“It's all just so much desperation,” said the Plumber, scratching his eyes and coughing, “just look at it out there.” He motioned out his window. “Look at all that garbage. Kids don't have anything to hope for now these days. If I were eighteen, I'd probably pierce every cheek on my body.”
I took a deep whiff of the Plumber, and tried to identify the complex odor. It was perhaps a part bacon, a part Old Spice, a little bit of newsprint, and a finish of strong, black coffee. He smelled of my grandfather, in a way, and of that whole generation in another. The Plumber first died in 1918, as a young rifle-carrying man in France. The next time he died was of a broken heart when his own son was listed as missing in action somewhere in the Philippines back in '43. After that he died several times from a number of ailments, most notably of criticism in '53, fatigue in '59, and another broken heart in '68. The Alzheimer's got him sometime in the 1970's, and then he died a rather dramatic death at the hands of a gas turbine in 1994 (this death went unreported, however). In 2003 he died a second death from fatigue, and since his most recent death in 2010 (from consumption, of all things, but perhaps not the consumption you are thinking of), he has been mostly healthy.
But he smelled this particular day of bacon and Old Spice.
“Some people talk to me about hope, you know, but I never know quite what to say. I saw hope raise up its head one two many times, only to get it shot off. I don't think I can fault anyone for feeling a little despondent.” The Plumber lit another cigarette and put it to his lips. He inhaled deeply and then picked an errant bit of tobacco from his tongue.
The Plumber reasoned with the sky, and the sky cooperated. “Rain on my garden, for I need my lettuce,” prayed the Plumber. “I grow lettuce as did the Roman legions.” He then turned to address me. “Did you know that the Roman soldiers carried lettuce seed with them when they marched? They did this because lettuce grows quickly and if they were in one place for even just a short time they could grow some fresh produce. I grow my lettuce even though I'm not going anywhere.”
Plumber saw it all play out and his serial deaths did not distract him. He was distracted for a brief, three-day period in 1983, but it all worked out just fine.
“But I tell you again,” said the Plumber, “kids today just don't have anything to hope for. There is no real future, most of them won't have real jobs, and the men will not learn how to be real men.”
“Real men?” I asked.
“You know what makes a real man? It takes integrity, fidelity and a desire for truth.” The Plumber looked real serious. “What a man does when he is alone – that kind of shows you what his true character is, and a real man will act with as much virtue when he thinks no one is watching as he will when he is on the public stage. Real men act with integrity, fidelity and wisdom. I used to loathe men who were not real men. Now I just feel sorry for them and I pity them.”
The Plumber reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, old-fashioned framing square. He gently but firmly pushed the corner of it into my chest. “Let that be in your memory, OK?”
“OK,” I agreed.
He pulled back the square. “It's bad for those kids today, but even worse for those who do nothing about it, and infinitely worse for those who don't even care. You know what I mean?”
I confessed to the Plumber that I only understood a little.
“That's all right,” he said, “it comes with time.”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“Just remember, though,” he said, “that for us the thing called 'time' is a one-way journey that we cannot reverse."
I looked up, and the starry-decked heavens above were a pure, pure blue.