The benches were damp that morning along the hike ‘n bike trail there in Clearwater, Texas. Remnants of an early morning storm lingered and kept away the usual occupants of the park. No kids, no squirrels, no homeless people. Just me and the thin morning light kept each other company that day.
I was recovering from a small stroke if there is such a thing and was following my doctors orders to try to exercise a little bit. Tired and worn out from the mile or so I had walked, I sat on a park bench to blow and catch my breath. That was when I saw the old man approaching.
I watched him coming up the slight incline from the old folk’s home, he was swinging his head side to side as if expecting someone to appear out of the fog. His face was wrinkled and was lit by a ray of sunshine that quickly peeked out and hid itself behind a cloud. It would be a bright day as soon as the sun burned off the mist.
“Have you seen Bill?” He asked in a quavery voice.
I guessed his age at around eighty. He was sweatered under a heavy Carhart coat, the kind that construction workers wear. A cap with loosened ear flaps met the old gray tattered muffler ’round his skinny neck, black buckled overshoes completed his ensemble. A checkerboard wrapped tightly in plastic was cradled under one arm.
I told the old gentleman that I guessed I had not seen Bill.
“He’s a big fellow, kind of stooped and he wears a cap just like mine. Sort of our trademark.”
No, I had not seen him.
The checker player started to sit down beside me and then changed his mind and kept looking up and down the bike trail.
“Bill hasn’t been feeling good.” The old man continued. “He said he might go on up to Kansas to visit his son. Wouldn’t you know, it’s a damn poor time for him to go traipsing off.” Over on main street I could hear the honking of horns, but they were invisible to the elderly checker player and myself.
“If you see ol’ Bill, tell him his partner is lookin’ for ’em.”
I assured him that I would, and the old man shuffled off up the gentle incline. He was wavering a little and the pigeons scuttled off to either side of the trail. The sun was beginning to come out now and thirty yards away the old man sat down in the sunlight with the checkerboard resting on one knee.
A young couple, obviously in love, strolled by without a second glance. Then another pedestrian, this one a middle-aged man with an umbrella came walking by. The elderly checker player stood and watched him approach and when he drew even, stopped him. They held a conversation there in the middle of the trail. The checker player lifted one hand, no doubt to show the middle-aged man his partner’s height. After the middle-aged man started on, the old man started back to where I sat.
“You see I don’t know his whole name, ‘ol Amos knowed ’em, but he died. Ol’ Ray mighta knowed what it was, but he’s gone too. Yeah, they wouldof knowed how to get aholt of ’em.” The sunlight looked small and puny through the early April foliage.
“You see Bill didn’t show up Monday or Wednesday and now he ain’t showin’ up today. I’m ‘fraid somethings happened.”
I said he would probably show up soon, trying to put a ray of hope in the old man’s existence.
“No, I don’t think so,” the old man said before rising to his feet and starting back towards Restful Pines nursing home.
I remember standing under the long shadow of a street light, one handing a baseball into the air, trying to decide…..was it really best to be the last one home before dark?
Bob Briggs 1943-2011
written January 27, 2001