The first time I saw him was in a mall, of all places. I don’t go to malls if I can help it, but it was Christmas and I happened to be working in Toronto at the time, so I headed to the Queen Street Mall — maybe called something else by now — and I’d just come in through the north end off Yonge Street when I caught sight of him on the send level, weaving his way through the crowds, evidently there for the same reason I was.
I stopped dead in my tracks, and stared up at him. How I knew it was him I have no idea. I would say I recognized him, except that I’d never seen him before, except in my mind’s eye, and even then the image always varied. . . older, younger, from any number of social ‘levels’, but definitely him. At the moment I couldn’t have attached a name to him; I wasn’t currently working on a story, and even then the names of all the characters are often in flux until the final printout, largely because they play such a crucial role in nailing down the essence of a character.
I watched him until he passed through a knot of shoppers and disappeared, not strolling but intent on getting somewhere, maybe just out. He’d never been big on crowds, even less so on shopping, and I knew instinctively he was on the lookout for something special, or he wouldn’t have come down here. After a moment of confusion, I found the stairs and decided to go up there and see if I could find him.
Somehow, even before I gave up looking, I knew I was wasting my time. It was just the first of what I’ve come to think of as ‘sightings’, and the pattern would repeat itself until the actual encounter. But at this point, I’d only just begun to track him down, and was totally unprepared for what was to follow.
For the next few weeks I kept an eye out for him everywhere I went in the city, but didn’t catch sight of him again until about a year later as I was pulling into a Voyageur rest stop on my way to Montreal to do another gig. He was pulling out, heading the opposite way, and I caught the briefest glimpse of him, hunched over the wheel of his little red Datsun or whatever it was, same leather jacket, once again intent on getting wherever it was he was going. I toyed with the idea of following him, but remembered I’d come in for gas, having made the last few klicks on fumes. I tried to catch the license number of his car but couldn’t, though what I would have done with it is anybody’s guess. I’d watched a lot of cops on TV, but that wasn’t going to help at all now.
After filling up, I went in a got some coffee and a doughnut, and sat staring out at the parking lot trying to put together what seemed to be happening. Why now? Why after years of writing stories that always revolved around a single lone character [alone even when he was married or in a gang] was I suddenly being subjected to these sightings. . . and what did that even mean? This man was about my age, wearing a brown leather jacket, similar in many ways to me physically, clearly someone who fascinated me, but surely I’d seen and even met dozens of others like him without really being struck by anything in particular. Now suddenly here he was, someone I felt I knew intimately — but who appeared not to notice me at all — popping up out of the blue again, a man in a little red car driving east on the 401 in late fall. An actor? A writer? Most of my characters had been connected to the entertainment industry in one way or another, but not all.
But there were others. . . I tried to recollect them, the various outlaws and down-and-outers I’d peopled so many of my stories with, losers mostly. What was that about? I’d always had a bit of an obsession with the underdogs of the world, even back when I was still in school and had not yet chosen the path that would lead me inevitably to the edge of whatever social environment I happened to belong to at the time. Was it some kind of rebellion against the comfort of the lower upper middle class? Some genetic proclivity to test boundaries and challenge conventionsfor no other reason than to stand apart? I’d been over this ground so many times that I’d almost forgotten why I was curious. I was who I was. . . wasn’t that enough? And this stranger. . . might not the same simply be true of him?
Over the next couple of years I’d catch sight of him disappearing down into a subway station or onto a streetcar, but any attempt I made to follow him was always thwarted by crowds or simply bad timing, and now suddenly here he was again, my doppelganger, my alter ego, but not in the sense of the prince and the pauper, but a fellow traveler. The Datsun was an older model with some rust showing, and the leather jacket was well worn and most likely from the Sally Ann, and probably he was between relationships as I had been for most of my adult life, even while theoretically spoken for. A maverick, then. . . a rogue. But also something more.
Cutting to the chase as they still say [funny how we can’t seem to improve on some phrases] I finally ran into him a week ago on a walking trail in Bon Echo Park, north of where I live. I had Barker with me — so-called because he hardly ever does — and we nearly collided on a steep, narrow path that had been cut into a rocky hillside overlooking one of the small lakes. I stopped dead as usual, while he merely slowed his pace, his attention more of Barker than on me, still wearing his leather jacket, almost like a minor character in a low-budget film who always wears the same clothes.
He immediately crouched down to greet Barker, giving me time to observe him from above, and it was clear that he too was beginning to thin on top. As I watched the two of them bond, I could think of nothing salient or even pertinent to ask.
‘His name’s Barker,’ I said finally, lamely. He looked up.
‘Why’s that, cuz he’s a malemute?’ He straightened then, and gave me a wry grin. ‘Sorry, I can never pass up a good pun.’ How could he have guessed my little joke?
‘I know the feeling,’ I replied, wondering if this show of empathy would register at all. It didn’t, so I continued.
‘You look vaguely familiar. Have you been on TV or. . . something?’
‘Only on a CC screen inside a bank.’ He gave me a look that meant more, but I had no idea what. ‘No, I’m just one of those familiar faces you see all the time. I get asked for spare change all the time, y’know?’
We chatted briefly, the usual stuff, then as he was passing me on his way towards where we’d come from, he suddenly turned his head and flashed another sardonic smile.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said, and kept on walking.
Exactly the kind of thing I’d have said in his position, whatever that was. But he had a name now: Hombré. (a play on the French ombre)
Retired professional actor and playwright, now turning to writing short stories.