With his wheelbarrow,he was accepted by even the newcomers in the condos. After all, he was recycling, and recycling was an acceptable, even desirable activity. They relaxed enough to speak to him when he bought lemonade at their children’s lemonade stands in summer. They would have spoken to him in the diner too, except they didn’t go to the diner and he, perhaps fortunately, never went to the new Starbucks.
In the diner they knew that when he came in on Friday nights, he would want the mushroom cheeseburger with everything. Coffee, they told him, was free when you brought a burger with everything. He did not argue but one evening he pulled out his picture of himself and his tank crew, unfolded it carefully and showed it to them.
By the time he was eighty the town had totally become a suburb of a larger city, Bill knew almost all the local people by name and by habit. When Deyan or one of his friends bought him a coffee or a beer at the Legion he would tell them who was not behaving according to habit and which of the teens were starting to hang around strangers in flashy cars.
“Saves a lot of trouble,” he said when the cops thanked him.
He was just shy of his 83rd birthday when he had his heart attack as he toiled up the steep street above Sharp’s Gap. It was early morning, still too dark to be looking for pop cans with his wheelbarrow. His body was spotted by a young programmer from the condos who called the ambulance on his cell phone and then tried to forget that scared old face for the rest of the day.
He lived alone, the programmer, in his first month of his first apartment with his first mortgage. He didn’t know Bill or his neighbors so there was no one to tell. When Deyan missed Bill he checked his apartment. He could’ve gone away, not told anyone. He checked Sharp’s Gap and the old quarry and several other likely spots just in case.
When he started to get worried he checked the local hospital for an old guy called Bill but his condition had been judged grave enough that he had been taken to the big teaching hospital downtown with its advanced equipment. They had listed him, with meticulous correctness, by his Chinese name. They managed to find his next of kin and his sister was with him when he died, holding his hand and gently stroking his forehead.
“He was so alone,” she told the social worker. “There was only me. He was a bit outspoken – rude maybe. People avoided him.” The social worker guided her through the paperwork.
A couple of weeks later, her husband having a spare afternoon, Bill’s sister set off across town to clean up his apartment before the next month’s rent fell due.
The landlord, upstairs, heard them and came down. His English wasn’t good but he seemed shocked to hear that Bill had died.
“You tell the cops?”
Well, no. That hadn’t seemed necessary in the circumstances.
“I tell cops.” He hurried out.
Surprised they looked at each other and her husband said, “Maybe back in his country that’s what they have to do.”
They carried on. A few minutes later two police cars pulled up outside.
“What has he been up to?” her husband asked. They braced against the discovery of a hidden and, no doubt, disgraceful private life.
Two young cops came in and asked questions politely and respectfully. They offered condolences, the younger cop almost choking on the words, turning away. The other cop stepped forward to help with the cleanup. With four people in a barely furnished room it did not take long.