©1996, 1997 A.D. Sullivan
Here We Go Again
Mall Rats & Mistletoe
It is mid season
a time between the Easter Rabbit and Santa Claus,
Summer swim wear and fall previews,
fire works and Jerry Lewis,
of streaked sunlit display windows sweating
with air-conditioning on the inside,
brown plastic leaves thick around the feet
of sexy ladies and macho men
It is a time of change.
They dance in cool sunlight
drinking in the burgundy light,
gin and tonics
slow gin fizzes,
standing erect behind the glass
like roses in a vase,
tuxedos dabbled with plastic carnations
for the winter sale rendezvous,
their hard mouths sealed tight
talking with their eyes,
sampler boxes for suave perfume
clutched in their frozen fingers.
Not a mouse moves.
Not a bell rings.
Though multi colored Christmas lights
blink across their faces,
staining their seasonal wear
in blues and reds and yellows,
muzak bubbling out an endless tape loop
of White Christmas
The leaves change from brown to green,
The mold's the same, only the dye is different,
bringing on the new season,
they stand disrobed, naked to the street,
waiting the touch of cool hands
to seduce them
faces pressing against the glass to gawk,
like may flowers popping up from the sidewalk cracks,
dressing them with their eyes
and their desire,
coming and going with the rise and fall of sun
like a constant video game
though neither side knows which side of the glass
the players are on.
They lie tattered
broken arms, bruised hearts,
dragged from the window in bits and pieces,
faces, torsos, fingernails, brows,
cluttered with hair line fractures,
like wrinkles forming
on molded flesh,
beauty insulted by time or accident,
flesh tones pealing, ruby lips fading,
the glint of youth gone from their eyes,
their end ungracious, unreal,
as unrewarding as their lives.
Each presuming they would live forever.
And some do,
plastic and pain.
Here We Go Again
Heap on more wood!
The wind is chill
But let it whistle as it will
We'll keep our Christmas Merry still...
-- Sir Walter Scott
So Christmas is upon us again. The chill in the air. The lighted on the streets. The sound of Salvation Army bells ringing, carrying on the tradition of English Boxing day. Alms to the poor and all that sort of sentimental crap. For years we've heard the old tale about how the holiday has been perverted.
"Consider Christmas," said Upton Sinclair. "Could Satan in his most malignant mood have devise a worse combination of graft buncombe (humbug) than the system whereby several hundred million people get a billion or so fidgets for which they have no use, and some thousands of shop clerks die of exhaustion while selling them, and every other child in the western world is made ill from over-eating -- all in the name of the lowly Jesus?"
Has the holiday come to that? Have we come that far from Dickens and Christ? One should consider the symbol of Santa Claus, that fat, jolly man who comes "out of the kindness of his heart" to give gifts to our children. We invented the old bugger out of need, from poverty and loneliness -- the myths of poor people who have so little to look forward as to create generous people-- when the whole notion of economics is based upon the single and unabashed issue of greed. Call it our day of shame when we finally scold our greedy rich for stealing so much the rest of the year.
Certainly Christmas meant something once, but has been converted into pure finance. Seventy percent of American business depends upon Christmas for over 80 percent of its sales and production. Gift-giving has become the fuel for American wealth, without the guilt of father's over potentially disappointed children, America would collapse.
The giving of gifts comes out of English history when monks in the middle ages used to gathered gifts of clothing and food for the poor. The English later called it Boxing Day -- which they still celebrate today. But what had once been a process of the rich giving to the poor as reversed itself, and now poor people push themselves deeper in debt years at this time to fill the pockets of rich people.
Over the last few years the Christmas season keeps getting shorter for me. This is not to say I don't notice the early installation of Christmas ornaments elsewhere, the store fronts that put up mistletoe and holly one day after they've taken down the pumpkins and witches. It's just that they have lost the ability to transport me into that silly, wishful mood Christmas was when I was a child. I want to feel that way. I used to even seek it, playing tapes of Christmas music until I knew their lyrics better than I knew the lyrics to any Beatle song. But lately, I've even given up the search, allowing the mood of Christmas to seek me on its own terms, and that mood has come later and later every year.
By mood, I mean that thrill that comes from standing in the doorway and looking at a pile of presents sitting under the tree, bows and wrappings, as part of the decorations as the blinking lights and streaming tinsel. Even in my impoverished days, when I knew there was nothing of significance in any of those packages, I used to feel good about seeing them, as if the packaging made up for the lack inside. People love getting presents, yanking off the ribbon and tape just to see what is inside. I loved the aspect of things hidden under pretty wrappings and loved the weeks of anticipation until that day when I could deliver those packages.
