The man lived in a small town, and just like the TV show, living in a small town meant that everyone knew your name. Moreover, living in a small town meant everyone knew more than just your name; they knew everything about you. Where you lived, who you lived with, played with, drank with, every little detail about you, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The good is that one can go anywhere and never feel lonely, exchanging greetings or easily losing thirty minutes or more catching up with the locals on all the daily gossip that living in a small town brings. The bad, of course, everyone knows your business no matter how hard you try to protect it. The ugly? In time, everyone knows that also; divorce, abuse, infidelity, vices, and addictions. Nothing is a secret or sacred when living in a small town.
The man appeared in the small town two summers ago and overnight became a daily presence on its streets. The locals noticed immediately, and they attempted to engage in conversation to learn everything about him. This was the expectation that came with living in a small town and a rite of passage for all newcomers, to divulge, willingly or unwittingly, all the juicy details about their lives.
At first, the locals would learn about the newcomer's good, then with time, their bad, and then, more importantly, to satisfy the gossipmongers, the ugly would eventually surface and be on display for all to see and gossip about. It always does. Fresh meat for the locals, they called it—all except the man.
Oh, he was amiable all right, but he would not divulge anything further than a “Hello” or “Good day,” no matter how hard the locals probed, and he seemed content with that age-old golden rule of a long-ago generation, speaking only when spoken to. When the man was pressed for more information, he would bid adieu, and with a friendly nod and wave, move on, leaving a trail of murmurs and whispers in his wake.
What the locals were dying to know, of course, was that the man had been someone once, perhaps in one of the big cities to the North, or even in another small town just like this one. However, here in this small town, to them, all they could see was that he was just someone. Moreover, he was impeccably dressed for just someone, in businessman's attire during the week, suit jacket slung over his shoulder on the hotter days and weekends, in a golf shirt and freshly pressed slacks. His thick black hair was meticulously kept, parted neatly on the left, collar length in the back and just above the ears on the sides, his five o’clock shadow never past four-thirty.
No one ever saw the man with anyone else, family, friends, or playing that round of golf, and no one knew where he lived or where he worked. They never saw him driving or riding in a car, yet, there he was, every day, on the sidewalks of the small town. Always alone, never socializing or partaking in the local gossip, speaking only when spoken to.
The best the locals could ascertain, aside from his polite one-word answers, was that the man was always in motion, moving with a purpose, seemingly always going somewhere but never knowing where. Naturally, this frustrated the locals to no end. So one sunny afternoon, an older couple, leaders of the permanent local movement, tried following him but gave up after trailing him for two hours back and forth through town, crisscrossing the central hub multiple times, never really going anywhere.
When night fell, and the sun had set, the shops closed with their blinds drawn, the main street now empty and the dog walkers and couples finishing up their turns, the man would stride through the quiet neighborhoods of the small town. Walking up and down the interlocking boulevards that contained the family dwellings, he would gaze at the homes, and he would come to know each one just by the vehicle in the driveway, pets and children’s toys strewn over the lawn, even the night owls, asleep on the couch to the TV’s glow.
One winter night, the snow falling lightly, his body hunched over to ward off the cold, the man kicked something in the road and looking down thought it was just a candy wrapper and kept on going, but curious, he stopped and looked back. Sticking up through the dirty brown tire track, it looked different; with his curiosity getting the better of him, he turned around and, stooping down, picked it up.
He held it in his hands and saw it looked like a fifty-dollar bill. Holding the crumpled bill out under the streetlight, the icy snow stinging his eyes, squinting, the man turned it over in his outstretched hands and realized it was indeed a fifty-dollar bill. Puzzled, he quickly looked around at the houses, doing a complete one-eighty, thinking someone must have dropped it, but all the homes in the neighborhood were dark. Turning in the opposite direction, he wondered if it was a prank, and someone was hiding, waiting to jump out, but the night was still, and he was all alone.
Staring at the bill, he thought for a moment, then folding it in his hand, he started to walk but abruptly stopped and turning back, he returned to where he found it and bending over, he placed the bill down in the dirty tire track in the road. Standing up, still uncertain if anyone was watching, he started walking, but a few steps later, he stopped again, turning and looking back at the fifty-dollar bill lying in the snow.
His eyes darted in all directions, but the street was quiet and remained empty, so he walked back and picked it up, smoothing out the bill and folding it neatly in his hands, and putting it in his front pants pocket. He continued on his way, every few minutes, feeling his pocket.
The man never touched the fifty after that, the bill lying flat in his pocket, except when he washed his pants. Then he would carefully take the red banknote out, holding it tightly in his hand until his pants were ready, then putting them back on, he placed the fifty back in its original place, patting his thigh.
