I should have noticed the first time I watched the man from down the street.
He walked his three girls to school. They looked slightly disheveled, but in the charming way that families with several young children possess. It’s a wonder they make it out of the house. I didn’t heed the forlorn dull grayness of his eyes, just above his thick beard, and below a dark stocking cap.
I suppose it happened as any new encounter with a stranger. I observed them while trying to appear to be paying no attention at all, but I’d catch glimpses from the corner of my eye, and a story about their life unfolded in my mind.
Small things at first, such as how this burly man must be a caring dad to walk his girls to and from school every day. I wondered why his wife didn’t join them. Then I considered he might be a single dad. It explained their rumpled state. I could barely keep track of one small child.
I pondered how he was able to walk his children to and from school. Perhaps he was unemployed. Maybe he worked from home like I do.
We trudged to and from school, day after day, passing one another coming or going. Occasionally, I mumbled a hello and he offered a half-smile.
But the look in his eyes remained. The kind of look that makes you think someone’s reluctantly accepted their lot in life and is merely going through the motions.
One morning, while my son and I walked to school, we saw the man and his three girls. Their hands were tucked into their pockets, protecting them against the cold as they walked on the opposite side of the street toward the school. My son and I listened to the crunch of fresh snow beneath our boots. On my return home, I examined the layers of shoeprints collecting on the sidewalk.
After turning onto the next street, I found myself on the side of the road where minutes before I had watched the man walk toward the school with his girls. Only a few prints appeared on the sidewalk. My pace slowed before coming to a complete stop. Before me, only a single set of men’s shoeprints going to and from the school disturbed the snow.
A month passed with the man walking to and from the school without his girls. I couldn’t bring myself to consider why I had seen them so clearly before, and now they were gone. But I now thought I understood the look in the man’s eyes. Perhaps I should have said something, expressed my sorrow over his grief.
Another cold day gripped the neighborhood when I next encountered him. I nodded at him as he returned home while we headed in the opposite direction toward the school. He didn’t acknowledge me and I wondered if he realized I knew about the loss of his girls.
After dropping off my son, I began the walk home, and when I came to the same turn and strip of sidewalk, the fresh powder dusting the path was devoid of footprints. I glanced up the road, and watched the man disappear behind a bend, the snow beneath his feet undisturbed.