Walter stands alone. Not actually alone, but inside, he is alone. The rocky earth is cold and uneven beneath his feet, clad in overworn sneakers. The unhemmed bottoms of his fading blue jeans hang torn and fraying, the product of thousands of steps, dragged along carelessly. His belt holds tightly against his hips, pinning up jeans that would otherwise fall to the ground like a magician’s curtain. This belt has one more hole in it than it did last month, but it still seems to serve its purpose. His dusty long sleeves rustle gently with the breeze that cuts through the polyester cloth making his skin curl into goosepimples. Shielding his neck from the seemingly innocuous winter sun, the brim of the baseball cap of some unknown minor league team has frayed along the corners from the repeated smacking against tables and other surfaces each time he has removed it. From behind taped and bent glasses, Walter’s eyes stare out over the thousands of miles to the edge of the Earth and beyond.
Three months he has been away. Without a trace, Walter disappeared from his suburban home. He had no family to support, but his parents, friends, siblings, and coworkers had all noticed his sudden absence. He emptied his savings, paid his debts, and left everything but a backpack full of underwear and a few provisions. He started walking. On country roads and state highways, he jumped ahead a few miles at a time using the age-old lift ticket of a lazily extended thumb pointing to nowhere in particular. At night he would curl up in his jacket or find a cozy underpass to rest his head on his bag of undergarments. Occasionally he would reach a city that might sport a hostel, and for a dozen or so dollars, get a real bed and maybe even a warm breakfast. He had covered most of the Northeast and reached as far west as Chicago before he stopped in the same place two nights in a row.
In the passenger seat of an old Pathfinder, Walter spilled out his life story to a man whose name he had not even remembered. After weeks of nearly perpetual solitude, he could not contain his desire to tell this man everything he had ever known or thought or believed. For ninety minutes the man listened quietly while Walter spewed on about missed opportunities, lost loves, and dreams of grandeur. It was only when the man turned slowly around the corner of nestled blocky houses did Walter realize that he was not just getting dropped at the next gas station as had happened a dozen times before.
“Hey, man, where are we?” Walter asked with a bit of hesitation.
“I live just up the street here. I was gonna ask if you wanted to stay for a night, butcha never gave me a chance,” the man replied flatly.
“O. Wow. Well, thank you,” came Walter’s muttering reply. “I haven’t slept in a real house in a long time.”
“I know,” said the man, “you’ve mentioned that a few times.”
“Don’t apologize. I’m honored that you shared the story with me,” the man stated genuinely as he pulled the old mare onto the cracked driveway.
His arms hugging his bag to his chest, Walter looked across at his host with the longing and joy of a child who has realized for the first time that he is truly loved. With a faint smile and a curt nod, the man silently acknowledged Walter’s gratitude, and it was enough.
The man’s name, as Walter would later recall, was Michael Howard. Currently studying physics at the University of Chicago, Michael was the type of young man who would spend an entire evening with earbuds blasting an eclectic techno beat while textbooks and notes plastered his preferred table on the third floor of the library. At 22, Michael had a clean-shaven face that could blend in with a high school crowd or university faculty depending on the attire with which he chose to complement it. His shaggy brown hair framed his long face, and plain, stoic eyes. Shadows of deep crescents hung heavily beneath his eyes, filled by each of the successive nights used for study in place of sleep. He stood above most of his friends, but his lean frame kept him from making an imposing figure. Throughout his youth, he dabbled in a series of athletics, settling on lacrosse in high school, but he knew that his brain would take him further than his body, and he had given up team sports when he left for Chicago. His obsession with running and a youthful metabolism kept him thin, but not scrawny. As an only child, born and raised in a suburban western city, Michael developed a tendency toward solitude and found comfort in the chatter of his own thoughts. This state of mind often lent itself to a certain amount of identification with the wandering nomads he occasionally saw walking the roads, their belongings displayed proudly on their backs, a hopeful hand extended toward a new horizon. Today, however, was the first time he had stopped for one.
