The fresh, salty sea air fills my nostrils as I inhale a long deep breath, leaving a smile on my face. Even from seven miles away, I could still smell the ocean. The town hall I’m walking into looks like a private home rather than an official municipal building, and it serves a small town – approximately 600 residents. It’s been eighteen months since I started my job here and for the first time in my search for a career, I feel as if I’ve found one that fills me with a sense of purpose. Strolling through the “Employees Entrance” located at the rear of the building, I swipe my time-punch card, the digital numbers reading 8:23 a.m. The small, short hallway is dark and cold as I’m the first one to arrive and the weather outside has recently shifted with the fall season. At the end of the hall is a locked door with an office to the left and one to the right.
“Morning, Eric,” I call out to the man in the left-hand office. He is a big man in height and girth, with a shaven bald head, a goatee and glasses.
“Morning. How are you?” he asks through the tobacco chew wedged in his mouth between his cheek and teeth.
“Good,” I answer. It’s the same old, same old.
I turn to the right-hand office, the gold plaque on the door reading Town Clerk in black letters, take my keys out of my pocket and unlock the door. A flick of the light switch brings life to the slumber of my office. No voicemail light on my phone, I turn on my computer and walk out to the lobby to start a pot of coffee, which I’ve recently taken over with my Starbucks Blonde Veranda – a vast improvement compared to the sludge previously provided from some offsite generic coffee company.
The smell of the coffee roasting begins my day and I notice three of the town's volunteers are holding a balance class for senior citizens in our town hall chambers. I walk down a short hall through the foyer and unlock the door for the chamber room so they can get in to immediately set up. When I return to my desk, I sit down and see the first image to catch my eye. Three faces with frozen smiles stare back at me. The largest face belongs to a woman with prematurely graying hair mixed in with auburn brown, making her hair seem more blond than gray, a big grin on her face and gleaming brown eyes. Beside each cheek of her face are two small, round faces – one seven-year-old with long brown curly hair, blue eyes, a slight spattering of freckles upon her cheeks and a smile betraying her desire for adventure and competition; the other a five-year-old replicate of her mother when she was her age, with short straight brown hair, and a dimpled smile not as wide as the other faces pictured, showing her introverted, creative nature. Behind them is the small blue-gray one-story house we moved in after transplanting from Maryland. After living in the busy, hostile urban areas of Maryland most of my life, I promised that if I had my chance, I would find a nice relatively quiet town and spend the rest of my life in peace. It is a warm, cozy home in a comforting, quiet neighborhood, located just ten minutes from my work.
"Could you help me set up the room, Matt?" a female voice asks.
My thoughts are interrupted by one of our volunteers, Susan, who is heading the balance class. The coffee will have to wait. I follow her into the room and can see a small group of the elderly people entering the building. One of them, Mr. Williams, uses a walker. I look at him and can picture him as the once-tall muscular man he once was -- a veteran of the Navy -- now hunched over and suffering from the effects of Parkinson's disease. He is shaky but his wife is by his side to help him -- in sickness and in health. I greet them both with a warm hello, hoping my wife is as caring and patient if we are ever in that situation come our golden years. I walk up to the front of the room and begin connecting the laptop for a PowerPoint presentation -- but failing miserably. Then I hear a slight shuffle and peer up in time to look toward the back of the room and see Mr. Williams lose his footing and fall with full force toward the floor. Everything moves as if in some cheesy slow motion movie effect. I see his feet close together, as if they are bound. The fall is so quick and inevitable; the aging man's Parkinson's prevents him from raising his hands to break his fall. Susan, Mrs. Williams and the others let out cries and yelps as Mr. Williams' body meets the ground with a loud thud, his thin skin showing a ripple as it meets the hard floor. My body takes over from my brain and I'm over to him before I can think of what to do.
Mrs. Williams is already trying to help her husband of 68 years up but her own frailty denies her. She tries a second time as I grab Mr. Williams' other arm, neither one of us noticing the bloody scrapes on his hand and elbows. Mr. Williams appears frail but when I first pull to lift him up, his strong frame makes him heavier than expected. This time, Mrs. Williams' strength kicks in and we carefully help him to a chair.
"Oh, George!" his wife says, almost as if nagging him.
Mr. Williams looks up to me with bewildered blue eyes, the frightened look of a man unable to control his own self, almost unable to comprehend what had just happened. No words come out but merely a struggling, short, whispered moan as if he had just seen a ghost and were unable to speak.
"Are you alright, Mr. Williams?" I ask, looking at his hands and legs to make sure there were no cuts or broken bones. My eyes peruse his ears, the top of his balding head, his wrinkled forehead, noticing his skin as thin as crinkled paper. There is a big red patch of blood on the back of his right hand and a red blossom has spread on his white cotton dress shirt near his lower back. One of the volunteers is told to go get a first aid kit. Then, for the first time, I look into Mr. Williams' haunted blue eyes.
Looking back into those eyes, I feel something so pure and so unreasonably dismayed that I want to shrink down inside myself. Witnessing that moment of vulnerability feels as if I were watching the world beat on a weak person, telling him he was feeble, useless and worthless, and leaving me unable to do anything. His eyes speak to me. They plead.
"I'm sorry," I hear them saying. "I didn't used to be this way."
I can barely keep eye contact with him because his vulnerability is so honest and so disarming coming from an adult so much older than me. He should not be embarrassed or apologetic for anything. His stare quickly turns from embarrassment to gratitude, and I can no longer bear to look him in the eyes as tears sting the corners of my eyes. The unadulterated goodness and gratitude in his eyes troubles me and makes me abashedly cower as the few tears evaporate. I come to think of all the past years and recent days I was impatient and judgmental toward strangers who I deemed weaker than me and those I love because I was judged in the same way by peers most of my early life. His look cuts through me, making me ashamed of this aspect about myself. I know it was not the world that beat on people like Mr. Williams. It was my youthful self.
Even though his gaze is coming from one much older than me, Mr. Williams' stare begins to transform into one which reminds me of a very small child showing a parent or guardian how much they are thankfully dependent on them, how grateful they are when helped and loved. My urge to look away turns from shame into the acknowledgement that we are all one -- our birth, our happiness, our sadness, our death. Despite all of the distractions of politics and religion, or the disguises of difference such as nationality, race, sexuality, wealth, and gender -- which we often foolishly use to separate us -- I truly know we are all one. I think of my children and how one's past can rub off on another's future. Then I think there is no better inheritance to this life than the happiness we leave for others.
His wife thanks me repeatedly but all I can concentrate on are the pair of now-misty eyes directed at mine -- as if we had just shared some wondrous secret. I can see in his gaze the beauty of humanity when we help each other. His gaping, quivering mouth moves as if he wants to desperately say something -- a thank you or maybe a frightened reply -- but his Parkinson's has now disabled him from doing so, and no words come out, just muted breath.
I gently touch his shoulder and say, "It's OK."
The corners of his mouth lift as far as he can move them to show an infirmed smile. I am able to look him in the eyes again and see the tears well along the corners of his eyes for a fleeting moment before they retract.
This is the first time in a job that I have felt as if I'm making a difference in any way. I feel part of a community. I feel I am giving to something bigger than myself. My wife and parents would love for me to eventually become town manager and that may be in the cards for me sometime in the future. But as I part Mr. Williams and his stare remains with me, I know I'm where I need to be right now.