A Pre-beginning

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’m ten.”

“I see. I’m Ben.”

“Hi. I’m Charles.”

“Charlie?”

“Nope.”

“I see.” He dug into the pocket of his tan pants. “Want a snickers bar?”

“Yes please.”

“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.

“Anytime.”

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?”

“No! We-”

“Does anybody care about anybody anymore?”

“Charles -”

“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…

A Brush with Dirt

The day was new. The sun had just lifted herself above the low horizon in the distance, and the fog that had lain on the world like a gentle hand was being sent away like some guest who had long overstayed his welcome. As it dissipated, the sun’s rays filled the valley, illuminating the long prairie grasses in their early sogginess. Even the earth beneath the green-brown growth was damp, and normally Henry would have been uncomfortable, but today was different. Today was an Adventure.
**

Caught up as he had been with the routine of civilized living, nature’s rare touch into his life was seldom met with anything other than revulsion. He was known in his community for being particularly unfond of spiders – the ones in the corners of your house that the broom or duster seldom finds. He was not grateful when he was forced to walk through dirt (especially mud on the horrid days of rain) on his way to work. He usually took the car, but every so often he successfully convinced himself that he needed the exercise; so with more than a bit of ginger in his step he would leave by the front door rather than the garage. His success in convincing himself of the rightness of these actions was moderate at best, however, for it was a constant struggle in his mind against the bugs and insects and rain and dirt and puddles with which he was accosted on his commutes. Usually after no more than two days of such drudgery would put him back in the car with relish.
“Why don’t you walk to work, today, Henry?”
“Sure, I suppose I ought to,” he replied dutifully. He knew the expected response, and rarely went in for the ensuing confrontations when he replied aberrantly.

One day he met a man. At least, he thought it was a man. His memory of the entire event was a little fuzzy, but he had always been one to trust his gut, and his gut remembered a kindred spirit, if not anything to specify humanity.

He had been on his way home from work, which generally created the exigent and overwhelming need to visit the pub (this was secretly his main motivation for his pedestrian commute. He would have no real opportunity for pubbing if he drove), which many from his work frequented. In some respects it was a way to debrief and declassify and degenerate one’s self from one’s work, although on occasion some additional item was discussed outside the dreary walls of his institutionalization area.

He passed through the doors and into the inviting atmosphere of the Friendly Gander (there was a big wooden grinning goose on the front of the establishment). He placed himself in a corner near, but not too close, to the bar. He wanted service, and perhaps to pick up some of the gossip from the others in the Gander, but he neither considered himself ambitious enough or worthy enough of joining said society. Pint of bitter in hand and relaxing comfortably, he was surprised and not a little put out when a man (at least he thought it was a man. His memory of the entire event was a little fuzzy, you’ll remember) seated himself right next to Henry at the small table.
“Evening?” Henry said, doing his best to politely ask how this man (at least he thought it was a man – his memory of the event was growing fuzzy) had the nerve – the gall even – to interrupt another’s contented solitude.
“And a good evening to you, kind sir!” The man (at least he thought it was a man – ) said, not fazed in the least by Henry’s artful combination of polite cold-shouldering. “By what name are you called?”
“Um, Henry.” And he took a long pull at his bitter, hoping that this would go away and wondering what sort of fellow this could be.
“Henry, I am Stephenost. Well met!” He extended his hand (was it a hand? He thought it was a hand) in greeting.

Henry was supremely unwilling to have anything to do with this extraordinarily effusive…being…but his politeness was of a more stalwart breed than his reluctance.
“How nice, how do you do,” Henry replied, extending a somewhat lukewarm hand in return. Stephenost’s grip was unwavering and firm, despite the apparent age of the gnarled hand he had extended. He pulled his hand away and rubbed it on his trousers. The hand had come away gritty, and, looking at his trousers, full of dirt. His disgust rose up, but so did his wonder. The man (was it a man?) looked clean, though perhaps garbed in an odd way, but then many did in a city of this size. Stephenost observed all this with an obvious perspicacity, and his eyes twinkled with mirth. He leaned in closer, dropping his bluff effusiveness for a kind of intent secrecy.

“You are marked now, young one. Where once you reviled, you will cherish. Where once you did not comprehend, you will commune. Where once you were powerless, you will be power.”
Henry was at this point bewildered beyond all reason, and couldn’t fathom what was happening. Hadn’t he just been sipping a pint in his local pub? Who was this and what was he being told?

“I’m sorry,” he said a little uncertainly, “I’m not sure you have the right chap, my good man. I’m afraid I really must be going.” On shaky feet he rose, grabbing his overcoat and shelling out some bills for the half-finished pint.

He did not look back as he exited the small and no-longer inviting pub. If he had, he might have seen the twinkle in the mysterious man’s (was he a man?) eyes and a touch of a smile on the lips as his gnarled and dirt-filled hand went for the unfinished drink. “Waste not, my good man.”

JF