I am very sad to learn that Keith, a man I hardly knew, but who occupied a large part of my community, has died. I don't know how he died. I don't know where, or even precisely, when. I don't know if there will be a memorial for him. But there should be.
If I were to imagine how he died, it would have been while he was walking, or, perhaps sitting on a bench after one of his many walks through town. He'd have had a cigarette in his hand, and would be wearing his weathered old hat and coat. He would have been watching the cars go by, the people, the dogs. And he would comment on his observations to anyone who'd ask. Some did, I suppose. I did see him with one or two people every once in a while. And I heard he would have a cup of coffee every morning at the Town House, a place not unlike Garrison Keeler's Chatterbox Cafe. But mostly, Keith was alone. And mostly, he was walking.
Our town is small. A main street called Main. Another main street called Water. And then a few other streets with shops restaurants and bars. The buildings are old and made of brick. There is a creek, and trees, and flower baskets in summer. And everywhere, all year round, walking around the town with his cigarette and weathered clothes, was the lanky and crusty character named Keith. Ice, rain, snow, heat. It didn't matter. There'd he be, as sure as the water running under the bridges that criss-cross through town.
In my family we called him, "The Walker Man," having no idea of his real name. Then one day while grocery shopping, my four year old son saw the walker man and introduced himself. The old man looked surprised. Then Elijah asked him his name. What struck me in that moment were Keith's eyes, as if he were remembering something he had forgotten a very long time ago. What also struck me, was seeing my son reach further and deeper into the world then I had ever tried. I memorialized the moment in my novel, The Crying Tree, when a homeless man is touched by the death of a young boy who had asked his name.
I wish I had shown this to him when he was alive.
From Chapter 8, The Crying Tree
Nate pulled behind the hearse and followed it out of the gravel lot and onto Main North.
They drove past the post office, Blaine Grain and Feed, Runkle's, other places either boarded up long ago or looking so empty and forlorn they ought to have been. They saw a tall, thin vagrant named Heath. He had a bristly beard and a weather-beaten hat that appeared molded to his head. He was a near fixture around town, but nobody knew him, not even his name, until Shep had finally asked. Irene and her son were loading groceries into their truck when the aging vagabond walked by hauling a garbage bag filled with cans. Shep introduced himself and his mother, then asked him his name. "Heath," he responded shyly, and from then on Shep aways gathered whatever cans he ran across and left then near where he and the old man had met.
Heath stopped walking and looked up at the phalanx of vehicles pulled by the lone black hearse. Then he pulled off his hat, and held it to his chest....