Saturday, Christmas Eve
One of the first things I do upon waking is look at the indoor/outdoor thermometer.
62 in. 3 out.
THREE! That’s brutal.
I checked downstairs, and the temperature was in the 50s. The woodstove heat doesn’t reach down there. Heat rises. I turned on the furnace and set it at 65 just so there would be some warmth flowing on the lower level.
Still the woodstove is keeping things almost 60 degrees warmer. I consider the Vermont Castings Defiant a friend and partner.
I’d put extra blankets on the side of the king bed I sleep on. Five of them. I crawled back under. It was like a cocoon. I’ve been writing more in the journal lately. So many things are going on. Often I think, ‘why bother?’ It is an exercise, I guess. I’ll never go back and look at things. The journals are about 17 in number now. Stacked in the closet with stickers taped to the spine. Journal #. Start and end month/year. This journal only has about 10 pages left. I looked at the front endpaper. I started this one on September 17th. London.
I did the other weekend morning rituals and bundled up with extra layers. Hoodie, knit hat, scarf, big bulky Carhartt coat, fingerless gloves and winter gloves over those.
I went out to the driveway and put the dogs into the old Jeep. The “dog car.” The passenger seat is covered with a cotton sheet, but there are still hundreds of short white dog hairs everywhere in it. That’s why the dogs only ride in that vehicle.
A text came in. It was from the kid who was a high school student a year ago. He only comes in on weekends.
“Are you here? The door is locked.”
“I thought you weren’t coming in. I’ll be there in about 20 minutes.”
“Is it ok if I take the day off?”
“Sure. Merry Christmas.”
It has been a year of “Merry Christmases.” More and more people are using it again. Some are saying it that I would not expect to. I’m still hesitant in some situations, because in my position I can’t be seen as being offensive.
It will only be me and Emory working today. He had been in Wednesday. He had jury-rigged a chain contraption to the corrugated crusher container. One of the arms that attached it to the building had broken.
When we can’t use the compactor, the boxes we empty of books pile up steadily. The ceilings are only 17 feet high here.
He texted me a picture after he finished working on it on Wednesday.
“A good temporary fix.”
Then he came and found me working on carts of books.
“KNOCK, KNOCK!” booming in from behind.
He always said that about 15 feet away from me on his approach. On weekends, he would often startle the bejesus out of me. Working solitarily in deep focus.
I never complained. He is very sensitive to criticism.
As am I.
He described his work and clearly wanted to show it off for me.
“Want me to come look at it?” I asked, knowing the answer.
He smiled and nodded. I followed him out into the dockyard. He explained how he had brought a “heavy-duty come-along” from home to fix it. Then he started describing things at the micro level. Then the subatomic level. My eyes glaze over whenever he does this.
“Amazing, Emory. You can fix anything.”
“Are you coming in Saturday?” he asked.
“It’s Christmas Eve. You don’t need to come in.”
He got a hurt look on his face.
“Sure,” I added. “It will just be you and me.”
Back to Saturday, standing in the driveway.
‘I’ll stop at 7-11 on the way in,’ I thought. ‘They are giving away a big muffin with any size coffee for $2.49. I’ll give Emory the muffin, as I so often do. He will have 3 McDonalds Bacon, Egg and Cheese Muffins for the dogs, as he so often does.’
He always brought an extra one in case I had an extra dog for some reason. I’d break up the sandwiches in the fenced in dockyard and toss the pieces on the pavement. Merry and Pippin would eat the bacon first. Then the cheese. The egg and finally the muffin. Occasionally, I would steal a bit of bacon for myself.
I love bacon but never cook it.
A text came as I was about to get in the car. It was from Emory.
“He is either telling me he is at the warehouse or canceling. I’ll still get the free muffin for him. It can last in the fridge for a week.”
I opened the text. His wife was writing on his phone.
“Emory passed away this morning in his sleep.”
My body tightened as if I’d taken a blow. A 2X4 to the forehead. Time froze in the 3-degree frigid air. I don’t know how many heartbeats later I composed myself to reply.
God bless him
He was a hero to me
Let me know if we can do anything
My prayers are with you”
We exchanged a couple more texts. She wrote he had died in his sleep. He was fine the day before. Likely a heart attack.
