Today is the first time in my almost forty-four years that I have experienced a genuine panic attack. No, it wasn’t caused by an adverse business cycle or a terrorist threat, it was something much more fundamental; Melvin has changed his routine. Lately I have weathered the bad economy, the war, the peace, the slow tourist season, fugitives from the law, hanta virus, and a variety of other disasters, but I sure wasn’t prepared for this.
Melvin in his orange shirt.
The trading post is really just a large fish bowl, and Barry and I swim around in it almost every day, peering through the eight large windows that look out on the town of Bluff, and watching the world go spinning by. For thirteen years I have been at the trading post, and during that time, there has been one, and only one, thing that I can count on, day after day, year after year. That one thing was that Melvin would be poking around his yard, fixing whatever needed to be repaired and always, always, wearing his orange shirts.
The trading post is oriented to capture the winter sun, and Melvin’s property is just south of the store. So, from the day this place opened, my view has been directly into Melvin’s yard. I have known and been friends with Melvin and his wife, Betty, for as long as I can remember. They were residents of Bluff when Rose and Duke delivered me here in the winter of 1959, and they have remained in the same location ever since. Their children are my friends. Some of my earliest recollections are of Melvin and Betty, and my memories of the trading post are directly tied to Melvin wandering around his yard in those orange shirts.
As is the case with many small towns, the residents of Bluff are fractious. We fight all the time, but stand together whenever somebody needs help. I believe it’s a little like a large dysfunctional family; we argue about everything, but Heaven help the outsider who threatens our internal security.
When Kira was just a few days old, the trading post caught fire, and I was amazed to see the entire town here helping put out the blaze and carrying our possessions to safety. At least I think they were carrying those things to safety. From that time to this, I have not worried much about the quarreling, since I realized at that moment it is a necessary part of the town’s character.
Melvin, however, is never contentious; never controversial. He is respected by everyone, and is a little like that old E.F. Hutton commercial; when he talks, people listen. I think he is the most universally well liked person I have ever known.
Melvin & Betty's place, just across from Twin Rocks Trading Post.
I estimate that Melvin must be in his early 70s, because he retired from the Utah Department of Transportation several years ago. It is his work with UDOT that accounts for the orange shirts. For what was probably 30 years he and his crew were directly responsible for building and maintaining the roads in our part of the country. The orange clothing kept him visible and safe through all that time. Apparently the shirts became so much a part of him during his working career that he simply kept wearing them when he retired. I have often thought it must have taxed Betty to keep him in those shirts, but somehow they have managed.
He is tall, well over six feet, thin, and slightly stooped as a result of a bad back caused by many years of hard work. He is exceptionally talented with machinery and anything mechanical. In fact, I think he is capable of building and fixing almost anything. Some of the things he has created to solve problems on his small farm are nothing short of amazing. There is a pump mounted on a tractor chassis, an old tractor with a pipe hoist sticking out the front, and a variety of other inventions scattered about his yard.
When you talk with Melvin, you should be prepared to hear a string of adjectives that, coming from anyone else, might seem offensive. Coming from Melvin, however, they seem natural, and are not the least bit intrusive. If fact, they seem to make him more human, and have the effect of endearing him to you even more. The words are simply part of his conversation, and are as essential to him as any other word in his vocabulary.
The thing that has me worried is that I have seen him wearing a blue shirt twice this week. They were different blue shirts to be sure, one solid blue and the other checked, but definitely blue and not orange. Since I have been gone two days between the first sighting and the last, I am concerned what may have happened in my absence.
When I first noticed the change of attire, I mentioned it to his son, Billy, in the hope that Billy would speak with his father and quickly remedy the instability. Since Billy also noticed the change and had expressed concern, I thought the issue might be resolved by the time I got back home. But here it is the morning following my return from Salt Lake City and already I have spotted Melvin in another blue shirt. That’s when I started to panic. I am not sure why the one constant in my life has suddenly changed or what effect it will have on me, but I know I’m worried.
A few months ago Melvin was having what appeared to be serious health problems, and we all began to wonder what we would do if we lost him. It was truly frightening. Over time, however, we became more comfortable with the thought that everyone has to go sometime and that, if Melvin passed, we would just have to deal with the loss. None of us, however, is prepared to cope with the sea change that may result from this color variation. Dealing with nature’s natural occurrences is one thing, but this has turned our neat little world upside down.
Melvin is the lynchpin of this community; the keystone. What if these non-orange shirts signal that he is going through a rebellious phase, and what other changes are in store for us? Who will help us dig the grave when one of our community members dies, who will calm us when we quarrel about wastewater disposal or planning and zoning, and what will we do without the consistency of Melvin’s orange shirts? I am worried that the town is moving into a period of instability, which may result in civil unrest. Nothing seems sacred anymore.
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