Early on, those weeks shrank. Instead of having everything wrapped by December 1, I found myself struggling to unroll wrapping paper and scotch tape about mid-month, settling for two weeks of anticipation instead of four. I didn't even listen to the Christmas tapes until the wrapping started. Part of the reason for the delay had to do with money or the lack of it. But more importantly was the inability to even think about Christmas shopping in the every day rush of survival. Things piled up. I hardly noticed the passing of Halloween and barely stopped to gobble down turkey on Thanksgiving. I was like a race horse with blinders on, noticing nothing but the paycheck at the end of the week, slowing down only when I realized that Christmas was rushing towards me and I'd done nothing to prepare for it.
Even then, getting into the Christmas mood took work. Despite streets lined with brilliant holiday displays, music flowing over me from hidden speakers in every store, and endless advertisements on radio and television, I could not find the feeling I had when I was younger. I'm not talking about the wide-eyed glow I had as a child as I struggled to stay awake in order to see Santa deliver my presents. For years as a young adult, I respected Christmas, using it to grow closer with friends and family. But in 1980s, friends and family vanished, moving to different parts of the country or state, taking the miraculous powers of Santa Claus to see them all. Without sleigh or flying reindeer, I was left to long distance telephone calls, and it was hardly the same.
With the telephone to look forward to instead of happy faces, I began to lose interest, leaving the blinders on passed mid- December until the very week of Christmas when it was panic rather than anticipation that set me shopping. Then, in an equally blind rush, I went from store to store searching the rapidly depleted shelves for some appropriate present. Instead of pondering over what gift I should buy, spending weeks thinking on the issue before counting out the cash, I grabbed the first thing that fit the desired category, letting some salesperson to box it, wrap it, and tie on the bow. With this shortening process continuing yearly, I can foresee a year when I leave the whole issue to the very day itself, charging out like Scrooge did, in search of anything anywhere that would serve for a gift. Or maybe, things will get so bad I will skip the holiday entirely, finding myself looking forward to Easter instead, when survival will allow me time to slow down or supply me with enough plane fare to reach out and really touch those whose loving faces always floated around the Christmas tree with equal anticipation of my presents.
Mall Rats & Mistletoe
I knew there was trouble the minute I stepped through the glass doors near security. It was an electric-ozone smell of tension underlying the usual scents which dominated this side of the mall. It left me with a metal taste in my mouth and a pervading feeling of doom in the back of my head -- and it hadn't been there the night before during my double shift.
Maybe it was just me, never quite able to change shifts comfortably. I'd spent ten years working Graveyard. So everything else seemed unnatural. Then, too, there was the lingering expression of my wife and kids seeing me off, looking at me as if I was some kind of scrooge for not spending Christmas Eve with them.
"You can call in sick one time in your life, can't you?" Kathy had asked, bristling to my shaking head. "Damn it, Ed. What do you owe that place anyway? Didn't you learn anything when they took your stripes?"
It was a low blow, but one that had honest resentment attacked to it. It had taken me most of a decade to earn those sergeant stripes only to have all rank vanish with new Mall policy which said such things as rank had become irrelevant. Customers didn't understand the police mentality and would presume there was danger.
Above all else, one did not imply malls as dangerous. Yet there was another message underlying the missing stripes, one which even the Scrooge mentality of mall management wouldn't issue just before Christmas. If the stripes were unacceptable, perhaps the guards were as well.
Meanwhile, the mall was crowded and if there was a night when they still needed guards, this was it. Last minute shoppers were flowing off the ramps from the highway making the parking lot a zoo, leaning on their horns in a gridlock imitation of midtown manhattan. The suburbs were supposed to be better. Ha!
"Merry Christmas, Mason," the Captain said as I shoved through the gray door into Security. It was lunch room, dressing room, meeting room and office rolled into one small, eight by eight foot door, most of which was stolen by the picnic table in its center.
"I suppose it is for some people," I said, spinning out the combination to my locker.
The captain and the evening crew sat around the table like conspirators, rent-a-cops mingling with the regulars in a Mish- mash of odd-fitting uniforms. But several of the more familiar faces were missing.
