The Leatherman was highly agitated by the disturbance in his routine, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him; for, just as his body was covered by leather pants, leather boots, leather shirt, leather gloves, leather hat, and a long, patched leather jacket, his face was obscured by stoicism and grime. He was not generally one to share his feelings, but you knew he had to have them; for, why else would he do what he’s done?
The deed I’m talking about is the single, billion-step, accomplishment of his life: the unending, invariable thirty-five-day circuit through small towns of Connecticut and Eastern New York, sleeping in caves and tombs and eating the handouts of humanitarians. No one knew why he did this, for he never spoke, but there could only be one reason: he did it for love.
They say there was a girl in his past, a girl he had seen in a shoe repair shop when he was young. She had soft round legs, a bright skirt, and a smile that lit up the mysteries of life. No one experiences the mysteries of life lit up, as by a blazing floodlight, without wanting to take a better look. No, you go and find that floodlight, even if it means trudging a billion steps, sleeping in caves and tombs, and eating nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You forfeit thirty-some years of baths. You develop a search pattern that does not let her escape and you become highly agitated when it’s disturbed.
That was the state of the Leatherman two days ago after the Ponytailed Cop intercepted him at the town line. The Cop was kind about it. He patiently explained that the taxpayers of Kenilworth were all up in arms about the homeless in their midst. He could enter the town the next time he came through; he was sure they will have settled down by then. But the Leatherman knew no English and the Ponytailed Cop spoke no French. He did bring donuts, though, and coffee, and offered to give him a ride. The Leatherman couldn’t say where he wanted to go, but the Cop knew his next stop: a cave on the grounds of Gillette’s Castle.
No one could know whether the Leatherman had ever been in a car before, but it didn’t seem like it. If he had, he had long since gotten used to a walking pace, so traveling forty miles an hour through winding Connecticut roads must have seemed frightfully fast to him. He sat in the back seat, ate the donuts before the Ponytailed Cop got underway, and lowered his head when it seemed he was about to die. That proved to be a mistake; for, by the time they arrived at the Castle parking lot, he was carsick and vomited all the donuts onto the Cop’s backseat.
By being at his cave a day early, the Leatherman’s routine was all out of whack. It’s not clear why that mattered, except Kenilworth’s Saint, with her sandwich, wouldn’t know where to find him. None of his other benefactors could meet him on their appointed times, either, unless he violated all precedence and stayed at the Castle cave for two nights, instead of his usual one. Had he been able to communicate, and had he been willing to admit, he really needed a rest anyway. Thirty-some years of ceaseless, bathless, shelterless wandering wears a body down in a way few people ever know.
No sooner had the Leatherman found his cave, but he fished a leather blanket out of his pack and spread it on the ground. Then he took off his long leather coat and used it to cover himself. A leather boot was a pillow, his leather hat, a night cap, and his leather pants and shirt made do as pajamas. He would forgo his customary campfire and take an uncharacteristic nap. The Leather man had only two answers to agitation: walking and sleep.
The Leatherman enjoyed sleep, for he often dreamed of the girl. She would appear in his dreams with the smile that floodlit mysteries. She would never speak, but he would reach for her and, so reaching, would wake himself up and lose the dream. Every time, he told himself, don’t reach this time, just continue to sleep and enjoy her company; but, the next time he dreamed, he would forget and reach again. He began to believe that it was she, not he, who hiked this thirty-five-day circuit of tombs and caves, and he, who was following her to all the places she went. That’s what bothered him so much about missing this night in Kenilworth. He thought was missing an important appointment with a dream.
He needn’t have worried, for, after a long slumber that finished the day and went well into the night, he had his dream of her coming into her cave. There were important differences this time. She was exhausted, as if she had been to the tomb in Kenilworth, found that he was not there, and ran through the woods all night to come here to meet him. She fell to the floor and slumped. He remembered not to reach for her. She began to weep. They were quiet, gentle tears at first, but then they swelled into sobs. These sobs seemed to well up, as water does behind a dam, until they broke through with a wild wail. It occurred to him that it was dark and, because she didn’t see him, and he didn’t reach for her, she didn’t think he was here. She was lamenting not being able to find him. He could identify with that. He reached out and touched her.
When he touched her arm, she did something unexpected. The girl startled and began to run away. Also, he didn’t wake up, for he had already been awake, or in that ambiguous state between asleep and awake. When she began to run, he seized her tightly. If she was real, he was not about to let her get away.
The Leatherman had been visualizing this reunion for many, many years. It was not the way he had imagined. He never thought she would react so violently to his touch. She must not have recognized him; he must have changed profoundly over these years. She looked strangely the same, almost as youthful as he remembered her, but that’s how he had imagined; for, he never thought of her as having aged. She was forever fixed as a symbol of the freshness of youth.
She screamed and began to kick him with her legs. This was most unexpected; but, one does not search for someone for thirty-some years, only to let her go when one finds her. She screamed again and struggled away from his grasp, but one does not spend thirty-some years walking and living in the open, without developing some strength, only to let it fail when one finds what one has been looking for.
He pulled her towards him and embraced her in his arms. She was cold and trembling. She squirmed and bit his wrist until he bled. He never felt the pain, for he was overjoyed at having found her. He whispered the first words he had said to anyone in thirty-some years.
His words came out hoarse, so he said them again and again, till he could say them clearly.
“J’t’aime… J’t’aime… J’t’aime, chérie…”
Then, he added some more, for effect.
“J’t’aime, chérie… J’t’aime tellement… Part pas… J’t’aime…”
It took a long time before she stopped kicking and went limp. At first, he was afraid he had killed her, but she was alive and wide awake. It was like she had lost all will of her own. He placed her on his blanket, lent her a boot for a pillow, gathered up his coat, spread it over them, and spooned her in embrace. He felt her heart slow down. They remained that way long past daylight; he, wide awake; and she, in whatever state that was.
At last, she rolled over and spoke in English, as one who has forgotten her French.
“Do you have anything coffee? I thure could uthe thome.”