I got to the warehouse and set up the dogs in their pen. Then I walked to Emory’s workroom. We let him use a space in the building to do his thing.
He had a chair tucked in the back, nearly hidden in a corner, though I’d never seen him in it.
I looked down, and he had about 50 tubs of McDonald’s syrup stacked on a bottom shelf next to it.
I sat down and said an “Our Father.” Then I burst into tears and wept unashamedly alone in the dark, surrounded by his hoard of tools.
I thanked him for all his advice and friendship. I thanked God for putting him in our path.
After a while, I composed myself and went out to the warehouse floor and sat on the stool where I would spend the day looking at books. I’d picked up a legal pad from the scrap paper pile on the way. I poured myself out in words.
An angel or saint?
A mystical friend from God
He had a particular genius
He could bring dead things back to life
Shyly proud of his abilities
he would tell me,
“I was blessed.”
I expected him here today
He asked to come in Christmas Eve
I planned to bring him a muffin
He would always bring sandwiches for the dogs
3 bacon egg cheese biscuits
He brought them hundreds over the years
When I arrived that frigid day
I walked to his workroom
I sat in his chair in the corner
surrounded by tools and machines
A hoard of complex devices
He could operate every one
I prayed “Our Father”
Tears flowed down my cheeks
I hope he knows
Perhaps he does
The motion-controlled lights
out on the loading docks
flickered on one after the other
as I approached.
Something moved out there to trigger them
“Is someone here?”
I checked. I’m all alone.
Making one last inspection perhaps
Haunt me, Emory
Advise me from on high
when you’re not resurrecting the machinery of heaven
Thank you for seeing us through these years
We’ve been blessed.
Addendum, December 27, Tuesday
In the predawn blackness, I stir
Warm under extra bedclothes
I’d just as soon curl up
Return to that safe place
where there is no time or labor
A womb of comfort and rest
But a new life begins this day
A new era. We are on our own
Our guardian angel has flown to heaven
We must do our own tasks unguided
Alone in the vast building on Christmas Eve, I sat on a stool and did my work. Books after books. Frigid outside. The dogs silent in their pen nearby. I worked to keep the tears at bay.
Then surprisingly, another arrived to work on Christmas Eve.
“How’s your cough?” she asked.
“Emory passed away this morning.”
We both burst into tears. She reached for a hug, but I rushed outside to be alone with my bawling. The dogs following me looked up, wagging their tails with concern on their faces.
He loved you guys. “The Boys.”
“Take good care of them boys.”
I picked up a couple of golf balls and threw them across the long pavement. They dashed headlong after them. Full speed. The one goal in their life right now is to capture them. They’ll be 84 in dog years in a few weeks. They haven’t slowed a step, just a little grayer around the muzzle.
In 2013 when we contracted on this building (our previous location had been condemned—it was to be knocked down so a new Walmart could be built), we discovered just how complex the machinery inside was. It had been a post office distribution facility for the whole region. 100,000s of pieces of mail flowed through it every day. Apparently, it was open 24/7. There had been no locks on the doors. The main entrance doors had turnstile gates, the kind you push through to get in but can’t continue pushing through to get out. It was full of surveillance equipment. A quarter mile of enclosed catwalk with periodic observation portals and eavesdropping equipment. Fiber optics. Machines installed to filter out anthrax spores. There were dozens of power panels and at least as many transformers buzzing ominously throughout the building.
“How do we turn on the lights?”
There were no simple switches.
No one knew.
We’d ask various people involved in the transaction. We asked the people coming in to dismantle and remove the tons of equipment left behind.
No one knew.
Chris Kline, my advisor and mentor for nearly 40 years, checked around. He had “forced” me to buy the building. Friend and broker.
“There’s a guy named Emory, people say. He knows everything about the building. Been there since it was built. But he is hard to find. I’m looking for him.”
Eventually, Chris found him. He was retired. He had recently gotten over cancer. He wasn’t interested in consulting until he found out it was Wonder Book moving in.
“That place saved my life,” he told Chris. “I would go there after my treatments and look through the books. I’ll help them.”
