Late October was breathed in and out of his lungs when it came around. The sky turned gray and the ground a dense orange, with pumpkins squatting on porches and crows on telephone wires. Autumn was all cornfields and grain, sheep in clusters at the bottom of the hills that framed the town. October was the cold winds that disturbed the tranquility of the lake. And more or less, it was the color of Owen’s maple freckles, the color of his nose when he felt bitter.
He dangled his legs off the end of the dock, kicking trash away from his bare feet. It was suspended over dirty green water, empty alphabet soup cans and such floating back and forth. Behind him, the fishmonger’s cry for business rang out and billowed over the lake. He found it strange, worrisome, at the least. Nobody ever came looking for him, he thought, despite apt warnings against straying off path when getting to the school. His locks of grainy hair were pushed back by the wind.
“Hey, boy.” The salt-stained dock trembled when the tall figure approached. Owen lifted his chin ever so slightly, an easy acknowledgement. A sturdy man sat down alongside him. The man had a polite face. He looked like a whale, not necessarily in size but as if he had seen ancient depths, barnacles clamped to his thick skin, slow and steady movements.
“You’re not where they want you to be, you know that?” the man said.
“Well, good. Class isn’t there for the clever, yes?”
Owen turned and looked at this man’s scarred face. He was pleased with the outcome of this interaction. The man’s voice had some sort of accent, stressing the wrong words in a sentence.
“I had a lovely steak this morning. It was still dripping with flavor and juice, and I polished it off with a glass of milk, yes?” The man announced, coughing.
“I’ve only had a steak once.”
“Yes, that sounds reasonable.”
Owen didn’t say anything.
“What’s your name, son?” the man asked.
“It’s pretty cold out.”
The man looked around at the lake, matchstick trees engorged in yellow flames. Thick clouds hung over the town, casting shadows onto their faces.
“Who are you?’ Owen asked.
“Me?” He laughed. “I’m not entirely sure, really. I just go in the direction of the wind, yes, that seems about right.”
“You have a family?”
“Once, yes, but they went their ways- the grave, Europe, the streets.”
“I have one, too. Or, part of one-” Owen curled his toes in the chilly water, scolding himself. There was something, something…
“I have a cat. He’s somewhere winding around these streets, hunting- whatever a cat does these days,” the man said. He never looked directly at Owen when he spoke.
“A cat!” Owen exclaimed. “I had a fish once. It came in a tiny plastic bag from the General Store. I found a mason jar in my basement, and it lived there for three days, until my father tapped his cigar ashes into it. I buried it in a matchbox.”
“Your father… he’s special, that one. It’s the hospital bills that keep him alive, yes, he needs something to keep fighting for. To pay off, yes.”
Owen, being nine years old, didn’t question the fact that the man knew about the hospital. This man seemed like he was supposed to know- something or other, Owen convinced himself. He thought of his little baby sister in that case, cold, cold glass case, tubes attached to her struggling body, with her tiny heart fighting against its constraints, her confident battle, and he felt warmth spread through his body as if he had just drank a warm glass of milk. He saw his father holding Owen’s hand, he saw his father’s hands gripping the steering wheel, driving him to see the baby that came too early, and Owen decided that it was impossible for a baby to come too early, since babies are wonderful and it’s lovely to have things come early when they’re wonderful.
“Yes, he means well. It’s too hard for a man so small to hold so much inside, and he wants to give you some to hold as well, but he doesn’t understand how, yes.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Look,” a sigh, “your father only wishes he wasn’t the only one dealing with the little angel in the hospital, yes? You feel the pain, too, but you don’t see it from his heart, mind, soul, he thinks it’s harder for himself. Selfish, perhaps, but you have to understand that you can’t blame him for crying at night and such.”
Owen dipped a finger in the water, swirling it to create patterns. He saw the wind blow ripples on the surface. The man beside him was absolutely still, so still that the gusts of wind didn’t rustle his clothes or hair. He thought about what the man had said about his father crying at night.
“When you go home, you can’t ignore the absence of a crying baby girl or a careful mother. No, embrace it, relish in the pain because it makes you raw and real, yes. And go to school tomorrow. A boy should make his teacher proud.”
“Yes?” Owen asked.
Owen felt uncomfortable, like this man had poked a finger through his chest and right smack into his heart, and promptly stood. He examined the head of the man, still sitting, and noticed his hair thinning out into a bald spot. Some glossy wrappers drifted limply in the water, and the man followed them with his gaze.
Owen looked away, back at the courtyard behind him, at the fishmonger and his greasy apron, chops of a knife through thick slabs of fish, scales glinting in the filtered sunlight, bald head shining.
Owen turned, away from the wanderer and the flaming autumn trees, and closed his eyes. He could feel the man also closing his eyes, exhaling.
The man said, “Don’t look back,” and Owen never did.