It was snowing in slow big flakes at dusk when I popped out for a late coffee. There is a coffee shop within walking distance from my office. Because it wasn’t too cold and looked like good walking just before dark, I set out through the soft snow drifting down.
There weren’t too many people out, being late and snowing. Most were already home or in windowed restaurants, relaxing with friends and family.
As I walked to the corner to wait for the light, that’s when I met him.
He had long dark hair, a black beard, wearing a hoodie through which his hair framed his face like a bit of a wild man, like someone who wandered from the wilds right into the middle of downtown. At the light, as we both waited, he mused, “I’m dying for a cigarette.” I told him I was out for a coffee, that I didn’t smoke, but I’d help him out if I did. He said, “that’s ok”, and we walked across the street together. It was the first time I saw how he limped.
“I wiped out earlier today”, he said, looking down at his legs. “It’s a good thing my legs are made of steel.” It was the first time I looked down and saw his left thigh hollowed out like a shovel.
I thought he was joking about steel legs. “It’s slippery today,” I said. “Yeah”, he said.
“It took me three years to learn to walk again”, he said. That took me back. I asked him what happened and what he meant.
“I was the only survivor of a car crash in 1980, changed my life,” he said. “I broke over 700 bones in my body, shattered my femur, pretty much everything. I’m a double black belt, too”, he laughed with some grim irony but not feeling sorry for himself. “I was air lifted from the accident and that was that, my life changed. I used to build mobile homes before the accident, but that went away. All of my friends died. I was a passenger.” He shook his head to himself, remembering that fateful day.
I told him I was amazed that he was walking so well.
“Many people, if that happened to them, mighta just given up and stayed in that wheelchair for life,” I said. He thought about that a bit. “I guess”, he said quietly. We walked on together in silence after that for a block, with him thinking his own thoughts and me too. I walked a little slower because it was slippery, and he was walking at his own pace. I did marvel at how well he walked, with a minor limp. You’d never know the tragedy that befell him in 1980, nor the daily effort it took to learn to walk again.
He lived on the street, that much was obvious. He might have had a place to go that night, I don’t know. We didn’t talk about that and I didn’t pry. He and I walked on for a bit.
“I’m a block up,” he said, “I’m hoping to catch the bus.” I didn’t ask him where he was headed, not my business I thought to myself. He didn’t ask me for anything. The shop I was headed to was in the opposite direction of where he was headed.
“I need to head this way,” I said, pointing to my left. “Alright,” he said. I introduced myself for the first time by name after our two-block walk, just as we were parting ways. I shook his hand. In reply he said, “my name is William, King William. You’ll find me up by the Oilers games most nights.” With that, he headed east, and I headed west. For the rest of the walk that night and the next few days I wondered if his last name was King or William, or if in fact he really had become a king by overcoming so much with only himself to remake his world into something liveable and peaceful. That night King William showed me the spirit and power of a human being, as knocked down and about as he had been. He held himself high, spoke with pride, humility, humanity and kindness. If there are still kings among us, real ones exemplifying the best of us, then King William is one.
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