"Where's Billings and Tennyson?" I asked, though I already knew the answer.
"Ill," the Captain said. "That's what their wives say anyway."
"Which leaves us short for the shift, right?"
"We'll get by."
"Not if we have another thing like that Cabbage Patch shit," I said. Or any of a million other more serious problems which could pop up in the six hours between now and closing.
"It won't be anything like that," the captain said. "I've checked around. No fads this year and they would know by now."
But there was something. I could still smell it in the air, despite the gray walls between me and the halls, some petty little germ growing even now. The captain motioned the others out then looked at me.
"So what's the problem? Still peeved about the stripes?"
"What do you think?" I said without turning, knowing I would rant and rave all night once I started. "I worked hard for them."
"We all work hard, stripes or no stripes," the captain said. "Forget the rank, next year there won't even be uniforms."
"Then what do we do? Stand around with our fingers up our butts while mall rats walk all over us?"
"I know it feels strange, sergeant," the captain said coldly. "But that's the rules and you'll live by them-- and so will I."
"Don't call me sergeant," I said, pointing to the vacant place on my arm. "No stripes."
"Go to work, Mason," he said, motioning me towards the inner door marked `office.' "Roland has your assignment."
"Yeah, I'll go play doorman," I mumbled and shoved into the office.
Mall managers lived high on the hog and this one was no different, plush rugs and soft furniture, which the man justified by saying he had to keep up appearances. But pudgy Dean wasn't behind his desk when I passed his door. Only Roland, seated in the communication ring near the front door, a greasy-haired hippie-type who looked up and grinned.
"Merry Christmas, Sarge," he said.
"Don't give me that shit," I said, grabbing a walkie-talkie from the rack. "Just tell me about my assignment."
"Center court and Macy's wing," the boy said with glee. He liked irritating me.
"Both? Just how the hell am I supposed to get back and forth between them in this crowd?"
"Push and shove like everyone else, I guess."
"I'll push and shove you, Roland," I said, making a lunge across the console for him. But he was quicker than he looked and avoided my grasp.
"By the way, there's a complaint," he said and waved a yellow form under my nose.
The ugly feeling came again. "What kind of complaint?"
"You promise not to laugh?"
"I'm not in a laughing mood right now, Roland. Out with it."
"I'll say you're not," Roland said and pushed the paper into my hand, giggling as I glanced over the details. The description fit a pimply-faced mall rat named Nicholas, a Paterson boy attracted to the glistening halls and colored lights. Most of the rats came for similar reasons, bad home lives, deadly streets. Here things were polished and perfect, lacking all the petty details of the real world.
I hesitated to think of Nicholas as a good rat, but at least he was quiet, spending most of his time grubbing quarters outside Fun & Games. Sometimes the owner at Deli-on-the-Green felt sorry for him and fed him stale sandwiches.
"As usual, I can't read your scrawl. What exactly is the rat supposed to have done?"
"He's been running around the mall kissing women."
"Are you sure? I know this boy. He's shy."
"Got the description from several people," Roland said.
"All right," I said, folding the paper into my shirt pocket. "Call me if you need me or hear anything. The last thing we need is some kind of fight."
"Don't call me that," I mumbled. "We're all privates now."
"Ah, you'll always be Sarge to me."
The service hall light were dim, part of Dean's new economy package which created a further sense of gloom. I almost didn't see the mall rats seated near one of the supply room doorways, a ragged little group of imps who were as uni-sexed in appearance as hippies, torn t-shirts and jeans, and long hair. But they saw me and scurried to their feet.
"Hi Sarge," one of them managed to say.
"Out!" I said, pointing towards the door and glow of the main corridor.
They rushed away, casting back dark looks. By rights, I should have escorted them out of the mall proper. But they would only come back in through another entrance, making the whole thing an exercise in futility. Later, I would put them out when locking up the mall for the night.
I followed them into the wider hall, then lost them to the crowds. Whole families seemed to have invaded the place in a frenzy of last minute shopping, looking for glittering gifts which only mall stores possessed. I had passed through main street on the way to work. It was a graveyard.
I suppose people thought it safer here, under the dome of glass and brick. It wasn't. Malls were concentrated little cities with all the associated problems, a fact management didn't appreciate-- believing their own rhetoric when disguising the crime statistics. My loss of stripes had been only another facet in a slowly increasing sense of false security. The year before, Dean had ordered us to give up our night sticks, creating a grumbling group of guards, some of whom quit on the spot. I'd resisted. I wasn't one of the more macho men to begin with. But all the reason I had to stay vanished with my stripes.
