Sometimes it's easier to just ask...
| They were both men of routine. The young man woke up, showered, ate a stale waffle, got into his car, screeched the f-bomb for as long as he could maintain his morning rage, accounted for the next eight hours, and then visited the library. That’s where their paths converged. He would find him sitting there in the back with a stack of newspapers or books on the table near him, a black garbage bag filled with clothes next to him, and reading material in front of him. He was an older man, with hoary and wild hair, tousled by the electric touch of so many minds.
It hadn’t taken the young man long--a few visits to the library at varying times--until he’d pieced together that the old man spent at least eight hours a day reading, going through books like a millennial went through Netflix shows. What impressed him the most though, was the old man’s vigor. Whenever he’d finish a newspaper or book, he’d lunge from his seat and speed to a particular aisle, locate his target and return to his spot with that same indefatigable spring in his step.
Could the old man be reading the entire library? Maybe it was preparation for a magnum opus, and he’d sacrificed all the hustle and bustle of a normal life for this one dedication, this one idea he refused to neglect. This appealed to the young man. Even the library could feel like an onslaught to him. Book after book, all with such enticing covers and titles, bombarded him with their unremitting potential. Forget life; he longed for the sureness in the old man’s step when he plucked a book from the shelves.
He’d considered other possibilities. The old man could be flipping the pages as a way of distancing himself from something terrible, a great, abject void. It could be a distraction from the unbearable, a terminal disease, and these books were the only medicine that he could afford since his wife and his children had robbed him of all that he owned, most preciously, Tootsie, his three-legged dog who’d driven him to invest the last of his millions in artificial appendages for canines. Or, he could just really like to read. Whatever the case, the black bag beside the pile of books couldn’t be ignored. Did he have anybody to go home to? Did he even have a home to go home to?
Eventually, the young man decides that it would be easier to answer these questions by following him home rather than go through the trouble of using his vocal chords; his morning ritual was quite exhausting. Ten minutes before closing, the old man reshelves his reading material, snatches up his clothes and then heads out the sliding doors. The young man gives him a minute before going out to his car.
His inexperience in the art of tailing elderly pedestrians shows. He hadn’t accounted for how much gas he’d be wasting driving back and forth; for obvious reasons, he can't just hover next to him. Besides, at this hour, some guy with a bluetooth and a company car would kill him.
The task, which the young man half-suspected would deflate from lack of reason when he stepped into the car, turns out to be way more exciting than it has any right to be. He feels as though he should be wearing a mic on the collar of his shirt to caution comrades about the position of the subject, but he only has his girlfriend and she wouldn’t be into it. He finds himself whispering to his collar anyway. Could this be a vocation?
Several times when the young man has to drive ahead and come back, the old man has seemingly vanished. Although it turns out that he’s just crossed the street or turned a corner unexpectedly, the young man is still stunned by the old man’s quickness in his absence. It's like he conserves his energy when the Sentra drives by so as to make quick dashes whenever traffic forces the young man ahead.
Twenty minutes into his adventure, he circles back and can't find the old man on the street he was previously seen on or any of the adjacent streets. The young man turns in on an alley lined with several dilapidated shacks, snuck away in otherwise middle class suburbs. Finding relief from rush hour, here he has the luxury of creeping forth in his Sentra while looking out at the houses for any trace of the old man.
A cat leaps off a porch, frizzy tail flailing as it flits across the lawn. He considers the cat’s resemblance to the old man’s wild hair for a second, but only a second. A sewage top lies ahead, yet it doesn't wobble. He hadn’t expected this; no flapping screen-doors, no trail of dirty clothes, and no tracks left by the uncommissioned academic. No, this definitely isn't his vocation.
He’d been staring at the gutter trying to imagine what conditions would have to be in play for him to ever slide in down there when he noticed the middle-aged woman staring at him from beside her mailbox. He rolls down his window, “Hi, I’m looking for a man.”
The woman tilts her head slightly forward, as if to say ‘go on’.
“Like 6 ft 2, wild white hair, carrying a black garbage bag. Ring a bell?”
She shrugs and shakes her head. He starts up again to clarify and then stops abruptly, realizing that there's nothing to clarify that wouldn’t be lying. After what must've sounded like an unintelligible grunt from him, the woman walks back into her home with her mail.
He pulls into an adjacent alley and repeats the process. More cats, less one-sided conversations, but still zero persons of interest. Maybe tomorrow, but probably not. Probably never again.
When his girlfriend calls asking him where he was and what could be more important than their date, he's still sitting at the end of the alley with the engine humming. He doesn’t tell her that he’d stalked some stranger or that he is at present likely the haunting fascination of a poor old woman peeking through her curtains as dusk settled. He can’t even tell her that he's having a McConaughy moment because she would neither understand the reference nor find it funny. He ends up telling her anyway.