Walter slings his bag over his shoulder instinctively as he shuts the passenger door, and looks up at the humble residence. The gray plaster facade betrays its age with rusty streaks reaching down from old gutters. There are no shutters and no blinds, but the window to his right on the second floor have a plain white bedsheet hung unevenly behind the thin glass. The front door sits cozily between the one-car garage, which remains closed, and what is presumably another bedroom with an identical window directly below the one with the sheet. The door is a faded green, and the lower panel shows a pale gray undercoat from repeated openings with the toe or heel serving in place of heavily loaded hands.
While Walter gazes up at a conspicuous crack in the frame directly above the door, Michael passes in front him, leading the way up the short cement path connecting the driveway to the front stoop. Walter steps carefully over the bit of thin, brown grass as he cuts the corner onto the path. He watches the zippers of Michael’s black backpack sway with his steps until they stop when Michael jostles a key in the rattling door knob.
Walter’s foot feels leaden as he lifts it over the doorframe and settles it with a creak on the old wood floor. The air inside is warm and a bit stuffy, but a distinct scent of something roasting permeates the house. With a lazy stagger step, he backs out of his worn sneakers and tucks them away neatly with his foot in the corner of the small entryway. To his right is a plain white door, slightly mishung so a triangle of light shines below the top of the frame. Directly ahead of him is a narrow stairwell, draped in threadbare carpet where thousands of dragging steps have pulled away the fibers. Past the stairs to the left, Walter has a glimpse of a kitchen sink, and Michael has dropped his backpack on the counter next to it.
“This is seriously the best part of having a slow-cooker, the smell of the house when I get home,” Michael calls from around the kitchen. The sound of the lid settling back on the warm pot of meat invites Walter to follow. As the kitchen opens up to him, Walter notices the kitchen table, its caramel stain worn to white where hot bowls have kept young men warm on brisk winter evenings. The chairs – only three – are tucked away tightly, but he can see that none of them match.
“Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable. I’ll get this roast out in just a minute,” Michael notes to him as he lifts a pair of dishes with a porcelain clatter out of the scratched white cabinet to the right of the sink. Walter peels his pack from one shoulder and then the other, keeping it close to him as he pulls out a chair and settles himself. The chair whines and shifts as it accepts his weight, and Walter has a brief moment of doubt that the seat will hold him. It does, and Walter relaxes into its stiff ribbed back, less than comfortable, but better than standing. He sits slumped with his hands still connected to the top handle of his pack. Though his body is motionless, his eyes wander, noticing the stack of mail and unidentifiable scraps on the table. Most of the envelopes are unopened, and will probably stay that way until someone gets around to discarding them. Mastercard, Visa, home loan reduction, Discover card – the same load of garbage Walter remembers pulling out of his mailbox every day. He resists the urge to start the process of tearing them in half one by one that always gave him the brief satisfaction of triumph over the marketers’ attempts to control his desires. Instead, he allows a shallow smile to come to his lips, and the pressure of tears forms behind his eyes as he remembers the life he has left behind.
It has always been this way. Moments from the past ensnare his mind from time to time, casting a malignant veil over his present world for hours, sometimes days, at a time. Through force of will, Walter has found a way to continue looking forward despite the constant chase, but there are days. Those days have been more frequent since he left. With little to occupy his mind except the scrape-step of sneakers and occasional contemplations of the distance to his next meal, he falls into the state of despair with the thought of a piece of his history that he will never relive except in the fading melancholy of memory. His eyes fixed catatonically on piece of yellow graphing paper on the kitchen table, Walter slips away to a dimly lit restaurant.
