by Crystal Dalison
They found his body hanging in a storage shed behind the general store. He had been there for six months. One day, in mid-August, he had told us that he was going to leave his seasonal job early and go home, and then, two weeks later, he was gone. He worked at the shop, and had been helping to get everything stored away for winter, so he knew which sheds wouldn’t be opened until spring. It got cold early that year, which slowed his decomposition and kept the smell from giving away his hiding spot. For six months, no one looked for him, no one filed a missing person report, and no one knew. For six whole months, he was alone.
I wish I could justify my inability to process this by saying that we were particularly close, or that we’d been friends for a long time, but we weren’t and we hadn’t. Sure, we were friends – it would have been impossible for me not to befriend someone like him, with the two of us living and working together in an isolated community – but we weren’t close yet. I’d mostly see him late at night, sitting alone at the picnic tables outside our employee camp. Everyone else would be getting housed at the bar, or stoned at a bonfire, and I’d be sneaking off to my unit to savor a bit of solitude while my roommate was out playing. He’d just be sitting there alone, with his headphones on, watching the sky. I’d sit down next to him, light a cigarette, and join the watch for a while before retreating to my room to fiddle my guitar and twiddle my words. He’d always smile and make room for me. Sometimes he’d take off his headphones and we’d talk, but more often than not we enjoyed each other’s company in silence.
I’ve known other people that the world has lost to suicide, many of whom were much closer to me than he was. In fact, it seems to be a reoccurring theme. My uncle; a few of the kids I grew up with; my best friend’s mom; and arguably, my pet goat, who hung himself when I was eight (this was most likely the result of simple stupidity on the goat’s part, but in my eight-year-old mind it was intentional.) The thing that gets me about this one, the thing I can’t seem to shake, is how painfully and utterly alone he was. That, and how much we were alike.
It occupies my mind, the way an invading army occupies a city. A quiet but visible presence at every street corner and every major thoroughfare, slowing down transport and eating up resources, day after day. Did he know, when he smiled at us and said goodbye, that this was what he would do? What did he do with his belongings – with that pack of his, that he’d carried all over the world? Why hadn’t anyone been looking for him? Didn’t he have anyone close enough to him to notice that he was gone? Did he plan it this way – so that the circumstances of his death would exemplify the loneliness he felt? And if I were to make a quiet exit too, how long would it take for someone to notice?
Picture a travel-worn young man of twenty-seven. He dresses in functional but tattered, mismatched, clothes – as if life is one long, rough, backpacking trip and he can’t be bothered with anything so trivial as his appearance. The first thing you observe, even before the gentle handsomeness of his features, is that there is something soft about him which has nothing to do with his weight. In fact, he is quite lean, but not in a way that suggests an athletic lifestyle. He is taller than most men, but you won’t notice this right off because of the way he carries himself. His skin is the color your coffee makes when you pour too much cream. His hair is dark and cut into short, tight curls that cover his head like a stocking cap. When he smiles, which is often, you notice that his almond-shaped eyes are an unlikely hue of copper. He seems quiet and withdrawn, but not in a way that belies unfriendliness. He always has on headphones, and he moves about with a unconscious rhythm that reflects his music. Picture Benjamin.
Ben and I had a lot in common. From an outside perspective, one would think we would have been closer for it, but in reality I think our mutual tendencies towards detachment prevented either one of us from making that initial push through our barriers and into each others lives. We both grew up in foster care and were never adopted. We were both nomads. We both had the buzz-killing habit of awkwardly saying something too thoughtful, too deep, when everyone else was just trying to have some light fun.
Benjamin, like myself, had spent almost a decade on “the road.” He didn’t have any obligations to hold him back. No family, no home, no serious job, and only as many belongings as he could carry on his back at a dead run. He’d traveled throughout the southern hemisphere extensively, and he’d ran up most of his mileage alone. He had stories about the aurora australis in Antarctica, virgin peaks in Patagonia, and secret islands off the coast of Africa. He’d traveled so far and for so long.
It was mid-August and the summer season was quickly drawing to a close. Many of the inveterate drifters in our seasonal-work community were starting to get restless with itchy feet or existential with planning anxiety. I, for one, fell into the latter category. I had no idea where I would go in a month. I didn’t have enough money saved to spend the winter overseas this year – I was going to have to stay in the country and work. I was toying with the idea of staying in Alaska for the winter, and maybe going back to school in the spring, but I was concerned that too many years of vagarious living had destroyed my ability to reintegrate back into normal society, let alone academia. After all, the road does strange things to people. I wasn’t too worried though, because I always had my island of misfit toys – Hawaii – to fall back on.
