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Waiting for the Grim Reaper

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I went down to get my newspaper early this morning and noticed that a box from Amazon had been propped into place to hold the building’s front door open.

Odd, I thought. My first theory was that someone had broken in overnight. So I picked the package up and tossed it onto the lobby bench.

Then I heard the loud penetrating noise of a siren and looked up, outside the lobby windows, to see an Oakland Police Department officer urgently gesturing. Of course I opened the door. He apologized profusely, said he had placed the package there to keep the door open, and explained that someone in the building had died.

“What unit number?” I asked. He didn’t know, but he did know it was on the second floor.

“Howard,” I said, to myself.

He was exactly my age and, like me, Jewish. He’d lived in the building almost as long as I had. He had fastened a mezuzah onto the left side of his door post and when I asked him why (he did not seem to be a religious man), he grinned and said, “It can’t hurt.” We’d never been particularly close. He was not a friendly man and appeared to have no friends; I can’t recall a visitor in twenty years. He was a bit of a recluse and also something of a hoarder. An insurance salesman by trade, he’d often be heard talking loudly into his phone, inside his apartment, arguing over some claim with someone. In recent years, he looked increasingly gaunt to me. He walked hesitantly, slowly, with the unsteady gait of an old man which, of course, he was. His skin tone was pallid, and he had deep, black hollows beneath his eyes. I hadn’t known him to suffer from illness, the way another neighbor my age, Richard, had; at least three or four times, Richard was whisked away by paramedics after a heart incident, before finally dying of a heart attack shortly before the pandemic. And now, it was Howard’s turn.

I made a little sign and put it up in the lobby on the bulletin board:

TAKE A MOMENT

TO REMEMBER

H O W A R D

#205

WHO DIED OVERNIGHT

IN HIS APARTMENT

I doubt that most people in the building even know who he is, or was. He seldom ventured out of his apartment, especially over the course of this past year. Most of the people in my condo building are young. They don’t really “live” here, they just dwell here for a year or two before moving on to the next place, and they consequently don’t get to know their neighbors. I suspect they’ll look at my sign and think, “Who was Howard?” But Howard was a person.

I’ve reached that point where Death is omnipresent. “Time’s winged chariot” and all that. Richard – Howard – I would make a perfect trifecta.

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