Flash Non-Fiction from a Frightened Pedestrian
I live in a part of Minneapolis where I can walk most everywhere I go. While other city dwellers live in food deserts, far from healthy produce, I live in a food oasis with four grocers just blocks from my apartment. Minneapolis has a greenway where cyclists and pedestrians can travel without having to worry about oncoming traffic. Everyday I walk that way to work. I have my choice of four lakes to hike around to find my calm. I walk to the coffee shop where I write. I walk to my Twin Peaks viewing party. I walk to karaoke.
I grind the heels of my boots down flat. I go through one set of insoles a month, and my jeans always have a shortened lifespan, but I can get away with eating donuts and maintain the same frame I’ve had since I was eighteen.
I like walking, despite all the gravel I track into the apartment or the fact that I have to carry an umbrella at all times.
The only real drawback to traversing the city on foot is that it leaves me much more vulnerable than if I were in a vehicle.
There are always wolves looking to prey on anyone they perceive to be lagging behind the heard. Sometimes it’s the red cup wielding frat brothers picking fights on street corners while onlookers yell “World Star.” Sometimes it’s the sidewalk trolls, panhandling for a toll, following me for blocks until I give them a hard, “No.”
Sometimes it’s the people spotting me over their shoulder, ducking into entryways, thinking I can’t see their breath spiraling out in the cold. These are the people who leap out of the shadows, follow me between buildings, and chase me into gas stations. These are the predators I don’t always see coming.
I’ve been jumped before, laid out, full on woke up in a hospital with no clue what happened, missing a phone and a lot of time. The experience puts me on edge at night. It’s made me hyper aware of my surroundings. When I see a shady character standing in my path I check the bushes for silhouettes. Attackers are like Velociraptors if you see one in front of you odds are there are two swooping up from your sides.
When someone triggers my fear sense. I take an inventory of their identifying features. Time slows down as I note the cut of their clothes, the brand of their sneaker, and the font of their tattoos. I note their acne, dental structure, and eye color. I note their height, width, and girth. I could give a forensic sketch artist too much information.
In my travels I’ve encountered a lot of strange situations where I wondered if my awareness alerted me to danger or if my mind had put it there. These threats are almost metaphysical in that in one version of events nothing really happened and in another I narrowly escaped with my life.
The following bouts of flash non-fiction are about times where I wasn’t entirely sure what the difference was.
THE DOG TOY
I was running late for a closing shift when I ran out the door. I was charging down the sidewalk when a ball rolled down a driveway in front of me. I caught it before it rolled into traffic. It was a globe covered in teeth marks, a dog toy.
I turned up the driveway to find its owner sitting on the stoop that ran between the apartment complex and the church. He was a young guy in shorts and sports jersey. The only remarkable thing about him was the way he looked at me, like I’d caught him with his pants down. So what? He dropped a ball. It happens. I didn’t get it.
I held the toy out to him. He looked confused, like it was the first he’d ever seen it.
I glanced down. Items were neatly laid out on the stoop beside him. My first assumption was that this guy was homeless and that he was doing an inventory of his supplies, consolidating everything to help ease the weight on his back. People at the bus shelter did this sort of thing all the time.
I didn’t fully register the pink keychain, white wallet, and purse.
The man on the stoop took the ball without a word and I bound off, already running late.
It wasn’t until I was at the end of the block when I realized what was going on. The man on the stoop was counting his bounty from a purse snatching. The victim was probably within jogging distance. I pulled out my phone dialed 9-1, but then I considered what I saw. Was the keychain really pink or was it red? Did that matter? Was it really a purse or a backpack? Did I see what I thought?
By the time I looked back the man on the stoop was gone.
THE SLEEP TALKER
I’m a light sleeper, always waking to the sound of thunder. One night I peeked through the blinds to check how bad it was coming down. Branches swayed violently, toddlers throwing punching at the dark. The wind had come, but the storm still had some distance to cover.
That’s when I noticed a long shadow in the middle of the street. Someone was walking barefoot. The man looked like he was dressed for bed: boxer shorts, tank top. He shifted his body weight from foot to foot, a windup toy, head bobbing back and forth. His arms were out at his sides. His fists were balled up. He faced straight ahead, like he was ready to pick a fight with oncoming traffic.
I remember asking myself is that what a sleepwalker looks like, but then the man started talking. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he was definitely raging, gnashing his teeth, swearing at the night.
I checked my digital clock it was four in the morning. When I looked back he was gone.
I awoke again when the rain caught up with the thunder. It was coming down in thick wet droplets. It was fall. The drains were clogged with leaves, and the street had flooded.
The man from earlier drudged through the water. His mouth was still moving, spittle streaked down his chin. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was sleep talking.
Years went by in the this apartment and rain or shine, summer or snow, the sleep talker was always out there at 4am, looping around the block ranting and raving, until one night I awoke to him yelling, “What did I do? What did I do?”
Blue and red lights strobbed through the blinds. I peaked through to find the sleep talker handcuffed on the front steps. He was fidgeting in his restraints, as the police officers argued with one another.
I imagined a new tenant in the neighborhood, glanced outside to see this strange man talking to himself, rage walking around the block and called the police. Now they were struggling to figure out what to do with him.
I never saw him again after that.
THE AVALANCHE IN PAJAMA PANTS
One evening I was walking home just after sundown. There was a long stretch of street where there were no lights on in the houses, no traffic, and no pedestrians. This is where I spotted an avalanche of a man bounding toward me down the sidewalk.
He wore a long white t-shirt down to his knees and fuzzy pajama pants with planets on them. He was dressed like an toddler, but he had a decade or so on me.
His big round face was like a likeness drawn in crayon: no neck, cheeks that blended into his shoulders, eyes that bulged out of his head. He wore a wild menacing grin and his tongue traced his lips like a hungry snake.
He wasn’t black or white, Hispanic or Asian. He was sunburned. He was pealing.
He came in fast. Not for me, but at me, through me, despite me.
He talked to himself. Maybe he saw my headphones, assumed they were on, and figured I couldn’t hear him. Maybe he saw my headphones and spoke up so that I would hear him.
He panted, exited as a puppy with its tongue hanging out. “He looks like he’s going to say something. Is he? Is he going to say something? I hope he says something.”
He spoke about me in the third person, not the second. He said, “He,” not “You,” like he was talking to someone else about me. I checked his ears for a Bluetooth earpiece, but they were empty.
I’m a tall man with broad shoulders. He was taller. He was broader. His t-shirt clung to his belly like a sack full of stones. The incredible Hulk had really let himself go. If I had stood up to him that unstoppable force would have flattened this immovable object. I was a speed bump looking up at a monster truck.
I imagined going head to head with him would’ve been like fighting in a nightmare. You know the dream when you’re trying to fend off an assailant, but it feels like you’re throwing punches under water?
In that moment I forgot all that stuff I’ve been told about trying not to walk like a victim. I could’ve puffed out my chest, balled my fists, and raised my chin, but somehow he would’ve known what had happened to me. He would’ve intuited, an artist recognizing someone else’s mark.
Before I had time to think I found myself walking on the grass, yielding the sidewalk. I felt his eyes on me as I passed. He knew what was I thinking. How could he not have? He’d put the thought in my head.
Big or small, strong or weak, clever or fearful, anyone in that man’s path was at his mercy.
He kept talking. “I thought he was going to say something. Didn’t you? For sure I thought he was going to say something this time.”
I just kept walking.
To Be Continued
These stories are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to crazy encounters. I have so many more. Many of them are darker. Some are even more confusing. In the coming months I’ll try to share the others.