I was feeling a bit sorry for myself yesterday, finishing off left-over pasta puttanesca. For the record, puttanesca is delicious the first day, a bit lack-luster the second, but the mediocrity both suited and fed my mood.
Today is October 1st, and the fourth anniversary of my friend’s, Jeff’s, death. I’ve been feeling his loss keenly in the run-up to today, so much has happened over the last year I would have loved to tell him, so many things for which I would have sought his counsel.
A soft knock on my door came with the last swallow of pasta. Generally, if I am home during the day I am the only one in the building, save for the next door neighbor’s nervous dogs and my evil cat, Ivan the (recently) Terrible. Expecting one of the maintenance men, I opened the door instead to find a white-haired, immaculately dressed and very old man. Taking me in, in my sweatpants and sweat-stained t-shirt (yay for me on the stationary bike!), he looked chagrined as he said, “You’re not….” then smiled and shook his head a tiny embarrassed shake.
“I’m Carole,” I answered.
With a second, self-deprecating shake of his head he explained he was looking for a friend, a woman who lives in the complex, he thought in my building, He’d gotten himself turned around and wasn’t sure he was in the right place. There was a small set of steps leading to her apartment, which my building does not have.
“Hmmmm…. I don’t think this building has anything like that, but I don’t really explore much.” True enough and in a week I’ll be outta here, so I was probably the worst person he could have found in this situation. But I joined him outside in the hazy sunlight and rising humidity and we walked around the building. No small set of steps.
When I say we walked, it was more like I took three steps, then waited for him to catch up, he shuffling a bit with one hand extended as though steadying himself.
Assuring me the woman is, “… a friend, nothing more…” who lived here, he was positive it was my building, but he hadn’t seen her for a while, hence his confusion of address.
“Well, what does she look like? I don’t know everybody here, but maybe I’ve seen her.”
“Oh, she’s a big lady, heavy-set. A very big lady.”
“Is she white, or African-American?”
“She’s a white lady.” Well, there went my one candidate, a new neighbor upstairs.
It was hot, I was uncomfortable with the heat and the old man standing in it, the sun shining down on his clean, white hair. So I suggested, “Let’s go inside and I can look her up on the Internet. Maybe we can find her apartment number that way.” And in we walked and shuffled.
“You have to excuse my mess, we’re moving next week, so there are boxes everywhere…” I stayed close as he entered the apartment, his hand steadying himself on the giant wardrobe box at the end of the kitchen counter. He seemed relieved as I guided him to Ivan’s chair.
Popping open my laptop I asked him for his friend’s last name, and he looked like a blue-eyed deer in the headlights. Again, he dropped his chin in that chagrined way, made the dismissive gesture of hand to head.
“My memory isn’t what it used to be. I’m 92 years old, and sometimes things don’t come to me…”
“Well, I’m 53 and have the same trouble. Give it a minute; it might come.”
We chat, and I study him. He is immaculate in khaki pants and white shirt, certainly bought when we was a more robust man, and now they hang a bit on him.
His wife died nine years ago, and he’s been on his own since. On learning I am a California native, he eagerly tells me he and his wife lived there for some years after his discharge from the service, “Out there by the Disneyland.”
“No, not Anaheim, one of the other towns there…. what was it….” again the hand to the head, the embarrassed dismissal.
“Well, there’s Anaheim, Anaheim Hills, Orange, Buena Park, Santa Ana….”
“No, no, none of those.”
“… Garden Grove….”
“That’s IT!” His whole face lights up.
Watching for his reaction, I confirm, “Where they have the strawberry festival?”
“Yes! Oh my, they grew the most beautiful strawberries out there, big, beautiful strawberries! They grew everything out there.” Indeed they once did, but he is remembering a Garden Grove almost entirely gone before my family moved to neighboring Fountain Valley, also once productive farmland, now planted with subdivisions of cookie-cutter houses.
The baby of his family, at 92 he is the last surviving member. His wife has been gone these many years, but he has an adored niece who comes to see him every week. She is 70 years old, and recently took a tumble downstairs and broke a shoulder, so he has been missing her.
He can’t remember his friend’s last name. Also, he says, she’s changed her first name, which was Brenda to something else…. “You know that family out in Russia, the Communists killed all of them?”
“The Romanovs? Tsar Nicolas?”
“Yes, but the one little girl who got away, her name… what was it…”
Deciding now is probably not the time to tell him Anastasia didn’t, after all, escape the assassin’s bullets, I merely observe going from Brenda to Anastasia is quite a change, and he rewards me with another radiant smile, all the way to his faded blue eyes.
Giving up on his faulty memory he rises and decides he’ll go up to the leasing office and see if Sarah can help him. He knows her as some months ago he’d thought to move here himself, but in the end he couldn’t bring himself to sell his home.
“Are you sure?” I ask as he shuffles to the door. “Would you like me to go with you? We could check the buildings down the hill? And I’ve forgotten my manners – I am Carole Reardon; and you are….?”
I extend my hand, he takes it in a surprisingly firm grip, repeating, “Reardon,” thoughtfully and gives me his full name.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Hembolt; are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?”
“No, no, I’ve taken your time and you’ve been very nice. Thank you.” He is sincere, and a bit embarrassed.
“No, Sir, to tell the truth I was feeling a little blue today and you’ve cheered me up. Thank you.” And I mean it, profoundly; somehow, my mood has improved ten-fold in his presence.
He turns with another smile and says he’s glad if he did that. I tell him to come back if he needs help, that he knows where I am.
I did have somewhere to be, but I waited forty-five minutes just in case.
Do angels come directly to our doors, packaged as slightly confused, 92-year old men? I don’t know for sure, but I think maybe yes.