You are reading Fiddleblack #1
There had been theft and burglary at the mall before the closings, but one did not cause the other. There had not been enough people buying things, and one store after another cleared their shelves, darkened their lights, and left a lonely cave in the bright row of stores. In the empty mall, she passed a diamond-shaped kiosk selling cubic zirconia rings. There was no one in the kiosk. The artificial jewels glittered, locked behind steel and glass: they were convincing. There was no visible difference between them and the real diamond on the wedding ring she had once worn. At Barnes and Noble, the grate was up, but the store had not yet opened.
Inside, Pamela could see a pretty young girl with glasses straightening the magazines on the magazine rack. Pamela imagined it was she. The girl reminded her of herself, when she was a young girl, in the distant spring years when she had a different name. The smell of coffee, coming from the Starbucks down at the far end of the mall, reached her. It reminded her of other mornings, when she had coffee on the patio with Philip. When she wished he would speak, and he was taciturn, absorbed in his newspaper. Pamela went up the escalator to the second floor. She walked on the east side of the second floor, keeping the open view of the lower level on her left, through the glass railing.
A store had opened back up. The lights were on inside and new shelves had been installed with new products. Shirts and jeans, in strong primary colors, were neatly folded and stacked. Patrick, her grandson, was standing behind the display window, adjusting the display. She stopped in front of the window and looked in, smiling, trying to catch his eye. He glanced up at her and darted his eyes, not meeting her gaze. It wasn’t like him to do that. Patrick turned away, holding his shoulders hunched the way his father did, her son Flynn. The way Flynn’s father Philip did. There was no mistaking it, that awkwardness, the thickness. It was a bad time, and he couldn’t visit. Had he said anything about his work?
Graham saw her standing in front of the store, and stopped.
“Hello, Pamela,” he said.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Things are looking up.”
“The new stores.”
“Oh yes, the Brookstone down at the Broad Avenue side.”
“And the Pac Sun,” he said, and gestured towards the clothing store Patrick worked at. She did not see Patrick now.
“It’s nice to see it opening back up,” she said.
“It’s terrible to see those empty spaces.”
“The economy,” Graham said and shook his head.
“It is terrible.”
“But things might be turning around,” he said. Lines crinkled around his eyes as he smiled, his soft white hair neatly combed above the freckled forehead. He seemed as usual. Healthy, vigorous, settled comfortably into his retirement.
“Can it be Friday already? Another week gone by.”
“Today is Wednesday. But the time does fly, doesn’t it?”
“But it’s Friday.”
“I know it’s Wednesday,” Pamela said, “because I got the paper this morning. I went down to Wednesdays and Sundays years ago. Having all those papers delivered to me every day was just too much.”
“Isn’t it,” Graham said.
“After my husband passed. He read the paper every morning.”
“Oh, the obligation, to read all the news. And all of it bad. I think of canceling. Do you watch the news on television much?”
“On PBS. You?”
“CNN,” he said.
At the end of the mall was the north side, opposite where she entered, and there was the gateway to Macy’s. It was long and imposing, and the distances between the pristine racks of clothes and mirrored pillars seemed enormous and cold. When she reached that point it did not make her feel good, and she turned around at the Starbucks and walked back, passing under the catwalks and skylights.
She paused at the octagonal fountain at the center of the mall. She looked at the bubbles gather and clear, and the wish-pennies glint subtly in the mall light on the close blue tile. She became certain that Patrick had said something about his manager. His manager was disagreeable, and she would have to remember that, because she couldn’t expect him to have time to visit with her at the mall.
The guard arrived at the service entrance in the morning fog, the mall walkers already waiting by the potted plants. Pamela watched the guard fumble with his keys. She felt half-awake despite having risen at 5 that morning, lingering over morning tea and grapefruit and a Sunset magazine before driving to the Rosewood Mall. Graham was there, wearing an emerald green track suit. Diane was there, standing close to a pair of women Pamela did not know. The doors opened and the guard stood checking their cards. A line formed, and Graham headed it, pulling his laminated Mall Walker card out of his sleek jacket pocket and hanging it by a lanyard around his neck, like a gym whistle. He pointed at the card and the guard waved him in. The others followed suit, draping the cards around their necks and showing them to the guard. It was Pamela’s turn in line, and she reached in her pocket for her card.
The guard nodded.
“I can’t remember what pocket it’s in.”
Her hands traveled from pocket to pocket.
“I can’t let you in without your card, ma’am.”
She was conscious of the line behind her and she hurried, returning to the same pockets. The way the guard said the word ’ma’am’ was not respectful.
“But you remember me. I’m here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”
The guard’s face was swollen in the morning air.
“Card,” he said.
