Then one evening my dog Wendell and I arrived at the stoplight on Lyndale and 43rd as they were waiting to cross. I noticed that both of their sets of earbuds were connected to the single iPod the man held in his right hand, and upon closer inspection I saw that they had a nifty jack of some sort that made this possible.
I was curious, so I gestured to the iPod and asked where they had purchased the headphone jack. The man had to remove the bud from one ear and ask me to repeat the question.
"Oh, this," he said, and held up the jack with its dangling cords so I could take a closer look. "Pretty slick, huh? It's from Radio Shack."
By this time the woman had removed her earbuds as well. She also expressed the opinion, in virtually the same words, that the gizmo was pretty slick. They seemed flattered by my curiosity, so I asked them what they were listening to. The man examined the iPod closely. "Ella Fitzgerald is playing right now," he said. "We just have our favorites on there."
"Oldies," the woman said, and laughed.
"Yes," the man said. "Serious oldies. Our son gave us this for Christmas a couple years ago and put the music on there for us."
"Neither of us, of course, has absolutely any idea how the thing works," the woman said. "But it's like a tiny jukebox. We only have...what, honey? How many songs are on there?"
The man again scrutinized the iPod. "Eighty-nine songs," he said. "More than enough. We usually hear ten or so when we go for our walks."
"They're all good songs," the woman said. "And it's set up so they play in a random order and you don't hear the same songs over and over."
"Sometimes you do," the man said. "It can be fickle. But, yes, the songs are all pretty sturdy. We've been hearing them most of our lives, so I guess if we were going to get sick of them we would have by now."
"No, they're all good songs," the woman again insisted. "Perfect for walking. We were talking about the fall colors yesterday and then, just like that, 'Autumn Leaves' popped up."
"Jo Stafford," the man said.
"Yes, that's right." They were both grinning, and the woman had a wonderful habit of poking her husband in the ribs with her right index finger whenever she said something.
"You should have one," the woman said, and gestured to my own iPod.
I shrugged. "I guess I'd have to find a partner in crime," I said.
"Never hurts to be prepared," the man said.
This was last fall, and we bumped into each other quite a few times after that and always greeted each other like old friends.
Then we had a long, hard winter, and I didn't see them around on any of my abbreviated walks with my dog.
The last couple weeks I've seen the man walking alone on a couple occasions, but always at a distance that for some shameful reason I felt grateful for.
Earlier this evening we ran into each other less than two blocks from our original meeting place. I greeted the man --awkwardly, I'm sure-- at a stop sign, and he said, "Well, hello. We meet again." His smile was unspeakably sad.
He reached down to address my dog and give him a scratch. When he stood back up he was wearing his best stoic mask. "I lost my wife in February," he said.
It was like a punch I was expecting, and I managed to tell him how sorry I was and how lovely it was that I had had a chance to meet his wife. He patted me on the shoulder and said, "Well, it was very quick. I'll always be grateful for that. And 47 years is a damn good run."
This, as you might imagine, was an exceedingly awkward and painful encounter, and neither of us could seem to find any more words. He was headed south on Bryant and I was continuing west toward the lake.
"It was awfully good to see you," I said. "And, again, I'm so sorry."
He thanked me, and then, just as we were preparing to part ways, he fished his iPod from his pocket and held it out to me. He had that same wrenching smile on his face. The dangling headphone jack was still plugged in and one socket, of course, was now empty.
"I still expect to round a corner and see her coming toward me down the block," he said, and looked away.
We both stood there in silence for what seemed like an unbearable length of time.
He finally patted me on the shoulder again. "Take care of yourself," he said. "I hope you find a perfect partner in crime."
"I'll keep looking," I said.
And then my dog and I made our way slowly along, through swarm after swarm of happy congregants gathered around backyard barbecue grills, on picnic blankets at the park, or just strolling in laughing packs at the lake. It would be pointless to deny that it was a lovely day.