This is the story of Ed Murphy. You’re going to think I’m making him up. I’m not. He was a real person and he was my friend. Eleven years ago, when my first divorce was new, he came over one Sunday afternoon to change my locks. He hadn’t seen me in years, but he heard I was getting divorced, and he always thought that guy was an asshole, and women like me in a situation like that need their locks changed. He’ll be over at noon. With his dog.
I don’t talk about Ed much. I’ve tried writing about him, but never got very far. For the longest time I couldn’t go into Home Depots without crying by the demolition saw display. I’ll get the sad ending out of the way — I’m shit at suspense — Ed killed himself on October 29, 2003. Shot himself in the head, in a hotel parking lot. He planned it all out, wrote everyone a note, except me. I got a long hug and he told me I was a “wonderful person.” I’d packed him a sandwich that day as he headed off to his suicide and said “Ed, stop being dramatic. You’re just going to Albany. I’ll see you on Tuesday.”
I’m writing about Ed today because I’m tired of idiots commenting that good men don’t exist. Well, I’m married to one, and I was friends with another, and I’ve known scores more. But Ed was the best person I ever knew. He did a lot of good things for a lot of people, but I was his last good deed.
Like I said, I was divorcing and living alone with my preschooler son in a house I bought off my ex in a terrible state of disrepair. Ed and I used to be literacy volunteers together at Academy of Hope in Washington, D.C. That’s how we met — over algebra, in 1990. He hadn’t seen me in ages, but he showed up with his toolkit that Sunday and drilled out my deadbolts, while dispensing with advice. “You’re fucked up. Don’t date again for at least a year. You need therapy.”
Gee, thanks Ed. Then he told me with utter certainty that I would marry again, because I was in my 30s and still young. I said that wasn’t happening. “Don’t be so sure,” he scoffed.
Not that Ed had any luck at love himself. That day he told me that he’d been divorced twice. The last one, he said, nearly destroyed him. She was cheating on him with her boss AND their auto mechanic.
“Lost the best, damn mechanic I ever had.”
After that marriage failed, he said he was so depressed he wanted to throw himself off a bridge. “But then I figured, what the hell, Jesus can have me. May as well be of some use.”
That’s how he talked — “Jesus can have me.” Ed wouldn’t strike anyone as godly. He was a scruffy, Irish-Catholic ex-Marine from the Bronx. He liked to drink and smoke cigarettes. And he was a high school drop out. In fact, that’s how he wound up at the Academy of Hope — Ed got his GED in the military. After the service, Ed went on to college and a masters degree, but he never forgot he was a drop out. So he spent 11 years teaching algebra to other GED students until he died.
I don’t know when Jesus entered the picture for Ed. But he’d be cracking you up with some salty tale, and then apropos of nothing, he’d interject God. I heard that’s how he became a foster parent — “Well, I figured God put Ron in my path for some reason.” Maybe Ed was the original chump, a flaming codependent. His brother called him a “beautiful control freak” at his funeral. All I know is that if you crossed Ed’s path — he figured God put you there, and he was going to do something about it.
It’s not possible to write about Ed without digressing into a dozen, improbable good deeds, but here’s one. Ron, his foster son.
Ed was a contractor, and he was doing some remodeling for a slum lord in DC. The building was a dump. No heat. No running water. Ed discovers there’s a 14-year-old kid — Ron — living in the building! — with no utilities, using a bucket as a toilet. He was the slumlord’s foster son. The man had a racket going with the District, where he’d take foster kids, collect the checks, and house them in his slum properties. Ron had been in the foster system since he was a small child. He had a steel plate in his head from where someone threw him down a flight of stairs as a baby. Ron had mental and emotional problems. Whether from his shitty life or from the metal plate, it was hard to say.
Ed was incensed to discover this kid living in filth and neglect, so he called the cops and got the slum lord busted. Which meant that Ron got sent back into social services. Only now Ed couldn’t stop thinking about Ron. What would happen to him? So Ed calls… Maybe he could take Ron for a little while? Let him sleep on his sofa until they found him a placement? Well… that placement wound up being Ed. He became Ron’s foster parent and took Ron to the Academy of Hope and made him get his GED.
You know that kid with the steel plate in his head passed? His other foster parent hadn’t sent him to school in years, but somehow with Ed on him all the time, he got a high school diploma. Ron used to speak at the fundraisers. It’s a true story. Don’t get me wrong, Ron wasn’t a perfect person. He still had anger issues, and pot issues, but when I saw him at the funeral, he was married and had a janitorial job with the city. This throw-away kid got a degree and was a solid, tax-paying citizen thanks to winding up on Ed’s path.
