His name was Steven.
He greeted me eagerly on his lawn, 74-year-old eyes joyful for my help, gray moustache turned in a smile. His brown polyester pants and plaid shirt harkened back to a 70’s detective program, wide collars and flared legs. He shook my hand and showed me into his apartment.
It was dimly lit, and stacked floor to ceiling with books, records, framed photographs, and decades of dust. The towering belongings muffled what light there was, adding to the gloom. Mismatched throw rugs criss-crossed the floor. I stepped where I could, carefully finding places to put my feet, like hopping stones across a stream.
He showed me to the problem, and I busied myself with repairs. I spied a Frank Herbert novel on the shelf, and struck up conversation on classic sci-fi literature. He loved Heinlein and Herbert, Asimov and Clarke. We continued into other authors, other genres, and other worlds, from Mid-World to Middle Earth, Hyboria to Westeros.
He told me he hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks.
He started going from book to book, thumbing through them as we talked. He pulled one from the shelf, and sat down, opening the tan leather tome across his lap, shimmer of gold gilt pages flitting in a stray ray of sunlight. He began reading to me:
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”
His voice was low and steady, like the comforting warm rumble of a fireplace. He continued on for a few pages before stopping. It was one of my favorites as child, I knew those words well.
He said he hasn’t seem his children in years, they live quite a ways away. He kept apologizing for the mess, and my having to strategically maneuver the boxes and crates to do my work. I told him not to worry about it, I’m just happy to be able to bring a little light into his dimly lit apartment. He insisted I take a Dune book with me to read, since I hadn’t read the newer ones written by Brian Herbert. I tried to refuse, but he wasn’t having it.
He had a signed picture of BB King on the wall. He told me a story of hearing King play the blues in a Houston bar back in ’72. He told me what he was drinking, who he was with, and the laughs they had together. He started going down the wall, and had a picture of Muhammed Ali. He told me what it was like to watch him take Foreman down before the eighth bell. He rifled through some of his records and pulled one out with a young woman with a beehive and a stylish blue jacket. He told me she had once been a Supreme, and she had married a cousin of his. He told me how intense yet funny Ike Turner was upon meeting, and how a young Levar Burton bagged his groceries for him in Lodi. He came alive with each story, overflowing with details, recounting the scent of fresh asphalt and the polish of his emerald 74 Cadillac.
He worked his way down the wall, so full of tales and recollections that he scarce had chance to breathe. He smiled and laughed, and his mirth was infectious. I had finished the repairs quite a bit ago, but I could tell he wasn’t finished, and to me, the people are more important than the work. I just kept looking busy and listening. As he came down the wall, closer to where I worked, his hand rested on a dark walnut frame and he stopped.
The picture was of a young, beautiful woman, with big brown eyes, a flower in her hair, and a sweetly charming smile. It was an old black and white picture, probably 50 years old. In the corner of the frame was a yellowed funeral invitation, with doves emblazoned on the corner, dated back in 1970. His voice halted, as if he had a story so large, so wonderful, he didn’t know where to begin. His bright eyes dimmed, the pain of loss causing a quiver of his ‘stache. He let his hand linger there for a few moments more, before closing his eyes and pulling himself away.
“And this is Susan.”
He lived alone, but still wore his wedding ring. He didn’t live in a mess, he lived in a wealth of memories, of a life well lived. He just wanted someone to hear them.
His name was Steven. And he makes every day on the job worth it.