I knew he was heading for me the way you know someone is looking at you. You just know.
I was almost at my car and he was fifteen feet away, his body aimed at mine.
There were eight steps between us, and he had long legs.
I have been solicited for money before, in parking lots. There was the one time outside Chipotle. An SUV with two women, two girls and a dog was parked beside my car, windows rolled down in the afternoon heat. The driver leaned over the passenger and waved. She said something about running out of gas, driving across the state lines and being late for an appointment. It was quite vague, rather more like the outline of a story, and there was no urgency in her voice, none at all, which was bizarre given the appointment mentioned. She almost seemed bored, like this is a story she gave a lot. I gave her ten dollars because I felt bad, and then I felt bad about being a sucker. I wondered about the girls in the back of the SUV. In their story, was I the sucker or the saviour?
Parking lots and petrol stations, the places people seem to run out of gas or steam for living. I was checking the air in my tyres once when I noticed a man sitting on the side of the parking lot, his back against the building. Dirt streaked across his blonde hair, white t-shirt and blue jeans, like he had been run over by life. The man was shivering in the afternoon heat. Through his delirium, I heard his wordless plea and handed him five dollars. Whether he got booze or water didn’t matter. I just wanted him to feel better, for a little while. If he could live a little longer, perhaps his story would change. He could write himself away from liquor and lying on the side of a Sunoco.
My most memorable encounter was outside a supermarket, early Sunday morning, hardly anyone there. A girl in party clothes skipped across the parking lot towards me.
“I’m leaving town,” she beamed an otherworldly smile.
“I’m sorry I can’t drive you,” I said, groceries in hand, a husband waiting at home.
“I’ll take the bus.” She pointed to the bus stop at the edge of the lot. “Can I borrow two dollars?”
The one day I didn’t have any cash. I shrugged my shoulders.
“It’s okay,” she played with the hem of her miniskirt. “I’m leaving him anyway.”
And she skipped away.
Perhaps I could’ve bought her breakfast at the Wendy’s across the street, and she would’ve told me her story. Was the “him” she was leaving her husband, her partner or her pimp? I suppose I wanted to save her, so it is ironic that it was in that very parking lot that I would need saving some months later.
I had just walked out of the sliding doors, shopping bags in hand, walking down the main drive, which is the safest thing to do. I recognized the boy as the one who had been hanging around the parking lot when I came in. He was tall, lean, sweating, pale, unfocused in gaze. I did not know my brain had logged this person of interest until it brought it back to me in this whisper: Pay Attention.
Through my peripheral vision I could sense him walking towards me. I began to debate with myself.
This is a parking lot. People get close to one another.
Maybe he’s meeting someone.
Okay, he wants to ask me for money.
It’s only when I looked at him and he looked right through me, like I was a speedbump on his way to what he wanted, that my body woke up. His look did not resemble any of the pre-soliciting looks I had seen in all my encounters. He was not preparing for speech; he was preparing for action, and this action involved me.
So there we were, eight steps between us, and both the mathematics of childhood – two trains moving towards each other at speed A and B, when and where will they collide— and the calculus of closing spaces told me that he would reach me before I got into my car. My plan, if he accosted me, was to throw the shopping bags in his arms, scoot to the other side of the car and get in. But I didn’t even get to that.
Just as he was about to step into the gap, a long, tan 70s sedan sped up and stopped between us. The boy stopped cold, then ran away. The driver rolled down the window.
“I didn’t like the way that boy was lookin’ at you.” She was an old lady, hair curled, pearls on, made up.
I looked around to see if I was still in real life. The boy had disappeared, lanky frame nowhere to be found.
“I really didn’t like the way he was lookin’ at you,” she continued, her manicured hand resting on top of the steering wheel. “Did you?”
“No, Ma’am” I replied. “I did not.”
I beamed my thanks through my body.
She nodded and rolled away.
I still wonder about that day. Was that guy going to mug me? I don’t carry a handbag, so what would he take? My groceries? My car? My car, with me in it? And who was that amazing woman? How long had she been observing us, observing me? What had she seen? What did she know?