The air conditioning was just a little strong, and it didn’t help that he was seated next to the window separating him from an unseasonably cold evening. She looks at him with a sad smile, her arms crossed, elbows on the edge of the two-top table, stretching the sleeves of her purple dress jacket. Walter always liked that jacket. He liked all of her dress clothes. She knew how to make herself look older, and wealthier, despite having bought most of her wardrobe at the thrift shop. He is able to relax when he sees her this way. She looks independent. It quells his anxiety because he knows – they both know – that this will be their last dinner. They do their best to ignore it, but the elephant may as well have been sitting on their plates. Between the characteristic discussion of political theory and interesting ideas, their chatter stops, and they stare at each other with eyes filling with tears. She reaches her hand across the table; he takes it instinctively. It’s for the best, he told himself, but he had said it to her too many times already. Words needed not be exchanged.
The ceramic plate scuffs along the wood tabletop, breaking Walter’s glazed stare. “Here ya go, man,” Michael says while pulling his hands away from the pair of plates carrying steaming roast beef and vegetables. “What can I getchya to drink? I think we have a couple beers in the fridge,” he offers.
“Just water. Please,” Walter responds with a thin smile, pulling himself out of the daydream.
“No, thank you.”
The rattle of glass, hiss of the tap, and another clunk as the glass locates itself just next to his plate. Walter looks up to Michael’s face, turned intently toward the food on his plate. “Thank you,” he says.
“My pleasure,” Michael responds with only a flicker of his eyes up toward Walter, his first forkful already halfway to his mouth.
Walter rubs the lingering moisture from his eyes and reaches for the fork sticking out of the right side of a pile of a potatoes and carrots. He gently plucks a carrot from the plate, and pulls it off his fork with his teeth, savoring the flavor that has infused it over the past several hours of roasting. He chews slowly, deliberately, and purposefully. Only when he has swallowed, does he go for a wedge of potato. Michael looks up from a half-empty plate, and finishes his bite with the next already poised.
“Do you like it?” he asks, concerned.
“Yeah. It’s delicious. Thank you.”
“I figured you would be starving.”
“I am. Really, thank you. I really appreciate it.”
Michael forces half a smile, but his eyes betray his misunderstanding.
“I like to take my time with my food,” Walter gives his explanation, reading the confusion on the collegian’s face. He understands. He was the same way not very long ago.
Walter pulls off chunk of the meat in the center of this plate. Steam rises lazily from the wet morsel, interrupted by the stream of from Walter’s pursed lips. An instinctive action born of years of burning himself because of his impatience to devour his culinary creations, the cooling is not necessary, and in fact he appreciates the warmth nourishing his frozen body. Beef shoulder. A cheap cut, full of gristle. It has been in the pot since early this morning, and it falls apart as he chews slowly, allowing the salty juices to pool at the back of his throat before quietly swallowing. His eyes are closed, his peace disturbed only by Michael’s expulsion of air that serves as a laugh.
“I guess you really do like it,” Michael quips after finishing one of his final bites.
“Yes,” Walter responds with a faint smile.
“I’m glad,” Michael returns.
Walter resumes a normal eating pace – still slow by Michael’s hurried standards – as Michael clanks his for on the edge of his plate signifying his completion. Michael sits back, staring at his plate as he finishes chewing his final bit. He looks up at Walter, noticing that Walter is now completely focused on the food before him. He waits. His guest is clearly enjoying this meal. Little does he know, Walter enjoys every meal. This fact is irrelevant, and Michael takes satisfaction in the knowledge that he has pleased his guest.
With a quarter of his portion remaining, Walter puts down the fork, finishes his bite, and looks up. Michael is wearing a half smile of satisfaction, his shoulders resting comfortably on the back of his chair, hands clasped in his lap.
“Our third roommate recently moved out. He left the bed, but not a whole lot else. I figured you could take his room. It’s the one upstairs to the right. There’s a bathroom up there, and one right around the corner here.” He nods over his left shoulder signalling toward the dining room, currently being used to host a long board as a table for drinking games.
Walter simply nods in reply, returning the smile.
“I can take that if you’re done?” Michael offers.
Walter shakes his head and responds, “No. I’ll finish.”
“Ok,” Michael notes with courteous resignation and humility of his guests show of respect as he lifts himself out of his chair and sweeps up his own empty plate to take to the sink.