident that he knew something about electricity and generators, but Carol had all she could do to keep from rolling her eyes. She put on her professional, reassuring, it’s-taken-care-of voice and responded in an even tone.

“We went through this right after the last hurricane scare. Remember, the board had me bring in some experts. They said that we were fine for an emergency. There is no way we could rig up a generator that would keep everything going for weeks after a storm, but our generators would keep the elevators going and the stairwells lit for about six hours – long enough to get everyone out. If there is a direct hit, we are going to have to get out.” She used the word “we” and had often wondered what she would do in a real emergency. She lived about ten miles away and couldn’t imagine fighting the storm to come back to Orange Grove to see if the generators were working, but she supposed she would. Despite that problem, she was very glad that she had decided not to live in the complex. The decision had been made on the basis of lack of other children for Adrienne, but the thought of a twenty-four/seven access by Phil and Lucy and Ethel and Gus and all the other residents was more than she could imagine.

“It still doesn’t seem like enough to me. Look, I did up some calculations.” Phil pulled a cocktail napkin marked “Bayside Hideaway” out of his shirt pocket.
Was this all they had to talk about at happy hour? Carol tried hard to remember the last time she had indulged in a few stiff drinks and began to wish for a very strong Bloody Mary with which to start her day. Strike that. So far, alcoholism was not one of her problems, and she did not want to add it to her list.

As Phil went through his numbers, Carol thought about the problems she did have, none of which concerned generators or anything that Phil or Lucy knew anything about. She could start with a husband who wanted a divorce but no part of child support or visitation or anything to do with her or Adrienne. Add parents who were so involved with their own aging angst that they were angrier with Carol for not helping them than concerned with lending a hand. They had actually called her while she was packing up the U-Haul to ask if she could drive eight hours out of her way to sort out their medical insurance forms and help hang their storm windows. Most worrisome was Adrienne, the daughter who seemed desperately unhappy far from the familiarity of the northeast home that Carol had fled because of raw memories, a badly-timed lay-off, and a house she could not afford on her own. Adrienne, prone to sulk rather than argue, had retreated further and further into a shell that was becoming increasingly covered with a layer of fat. At ten years old, Carol’s daughter already outweighed her mother by more than a little and was increasing that margin daily, particularly since the stress the past few years had pared Carol down just as it was pumping Adrienne up. Carol felt like she was becoming more and more exposed, even as she was watching her daughter accrete her own wall of flesh to hide behind.

Carol had, of course, tried to curtail her daughter’s eating. She had stopped buying desserts and suggested that she pack Adrienne’s lunch. But Adrienne insisted that she was an outcast already at school as the new kid with the Yankee accent and that arriving with hummus sandwiches and carrot sticks would only make it worse. In addition, the kids all stopped at Burger King on the way home – didn’t she want her daughter to have any friends? The problem was further compounded by the fact that Anita Nelson watched Adrienne after school. Anita, who lived cross the street, had seemed like a godsend when Carol first moved into her rental house. However, it turned out that the Nelson children ate constantly, fed by a stay-at-home mom who also considered herself a godsend. She failed at getting Carol to go to her mega-church across from the mall, but faltered at little else. As a good mother, she kept a full cookie jar and a sympathetic ear. Cleanliness and a full stomach were maternal gifts to be shared. The difference was that the Nelson kids – and there were four – were athletic and busy, and while plump, none were obese. Adrienne preferred to sit in the kitchen and watch Anita cook and clean, while the soap operas and evangelical infomercials blared from a television set suspended over the kitchen table. It was a cozy scene and Adrienne certainly appeared happy in it, but the stools at the breakfast bar didn’t look like they would hold up Carol’s growing daughter much longer.

Phil was demanding her attention. “What do you think? We need to do something about this.”

Carol ran her hand over her closely cropped dull russet hair, chopped off close during the divorce when she realized that she could no longer afford to have it colored and left that way because she found it satisfying to rub at such moments. She suddenly scooped up the ragged cocktail napkin and tucked it between the pages of her pad. “I will look this over,” she said, realizing by Phil’s expression as she looked up that her tone was not convincing. Carol pushed back her chair and headed for her office before he could protest or she could begin to care what he thought.

There was no relief at her office, however. One of the new residents was there claiming that she could hear her neighbor’s snoring right through the wall and that there was either something wrong with the walls or with her neighbor, but – in any case – something needed to be done about it. Her voice mail was full of complaints about various things, including one about a woodpecker banging on a metal pole for days on end outside a resident’s window. Poor thing, thought Carol, immediately siding with the woodpecker. That’s how I feel. About as ineffectual as a woodpecker trying to make a hole in a metal pole.

