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He Had to Walk Everywhere
It’s the day after performance review (Thursday, I think) that my coworker and I go looking for the 7-11 clerk that, supposedly, knows everything.
It goes like this: businessmen, like my coworker, get bored. All that gray in the cubicle walls seems normal until they starting seeing nefarious plots and secret inner-workings behind it, but I guess I’m technically a “businessman” now, too. I’ve been with this company for two months, but somehow, I don’t see it lasting very long. I’m like a freshwater fish that got dropped in the saltwater tank. I’m drowning on land. I like my coworker. He’s an older guy and it was nice of him to invite me out for drinks, but I don’t want to end up like him.
“This really happened,” he said, “to a guy I worked with.”
“At this company?” I asked. We were sitting on the patio outside of a bar just down the street from our office. Most of the people around us still had their ties on. I wanted to believe him. It feels cliché, but I had to laugh just a little; your coworker comes at you with this crazy story. It was just the kind of story some crazy guy in a bar tells you, or maybe worse. Maybe some crazy guy in a parking lot?
“Oh yeah. It’s why I pay really close attention whenever I cross the street,” he said. “Seriously. I know this sounds crazy, but there’s awareness in those things. It totally changed our workplace. Maybe you’ve felt a sort of strangeness since you’ve started here?”
“So we have to be nice to traffic signals or they’ll arrange our mafia-style deaths?”
He took a sip of his beer.
“Let me tell you the whole thing,” he said. “The guy it happened to (whom we’ll call him 'the pedestrian' because I’m bad at making up names) waited at the crosswalk every morning like he did, always when rush hour was just getting to full volume. It was a rainy morning and it was fall, so leaves were plastered all over the street. There were a lot of people crowded around him with their umbrellas. It was mostly people all headed for this or the train, but the guy, or the pedestrian we’re calling him, walked to work religiously, even in the rain. There was kind of a devotedness to him like that to him, like he did everything he did in a one hundred percent kind of way. He had to walk everywhere.
"But I remember it did help him get to be one of the people to be considered for the supervisor position that had opened up in our department. Public works isn’t a very exciting field; just a bunch of storm drains and other infrastructure like that, but he was serious about it. He was the kind of guy higher-ups figured they could count on and he didn’t seem to mind the banality of the work like I did. Honestly, I could have worked for him. He was devoted, but not overbearing. That’s just good leadership.
"Anyway, he was waiting at the crosswalk that morning, in the part of town with the fancy, animated walk signs. Finally the walk sign comes on, and it does the little walking animation like usual. The numbers count down and everyone crosses. Normal stuff, but as he’s crossing, the pedestrian looks at the walk sign and it does a little spin, then it bows and tips its hat to him. Seriously. He just stopped there in the street and gawked at it for a second, then he started looking around to see if anyone else noticed. They didn’t, though, they just kept moving around him. Somehow he was able to put what he saw in the back of his mind and keep on walking to work. I’m sure he was thinking about it, but he couldn’t be late. He was that kind of guy, so he just kept walking.
"The next day at the crosswalk, he didn’t notice anything. He must have debated even going to work that day at all after seeing something so strange, but he went. The walk sign didn’t do anything funny, so I’m sure he was relieved. He went to a 7-11 after he crossed to get a doughnut and a newspaper, and right when he thought the coast was clear, he had another weird experience.
‘You are very lucky to have been selected,’ the clerk said to him when he was paying.
That was kind of a weird thing to say, so the pedestrian asked the clerk to repeat himself.
‘I heard that the little walking man had blessed someone,” the clerk said. ‘Sometimes, they will try to confuse or mislead people, but they have given you a compliment. You must have done something very kind recently.’
‘How did you…’ the pedestrian started to say, but he didn’t quite finish. He looked over his shoulder and there was no one in the store. ‘How did you hear about this?’ he said.
‘You must accept the compliment,’ the clerk said. ‘One way or another, you should not simply ignore it.’ Then he handed him his receipt.
‘Why would they compliment me?’ the pedestrian asked.
‘Well, you must have done something very kind lately,’ the clerk said. Cryptic, right?”
My coworker took another sip of his beer.
“Yeah, really cryptic,” I said. “How do you know all of this in such incredible detail?”
(I actually had to keep from laughing during the 7-11 part.)
“Well, he told me, and I just remembered it. But I’ll get to that. So he goes to work like normal that day and nothing happens. Same thing the day after. I think it’s the next day, though, when he goes in and they finally promote someone to that position, and it’s not him. You have to understand that he really wanted that position. I could never do supervisor stuff, personally; too detail-oriented. But it fit this guy’s personality perfectly. He wanted to make enough to support more than just himself eventually, and of course, that’s much easier to do with that kind of promotion, so it made sense that he’d have his eye on it.”
“Sure,” I said, “but he didn’t get the job.”
“Well, here’s what he did do,” my coworker said, “and this is the part he was sort of embarrassed about, and maybe the part he regretted later, but he took the clerk’s advice. Maybe being disappointed about the position had something to do with it? He figured the best way to ‘accept’ the compliment was to return the same gesture. The day after losing the position, he wore a baseball cap and, as he was crossing the street, he tipped his hat to the walk sign.”
