“Nope, I can’t make it,” the maintenance man flatly refused without offering a reason.
“Earl can do it,” he continued. “It’s easy, just tell him to… Is he there? Let me just talk to him.”
I handed the phone over to Earl with a shrug, “He won’t come out and he wants you to do it,” I whispered with a twinge of guilt in the pit of my stomach.
Earl is a tiny, old black man, made about ten years older due to his health. He wore the same self-assigned uniform of a black pants and a collared shirt every day, pressed and ironed, with pleats sharp enough to slice a blade of grass in half. He walked slowly with heavy, thudding steps that announced his presence before his actual arrival. Orthopedic shoes make it very difficult to sneak up on someone.
Fortunately, Earl was not a one to sneak, steal, lie or cheat. He kept a demanding moral code and held tightly to the training he received in the military, meaning that he never shirked responsibility or refused an order from a superior.
The maintenance man, on the other hand, received no formal training other than from the School of Hard Knocks and had no moral code. He had no scruples about assuming a superior position to which he had earned no right and making Earl do his work.
“No problem, I can do that,” Earl said after thoughtfully listening to the maintenance man on the phone when he should have been saying, “No, that’s a problem,” and “I won’t do that.”
Without complaint or hesitation, Earl hobbled away with a strange new limp.
Something was wrong, but what, I wondered.
“Wait, let me do it,” I shouted after him and raced across the room to cut him off at the door.
“No, I’ll do it. It will just take me a minute and I’ll be right back.”
Earl pled with his eyes. Please, don’t take this from me.
And I let him go.
Over an hour passed before he returned, perspiring and covered with cobwebs and grease. He dropped into a chair and pulled a plain, white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his forehead. If he was in pain, it was a mystery to me.
It was a little later that I discovered the origin of the new limp and the teeny, tiny feeling of guilt exploded into that of a massive fireball and my admiration for Earl grew at the same rate.
I learned the following things about Earl.
- Earl’s toe was just amputated one day earlier.
- The stub was wrapped in gauze and stuffed inside of his orthopedic shoe.
- Earl refused all pain medications so he could come to work in spite of having lots of PTO.
- Earl needs a vacation. And a new third toe. He really misses it.