The odor hit me as if I had just walked into a sliding glass door. Ammonia! I nearly fainted. I swooned and staggered and then moved far enough away to catch my breath in untainted air. The pain in my nostrils subsided, I held my breath and then walked back to the hallway corner where the middle school lockers were, in a cove off of the main hallway of the Pierson Middle/High School in Sag Harbor. I saw a plastic bucket on the floor by the lockers and knew; a custodian was cleaning and disinfecting the lockers with what smelled like pure ammonia.
It was my first day on the job there as the Director of Health, Physical Education, Athletics and Facilities, in August, 2009.
Whoever was using the ammonia must have olfactory fatigue, I thought. That’s when repeated exposure reduces sensitivity to the odor. In the days to come I quickly outlawed ammonia and bleach, replacing them with hydrogen peroxide-based cleaning chemicals and other 100% bio-based substances. It just wasn’t soon enough.
Charles “Juddy” Lyons was a slight man, perhaps 150 pounds dripping wet. Thin, wrinkled beyond his 57 years, and maybe five feet, six inches tall. A smoker and a drinker, Juddy was nevertheless quick with a smile and a chuckle. Everyone liked Juddy. He always said, “Yes, no problem,” whenever anyone asked him to do something. He was as generous as the day is long, and never asked a soul for a thing. He was the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off of his back if you needed it and never ask for it back.
Juddy worked as a custodian in the Pierson Middle/High School for as long as anyone could remember. He and his wife, Jennifer (“Jen”), who worked as a custodian at the Sag Harbor Elementary School, were senior staff members in the school district. Some joked that Juddy knew Mrs. Russell Sage, the benefactor of the whaling museum, library, park and the school, which was built in 1907.
Juddy was a mover. I don’t remember ever seeing him sit down until the last day he was in the building, four years after the ammonia, the day we had a retirement party for him. Frail and gaunt, but still with a weak smile on his face, Juddy was the center of attention, sitting on a couch next to me in a conference room filled with his fellow staff members, some administrators, and a teacher or two.
Everyone told stories about Juddy, sometimes to him, sometimes not, as if he weren’t in the room or already dead. By this time Juddy had stage four liver cancer which had spread. Though at the party he seemed to catch a second wind, he didn’t have long to live.
I remember reading “Tuesday’s with Morrie,” by Mitch Albom, about a younger man giving an afternoon each week to sit and listen to an older dying man’s musings, giving comfort and kindness. What an impression it had made on me. I wanted to be there for Juddy after hearing that he was sick and wouldn’t be coming back to work for a while.
Juddy worked the night shift, so he and I hadn’t had much opportunity to chat or to get to know each other like I had with the day staff. I usually worked 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., or was involved with sports in the evenings which saw my focus and attention on the contests and kids, but not on the cleaners. If there weren’t any complaints about the cleanliness of the buildings I assumed no news was good news.
I offered through Jen, also on night shifts, to stop by to see Juddy on Thursday afternoons before she had to come into work. She said that would be fine, but said to call before coming over to make sure Juddy was awake or that they weren’t at the doctor’s.
I started calling on Thursday afternoons about 1:30, but the first few times Jen said Juddy wasn’t feeling up to it. Then, finally one Thursday, a few weeks after he had stopped coming to work, she said, “Yes, Juddy would like it if you could come for a visit.”
Jen was from East Hampton, and now occupied the family home there, handed down several generations. The property was over a half acre, and abutted a cemetery, the same cemetery Jen said she had family members buried in, and where Juddy would be buried.
The house seemed small, but just right for the couple. Lived in and full of things, the living room was wall to wall tsotchke. Travel souvenirs, dolls, cars, post cards, tiny objects and large, it was like landing in a time warp of collectibles. You could see by their smiles at me as they watched me take it all in that they were proud of their collection. I was mesmerized.
As I gazed around in awe I began to ask questions about this thing or that, and they happily chirped short stories about each one. I sat entranced with their animation and Jen’s habit of saying, “Tell Mr. Granger about this one, Juddy,” and Juddy starting to tell me and then Jen taking over the story, every time. Juddy just sat back and smiled, enjoying Jen’s tales and descriptions and my reactions.
At one point I marveled at a life sized mallard duck decoy sitting next to me on a small lamp table. Made of wood and carefully painted, it was an impressive piece of art, I thought. I asked if they would mind if I picked it up. They said, “of course not.”
I held it in my hands, feeling the weight of it, and the smoothness, examining the colors and brush strokes, almost invisible. As fine a decoy as I had ever held, though somewhat worn with slightly faded paint, it bore the look and feel of a fine craftsman’s work and toil. They asked if I liked ducks, and I said, “Oh, yes,” and that I had “a few smaller duck decoys at home.” I carefully put the duck back on the lamp table and then asked where they had gotten it. They looked at each other with a mutual shrug and said they couldn’t remember. “Somewhere,” Jen said. Somewhere.
Juddy passed away less than two weeks after that visit. The day Jen called me to tell me the doctors said Juddy had only four weeks to live had been exactly four weeks prior to his passing.
That visit was the only one I made. I had fooled myself thinking that he wouldn’t die after all, as we tend to do with failing family and friends. They just can’t. They are alive and that’s the only state we wish to think of them in.
Jen stopped into my office a few days before Juddy had passed away. She just wanted to “chat a bit,” she said, before she got to work. I thanked her for her hospitality the week before and she said it was a pleasure, and that it was a shame we couldn’t have visited more, and sooner, before Juddy got sick. I agreed.
I hadn’t noticed a bag she’d carried in until she raised it up and pulled out a beautiful wooden duck decoy, the same one that had been sitting in their living room. She handed it to me and said she and Juddy wanted me to have it, to remember him by.
I couldn’t speak as tears filled my eyes and my nose tingled with burning sadness. She was silent for a moment as well.
Gathering myself, I muttered, “Thank you, Jen,” and then I got up and hugged her and said I would treasure the duck and their friendship.
I named the duck “C.J.” for Charles and Jennifer.
I left the Sag Harbor schools some time ago, but keep C.J. in my new office to remind me of the two loyal friends I had in Sag Harbor, and to remind me that life is short and that we should use some of that precious time getting to know people who spend their lives doing things for others, never expecting anything in return.