The walking man was human and this meant things were starting to go wrong. He had arthritis in his right hip and his left knee was getting slaunchways on him. His lower back hurt some of the time and he had to buy new shoes more often than in the past to keep his feet from talking to him. He'd switched over to the Earth shoes with the negative heel structure, mostly because this onslaught of aches and pains was putting him in a negative frame of mind. The perky little girl at the shoe store told him that they would help his back, but that turned out to be another sales pitch. He usually didn't go in stores and preferred to count on the kindness of strangers for his daily needs, but it was hard to find someone who'd offer a pair of 10 1/2 D width shoes on the spur of the moment. A turkey sandwich fits everyone.
Maybe he should just stop and settle down somewhere. After all, when there wasn't a tale worth telling for over a year, what, really, was the point of going on? The age in which he lived was becoming more self-centered and illiterate every day. He could no longer even understand many of the words coming out of the mouths of the children, let alone the music coming out of their bone-rattling car speakers. He'd had guns pointed at him in half a dozen cities for doing nothing more than walking down the sidewalks. It couldn't have been territorial since it was happening in vastly different places, and it couldn't have been racial since he had no color at all.
Still, there was always the putting of one foot in front of the other. That was something, and that was what he knew how to do best.
Summer was almost here and he was in the flatlands of the Midwest, going further westward for what seemed like the thousandth time, where he would encounter a rocky coast overlooking an ocean throwing foaming warnings on the rocky beaches below him. Then he would turn around one more time again.
This day found him in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, in front of a True Value Hardware store. Walking toward him was a young girl who seemed to be about ten months pregnant, carrying a toddler in one arm and using the other hand to smoke a Marlboro red with the passion of any real cowboy. It was a hot afternoon and the only relief from the sidewalk heat was the smell of a promise of a storm front rising up from Galveston. Fronts which bloom up directly from the south have a very different smell than the more polite rainstorms of spring which normally flow from west to east. They are pungent with ozone and moisture, and just as he was relishing the first smell of this event, the girl's cigarette smoke attacked him like an invisible enemy.
"Should you be doing that?"
"You talkin' to me, mister?"
"Yes. I am asking you if you should be smoking when you have a child in your arms and another one looming."
"If I reckoned it was any of your business I'd tell you to mind your own. You ain't got no idea what goes on in my world, mister."
Now that they were standing toe to toe, the walking man saw that the toddler in her arms was of mixed race. The girl was freckled and strawberry blonde, and her child appeared to be a little white and a lot black and just somewhat Cherokee as well.
"I'd be willing to listen to what goes on in your world if you'd put your shoe on that Marlboro."
An older man opened one of the double doors of the True Value Hardware store and looked over an old pair of reading glasses at the two of them facing each other on the sidewalk. "Is there a problem here, folks?"
"No, sir," said the walking man. "But do you think we could borrow a bench inside your store to sit for a few minutes?"
"Well, she looks like she needs sittin' more than you, but you're both welcome. C'mon in."
The store was one of those places that hadn't changed in fifty years. While some franchise Exxon passerbys had thrown up and torn down half a dozen gas stations on the corner, and while Walgreens had put fluorescent lights all over a drug store on the other corner, the Sallisaw True Value Hardware store still had buckled oily wooden floors and ceiling fans with dust on the motors from when Harry Truman was President.
"I'm Carl. I own this place with two other guys. Mayellen is the cashier who tells us what to do." He politely pointed at a silver-haired slightly overweight woman behind the smudged glass counter. Mayellen's face lit up like a nickel cartoon and asked the girl if she could "hold that baby" for a while. The girl was glad to hand over the toddler to Mayellen and said, "Thank you, ma'am. My arms was gettin' tired." The child didn't seem to mind, so Mayellen took over parental duties and Carl showed the walking man and the pregnant girl to an ancient wooden bench toward the rear of the store. The store looked much larger inside than one would have imagined from the sidewalk. The walking man assumed it was because the numerous aisles and shelves barely had space for one person to walk down and through them. There must have been items on those shelves which had been gathering dust since JFK was slain.