“I completely understand his embarrassment,” I said. I was beginning to be thankful for the dull roar of traffic just beyond the patio. It made our conversation blend in. I looked around and no one seemed to be listening. I’m sure they’d have a huge grin on their face if they were.
He kept talking. “I know, said he couldn’t look at anyone’s face until well after he had crossed. He didn’t want to know if anyone noticed, but I guess it makes sense. The whole 7-11 ordeal made it real, you know? It couldn’t have just been in his head.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“But after that is when it gets bad. The next day is the day that the guy who did get promoted, got killed. He just walked out into traffic on his way back from the parking garage. The official report was that something went wrong with the walk signals syncing to the traffic lights correctly, but that couldn’t be the whole story. You’d think he’d have still looked. I remember coming into work that day and this accountant in our department mentioned to me that someone was hit by a van pretty close by. Then an hour or so later he came by my cubicle and told me who it was.”
“Wait, the guy died?”
“Yeah. It’s just too weird. The pedestrian said he knew as soon as it happened. He had fucked up pretty bad.”
“You can’t be sure that’s related,” I said. “People get hit by cars, it happens.”
“You think the weird experience he had with the walk sign, followed by the equally weird interaction he had with the clerk, followed by the new supervisor being killed due to a “faulty” walk signal, isn’t related? Seems simple to me. Those things tried to help him and went way too far.”
“Let’s say they did arrange the guy’s death,” I said. “Why would they help the pedestrian? Because he walks to work? Lots of people do that.”
“That’s what I don’t understand either,” my coworker said. “I’m not sure if he knew for himself. He just disappeared after that. He came to the funeral and pretty soon after he quit and moved away without telling anyone specifically where he was going. Must have been way too much guilt to deal with, or he was afraid. I’d want to get out too.”
We were quiet for a little while after that, both just sipping our beers and staring out at the busy street. It was so close. The metal railing around the patio seemed flimsy to me then, not much separating us from being struck and killed. I thought about my friend’s story some more, trying to make sense of it.
“Well, if everything you’re saying is true,” I said, “there might still be someone around who does know why they would try to help him. How much did he tell you about the clerk?”
“I didn’t even think of that. Well, he said he was an old guy. It definitely wasn’t some kid.” My coworker paused for a second. “Oh yeah, he did say that thing about the pedestrian doing something kind.”
“Let’s see if we can find him,” I said. “Do you know what 7-11 it was?”
“No, but I’m more worried about how we would know the clerk when we see him”
“I’m sure we’ll know when we talk to him, if this is all true. You better not be fucking with me.”
He just raised his hands and shook his head in a gesture of sincerity.
My coworker and I paid our tabs and walked from the bar to the nearest 7-11. It wasn’t much of a walk. It’s such a dense area, full of skyscrapers. A lot of shops and restaurants are just set into the first floor of them, with tons of steel and office space sitting on top.
Either my coworker was putting me on, though I was starting to believe him more and more, or there was a 7-11 clerk somewhere nearby that knowingly allowed, or maybe even caused, someone’s death. He must have known what would happen if he knew what the pedestrian saw the walk signal do. How could he have even known that much? No one but the pedestrian should have been able to know what he saw. Maybe he had orchestrated it somehow.
As we crossed the street to the 7-11, I couldn’t help studying the walk signal very closely. To think it might be aware, even menacing and powerful, was difficult. If it was, it hid it well. It just blankly went through its walking animation. At the same time, I couldn’t fight the feeling it was watching me back, but of course I’d think that way after a story like the one my coworker told. I kept thinking more and more there was no way he could make up something like that. Maybe someone told it to him, but it was definitely not the kind of thing to come from his usually mundane talk of sports and finance.
I had to wonder by now, if we got a ratchet and took the back plate off of one of those walk signals, what would the wiring in there look like?
Once inside, my coworker pretended to survey the magazine rack while I took quick note of the cashiers on my way to the refrigerated cases. A teenage boy and a middle-aged woman, so far no good. I peered into the back room as much as I could, listening in case there was another person back there. I got the sense that the clerk we were looking for was the kind of guy that would run things, spending all his time in the backroom until it was time to make some vague revelation of doom, but I didn’t see or hear anyone back there.
“Probably the wrong place,” my coworker whispered as I went over to him, “but it was worth a look.” We went outside and I held the door for a couple that was entering as we left. My coworker looked out at the street and watched the traffic.
“I don’t remember exactly where he lived,” he said, “but since he was close enough to walk to work every day, we can just check a few more 7-11’s and I’m sure we’ll find him.”
“I’m not going to check too many more,” I said, but I had to wonder if this clerk was psychic or magical enough to know there were two guys hitting the pavement looking for him. I could just see him sitting on a folding metal chair in some dingy backroom with his fingers pressed together, awaiting our arrival.
“Fair enough,” my coworker said.
