Some commotion signaled his advance, just a few decibels shy of a ruckus. He must have clipped some display, some remnant of more sanguine times. You know that sound when the electric guitar player runs his hand all the way up and down the fret board? It was like that, only sloppy. Then came the hear ye! hear ye! Absent the clanging bell. Just the sound of his very ticked off voice demanding service.
“Calling K-Mart personnel,” he began. “Can I get K-Mart personnel to the electronics department? Somebody wants to buy a frickin’ TV and get the hell out of here.”
Unlike my fellow traveler, I wasn’t doing much of anything there. I hadn’t left home to seek a treasure in this retail yesterday. I was just taking a break. I’d been removing desiccated mortar with a wire brush from the fieldstone foundation of an apartment house I owned not more than ten minutes from here. The job was dirty and tedious, and I wore snow pants layered now with chalky cakes of grit and dust. My fishing club sweatshirt was tattered at the cuffs and spotted with oily muck and mire, giving me the general appearance of someone who didn’t give a shit, but in truth, they were just filthy work clothes.
While the errant knight, thwarted in his quest for all things flat screen and letting the world know about it, barreled down on me, I began to backpedal. It was a big place, and I thought I might double back to appliances or bedding, those repositories of shiny and fluffy things.
See, I had been given one of those Visa Gift Cards with something like a hundred bucks on it, and I decided on K-Mart because I needed a few things. Not the least of which was some distance between me and Elton Griggs, my plumber, whose alternating condemnations of apartment 2R’s cranky boiler and unfiltered self-affirmations at any favorable turn, had begun to work my last nerve. The beast in the basement hadn’t been right for two years. Elton was the third man in on the job. And this was his third attempt to fix it. I felt his pain, but this time around I wasn’t letting anyone who couldn’t say, “Yep, that ought to do it,” and then demonstrate to me a fully operational system, out of the basement alive.
On that subject I would not backpedal, but to save my shopping odyssey, I was making haste back to the main concourse, that wide, gleaming aisle that separated the store entrance and register banks from endless aisles of tightly wrapped, packaged and unspoiled merchandise.
My retreat was not quick enough because just as I reached the more open midway, he clattered around the corner, the zipper of his open parka riding the edge of a shelf lined with clock radios and knocking some of them to the floor.
“Dude,” he said between rusty breaths, “Do you work in TV?”
Imagine a drawer full of socks. Half the socks look like the actor Christian Bale. The other half look like the singer Jonathan Richman. Now imagine mashing them together and pouring the results into a single sock. That is what this fellow looked like, two people poured into one sock. Except, ironically, for his feet, which seemed to turn out to the sides and lead him in opposite directions, which might explain his clattering gait.
On top of that, get this! I knew him, but he did not recognize me.
I gathered the two or three boxes from the floor and placed them back on the shelf. “No, I’m not in TV,” I said, “but let me see if I can find someone for you.”
And I started away from Platt Hardy, who once lived in the house I mentioned before. This was two, maybe three years ago when I first started seeing Holly, now my wife. This was before the love and the dual custody of the grand old Victorian where Elton Griggs now stalked the basement and cursed the fussy boiler.
Platt was a design school graduate who played bluegrass music and built his own banjos. I’d seen him around the place a couple of times, but he was gone before Holly and I became serious. Gone abruptly and in anger, from what I understood, and which didn’t surprise me since the one vivid memory I have of him is a conversation I overheard between him and Holly. He was trying to convince her to let him move to a recently vacated third floor apartment for the same money he was paying for the much smaller 2R.
He was giving her some straight talk about how he’d been stealing heat from the apartment below him, which was hers, of course, and on occasion, mine. He’d drawn on his uncanny knowledge of late 19th century architecture and the idea that his unheated pocket of an apartment would suck up any heat rising from the floor below. He’d done this by pointing a space heater at his thermostat, setting both it and the thermostat at the same temperature and tricking it; that is to say, keeping it from kicking on the boiler and using gas.
He bathed once a week and barely used the washer and dryer. To stay warm, he stole heat, wore layers of clothes and drank a lot of hot tea. He fancied himself a real sharp operator and argued that it was in his landlady’s best interest to let him have the bigger place above his own for the same money. She’d save hundreds on the heat he would no longer be stealing from her. It was a win/win, as he said, and at no point did it seem to occur to him that he might be the cracked actor in this scenario.
Later Holly told me she barely heard a word he said because he smelled badly and was as dusty as a moth.
As I walked away, he started shouting for K-Mart personnel again, and less than a minute later I saw one of them power-walking toward me. She was a young woman dressed in the regulation blue polo with the K-Mart logo and khaki pants.
“Do you need some help, sir?” she asked me.
“No, I do not,” I said, “but there’s a very excited fellow in electronics who could probably use you.”
She blushed a bit when she realized I wasn’t the ruckus and wished me a good day before she moved on.
