Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A man I'll never meet

If you are female and work with other women, soon enough you will come to know a great deal about one another's husbands, children, and extended family members. Even the most hostile officemates know this. Sex, money, drinking, divorces, the days you want to kill your children: we hear it all. More often than not, we empathize.

Men are less like this. I don't mean to broadly stereotype or speak unkindly of the male sex. But the differences between what my husband and I know about our co-workers are always remarkable. He never knows who is married, who has kids, whose son is struggling to read at grade level. Women know all that, and more.

Such are my relationships at work. I have mentioned the incredibly close quarters I share with three women. I like them all--thank God--and know plenty about their families. As they do about mine.

So it is I have come to know my colleague's cousin by marriage (identifying details have been changed). This young man grew up African-American with the proverbial deck stacked against him--single parent in trouble, too many siblings, no money, no place to live, no stability. Life was a series of welfare motels and hustling to ensure he and his younger sibings had something to eat.

Enter my colleague into his family, by marriage.

My colleague is a wonderful woman: intelligent, terrific sense of humor, charming. She has a gift for communicating with even the most difficult people. In a now-legendary moment, she offered one of the most uptight, egotistical faculty members a taste of her lunch, which he happily accepted. She welcomed "Ryan" into her extended family, offering him everything he so needed: a listening ear, financial help, encouragement, role models in the form of her and her husband. Ryan always had a meal at her table and a bed in her home. She offered him unconditional love, and he responded by getting off the streets, getting a job, and trying desperately to get his act together. I know: like the rest of her family, he called her at work a lot. So I knew about his new job in a very White city, where he worked long hours to earn cash. I knew about his girlfriend and his mom and his granny. He wanted to go back to school. He wanted to travel: he'd never been out of California.

My colleague shared with me the many casually cruel incidents that comprised Ryan's days: people crossing the street at the sight of his six-foot, dark-skinned personage. The woman in a car who locked her doors when she saw him walking nearby. The lack of acceptance in his new workplace. Two weeks ago he was hurt on the job and taken to the hospital. Despite severe injuries, they offered him only the crudest of care--he was uninsured--and sent him home. He called my colleague and asked for help. She called the hospital. She made demands and took names. She called him--six or so times a day. My morning greeting became "How's Ryan?" Not hello, hi, how are you. How's Ryan?

Finally he was well enough to return to the Bay Area. He called again at the office, sounding much better. He was relieved to be back in familiar territory, amongst family and friends. His mother knew a clinic that would tend his broken bones. He was going to take it easy with the family. Recover.

This morning my colleague arrived at work sniffling and sneezing. A bad cold, one that is being passed round my office. She was in a funk but called to check in with Ryan anyway. Had he been to the clinic? No answer on his cell.

Late in the afternoon she decided to go home and lie down. Her phone began ringing off the hook. I was irritated, pissed she'd come to work sick, and maybe given her cold to me. I had a headache. Now her phone wouldn't quit. Couldn't whoever it was leave a message?

The next volley of calls came to my supervisor's phone, which she was there to answer. Calm down, she said. I can't understand you. Are you driving? Pull over. Pull over NOW. Oh God. Oh Jesus. Oh no.

The calls were from the police, who, unable to find my colleague at the office, called her cell phone, reaching her on the freeway. They informed her that Ryan was shot and killed this afternoon.

He was twenty-one.

I did not know Ryan. I only knew of him. And what I knew of him I liked--his general good sense, his strength, his generousity to his siblings. I shared my coworker's hopes for him--that he would marry his girfriend, find rewarding work, settle into the domestic happiness he craved. Ryan worked so hard for such a small measure of happiness, and even that was denied him.

I have no answers. I can barely wrap my mind around the problem. I can only ache for my co-worker and her family, feel horror at the thought of Ryan's last moments.

And so, in a useless act, I lit a Yahzreit candle, a Jewish Memorial Candle one lights to honor the dead. I am honoring Ryan, whom I never met, and now never will.

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