The last time I ever saw Bob alive, he took me aside toward the end of one of his shifts. Business had slowed, we were cleaning up. I was rearranging some product in the front of the store.
“Hey,” he said, rolling up his apron and throwing on his hat. His voice was a bit gravelly, and he cleared his throat as he continued. “I just want to tell you that I appreciate working with you.”
“Thanks, Robert,” I said. “I appreciate that.”
He nodded, throwing on his jacket. I had been kneeling and slowly brought myself up from my knees and onto my feet, dusting my hands off at my sides.
“It gets a little crazy here sometimes,” he continued. “I like that you just sort of keep things in order most of the time. I can’t say the same thing about everyone else here.”
I laughed. “Yeah, it’s one of my talents, I guess. I try to keep things even-keeled.”
We shook hands. We laughed. We made some more small talk. After a while, he looked me in the eye, thanked me again, and exited the store as I told him to have a good night. A few days later, I received a call from my boss in which she informed me that he’d taken his own life.
Robert, or “Bob” as some of us had called him, was sort of a gruff type who didn’t always gel with everyone. With me he was fine, but I could tell that in this world of teenagers and frappuccinos he felt out of place. I mean, I didn’t blame him. I was only in my thirties and I felt the same way sometimes. He was almost double my age. Perhaps that’s why we connected as much as we did.
In my dealings with him, I discerned that he’d had a sort of sad past though he never said much about it other than about his ex-wife. I got the impression that he’d loved her and that their separation was still affecting him. Though Bob was gruff and sometimes melancholy, once you got to know him and pried your way through his walls somewhat – he was a funny guy, a smart guy, and a guy who’d had a lot of experiences in his life that he liked to share. In fact, one of our employees was headed to France for part of her trip and he gave her a list of places he’d been, and what they meant to him. He was that type of person.
He’d regale us of his adventures in New York, in Seattle, in France. The places he’d gone, the people he’d seen. The food he’d eaten. The customers he’d served as a bartender. He made lots of jokes when he was in a good mood, and he was grumbly and solitary when he was in a bad one. In effect, he was like all of us.
When I found out he’d killed himself, I held the phone to my ear for a short while, unsure what to say until my boss asked me if I was still there and brought me back to reality. I was devastated. We all were, and some more than others. For my own purposes, Bob was not someone I knew extremely well. But I liked him. He worked hard, he wanted to learn, and those are important qualities for someone you work with to have. And then, when you learn that someone dies – your brain automatically sifts through all of your interactions with that person, trying to discover if there was any hint of what was to come.
One of the last times I’d seen Bob before the final time, he saw me reading “Grant” by Ron Chernow on my break and he asked me how it was. I told him I was enjoying it, and he asked me if he could borrow it when I was finished.
“Oh, yeah!” I said. “Most definitely. I didn’t know you were into history.”
“Yeah,” he replied, grinning. “I guess you could say that.”
He never did get to read that book.
Looking back over Bob’s Facebook profile after he was gone, trying to think of something to write about him, I noticed that he held his past self in high esteem. It’s like he wanted to travel back in time, maybe to fix mistakes he’d made. Image after image he uploaded was of himself in his younger days. I stared into the eyes of younger Bob in an old photo from the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, a bottle of Heineken to his lips, stogie in hand, epic sideburns and a knowing grin plastered across his face. I imagined Bob uploading the photo and looking wistfully at his younger self as he sat in darkness.
I can only imagine the pain he was going through, and I hope wherever he is that pain is gone. I’m not going to pretend that I know Bob in and out, or that we were friends, or that his death affected me more than others I’ve experienced. I don’t need to. Bob is just someone I worked with who is no longer with us and is deserving of at least a passing thought in all the hubbub of daily life that moves on ceaselessly even though it seems like there should at least be a small moment of silence.