I Saw A Man Walking

(Flash Fiction)

(This story is based on an actual event I witnessed while I was studying psychology many years ago at Temple University in Philadelphia.  It was such a poignant and haunting sight that it has remained with me all these years. — rh) 

I saw a man walking up and down the steps.  He couldn’t seem to stop.  The day was cold, grey.  The steps were made of concrete; so was the sidewalk.  The tall building, too, was made of huge blocks of icy stone.  The man was made of frosted wood.  Or so it seemed.

Rigid back, frozen face, wind-stiff hair.   A long grey coat.  A long grey scarf.  I wondered.  What was under that long grey coat?  Bark, dry leaves, and a sturdy trunk?  All covered with searing frost?  

Or maybe a suit and a scarlet tie that was made of Japanese silk?  A starched shirt, crackling and white?  Yes, likely that.  Because the overcoat was very nice with a handsome tailored cut; his shoes were shiny, too.  But he couldn’t seem to stop.

He would trudge up the steps, his face empty.  He would pause for a moment on the broad, blocky stoop.  His hand would reach out to the brassy door, inches away from a copper push-plate, worn by countless palms and blurring years.  After a moment of almost-touching, the hand pulled back and sagged to his side.  Another moment.  Another beat.  Then: like a new recruit in robot mode, the man would pivot, eyes straight ahead, and walk back down the steps again.

On the sidewalk he would pause, straight and still, for a very long beat, looking neither left nor right.  Passers-by would veer around him where he stood.  They looked uneasy, frightened.  They walked faster.  Some glanced back.  Most did not.  But it mattered not what they did.  For him, they were not even there. 

The honking traffic, the dirty ridges of curb-side snow, the parked and salt-stained cars, the grey faceless buildings across the street; he didn’t see any of them, either.

I wondered.  Should someone be told?  Someone inside the building made of icy stone?  There were doctors in there.  PhDs.  Psychologists.  Professors.  All of them spent their days and most of their nights, thinking: about behaviors, about abnormalities, about experiments, textbooks, theories, students.  And about tenure.  Their brains were full of knowledge, full of facts, full of multi-syllabic words.  But would they know what to do with this man?  This man who couldn’t stop?

A bus whooshed up to a cross-street curb.  Some got off, some got on.  A few by the windows looked again and then they looked away.  A cop car paused for a changing light; the driver glanced up at the walking man.  He poked his partner.  Both men laughed and wagged their heads before the cop car followed the bus, as both drove away.

Up the steps.  Down the steps.  Up and down again.  Again.  And through it all the endless question continued to churn and churn.  Why did no one come and help?  The man who could not stop.