Junior is dead. It was in our small-town newspaper yesterday, with the headline Police say homeless man was murdered. What do I know about Junior? So little. Why do so many people say they knew him? It keeps surprising me: someone hears the news that he is dead, and cries out, "I knew him!" Then the speaker catches himself: "Well, I didn't really, but we used to talk whenever I saw him."
An impromptu shrine has sprung up next to the post office entrance on Jefferson Street, where Junior went to get out of the rain. On the brick wall above the shrine someone has taped up a photocopied snapshot of him. It must be winter: he wears his baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, and a bulky patched coat. He's smiling broadly at the camera, and holding up two fingers in a peace sign. At the foot of the brick wall, where Junior used to hang out, there are small heaps of roses and dahlias and chrysanthemums. There are orange and yellow marigolds, too, the flowers popular on the Day of the Dead, their brightness and strong scent said to invite the spirits of our loved ones back to earth for a visit.
If Junior comes back, this is what else he'll see. A single cigarette – the last one from his own pack, someone tells me – and a flimsy restaurant matchbook. A single, foil-wrapped chocolate mint. Four tall prayer candles in glasses, and a cluster of little red votives, most of them long since melted to the ground. An elderly woman, her face stained with tears, snapping photos of the whole thing.
To know. The first, apparently easy definition is just this: to recognize, to identify, to be able to recall.
I've brought my daughter here after school. She is eight years old now, and she knew Junior too. I want her to remember him – will she? She was three and a half when we moved to this college town in Oregon, and we met Junior almost right away, after our first Saturday farmer's market. We'd loaded up two bags with vegetables and berries, and strolled over to a riverfront railing to look at the great Willamette. I didn't notice that there was a man behind us on a park bench. Didn't notice? Pretended to myself so thoroughly that I actually failed to see. [End Page 111]
"They love cheese," said this voice. "Want to feed them some cheese?"
He came over and stood beside us: a dark-haired, weathered man in glasses and a baseball cap, gesturing to the river and its invisible fish.
"Sure," I said. I had to fight down a little fear – was I taking a risk, talking to him with Hannah right there? What did I always tell her? Don't talk to strangers. This stranger was grinning at both of us. It was in his eyes, too: a big deep sense of humor. It shone out.
He had a couple of slices of American, each in its little cellophane envelope. He leaned on the railing, unwrapped one of them, and gave it to Hannah. "Go ahead, my friend," he told her. "Throw it in the river. They'll love you, they'll go crazy."
She did. The water boiled briefly, and quieted. She cried out with pleasure.
He gave her another.
After that, we saw him every time we came down there. Always in the same spot, and always talking to somebody: a mother and her kids, a bunch of teenagers on skateboards. He had a shopping cart, but I never looked long enough to see how much – or how little – was in it. Today I found out that he called it his "chrome Cadillac" and was forever pulling small treasures from it for people in need: a can of food, a warm shirt, a silver yin-yang necklace for a sixteen-year-old mother.
"Hello you two, how've you been?" he'd holler. "You're lookin' good these days!" And once, I yelled back, "We're good – how've you been?"
"It's a beautiful day...