My walkie-talkie sounded with Roland's voice.
"Mason here," I said into the plastic grill.
"The rat's struck again, sarge," Roland said. "Over by Just Shirts."
"On my way," I said and turned the corner half way up Macy's wing into a wall of people. It was the proverbial "sardine can" made worse by Christmas packages, baby carriages and loose kids. And I felt the urge to crawl into one of the food concession and wait out the night eating hot dogs. But there were other ways to move through the mall, ones the mall rats knew as well as I did, and I retreated into another service hall taking it to center court.
It was worse here. The red and silver Christmas display marred the normally vacant plaza with cancerous result, casting the crowds into narrow avenues along its sides, people pausing at inappropriate places to gaze down on the elves and reindeer and other atrocious animated and moving mechanical creatures. Those that weren't watching the show, were pushing and shoving to get themselves around the on-lookers, cursing as they slid in and out of the open store-front doorways. Kids were everywhere, perched along the low white picket fence with their noses between the rungs, giggling or pointing at the slow moving Christmas train as it made its way to the loading platform. More kids dangled from the line of cars, with the ragged engineer screaming at them to keep their hands inside the cars and their shouting mouths closed. Concerned parents waved from the sidelines, or took photos, the flashes of which seemed to blind the engineer, children and observers on the far side.
People bumped into people. The engineer looked up at me, his weary expression easing long enough to emit a besieged and helpless smile.
I shrugged and waved back weakly, then eyed the perimeter of the crowd for the disturbance. It was hard to see anything from inside the crowd, so I climbed a few steps towards the second floor for a clearer view. Two lines of waiting kids encircled the bottom of the stair, one waiting for their ride on the train, the other fidgeting as they waited for Santa himself, stringing out into the general population from the foot of the little red Santa house just below.
Across the court, Deli-on-the Green glowed with its usual green neon, like a Frankenstein mask covered the scars of what had once been the Mall theater. Like many things since the mall's construction, the theater had become a dinosaur, its narrow single-screen space out-moded by the multi-theater complex built on the south side of the mall's parking lot. Now, the Deli masked the entrance to the deeper cavern where mall rats sometimes gathered at night in some spiritual ritual of togetherness I did not understand.
Just Shirts beside the Deli had collected a circle of people, shouting support to two people who seemed ready to fight.
"Trouble, Roland!" I hissed into his radio. "You'd better call someone over here to back me up."
There was a pause, then a burst of static. "Sorry, Sarge," Roland said, then fell back into static.
"What do you mean `sorry'?" I said, hitting the radio on the heal of my hand to clean away the static. "There's forty people or more down there and I'm not wading into that mess until someone's here to watch my tail."
"Mister Dean doesn't want any one leaving their area," Roland said in another burst of static.
"That's very fine for Dean," I said. "Considering he doesn't have to move his ass out of the office."
I shoved the radio into my pocket and marched down the stairs, shoving my way through the rubber-neckers who thought all this part of the show.
"All right, all right," I shouted. "It's all over."
While some people turned to go, most did not, keeping the circle around a mall rat and a red-faced joe six-pack with his hands in fists.
The mall rat seemed to be holding a stick, yet not anything resembling a weapon.
"Quit it," I told the man, while grabbing the stick from the boy. "What seems to be the trouble here?"
"He is!" the man said, snorting at me. "And you'd better arrest him before I wring his neck."
The mall rat squirmed, but his pimpled face grinned up at me with his usual unpolished shyness.
"Just calm down and tell me what happened," I asked.
"The punk got fresh with my wife, that's what happened." the man growled and glared at Nicholas.
"He only wanted a kiss," a woman near the man said, her eyes rather sad, and her expression saying the fool man was hers.
"And that's not getting fresh?"
"It's Christmas," the woman said, her pale lips rising with a slightly tender smile. "And he did have mistletoe."
She indicated the stick from the end of which a string had been attached. A sprout of something green dangled at the string bottom like a spider from its web. The boy had been walking around the mall, holding the mistletoe above those women he wished to kiss.
"I'll take care of this," I said.
The man snorted apparently satisfied and started away. But the woman looked concerned.
"You're not going to hurt him, are you?" she asked me.
"For god's sake woman, come on." the man said, dragging her away, both vanishing like spirits into the crowd.
