I spent the better part of today at our annual Book Fair...sellers, publishers, writers, and performers gather to celebrate the written word. Authors read from their work in this public forum enticing listeners to sit for hours in the blazing sun to hear one more story. The event takes over our local town square with tents, booths, and tables. Each year I have the sense of displacing the Square's residents for a day of literary madness. This is where, on a normal day, many of our satellite people spend their time. I passed some, on the fringe of all the activity, unsure as to how to best navigate their way through the throng. I started thinking about Bunker Man, who I haven't seen for years.
This is not a story about outer space. It is, perhaps, a story about inner space--that space between my consciousness and my heart, where some people dwell. They are those people on the perimeter of my urban life whose faces are as familiar to me as relatives who live across country. They are not the folks I’d ask over for dinner or to a movie. Yet, I count on them. Somehow, they shape my reality.
Bunker Man molds his body into an “L” shape, with legs stretched out on the cold cement stoop and back flat against the side of the faded brick building. A tattered ski cap the color of mildew covers his graying hair. A faded pea coat, like the ones we wore back in the 60’s at antiwar rallies in D.C., is his cover, his bedding, his tent.
Every Saturday morning I walk into town to mail my bills at the post office and deposit my checks for the week at the bank. I could mail my bills from home and bank on-line, but it’s my way of shrinking a large city into a small town, like where I grew up.
Each Saturday I pass Bunker Man, holed up, keeping an eye on the streets. We never speak, but we nod in recognition. His pale blue eyes sparkle, incongruent with the flat affect of his body. Or perhaps it’s the sun glinting off the leaves of the crape myrtle overhead.
I am consumed with curiosity about his life. Does he have children? Has he lived anywhere other than against the brick building? What has life presented him with that he sits, day after day, watching? I will never ask. The rains have come and the temperature dips low at night. Where has Bunker Man gone?
Then there’s Jean. I don’t know why I think of her as Jean, no one ever spoke her name in front of me. Jean walks. In her natty old black ankle-length trench coat, she walks the streets of the city with her zombie-like gait, eyes fixed on the pavement three feet in front of her. Her straw-colored brittle hair is covered with a non-descript scarf, faded and jagged at the edges, knotted under her chin.
Her mouth works itself in a tartive sort of way, soundless, mysterious. People shrink back slightly as they pass her, their nostrils narrow a bit as if readying themselves for a sour smell.
I smile when I pass her at one end of town or the other, marveling that she arrives on foot before me at the places I drive on the hottest, the coldest, and the wettest of days. She does not return my smile. She does not know I take comfort in the familiarity of her, or that I worry about someone harming her.
Jesus walks about town wrapped in a white sheet and little else. His beatific smile and golden curls remind me of a Renoir painting. His eyes are large blue saucers fringed with delicate blonde lashes. He carries a leather-bound Bible and blesses people. “Thank you,” I say. You can never have too many blessings. I wonder, in the cold months, will he don shoes and a coat? Does Jesus wear long johns?
For several weeks of my Saturday trek into town, Bunker Man hasn’t been on his stoop. The first week I thought perhaps he’d scraped together enough spare change to step out for a cup of coffee. The second week I looked around his “spot” for clues of his presence there, and found none. This, the third week, I stick my head into a small shop next to the stoop.
“The guy who lives just outside your shop on the stoop...” I begin.
“Oh, yeah,” the shop owner smiles, “he’s gone.”
My heart pounds. What fate has Bunker Man met, and why is this callused man smiling at his absence? Glad, perhaps, to be rid of another piece of urban blight next to his doorway? I set my jaw and narrow my eyes.
“Yes, I noticed that. Do you know what happened to him?”
The shop owner walks over to the door and leans against the frame. “His family came from Oregon. Brother and Mom, I think. Said they were going to take him home...that they had a trailer on some land for him. They’d been worried about him so far from the family.” The shop owner’s eyes are moist, and a soft smile plays on his lips. “I kinda miss the guy,” he says.
“Yeah,” I swallow around the lump in my throat, “me too.”
We stand for a moment, there in the doorway, honoring the memory of an enigmatic soul who’d been brought back into the folds of family. Instead of mourning an ending, we celebrate a new beginning. May life be well for you, Bunker Man.