Even at rush hour on a weekday, downtown didn't have too many pedestrians. Before noon on a Saturday, it didn't have enough. I walked for miles across the city's central district and saw zero humans outside of a motor vehicle. Only in the four-lobed square at the heart of the heart of town did I encounter fellow loose souls.
I joined these loiterers. Some of us looked forward to becoming bus passengers; others had less to anticipate. A lake breeze moved past, as indifferent as the passing cars. Almost-empty buses limped in and out, and a few of us came and went. Cigarette smoke rose, blew away, mingled with the metallic smell of hot dogs from a nearby cart. The square was lined on all sides with shops, but only the hot dog cart was open. The wind pushed a curious cloud across the sky, and I zoned out for a time.
When I returned, a strange invasion was underway. Men and women, lithe and sexy, were streaming into the square from all directions. These new arrivals wore bright tank tops and flimsy running shorts that revealed powerful thighs. Every one of them clutched a garbage bag. I guessed that the bags held street clothes.
Before long the beautiful men and women outnumbered us, doubled us, tripled us. I stopped counting. The gathering runners limbered and stretched and murmured to their comrades. As they idled, I noticed the crowd had leaders, taller and sexier. These select men and women wore gold tank tops, and carried leaf blowers on shoulder straps.
Through this strange gathering, the traffic signals around the square had continued their cycle, conducting an absent orchestra. But as the runners overflowed into the broad roads that carved the square into four quarters, the lights shut off with a click. The breeze died at nearly the same moment.
I climbed up on the pedestal of the war memorial in my corner of the square for a better view. From my perch, I noticed one particular gold-shirted man at the center of the crowd. He stood near the statue of the city's founder, which was perpetually crowned with bird shit. This man was taller than the others, than even the other gold shirts. His leaf blower was huge. I'd never seen chrome on a lawn appliance before.
As I was looking this strange man over, he thrust a long, toned arm skyward. In the raised hand he clutched a sheaf of papers. Some silent anticipation of the crowd was answered. The beautiful people buzzed. The man at the center broke up his sheaf, handing its leaves to the people around him. I watched the papers move into the crowd like ripples on a pond. As the wave reached me I saw that the sheets were runner's bibs.
This must be a 5K or something, I realized. I watched the nearest men and women tie on their placards. The bibs bore tall black numbers and the logo of a local bank. The world made sense again, until I considered the blowers. In the same moment, the long arm of the leader punched the sky again. The square erupted with noise.
A hundred leaf blowers turned on at once. The sound was burning cold, like dry ice. It ricocheted through my insides and froze me.
As the choral whine of the blowers boomed through the square, the runners dumped their bags onto the pavement. The bags had not contained street clothes. There was paper money everywhere. The loose bills were visibly new, almost stiff in their crispness. I could see tens, twenties, hundreds.
I could not credit that a strange and sudden crowd of attractive people had dumped hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of dollars on the ground. I searched for another civilian, another normal, to share my incredulity with. I spotted a frumpy woman fifty feet away. I read on her face the same incomprehension I felt.
The breeze had died but the money danced, thanks to the howling leaf blowers. I felt an instinct to dive for one of the piles of cash. I could fill my pockets and run for home, or at least disappear into the rapid station. I had no idea what the consequences of such greed would be. I considered my situation. There were hundreds of runners. If I went after any one pile of cash, they could easily intervene. But if some of the other bystanders made grabs, then perhaps a few heaps of cash would be unguarded. I slowly climbed down from the monument, sidling toward the nearest of the money piles.
My manners quickly caught up to my instincts. Taking things that don't belong to you is wrong, I reminded myself. As the blowers exhaled furiously, the mounds of cash began to bleed together. My sense of order throbbed. Maybe the money was fake. Maybe this was a prank of some kind. No one was smiling.
I stared restlessly. I tried to explain all this to myself. But after a brief pause, the fist shot up again, and disorder exploded the day.
The runners broke in a thousand directions. The leaf blowers drove head-on into the piles of cash, blasting currency into every corner of the square.
