Even at the peak of rush hour on a weekday, downtown didn’t have enough people to look healthy. It wasn’t healthy. Half the city was empty parking lots. At noon on a Saturday, the streets were comatose. Walking across the heart of the city I saw just a few maintenance workers and a disheveled old man in a wobbly wheelchair lurching diagonally across an broad intersection, his artificial left leg jabbing proudly before him like a bowsprit.
When I reached the four-lobed square at the heart of the heart of town, I found a few more souls. I joined the loiterers in the square, sitting in loose rows. Some of us looked forward to becoming bus passengers; others had even less to anticipate. Clouds of smoke circulated between us, menthols and blunts and synthetic-fruit-flavor vapor. The thin sour smell of boiling hot dogs joined in from the nearby cart, the only open business within sight.
I watched seagulls and pigeons and shitty little brown-gray birds scour the pavement for a late breakfast. A breeze rushed past from the lake to the north, as indifferent as highway traffic. Buses limped in and out and a few people came and went.
The wind pushed a curious cloud across the sky, and I lost myself in it. When I returned to life I saw that a strange invasion was underway. Men and women, all lithe and sexy, were streaming into the square from the east and the west. The new arrivals wore bright tank tops in a riot of colors, and flimsy running shorts that revealed plenty of their powerful thighs. The runners all clutched a garbage bag in one hand. I imagined their street clothes were in the bag.
The running men and women gathered into disorderly clouds around us. Before long they outnumbered us, then doubled us, then tripled us. They limbered and stretched and talked quietly among themselves. As they idled I noticed that the crowd seemed to have an officer class. Among the sexy masses, there were lieutenants, taller and sexier and lither, both men and women. They wore gold tank tops, and carried leaf blowers on shoulder straps.
At the first glance of one of the appliances, I felt a surge of panic—was that some kind of gun? Was an atrocity imminent? But soon I saw the brandmark of a well-known manufacturer of harmless lawn equipment. My brief, sprinting fear vanished.
Through this strange gathering, the traffic signals had continued their cycle, rotely conducting a vanished orchestra. There was never any traffic downtown. But as the runners began to overflow the square itself and spill into the broad roadways that carved the square into four quarters, the traffic signals blinked out. At nearly the same time, the steady breeze died.
In the new silence, I noticed a man at the center of the crowd, near the statue of the city’s founder. His leaf blower was slung behind his back like a broadsword. I might be imagining this, but I swear that his shoulder strap was studded with military ribbons and honors, the confetti that dots the breast of a hero.
Before I could worry too much about this, he thrust a long, well-toned arm skyward. In his hand he clutched a sheaf of papers, with something like tassels dangling down his forearm. The crowd buzzed, a silent anticipation answered.
I watched all these from the slight elevation of the war monument in the southeast corner of the square. My perch afforded me a view of what came next. The man at the center broke up his sheaf, handing them to the people around him. I watched the papers pulse out into the crowd like the ripples on a pond. As the ripple reached me I saw that the papers were runner’s bibs. I watched the nearest men and women tie on their placards, their buzz turned to intent focus. The bibs bore tall black numbers and the logo of a local bank.
This must be a 5K or something, I thought to myself. I sighed with comprehension. The crowd made sense now. I watched as the gathering donned their numbers. I could feel the quiet deepen rapidly. It occurred to me that a 5K didn’t require leaf blowers. In the same moment, the long arm of the leader, a thick gold band around his ring finger, punched the sky again. The air around me erupted.
For obvious reasons this was the first and last time that I ever heard a hundred leaf blowers turn on at once. It sounded like a knife being sharpened inside my throat. The sound ricocheted through my insides and froze me.
