This neighborhood is particularly bad. Stout, two-story brick buildings are tightly clustered around an intersection of narrow, pot-holed streets. Through their iron barred vantages, these unfortunate residents overlook a scene of densely overgrown brambles, adorned with rubbish and punctuated with rusty iron poles pointing out at bent angles. Slackened laundry lines hang from a few of the poles, dipping close to the ground as if the life had been sucked right out of them. One of the ropes leads to our patient’s building, and she sits there with the door half-cocked, waving us over from down the street.
She is in a pair of neon pink pajama pants and a long white t-shirt. Against the sullen gray background of her neighborhood, the woman looks suddenly three-dimensional. Her image pops out towards us as if she had been drawn in, rack focused by an artist looking specifically for contrast. There is a smile, too, and it seems equally out of place.
“Oh thank you so much for coming,” she says. There is genuine appreciation in her voice, and warmth in character that we did not expect to hear.
“Please, follow me right up this way.”
She turns around and leads us up a darkened staircase, around to the right and into a small room. There is a single air mattress on the floor and an older TV sitting on a milk crate. On the screen is the title menu from a 101 Dalmations DVD, which plays a hushed Disney lullaby on continuous loop. A small boy of perhaps two or three years is sleeping prone on the mattress.
She’s whispering now.
“I feel so silly calling you guys, but he just fell asleep. His asthma was really bad all night. I gave him three or four puffs of his medicine but it kept coming back. It’s so scary hearing him wheeze like that, I just didn’t know what to do.”
The woman looks younger now as she tells the story. For the first time I notice that she can’t be more than eighteen or twenty years old. Despite her bright clothing and young face she looks haggard and worn out. Exhausted. At the end of her story she throws her hands up and lets them fall limply to her sides. She is wide-eyed and eager for help, looking at us searchingly for our reply.
I wonder if she honestly believes we might just pack our things and go. Perhaps we would decide she lacked merit and leave them both there in that apartment to rot.
The way she looked at us then, it seemed she was ready for anything.