I grabbed the boy by the collar and dragged him out towards the Deli and the doors to the north parking lot. Outside, I pushed the boy against the glass.
"And what the hell were you trying to do in there? Cause a riot?"
The boy stared at me, blank-faced and innocent. He could have been fifteen, though I doubted it, the acne spread across the poor boy's face in holly-like lumps. He would have been a handsome without it.
"I wasn't doin' nothin' wrong," he said.
I shoved the stick under his nose.
"Then what's this bit of heathen behavior, eh? Do you know what kind of trouble a thing like this could cause on a night like this?"
"Trouble?" the boy said, looking even more confused. "But we were just having a little fun."
"Fun? And here I thought you were different from the other rats, a quiet, well-behaved soul-- what's gotten into you anyway?"
The boy studied the end of the stick and the bit of green fluff dangling from it. It could have been a fish hanging from the end of a fishing pole, and he, another Huck Finn, bragging over his catch.
"We was just celebrating Christmas," the boy said.
There was a lot behind those words, all of Paterson, and the dark terrible storms of street life there which did not allow for such cheery games as these, or even freedom enough from fear to hang a few lights undefended from window or door. There was always the shadow of something dark in the street, a crawling, bitter beast of misery that haunted each and every citizen like a private cross, making even happy moments strained and wrong and full of guilt.
The guilt was in Nicholas' eyes, over and beyond my accusing words, whipped into him, embedded deep into the flesh like a permanent scar.
I shook the vision away. "Having fun? That's what you call it? I call it making havoc and it's gotta stop, boy. Why don't you go home and celebrate Christmas with your family?"
The dark expression grew more taunt. "I don't want to do that," Nicholas said.
"Well, you can't stay here all night," I said. "The mall closes at midnight, but I want you to give yourself a head start and get out right now."
"I said out and I mean it. There'll be hell to catch if I find you back in here tonight."
I pushed the boy toward the lot. Nicholas staggered off the curb, stopping half way across the ramp road, his face half hidden in shadow and clouds of steamy breath.
"Can I have my stick back?"
"No," I said and snapped the thing over my knee, the green wood splintering before it broke. I threw both pieces aside, the sap sticking to my fingers. I wiped my hands on my pants then eased back into the mall.
The boy, however, snatched up the broken twigs and removed the string and mistletoe with an odd reverence, glaring at me through the glass. There was hurt in those eyes, not contempt, lingering with a sense of betrayal. I jerked my thumb towards the parking lot, indicating he should keep on going. The boy scurried away, cradling the mistletoe, and vanished around the dull gray bulk of the Sears building.
I didn't immediately turn away, staring at the normally vacant lot which was now a sea of cars over which thick white clouds tumbled, waiting to dump its load of snow.
I shivered and pulled a cigarette from my pocket, my own dark reflection coming to light with the light of the match. The smoke eased through my lungs, taking with it some tension. Here, there was a sense of peace with the cool air of the empty theater swirling around me. It seemed the sanest place in the whole damned mall, underpopulated, unadvertised. Although plans for food court here had long been on Dean's desk, nothing had been done yet for lack of money or time, or fear of disrupting the flow of business that already kept bills paid.
"Too much, isn't it sergeant?" the husky voice of the Deli owner said, handing me a warm cup of cappuccino. The large man's belly quivered as he laughed, leaning beside me as we stared back into the mass of people at Center Court. "I'd hate to think of what'll happen when they all start to leave."
"If they don't get home by midnight, they'll turn into Pumpkins I hear."
"What about you? Are you working the overnight shift?"
"No," I said. "But I might as well be. I'm not going to get home in time to open presents with the kids."
Their big eyes still stared at me from earlier, wondering why I had to go to work when Santa would be coming. Those same eyes would creep out after midnight, looking to devour gifts my wife was piling under the tree. It was another one of those important moments in their lives I'd learned to miss. Soon they would be ready to give up their belief in Santa, just as they had already given up belief in me.
The deli owner sensed my mood and kept silent, lighting his own cigarette as he leaned back against the glass.
"Sarge?" Roland's voice hissed from the radio, dragging me back to this world.
"What is it now, Roland?" I asked.
"It's that kissing thing again, Sarge," Roland said. "Over by Sears."
"But I just...."
The boy had vanished just in that direction and had no doubt slipped back in through the entrance beside that store.