“Have been since 1991,” Pamela said. “Sixteen years walking.”
She heard someone talking behind her, and turned. Her car was parked by a lightpole. Her fingers were stiff. The car was still warm when she got inside and shut the door and drove back to her house for her Mall Walker card.
It did not feel good to start late. The other walkers were on their second or third lap of the mall and she was only beginning. She could hardly count on the other walkers to pay any mind to her inconvenience, and tried to put it from her mind. But the long moment of humiliation before the guard nagged at her, suggesting other things. It was of a piece with the small hostilities in daily life she saw multiplying over the years, and in some way connected to other things at the mall.
“They need to keep it secure,” she’d told Nancy two years ago when her daughter was visiting, and saw the ID card on the kitchen table.
“There’s been thefts at the mall, and in the mornings we’re allowed in early before anyone else.”
“Do they search you before you leave?” Nancy asked.
“No, of course not.”
“What does someone have to do to get a card?”
“Why, it isn’t difficult.”
“Couldn’t anyone get one?”
“Sure. Anyone could get one.”
“Then a thief could get one.”
“Then what is the point of the card?”
Nancy was being difficult. She pulled her hair back and put on her running shoes.
“I assume,” Pamela said, “that they wouldn’t go through the trouble. Do shoplifters plan so far in advance?”
Nancy may not have meant anything by it, but the thought had stuck with Pamela. It would not be hard for anyone to get a card to be a Mall Walker, and there might very well be a dishonest, even dangerous person among the Mall Walkers. Most of them were at retirement age, but there were a few younger people among them. She did not know a thing about them except that they preferred walking at the mall to walking in the parks, or on the sidewalks. There were obvious advantages to the mall. A person could walk there any time of year, in the oppressive heat and the pouring rain, and be unbothered. It was a mostly pleasant environment, and there was an absence of traffic noise and exhaust.
She had once preferred walking outside, but that had changed one morning when Philip was reading the newspaper. He put his coffee down and folded the paper in half and began reading out loud.
“Woman, 62, assaulted in Cedar Ridge Park,” he began.
She had protested that Cedar Ridge Park was nowhere near where they lived. That she always felt safe at Sycamore Park, where she went walking. She liked Sycamore Park. There were not many sycamores there, really. There were a few of them and a few oaks and then a baseball diamond, and it bordered a golf course that was fenced in. It was an unremarkable park, but she could see the leaves change, and that was nice. The weather was never really so terrible, not since they’d moved to California, and it was good to get outside.
“You’re not going unless I come with you,” Philip said. “That’s final.”
He did not mean to offer to come with her, and she knew it, and told him so. She said she would continue to go walking in the park and it was perfectly safe, and he had left the room and went out to the veranda and not spoken to her the rest of the day. The first year since he had stopped working had been tranquil until then. The argument had been brief, but the unpleasantness had lasted a month. Every time she left for her walk, he would stand in the kitchen by the wall clock watching her as she left without saying a word. When she came back, he would be on the veranda. Not reading, not even sitting, but standing on the veranda waiting for her with his hands in his pockets. There was something strange happening in the mornings. She found herself waking up early and would get up and brush her teeth and go into the kitchen in her bathrobe and have the distinct feeling that someone had been there, in the kitchen, having a meal. Frequently there would be some evidence of it as well, a knife and spoon on the counter where they should not be, or something left out, a bag of cookies, or a length of ribbon. She didn’t recognize these things, and didn’t know where they came from. And she experienced an awful chill when she saw them, these offending objects, so ordinary and yet inexplicable.
Nancy said that she had just left the things there themselves, and forgotten them.
“I don’t think you understand,” Pamela said.
“Admit you’re not infallible, Mom. You’re 78 years old. Things like this happen as you age.”
“I know the difference between seeing things clearly, and not seeing things clearly,”Pamela said. “If I were forgetting things, I would know it, because I would lose things, and I never lose things. I know where everything is.”
Nancy said she had to get off the phone. Patrick was on the other line and she had to talk to him. Something was going on. Pamela asked what it was.
“Teenage stuff, stupid teenage stuff, Mom. You understand. Remember how I was?”
After Nancy hung up, Pamela thought about Patrick for a moment, and she remembered him as a sullen young man, like Flynn, his uncle, and like his grandfather. He moved as if impatient with himself, and there was a gentleness he had to protect with anger. She had not seen him for a while. And Flynn, living so far away, was now gone. He had been far away so long, it took her a moment to remember he was living back East, in Philadelphia. And when was the last time he called?
Before she began walking at the mall, she had seldom gone there. Philip did not like to shop, and she was not the type of person who shopped as a form of recreation. Her and Philip shared the attitude that mindless consumption was a corruption of the American way of life, that it went along with the greed and the crime and the loss of everyday civility, and that this was not the country they grew up in. They talked about it one night after watching Bill Moyers, soon after she began walking at the Mall.