Ben and I were hanging out after work, at our usual spot, on the picnic tables outside our employee camp. The nights had been getting chilly lately, and reminding us that summer was almost over, so we had started building fires every evening. Half of the benches we had constructed at the beginning of the season had already been sacrificed to this cause.
It had been raining on and off all day, so most of the wood we could find was soggy, but we gave it a go anyways, hoping the current drizzle would slack off. As we were building up the fire, I asked Ben if he had figured out what he was going to do this winter. He said he didn’t know. He seemed distraught. I pushed the subject, and asked him what his options were. He made a face and sat down on the nearest table, resting his feet on the bench.
“I could take my working holiday visa for New Zealand. I have enough to get there. Or I could try to find a boat looking for crew somewhere in Mexico. I don’t know.”
“You would love New Zealand,” I offered, feeding dry kindling into hesitant flames, “But Mexico, hey, that could be a proper riot. It doesn’t really matter what you choose. You can’t go wrong either way.”
“I guess. But maybe you just hit the nail on the head: it doesn’t matter what I choose. I mean, everyone is always telling me how lucky I am to travel so much, and how envious they are of my life. But they don’t know how lonely and shallow it can be, or how lucky they are to have the roots that they claim hold them back. And, honestly, this lifestyle, it just seems pointless. Sure, I’ve been a lot of places and done a lot of things, but I don’t think I’ve accomplished anything of real value.”
“Yeah,” I shrugged, “When people ask me what I’ve accomplished in life so far, I tell them that I have seen many shiny things.”
This didn’t get the smile I’d hoped for. Instead, Ben lay back on the picnic table and let the sprinkling rain fall on his face. He was acting so morose that it would have been comical if it hadn’t been so alarmingly out of character for him. It’s funny how quickly you can get to know some people when you’re both traveling alone. I balanced a few damp branches over the fire pit in an attempt to dry them out, and waited. After a moment, Ben sat up, produced a bottle of whiskey from the backpack next to him, and took a long pull.
“Listen,” he muttered, setting the bottle down between us, uncapped, “I mean, I’m starting to suspect that my life so far has just been a pointless quest to color in the map with a been-there highlighter. I’ve got nothing to show for it. You know what I’m talking about, right? I’m not talking about material things. I mean, you stay in a place just long enough to love it, just long enough to make it love you. And a life starts to seed there, it really does. And then you grab that tiny sprout, pull it up, and toss it to the wind on your way out. I’ve never let anything grow.”
“I don’t think it’s quite like that,” I said, and took a swig of his bourbon to help me think what I thought. I’m not terrific with mouth-words – I tend to speak slowly – and one of the reasons I liked talking to Ben was that he was a patient listener. We let each other go off rambling.
“I think that we’re what grows. We’re tumbleweeds, Ben. But not the regular old dead kind. All these years we’ve been cartwheeling across the globe, growing a little more, and a little differently, in each land we encounter. We’ve been dropping seeds along the way too, and some of them are hardy enough that they don’t necessarily need us to be there all the time to keep growing. We can always go back to see what grew. Continue cultivating all those lives we’ve left behind.”
It was starting to rain in earnest now, and the fire was putting off more smoke than heat. We sat there a little longer in quiet defiance of the cruddy weather, neither one of us wanting to be the first to suggest a move indoors, until one of our friends came sprinting into camp. He bolted straight past us with his head down, cradling his banjo, and fled into his bunk. Then he swung back around and shouted out the door.
“Game night? Get in here, ya soggy weirdos, and bring that bottle!”
When I first got the news about Benjamin, I was struck by everyone’s lack of concern over his radio silence for the past half year. No one seemed to have been terribly alarmed by his sudden disappearance. Then I thought about my own tendency to spontaneously go off the grid for months at a time, and about how I sometimes go for long stretches without contacting the people closest to me. I thought about those shoulder seasons every nomad has, when they are neither coming nor going, and all that they are rests in the present moment, and in the packs upon their backs. I thought about the ultimate consequences of not having any roots.
Crystal is a slightly feral, outdoors-oriented, bibliophile seeking a bachelor’s degree. She enjoys adventures, stories, and being wild in the wilds in wild weather. She dislikes concrete, structured environments, and wearing shoes.