We checked another 7-11 and an “In&Out Mart,” just in case, with no results. I was ready to give up and call the whole thing a big hoax when my coworker convinced me to go to one more. Then we could both forget about it forever. Besides, after the first place we went, I started buying things to seem less suspicious. One iced coffee and an apple fritter were about all I was willing to waste my money on.
“Look, I just want to know for my own reasons,” he said after we left the In&Out Mart. “I sort of had a part in what happened too, and that makes me feel kind of guilty about what happened. Probably not nearly as guilty as the pedestrian, but still, I just want to check one more place. You can go about the rest of your day if you want, but if you still think I’m fucking with you, know that I really am going to go check this out.”
I wasn’t sure how the whole thing had gotten so serious. One moment we were catching up over a few beers and then we were hunting down a mysterious convenience store clerk with vengeance in our hearts. I took a bite of my apple fritter. If this turned out to be a joke I was going to fucking die.
“A part?” I said.
“Sort of. So the way things worked in our department, there were some of us on a committee that nominated people for new positions. We didn’t make the decisions per se, but you could say we had a lot of control over what decisions were made. If you were on this committee, you weren’t really supposed to talk about it, so I don’t think the pedestrian ever found out that I was the one who suggested him first. Maybe it wouldn’t have bothered him, I don’t know.”
“But it bothers you,” I said.
“You’re damn right it bothers me. He had to leave after everything, but I just asked not to be on the committee anymore. I just stepped down quietly. Other than a couple people, no one even knew. You weren’t supposed to talk about it.”
“Well, you can’t blame yourself,” I said, but my coworker cut me off by waving his hand.
“I’ve told myself that enough,” he said. “I just wish I knew where he went off to, you know? Anyway, you want to go check one more place?”
“Sure,” I said, “one more convenience store won’t hurt.” Of course, that was the one where we found him. We walked in and the place was abandoned, no office workers at the coffee pots, no waiters buying cigarettes on their lunch break. Strange, since it was only around four thirty in the afternoon and there was a decent amount of foot traffic outside. Then he came out from the back room.
“Welcome,” he said. He had this slight, knowing smile. He came up to the counter and placed both of his hands flat on top of it, situated them perfectly. His name tag was blank, strangely enough. It had to be him.
“Hi,” I said. “We’re, uh, journalists. We’re looking into an accident that happened, around this spot, a little while ago. A pedestrian was hit by a van while crossing the street. Know anything about that?” I didn’t actually know if the accident happened near this 7-11, I just wanted to see if he knew what I was talking about.
He looked at me with suspicion. I couldn’t blame him for that. He smiled and began rearranging a tray of lighters.
“What is it you are really seeking?” he asked without taking his eyes from the lighters.
“What? I just told you. Just wanted to know if you remember seeing anything like that.”
“You want to know what I have seen? There’s quite a bit.”
“Well, more specifically than that. I want to know if…” I said. My coworker had been quiet up until then, but he jumped in. He stood straight with his hands in his coat pockets.
“Listen, do you remember a guy with a buzz cut, probably well-dressed, that you may have spoken with about crosswalk signals? Do you remember that guy? Or is that something fairly routine for you?”
I had never heard him be even a little gruff with anyone, and I looked around again to make sure no one was coming into the store or out of the backroom. I was afraid of causing a scene in a convenience store.
“What’s more routine than crossing the street?” the clerk said. He smiled again, a sphinx in a red and black polo shirt.
“Can you just tell us if any of that sounds familiar? Then we’ll leave,” I said.
“You told that guy something about a compliment,” my coworker said. “Well that compliment got someone else killed and forced him out of his job.”
“Some things are not things we control, even if we’ve made them, even when we listen closely by the road at night and hear their inner workings. When did you last stop and listen?” the clerk asked. By this point, my coworker was making his way around the counter to where the clerk was. It made me kind of nervous.
“What are you talking about, buddy?” my coworker said. “You’re just spouting a bunch of nonsense. I’m not an idiot.” My coworker had the guy pretty much cornered against the wall of cigarettes. The clerk was very calm about it, didn’t shy away physically or anything.
“I knew about your friend because I listened. I don’t know where he is now, but if you listen you may hear footsteps, and if you listen closely, you may even be able to tell what direction they are trailing off in.”
“Look,” I said. “He’s not going to tell us anything else. Can we just leave? What if someone comes in here?”
My coworker looked at me and didn’t say anything at first, but then he looked at the big windows as if he had forgotten they were there. He came back around the counter and we started heading for the door.
“Come again,” the clerk said, but we just ignored him. Outside, the traffic was getting thick and the late sunlight reflected sharply off of the glass buildings.
“What do you think?” My coworker said as we were walking across the parking lot. “You ever heard footsteps while you were waiting to cross the street at night?”
Erich Brumback lives near Washington D.C. and always looks both ways before crossing the street. His visual poetry is forthcoming in Small Po[r]tions.
#Real #ShortStory #ErichBrumback #HeHadToWalkEverywhere #LittleWalkingMan #SquattingInsideOfASign #UrbanFairies
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