Thus began a nine-year one-way relationship.
When he first came to the building, I was a bit startled at his appearance. He had a wild mane of long gray hair. He had a long gray beard falling to his chest. He wore a dark blue jumpsuit like a mechanic would wear. His eyes were a bit sunken. His face deeply lined. He was slight and a bit stooped.
‘He looks like the God of the Old Testament,’ I thought.
“Kids think I look like ‘Sanny Claus,'” he told me some time on.
He led me through the building and explained the myriad of workings. My eyes soon glazed over.
I spent more time with him likely than anyone else these years in the warehouse. He liked to chat. And teach. I got so I could multitask—work at things while listening.
Kindness, gentleness personified.
He could weld a shelf on a busted book cart. He could operate this piece of machinery that was left behind. And everything in between.
Looks like it came off the Starship Enterprise, doesn’t it? We tried to sell it when we moved in. It was installed in the building AFTER it was abandoned, so it was never used. The manufacturer seemed disinterested. Others thought it was so highly specialized you’d need to find a “third world” country that might want it. So, it has sat here—aging.
It is called a Ride Through Generator, and I could explain what it was installed for, but that would put me to sleep. It is part of the “Tour” here sometimes.
He began bringing in tools to the room we let him use.
He once told me, “I’m your dog. You tell me what to do. I want Wonder Book to survive.”
Last Wednesday when he installed that temporary fix—his last project here—he apologized.
“I would have come in sooner, but I was away at an equipment auction. I found [something technical I didn’t understand] cheap! It is worth [a lot of money.] It was a project hauling it home.”
He would often go to auctions. He described his few acres near the Potomac as filled with trailers laden with equipment. He had vintage tractors. His favorites were the ones that ran on tracks—like military tanks. He was able to bring those old things back to life because… he liked resurrecting things. Out in the country somewhere, there are acres of equipment and tools and building supplies that were too good a deal for him to pass up.
When we would get inspected for the sprinkler system or alarms, he would insist on being present to “Make sure them boys know what they’re doin’.”
When we called in a roofer or electrical contractor or… “I want to make sure them boys know what they’re doing and don’t take advantage of you.”
I don’t toss around the word genius lightly. His genius spread across mechanical, electrical, chemical and other scientific things. He had various high certifications over his lifetime. I’ve never met any one person whose genius spread across so many fields.
He had no ear for music.
“I don’t understand it,” he once told me because I often have music playing when I work. He added, “I wasn’t blessed with that.”
He liked worthless old tech manuals. He would often pick out the same odd volumes of 1930 Audels over and over.
“How much for these?”
“They aren’t worth anything, Emory. We would pulp them at less than a penny.”
“A buck apiece. I want Wonder Book to survive.”
He would pick out books from the recycling Gaylords. Junk.
“We don’t even get a penny from the recyclers.”
“Oh, there’s some good information in these.”
His viewing was Wednesday. Five of us came. It was an open casket. His hair and beard were uncombed and untrimmed. He wore a dark blue mechanic’s jumpsuit. He looked like he was sleeping.
I dropped to my knees before the casket and said my prayers to and for him. I thanked him for being our guardian angel these years. Tears welled up, and I rose, a bit unsteadily.
I’ve heard stories all week of kindnesses he would perform for people in the company. He would visit their homes and fix their electricity or plumbing—whatever—and never accept a thing.
I’ve been lucky with mentors over the years. Emory was a giant among those giants.
It hurt so much.
I’ll be in tomorrow. Saturday. New Year’s Eve. Not quite alone. But part of the world I’ve lived in will be missing. There’s a hollowness in my chest as I write.
At the viewing Staci, one of the warehouse managers, said, “I sent those flowers to the left of the casket.”
I went to the vase on a pedestal. The card read:
“We are all just leaves floating down the river of life.”Emory
He had a great deal of folk wisdom and nature knowledge. He could name the trees and bushes better than I—and I’m pretty good at most of them.
All that knowledge gone.
All his kindness and gentleness gone.
Just memories left.
So ends 2022.
Another bad year in so many ways.
Business was fine. The trips were wonderful, if perhaps a bit desperate.