Two winters later, on a bitterly cold night, while walking along the town's main street, the wind whipping the snow up and down the deserted thoroughfare, the man heard what sounded like a cry for help. Up ahead, he thought he could make out someone lying in the snowbank, legs sticking out into the road.
He hurried towards the sound and came upon a young man, maybe 18-19, wearing an old snowmobile jacket, the seams ripped at the shoulders. The bottom half of his jeans were soaked, with an even dark line just below the knee, his canvas running shoes, long ago white, were now dirty grey, the laces missing and tongues protruding out, and he could see he was not wearing socks.
The young man was mumbling and flailing in the snow and the man, stepping between his legs, spoke to him reassuringly, asking him to take his hand as he reached down, helping him to his feet. He brushed the snow off the back of the ratty black and purple jacket, trying to push some of the padding back into the torn shoulder seams, and asked if he was ok. The young man nodded, sniffling and rubbing his nose, but the man sensed he was not.
The young man's eyes were glassy, and he was sweating, despite the frigid temperature, and the man could tell he had been crying, and he thought he might be under the influence of something. Curious, the man looked down at his arms, but the sleeves of his jacket covered them.
The young man appeared unsteady on his feet and reaching out, the man held his arm, asking him again if he was ok. He started speaking rapidly and said he was fine, and thanked the man for helping him, and turned to be on his way, but he slipped again, and the man reached out and grabbed his arm to keep him from falling. Together, the two of them gingerly stepped over the waist-high snowbank onto the sidewalk.
Standing facing each other, the man looked into the young man’s eyes and saw that they were bloodshot with tiny red squiggly lines projecting out from the eyeballs. His cheeks were tear-stained, and his nose was running down the one side, dripping over his bare lip, into his mouth. He asked him again if he was sure he was all right, and the young man responded, a little more coherently now, that he was fine and rubbing the mucus away from his nose; he looked into the man’s eyes with a forced smile.
The young man started shivering, and the man asked him if he was hungry, but he shook his head no. Not convinced, the man persisted, inquiring when he ate last. The young man tried to avoid the question by thanking him again and starting to move away, but the man’s grip on his arm was firm, and he was too weak to resist.
The man stared hard into the young man’s eyes and finally, after a long pause, he stammered that he had not eaten since the day before, then pointing to the convenience store behind them; he said he had gone in just now to buy a chocolate bar, but his bankcard was declined and he did not have any cash. Sighing heavily, his eyes shifted downwards, and the young man’s voice trailed off, as his body slumped, the shame washing over him.
Softly, the man asked where he was from. Haltingly, the young man’s right arm came up, his frozen fingers red and shaking, he pointed east, and with another shiver and heavy sigh, he said he had walked here through the snow.
Suddenly, a strong gust of wind blew them both backward, so the man suggested they go inside to get warm. Still holding the young man’s arm, he turned and firmly pulled him in the direction of the store, the young man dutifully following behind.
Once inside, the man, making splashing sounds as he stamped his winter boots on the black mat, reached down into his front pocket and took out the fifty-dollar bill, the young man, all the while watching, shaking his head no. The man, ignoring him, took his hand and, placing the bill in it, motioned with his head towards the sandwiches in one of the coolers lining the back wall of the store and then over towards the side counter containing large coffee and soup dispensers.
After paying, the wind and snow having let up, they stood out front under the lone parking lot light, the young man eating as the man held his hot coffee for him. They talked a while, the company pleasant for both of them, and then with the snow falling heavily again, they wished each other well, going their separate ways into the blustery night, their paths never crossing again.
Some years later, on that same main street, this time on a perfectly glorious summer afternoon, the sidewalk full of window shoppers, the man was strolling along the sidewalk when he heard a honk from behind and turning, he saw a white pickup truck coming towards him. The truck slowed, and as it went by, he could see the back lined with lawnmowers, and on the passenger door, stenciled in bright green bold letters, CRICKET LANDSCAPING.
Shielding his eyes from the sun, the man thought the driver looked familiar. In the passenger seat sat a pretty blonde, and she was waving to someone on the other side of the busy street. He watched as the truck pulled over to the curb and through the rear window, he saw the driver speaking animatedly with another man, as he pointed over his shoulder towards the back, and he could see the girl affectionately rubbing the back of his head.
The man continued along the sidewalk, and passing by, turned his head towards the truck. The driver, deep in conversation, did not notice him, and the man smiled and carried on his way, reaching down and patting his pocket where the fifty-dollar bill used to be.