short stories ~ literary fiction ~ social commentary
copyright © 1999 - 2013
Yesterday, we went to the mall, a Christmas tradition of mine. I’ve dragged Jean along each year for the past decade. Neither of us cares much for the mall.
I go for the memories.
I found the mall when I was fourteen. Back in the day, a kid could get a day’s or just a couple hour’s work from many different people. Mostly, kids couldn’t get real jobs, being underage. Things, as you can guess, got busy around Christmas. I always found a lot to do, sometimes cutting school. I had friends there, all adults. John, for example, the elderly security guard. He had many a tale to share from when he was a younger man. I liked his tales, though obviously tall.
And, there was George. He was my best friend and a janitor. He always had a smile, shared freely with anyone, even the kids who called him that old nigger as they carelessly tossed trash on the floor. I didn’t understand why the other kids hated George, but they did. I didn’t argue. I was greedy. I didn’t want to share. Many nights, soon after the mall closed, George and I would hole-up in the cramped janitorial locker, not much more than a large closet, smelling of pine and soap. Sitting close on upturned buckets, we’d share a bottle of bourbon, Old Granddad, 100 proof, and pass the hours into the night, George telling stories.
George was a gifted storyteller. His friendship blessed my life. He treated me as an equal, like Percy treats Randy. Yet, Randy and I know we were never equals.
Memories of the mall are in my flesh. Yesterday, I could squint just a little and see the old man gait, leaning on his push broom, clearing the clutter of people who called him that old nigger. He’d smile, holding his broom with one hand in his shoulder. He’d wave to me. Around the holidays, he’d wear a Christmas hat. I hope to meet him again on the other side where we can sit and share a bottle of bourbon. I can tell him the stories I’ve learned to tell.
I can count on my one hand people I’ve asked to be proud of me. George is one, though I’ve always known I never needed to ask.
The maintenance people in the mall today are young, much younger than me. They skulk and don’t gait. They walk on heavy legs, not the springy legs of an old man. They watch the floor and don’t see me. I squint. George is still there, like a shadow, smiling, moving quickly.
Jean and I stopped at the food court, to sit. The food court is something not there thirty-eight years ago. Now, people seem in a hurry. They don’t have time to sit in the Tavern on the Mall, no longer there, which had the best roast beef sandwich you could put in your mouth. The Taco Bell sat in shadow, closed due to the latest health scare. I wondered for a moment, watching its dark interior, what mother having heard the news about Taco Bell being the source of the bacteria outbreak lately, would send her eleven-year-old to get a taco. Then, I wondered whether the child would be okay. I wondered about who she is and what her life is like. Does she like Avril Lavinge? Does she collect Barbies? Do the kids in school tease her? Does she do the teasing? What did she want for Christmas?
Would she die?
Well, we know she’s going to die. We just don’t know when.
Across the food court, a young maintenance girl’s performing for a friend contorting her face and twisting her body mocking Marty Feldman as Igor in Young Frankenstein. They laugh, the girl pointing outside my range of vision.
Then I see her.
She’s seventeen, maybe. She’s slight like an imp or sprite, her hair full, the color of sun-bleached wicker, swinging well-forward and then back as she moves. Her face is hidden and then not. She takes my breath away.
She would do better on crutches.
Her back’s twisted like a cruel joke. Her willowy arms are bows. At first, I thought her right leg six inches longer than her left. She swings the left leg forward and then drags the right like a stubborn child. She dips and rises, her chest heaving one way and then the other, her head moving vertically at least a foot with each step, which is why her hair teases her face and me. Her hair is wet in places from slobber. Her face is fixed on her destination, a destination I cannot be aware of because all existing in the universe is she and me. And, she’s not aware of me, only her destination.
She staggers abreast not ten feet away, catching a table with her small white hand. The table wobbles, not falling. Somehow, her arm doesn’t bend over like a dandelion stem in the hand of a careless child. Her gaze remains fixed like a cat watching a cardinal at the feeder. She takes a deep breath, reminding me I’m not breathing. I realize I’m standing, now embarrassed. I thought to rush to her, to help her.
I can’t help her. I have nothing to offer. I realize, her goal is simply to walk, on her own, without help.
To The Disney Store, across the food court.
All I know for sure is I know nothing. And, she could be the most beautiful human being I’ve ever seen. The set jaw behind the wet mouth, determined, against the soft-as-snow face cast the drama in extremes. She flowed, her hair like she’s dancing underwater, as she labored each step, each step made by the threadbare force of her will, a will shining in her eyes.
At once, I know there cannot be a God who would do this to such a child, and I know only God could create a child of such beauty.
Truly, this world was not meant for one as beautiful as she.