When a drift of money hits you, it hurts. The crisp bills, tumbling on the stale, urgent breath of the blowers, bit into exposed skin. As the first wave of cash crashed into me, I felt countless small slashes. Out of self-defense as much as desire I swatted at the money, catching a few notes. Seventy-three dollars. I worried that I had a paper cut on or near one of my eyeballs. My face stung.
I saw another swarm of bills coming. I made sure to cover my eyes this time. I still managed to grab a few bills with my free hand. I was over a hundred. I stuffed the money deep into my pockets. Where was the next cloud?
All across the broad square, a fabric of identical scenes unfolded. The regular runners, those without blowers, chased the bystanders like herding dogs, gathering them into droves. Those with leaf blowers formed fire teams and corralled the money into huge, rolling clouds.
They blasted these seething piles of money into the clusters of bystanders. People contorted themselves, at once clutching wildly and shielding themselves. As the mayhem matured, garbage was swept up into the clouds. Cups, cans, hot dog wrappers, cigarette husks, and lotto tickets joined the cartwheeling dollars.
Convinced that profit could be snatched from this chaos, I made to head off the biggest of the money clouds. In the southwest corner of the square, in front of the ornate entrance of the old train station, several platoons of joggers were converging. They had corned the largest group of bystanders there.
Confused cries rose from the trapped civilians as they winced against wave after wave of swirling moneygarbage. But they still clutched wildly through their tears at the passing greenbacks. I could see them, cowering together in a heap, between the scissoring legs of the circling joggers. Their eyes were wild with fright and greed.
As I edged toward the heart of the madness, I found myself on the ground. 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. They all 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. But these futile desires vanished when the new arrivals produced collapsible batons. These shining black wands seemed too flimsy to deliver much pain, but my eyes admitted 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 comrades. But what force they did manage was plenty. Through mercy or wildness, they missed my face. But my arms, legs, and torso were touched all over by the nightsticks. The assault lasted only seconds, but it broke me.
I heard the sneakered footfalls of my assailants move away. I uncrumpled myself and looked to the old train station's portico. I wondered if they had avoided my face so I could better witness the furthest extent of their cruelty.
The leaf blowers hounded a few stray civilians into the frightened clump in the corner. A detachment of interceptors 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 glazed terror. Runners broke from the circle to sweep through and bash wildly at the prey animals. Trauma blossomed before my eyes. But this suffering was not the strangest thing happening in the square.
With the cash and quarry trapped in the southwest corner, the majority of the runners were free. These tank tops swept from around the square toward a single vacant storefront. With vicious strength, the runners burst into what had been once been a department store. Their beautiful limbs smashed through dusty glass and wood and drywall.
The runners set about scouring every inch of the store. I watched as the photogenic fiends smelled and probed and stroked the long-hidden surfaces of the shop. Some of the runners began to gnaw on the interior walls. 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 were the snarls from these looters.
Most of this demolition squad swept to the next storefront. A few of the runners remained in the department store. To my amazement, these rearguards took up a sober pantomime of commerce. One runner pretended to size 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 those sitting at the store's soda fountain. A male runner, his electric green tank top torn and his strong body smeared with the filth of destruction, pretended to wipe down the shattered glass of a picture window.
This strange ritual proceeded around the square methodically. The joggers whirled into each dark shop and destroyed it. In each instant ruin a detail of runners play-acted the business of the last century.
As the sun slipped down from its feeble peak, the blowers powered down one by one. A detachment of joggers unfurled a single enormous trash bag. They spread the black-brown shimmering bag on the ground and set about baling the cash by hand. They picked out the rubbish deftly. The bills, fresh at the start of all this, were filthy. A few captives broke from the huddle near the train station. These fugitives were caught and beaten.
As the looters completed their circuit of destruction around the square, the last of the money was in the giant bag. I watched the baton squads descend on the cluster of civilians, frisking them savagely. Anyone found holding cash caught a vicious swing. Before long, the prisoners surrendered their catch without a search.
The sun began to slip behind the gap-toothed skyline. 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.
Pete Beatty lives in Cleveland and teaches at Kent State. His writing has appeared in Scene, Vice Sports, Deadspin, Vulture, GQ.com, and other publications.