He was an unusual character. Most days I would see him around the neighborhood, exercising his quirks, keeping mostly to himself. I don’t think he had a family, or even a home, though if he did, the whereabouts of all were his to keep secret.
The first year we moved to town there he was, ambling along without a care, chattering to himself or perhaps to an audience in his head. I have no clue how long he lived here, but his presence was impossible to miss. He didn’t act the way one would expect, and his idiosyncrasies were magnetic, the sort of fellow you might want to have a beer with and listen to his colorful tales of life. He still looked bright and healthy that first year, but his appearance had gradually diminished in the years since. Where he was once smart and sharp looking, with a boyish glint in his eye, these days he was ratty and tired looking: losing his hair and his springy step, eye’s more watery than alert.
“Hello, Mr. Grey,” I said today. He just looked at me and went about his business. It was as typical a response from him as I could expect. On occasion, he would rattle off verbal tirades that I could not understand. At those times he was clearly agitated by my presence, or perhaps just preoccupied with his own troubles. Regardless, I would not be lying to admit that in the ten years I have known Mr Grey, we have not had one decent conversation. I didn’t even know his first name.
When we met that first day, I said, “Hello, my name is Mickey Plugs” and he introduced himself only as “Mister Grey”. I had asked the neighbors many times about him: where was he from, what was his first name, what did he do, and so on, but every time I inquired people would simply refuse to answer. I don’t know for certain, but I could swear that on more than one occasion, I saw real fear in their eyes. One fellow across the street actually said, “Mickey, you are nuts if you expect to have a conversation with that one.” So, why bother, you may be thinking. Fair question, the answer to which is that he amused me. There was a good-natured quality about him and a general demeanor that was hard to not find attractive. Even my wife begrudgingly admitted her inability to stay angry when Mr Grey would do some of the odd things he did. There were times when he was a total pest, but who among us is not flawed?
Mr. Grey was a collector. All day long he could be seen wandering the neighborhood and gathering his treasures. It didn’t matter if I or anyone else found the items to be trash, as the old adage goes. For him they were as good as gold and that’s what counts.
This morning on my daily walk with Buster, it was near the corner of Elm and Main when I offered my greeting, followed by Buster’s slack leash becoming as taught as a Brooklyn Bridge suspension cable. I never understood why Buster hated Mr Grey, who had never done a thing to the black lab, but on sight, every single time, Buster would snarl and pull until I was able to get his eyes to lock on mine and calm him down. One time in particular was so egregious that I apologized to Mr Grey, who said nothing in return, but did give me a “look”.
I got control of Buster and noticed that Mr Grey looked very tired. He didn’t even repel this time, just sort of shook his head at me, disgusted and exhausted. I waved, but did not get a return salutation.
Our usual routine in good weather was to walk the mile and a quarter to Yardley Cemetery, spend some time looking around at the old headstones and return home. The route took us up and down the hilly streets, passing along in admiration of the great old architecture while our heart rates increased to healthy levels. Today we breezed through the graveyard stopping only once to get a better look at the row of ornate and stately family crypts built by the kin of the town’s most wealthy.
On the way back I stopped at Hink’s Café to get a coffee to go. Mr Hink was in a mood and when I bade him a sunny “Good morning”, he just grunted a retort that could have been “morning” or “oh God”. Hard to tell. I ordered a black coffee and turned to see if anyone I knew was around. The café was mostly empty, but I did see Mrs Dedham and Mrs Gentry in a booth near the old jukebox. It was a glaringly bright clear autumn day, and the early sun streamed into the room like a bank of floodlights at a Friday night football game. The blinding glare exposed the reality of linoleum forty years past due, and the sagging roadmap faces of the elderly women. I cruised over to their booth.
“Good morning, ladies,” I said with a Pepsodent smile. They each had a cup of tea and a plate of toast before them; Mrs Gentry’s bread smeared with such a thin layer of jam that it merely stained the toast a slight reddish variation of Mrs Dedham’s unmolested set. They both looked at me at the same time, like a pair of kittens following a thread of yarn. Both smiled slightly and offered a perfunctory “good morning”. Mrs Dedham asked, “Where is that beast of yours?” I smiled bigger and pointed behind me out the front window, where Buster was sititng happily next to the iron bench Mr Hink had installed fifty years before.
