For years Walking Man and I took the same road. He, on foot. Me, by car. In opposite directions. He, south. Me, north. Me, south. He, north. Mile after mile, day after day.
Always passing. Passing the vacant lots, the hookers, the bus stops, the broken glass, the gun shop, the organic co-op, the eCigarette store, the cross-fit and yoga studios, the mani/pedi salon, the school, the Dollar Store, the paint shop.
For years Walking Man and I took the same road in all its weather. Rain, sleet, snow, sun, dust, cloud, smog trapped over the six-lane road.
He, always, in brown pants with brown sweat jacket, hood pulled over his dreadlocks. His skin, hair, long matted beard the color of chocolate, the color of his clothes. Tall, handsome, some days a slight bounce in his step, others a steady grace. Always the same pace, always straight-backed, arms swinging by his sides.
Me, windshield wipers on or off, heat or AC blowing, windows cracked or not. Stalled in heavy traffic or gliding down the lanes on rare open days. Me, in clothes that shifted layers from day to day, season to season, choices dependent on what I observed from the comfort of my home in the mornings before I left.
After Christmas came and went this odd winter, Walking Man wore a new jacket. Brown and cream houndstooth, with fleece cuffs and collar. The fresh milky color of the fleece contrasting with the rich brown of the pattern. Chocolate brown, matching his hoodie and his pants, his skin and his hair.
Someone knew what color to get.
When the weather worsened, the new jacket was layered beneath the old. Cuffs and collar just visible. Graying.
For years Walking Man and I took the same road. He, on foot. Me, by car. He, silent. Me, singing along to the radio. One day Walking Man was talking to himself. Agitated, fists clenched. Something needed to be said. Something important. The next day silent again, back to his slow, steady pace.
I went away for a while and then I was sick for a while and stayed bundled up at home. When life resumed its normal pace, I took to the road again, day by day. It was a week before I realized it.
Walking Man was not on the road.
Another week, and another.
I asked a friend, the only one I knew who also measured her trips down the road by his presence, “Have you seen Walking Man lately?”
“No. Now that I think about it. It’s been weeks.”
“I’m worried,” I say. I have imagined terrible circumstances.
“I could contact homeless advocate I know,” says my friend. “Maybe he can tell us something.”
Maybe he could. But I think about many things. About freedom and privacy and well-meaning but clueless gestures. And I think about a new houndstooth jacket with fleece cuffs and collar.
I wondered then as I wonder each time I take the road again–
If a person is no longer there, no longer where we think he ought to be, does that mean he’s missing?
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