To my surprise, maybe even to my relief, Eli didn’t speak. This relief was temporary, however, because Eli didn’t just stare at me; he started to laugh. And it was not the type of laugh that you could call “fun” or “jolly”, or even just “awkward”. Eli cackled. The pitch of his voice stabbed at my eardrums and his old lungs wheezed and snorted with the physical exertion. His eyes moistened and his nose dripped snot onto the ground as a tint of burgundy softened his dark, ashy face. And then, to my absolute horror, Eli’s frail body closed the fifteen feet between us in what seemed like two long strides and his bone-thin fingers closed around my forearm.
“Come with me,” he whispered. His hot, stale breath turned my stomach as I followed, him leading me by the arm. I contemplated running, but my curiosity was burning and I figured there was little that Eli could do to threaten me. I was no body builder, but at 5’10” and 210 pounds I was no lightweight either.
He brought me around to the back of the corner store where there were even more dead bushes along the wall and a small garden fenced in with chicken wire off to the side. Soft, crimson tomatoes lay amongst brown leaves, many with their seeds spewing forth over the dust.
“Lost m’ pocketknife,” Eli mumbled. “Start lookin’, son.”
It took me a minute to realize what he had said. I was missing work to help a sick old man look for a pocketknife. As I poked around the bushes near the corner of the store, I began dreaming up excuses for missing work without even calling out.
“Know what yer problem is, kid?”
Eli’s quiet muttering startled me and I stood up too quickly, pulling my hand from a bush and allowing a sharp twig to scrape a shallow gash the length of my forearm. The sting distracted me for a moment as I grabbed my arm with my other hand, but then remembered that Eli had asked me a question. Well, more like accused me of having a problem.
“N-no, w-w-w-what?” I stuttered.
“I dun’ jus’ mean you. This whole town’s got a problem. With me.”
“Nah man, you’re cool. I think it’s just that, you know, no one really knows you.”
“Exactly”. With that, Eli moved to the other side of the house, still looking for his pocketknife. I saw my chance. The second train hadn’t come yet. I could still make it to work. So… I ran. I ran the last quarter of a mile to the train station, caught the second train, and made it to work only thirty minutes late. I tried to tell myself that I ran because I felt stupid missing work to look for an old knife. But really, I’m not sure why I ran.
The next morning I dreaded walking by the corner store. I contemplated calling in sick, practiced my hacking cough and fake sneezes while getting dressed, or leaving early and walking a different route to the train. But I knew I would see Eli eventually and I figured that maybe I could get away with just walking fast with my head down.
I took a deep breath as the corner store came into my line of vision. I stepped up my pace, not quite to speed walking levels, but definitely enough that I could potentially break a sweat on a warm day. I lined myself up in the direction of the train and prepared to look down as soon as I came within site of Eli’s stool. But as I took each step, expecting to see the stool with every passing stride, I realized that it wasn’t there. Eli wasn’t there. For the first morning since I started taking the train five years ago when I got my job, Eli wasn’t there. I walked around the store, into the backyard where I had stood with Eli just a day earlier. Everything was the same, except maybe there was a couple missing tomatoes that the birds had gotten to. I walked around to the other side, the side that Eli had retreated to when I brought up the fact that no one really knew him here. He wasn’t there either. I walked around to the front of the store to discover that the lights were off and the door was locked. But the two old rocking chairs that Eli’s parents had supposedly sat in on warm summer evenings were still posted up on the front porch and I sat down in one to think.
I wasn’t sure what to think about this situation. Should I call the cops? Should I gather a search party? But who would even come? I had said it myself, no one really knew Eli. Tired, I shifted in my seat to lay my head back. But in doing so, I felt something hard dig into my thigh. I jumped up, causing the chair to rock violently back and forth, thumping the wooden deck and echoing through the open air.
There, in the seat of the rocking chair, lay a small pocketknife with a sleek black handle. It was closed, but that handle was definitely pointed enough to cause some serious discomfort on my backside. I picked it up and slid it through my fingers. It was so smooth, and the handle was surprisingly flat, not bulky like other knives were. It almost pained me to picture Eli picking his teeth with such a beautiful knife. I had to smile as I caught myself thinking that this knife, with its smooth shape and flat design, could potentially fit very comfortable in someone’s shoe.