by J. Scott Kunkle
The man walked along at a steady yet casual pace, his arms swinging comfortably at his sides. His light gray business suit was impeccable, and his shoes gleamed with a glossy shine. He deftly sidestepped a rolling soda can as it went under his feet, propelled along by the brisk fall winds.
He held his head up, eyes sweeping the sea of faces as they pushed by, all intent on making their way to their destinations. The man smiled at the women that passed by, young and old alike. A casual smile from a stranger can brighten even the dreariest day. A rule he lived by.
He was in his early forties, give or take a few years, but carried his age well. His stride was strong and his shoulders were square and broad. He obviously kept himself in good shape and just the faintest touch of gray was showing at his temples.
He stopped at the corner and waited for the light to change. As he waited, a scrawny looking terrier ambled down the sidewalk and sat next to the man’s feet. The dog raised his head, evidently awaiting a handout.
The man smiled down at the dog and saw the canine’s ears prick up attentively. A second later the little dog was off like a shot, a gray and brown blur of movement as he raced away. The man stared after the dog for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders.
He moved on down the street with the other pedestrians, the dog forgotten. He hopped up on the curb on the other side of the street and paused to buy a newspaper from a blind man standing on the corner.
The blind man accepted the bill with gnarled fingers crippled with arthritis. He patted the man’s hand as he took the money and then paused, his expression puzzled for a moment. Then he grinned up at the man, showing yellow, tobacco-stained teeth.
“The front page say, things are okay,” he cackled hoarsely, his dead eyes staring blankly. “But on the inside, death is at play.”
The man in the suit smiled politely and moved quickly away, the blind man’s laughter following him. Hell of a way to sell your papers, the man thought as he turned up the collar of his heavy overcoat against a strong gust of wind.
The gust of wind twisted a small, brown leaf free of its tentative hold high atop the branches over the street. It floated upwards caught in the brisk autumn wind, slowly drifting down toward the busy street.
The man glanced down at his watch and immediately increased his pace. He was going to have to hurry if he were going to catch the opening act of the play. He was to meet a very important client there and, as he had figured, he had spent too much time in the restaurant with his ex-wife.
He forced the thoughts from his mind, determined not to ruin the rest of the day with memories from hell. They had been divorced for over a year and she still called when the bank account was overdrawn.
He turned a corner and narrowly avoided running down an elderly lady with a cane. He almost fell getting out of her way, smiled apologetically at the woman, and then hurried on. He was only a few blocks away and was beginning to think he would actually make it on time when he was rudely interrupted.
A hand caught hold of his arm and forced him to a halt. He turned, thinking he was being mugged, and was surprised to find a young man of Oriental descent in a suit frowning at him.
“Your manners, sir. My mother was nearly knocked from her feet.” His voice was low and even, without a trace of threat or bluster.
The man looked confused for a moment, then recognition swept over him and he felt his face starting to turn crimson. “I’m terribly sorry. I was in a hurry, but I realize that’s no excuse. May I apologize to your mother?”
The other man bowed his head slightly in acceptance. “An attitude rare in this city. You honor us.”
His mother stepped into view at his side; her sallow skin drawn tight across her time-worn features. Her white hair was pulled into a tight bun at the back of her head and she eyed the man suspiciously.
“I apologize for my behavior, madam. I am truly sorry.” He reached forward to take the small woman’s hand, to help express his regret at what had happened, but she pulled back with haste, reacting as if he were on fire or carrying an extremely virulent strain of the plague.
She took a stumbling step back and looked up at him with fear in her eyes. She muttered something in Chinese and then hurried off, her cane tapping at the concrete erratically. Her son followed closely, glancing nervously over his shoulder as they disappeared around the corner.
The man stared after them for several moments before turning away. The attitude of the old woman had left him more than a little uneasy. He had covered almost a block before he was able to turn his thoughts elsewhere.
He pulled back his sleeve and again consulted his watch. “Damn!” he muttered to himself, slowing his pace. The play had started; there was no reason to hurry. Five minutes or fifteen, it was academic now. He was late.
He paused at the next intersection and waited for the light. He came to the conclusion that his luck was holding. It was all bad. He glanced up at the sky for comfort but received none. The dark clouds were being hurried on their way by the gentle breeze, but the day was still overcast and gloomy.
He took a deep breath and told himself to relax. Things had to get better soon. The odds were in his favor.
The leaf, still caught in the wind’s grasp, floated out across the street and over a small park. It was falling to the safety of the grass when the wind picked up again and sent the leaf fluttering toward the street once again. Once it reached the road, the wind died and the leaf dropped gently to the curb next to a mailbox. It flipped over once and was still.
The light changed and put an end to the man’s thinking. He stepped down off the curb, trying his best to put the recent events behind him. The loud squeal of tires and the shouts of the other pedestrians caused him to whirl about and probably saved him from being crushed by the oncoming car.
The driver had apparently not noticed that the light had changed and had slammed on his brakes at the last minute, sliding toward the crosswalk.
The man was almost to the other side of the street when he turned and saw the car coming toward him. As he spun around, his left foot caught in the grating covering the gutter and he threw up his hands to protect his face, falling onto the curb.
The car spun sideways, the rear end fishtailing around toward the now seated man. A scream sounded from the sidewalk behind him and he buried his face in his arms to await the seemingly imminent collision.
The screaming stopped as the car slid to a halt, its rear bumper only inches from the man’s lowered head. He slowly looked up and stared into the polished chrome bumper that was almost pressed against the tip of his nose, his reflection glaring back at him.
He stared at his image for a long moment and then began to scream. Low at first and then with more intensity, reaching a near-deafening pitch.
People were rushing about to see what had happened, glad to see a little blood so soon after breakfast. Never let it be said that people would let a good fire or car crash go to waste. Human nature just wouldn’t allow it.
One such Good Samaritan ran by the mailbox in his haste and kicked the leaf from the curb. It was instantly caught by the now-swirling winds and floated out into the street where it was buffeted about by the passing cars until it finally came to rest in the center of the road.
The man scrambled to his feet, his screams still ripping through the morning air. He leveled an arm at the car in front of him and backed away until his back was pressed up against the wall. His once immaculate suit was soaked at the armpits with perspiration and his pants showed signs of his having lost control of his bladder. He clutched at the wall and continued to scream in terror, his wild and frantic eyes never leaving the shiny bumper of the vehicle that had almost caused his death.
A cab driver heard the screams as he was passing and, since he had no fare at the time, swung his cab around, pulled off to the side of the road, and stopped. He jumped from his cab and raced across the street in the direction of the screams. As he ran across the street he stepped heavily upon the leaf, crushing it beneath his foot. Its delicate and fibrous body was reduced to a few leafy particles of dust, which was gently wafted away by the autumn wind.
The man stopped screaming and stood very still. His eyes opened so wide it seemed they would burst from his skull. One hand went weakly to his chest and he fell to his knees. His bowels gave way with a soft, wet sound and he fell face downward on the hard, unyielding concrete with a thud and was still.
The wind edged the tiny fragments of the leaf across the street and through the grating into the storm drain, as the people turned away from the dead man. The sound of the approaching police car was rapidly drawing close, and the onlookers saw no reason to detain themselves any longer.
The wind died down once more, as life continued in the city, the leaves still falling all around.
Copyright © 2012 by J. Scott Kunkle