There was a man who disappeared from our town when I was a boy. I knew him only from his propensity to carry snickers bars in his pockets for me. I discovered him one day while I played with my brothers at the park. He was a relatively normal, unassuming man. Elderly, though not senile (do not all the aged look ancient to the very young?), with a neat beard. He had more hair on the lower half of his face, but top and bottom held streaks of what may have been red, turned dusty brown from long use.
I paused my play because he had waved to us. I say “us” as a kindness to my brothers: the man never looked anywhere but straight at me. Unsure of what to do and unaware at that age of the social pressures that later overtake us and make us either act or ignore, I merely stared at him. He motioned me over then, and I ignored the age-old wisdom handed down generationally regarding with strangers and small boys.
“Hello little man.”
“I see. I’m Ben.”
“Hi. I’m Charles.”
“I see.” He dug into the pocket of his tan pants. “Want a snickers bar?”
“The boy has manners after all!” He chuckled. I looked back at my brothers to see whether they watching, but they were oblivious. I quickly stuffed the chocolate in my mouth and the wrapper in my pocket.
“Thanks,” I said around the morsel.
I returned to play, and then he left. I saw him often after that around town, though it was only at our playground rendezvous that I scored any candy. Our town was not large, and he had a presence all across the community. I never learned his last name, but my parents knew him, as did the despicable Mr. Belleman, the math teacher. (The idea that Ben-of-the-snickers knew and possibly associated with the only teacher who gave me D- grades on my math tests slightly lowered my estimation of him).
Then one day I realized I hadn’t seen Ben. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but because we crossed paths coincidentally, a few days usually passed in between. This was a real absence, however: I discovered as I thought about it that almost two months had gone by without seeing Ben, let alone receiving any candy.
What really got to me was that nobody else knew he was gone for quite some time, either. I asked my parents, I asked my brothers, I ask the clerks of our grocery store and the clerks of the gas station. I even asked Mr. Belleman. No one had seen him, but everyone seemed surprised at the mention of his long absence.
So total was his absence that I began to question his existence in the first place. I stress again the size of our town. It should not have been possible to lose a person (for that was what I had begun to deem it) with so little fanfare. This was a community where a new mailbox in front of the Henry residence was noticed immediately and discussed for days. So complete his disappearance, so total the silence surrounding it, that it was, at the most mundane, a figment of my delusional psyche who had never existed. At the most dreadful, it was nothing less than an abduction of the sinister variety. As a boy now of thirteen, I naturally assumed the latter, more dreadful option. The oblivious quality of my town in this matter drove my obsession with his absence all the more.
I had a discussion (rather heated, I fear) about the disappearance concept with my parents. It went something along the lines of:
“How come nobody knows where Ben is?”
“Ben has his own house, his own life. Maybe he moved.”
“But people knew Ben. And nobody even noticed he was gone.”
“That’s not true, son.”
“It is! Everybody I asked about him was surprised, like I was the one breaking the news to them.”
“Well maybe he wanted to move away quietly and didn’t want anybody to know.”
“Oh right, so he left so secretly that nobody noticed for two months? No way!”
“I’m sure there’s a logical explanation, Charles.”
“Is that all you’d say if I disappeared?”
“Does anybody care about anybody anymore?”
“Cause you don’t care about Ben! He’s gone! He might have been abducted and you’re all just sitting around like that’s normal.”
“Now Charles, calm -”
“If I was gone tomorrow, you wouldn’t even wonder where I went, let alone look for me. Nobody cares!”
Now that I’m older and I know everything (it happens to the aged), I can say that I was perhaps hormonally driven and thus not thinking very rationally. I can say that I was also more concerned at the time with proving my own sanity then the very real idea that Ben had been taken suddenly and mysteriously. Regardless, some excruciating exigency drove my decision to leave home in search of the old man who gave me snickers sometimes when we met at the playground. I don’t have any good explanation for my departure, but I can say that, in that moment, my story began…