“What do you observe, over there,” Philip said.
“Not much,” she said. “I go early, before people are shopping. The stores are all closed. By the end of my walk, people are just coming in.”
“Are they buying things, or just window shopping?”
“I don’t know, Phil. I get the feeling people go there to look at things more than to buy them. People stop and look at the displays. People come out of stores without carrying anything they’ve bought.”
When she said this, Philip seemed satisfied. She’d confirmed his thesis, whatever that might be. But at this point she felt protective of the Mall, she’d become rather fond of it.
“It’s a pleasant place,” she said. “In the morning, the light comes in the skylights very softly. The fountain is off, and it looks like a baptismal pool. Reminds me of some Moorish palace, with blue tile, shaped like an octagon. In fact there’s other Moorish flourishes, Phil, once you notice. Striped archways, ornamented pillars, little tile frescoes. Once you know the place, it’s the most delightful thing. And on Wednesday there’s the farmer’s market.”
The farmer’s market was in the parking lot of the Mall. It was one of very few in their area, and the closest and the only one midweek. But that had changed too.
On Friday, she saw a frightening thing at the Mall. She was walking and observing how the place had changed. It had not been taken care of well, and it was surprising how, with so many businesses remaining, they had let it get so run down. It used to be pristine, and it seemed that the very point of the Mall was that it was pristine, and if it was not, then what was it? The floors were visibly dirty, streaked with a brown film that looked as if a person had mopped the floor with filthy mop that merely spread the dirt around rather than removing it. That was bad enough, but the nearly unimaginable thing was this: there was debris, actual garbage, that she saw from time to time. She’d heard the cleaning crew had been cut back, and that was the explanation for it. Some nights they simply didn’t pick up the trash from the day before: potato chip wrappers, cookie crumbs, toy cars, sesame seed shells.
As she walked by one of the empty stores, a place that used to be a lingerie shop and before that was a magazine and newspaper shop, some motion caught her eye. She looked through the glass into the dark interior and saw, in an island of light cast by a flashlight, a small girl sitting cross-legged on a sleeping bag. She was talking to someone, a squat, bearded man, who sat on a sleeping bag next to her making a sandwich. The light came from a tiny lamp strapped to his forehead. They were half-hidden behind a wooden partition, but she could see them clearly from where she stood. When he finished making the sandwich he handed it to the girl, and the light went off and the two disappeared, and Pamela kept walking. The whole thing had taken only a moment, and she had hardly broken her stride. As she walked on, she passed a young woman who was wearing a large jacket. The woman had a Mall Walker card around her neck, but there was something odd about the woman. Pamela turned around and watched the woman. When the woman came to the empty store, she produced something from her pocket, a key maybe, and slipped inside the door.
There was a family living in one of the empty stores.
She missed the farmer’s market. It was shortly after Philip’s funeral that they’d ended it, and it did not help her state of mind. The company that owned the Mall announced they were going to build condominiums on the part of the parking lot the farmer’s market was on. The parking lot was so vast that it seemed strange that this particular part of the parking lot was the only place the farmers’ market could take place. The woman Pamela bought tomatoes from, a rough Valley woman with crooked teeth and dirt on her hands and a bright friendly voice and quick laugh, said that it was just an excuse to drive them out. Pamela bought more tomatoes than she needed because she liked the woman. She had promised to follow her to another farmers’ market, but she had not. On the last day, there was a protest and a celebration. Customers and vendors had made signs with complaints about the company who owned the Mall, and were distributing literature, which she declined. There was music, a loud band playing guitars and drums that she did not care for. She was sad the farmers’ market was leaving, but she saw no reason to disbelieve what the company said; she was no paranoid.
That was ten years ago, and there were still no condominiums, and not even any visible plans for them.
After passing by the store many times and thinking of it but not stopping, she had stopped in one morning to see if he was there. The yellow sign saying Pac-Sun was very bright that day and she felt good. The young man at the counter said “no, ma’am, he wasn’t here today, wasn’t here yesterday, and won’t be next week.” He thought something was funny. Philip had told her once that every society has its rise and fall, and he expected America was going to fall one day soon. She told him that he was saying that just because he was old, the same as when he complained that there was no respect for elders anymore.
Pamela thought of the family at the Mall on Tuesday, and on Tuesday night she made a bag of sandwiches. She made two peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches and two with salami and cheese, and she wrapped them in wax paper and put them in a paper bag. The next morning, when going through the line to get into the Mall, she felt as if she was smuggling in contraband, and it made her smile. Graham was standing next to her and noticed.
