Friday, September 18, 2009

The Wave

Richard isn't dead, but he's surely gone.

He lived in the last unit in the row of elderly-living apartments on the cul-de-sac that hides the entrance to the top secret compound where we make the water. Every three years we undertake the massive undertaking that is Lead and Copper Sampling for the E.P.A., the only round of samples -- 50 samples, to be exact, taken in miniature plastic milk jugs that hold about a pint -- the public gets to participate in. Because they must be taken in the morning before any use on a particular tap, but one that does see regular use, we ask specific members of the community at representative points in our distribution system to collect the samples for us.

Richard was an enthusiastic volunteer.

Because his house number was one digit away from ours, even though we rarely have mail delivered to the plant (mostly it goes to City Hall, gets sorted, and ends up in our box at Public Works), he occasionally wound up with an envelope filled with advertisements for pump parts and vinyl hose. He had sold his car and probably didn't trust his frail legs to make the walk over the hill, so he would stand in his driveway, leaning on the wall in the shade under the carport, and wave the envelope as we drove past on our way to and from the plant. Sometimes it took several passes for one of us to notice, but Richard was persistent.

On one such occasion, I stopped on my way back from lunch to collect our misdirected correspondence. He was wearing gray sweats and a white T-shirt, and he apologized for not being decent; every time I arrived him after that, he wore trousers and a striped shirt with suspenders... and his false teeth, which were conspicuously absent that visit. We had a nice conversation about Cadillacs (he admired mine) and the Internet, of which he was a big fan. He showed me his hulking new Dell laptop, on which he was impressively proficient, and pictures of his grandkids' weddings and his deceased wife (a pretty, plump, collected-looking person). We also discussed the length of teenage girls' pants. It seems he could care less how short girls' skirts get, but it bothers him that the hems of their jeans drag on the ground and get frayed. I made a mental note to visit the tailor.

Before I left he remarked what a hurry everybody is always in, and I promised to slow down and wave every time I passed. I made him promise to wave back. From the street one could clearly see him through the vertical blinds most hours of the day , ensconced in a maroon armchair in the enclosed porch of his comfortable little house, often dozing in the sun with his chin on his chest and the paper spread across his bony knees.

We both kept our word and five days a week for almost four years I slowed and we waved, and I worried when he was absent and was relieved when he reappeared. When I left work for lunch Tuesday after our vacation, however, I noticed a car with California plates and a pickup in his driveway, bed full of furniture, including Richard's chair. There were two older gentlemen visiting on the lawn, so I pulled over. One of them shouted, "What can we do you out of?" And when I inquired about Richard, the other introduced himself as Richard's son. He was tickled to hear my story about our routine and explained that his dad had been moved to the local assisted-care facility. "Dad's almost 90, you know." He said he'd pass on my regards, and maybe I'll think to take him a basket of treats around the holidays and hope he remembers me without my car.

Funny how you get used to things like that, a tiny flash in your long day, contact, however brief and distant, with a person you hardly know. It was absolutely habit, and I still find myself slowing down as I approach Richard's lawn, probably will for a while. Someone else will move in (they're excellent little places, surprisingly roomy, with washers and dryers and big islands in the kitchens, and Housing Authority takes great care of the lawns and is very prompt about snow removal, and I'd kill to live there, but alas, it's strictly for those 60-plus) and probably won't mind doing taking a sample for us. But Richard is one less thing I'll have to add to the list of things I'll miss when I go.

I miss him already.

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