Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Another hole in the heart

When the police come to my door it is not because they need something good to read, though to give our local cops their due, back in the day when the last Harry Potter book was being released with a lot of drama, at midnight, and the local market was the only south county source, joining me in line were one 9 or 10 year old Harry look alike, a 12 year old princess, and 3 of the local cop squad. Turned out they were way into transformation and quidditch, who knew?

But the other day it wasn’t books. It was a name and a “do you know?” and my assent and my “so what’s up with him?”

And that kind, solemn air people get when the news they bear might have edges. And a quick, “he died this morning, in Lancaster.”

There would be a call from the coroner’s office in that other county in the afternoon, and in a few days a letter addressed to “Friends and Family of Richard Eugene Ellis”. But for now the officer told me he’d died with my contact info in his pocket; the only contact he carried.

I wished with all my heart I’d asked him more questions when he was around, when I was trying to help him fill out complicated forms or make sense of bureaucratic mail and bank statements. He’d talked of a very estranged exwife and two daughters he had’t seen since they were little. They had pretty names like Dawn or Misty or something. He recalled them as little blonde children, always laughing. He saw them once, in the yard, playing. He thought they were happy. They’d be grown up now, and maybe there was a grandkid.

Last year he asked me to speak with his daughter, the one he had heard worked at a local shop. He wanted her to know he was okay, but having heart trouble. He wanted her to know he had never stopped loving her, or her little sister. I went to the shop and asked for her.

No one knew her.

When he called, hoping his messages had made it through, he was quiet a while. And then he said oh well, maybe she’d moved, it was okay, not to worry.

The year before I had a call from the intensive care cardiac unit of UCLA’s medical department. Since my friend was not conscious, and was apparently carrying forms naming me as the one who got to make all decisions in such cases, the staff needed to know what long term care facility he should be sent to when he was ready to leave.  They gave me some choices. I researched them and made a choice of one in the high desert where I knew Richard had friends; it was a place with a relatively high rating and good scores on pain management, and an average age of patients that was lower than others I considered. I figured Richard wouldn’t want to be stuck with a bunch of old folks, even if they were younger than he was.

The day he was to be transferred he told the staff he wasn’t going. They had me talk to him, they told me he’d drop dead without care. I talked to him and he promised me he’d do what was needed and then…when someone’s back was turned…he walked out, back into the streets.

And made it back here. He was a stubborn guy. He said it would take more than a measly heart attack or two to kill him.

He left when winter set in. I forwarded his mail to a cheap hotel in Vegas. He was going to strike it rich. He had a system. He was going to be a millionaire and he was going to buy a huge building for the bookstore and by golly, I would never need to worry about bills or anything again in my life. I thanked him for thinking of me.

The day he died, the day after his 68th birthday, he’d been waiting at a bus stop and the bus driver thought he looked…not good. Richard waved the driver on, but the driver, concerned, called 911. All sorts of vehicles and ambulances rolled out, according to my new friend in the coroner’s office. But when they got to the bench Richard was no where to be found.

They found his body a few blocks away. He had his pack, and my name and address and phone number. My friend on the phone said surely it was quick. I suppose they are taught to say that.

The thing is—I seem to be alone in remembering him. He kept to himself. He loved being under the sky. He’d done time in prison as a young man, manslaughter. A stupid fight, he said. He said he had a bad temper as a kid. He loved the light on the desert and the light through the redwoods. His eyes were brown. He carried a lot of hurt and a lot of love and wasn’t sure where to put it down, all of that.

So..there’s a strange hole in the universe, or a shift, or something. I’m still trying to make sense of it all. One thing I know—he mattered, this guy who tramped the woods and desert and cities for years, whose heart gave out at last. I won’t believe there is any person or any life that is wasted.

I’ll remember you, Richard. Thanks for the time. Maybe I’ll learn to listen better to my other friends, the other wanderers. I’ll try.

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