Entries in loneliness (1)


Old Joe

He drove an old pickup, the paint so old that the color was indistinguishable.  His overhauls were worn, and it looked like he always had on the same long-sleeved work shirt but both always appeared clean.  He rented a house down a dirt road that belonged to a mill owner.  I never actually saw the house but when it got dark and my dog, Shelby and I sat on the porch after dinner, lights could be seen through the scrub trees growing wild between my house and his.  In the warm summer nights, if the frogs weren’t making a racket down at the pond, I could hear bits of conversation, sometimes laughter. When the wind blew right, the strong smell of cigarette smoke journeyed my way. 

Occasionally when I was near the road working in the garden, he would slow up and wave, yelling “Howdy Missy” through the open window of his truck and then continue driving on.  Other times he would stop to pass the time for a few moments and we’d discuss the weather or maybe he’d comment on my summer garden, asking what was growing the best and we’d both complain about the bugs and fire ants as well as the rain or the lack of it.  After a bit, he’d run an old but strong-looking hand through his bushy white hair and replace his brown fedora on his head, saying his goodbyes. Joe would explain that he had to pick up some stuff for the boys.

“The boys” were homeless men that he invited to stay at his place in exchange for whatever they could afford to pitch in towards his rent.  Some of his boarders were on parole, some had substance abuse problems, and some just needed a place to stay until they got their heads on straight.  I don’t know how many would be there at any given time; they would come and go.

Joe was a regular at our small-town grocery store.  He bought produce that had seen better days and would haggle with the butcher over lowering the price of meat that he insisted needed to be reduced, pointing out a speck or a spot of discoloration.  The people there were generous and, knowing his situation, let him talk them down to a price agreeable to all concerned, even throwing in occasional freebies.

Wanting to do more than just feeding his flock, Joe scoured the area for anything that needed fixing.  The bed of his pickup might carry home furniture that needed some sprucing or lawnmowers that had seen their day.  He picked up vehicle parts and engines, planning for when they might just need them.  Some said he just collected junk. 

A large metal building that he used for a workshop was overflowing with his finds.  Aided with tools that Joe provided, the men under his care would do what they could to refurbish anything remotely restorable.  When he came back with an exceptionally good haul I could hear the drills and saws working their magic and the rumble and roar of the portable generator.

Some of the people who lived nearby wanted Joe and “his boys” removed, complaining that the men were a nasty lot who were probably dealing drugs and doing other despicable acts.  “The building is a fire hazard,” they’d say.  “Who knows what he’s got in there?  Too much stuff is piled around the place.  Looks bad.  Kids could get in trouble!”  Occasionally a police vehicle drove down that dirt road; my guess was they did so primarily to appease the complainants.  They knew Joe was harmless and that he kept the men in line, making sure to get them to meetings with probation officers or their drug and alcohol rehab sessions. 

One afternoon Joe stopped his truck for a quick visit.  He was on his way to his son’s house to spend the afternoon with his grandchildren.  This was the first time he had mentioned a family and I got the impression that visits like this were not frequent occurrences.  In one drawn-out breath he told me he had just turned eighty-five and, that he had Cancer.  Caught off guard and not sure what to say other than wishing him a Happy Birthday, I let him get back into his vehicle and watched him drive down the road, hoping that his time with the grandkids would be a good time. Should I have given him a hug or at least taken his hand in mine?  The easy answer would be yes, I should have.  In reality, neither one of us would have been comfortable.

That was the last time I saw him.  I did see the building get emptied out and eventually, the house behind it had new tenants.  Maybe, I thought, his family had found room for him with them so he could enjoy the time still allotted to him in a caring environment much like he tried to do for “his boys.”  Maybe it was time for family reconciliation?  Later I found out that Joe had died alone in that house down the dirt road, behind the scrub trees.  At night.  Alone in the dark.  Damn them all.  Rest in peace, Joe.