I’m looking at my phone in a comfy chair at the mall, more or less unaware of anything around me, when a man sits in the matching chair to my right and starts in on me with his story. I think nothing of the way he looks or dresses, but he’s intent on making eye contact and that seems intrusive to me.
Forgive me, he begins, do you have a moment? I’ve just witnessed something. I travel in my work and I’m away from home and don’t know anyone nearby to talk to. I could call someone, but I’m not married and not in a relationship and I don’t want to intrude on anyone who could be busy. And what could they do about this situation since they’re not here? I see that you’re occupied with your phone and it could be that you have something urgent to tend to. No? Then if you don’t mind, here’s what happened.
Without waiting for answers, he keeps talking, but he strikes me as being a little too interested in making me believe his story. Why tell me his relationship status and why he’s not calling someone he knows? More explaining than seems natural, something unconvincing about him, more like a person absorbed in his own head than someone who needs to talk about whatever he claims to have seen. Does he mean to suggest that because I’m present he’ll expect me to take some action, and if action is needed, why hasn’t he taken it?
I stop by malls to stretch my legs, he continues hurriedly, to be around other people, pleasant environment, weather’s not a problem, get some exercise, quick bite in the food court, then on my way. I’m going out to my car and I see a youngish man and woman arguing, not just a discussion but heated and loud, and some people, like me, are standing outside the exit watching them. The man is demanding that the woman get in the car, but she won’t do it and shouts so that all of us can hear that she’s not going anywhere with him. I have no idea how long this has been in full uproar, but my car is on the other side of this scene or incident, and I’m not about to walk through it, not knowing what could erupt at any moment. The man’s frustration with the woman grows and we can’t hear every word they say to each other but all of it is heated and finally the man turns and smashes his fist into a side window. The window does not break, and the man cries out in agony and shakes his hand as if he’s broken most of his knuckles and then rubs his shoulder and curses and yells: You see what you do to me! She’s furious that he blames her for the window punching, and she starts away from him toward the mall, toward us, the watchers. I take an instinctive step back, as do most of us, but the man runs after her and grabs her arm and pulls her back. I notice that a few of the watchers are talking to their phones, reporting the incident, I guess, or perhaps telling their friends. I turn and come back into the mall, unsure what I should do. I don’t see a security person anywhere and I would think that at least one of the phone users was calling someone to take charge. Not sure if I sound coherent, I’m still rattled. I mean, the guy was rough and he could have had a weapon, who knows? I couldn’t try to stop him without risk to my safety, could I? I’m not trained to handle this type of crisis. So what do you think? Should we go out there? Maybe we could find a way to help her. She wasn’t giving in to him, but how long can she protect herself and what will happen to her once he gets her in the car with him? They’re right out there, he says, and points toward a corridor that leads to covered parking.
I don’t answer, don’t get up, don’t react, don’t know whether to trust this stranger. I come to the mall about twice a week and I’ve never seen anything like what he’s described. Why has he chosen me to speak to? Is it because I’m somewhat older than he is and he presumes I have more experience, or does he hope to lure me outside and overpower me because he thinks I’m too old to put up much of a fight? What would happen if I went to the parking lot with him? Would he walk me to the car where he’d say he witnessed the scene? Would someone be there waiting for us, someone working with him? What’s his angle? Does he have one? Could he be doing this just for fun?
Did you hear what I said? he asks. Don’t you feel any responsibility for what happens to that woman? Are you saying you don’t care about the danger she could be in? Is that what you’re implying?
His face takes on an expression approaching outrage. Is his growing emotion real? Has he seen something he doesn’t know how to deal with? Is he sincere in wanting my help? I don’t answer his questions, not any of them.
Are you judging me for walking away from them? How can you do that when you sit there in silence, basking in the neutrality of this processed mall atmosphere? What is it, in your mind, that makes you human? Not the power of speech, apparently. For God’s sake, answer me. You think I’m sitting here talking to you because I want to be ignored and therefore disrespected?
As he speaks, a woman with a phone that she’s already fingering approaches an empty chair opposite us, but hearing the anger in the talker’s voice, changes her mind and goes on her way. I hesitate to do as she has done, my distrust causing me to wonder what forces could be at work. I fear the talker will follow me if I attempt to walk away from him, that he could have a partner whose eyes are on us and the two of them could converge on me as I get in my car.
Don’t you have anything at all to say? the talker demands to know, but he sees that nothing will come from me. He stares at me with disgust, as if his eyes could tear a response from me, and then stands and heads toward the exit where he says the argument took place. Why should he be indignant, assuming he was sincere and he did come across a violent altercation? Didn’t he flee the scene? If he was looking for help, why didn’t he ask anyone there to help him? I can’t make any sense of his behavior or his sudden anger, so why should I accept what he’s telling me? If I went with him and confirmed too late that his story was part of a con, these questions would be ones I’d later think should have been heeded.
Yet, I’m tempted to follow him at a distance to see if anything might still be going on, to see if I can learn something that will help me understand why he has told me the story. Not that much time has passed and a police car could be in the parking lot and bystanders could be gathered. But I haven’t seen people rushing toward the exit to catch sight of some unfolding drama. If I follow him, would I be letting him maneuver me with his story and accusing insults? Would he be watching for me? Is that idea ridiculous?
I pocket my phone and look around for anything that seems suspicious. I picture myself walking along the wall of the corridor he’s pointed to until I reach one side of the exit doors. I peek out and see him talking to a man who’s almost a head taller than he is, both of them close to the trunk of a parked car, the conversation animated, the man appearing to be known to him.
The longer I sit, the more I feel like a target. I get up and take a walk around the mall, vigilant, wondering how much he could know about who I am. I see nothing that arouses my concern, but as I start to relax I imagine a man smashing his fist into a car window, his bones giving way on impact, the woman possibly seeing her reflection in the glass.
I’m not parked near where we were sitting and not in a covered lot. Eventually I walk into the open air.