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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

From Real Life: The Walker

We called him The Walker.

He was a young man when we first noticed him, maybe 17 or so. He lived midway down Lake Boulevard in an area studded with tiny ramshackle houses and ratty, single-wide trailers. At the time, I was in my mid-twenties and having gone through a divorce, the loss of my beloved grandfather, a schism between myself and my father, and a severe health crisis, I felt ancient. Cynical. I was only five or six years older than him. When we first noticed the Walker on Lake Blvd., we laughed at him.

He was tall and awkwardly thin, and walked with an exaggerated, swinging stride, one arm dropped straight to the side, the other swinging in a precise arc, cigarette between two fingers. His posture was perfectly upright, as though he’d been trained to keep his spine straight and shoulders back. As he walked, his bearing nearly screamed, “I’m scared to death, but you’ll never know.” His curly hair was brassy blonde and he wore clothing that was a fusion of cheap fad and thrift store drek. In the blazing summer, he wore denim cut-offs and flip flops on his tanned feet. In the spring and fall, he walked barefoot, disguising his pain behind a false front. In the winter, he wore a cheap vinyl jacket, similar to something Michael Jackson popularized in his videos. He wore his hair in a mullet.

And he walked.

We’d see him out in our more rural neck of the woods, covering miles in that loping stride. We’d see him downtown or at the bottom of Sulpher Creek Hill, where the hotels had degenerated into ratty flophouses. Sometimes he hitchhiked. Most of the time he just walked. From morning till night, he walked.

Over the years, his appearance evolved. Sometimes his hair was short and bleached; other times it grew longer and back to its normal dishwater blonde. He grew taller, though never heavier. His blue eyes grew progressively more glazed and dazed, leading us to believe that he was falling into drug addiction; at that time, crack was the drug of choice in our area. Sometimes he vanished for weeks at a time and in an odd way I missed him. Eventually, I came to see him as more than part of the landscape.

It never occurred to me that the Walker was a working boy. Late one night I was driving up Market Street and saw him leaving one of the sleazy motels along there. He staggered, his face bloody and battered. I didn’t offer him a ride, nor did I call the police. Somehow, I didn’t think he’d appreciate that. The next day, he was walking the boulevard again, moving with a slight limp, his face swollen and bruised.Years later, I found that he lived within walking distance of a wooded area where men met to hook up.

After that night, his bizarre clothing made sense. He often strolled along in old tank tops that were cut to bare his gaunt belly, and he wore smudged guyliner long before it was a fad. I came to realize that one of the reasons he intrigued me was his similarity to an ex-boyfriend, though he was far seedier and debauched than my ex would ever appear.

He vanished again, and this time didn’t come back for a very long time. A year or more passed while I wrestled with going to school, working and raising two little girls. I didn’t really think often of the Walker or why he had vanished. But when he showed up again, it was like seeing an old friend. His posture was as upright and perfect as ever, and he still walked with that awkwardly casual stride. His eyes though...they were tired. Weary. His hair was darkening and his skin was pale, leading me to believe been somewhere without sunshine.

One day, I saw him walking with a young boy; they were heading into a convenience store. On impulse, I turned into the parking lot and went in. I'd never actually seen him in person before. He was there at the counter, buying the boy a wrapped hamburger and a soda. I assumed the kid was a nephew and that the Walker had a new gig...babysitting. I never found out.

I stood behind them in line and listened as the ravaged young man babbled on about nothing. He talked about someone who’d crossed him and how he planned to kick their ass. He looked at me and the insanity in his eyes was painful to witness. It scared me that he was alone with a child. It scared me to be close to him. He smelled bad, a combination of body odor, tobacco and the biting scent of something else that was not pot or alcohol. His eyes were reddened and glassy; the skin underneath dark and bruised looking. He’d gone from skinny to gaunt.

I paid and hurried from the store, and I never saw the Walker again. He vanished one last time.

I watched for him on Lake Blvd, but he never walked there anymore. I never again saw him haunting the Market St. motels, nor did I see him around the bus stop or convenience store. He might have overdosed, been arrested or lapsed into insanity. Maybe he fell to AIDS. I don’t know and never will.

The Walker was a part of my life for nearly a decade. Barely a day went by that I didn’t see him somewhere. Sometimes we laughed at his clothing and walk. Other times Mom and I would look at him and sadly look away. Regardless of who he was or what he did, he was a person with a life. At one point, he must have had dreams and goals. I look back now and wonder if he was a victim of schizophrenia. Years later I spoke with a public health nurse who remembered him as a mental health patient, but she wasn’t completely sure.

I think someday I’ll write a story for him. And in that story, I’ll give him a happy ending. How could I not?

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