One of the messages was more troublesome. It was from the psychologist used by Adrienne’s school; the young girl had first been referred for treatment a few months ago based on her listlessness and, Carol was sure (although it was only briefly and discreetly mentioned) her continual weight gain. She called Dr. Cooper, to find that the very pleasant and professional woman was very worried. She thought that the situation had gotten worse and that perhaps more intense treatment was needed. She thought that Adrienne’s depression was reaching levels that needed more help than she could provide and wanted to give Carol some referrals and also suggested that she spend more time with her daughter. She insisted that Carol come and see her within the next few days.
Several days later, Carol’s burdens had only grown. Clearly Adrienne was worse, and Dr. Cooper was now as concerned about the weight as she was about the depression. They had pondered the issue of after-school care; Dr. Cooper agreed that Adrienne got a lot of solace from being at the Nelson’s, but perhaps not the right kind. Carol had tried talking to Anita Nelson, but could not seem to get by the feeling that she was being condemned for her divorce, her job, her godlessness, and her neglect of Adrienne. Dr. Cooper gave her a referral to a local child psychiatrist, but it would take several weeks to get an appointment. Carol and Dr. Cooper decided that, in the meanwhile, she would try picking Adrienne up with her after school and taking her to work with her. There was a pool there and an exercise center, and Carol could monitor her eating. It was only a temporary solution, but would also provide an opportunity for more mother/daughter time, which the therapist seemed to think was a good idea.

Carol, of course, was not crazy about exposing her personal life to the old folks. Up to now, it had been completely off-limits. They knew she had a daughter. They knew she was no longer married. That was it. Some of the ladies had made early attempts to match her up with their tennis instructors or nephews, but Carol had insinuated that such attempts were unnecessary and been direct that they were unappreciated. No one had met Adrienne, and the only picture of her daughter in the office showed a happy two-year-old blowing out birthday candles. Carol’s constitutional separation of personal and professional life was about to be severely challenged.

When Carol arrived with Adrienne on the first day of the new regime, the entire contingent was waiting for her. Apparently, there had been a disagreement about the Jacuzzi temperature, but introduction of Adrienne truncated that unpleasant conversation. They were all fascinated, and immediately invited the sullen girl back to the pool with them. Carol hesitated, but Adrienne clearly found “anywhere else” preferable to staying with her mother and went off explaining to Ethel that her mother had never bothered to buy her a bathing suit that fit, so she would not be able to go into the water. Carol’s heart sank. Generators, water temperature, and now my daughter – I will now have my own complete set of the Furies telling me everything that is wrong with my life, she thought. I hope they don’t feed her, at least.

Carol went into the office and restrained herself from visiting the pool; Adrienne returned two hours later asking if they could get her a swimsuit on the way home and telling her that the air conditioner in her office was set too low. She chattered away on the way home about all of the people who Carol least wanted to talk about once she left work, but it did seem that Adrienne had spent her time by the pool playing Scrabble and gin rummy and there was no talk of any food involved. They bought a swimsuit at Wal-Mart, and Adrienne bought six-packs of water and juice to keep in Carol’s office so she could take drinks to the pool.

The next afternoon, the entire crew was waiting for Carol, but there was no talk of generators or Jacuzzis.

“We like your daughter” yelled Ethel, who needed the hearing aid that she almost never wore.

“You can bring her anytime” added Lucy. “But she needs something to do. She’s a big girl. She needs things to keep her busy. We’re thinking of moving our water aerobics class to the afternoon so she can do it with us, but you’ve got to get her a swimsuit.”

Carol started to say that she had, in fact, gotten a suit for Adrienne, and that she was not quite as bad a mother as all that, when Phil interrupted.

“I want to take her fishing. Can she swim? I want to take her out in the boat. Kids should learn how to fish. And Chuck won’t go with me anymore anyway.”

Carol did not get a chance to answer that either.

“I know it is none of my business,” piped in Grace, who usually never caused any problems and seldom even spoke. “But do you cook at home? Maybe we should teach her how to cook – healthy, you know. I asked her where she eats and, well – Burger King…”
Carol would have thought that she would be angry, but found that she was not. Yes, there was now a bathing suit. And water aerobics and fishing and cooking would be great. And, yes, she tried to cook, but she was a working mother. And, yes, she would appreciate any help that she could get.

“Any help that she could get.” Who was saying that? Carol rubbed the stubble on her head and wondered if her brains had gone the way of her hair. What was she letting herself in for? Why was she so willing to take help with Adrienne and not the generators and lawns and air conditioners? Those were problems that she had answers for, but she had no answers for Adrienne. Maybe they did. They had had children, raised them – perhaps with satisfactory results, perhaps disastrously – and they had watched other people do it. Maybe they knew something. Or at least knew what they didn’t know. Maybe Adrienne knew something too. In any case, they were obviously looking for problems to solve, things to work on that were not practically perfect. Maybe she should be more willing to share.