A Question of Identity – another assignment from Writing Outside the Box
I don’t know what drew me to notice him. When I think about why, it leaves me seeking within to see if I can discover what caught my attention and held my curiosity. Was there some hidden recognition that touched my soul? Or was it merely the contradictions that forced noticing – the disparity between the strict organization and the obviously worn clothing?
During the cold and rain of our Northwest winter-springs, Robin and I chose to meet at the mall on Sunday mornings to walk. Being the early bird that I am, I usually had several minutes to warm up and stretch before she arrived. It was during this waiting time that I began to notice him.
He would enter the food court, meander from table to table, apparently deciding on just the right combination of sun and shade, and settle in. Back pack behind him on the floor, satchel snuggled up beside the legs of his chair, and his organizer placed handily on the table to his left side. His tools were laid carefully on the table – a small ledger to his right, calculator in his hand, the well-used pencil-case up and slightly to the left. By all appearances, we assumed he must be a number man, busily calculating his financial state. Sometimes, as our round brought us back to the food court, I would notice that he had changed tables, dodging the advancing sunrays.
Details began to float to the surface of my consciousness – the stocking cap pulled down with only a fringe of silvery-gray hair escaping from underneath, the full bushy beard of the same hues, the layers of clothing that were never removed, the controlled solitude of a retiring recluse. I was reminded of a character in one of my favorite series of novels; Homeless Hobbes had been a prominent force in the New York advertising scene. The pressure and the success had driven him to the addictions that shattered his world. He wound up just beyond the fringes of civilization in the mountains of North Carolina, not completely shunning all human contact, but definitely preferring the peace of solitude that he found in the distance he put between himself and the city.
My curiosity finally got the better of me, and Robin and I decided we would talk to this stranger who had become such a familiar presence. We discovered that the assumed calculator was no such thing; it was an electronic Sudoku game, which he held tightly, barely concealing the deformed pinky and ring fingers. And the ledger, it was a notebook brimming with his created Sudoku puzzles, color coded, and painstakingly ordered. During our all-too-brief conversation he seemed amazed that we would notice the earnestness of his work, the detail and the neatness. In his soft-spoken response he conveyed an appreciation for being acknowledged. I was torn between an urgency to press and inquire and a resolve to not intrude.
What was going on behind those guarded eyes? Had he, too, been a successful businessman, powerful, organized, detailed? Or had the deformity he carried caused him to always remain in the shadows, not quite fitting in, concealing his brilliance in order to thwart attention? Or was I possibly overlaying elements of my own struggles onto him as I struggled with the thin, precarious line between success and disaster, between brilliance and insanity, between extraversion and reclusiveness?
That seemingly pleasant interaction and friendly inquiry has left me with a disquieting uneasiness. We have not seen that familiar presence in the mall since. The weather has allowed us to take our walks outside a few times, and our schedules have changed our timing on a couple of occasions, but the times we have been there early on Sunday morning, he has not been present. Did we shatter his comfort, his anonymity? He told us he had chosen a place that offered comfort from the elements as well as an antidote to boredom and the tedium of his days. Did we awaken fears of being noticed for all the wrong reasons?