Carl said, "Is this OK? You two rest yourselves, but we'll be gettin' busy mid-afternoon, so go get that kid away from Mayellen before two o'clock, OK?" The girl nodded her head and settled in on the bench as best she could, with her distended belly hanging between her outstretched thighs.
"I've been livin' here for five years and I ain't never been in this place before. It smells old." The girl sounded less aggravated and tense now that she was seated and didn't have the toddler to carry around. She snuck a peek up at the front of the store and saw that Mayellen had the little boy laughing up a storm dangling some fishing corks in front of him.
"Yes, some things achieve old age and some don't. It's hard to say which are the lucky," the walking man said with a tone that implied he had more to say on the subject.
"I know I shouldn't be smokin' but it's the only hobby I got that brings me any happiness."
"Where's the father of these children?" He said it sternly, like a preacher or a relative would.
"He shows up now and then." She sounded small and guilty.
"Do you worry more about yourself or about your children?"
"About them, I guess."
The walking man reached over and took her left hand in his. He did it in such a tender way that she didn't even look up, let alone recoil. He lowered his voice to barely a whisper and said, "I'm going to show you something. Close your eyes for a minute."
His touch was gentle and had a kindness about it, so she trusted him enough to close her eyes. Her head was still down and visions started to play against her eyelids, like those swirling patterns that you see right before you go to sleep. The patterns coalesced into an image of a young man around seventeen with light chocolate skin standing on second base, waving to someone in the stands of a ball park. He was smiling broadly and you didn't have to guess whether he was either happy or healthy.
The walking man dropped her left hand and said, "Give me your other hand."
She didn't even open her eyes. She crossed her right hand over her belly and he held it as both their hands rested on her stomach. The patterns came back and swirled to form an image of a young girl reading a story she'd written, standing in front of what appeared to be a fifth grade class. The girl had freckles and slightly wiry blonde hair tied up in twisted buns on either side of her head. She heard enough of the little girl's story to understand that the girl was emotionally complete and very, very bright.
The walking man removed his hand from hers. She opened her eyes and looked directly into his. "What about me?" she asked.
"Are you going to leave this fellow who comes by once in a while? Are you going to quit smoking?"
The girl looked down at the floor again. "So is this when you tell me what to do?"
"I can offer you a suggestion if you want to hear it."
When she looked back into his eyes, he took this as a "yes," and called out Carl's name. He was just a couple of aisles over, so it wasn't long before Carl turned a corner and said, "Y'all doin' OK over here? It's about two o'clock, you know."
The walking man said, "Carl, do you have an attorney who does all your store's business?"
"Yeah, he's just around the corner. An old friend of mine. Why?"
"Do you think he'd do some pro bono work for just a few minutes to help out a little girl in just a bit of trouble?"
"I bet he would consider it," Carl said. "You want me to go see if he's available right quick?"
"It might be the most valuable thing you've done in a long time, Carl. Thank you."
As Carl was walking away, the walking man turned back to the girl and said, "I'm leaving now. I have to get back on my feet. I don't usually sit this long, and I may not be able to get up if I don't do it now. But here's what you should do:
"While Carl is getting the lawyer over here, you go up and talk to Mayellen. You tell her that you're worried about what would happen to your kids if something should happen to you. Tell her you don't have any family left and you'd just feel better if a legal document were drawn up saying that Mayellen would get custody of your kids if you weren't around to take care of them. I bet she'd be happy to do it."
An old ceiling fan just above both of them creaked, sounding like a frog in a very distant pond. The girl nodded her head and the walking man stroked her light red hair one time as he raised himself off of the bench, both of them also creaking faintly.
As he was leaving the store and turning right on the sidewalk, he caught a glimpse of Carl and another man coming around the corner behind him. At the same time, he felt a gust of wind carrying that storm up from the Gulf. He was going to get soaked for the next couple of hours; there was no doubt about that. He smiled at the prospect.
Past . . . Present . . . Future