This exercise was inspired by a man I saw running down a sidewalk on Boardman Avenue in Traverse City.
It had been cold for days. Not just the usual cold that besets a northern state, but one that grows teeth and steamrolls in from the frozen wastelands near the Arctic Circle. I had lived in this area for so many years, I'd grown accustomed to feeling the icy-crisp air pour into my lungs with each breath. This winter was the worst I had ever seen it. It was below zero every night, and single digits every day. Derelict cars sat powerless in parking lots throughout town. People huddled against the cold, hunched over and layered thick in coats. It was a chill to the bone no warmth could fix.
I had taken to the habit of visiting the library every Thursday, trying to absorb a book every seven days as a way of keeping myself out of the blustery winter. My ancient car lurched in the arctic air, laboring for every turn of the belt or firing of plugs. The heat barely worked, seemingly defeated. It didn't just feel cold outside -- it looked cold. No sun, a gray sky, and endless clouds that dumped thick, wet snow everywhere. Spring was a world away, and summer was a world ago.
I saw the man just after turning onto the road leading to the library, crimson down coat stark against the drab white. His head was covered with a paltry stocking cap, and blue ski gloves covered his hands - at least when I could see them clearly. He was running, and running hard. It wasn't the steady, disciplined run of someone enjoying it or benefitting from the exercise. It wasn't the lazy jog of someone simply in a hurry to get out of the freeze. Unlike a true runner keeping his arms close to streamline the body, his arms were out, as if elbowing his way through an unseen crowd. His stride was erratic, steps out of rhythm. Even covered in the coat, I could see his labored breathing. Breath appeared and quickly whisked away, just as erratic as his pace. As I passed him, I caught a glimpse of his face: drawn out, mouth open, and eyes bugged wide. Then I knew that this was the run of someone afraid. No, not afraid. Terrified.
There was no one around him. He was alone, but he kept looking over his shoulder. Behind him was the intersection I just came through, and beyond that a darkened treeline leading into a forboding patch of woods known for housing transients and the homeless. I swore that, over the sound of my poor engine, I could hear him shrieking. Even now, I tell myself it was the wind somehow whistling through a torn seal on my window.
What had he seen back there? Why did he now hurtle down the barely-cleared sidewalk, running with such a fearful motion that whatever he feared was perhaps directly on his tail? The snow blew from drifts surrounding him on either side and for a moment - one moment - I saw something. Something large and unwilling to be seen. Something used to the shadows and not ready to be revealed by a running man in a crimson down coat.
I didn't stop. I stared straight ahead, and drove past the library. I was shaking. It was cold outside, and there was a chill no warmth could dispel.
I keep telling myself it was the cold.
© 2007 Dod March