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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Just walking along, minding your own business late at night can be a crime!

Submitted: February 22, 2008

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Submitted: February 22, 2008



 There's a lot of construction going on around the shopping mall where I work unloading trucks, pushing plastic bins and reorganizing the same cardboard boxes day after day after day. All of that construction made it difficult for me to find a convenient place to park my wreck of a car the other night.

I take local roads to work. I don't like to drive the wreck on highways unless I have too, but even then, I prefer that it be for only short distances. That's the reason why I take the residential streets to work at a steady thirty miles per hour. Anything less than that, and my old junker might stall out on me, anything more than that, and my old battered Ford might explode or simply fall to pieces. I sometimes have nightmares about my car shaking itself apart as I'm traveling down the highway. I wake up in a cold sweat some nights after dreaming that my car has fallen apart into a dozen pieces and  left me sitting there in the driver's seat, holding onto the steering wheel with nothing else at all remaining to protect me from the other cars as they go whizzing by at seventy-plus miles an hour.
The other night, I got out of work later than usual because of the stockroom inventory that I had to do. All of that counting, and re-counting, and re-counting again and again had me feeling pretty beat and numb. It was almost ..:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />midnight by the time I left work.
Because of the construction there was no easy exit. All of the doors to the mall were locked, the parking lot that I usually cut across was littered with piles of gravel and shards of discarded metal, and even if it had been clear, the construction crews had fenced the whole damned thing off anyway, and locked the fences when they left too. I guess they were afraid someone might come along and steal some dirt, or something.
I had no choice, but to walk across the highway overpass, make a right on foot along the highway, cross back over the highway again, walk along the street, go parallel to the back of the mall parking lot, follow along a low retaining wall that marks the outer boundary of the mall parking lot and then enter through the exit where the cars go out so that I could get to my piece of junk. That's exactly what I did.
I had forgotten to wear any gloves because I hadn't expected the temperature to drop so much while I was at work, but it had. So I walked along with my head held down and my hands tucked in the pockets of my suede jacket. I put the hood up on my sweatshirt when I left work, but before I went to cross the highway, I lowered it again just to be able to see the traffic coming both ways.
Crossing a highway on foot is a difficult thing to do. I remember when my mother taught me how to cross the street, she always told me to look both ways, but with a highway, it's a little different. Since all the cars are going so fast, when crossing the highway on foot, you can really only check one way at a time.
What I did was look to my left, then glance to my right. I saw that no cars were coming from the left, but as far as the more distant lanes were concerned, the lanes where traffic was heading in the other direction, I just made a leap of faith and hoped that by the time I reached those lanes there would still be no one who wished to travel west on that highway. This time I gambled correctly, but I assume, that when crossing the highway there are a lot of people who don't gamble correctly and their lives are snuffed out right there on the asphalt because they gambled wrong on the direction that things were headed. Sucks to be them, I guess.
But anyway, I made it across the highway, successfully—both times. Then I skirted the edge of the loading docks behind the shopping mall where the trucks come in. It was dark and I walked quickly for a little way because I was freezing. I stopped by where the empty trailers line up in a row and lit a cigarette because I didn't feel like walking so fast anymore. I smoked and the smoke mixed in with the mist of my frozen breath as I breathed in and out in the cold night. Then the wind picked up and started blowing, so I began walking again.
It had taken me fifteen minutes to walk this far. By the time I got to the little retaining wall that marked the end of the lot where my car was parked, I started to walk faster because I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
There are no sidewalks along the retaining wall. There's a busy two lane street that runs parallel to the other side of the wall and a small embankment with trees growing out of it, and worn out grass and that's where I walked. Clearly, it's not a place where people are supposed to walk, and I wouldn't have been walking there either, if it hadn't been for the damn construction that somebody wanted to put up.
The trees that grow along the embankment where I walked were like bare skeletons reaching up to the sky. There was no life in them at all, no leaves to speak of and they have stunted branches and haphazard and gnarled trunks. Those trees didn't look like objects that were organic to me at all. I couldn't believe, as I walked along that night, that those things had actually grown. Those bare winter trees looked to me like something that had always been dead from the begining.
It was pitch black out. Every once and awhile a car would come by the street next to the dirt embankment where I walked and light me up. I could imagine the driver's in those cars staring out at me through their windshields and thinking, or maybe even muttering out loud, "What the hell is that guy doing? Does he want to get killed or something walking like that?" No, I didn't want to get killed, and I didn't want to have to be walking like that either, but if somebody else hadn't done something already that I had no control over, namely construct more stuff around where I worked, than I wouldn't have had to have been walking like that in the first place.
But none of the cars slowed down enough for me to walk over to them and tell their occupants that. Instead they just flew past me at forty or so miles an hour and thought how nuts I was. 
In truth, I did start to get a little afraid as I walked along that embankment. It was a pretty dreary scene—dark, the only light coming from the headlights of passing cars along the county road silhouetting those ghastly skeleton trees and everywhere near the wall there was garbage. I saw all the garbage because I looked down at my feet while the hood was up on my sweatshirt. I saw something that looked like a used condom and an empty can of something—soda? beer?—I'm not sure because it had been trampled on so many times that all the identity had been crushed out of the metal. It was really cold, and as I walked along I'm not sure whether I felt bad about all the garbage that I saw, or for all the garbage I saw. Is there really a difference?
And as I said already, I was beginning to get a little afraid. It could have just been a trick of the light, an illusion cast by the nighttime shadows, but I clearly got the sense that someone else was following me close behind, just over my shoulder. I imagined this person to be a lot like me, my doppelganger in fact, with a five o'clock shadow. I pictured him as also looking down at all the garbage with his hands shoved in his pockets.Except, I began to think that this other me was looking to do the real me harm, and I even imagined that I could hear the footsteps of his work boots scuffing the dirt on that embankment. It's a feeling I have often when I'm alone—this feeling that there's this other me out there, outside of myself somewhere, stalking me whenever I'm alone and waiting to do me harm.
I know that it's probably not true, but I believed him to be there at the time as I walked, so I quickened my pace. I started doing double-time down the embankment. I tripped a couple of times as I doggedly put one foot in front of the other and paid no mind to the roots that poked up out of the dirt or the jagged pieces of rock that littered my path.