As the choral whine of the blowers boomed through the square, each and every runner dumped their garbage bag onto the pavements and grass berms that made up the center of town. The bags had not contained street clothes, or windbreakeres, or energy drinks. What came out confused my eyes. The bags held cash. The bills were visibly new, almost stiff in their crispness. They were loose, unbound. The fresh green notes tumbled on their edges or slid flush against the flat surfaces of the square. My brain took more than a few seconds to understand that this strange and sudden crowd of attractive runners had dumped hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of dollars on the ground in the center of the city. There were so many runners that I had to work to find another regular bystander, one of the loiterers from before, to share our incredulity. I saw on a frumpy woman’s face the same struggle I felt, the same incomprehension that was spinning my mind over its head. The breeze was dead but the money danced, thanks to the leaf blowers.
I couldn’t speak for the other regular people, but nearly all of me wanted to dive after the mounds of cash. Of course I had no idea what the consequences of such aggressive greed would be. I thought through the dynamics of the situation. There were a lot of runners, at least three tank tops for every non-runner. If any one of us civilians went after any one pile of cash, the runners could easily intervene, prevent any misapprehension of their loot. But if they did stop one thief, at least a few heaps of cash would be unguarded.
My manners quickly caught up to my racing desire. Taking money, even money off the leash like these senseless bills, would be wrong. Starting a scuffle to steal money would be wrong. Taking things that don’t belong to you is wrong, I reminded myself under the hoarse shouts of the leaf blowers.
As the blowers exhaled furiously, the dance of the money intensified. The piles were starting to mingle. My sense of order, my sense of what you do and don’t use a garbage bag full of money for, my sense of anything teetered. Maybe the money was fake. Maybe this was a prank of some kind, although it seemed awfully complex considering the victim was a few dozen sad loiterers. All of this was either entirely or not at all wrong.
As I stared and sought understanding, the fist shot up again, and disorder exploded the day.
The runners broke in a thousand directions, and the leaf blowers drove head-on into the piles of cash, blasting currency into every corner of the square. I tried to watch it all but only flashes of specific action could be seen. When the drifts of money hit you, they hurt. The bank-fresh bills, pushed by hot stale wind from the blowers, bit into exposed skin. As a heap of cash crashed into me I felt slashes on my face and arms. Out of self-defense as much as desire I swatted at the money, catching a few notes. Seven dollars. I worried that I had a papercut on or near one of my eyeballs. My face stung.
As I looked up from a frenzied recount of my seven prizes, another swarm of bills hit me. I covered my face this time, knowing better than to grab for money. A few of my earlier haul slipped away, and a few bills wedged themselves into my defensive posture. I was up to $12.
I stuffed the money deep into my pockets and looked around for the next wave. All across the broad square, different troupes were interpreting the same scene. Those runners with leaf blowers gathered themselves into fire teams and corraled as much money as they could. They stampeded their herds into the small clusters of bystanders. The victims contorted themselves, at once clutching wildly and shielding themselves from the cartwheeling dollars. As the mayhem extended from a moment to some minutes, garbage was swept up into the clouds. Cups, cans, hot dog wrappers, cigarette husks, lotto tickets joined in.
Convinced my chance for profit lurked into this chaos, I stepped away from the heights of the war monument and broke into a jog. I made to head off the biggest of the money clouds, gathering in the crook of the buildings at the southwest corner of the square. Both leaf blower teams and loping interceptor-joggers were converging there, cornering a large group of the innocent bystanders.
Confused cries rose out of the trapped civilians as they winced against wave after wave of swirling moneygarbage. They still clutched wildly through their tears at the passing greenbacks. I could see them all, cowering together in a lump, between the scissoring legs of the circling joggers. Their eyes were wild with a mix of fright and greed.
As I edged toward the core of the madness, I found myself crashing to the pavement. I rolled over to find what had tripped me up. One of the joggers had checked me with a forearm. He stood over me, his skin glowing with sweat, his wiry frame heaving with effort. He couldn’t stand still. None of them could. Even when they stood, they jogged in place, intermittently glancing at their chunky watches.