"That's not my area," I said. "What happened to Dean's golden rule about staying put?"
"Norton's taking care of a shoplifter at Spencer's Gift. Dean wants you to take care of this."
"Tell old Dean to... Never mind, I'm on my way."
I slipped the radio back into my pocket and gulped down the cappuccino, aiming myself into the mall. But the crowds had thickened even more, pressed shoulder to shoulder and chest to chest.
"You could go around outside," the deli owner said.
"Sure! Like that little punk did! Thanks Max. I'll kiss you later."
I shoved out the door and into the parking lot. From here, the bulging ruins of the old theater were obvious, though the marquee had long ago vanished and the slots for upcoming shows painted over. I followed the route the boy had taken, shivering, yet, the December cold-spell was a significant relief to the closed in, overheated mall
"Mason!" the radio crackled with Dean's voice this time, muffled by the pocket.
I yanked the radio out of my pocket and slipped out of the glaring lights of the mall drinking hole called Charlie's.
"You wanted me, Mister Dean?"
"Damned straight I wanted you. Didn't Roland tell you there's a near riot going on in Sears wing?"
"He said it was the kissing kid again."
"Well, it's gotten bad. Where in blazes are you, anyway?"
"Near Sam Goodies, I said as a horn blasted, two young lovers shifting against the steering wheel of a parked car.
"Outside? What on earth are you doing there?"
"Getting myself to Sears wing, damn it," I shouted.
"Good. Because I'm having Johnson coming over from Sterns wing to help. Clean it up before it gets out of hand. All we need is for something to get in the newspaper again. Those rapes last year cost the mall a pretty penny."
"Anything you say," I mumbled.
"No fist fights."
I slowed down near Fun & Games, the flashing video terminals giving the whole stretch a science-fiction air, stark and strange against the Christmasy world the rest of the mall portrayed. This was usually the center of trouble where mall rats were concerned.
Their collected faces showed through the frosted glass, not innocent, but not part of any riot either. I eased passed them and down a small concrete canyon which marked the entrance to the Sears wing. Warm air struck my face as I shoved through the glass door, the choking and painful reality of perspiring shoulder to shoulder humanity-- a tin can of rotting sardines glaring up at me as I arrived.
Another circle had formed around the contenders, a younger, more vocal crowd, chanting cheers as several figures shuffled around and around, casting curses if not yet fists. The sound of all this competed with the murky bullshit muzak, tinkling terrible renditions of popular Christmas carols and bad pop tunes. People inside the health food store struggled to close their glass doors, though too many people blocked their way, elbows, arms, packages and kids poking into the various shops like a multi-limbed, all-consuming beast, with its thousand eyes bent on blood-lust.
This time, there was more than one rat. Miro, a stern-faced leather-jacketed Paterson tough wearing chains and boots stood between Nicholas and another hefty and furious middle-aged man.
"Back off, Miro," I said from the edge of the circle, shoving people out of my way. The crowd was different, more angry, glaring at the two rats as they were invaders from space-- the middle class indignity of the crowd as fiery and wrong-headed as the fury in Miro's eyes, projecting some other conflict which had nothing to do with mistletoe, some other fear that had made many of them move from cities like Paterson to Suburbs closer to the mall.
Miro glanced up, his square Italian face greeted me with all the respect of a Mack Truck. He was panting like an animal. "Him first," he said, jerking a thumb towards the other man. "He's the one trying to beat on Nicholas."
The `him' in question snarled, his graying temples a mockery to the casual college clothing, the crooked green football jersey looking ludicrous pulled over his bulging belly. But his expression was a duplicate to the earlier man's, as he glared passed Miro to Nicholas. A small, red-haired woman bobbed up and down beside the man, clutching at his arm.
"Please, Gregory, don't hurt him," she pleaded. "He didn't mean any harm."
The man shook her free. "I'll take care of you later-- kissing a goddamn boy in public and in front of me...."
"I'll take care of this," I said, grabbing the man by the arm.
"Like hell you will!" the man said, yanking himself free. "You ain't no cop. You won't do nothin' but put him out. I know what goes on around here."
My hand fell towards my belt to where in other, better times, my night stick would have hung. It's lack startled me and I spread my feet waiting for the man to strike. For a long moment, I felt helpless and lost. I eyed the man, sizing up strength and weakness. The belly was the obvious target, though the man's fists looked lethal, scarred from serious labor, maybe a steel- worker or auto-mechanic.
