Every day he sat beside that lamppost, in the afternoon between one and two o’clock. There was a bench right beside it, and he sat on the left side. He didn’t read the paper or anything, he didn’t make small talk, he didn’t nap–he just sat there, on the bench, silent and still.
We all wondered about him. We played kickball in the street in the summer, and sometimes the ball would go real close to him and one of us would have to fetch it. He never caught it or threw it back or anything. I’m not sure he even knew we were there.
Mario dared me to go sit beside him once. I looked at the empty spot on the right side of the bench and considered it for a moment or two, then shoved Mario and dared him to go tell Lindsey a dirty joke and see if she laughed. He ran off, already snickering at his own joke, and by the time Lindsey was staring at him with the mix of scorn and bewilderment that the girls our age had recently perfected, he had forgotten that he had dared me to do anything at all.
I didn’t forget, though, and the next rainy afternoon when the neighborhood kids stayed inside, I took my umbrella and went to find him on that bench. He was there, just like I knew he would be, sitting underneath a black umbrella that had utterly failed to keep him dry. Still, he held it up above his head with a steady grip.
He didn’t speak to me when I sat down beside him, and I didn’t speak to him, either. I found that I held onto my umbrella, too, long after it had stopped keeping me dry. It just seemed strange to put it away and sit unprotected in the rain.
“She was supposed to meet me here,” he said, turning to me as I startled.
“She was supposed to meet me here. Under this lamppost.”
“Who was supposed to meet you here?”
“It doesn’t matter now. She didn’t come.” He sighed deeply, and turned back to the street. “You know, son, I’m beginning to suspect that she never will.” And before I could speak again, before I could ask him the questions that were rising from my gut, he closed his umbrella and stood up.
“Thanks,” he said as he walked away.
“For what?” I asked, but he didn’t hear me, or at least didn’t answer.
I didn’t tell Mario what I’d done–he didn’t need to know that I’d bothered with his dare. But we all noticed when the man stopped coming and the bench stayed empty for three days in a row. We looked for him in subtle ways, scanning the street and letting our eyes linger for an extra moment on the bench beside the lamppost. By the end of the week, we knew he was gone.
He didn’t come back until the middle of August. He sat there just as still and just as silent as before, but there was a different air about him. When he stood up to leave at two o’clock, he looked at me and waved.
“Thanks again,” he said.
Mario and the other kids turned and stared at me, eyes wide and mouths open. I shrugged.
“Don’t ask,” I said, and they didn’t. We never saw him again.