Ben fell into step with the man like clockwork, tracing the patterns and boot tracks that had been carved along all day, the deepest and most consistent of the bunch. Snow was sickly here, even the weather seemed half-assed and defeated. Across the bridge, that oh-so-famous right-side-of-the-tracks, the flakes fell thick and fulsome, proud of themselves and the terrain they were chosen to decorate. The man's tracks strode deeply through those areas too. There was nowhere he would not step.
"Always a pleasure, Ben," the man said, fully meaning it. Whenever Toulouse said something, you knew it wasn't bullshit. He didn't feel he had time for that.
"How's it goin', Toulouse?"
"Keeping the streets flat, you know."
"In the very middle."
The dedicated man shrugged, "When the streets are too full for me, I'll find a better place to walk."
Strangely, it was true. Whenever Toulouse was in the streets, any wheeled or automated traffic seemed to disappear. It was almost a snapshot of a different era, the people on the pavement in this small community seemed bound together, like time had slunk backwards in its anonymous shame. Wherever Toulouse went, there were people, and they were unfiltered and unafraid and acted like neighbors in a world of white picket fences. If only in his presence, people took camaraderie seriously.
"How many times do you walk this path every day?"
"Day? About as much as I do at night. With some margin for inconsistency."
"In this cold?"
"It isn't always cold."
"What about the heat?"
"I carry an umbrella just the same."
Toulouse tipped his hat at passersby, remembering a name here and there, giving compliments which brought beaming smiles to faces Ben thought were impossible to sway. Even a mangy stray dog followed at a respectable distance, wagging its tail whenever Ben turned.
Toulouse told Ben about his days as a sandwich-board walker, with a handheld cone to yell through, wishing people happy days and brotherhood. He admitted that the approach was outdated, that megaphones are instruments for revolutions and bullies; he did not like to yell. Nowadays a nice coat and a smile would get all he needed. And consistency.
"You wanna know the hard part? Repetition. Tell the same story five times, and you'll annoy the shit out of your friends. Tell the same story six times, and strangers will remember it. Tell the same story ten times and soon, people will tell it for you. But all that telling is practice, because there's always someone who hasn't heard it yet."
"And they need to hear it?"
A lot of their time spent that evening was not talking to one another at all. Ben was on a sort of ride-along program, he had known that Toulouse was someone to pay attention to and was tasked with figuring out exactly why. As far as Ben could see it, there was a defining line between deity and muggle. Toulouse blurred it.
The dog following them had found a friend, they kept pace as an auxiliary greeting crew.
"It's all pretty simple," Toulose broke their silence. The slush in the streets was turning back into a smooth blanket of snow; a road not harried by banal traffic and industry. Homes glittered on all sides, lights flickering inside the crystalline windows. "It's all about... smiling. It is passing along a smile. A smile is not easy to measure or weigh, and you rarely get credit. But it means the world."
A woman outside, on her perfectly wintered porch, was enjoying a cigarette. As Toulouse waved, she smiled, waving back.
“That’s the key? Just smiling?”
“Nowadays, it’s the strongest thing you can do for a person. Helping them smile.”
The dogs in procession had grown to five. This bothered Ben. He did not know why.
“You wanna know the hard part? Repetition. Tell the same story five times...”
“People go batshit crazy.”
“See? You’re getting it. But keep on telling those stories, and you’ll never lose anyone.”
This made Ben pause. He watched as Toulouse walked on, feet crunching into the new snow that settled into the long-worn footprints he had carved through the day.
“What do you mean?”
“If they didn’t get it the first time, maybe the second. Or the third. Or the tenth, when you really know how to spin a yarn. The listener will remember, will put it all together. It’ll be their story now. .....What did you think I meant?”
His smirk was almost audible.
To Ben, the third lap felt just like the second, and his feet were starting to ache. He recognized a few of the folks leaning out their windows, the suspicious halt in vehicle traffic, the loyal parade of dogs. Ben still couldn’t put his finger on what made Toulouse so special, but then it hit him.
He made people feel welcome.
Though the methods were inexplicable, the result was straightforward.
Ben waited until the cold stretch of road angling over the bridge and up the hill to say goodnight to his friend. It was not a prolonged affair, as Ben always knew just where to find Toulouse if he wanted to spend more time together. The center of any community, Toulouse would be there.
“Remember,” the man kept to his script to the very last moment, “It’s all in the stories.”
As Ben veered off on a side street in search of home, he watched as the man walked alone late into the night. Well... not quite alone...
“Hey! Hey Toulouse! What’s going to happen with those dogs?”
Without turning, Toulouse called back, “I’m taking them home with me.”
“...What? You’re just... gonna be the guy with a million dogs?”
“I’ve told you. I never lose anyone.”