He is sitting on the curb outside the supermarket at sunrise. His surgical mask hangs below his chin. This is the calm before his daily route. Today is going to be a busy day of driving. He has grocery deliveries to make.
He is smoking, playing on his phone. His Cincinnati Reds cap is pushed back on his head to reveal whitish hair.
He’s a retired food service guy. But I’ve heard different. I’ve heard he’s an angel. The jury is still out on this.
He’s been doing his grocery deliveries since the pandemic began. He does them for free. He rides a busted-up Honda along dirt roads, delivering to mostly shut-ins.
His accent is Ohio, but he’s lived in Alabama a long time. So he talks more Alabama than Akron.
I keep asking how the delivery thing started, but he genuinely doesn’t have an answer. In fact, he doesn’t want to talk about himself at all. He doesn’t like being interviewed. It’s too much attention. He’s not that kind of guy.
Which I find refreshing in today’s world of compulsive selfies. He is a rarity.
Why is it when modern people do a good deed a film crew always happens to be standing nearby? It’s ridiculous. You’d never catch someone like, for example, an angel doing that.
“It’s not a big deal,” he says, laughing, smoke wafting from his nostrils. “I just deliver stuff, no magic.” He nods to the parking lot. “I do it all in that ugly Honda.”
No magic? Well, how about this? At the height of the pandemic he was making almost 90 deliveries per week. Sometimes he would be in the Honda for entire days, living on fast food, doing endless errands and drop-offs. And like I said, he does it for free.
He delivered to the elderly, the sick, the shut-ins, and out-of-luck families who had no cars. He got pretty good at it, too.
When he’d deliver to people who seemed to need conversation, he could sense it. He’d stand in their yard, distancing himself about 30 feet, and enjoy a satisfying morning session of chit-chat.
“You’d be surprised how many people just need to talk,” he says.
People always try to pay him for his service, but this only ticks him off. He states clearly, for the record, that he doesn’t do this for money. He won’t accept money. So put it back in your dadgum pocket.
He will, however, accept gas fare, or cookies. But that’s all.
He taps his ash and adds, “Or Krispy Kreme.”
He has made friends on his routes. One lady in particular became a close friend. She was old and in terrible health. For a few weeks she made him leave her groceries on her deck and walk away. She was terrified of COVID.
One day she asked if he would put her groceries in the cabinets for her. Her palsied hands were riddled with arthritis, she couldn’t lift the bags without dropping them.
So one thing led to another. One day he was placing dried goods into her cabinets, the next day he was cooking minute steaks on her stove.
She liked having him around. He liked being around. So he figured, “what the heck?” and he started hanging around more often.
Which led to him doing her dishes, vacuuming, and doing laundry. He even started sleeping in the living room when her nurse sitters couldn’t make it.
He helped her load heavy oxygen canisters, brushed her hair, and he even served her breakfast in bed a few times.
“Breakfast in bed was a mistake,” he says. “What a mess she made.”
One time his sister-in-law was getting rid of some extra bags of fertilizer and topsoil in her garage. So he brought them to the woman’s house as a surprise. He got his brother-in-law to help dig holes in her flowerbeds. They planted marigolds. They even constructed a wooden outdoor swing.
At first the woman claimed she didn’t like the swing or the flowers. But she was lying. Old ladies like to play hard to get sometimes.
Because the truth was she adored him. And she told him this when she was on hospice care.
He misses her now. She died months ago, but he’s not broken up about it because he says in a knowing voice, “She’s not suffering no more.”
He insists that he is not a religious man. Instead, he takes a drag on his coffin nail and goes into a well-rehearsed lecture on religion. He tells me he doesn’t believe or putting on fancy clothes to sing songs with an organ. And he doesn’t want to listen to a 22-year-old seminary graduate speak for an hour about overcoming adversity.
He already knows enough about adversity. And the only songs he likes are ones with pedal steel solos.
No. This is his cathedral. This world. The trees, the sky, the dew-filled air at sunrise. You’d be hard pressed to find a happier guy.
He steps on his cigarette, then stretches a lanky frame and moans about how getting old sucks. He places his surgical mask over his face and yawns.
His day is about to begin. He has deliveries to make this morning. People are counting on him.
We bump elbows because this is a pandemic. We say goodbye. When he walks away, I see a glimpse of him from behind and I am more than a little surprised. Because I really was expecting to see wings.
I guess his Honda will have to do for now.