<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">I was about to make a right by the white traffic arrows that were painted on the ground by the entrance to the mall parking lot, when a cop car came pulling up alongside me. I stood up straight and did my best to stare directly ahead. I only had a couple more feet to go and I would have been in the parking lot. After that, all I had to do was walk a couple of more feet and I'd be safely inside my old battered Ford sub-compact. I walked along like I didn't see anything—walked along methodically, slowly and deliberately toward those white arrows painted on the street that marked my deliverance. Then the lights flashed blue and red, red and blue. No siren, just lights flashing in my face. A gruff voice said, "Hey you. Get over here."

The cop car was pulled up along the embankment a couple feet away from me. The cop had his head turned and was facing me out the window from the side. His head was shaved bald in attempt to either make himself look tough, or to hide the fact that he was losing his hair. I couldn't tell which. He had a big neck. I pulled the hood down on my sweatshirt because I knew that he'd ask me to anyway.  I walked slowly over to where his head poked out of the car.
I stood a couple of feet away from him and didn't saying anything. "What the hell do you think you're doing?' He yelled at me.
"Sorry," I said as I scratched the unshaven stubble of my face, "just walking to my car."
The cop scrunched up his face in surprise, raised his eyebrows—he did the whole bit to make me feel like I was crazy. "You're walking?"
"Yeah, I just got out of work," I said, "and you see I park my car here but—"
"You can't be walking along here!" He cut me off and interrupted.
I didn't say anything. I just shrugged my shoulders and put my hands back in my pocket. "You got a car you said? You got a license on you?" He demanded to know.
I took my hand out of my pocket and searched around in the back of my dirty jeans for my wallet. I could sense the lump of my wallet there, filled mostly with receipts and sugar packets that I have a habit of taking from diners, but I couldn't quite work my hand into my pocket to get it for him. My heart leaped in my chest as I frantically searched for it and I thought that maybe it had fallen out as I scampered across the highway before.
"Don't move too fast with your hands," the cop said as he left the sirens flashing and lighting his face up in blue and red shadows.
"Sorry, I'm just trying to get my wallet out," I said. The cop kept a watchful eye on me. Then he raised that black mag-lite flashlight that all cops everywhere carry and shined it near my crotch. He tried to follow my hands with the beam from his flash light. I could feel the light burning on the skin of my hands. Just having the light on me like that caused me to sweat. I got my wallet out of my jeans, but when I did, I fumbled with it and dropped it on the ground.
"Hand me the damn wallet," the cop demanded.
So I bent down and picked it up from the dust of the embankment. He snatched it from me and I took a few steps back from the police cruiser. The cop opened my wallet and looked through it. He threw my two crumpled dollar bills, my stolen packets of sugar and all my receipts, mostly for packs of cigarettes, down on the leather passenger seat of his car. "Just stay right there," he said as he raised my license up to his face and looked at it, "Mr. Ka—ko—ka—Kowalski," he finally stammered out.
"O.K," I said. And I stayed right there.
He spent a long time looking at my license and flipping through my wallet, but he didn't say anything. I had heard once, that if you're over eighteen you have to have ID on you at all times or you can get arrested for vagrancy. I was glad that I remembered my wallet when I left for work.
Finally the cop said, "Alright, well, what the hell were you doing?" That question again.
"I got out of work and I was just walking to my car," I said.
"Mr. Kowalski, have you had anything to drink tonight?"
