No First Person

row_houses.jpg Reprise from Joe Felso…

Mr. Couch was never far from view.

He was sitting in a lattice lawn chair on the porch, or standing with a much younger companion at the open hood of his 70’s Cadillac, or stooping slowly to pluck stray bits of paper from the patch of grass between his sidewalk and the street, or painting just a bit of the railing on his front steps, or waving mutely to cars that crept down 30th Street.

Or he was inside, sitting in the gloom of his front room. Approaching the window periodically was part of his regular surveillance. Neighbors never failed to tell Mr. Couch when they would be out-of-town. He promised to collect any papers that arrived (despite the vacation stoppage) and place them inside your screen door. He promised to call the cops if he saw anything unexpected, and the neighborhood knew Mr. Couch could judge the unexpected better than anyone.

No one talked to Mr. Couch without an exit strategy. He wasn’t a storyteller—people knew remarkably little about him—but he could husband conversation the way he’d husband the cast-offs that peeked from his garage when the door rose. All those old paint and coffee cans full of something unseen expressed what every sentence said—Mr. Couch could make much of little and nothing went to waste. A string of clichés with little between them, every conversation left the lightest touch. The expressions he used were genteel and anachronistic. No one was sure what job Mr. Couch was retired from. No one knew his first name.

One winter, it snowed so heavily a snowplow couldn’t make it down 30th Street. All the neighbors came out to shovel the block. It wasn’t strictly necessary—no one would have been stranded or starved—and the gathering was largely accidental, a collective case of cabin fever pushing everyone out their doors at the same time. When a circle of neighbors gathered in the the street, it looked like a rainbow coalition—30th was a racially, professionally, religiously, and sexual-orientationally mixed street—and the first task was to clear Mr. Couch’s driveway and sidewalk. He shouldn’t do it himself, and everyone knew it should be done. The scrape of one shovel drew him from his sitting room. He thanked the workers stiffly and extensively and then, the transition invisible, he turned to supervising. Mr. Couch knew where snow should and shouldn’t rest, where plots of light fell on sunny days in February, the spaces snow might melt.

Sometime during the second hour, someone suggested a potluck, an improvised block party. That night, sitting around a neighbor’s living room few had visited, you might have had to blink the blur of implausibility from your eyes. There was Mr. Couch, enthroned in the best chair, explaining the lineage of every house on the street, its first and former occupants, the additions and subtractions, the children and adults that grew and left. His history wasn’t personal precisely. It was a conflation of names and events inseparably mixed, a story that couldn’t be teased apart. Mr. Couch was a balky time machine no more sure than his Cadillac, but all the neighbors—gathered as they never had and never would again—listened.

Everyone on the block knew Mr. Couch couldn’t stay forever, but he seemed to stretch the seasons with his slow steps and talk. You counted on him the way you counted on time passing, and another mark in the year found him in places you expected.

In memory, he is there still.

But now Mr. Couch must be gone—that was some years ago. 30th Street must be a new collection of names attached to the same addresses. Without Mr. Couch, it would have to be only that, a collection instead of a coalition, people who live on the same street, not neighbors.

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Filed under Aging, Essays, Gratitude, Home Life, life, Memory, Modern Life, Place, Recollection, Tributes, Urban Life

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