There is not a comparative place like Texas in July and August unless it is Libya or Saudi Arabia. Intense heat causes images to rise like Confederate phantoms from blistering streets and haggard vacant lots. Birds flee the sky and treetops for cooler climate in shrubs and long extended shadows on the ground.
Those working outside drip moist-laden pods as the body fights to keep hydrated by sweating, asking each salty bead to capture some movement of air or identify a recognizable current.
It was just one of those typical days in July that I first met Ralph. He was trudging along the side of the road carrying two filled plastic bags. His head was down, and each step appeared to be a labored exercise. The long-sleeved flannel shirt hung damp across massive shoulders and thick neck, adding additional weight to a shape-filled overtaxed body.
I stopped and asked him if he wanted a lift. Asking a stranger into your vehicle is not a decision fraught with intelligence. But I am a country boy, and where I come from, folks help their neighbors, offering even strangers a helping hand.
Ralph got into the truck with stuttering expressions of his name. Inside he said very little, simply looking downward with occasional glances up from under his short brimmed hat. His beet-red face had little expression except when he tried to talk. His speech was deliberately slow and was impeded by stuttering, while heavy breathing sounds masked words. Understanding was difficult.
Over the summer, I offered Ralph rides on several occasions. We even ate at the same fast food restaurant. The ladies working there thanked me for sharing time with him. It seemed he ate in the restaurant everyday since his mother had died. He had few friends and only distant relatives. I was about all Ralph had.
With each shared meal or ride, I learned a little more about Ralph, and began to understand much of what he said. He lived alone, just a few blocks off the street where we first met. He traveled the road daily to buy groceries and eat lunch. His mother had left him a small, comfortable house with a large front yard surrounded by tall shade trees. The last thing he would say to me when he got out of the truck was to thank me for the ride and to verbally take note of the yard he mowed.
In September, I didn’t see Ralph for several weeks. Then I spotted him along the road late one evening. He looked even more fatigued that usual and appeared to have lost some weight. I stopped and he got in quickly. I asked how he had been. He related to me that the doctor said he had cancer. There was a large white patch on his neck where the biopsy had been taken.
Over the next month or so I saw Ralph only occasionally. Each time we visited I asked if there was anything I could do. Once he told me that he was going to see his mother soon. I wondered where she might be buried and wanted to suggest that I would take him.
Just before Christmas the ladies at the restaurant told me that Ralph was in a nursing home and they were going to visit him. I told them to please tell him that I would be by to see him just as soon as school let out for the holidays.
The next time I went in to eat, I asked the ladies if they had conveyed my message to Ralph about coming to see him. They said they had, and Ralph had said that I “had better hurry if I was coming.” They went on to tell me that he was in really bad shape.
Christmas time came and I forgot to go see Ralph. Grandkids, kids, Christmas festivities, and plenty of food kept my plate and calendar full. Then, late one afternoon, I sat reading the paper in the restaurant. There on the obituary page was a picture of Ralph. He had passed away the day before. He had died and I had not taken the time to visit with him. I felt so ashamed. Then I brightened up because now I knew. He had gone to visit his mother after all.