The boy followed the old man. He had nothing else to do. It was summer, school was out, and his friends were all away on vacation. The boy had been left to his own devices, which this morning consisted of his two hands and a hoop that he wheeled absently along the sidewalk, too bored to run. That's when he saw the old man.
The old man was old. He looked a little like the boy's grandfather, if the boy's grandfather were someone who wore his shirt untucked and whom the boy had never seen. In any case, he was a stranger, which in a town as small as this made him a novelty.
When the boy first saw him he was coming down the road that led to the highway, walking slowly, as though he'd traveled a great distance. Had he walked all the way from the next town? No, that was impossible. For one thing it was too far, and for another, as the boy's mother had repeatedly told him, it wasn't safe to walk on the highway. He'd probably parked his car on the edge of town and was just on his way in. But why? And where was he going?
The boy waited till the old man came up to him. "Hello", he said. The old man made no reply, did not even look up to register the boy's presence, just walked straight past. Perhaps he was deaf. His hoop forgotten, the boy followed, walking companionably along with the old man, waiting to be noticed.
But the old man never looked up. He just kept walking, eyes lowered to the ground, feet trudging along at a steady but listless pace. He seemed to know his way around town, or at least had a clear sense of where he was going, because he never stopped to take his bearings or ask for directions. Was he going to meet someone? But who?
Maybe he had family here, maybe he'd come to stay with them for a few days? But if so, where was his luggage? And why hadn't he driven straight to their house instead of walking in from the edge of town? Maybe he'd lived here once, and was returning after many years. Maybe he was a hero of some sort, maybe he'd been with army and had been locked away in an enemy prison all these years and was returning now to the place he'd been born. Maybe he'd come back to find his sweetheart. The boy had only a vague notion of what a sweetheart was, but he knew from the stories he'd read that heroes were always going back to find them, and the thought that this old man might be one of them was thrilling. He imagined telling his friends all about it: how a genuine war hero had returned to the town, how he, the boy, had been the first to spot him, to befriend him. How it was with his help that the hero had finally found the house he was looking for. Wouldn't they all envy him then!
Meanwhile the old man was marching on through the town. All this time the boy had been silent, following a step or two behind, keeping his distance, but now that he knew what the man was after he felt it was time to take a more active role. As they approached Main Street the boy stepped forward, started to point out the town's various landmarks - the church, the school, the main bus stop - naming each one with proprietorial pride. He showed the old man the bank his father visited every week, the pharmacy his mother bought groceries from, the ice-cream parlor his parents would take the boy to if he had been very good (here he paused significantly, but the old man kept up his relentless gait). Some of the shops and buildings were unfamiliar to him, but he said what he could about them anyway, feeling it his duty as the old man's guide.
To all this information, the old man said nothing. Indeed, it seemed he hadn't noticed the boy at all, and was just walking along past the storefronts, unaware of what was being said. This wasn't true, of course. Obviously the old man was listening, was taking note of everything the boy told him. He was just pretending not to notice because that was what heroes did - they stayed silent till the right moment, seemingly oblivious, then it turned out they'd been paying close attention all along. The boy understood this. Any moment now the old man would stop, would smile at him, would say something incredibly grand and wise and funny that the boy could relate to his friends later as proof of his new friend's ineffable herodom. In the meantime, the boy was happy to skip along by the old man's side, prattling on about the dry cleaner and the gas station and the little park on the corner that the boy was too old for.
After a while, though, the boy quietened down. For one thing he was starting to get tired. For another they had wandered off Main Street, and were now in an unfamiliar part of town, one that the boy was uncomfortably aware his parents had warned him never to go to alone. Still, he wasn't alone, was he, he was with his friend. Yet something told him his parents wouldn't see it that way. They would get mad, say that he shouldn't have gone off with a stranger. Which was silly, of course, because the old man wasn't a stranger, he was a hero, and needed the boy's help, but grown-ups were inflexible that way.
Perhaps he ought to turn back? He considered suggesting this to the old man, maybe even proposing that the old man come back with him, so he could get something to eat at the boy's house, maybe get some directions. (The boy was beginning to suspect that the old man didn't really know where he was going. Perhaps the torture he'd suffered under the enemy had caused him to lose his sense of direction?). But what if the old man thought he was scared or weak? He would be disappointed in the boy then, would think him unworthy. No, he mustn't risk it. Not after they'd come so far. He would just have to see this through to the end.
The boy finally stopped where the houses ran out. He had never come this far before. He didn't dare go any further. For a minute he was afraid he wouldn't be able to find his way back, but he realized they had been walking in a straight line, the old man and he, all the way across town from one end to the other. A long, long walk.
"Goodbye", he said, to the retreating figure on the road in front of him. But the old man gave no sign of having heard. He just kept moving, head down, shoulders a little slumped. The boy stood there and watched him walking away for a while, until the old man disappeared around a bend in the road and the boy, realizing he would have to hurry back to avoid trouble, turned around and started to run.
As he ran back to his house, he wondered what his mother had made for lunch.
[Happy New Year, everyone!]