Since his marriage fell apart, Ed was taking on more swashbuckling sorts of good deeds. He went to Ecuador to visit a Peace Corps volunteer from his church and canoed down the Amazon to bring supplies. But the best story I heard about Ed’s good works, was after 911 he got it in his head to go to Bali and volunteer at an orphanage. There was no plan, short of just showing up. He and a buddy somehow got through Bali customs with construction tools and drove around looking for orphanages. Story goes, they found a nun who greeted them saying “I’ve prayed and prayed for someone to come fix our roof and finally, you’re here!” He spoke about that trip a lot. It comes back into the story again later.
Anyway, suffice it to say, Ed was an exceptionally good guy, but a tough guy too. You really wouldn’t want to fuck with him, between the Irish and the ex-Marine thing. That day he was changing my locks, he was in a great mood because he had just gotten his dream job and was leaving town in two weeks. Between packing and getting ready to leave the country, somehow he’d made time to change my locks… crazy. He had just quit his job in the city with an organization DC Builds, which teaches building trade skills to kids in the juvenile justice system. Now he was going off to South Africa to do similar work for a non-profit there. I’d lived in South Africa once, so we were full of talk about the country and what to see and do.
About a week later — days before he’s supposed to leave town for South Africa — he calls me up to go dancing at Glen Echo. Dancing? Ed? It’s not a date. It’s a calculated manipulation to get me out out of the house — chastely of course — into the singles world and have some fun. We meet at the ballroom and he was wearing the loudest Hawaiian shirt I’d ever seen.
That’s when I discovered Ed could dance. I mean, really DANCE. Tango, swing, waltz. All of it. I laughed uproariously. It was the first time I’d belly laughed in ages. If you’ve gone through a divorce, you know what I’m talking about — that moment when you remember who you are, who you lost, and you laugh hysterically again. Ed didn’t let me dance too many dances with him. As other guys asked me to dance he’d flash me two thumbs up behind their backs. He was getting me out there, spinning around, having a good time. I said goodbye to Ed that night, and thought he might send me a postcard from Cape Town.
But that’s not how it ended. Two days later our mutual friend LeAnna called me to say Ed was in ICU. He’d had an aneurysm, days before he was supposed to leave for his new job. Ed should’ve died from that aneurysm. The force of it blew out his right eye and blinded him. But instead of dying, he woke up and asked for his dog, and his cigarettes, in that order. So now what?
He spent the summer in rehab learning to walk again. We used to go bring him cigarettes. For awhile he kept hoping they’d hold that job for him in South Africa, but it became pretty clear he wasn’t going to be well enough to take it. And they weren’t holding it either. He had too much pride, I think, to ask for his old job back. So I asked him if he’d help me fix up the house I bought off my ex in the divorce, which had a dozen half-finished remodeling projects (including a gutted bathroom).
“I’m not a charity case, Tracy.”
“I know Ed. It’s just that I really need the help.”
So that’s how I pitched it, and that’s how he accepted being my general contractor for 3 months.
I told him I’d pick him up from the subway, because he wasn’t allowed to drive now that he was legally blind in one eye. But the first day he showed up for work, he drove. Arriving in his beat-up station wagon, with blue plumber’s tape wrapped around one lens of his eyeglasses.
I freaked out. “ED! YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO DRIVE!!!”
“Calm down, Tracy. I see a lot better after a 6-pack.”
There was no controlling him, so I just learned to roll with it. He was indeed a “beautiful control freak.” Apparently nothing in my house was to code, or at least Ed code. A lot of the early days of remodeling were punctuated with long strings of expletives followed by “What?! Did they BRIBE the inspectors?! Who built this shit?!” And shaming anyone who tried to throw stuff in my rented dumpster. I remember when my neighbor Obeid asked if he could throw away an old AC unit and I said sure, and then he proceeded to empty the contents of his entire basement. Ed ran out there and confronting him shouting. “HEY! ASSHOLE! She’s a SINGLE MOTHER and she spent $256 DOLLARS for this DUMPSTER! Get your SHIT OUT OF THERE NOW and HAUL IT TO THE CURB, you tax-paying *&^%#$@!” Obeid sheepishly had to crawl into a filthy dumpster and retrieve everything but the AC unit. (He was a member of the royal family of Afghanistan, btw). Very awkward.
The other thing that drove Ed nuts was that I didn’t have any tools. I used to have tools, but my ex took them all in the divorce. Even if we had seconds and thirds of things, he took them. Every ladder, every hammer. Even the garden hoses. I didn’t realize any of this at first. I assumed it was in the garage, and would say “Oh yeah, I have one of those” and then discover I didn’t. So it was a lot of disheartening trips to Home Depot to replace shit I used to have.
