This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.
Stories about him had been circulating since elementary school. It seemed like the legend had likely existed forever, probably first told by a roaring campfire in the woods one night, long ago. The kids who shared the tale did so quietly and ominously. Who was this man? How old was he? Was he immortal? A ghost?
The urban legend went like this: somewhere on the outskirts of our hometown, way out in the sticks, the boonies, lived a man who haunted the roads near his house. Every night he roamed, lurking in the shadows just off the road, carrying a flashlight or a baseball bat, or both. As cars drove past, he'd shine the light in the driver's eyes. Supposedly he made his nightly rounds with the express purpose of finding his deceased wife, or a surrogate for her, whichever came first. Thus he sometimes carried a woman's shoe, his late wife's, as the story went. He was looking for the woman whose foot it would fit.
This was strictly the stuff of fantastic local mythology for me, until my senior year. I dated a girl who not only lived out in those same spooky sticks, miles from my more heavily populated suburban neighborhood, but on the same street as the urban legend himself. She'd seen him more times than she could count. She'd even talked to him a few times, he knew her father. Was he really looking for his late wife, or a suitable replacement, I'd ask? She had no idea. She only knew that he seemed sad and strange, and that he kept his nightly roadside vigil like clockwork.
The girlfriend had impressive Kelly Bundy hair and a similar, although much tamer, fashion sense. We were an unlikely pairing but it was working out, so that meant regular late-night drives to bring her home or to leave her place for my home. This allowed for frequent sightings of the mysterious roadside creeper.
At first I was admittedly freaked, especially when I left her house alone to go back home. Those nights I'd invariably see him, and he'd see me, flashing his light and staring straight at me, locking eyes, as I drove by. He was unkempt with greasy, stringy hair and rumpled clothes. He looked...menacing. I still swear he was holding a shotgun one time. I'd look back in the rear view mirror and see a lone dark figure stepping out into the road, watching me drive away.
Eventually I grew used to his presence, almost hoping to see him and being disappointed when I didn't. I still never learned anything about him beyond that he lived with his mother and his property looked like a junkyard. Maybe it was.
Sometimes I wouldn't see him, but his mother instead. She stood just back from the road, wielding a flashlight and blinding me as I passed by her. Like mother, like son, I guess.
My girlfriend and her brother ran into the ancient-looking lady one night. They were cutting through the woods heading back home after visiting a friend nearby. Suddenly she appeared. I think she issued a warning about being careful out this late at night, which took on sinister undertones coming from her. They walked past her, but kept looking back, just in case.
A few years later I was home from college on summer break, dating a different girl who also lived out on one of those dimly lit roads in those very same boonies (why was I always driving to the farthest, darkest edge of town for a girl?). She didn't live on the wanderer's road though, and was probably a mile or so past it, in fact.
Sometimes we'd park on the side of the road and talk for a while before she eventually got out and made the long walk down the small hill and through the enormous yard to her house, which was set far back from the road. I usually accompanied her on that walk, through the eerily quiet calm of early morning, just to steal a few more moments together. After all, summer would be over eventually and we'd be living apart soon.
Even knowing that he didn't live on her road, a few times I wondered, fleetingly, was he watching us in the car, or on our walks across that expansive front lawn? I'd mostly forgotten about him by then, as my concerns were now greater than my hometown. Still, there were stories of him roaming great distances certain nights, maybe when the compulsion seized him with more strength than usual.
So I squeezed her hand extra tight on those walks, through the eerie coal-black darkness of those seemingly endless nights during a seemingly endless summer.
If he was watching, I like to think he was struck by the sight of two young people living in the moment, in that way you do when you're young, unencumbered by responsibility or perspective. Maybe he had even been like this once himself, decades or generations or millennia ago, before something led him to prowl the darkness, night after night, perpetually looking, looking for something.