"For Christ's sake," I said. "It's Christmas. You don't want this kind of hassle on Christmas."
"Maybe I do, and maybe I don't," the man said, shifting his own feet, his gaze studying me totally now as if having decided who his enemy was. "You gonna do something about the boy, or what?"
"Gregory, please..." the woman moaned, pulling on his arm.
"I do my job, mister. But if you hurt the boy, you're the one that's gonna spend the night downtown talking to the police. If you want to file a complaint, I can take you over to the security office. We have all the forms. But let me warn you, that's bound to take an hour or two. So why don't you just go on your way and forget this all happened?"
Doubt edged into the man's eyes as he looked to the red- headed woman. The anger was ebbing, though I had an ugly feeling Christmas would not be pleasant for her. She looked at him, her sad face suggested other mismanaged holidays, her eyes filling with knowing acceptance and weariness.
Her gaze shifted towards the boy and softened into something acutely more understanding, something motherly, something loving, as if Nicholas had drawn out a specialness in these women with the wave his magic wand, making them want to reach out to him, touch him, hold him. A sudden jealously rushed into me. I grit my teeth.
"All right," the man said. "You take care of the punk." He turned away, then paused, glaring at Nicholas again. "But if I see you again, you little faggot, I'll break your head."
"Over my dead body!" Miro barked.
"Maybe," the man growled, but was eventually led back into the crowd by the smaller woman.
I let out a long breath then turned towards both rats. "On my shift, you've got to pull this shit? And you, Miro! What are you dressed up for, West Side Story?"
"I got my Christmas presents early," the dark-haired boy said, his square jaw shifting boldly outward like a challenge. He was tough and knew it. But he knew me, too, and had suffered the indignity of having his butt kicked once or twice after a few other riots not so different from this. He was smart enough to avoid me after that, though his tune had never changed. And now, those beatings seemed to have faded enough for him to look and talk tough again, shifting his feet as if he was willing to take me and the whole staff on single-handed.
"Christmas presents, eh?" I said, leaning back, the fight ebbing out of me. I felt tired as the peak of caffeine from the capacino wore away. I wanted to find a nice little corner and take a nap. "Why didn't you keep them under the tree until tomorrow, pal. You're out of your league here."
Miro snorted. "Hey man! Don't give me no shit. We all know you can't do nothin' no more."
"Yeah! It's all over the mall now, haven't you heard?"
"Heard what?" I asked, an ugly feeling starting up in me again. Rats seemed to gather information by osmosis.
"You ain't no cop no more," Miro said. "We don't have to listen to no more."
I let out a howl. "Is that your news, pal?" I asked, grabbing the boy up the collar. "Well, I have information for you. I was never a cop. But that won't stop me from whooping your ass if you get on my case. You dig, pal?"
The boy swallowed with difficulty, casting a confused glance over my shoulder at Nicholas. "Hey! I wasn't making no noise, I was just sayin' what I heard."
"Then hear this!" I said, grabbing Nicholas with my other hand and dragging them both through the crowd towards the door. People eased out of the way, losing interest now that the prospect of a fight dimmed, though watched me as I shoved the boys against the glass. "I want both of you out of this mall. I mean for you to stay out, too. If I catch you back here, then you'll get the whipping of your life."
Miro yanked himself free. "You don't scare us, does he Nicholas?" he said. "We both know you're not supposed to touch any of us any more. New rules. Somethin' to do with insurance."
I stepped back, staring at the boy's face as if a shock had come from it, my own face tingling with embarrassment-- a rude shame similar to the one I'd felt when they'd asked for my stripes. But there was no more rage left in Miro's gaze, just the same glittering sense of precarious innocence, slightly more matured, but child-like just the same, aching and broken from some other aspect of life of which they were ashamed. Those eyes looked upon me with pity, not outrage, understanding all too well what it meant to stripped of pride.
What were his kind doing here anyway, always dancing on the edge of disaster, like amateur high wire actors looking for new challenges, dangling on the edge of serious crime-- waiting to slip into the roles of murders and thieves and rapists, real trouble, jail terms and violence, just around the corner, not here so much, but in the streets from which they'd run and to which they would go again, when the glitter of this place, this emerald city proved to be as hollow as it was.
But they had come here looking for something-- not trouble so much as answers, as if there was some real secret here which management and the corporation had not intended, some magic formula to life which had transferred to the mall with the hopes and aspirations of old time Main Street.