The injustice of it used to piss Ed off, especially if he could tell it upset me. (The lack of a garden hose really did seem beyond the pale.) After awhile he’d say: “Don’t worry, Tracy. When this whole thing is over, you’ll have all the tools you’ll ever need.” Yeah, I thought, because I’m going to Home Depot every day…
I was working from home then, and so I used to make lunches for us. Ed was good company, and I think he appreciated my attempts to fatten him up. He’d lost a lot of weight in the hospital. I often sent him home with leftovers, or packed lunches. Ed told me a lot of stories about his life over those lunches. How he’d been married twice, but only really in love once, but she died of breast cancer. How he’d been shot down in a helicopter when he was in the service, and didn’t expect to survive it, but he did. Sometimes he’d tell me about his travels, but usually he took an interest in how I was getting on. How my son was doing since the divorce.
I remember though, that sadness would slip out a lot. Ed was a witty, positive man, but his health was depressing him. He told me he couldn’t enjoy things like he used to, he kept “waiting for the next stroke.” I listened and said all the ineffectual, lame things people say when faced with a grief bigger than they’ve known. He’d once had melanoma recently, and beat it. Now an aneurysm. I was writing for doctors then. I asked them about Ed. One told me he might have melanoma of the brain, and its fatal. Ed never mentioned that, but every now and then jovial Ed would slip, and the guy living with a death sentence would appear. I didn’t know what to say to that guy. I just made him a sandwich.
One day, we were moving a shower pan in from my car. He wouldn’t let me carry it. He was yelling at me, the guy who had a STROKE wanted to carry the shower pan, and would I please put the damn thing down and let him do it? As we hauled it into my garage he said “I hope I wasn’t a charity case, Tracy.” I said of course not, Ed, don’t be ridiculous. Don’t you see what I dump this place was and how much I needed you? I kept thanking him and telling him how much he had improved the place, even if a few of my neighbors might never speak to me again.
Then he hugged me. And told me I was a “wonderful person.” This display of affection was weird, and unprecedented. He was driving off to Albany that day, he said, to see his brother. It was a Friday, and I’d paid him. He was very specific about how he wanted to be paid, got kind of pissy about it really. He wanted so much in cash for himself, one check made out to his landlord, and another one made out to his church. Don’t ask. I didn’t.
I was afraid he was going to kill himself. Later that day, I said it out loud to a friend. It felt like a goodbye. But then I told myself I was being overly dramatic. Everything was fine. The guy was going through a hard time, and maybe seeing family would lift his spirits. And Ed said he’d be back on Tuesday. Christ, he would never leave me with a half finished bathroom, would he?
LeAnna called me 24 hours later. Ed shot himself. He’d planned the whole thing out. He’d driven to Albany to save his brother the trip of coming to DC to have to retrieve the body. He’d checked into a hotel. Written letters to everyone, including LeAnna. In fact he had called me the night he killed himself and asked for her address. It was a short conversation. I didn’t realize it would be my last. He taped all the letters to the door of his hotel room. He included one for the police, and one for his funeral, that he wanted read out loud to explain why he was doing this.
In his pocket was a receipt for the hand gun he bought with the cash I’d paid him. And a receipt for his last dinner — a nice one — with a couple rounds of scotch. He shot himself in the hotel parking lot because he didn’t want the hotel maid to find his body, he wanted her to find the letter and call the cops.
I don’t know why Ed killed himself. If he had a fatal illness, he didn’t tell us. But it would be exactly like Ed to not tell us. From what he said, I’m guessing he did. His letter at the funeral simply said he didn’t want to be a burden to the people who loved him, and he hadn’t made financial plans for his health care. He died with the cash in his pocket, which he requested be spent on beer for his funeral, which it was. He didn’t owe any money, and that check I wrote to his landlord was to advance his rent a few months.
The check to his church? Unbeknownst to anyone, he was putting two Balinese orphans through college. Had been for years.
And to me he left his tools.
After he died, I went to my garage, his demolition saw was still there and his coffee cups and cigarette butts. He’d locked the door of the bathroom he’d been remodeling. I had to have a friend come over and jimmy the lock for me, and there — locked in my bathroom — were all of Ed’s tools. His livelihood. The drill that fixed a Balinese orphanage. Left neatly in buckets with all the battery chargers.
“Don’t worry, Tracy. When this whole thing is over, you’ll have all the tools you’ll ever need.”
I was the last good deed of Ed Murphy.