[Read James Wagner’s first, second, third and fourth dispatches from the hardware store.]

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CENTRAL NEW YORK — I work in Plumbing with a man in his seventies who tends to disappear from the scene at about the time when customers start to arrive.

It started on my first day at the hardware store, when I needed help answering customers’ questions. I walked past all three plumbing-related aisles, and even over to adjacent aisles. He wasn’t in any of them.

I called him on the phone he carries. He didn’t answer.

I began looking up the aisles again. He wasn’t there.

I walked up the main aisle to see if he was at Returns, getting a cart of returned merchandise. He wasn’t there, either.

I decided to give up on finding him and was about to tell the customers I didn’t know the answers to their questions when I spotted him. He was way down at the other end of the building. In Electrical. And he was walking away from Electrical, and farther away from Plumbing.

I started to walk toward him. He disappeared around the corner. I yelled down the aisle, but he didn’t come back. I continued walking down to where I thought he was. It took me about fifteen to twenty seconds to get there.

I guessed he was in Receiving, where all the new merchandise is brought in. But I couldn’t see him, as there were huge boxes and equipment blocking my view. The place seemed to be empty.

I walked in a little farther, looking around a shipment of doors. But I still didn’t see him.

As I edged my way around pallets, shipments, equipment, and garbage bags, I finally came into a bit of a clearing, and that’s when I saw him.

He was in the back of Receiving, where the Receiving computer is, in a room with three walls, if you will. There was no door, just a wide opening. It was through this opening that I saw him reading something on the desk.

He didn’t know I was there, so I watched him for a while, to see what he was doing.

It looked very much like he wasn’t doing anything. He was just lazily picking up things, putting them down, looking at things stuck on the wall.

I waited a few more seconds.

Then I shouted to him, “Hey.”

He turned quickly, nervously, like people do when you catch them doing something they’re not supposed to be doing.

To mask this, he became upset. He said, “Yeah, what.”

Undeterred, I said, “What are you doing back here?”

He started mumbling something, something completely unintelligible, and started walking toward me. He calmed down a bit as he approached.

I told him I needed help with customers.

He didn’t say anything. He just started walking out of Receiving back to Plumbing.

As I walked with him, I noticed he wasn’t carrying a form from Special Services. You need a form from Special Services to pick anything up in Receiving. He wasn’t carrying anything at all.

When we finished helping the customers, I watched to see if he would go back to Receiving, which would probably go some way to disproving my idea that he wasn’t doing anything. I figured if he went right back to Receiving, it might mean he really was searching for some something, that he might have some legitimate purpose.

He didn’t return to Receiving. Instead, he walked away from Plumbing to the faucets display area. This was very sneaky of him, because we are supposed to handle faucets as well, but there are never many customers back there. And usually someone from Kitchen and Bath, which is adjacent to the faucets display area, will let us know we have a customer, because we can’t see directly into the faucets display area. There are life-sized displays of kitchen cabinets, refrigerators, and stacks of microwaves, among other things in front of the faucets display area.

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After that first day, I came to realize he spends most of his time in the faucets display area.

One day when I was back there, I looked up at the faucets and was stunned by what I saw. Off to the left, hanging on a support beam, in plain sight of customers, was an eight-by-ten framed picture of him. He was smiling. Broadly.