“Good morning!” he said.
“Good morning,” she said. “I’m bringing a snack in case I get hungry.”
“Quite a snack,” he said, and winked.
He unzipped one of his tracksuit pockets and revealed several granola bars. She laughed.
Yet as she reached the far end of the Mall where the empty store was—where she had seen the family—her certainty faltered. She became afraid. She did not see anyone around. At this hour only one set of lights were on, so it was dim and when she looked through the glass door, she saw no evidence of people. But in the shadows inside, behind the idle pieces of retail furniture, maybe they were still there. She tapped on the glass door. There was no answer, no signal from within. The glass was cold and hard and hurt her knuckles when she rapped on it. She set the bag of sandwiches down at the base of the door and walked on. She woke up early thinking of the family at the Mall. In particular, she thought of the little girl. It was a hard life, to be sleeping on the floor in an empty building in a sleeping bag, hiding. How had they ended up there? What would they do? Pamela got up, dressed, and went out to the car. The air was sharp and it was still dark out. She drove to the Mall. She made sure she had her Mall Walker card and also her wallet. If the family was there, she was going to take the little girl to the food court and get her something to eat. There was pizza, sandwiches, there was even sushi and Chinese food. When she got to the Mall, she could not find a way in. It was all shut down, closed tight.
She waited in the car in the enormous parking lot.
The boy at Pac-Sun was not the one she had spoke to before, she remembered the other one clearly. And this one was rude, he was not only rude but he was aggressive and he did not know what he was talking about.
“There’s no one by that name who works here.”
“Yes, there is,” she said.
“There’s no one named Flynn who works here,” he said.
Something had disconnected, he was twisting her words. The objects reordered themselves before she spoke and said “Flynn is in Philadelphia. Flynn doesn’t work here. Patrick works here.”
“Patrick doesn’t work here either. There’s no one named Patrick. You always come in here asking, and we always say the same thing.”
“I do not,” she said, and she was very sure he had misinterpreted her words. He was very sullen, this boy, and he was on the phone now.
“Can you send someone over here?” he said. “Pac-Sun.”
She left the store, and as she was walking towards the south exit, she saw a security guard, a young woman in a white shirt with a company logo on the breast, and a black tie, and a gun on her hip, walking past the fountain in the direction of Pac-Sun.
The morning they forced her to leave the Mall, she came with a bag of tomatoes. She got them from Safeway and she had bought too many, and rather than have them go bad, she brought the ones that she knew she would not eat in a paper bag. She knew the family was hungry. The small girl was hungry and she was in trouble. The father was not a nice man, he had been out of work for a long time and so was hiding his family in an empty store at the Mall. Pamela was certain he used to work at the Mall; how else could he know his way through the maintenance hallways and have copies of all the keys? He had to be clever to get away with it. The girl, surely, was not allowed to go out, and had to stay at the Mall, hiding most of the time.
Pamela left the tomatoes by the store, resting the bag by the doors and tapping at the glass before walking away. A security guard was coming towards her as she continued on her way. It was the security guard from the gate.
“So you’re the one leaving garbage in the Mall,” he said. “Come with me.”
He put his hand on her arm, as if to apprehend her, and she pulled away. Nancy was back home for a while. It was nice to have her back for a while and to have her in the house. They went to the farmer’s market on Saturday in a place she hadn’t been to before, in a parking lot by a new commuter train station. They went walking together in Sycamore Park, and Nancy wanted to talk about things all the time, knotting up her face as if she were concentrating very hard, and looking away at the close—cut grass, and talking about things: about the house, about the car and about driving and how to get places, and about the doctor and the pills and how important it was that she take them.
Early in the morning, Pamela was looking for her Mall Walker card in the kitchen. Nancy came in, wearing her glasses and her pajamas, and asked her what she was looking for.
“I don’t know where it is,” Pamela said.
“I know, Mom. Don’t worry about it.”
Pamela was tired of looking for it, but she kept going through the drawers. Nancy came up behind her and put her arm across her shoulders and sat her down.
“We’ll find it later, Mom. I’ll make us some breakfast. We’re going to take care of it, Bill and I. We’re going to take care of it all.”
Outside the window, in the dark, Pamela could hear birds.
Justin Allen is a writer of fiction, essays and screenplays, and is the Editorial and Design Director of The Creosote Journal. He lives in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood and grew up in the Sierra foothills. He studied creative writing at San Francisco State University, and has been published in The San Francisco Public Press, The Sacramento News & Review, Sussurrus, Transfer, Ashcan, Right Hand Pointing, and other publications. He has also published several chapbooks, most recently Satellite Memories, and has been a featured reader at Litquake, Why There Are Words, and the Peninsula Literary Series.