It happened again about the same time last year. The weather begins to get warmer, the sun shines a little longer and then He arrives. Always dressed in jeans and a black hoodie. If you try to make eye contact, He looks away. If it appears you might approach, He pops up and slinks off.
I think of him, not as a harbinger of Spring, but like an assistant Grim Reaper.
Yes, I know that sounds a little weird. But that's exactly the vibe He gives off. Weird. Spooky. Unnerving. Or as my seniors usually note...creepy. I use to wage war with my conscious, wondering if He was harmless. Or worse, homeless and in need of help.
I wonder no more.
Let me back up for a moment, to give you the whole picture. My hometown was originally rural and the land agricultural. The only way to get "into" the City limits was to go through the process of having the neighbors sign a petition requesting to be physically embraced by the City. ALL of the neighbors. Some viewed this as a great way to get better water and garbage pick up. Others saw it as an invasion of their privacy, with higher taxes to boot. My Center is surrounded on three sides by rural dirt roads. In fact, if I look out the back windows, I can still see a family plot cemetery, home to about 25 gravestones. Those three dirt roads and my building remain in the county....and we are surrounded by the City. My neighbors like country living and they've often fought to stay that way. Personally, I like that rooster across the street who crows all during the day. His voice is much lovelier than the train which rattles my office window panes or the sirens of the Fire/Ambulance Station down the road constantly racing to the rescue.
My Center is far enough off the busy "City" street that if you don't know where to look, you'll miss our sign. In front of the Center is a monument noting our building's past as a "Colored School". The Center itself is actually the 1956 addition to an elementary school for black children built in the late 30s. Several years ago, a group of alumni gifted our site with two benches, a flag pole and the above mentioned marker. We're fairly secluded so not many people know why the memorial is there. Now that a drive through car wash has sprung up in front of us, the occasional person will wander over to see why there is a little concrete island outside our fence.
Once in a while I see someone sitting on a bench out front. Many of the neighbors like to walk to the grocery store next door. The elderly lady across the street, Mrs. Pitts, always waves at me, pointing out all the wonderful vegetables she grows in her garden. Almost everyone I come in contact with is friendly.
He shows up suddenly. Slinks like a shadow and parks himself on a bench. Okay. That doesn't hurt anything. But He sits for HOURS. Staring dead ahead. Never moving. Unless, of course, someone says hello. Attempt to make eye contact, He turns his face away. If you take one step in his direction, He bolts upright and tries to casually walk away. Except his walk has the urgency of someone not wanting to be caught and his idea of "away" is to lurk in the bushes until the friendly person disappears. And then He returns, sitting as stonily as the concrete bench he occupies.
Time changes things and not always for the good. Most of us are more cautious than we use to be....less trusting. I'm especially aware of my seniors, who can't move at lightning speed if physically threatened. The first time I let him sit undisturbed on the bench because when the seniors came up, He slunk off. When they left, his ghost like visage reappeared. Since He refused to look at me when I locked the gate, I began ignoring him. Oh sure, I kept checking out of the corner of my eye, but He seemed to be more comfortable being ignored.
I kept that halfway ignoring thing going until the day I caught him standing up on the bench, hand shading his eyes and peering left, then right, as if he were on the bow of a pirate ship, looking to plunder and pillage. That's when I called the Sheriff's Office and asked for someone to talk to him. A Deputy did, then came back to tell me the man claimed he'd gone to the school and was just sitting there thinking about "the good ol' days". The Deputy, with a wry smile, had suggested He think for shorter periods of time and move on after a few minutes.
And so He did. Summer in the south is too hot to sit in the sun wearing a black hoodie and He disappeared. Last week He showed back up. I unexpectedly dropped by on a Saturday morning and there He sat. As I got out of the car to unlock the gate, He slunk away. I grabbed what I needed and left. Five hours later, on my way home, I remembered the gate was unlocked. He was still there. Sitting stone like. A hooded face I couldn't see. But he saw me and scurried off into the bushes like a mouse suddenly caught at midnight stealing cheese.
He was there again Friday but this time, his appearance sent a red flag waving frantically in my brain. This time He was pacing up and down the fence outside my office window. Sure, he was on the other side of the fence but the hoodie was down. I saw his face. A face which was muttering to itself and glancing at my building, which was filled with a ladies' group, then toward the street. He was older than I thought, with a beard. And bigger than I'd realized. The old law enforcement dispatcher in me immediately took inventory. Black male, late 30s, early 40s, about 6'2", lean but solid build, black stocking cap, tan tee shirt, blue jeans and dark shoes.