I cruised to the appliance aisle near the back of the store after scooping up a carriage and tossing in some things I thought we needed for our cottage at the beach. I found a flashlight as big as a car battery, and a set of translucent wine goblets. I liked the colors and the fact that they were plastic and unbreakable. We’d been in the new place for about two years and it still felt like being on vacation. I was thinking about buying a juicer.
At some point, Platt trundled by me pushing a carriage with one hand, while he wrestled a box the size of a ping pong table with the other. I watched his attenuated frame tilt one way, then another, rolling the carriage past astonished clerks and around a corner that led to the stock area at the very back of the store. I wondered if there was some kind of pick-up and delivery dock in the rear, and if store protocol called for an employee to take the merchandise back there. I wondered if Platt was trying to trick them all by appearing to make off with a 55-inch Philips 4000 series LED-LCD TV. He reasoning that they’d never think he was actually stealing it because nobody would be that crazy.
My mind wandered back to mortar removal, Elton and the mystery of the boiler. Only that morning had I seen actual proof of its dysfunction for myself. Since the start of the heating season, every time I answered a complaint about it, I’d run up to the city only to discover that it was firing and in working order. On the previous two occasions, when Elton had come to change the gas valve and reroute the gas line, he’d also found the boiler working. Yet the exhausted emails from the tenant, who “just wasn’t always up for” going down to the basement and relighting the pilot, kept coming.
Then while I was there earlier, marinating in mortar, I received a text from the tenant in 2R. It said: “It’s 56 degrees in my apartment. Are you here? Could you look at the boiler?”
So, I did and then I saw for myself how things were__ the light of the world gone out. I called Elton and said, “My friend, it is not a dream. That pilot won’t stay lit.”
“Balls,” he said.
I made my way to the check-out.
The only cashier working was chatty and asked each paying customer about K-Mart club memberships and discounts and credits and such. As the line inched along, I heard Platt Hardy again and turned to see him and a tall, middle-aged man wearing one of those Muscovite-type fur hats walking by his side. He had one of Platt’s arms hooked and was leading him toward the front of the store, which was festooned with banners bearing the logo of the New England Patriots.
“Oh boy oh boy,” shouted Platt, “the Pats are gonna kick some ass this weekend. You said it, K-Mart. Wooo-weeee!!”
The top part of his body then jerked back toward the electronics department. His handler corralled him immediately. I couldn’t hear what the man said to him, but it seemed to calm him down and they continued through the pneumatic doors and into the parking lot.
I found myself back in the basement before I had much of a chance to think much about what might have happened to the guy, but seeing something like that makes you imagine all kinds of stress and trauma, something maybe catastrophic in his life. Then I thought I maybe should have talked to him.
And then, just as with Platt earlier, I could hear Elton Griggs before I caught up to him. When I found him in the boiler room, he seemed to hopping from foot to foot. “Son of a bitch. Son of a fuckin’ bitch,” he laughed.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“What’s going on? What the fuck is going on indeed?” he said and added, “Pardon my French.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t mind a little French.”
He was on his knees now, staring into the vented door of the boiler.
“Look at your pilot light,” he said.
I lowered myself into a similar position, getting right beside him. The blue flame of the pilot light, typically no larger than a fingernail, was a miniature tri-cornered hat of flame.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s different.”
“You bet your ass,” he said. “I was at my wit’s end, I don’t mind telling you. So, I called the utility. Last ditch idea, see, I thought there might be a gas pressure issue. So, they sent out a technician.”
“And, he does a test and the pilot blows out every time, and then he looks at the pilot assembly and says, ‘That isn’t right.’
“See,” he explained to me ___” wrong part for this particular unit. That little flame would blow out every time the thermostat triggered the boiler. That’s why it keeps shutting down and that is why your tenant keeps losing heat. And that is also why you may be unpopular with her.”
“That’s funny,” I said.
“Don’t shoot the messenger, boss.”
“So you’ve replaced it with the right one?”
“Had one out in the truck, yes sir.”
I had a strange thought. “Do you know, Elton, if that’s the way the thing came here?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean was the boiler manufactured with that pilot assembly?”
“Oh, right. No, no way. Someone had to screw with it along the line. Change it out.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Can’t say, boss. Don’t know, unless they thought they’d use less gas or something.”
“You don’t say?”
“I do,” he continued. “But that’s what happens. People start messing with things, all kinds of things, and they have no idea what they’re getting into sometimes. Not a damn clue.”
He was right of course, and maybe I’d just seen the proof. And maybe it hurt me in some way to think of that.
“You have to wonder what they’re thinking,” he continued. Then he laughed, “How about this damn boiler anyway?”
I didn’t want to spoil the moment, so, I said, “It’s one for the books, huh Elton?”
“Sure is,” he said, “which reminds me, I got a bill somewhere around here for you.”