“Life” wasn’t great.
I look back fondly at 2019.
I texted two friends who have sort of gone underground.
“Let’s pretend it is 2019 and meet for happy hour and maybe dinner after.”
They both replied in the affirmative.
I hope it happens.
It is Friday, December 30th. Yesterday, I went home early. The temperature was in the high 40s. I’m running out of time to plant the remaining flower bulbs. I got the big adze and drove down to the mound near the bottom of the drive. I think the original owner put it there to keep a vehicle that slid off the drive from falling into the deep logging ditch that parallels the steep drive. Last spring, I planted 5 store-bought trees (3 redbud, 2 dogwood) on it. I had a contractor friend install the official Tree Farm sign atop it. I swung the heavy iron head into the earth to dig a trench to set the bulbs in.
My bronchitis or flu or “negative” COVID has not healed completely. The cough and congestion are gone, but the weakness lingers.
The ground was still frozen but for the top few inches. The soil would flip up in icy slabs. I got a couple of hundred in before… it just hurt too much.
I went in and put some leftovers on to heat. A big roll someone brought to work was a little hard. The microwave softened it. I tore it in half and scooped out the soft inside. I put in some cheddar and blue cheese. I chopped some sweet Vidalia white onion and spread that atop it. I heated it til the cheese melted. I ate it watching Sharpe. It was good and warm and not too rich. There are only a few episodes left. I had a little Prosecco. My disease has made alcohol not taste very good.
Christmas Eve and Christmas day were miserable. It was the first year neither boy was back at the old house. They need to rotate with their spouses’ families. They came after, and we have had festive evenings all week.
It is supposed to rise to the 50s today. I still have 500 or so bulbs left to put in. There may not be many more opportunities before the ground freezes hard. And it is getting late. Already some are desiccated. Dead. I think the family will go out to dinner tonight, but the plans aren’t out yet.
I had a great dream last night. I was in a book mall that doesn’t exist. Three stories of storefronts on either side of a roofed-over open space. You can look up at the shops. 40? 50? Both sides have a balcony you can walk along to enter the stores. Old friends run some of them. One guy that I knew looked down grumpily from the third level and cast some insult. When I thought about that face, it doesn’t exist in my ken. I went in a shop shared by John and Owen. An odd partnership outside of dreamland. We chatted about books. They had a long run of Clive Barker in slipcases. The fronts of each book and case had been chewed, but I still coveted them.
“75% off. The same you give us.”
“Got any Diet Coke?”
“The guy on the first level sells soda. His books are pretty bad, though.”
Then I awoke and rose to put more wood on the fire. 5 a.m. I started writing this. Soon, a dusky red dawn began to light the world from the horizon.
I’ll be in Saturday and Sunday. There are a lot of carts awaiting my attention.
The phone says highs will be in the 50s or 60s the next 6 days. That will be enough to get the bulbs in—finally.
Then I have all those redbud seedlings to transplant. Some are over two feet high.
We had found a signed by the Dalai Lama book a couple of weeks ago.
I had Annika put it aside, as no one here reads Tibetan. Oddly, another copy came in, and it was inscribed too.
“Compare these for me, Annika. Are they identical?”
“Signed and dated in facsimile, Chuck.”
“I didn’t look closely.”
Autographs. Trickier and trickier.
A nice guy brought in 25 boxes from his parents’ estate. We put the boxes on the dock. I looked tentatively in each.
He said some were autographed and began reading off a list.
‘Nobody,’ I thought as he read.
“Louisa May Alcott.”
“What box is that in?” I asked.
I found it. There was a signed inscription beneath the frontispiece. It was executed in sepia ink.
‘Facsimile,’ I thought.
I checked on my phone.
“She died two years before the book was published. Unless her ghost signed it.”
I offered in $250 for the lot. Way too much.
“I’ll need to check with my sister.”
His wife, standing behind him, rolled her eyes toward the ceiling.
We helped put the boxes back in the Honda.
But another great book arrived. This one is signed with provenances. Walter Scott. Not an easy autograph and even tougher to verify.
Let’s hope 2023 brings good books and good times to all of us.
Happy New Year!