I tried to tell myself He was just on a walk. Which might have worked if He hadn't stopped, glared at my building, then begun pacing back and forth again. Suddenly He whirled around, crossed the street towards Mrs. Pitts' house, went to the 3rd car in her yard, opened the door and got in. He sat for the next 15 minutes. Was He homeless and living in the car? It was a junker which hadn't moved in several years. He popped back out and began pacing again. I felt uneasy. A little voice in my head, which my officers use to call "The Voice of Danger", began yelling at me. Screaming actually.
"This is not right! Do something!"
I hesitated momentarily. He got back in the car. The ladies' group finished and I walked them to their cars, staring in his direction. Some part of me, the stupid part I suppose, wanted him to know I was watching. That I KNEW He was there and we both knew he shouldn't be. After everyone had gone, He popped out of the car again. With determination He began strolling toward the bench. That's when my little voice yelled, "Call now! Remember what happened the last time you chose to ignore me?"
A twinge of guilt stabbed me in the heart. The last time. When I'd tried to silence that voice when it raised a red flag about the two strangers who kept walking up and down my fence. Sure, they were too old to be in school, but they probably should've been at work. But they were just walking. No law against that. No law against glancing around at your surroundings. Yes, they did seem to go on these walks a lot lately, but times were tough. Maybe they couldn't afford a car.
Turns out they were working all right. They were casing the neighborhood. One day, about 2 hours after I left work, they knocked on Mrs. Pitts' door. When she opened it a crack, they burst in, beat her up, stole her car....and left her for dead.
The image of that sweet little woman lying outside in the cold, pretending to be dead so they would leave, grabbed my heart and squeezed so hard I was dialing the Sheriff's Office before I knew it. Yes, they did catch the men. The same two jerks who'd walked up and down my fence.
He was on the bench outside when a siren went off, sending him scurrying back toward the car, his "leisurely" pace wrapped in guilt. The siren belonged to a fire truck, but He didn't know that. As He sat safely in the car, the Deputy met me out back, somewhat surprised I had such a detailed description. Guilt can do that to you. I returned to my office and watched the whole thing through the window, like a bad t.v. show. My heart picked up speed as the Deputy exited his car, hand on hip, to approach the other car. I was actually angry that the Deputy had parked right in front of the other car because there was a small hill between us. God forbid something awful happen to the Deputy. I'd sent him into this situation and I felt a bit responsible for his safety. If things went bad, could I get HIM help in time?
He got out of the car reluctantly, was patted down, then began to gesture angrily, pointing up the street, then back down the other way. I could see the Deputy say something, shake his head, then point a finger up the street, like a parent sending a bad child to his room. He left reluctantly, muttering. Suddenly He wheeled around and I instinctively reached for the phone. He was waving at Mrs. Pitts, who had her screen door open but did not step out. The Deputy shooed the man on his way, then spoke to my neighbor. Unlike in years past, the Deputy did not come back to update me, but he did go out the way he'd sent the man.
For a moment, my heart sank. Was this someone Mrs. Pitts knew? Was He perhaps homeless and she'd allowed him to stay in the car when necessary? Had I been a good neighbor ...or merely a nosy one?
Leaving for the day, I spied Mrs. Pitts at her mailbox. Driving over, I gently called her by name, reminding her who I was by pointing at the Center. I inquired, feeling slightly guilty, if she'd known the man. Mrs. Pitts' shook her head vigorously. Although she'd worked with his mother years ago at a local factory, she had no idea who he was or why he was around. I explained how his presence worried the seniors and that one of the neighbors had called me earlier in the week to say he'd been on the bench all weekend. The neighbor had been scared to walk past him and had walked home the other way. The longer way. In the dark. When I told Mrs. Pitts I'd called because of his odd behavior getting in and out of the car, her eyes grew wide.
What car? she'd wanted to know, her tone uneasy. When I pointed it out, she was visibly shaken. The car belonged to her son. An old clunker that wouldn't start. He was in the military, in Germany, and had asked if he could leave it there until he got back.
The little voice in my head smirked.
I asked if we could lock the car but she had no key. Mrs. Pitts exclaimed she was going inside right that instant to call her son and see if he wanted it towed elsewhere. Telling her I'd sit right there until she and her walker were safely inside the house, she smiled, saying her interest in pulling weeds had vanished. And then she thanked me. With a lump in my throat I confessed I never wanted to see her harmed again. That I should've called the day I saw the two men who kept walking past.
And that's when she let me off the hook with a smile. "You're a good neighbor. I know you're watching out for me. And I watch out for you."
For a split second, I remembered how the world use to be, when we cared about our neighbors. For all the right reasons.