He would have passed the home goods—bright dish towels, candy-colored nesting bowls, end tables and lamps. He may have seen rows of small electronics encased in plastic. There would have been clothes on hangers, lines of shoes, tools and toys. Everything would have had the slightly surreal effect of fluorescent lighting, and the oppressively hollow feeling you get in a cavern.

At least that’s what I see in this Walmart, where I’m waiting for an unfriendly man in a blue vest to retrieve the bathroom scale I had ordered. While he’s gone, I wait and look around. It isn’t the same Walmart, but they are all the same.

It’s jarringly colorful now, but it was black and white when I watched John Crawford die. I wasn’t there, but security cameras were, and they watched and recorded, watched and recorded, so that all of us could be witnesses if we chose to be.

So, from an elevated angle and with grainy grey vision, I watched John Crawford roam the store, a cell phone to his ear, lost in conversation while his friend shopped for marshmallows and graham crackers. It was like watching a hamster rolling in a clear plastic ball: he was mobile, but not really engaged in the space he inhabited.

I watched a woman push a grocery cart nearby, two children orbiting. Was she in a cheerful mood? Was she annoyed? Or was she living one of the million moments we live that don’t really register at all? What words was she giving to her children?

I watched as John Crawford wandered through Sporting Goods and picked up an air rifle as he passed. Such an absent-minded act, as if his hand reached out of its own accord. I’m sure he had no idea of the significance.

If he had picked up a box of lightbulbs, a mop, or virtually anything else for sale in the store, his day probably would have continued exactly as he had expected it to. He would have left the Walmart with his friend, carrying marshmallows and graham crackers, and someone would have eaten s’mores that night.

Angela Williams, the shopper, would have continued with her day as well. She would have left the store with her children, and a couple of weeks later she would have gotten married, just as she’d been planning. If John Crawford had idly walked around the store, chatting on his phone and carrying a mop, I would not know his name, or hers. I wouldn’t know anything at all.

But he wasn’t carrying a mop, and someone called 911 to report a black man carrying a gun in the store. They said he was waving it around, pointing it at children, even loading it, but I watched him do none of those things. From a distance of time and miles, I wanted to shout that lies were being told. I wanted to warn him that he was in danger. But I only peered through the window of my computer screen, powerless as a gargoyle crouched above the scene.

I watched police arrive at the store that must have seemed oddly quiet and mundane, considering an armed man was reportedly threatening children there. I watched as they found John Crawford in the pet food aisle, and shot him almost instantly. He would have had no idea anything was wrong until his protective bubble exploded under the fluorescent lights. I imagine his mind filled with question marks and exclamation points as he fell to the floor.

I saw the shopper Angela Williams react to the sound of shots. She abandoned her grocery cart, reached for her kids and ran toward the exit. They almost made it, but she collapsed behind a digitally pixilated circle so I could not see her lying on the floor. I saw her kids though, held by employees in Walmart vests, and I saw paramedics kneel around the blurry circle.

Later, in a small police interrogation room, John Crawford’s friend Tasha was questioned for hours by police before she was told that he had died.

I was there too, a ghostly presence in the room.

I heard the shouting, the questions and the accusations, and I watched her cry. She died a few months later in a car accident. More recently, Angela Williams’ teenage son died in a drowning accident. He was 15.

Now I imagine a sort of cartoon afterlife in which John Crawford, his friend Tasha, Angela Williams and her teenage son all find themselves pulling up chairs at a table. I don’t know if they would have liked or hated one another in life. I don’t know if they would have found things in common, or if they’d be too disparate to connect at all. But in this afterlife, they sit down together awkwardly, expressions of surprise on their faces.

“Well, look at this,” one of them says. “Things sure do go sideways, don’t they?”

The unfriendly man in the Walmart blue vest brings me the digital scale I ordered. I pay for it and turn to leave as quickly as I can. I don’t want to be there. The lights are too bright, the space is too vast, and there are too many overwhelming, insignificant, extraordinary stories in every aisle. Too many plans, big and small. Too many expectations and assumptions. Everyone wants to make their selections and then make more. Everyone expects to finish their conversations and then start new ones. Everyone wants to go home.

I want to go home.

I maneuver through aisles of merchandise, all of it wanting to be picked up. I pass other shoppers and the bits and pieces of their lives. And, from an elevated angle, I watch myself heading toward the exit, my purchase in hand, and my vision in black and white.

about the author
Gwen E. Owen is the Content Writer for the Dayton Metro Library, which means she writes content, and she’s quite content doing so. She lives in Kettering.