More joggers joined my assailant, men and women, all fit and exceptional. A few were maybe more handsome than beautiful, but overall I felt like each of them was too good looking for me. In a different setting I would have been attracted to them all, and they would not have given me the time of day. But these creeping and futile desires were forgotten when the new arrivals produced clubs seemingly from nowhere. The shining black wands seemed too flimsy to deliver much pain, but my eyes quickly admitted their error as the first blows landed.
The runners pummeled me cruelly. The only respite was that they were so many, so compressed that they could not swing freely. No one runner could strike me at full force without hitting his or her comrades. But what force they did manage was plenty bad. Through mercy or wildness, they missed my face. But my arms, legs, and torso were touched all over by the hot red hurt of the nightsticks. The assault lasted only seconds, but its effects immobilized me for a good long time.
I heard the stealthy sneakered footfalls of my assailants move away. I uncrumpled myself and looked out on to the plaza. I wondered if they had avoided my face so I could better bear witness to the furthest extent of their cruelty. The leaf blowers hounded a few stray civilians into the frightened clump in the corner. The outriders—outjoggers, I suppose—circled with purpose. A detachment of leaf blower men kept the cash pile percolating.
The greed in the eyes of the trapped had vanished, replaced with woozy fear. Runners broke from the circle to sweep through and bash wildly at the prey animals. Trauma seemed to be blossoming in a timelapse before my eyes. But their grotesque suffering was no longer the strangest thing happening in the square.
With the cash and quarry trapped in the southwest corner, the majority of the runners turned to a new task. Their bright tank tops and ropy, conventionally attractive thighs swept from around the square toward a single vacant storefront, a former dry-goods store. With vicious strength, the runners burst through doors and boarded-up windows. The beautiful animal horde splintered glass and wood and drywall. They scoured over ever inch of the store, like roaches or scent hounds, running their manicured and elegant hands over moulding, dusty counters, dust-fogged display cases. I watched as the fiends smelled and probed and stroked every inch of the commercial tombs. Some of the runners began to gnaw on the interior walls, and others took up pieces of rubbish as instruments of demolition. Those without tools struck out with their fists and feet. Joining the dull whine of the leaf blowers and the fearful yelps of the captives was a manythroated snarl from the deranged joggers.
The attackers swept from the dry-goods store to the next storefront, a hair salon. A few of the runners remained in the five-and-dime. To my amazement, these rear guards took up a sober pantomime of commerce. One runner pretended to measure another for a suit of clothes with an invisible tape measure. A beautiful brunette jogger tied on a dirty white apron dotted with mold and pretended to take food orders from others sitting at the store’s soda fountain. A male runner, his electric green tank top torn and his enviable physique smeared with the dust of wanton destruction, pretended to wipe down the shattered glass of a picture window.
With building speed, the locust-like runners progressed around the square. I listened to the sounds of their destructive circuit. Glass squealed as it fell, splintering wood barked, and the savage mob bayed in satisfaction; all these sounds completed an orbit of my senses.
As the winter sun slipped back down from its feeble apex, the leaf blowers died out one by one. The cloud of cash spun itself out in a corner. A detachment of the biggest and strongest joggers produced and unfurled a single enormous trash bag. They spread the black-brown shimmering hide of the bag and set about baling the cash inside by hand. The bills, so clean and cutting at the beginning, were filthy and all over creased. From time to time a captive in the corner would break for one of the streets that led away from the square. These fugitives were run down and hastily beaten by roving squads.
As the looters blasted through the last untouched storefront, all but a trace of the money was in the giant bag. I watched the baton detachments descend on the cluster of civilians, frisking them savagely. Anyone holding cash was compelled to swap their catch for a crack over the head. Before long the captives voluntarily surrendered their cash without a search.
The sun began to slip behind the gap-toothed skyline of the dead city. Cold shadows fell across the square. The runners crowded around their great sack of cash, and lifted it like ants. They paraded silently south, in the direction of the next lost town.