Its four lanes of stopped traffic, an intersection: The man is running from the sidewalk, weaving in and out of the cars. I’m watching from my own. His pace and footing seem methodical and yet have a careless bent, as if his getting struck by a vehicle would be an experience rather than an accident, something to contemplate rather than regret. Is that a smile? I can’t tell.
All in all I’d say it takes him about six seconds to get to the other side of the street, to the opposite sidewalk; I’ve followed him through the entire journey. There was no obstruction aside from the other cars. It’s a beautiful day, the start of spring. The man is in shorts and a light sweatshirt. He is skinny; fit. He wears glasses and has red hair: these are the things I can identify about his appearance, but who is he? Does he work at that store across the street? Is he running to or from work? Did he steal something and is making his escape?
Maybe he’s just out for a walk, on a run. Maybe he’s on his way somewhere else entirely. Who knows?
The sound of his tripping is what snaps me out of contemplation, it’s like the sound of cleats on gravel, and I hear it before I see it: him, the man in the glasses with red hair, falling forward in slow motion, as if his body were falling in line with seconds ticking off a clock. Tick-tick-tick… he goes down, face first, his body almost serpentine at one moment in its descent, when I notice he’s not just falling but falling onto, falling toward something: a marker, the kind they stick at the edges of driveways and parking lots so you don’t run onto the grass and landscaping: the tall orange plastic things that stick four feet out of the ground. He’s falling onto that, his body’s trajectory aligning him perfectly so that the soft dark orb of his pupil meets the rounded tip of the marker, splitting the membrane and meat with a nearly inaudible but sickening snap.
Someone else in a different car gasps, watching, as I do in my car, sitting there and not doing anything, moving closer to the edge of my seat to get a better view. I can’t move, not really, even as the marker slips further (or is it he who slips ever downward, and can there be a distinction?) into the man’s head through his eye socket, making its way through muscle and tendons, cutting nerve endings and penetrating his brain. Would it go that far? All I see is the slow slide of his head down onto the marker, he not making a sound, his body twitching a little, as others gather around and don’t know what to do; congregating for what: to watch this young man die? We’re all here, but what are we supposed to do? Someone is yelling for someone else to call 911. A woman is crying. Cars are honking their horns as lights change. In a matter of seconds there is chaos, and yet the initial event, the man falling, was totally still and permeated by a calming silence. It was hypnotic. Now there is children screaming and mothers screaming at children and men screaming at wives and men screaming at men and the young man impaled on the marker still isn’t moving. Am I really having such an analytical response to this whole thing? Am I?
Yes I am.
Everyone else has phones out, either to their ear or in some half state of dialing/texting. Meanwhile I cannot move. I observe: glance back at a man sitting in the car behind me. He’s trying his best to simply avoid everything that is happening, his eyes set on my bumper, his windows rolled up.
The young man was wearing glasses, where did they go? They must have fallen off as he tripped, that’s the only way the marker could have driven itself into his eyeball in the first place, otherwise it would have been deflected and maybe this whole afternoon would have been different for everyone.
The damage is done; the longer I stare the more apparent it becomes that this is bad, very bad. This young man is surely dead or dying, his weight having bent the marker into an arch that tore it– the marker– out of the dirt, flinging it so that dirt kicked up into the air and his whole body contorted, changing postures so that now it is lying flat in the flower bed, legs strewn out onto the sidewalk, limp and pale.
No one has touched him. They all know as well as I do what this has become. Some are afraid; some have arms around other’s shoulders, some hug. This whole scene is really causing people to bond, however abstractly. Why is it always like that?
Here I am, I am thinking, this is actually happening. This is something real; I am a part of this.
In the distance I can hear the sirens screaming in the emergency vehicle’s approach.
The man in the car behind me beeps.
Should I really just leave? Is that really what the driver behind me is implying I should do?
He beeps again and I pull through the green light; the man in the car behind me follows suit as do others. We all file out of the line of bystanders. Is it really that easy? I can see the ambulance and police cruisers speed through the intersection just after I round the turn. I feel vulnerable, everything and everyone is a cause for alarm: my car is not just a car anymore, it’s a machine that can fail, can explode without warning or break in such a way so as to become uncontrollable. I could at any moment veer into a telephone pole or another vehicle. I could kill blamelessly; inflict maximum harm without readily trying to do so. What else am I capable of doing, what else could happen?
My cellphone is not just a cellphone, it’s a radioactive cancer giving device, it daily seeps waves into my brain and is slowly growing a tumor inside my head, and if not that then aneurysm can occur: heart attack, renal failure. I could be a host to any number of diseases and defects, all undetectable.
A sink hole could open and swallow me up.
A meteor could crash through the roof and core me like an apple.
I just watched a young man impale himself on a cheap piece of plastic. How much larger and problematic is the universe? It consists of and works in irrevocable circumstance, hosts an infinite number of possible outcomes, all of them inevitably leading to death. At any moment it could be over for anyone. What will bring my final exit? Am I going to trip and smack my head on the sharp corner of the kitchen counter? Will I choke on a piece of the steak I plan to have for dinner? Drift off and drown in the bath I intended to unwind me after work? The possibilities seem endless; whatever I can imagine could happen in an instant. I don’t want to be thinking about this. I didn’t want to see what I just saw, I didn’t ask for that. But what can I do to change it? Nothing. I must live with it, must carry it around. I wonder what that young man was thinking about just before he fell: was he considering nothing more than placement of his feet, how he needed to reach his destination, or was he more aware, more conscious of himself, was he thinking: I am running, this is good. Running means I’m alive. Being alive is great. I like this. I like it very much.
Mark Anthony Cronin is the author of the short story collection, Gigantic Failures and the chapbook, Dear Ghost Of My Love. His work has appeared online and in print. He currently lives in Oakland, California and is working on a novel.