by J. Michael Hinkhouse
I knew a person once when I was eighteen. The person was nine. He lived down the street from me in a little blue house and was always with his roommates, who were both much older than him. I wondered how they ever met each other.
The person’s name was Mr. Allen. Everywhere he went, people called him Mr. Allen and asked him many questions.
“It’s a good day,” they’d say, “Isn’t it, Mr. Allen?”
“Is that a new shirt,” they’d say, “Mr. Allen?”
“Looks like rain,” they’d say, “Doesn’t it, Mr. Allen?”
He was quite a distinguished member of our small town. One could hardly walk through the market square without handing over some sort of respectful salutation to Mr. Allen.
His roommates, who were always with him, never spoke. They acted as escort to his whims and wants. They just whispered to each other and walked behind Mr. Allen as he made his little way around.
“What’ll it be today, Mr. Allen” the vendors would say, “The salami or the ham? French bread or sourdough?”
“Would you like to try on a new hat, Mr. Allen?” the salesman would say, “I’ve got a whole new line in that I think would suit you just fine.”
But Mr. Allen wasn’t hungry at the moment and he was happy with his current hat and instead bought himself an apple juice and a walking cane.
I was eighteen and he was nine. I didn’t feel like we would have much in common so I never went out of my way to ask questions to Mr. Allen the way the others did. It confused me to think about being friendly with someone so different from myself. When I was eighteen, I only liked to talk to others who were eighteen. I didn’t have a desire to know any answers that a nine year old might have for me. It made me feel guilty sometimes that I should push away a person like Mr. Allen, but I couldn’t help it. When he would start walking in my direction, I would usually turn and bury my face in the newspaper. The newspaper makes great camouflage in town. People just walk right by you, even people you know, when you’re buried in a newspaper.
And it was no different for Mr. Allen. I always snuck past him.
Usually I would hurry across the town square and into the library down the road when I felt I needed to escape Mr. Allen’s presence. I’d find the nonfiction section between Dewey Decimals 638 and 639. I learned a lot about survival if I were ever stranded in the forest. I never thought I would run into Mr. Allen in a forest so reading about fishing and insects was an appropriate topic to escape my mind to. The librarian always sneezed and always had many dirty tissues in the wastebasket. Otherwise there was no noises in the library that would interest a nine year old man like Mr. Allen. He had more important social matters in town to address than a sneezy librarian and some eighteen year old wildlife enthusiast.
Then I turned nineteen. And upon this realized that Mr. Allen would probably be turning ten soon. But instead of turning ten, Mr. Allen did something that no one in town expected from him; he died. Just like that. No one suspected he would ever do it. He wasn’t the type to drown in a pond during a winter night when the ice was too thin to hold more than forty pounds. He wasn’t the type to be interested in freezing to death in hypothermic waters. It was a town shock and everything in the square went grey for a long time following. People didn’t look each other in the eye, they didn’t ask questions like, “salami or ham today?” or “what time is it?” or “can you hold this for me, please?” Nobody wanted to ask anyone other than Mr. Allen questions like that. And since Mr. Allen’s interests turned out to be so far off base from what the townsmen suspected, they were worried that maybe their judgements about everyone else in the town were made on misguided observations.
Mr. Allen dying in the pond really put a damper on my fishing and insect research because it wasn’t necessary for me to hide in Dewey Decimals 638 and 639 since Mr. Allen wasn’t going to find me in the square or on the strip or at the park anymore. I could roam freely, but didn’t learn anymore about scarab beetles during mating season or why a spey cast might benefit me when fly fishing for steelhead trout.
Mr. Allen’s roommates weren’t seen very often. After a few months, they moved away from our town and I slowly forgot about Mr. Allen. And so did the town because a new interest rose to the heights of popularity. Her name was Hazel. Hazel was a four year old Border Collie. She gets all the questions nowadays. And I’m back in the sneezy library between Dewey Decimals 638 and 639 since the newspaper won’t make me invisible to Hazel the way it did with Mr. Allen. She doesn’t seem to travel by sight. I have resorted to much more evasive techniques. Maybe I’ll tell you about them one day, but unless Hazel has the same secret interest in hypothermic pond water as Mr. Allen secretly did, I’ll have to keep my techniques a secret for myself as to not let Hazel find out.