The man sat alone in a folding lawn chair in the Ocracoke Island campground. His cargo van was parked next to him. On this warm September day, he'd flung the doors open, so I could see a mattress on the floor and food and trash scattered about, as though raccoons visited. I tried not to stare as I walked past, but both of his legs were in casts, and his swollen and discolored toes pointed my way. He was unshaven. He appeared to be about 50 years old, but he could have been 40 or 60 beneath that tanned and wrinkled face.
I started to walk past, and he howdied me. It was a sunny, friendly day, so I stepped toward him. His legs were the most obvious objects in our little space; after we chatted a while, I asked him about them. He'd recently smashed both to bits against a tree in a four-wheeler accident, a story he punctuated with wild flailing of arms and crunching noises that made me cringe. He laughed the accident off, however, as the least of his problems. He was pinned together everywhere inside, he said, as two decades of degenerative arthritis had ruined his shoulders, hips, knees and ankles. He was constantly breaking apart somewhere and getting pinned again. He showed me a trail of scars on his shoulders, as if they were badges of honor, and calculated several pounds of metal in addition to the heavy casts.
As long as he could remember, The Broken Man—as I've begun to call him—had hurt in every joint. Here he was at the beach, however, after checking himself out of the hospital without permission and driving himself down from New Jersey in two leg casts. Soon, he said, he would duct-tape his tennis shoes to the ends of his crutches and head up and over the dunes for his daily visit to the ocean.
I think about The Broken Man often: when my knee aches and my mental whining starts, or when I begin to talk myself out of taking my dog for her evening walk up the hill. The Broken Man had to leave his spot in the sun when the government shut down not long ago, I presume, and the weather will invariably drive him away at some point. But for me, he will forever sit in his lawn chair, preparing the duct tape and crutches. Each time I remember him, I'll be thankful for the natural pins still holding my bones together, and for all that my body can still do with ease.