For a moment I panicked. I thought maybe he could smell beer seeping through my pores as I stood there. "No," I said. But what I should have told him was that either I wished I was drinking, or that after this, I was going to need a drink.
He grunted, picked up my stuff off the passenger's seat of his car and handed me back my license along with my wallet. "You sure? No bullshit?" he asked.
"Yeah, I'm sure," I said. Man, was it freezing out now!
"You don't look too good," he said, "you're not supposed to walk here."
I don't look too good? I wasn't sure how to take that. Really, I was only tired and dirty, nothing out of the ordinary. The cop's comments did remind me that a little paunch was beginning to form around my mid-section and some wrinkles on my face were popping up here and there. Actually, when I looked in the mirror, I got the distinct impression that my own eyes were somehow fading away back into my head and sinking deeper and deeper into my face as if they didn't want to look at my reflection anymore.
"I'm fine Officer. I'm just tired," I said.
The cop spit on the ground next to his police cruiser. He reminded me of a wild dog, or a stray cat, the kind that have to piss on things everywhere to mark their territory. After he was done spitting, he looked up at me and said, "You say you got a car? I don't believe you."
"It's true," I said as I raised my hands out to my sides to plead my innocence, "my car's right over there in the parking lot," I said to him as I pointed vaguely in the direction of where I thought I remembered having parked my car.
The cop looked at me for a long second, probably thinking about how nuts I was, or how ugly I look. I couldn't tell which. "Alright," he said, "show me your car and I'll let you go."
Then he rolled up the window. I thought he was going to give me a lift in the cop car, but he didn't. This is true. The cop actually watched me walk to my car in the freezing cold and followed close behind at my heels as I made my way to my battered old Ford in the howling wind and freezing cold.
I got to my car with the big dent in the door and the back bumper that's falling off. I didn't bother to turn around and look at the cop, but I knew that he was still there following me and waiting for me to get inside. I could here his tires grind against the rough pavement of the parking lot. I stood outside the driver's side door of my car and patted the pockets on my jacket, looking for my keys.
As I felt and heard the keys jangle in my hand the cop pulled up next to where I was parked and said, "This is your car?" I didn't have to turn around to be able to tell that he was poking his bald head outside the window again and raising his eyebrows in surprise once more.
"Yeah," I mumbled without turning around as I stuck my key in the door.
"Jesus Christ," I heard the cop muttered through his teeth, "that car don't look so good."
I don't know why, but for some reason, that pissed me off even more than all those people that had driven past me as I walked along the embankment and thought how nuts I was. "Well, come on," I turned to face him and said, "you almost arrested me for vagrancy. What'd ya expect? A Lexus?"
The cop spit on the ground in the parking lot. I opened the door to my shitty car and held it there, hoping that it wouldn't come off at the hinges. "Alright Kowalski," the cop said slowly as I climbed into the driver's seat of my own car. I heard the springs squeak in the seat and the suspension almost give.
Right as I was about to close the door on the cop, he said through the window as he was pulled up alongside me, "You can go now Mr. Kowalski, but don't let me catch you walking around again. Got that?"
I didn't know what to say to that. I muttered, "O.K," with my head down from inside my car and the cop drove away.
Don't let me catch you walking around again? I may not be the best looking guy in the world, I may have been kind of dirty and tired that night and my car is definitely a piece of shit—but don't let me catch you walking around at night?
I don't know about you, but I think that might be a little harsh—even for a crazy guy like me.

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