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First Person

He was always there for me – with no judgment, Maggie Rahr writes

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I had feared this day for many years. The day I would discover that Wray was dead. You'd think the worrying would have prepared me. But it didn't.

If you lived in Halifax and ever spent five minutes on Spring Garden Road, the city's hallmark downtown street, you'd have known Wray Hart.

His skin was a leathery tan. He stood about 5 foot 8, stooping or sometimes leaning to the right, taking the weight off his bad knee. Some of his teeth were rotted out. His smile was radiant.

I met Wray when I was 13. My friend and I knew him from just being downtown, sitting on the grass outside the library, walking through short cuts and back alleys. You only pass someone so many times in this town before it becomes customary to tip your chin, acknowledge the other.

One dark summer night, my friend and I approached him; we wanted him to buy us a mickey of dark rum.

"Come on," I'd pleaded, as he turned his face away from us, hands folded atop each other as they often were. "Come on," I pushed, "we'll give you the change."

He took the money and walked away from us without saying a word. We waited nervously, wondering if he would return. When Wray came back, his steps were heavy, each one carrying the weight of a regretful decision already made.

I thanked him and tried to give him the change, as he placed the bottle in my hand: $2. Again, his face turned away from me. We were both ashamed.

I'd see him around, over the years. Pushing carts overflowing with bags jammed with bottles and cans, the detritus of drinkers, and of summer garbage spilling outside the bins.

Wray wore through his sneakers so fast, it seemed he always had a new pair. The rubber and tread logged in kilometre after kilometre, sleeping rough on the streets of our city.

"Cops are comin' round," he'd nodded at me once, as he watched me clumsily examine the gram I'd just bought moments before, sitting on a rock wall downtown, legs dangling. I tucked it away quickly.

I thanked him and scurried off, watching from above, on the church grounds, as the cops stopped each kid my age, shaking them down. My heart was pounding. Wray just nodded at the officers, easy as you please.

Many years later, with the unnatural hesitance of adulthood, I decided to approach him again. It was a spring afternoon. "You probably don't remember me," I'd said. "It was a long time ago," I'd said.

"I remember you."

He looked at me, those clear green milky eyes: at once, sharp and warm. That was the beginning of our friendship.

Whenever I'd see him, I'd sit down and we'd catch up. I'd hold out my box of DuMaurier's on offer, but he'd never accept if he had his own cigarettes. We got to know each other. I'd give him whatever I had on me. Five bucks here, $40 if I had it.

He hated asking for help. But he would if he had to. Sometimes I'd find him. Sometimes I wouldn't. The years passed.

His knees were getting worse. It was winter. The shelters had been turning him away, they were at capacity. Although he later admitted he hated the noise. The fighting. The drunkenness. That sometimes he'd rather be out than in.

One particularly brutal winter, I'd find myself waking up in a panic worrying about Wray. He always landed on his feet. But what if he didn't? What if this year, he couldn't.

I didn't see him for weeks. When weeks turned into months, I began to think the worst. I went looking for him a few times, but the weather was too bad to stay out – wind whipping, the kind that freezes the inside of your nose, ice forcing eyelashes together. I hated myself for giving up in face of the weather. The weather that Wray lived in.

When I finally found him one morning that spring, across from the courthouse, I'd shouted his name, my eyes wet and hands shaking, as I ran to catch up with him. "Where have you been?" I spluttered.

"Pneumonia," he'd explained, brushing off my concern, hiding it well behind modesty. He had a good doctor, in Dartmouth. But he couldn't follow his advice: to keep off his feet.

"I like to keep movin'," he'd said, changing the conversation. Our eyes met and we shared understanding.

After that, we embraced every time we saw each other. Like the old friends we were.

Wray didn't miss a thing. Just after my first son was born, three and a half months prematurely, I saw him on the street. I was a broken shell of a human.

"Where's the baby?" he'd asked. I burst out crying and fell into the puffy shoulder of his jacket. It smelled of tobacco and oil. He stood there, holding me. I don't know if it was five seconds or five minutes.

We talked about it years later. "It was too soon," he'd said, when I asked him how he knew.

When my brother died, Wray noticed his absence alongside me, immediately.

"Where is he?" he'd said. Not so much a question. I suppose he already had his answer.

Wray didn't talk much about his own family. He once told me about a sister, but his energy changed, as if he'd been injected with a chemical. His eyes wild, our connection severed.

But it wasn't for me to understand. It was his own private terror and my only glimpse into the trauma that must have forced him outside. Onto the streets.

How many times did Wray watch the sunset? And then, the sun rising in the east. Beams of light hiding and breaking through clouds overhead. The sleet striking against walls and windows. The first blooms of colt's foot, pushing up through the cracks in the sidewalks. As he wore another pair of shoes out. And then another. And another.

Tracking his path through his city, alone.

Wray. A ray of light on our streets.

Maggie Rahr lives in Halifax.

First Person digital short: Visit to see a video adaptation of the essay How I became the fool on the hill.