He was a foul smelling and ill-tempered man. He looked like he’d been around the block a few times and up and down the alley a lot more.
The first time I met him was on the Hamline-Cherokee city bus. I was going to West St. Paul to the Mother’s of Mercy Nursing Home as part of my Legion of Mary public service. I made a weekly trip there to visit Jimmy Drummond, a disabled carillon player. His last gig before his stroke had been at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.
When I got on the bus, there were no seats left. It was after school and it was crowded. A few people were standing, but the seat next to his was empty, so I worked my way down the aisle. “Can I sit here?”
He raised his rheumy eyes. “Does it look like the damn thing‘s taken?” His rank exhalations carried the fragrance of stale cigarettes, aggravated by an obvious toothbrush deficit, and a hint of gin. I was tired. I sat down.
The bus lurched down the potholed streets. Each pitch to and fro sent me into the old man. He grumbled and pulled into himself, wrapping his faded trench coat tighter around his frail frame. My stop came. I got off.
Next week when I got on the bus, the seat was empty next to the old man. I was tired. I worked my way back and sat next to him. “Hi.” I said. He replied with a curt nod and stared out the window, again pulling his coat tightly around his body.
Each week I got on the same bus and sat next to him. After several weeks I offered him a stick of Juicy Fruit gum in olfactory defense. He accepted it. Every time after that he took the proffered gum.
One week he wasn’t on the bus. The next week he was there. I handed him a stick of gum. “Thanks.” He said.
“Nice day.” I said.
He nodded his head.
“Missed you last week. Did you miss the bus?”
“No, I just had business.” He said with a frown. We rode in silence.
The next week when I got on the bus, he looked up as I worked my way down the aisle. After the holy communion of the gum, he turned and said.
“Where in the hell do you go every week?”
I explained to him about my visits with Jimmy. For the first time I saw him smile. “I used to listen to bells a lot.”
“Really.” I said. “Where?”
“In Delft, in the Netherlands, at the Nieuwe Kirke.”
“When were you there?”
He smiled slightly. “A long time ago.” He then pulled his old coat around him and stared out the window. It was obvious he would talk no more.
The following week I got on the bus, all the seats were filled, no sight of the old man. I had to stand. Week after week I looked for him, but he was never there. I stood all the time.
A month later I was paging through the newspaper on my weekly journey, and there on the inside page was an obituary. The headline read: “Roland Murphy, Lover of Bells.” I looked at the picture taken twenty years ago and could see the outlines of a man I’d sat next to on the bus all those times. He’d been a banker in Brussels, with family in New York.
I sat down and stared out the window and pulled my coat tightly around me.