Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Maintenance Man

Larry bolts through the door as fast as an eager six-year-old at the gates of Disneyland. He charges past the window, where I sit idly perusing chili recipes online, and then doubles back, comically, like a bad Vaudeville actor with a straw hat yanked off the stage with one of those old-fashioned wooden canes. Larry, however, is neither a six-year-old nor a actor; he is the short forty-ish ponytailed maintenance man at the property management office where I am the secretary.
"Well hey there!" he says loudly. "How're you doin'?"
"Wonderful, thanks," I reply with an enthusiasm I didn't realize I had until he asked. "How are you, Larry?"
He opens his eyes wide and goggles at me as if flabbergasted that I should ask.
"Well, I've just never been better! I'm just trying to scrounge up some work around here, see if I can keep myself busy!"
"You do that," I tell him. "I put a coupla work orders back there for you. They're real good ones." Around Larry, I often find myself talking in more cheerful, down home country tones than I ever would usually, as if I am liable to dust my hands on my gingham apron and offer him a slice of homemade peach pie at any moment.
"Oh, well, all right, if they're good ones, I better get to 'em," he says seriously. He rounds the corner at the same pace and runs up the three steps to the back of the office, where Alex, crew-cut tidy and button-down shirt neat, greets him warmly.
"You ever gonna pay me?" Larry asks, exaggerating.
"Well, if you give me those receipts," Alex tells him.
Larry hands him a couple scrawled-on pieces of paper and Alex looks them over.
"Oh man, I don't know about this...John, we payin' him this much these days?"
"Larry, what are you tryin' to put over on him?" John pretends to demand from the corner office, raising one blond eyebrow over his black polo shirt.
I don't hear the rest of their conversation, but it ends in a burst of uproarious laughter from all three. Larry stomps back down the stairs and passes my window. I feel a little bit of sadness in my heart, like when you wave to a friend and they don't notice and you pretend that they did anyway so the other people walking around you won't realize that you were snubbed.
Then he doubles back again.
"You thought that I was gonna leave without saying goodbye, huh?"
"Yeah, I did," I admit. "And I felt a little sad." I hang my head. He laughs.
"Well, you have a good day now, all right?"
"Oh, I will, and you do the same."
"Well, I will sure try. I sure will," he says. "Well all right! See ya!"
He charges out to his rectangular white van, reminding me of a wild horse from Assateague Island, wiry and reckless and a little underfed.
John tries to explain to me, after the first time I meet Larry, how he feels about him. It feels like a warning, or a caution not to judge.
"You know, Larry might come in here wearing patched-up clothes with his long hair, but he has a good heart. He really is reliable and always has something good to say."
"Oh, I think Larry is great," I protest. "My dad always had contractors and plumbers and carpenters as his friends and they always seemed some of the kindest men I ever met."
"Exactly," John says, relieved. "Yeah, exactly."
I wonder secretly what John thinks about a man ten years older than him without the advantage of higher education, of a realtor father to shepherd him into the business, without an air conditioned office and a young and attractive wife to go home to. I like John very much. He is a decent person who believes in being fair and trying to help people out when he can. Sometimes I wonder, though, what it is that leaves some people, equally hard working and equally kind, acres apart in class and yet still able to joke with each other and not feel a twinge of guilt or envy on either side. Perhaps that is, deep in their hearts, what they really do feel. But John in his pressed khakis and Larry in his paint-splattered jeans never let the slightest hint of malice trace their countenances, and continue to smile across the divide.

(note: names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals they represent.)

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