An old man in a heavy, dark blue raincoat and a faded cap stood at the country bus stop. Around his feet, what looked like a bed roll, a pack, but also a black artist’s portfolio and a glimpse of a palette splashed with color. I passed behind him on my bicycle, glancing back once, wondering where he was from and what he was doing here.
I thought about him as I sped on down the path. Did he live near here, or had he come from far away? What had he been painting? When I reached the end of the path, I turned and headed back. Far ahead, I could see him still standing there in the gray morning light, but now he had left the bus stop and crossed the path to stand at the fence. He stared out over the fields and up to the mountains wreathed in clouds. I wondered if he was studying it for a painting.
He didn’t show any sign that he saw me, though I watched him as I approached. As I sped past him I called out, “Good morning!” His face stayed grim, he didn’t move.
My eyes back on the path ahead, I thought about turning around. I could go back. I could say, “You’re a painter? What are you working on?” Maybe he would be pleased that I was interested. Maybe he would show me what was inside that black portfolio, strange and beautiful visions, in all those bright colors I had seen on the palette. Maybe he would give me his card, say he had a studio in town. Or maybe he would be a foreigner, hardly speak English, and would forever after think how friendly the people were in my country.
Or maybe he didn’t want me to bother him. My feet kept turning the pedals, my wheels kept rolling me toward home. With every fence post I passed I thought I might turn back. Turn back at any moment and discover the mystery behind me. But I didn’t want him to know how curious I was, how much I wanted to talk to him.
I am an artist too, I paint with words. There are things in my soul that I want others to see. I know how it aches, to not have anyone to show them to.
My wheels have carried me so far now, I am closer to home than to the artist at the bus stop. I could still go back, but I am tired. There are so many things to do at home.
I do not turn around. All the way to my front door. Only when I am inside again, at my kitchen table, does the tragedy strike me. I will never see that man again, I will never know what he saw in the world and spread on his canvas.
Perhaps all he needed today, in his long and lonely struggle, was for someone to ask him what he was working on. For me look through the windows he had made to his soul, and be glad at what I saw. And instead I hurried by, afraid. Afraid he would not want to talk to me.
I should have let him make that choice.