“So ladies, what is on the schedule for you two this lovely fall day? Bingo? Knitting? Checkers?” They just looked at me. “Well then,” I continued “it seems as though Mr Grey is looking quite old these days. Buster and I saw him on the way out earlier. I’m worried, he looks very thin and pale.” Mrs Gentry’s mouth just went slack, while Mrs Dedham’s eyes hardened. “He’s around your age, isn’t he?” I asked. “Was he in your graduating class?” It appeared as though their silence would be all I would get this day, but then Mrs Dedham said, “Has your wife never suggested a short stay for you in Western State? Or at least a long vacation far, far away from here?”
“She never has!” I beamed.
“Pity” she responded, and then turned away to focus on her barren toast and weak tea.
“Coffee!” barked Mr Hink. I looked over and saw him behind the green Formica and chrome-trimmed counter, holding the Styrofoam cup, looking bored. I skipped over to him, handed him a dollar and left without another word.
On the walk back Buster encountered a stray cat near the alley between the Dixie and Henry’s Cigar shop. The cat was orange striped and horribly skinny with leaky eyes. Again Buster pulled nearly making me drop my joe, and this time I yanked back hard, pulling him off the ground and turning him back to face me. “You leave that cat alone,” I yelled. “He’s sick, leave him be.” Buster looked stupidly back at me like he didn’t understand.
We neared our house on the hilly street. It was breezy and bright, the leaves of the grand old trees lining the block turning their magical spectrum of yellow, orange, red and brown. I saw Mr Grey on the fortress-like limestone wall in front of my house. It was a low wall of perhaps two and a half feet tall, assembled from hand cut blocks several hundred pounds each. The wall had stood for a hundred fifty plus years, and I suspected it would stand forever. Mr Grey sat alone, contemplatively as we approached. He turned when he heard us shuffling through the dry leaves. I waved, “Hey, Mr Grey, lovely morning is it not?” He turned away and got off the wall.
The street’s gutters were relatively clean, but still the ever-present collector in Mr Grey dug around the curb in search of cheap thrills. Something was off about him. He looked shaky, wobbly legs, distracted, and he moved into and out of the street in a zigzag pattern of no purpose. I stopped and told Buster to sit and we watched from a distance as Mr Grey continued his dance of dementia. It was a sad sight. At one point he picked up an acorn, took a bite out of it and tossed it aside. I just shook my head and hoped that I would never one day lose my faculties to such a degree, and if I did, that my wife would indeed get me a reservation at Western State Lunatic Asylum. I thought I should call 911 but then decided to wait and make sure this wasn’t just one of Mr Grey’s little antics. I know for certain he messed with my head on occasion.
My mind snapped back as I heard a car motor revving loud and fast as it ascended the hill. The residential neighborhood limit was 25mph, but it was common to see cars fly up the road at more than twice that speed, and this one was doing at least that. I looked down the hill and saw the muscle car fast approaching, then I looked back and saw Mr Grey ambling away from the curb. It was a movie, shot on high-speed film and slowed to an agonizing crawl. I caught a glimpse of the driver, cell phone in hand, punching buttons to call or text. I saw Mr Grey, oblivious to the looming threat, his mind no longer functioning in this world. Whether he heard the car or not, I couldn’t say, but the last thing I saw him do was close his eyes and heave a deep breath. I screamed, “Mr Grey!” but he didn’t look at me. A split second later the car impacted with him and kept right on going. I was beside myself, “Murderer!” I yelled, “Murdeerrerrrrrrrrrr!!!!” I was reduced to a heap of bubbling snotty tears.
Later when the ambulance came, I heard muffled voices bemoaning the tragedy. “Poor man”, “Such a waste”, “Nuts”, and other snippets from other voices. My wife rode with me, signing the papers and crying.
It’s nice here. Mrs Dedham was right; this place is good for me. I can feed myself and use the bathroom now without a guard. I have learned to knit and spend my time playing bingo and checkers. The days are pleasant. The view from my barred window exposes a lovely natural garden atrium, rich with flora and fauna, little animals scurrying about on their daily routines. Sometimes I think I see Mr Grey, come back to life, in the courtyard, smiling at me and sending me messages of peace.
The nights are another story. I dream bad dreams, always bad. The events of that beautiful autumn day come back to haunt me over and over. I fear I will never get past the horror, and the dream is always the same-
Mr Grey, the car, the speed, the sound, the impact, the aftermath.
And every time the final vision that wakes me screaming and sweating,
The flattened corpse of Mr Grey, as a gust of cool wind blows in
Catching his fluffy grey tail and lifting it away from his little pancake body
like a furry windsock, pointing toward insanity.
William Paquet is a writer living in Virginia.