Today I have veered off Division and am walking south on Western Avenue for no obvious reason. Perhaps for a change of scenery. As I am approaching the new modernistic round building of Village West Veterinary at the corner of Rice, I notice a young man dressed in grey light weight jogging outfit that could also be scrubs of one of the vets working inside the building. He is standing by the tree outside, probably on his break, soaking up the sun and getting some fresh air on this gorgeous early spring day. We make eye contact and exchange HI’s. Before I move on, out of the clear blue sky, he asks:
‘How old are you?’
‘Take a guess!’
Wow! Because most of the people guess my age to be much younger, even though I have recently turned 78. Don’t remember if we exchange anything more as I hurry past him, because there is something peculiar about the way he asks my age and then guesses it so right on the button. Judging from his clothes and his looks, he seems to be a decent harmless young man, and yet, I find something unsettling about him. Almost menacing, like Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley – as played by Matt Damon in the movie version.
Young and handsome, boyish almost, and yet if you look closer you see something devilish lurking behind his friendly face. So much so that when I reach Chicago Avenue, I want to cross the street and walk back from the other side of Western. But then I think, peculiar as he seemed, it might be interesting to talk to him. So I turn around to walk back. Now he is sitting on the ground circling the trunk of the tree. When he sees me approaching, his lithe figure springs up like the head of a cobra rising out of the snake charmer’s basket. I see him stand up and watching my steps getting closer as if he has been waiting for me all along. We say hi again.
‘Where are you from?’ he asks, abruptly.
‘Are you Hindu?’ I don’t like his abruptness.
‘I was born Hindu.’
‘Are you religious?’ The question and his demeanor puts me on a guard. One of those! I think to myself. Depending on my answer, I fully expect him to ask: what happens after we die?
‘You work here?’ I ask just to distract the conversation. He shakes his head indicating no, he doesn’t. That seems strange because suddenly I remember having seen him outside the building also once before, may be a few months earlier.
‘You live here?’
‘No, I don’t.’ But he doesn’t elaborate – just looks at me with a peculiar gaze in his eyes – like a mad man – a man not quite normal.
‘Are you religious?’ he asks again. Apparently, I haven’t succeeded in sidetracking him.
‘Religion is one of the things I don’t talk about.’
‘I just don’t.’
‘But why don’t you?’
‘Because it’s just too personal to talk about.’
Not knowing where this may lead, I resume my walk without responding. He starts walking by my side.
‘Can I walk with you?’ He asks.
‘Well, it’s a public street!’ Not knowing what else to say, I answer. He is walking alongside me as if we were together to begin with. I don’t like it.
‘So why don’t you talk about religion?’ He persists.
‘If I answer that I am talking about it. And I just don’t care to.’
‘But you don’t mind me walking with you!’
‘Actually I do! Look, I am just going to the store across the street. You can walk with me up to the light.’ And so he does. Not saying anything until we get to the light.
‘Well, see you around!’ I say and try to hurry past him to cross the street.
‘Can I cross the street with you?’ I don’t answer and just keep walking. He keeps up with my stride
‘Can I go in the store with you?’ I don’t answer but he follows me in. I am getting spooked.
I walk into Rich’s Deli and announce to everybody and nobody in particular, he is not with me, he is just following me. The women who work there must remember me coming in frequently to buy bread just look on without a slightest change in their expressions. I am not surprised, because that’s just how they have always been. I get my loaf of bread, pay for it and rush out of there, he follows me out of the door.
‘Hey, it’s been nice talking to you. Have a nice day. Good bye!’ I hasten to cross the street.
‘Can I walk with you?’ he asks again like a broken gramophone record. And I keep walking – now at a faster pace. He keeps up with me as I cross the street.
‘Nooo!’ I scream. But he certainly doesn’t heed.
‘I am going in that direction anyway.’ He tells me nonchalantly.
‘In that case, you go first.’
When he doesn’t – I take off like an arrow. Totally spooked. He has followed me across the street and up to the bus stop before slowing down. I hurry, almost run and at the end of the next crossing, look back. He is not looking into my direction, but is still standing there by the bus stop looking a bit lost. Instead of walking straight ahead, I turn and turn again and again – just in case.
© 2019 Haresh Shah
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