And what about home? Had things gotten so terrible there that life here, no matter how phony, seem preferable, even hopeful? Many mall rats took on petty jobs, cleaning stores and sweeping curbs, half-making up for the bane of their presence here. But petty jobs could be found in any ghetto, too, where slave-masters paid cheap wages to peripheral beings. No, whatever they wanted was more than jobs, some aspect of life which had ceased existing in the city, worn on the pale faces of the suburban kids. Mason had seen rats staring in envy at the children of the rich, as they swept in with new clothing and bright hair.
I was tempted to ask Miro where he'd gotten the jacket and why the price tag still hung on the sleeve. But it was Christmas, damn it, and I already felt too much like scrooge. Most likely the boy swiped the thing from a mall farther up the highway.
"I know all about the new rules, Miro," I said. "But the old rules didn't exactly approve of us beating your brains in either, and I don't imagine any of us are going to worry about what happens to you. Can you dig it?"
Miro nodded slowly.
"Now, Pal. If I catch either of you back in this mall tonight, I'll have the city keep you in a cell for the night."
"On Christmas?" Nicholas said, his pimpled face shocked and dismayed.
"Yeah, Nicholas. One more time with this kissing garbage and it's the slammer. You hear?"
The boy shuffled and stuck the new stick up under his arm. It looked silly, with the green dangling from his arm pit like some strange alien growth.
"Out!" I said, holding open the glass door as the cold air blew in. The smell of outside hinted even more strongly of snow, with wisps of wet touching my cheeks as the two boys shuffled out. They paused near the line of small trees that decorated the concrete space between the wall of the Sears building and the fun & games arcade. Other kids milled around the open door mouthing private curses.
When Miro and Nicholas disappeared around the bulge of the Sears building, many of the rats from the arcade followed, a silent following which made me shiver. But the direction of their flight eased my worry about them sneaking back through the Deli entrance to Center Court. They were someone else's trouble now.
I leaned against the glass and lit another cigarette. The radio squawked. "Sarge? Where are you?"
"The moon, Roland. I'm on the moon."
"Sears wing, stupid. Where else would I be?"
"Well, you'd better get your but to Center Court. There's trouble brewing again."
I half expected to hear the usual report, shoplifters in Woolworths, or a price fight in Sam Goody. Maybe one of the kids was sick in the Santa booth, puking on Santa's boots. Last year, Santa himself had vomited into the fountain in front of hundreds of kids and their families, drunk on two full bottles of gin.
"It's that mall rat again," Roland said. "He just hit on another lady."
"What? But they just went around the... Those bastards." Nicholas and his friend had obviously snuck back without me noticing. It was their kind of game. They normally liked doing rude things of this sort to Rookies, and I resented the stupidity which allowed me to fall for such tactics. Of any of the guards, I should have known better. I cursed myself for letting myself feel sorry for them. Christmas didn't mean any more to mall rats than it did to the mall. Both were in it for profit-- though I couldn't quite decide what kind of profit there was in a kiss.
"I'm on my way," I said, this time not bothering with the outside route. Nicholas was without doubt parading up one of the wings that very moment. I barged through the people, the crowd separating at the sight of my uniform.
If anything, center court was even more crowded than before, people making a wall before the display. There was no second floor in the Sears Wing, therefore no stairs for me to climb and get my bearings. But it only took a moment to spot the stick floating above the heads of the crowd. It might have been a stick for a balloon, except the dangling bit of green at the end of its string. It moved, paused, then moved again, floating across the north side past the deli sign. It rode the escalator up towards Sterns' wing second floor, pausing again under the blue and white sign of Just Desserts. Though I couldn't see the immediate action, I knew the boy was only stirring up more trouble on the second floor.
This time, however, I wasn't going to placate the boy. I eased around the wall of people, squeezing between them and the store fronts-- breaking into a slow trot along the lower level. Above me, the mall arched into high windows and drooping plants, and on either side, a walkway with rail. Stores lined either side of the upper floor with bridges crossing over the gap at intervals. From this vantage, I could still see the moving stick as it passed along the parade of store signs on the left: Orbach's, Athletic Attic, The Gap, Casual Corner. Names that could have been numbers in some perverse game of Roulette, the boy's stick clicking off winners as it moved.
Where would it stop? Great Expectations" Arkin Jewelers" Wrangler Wranch? It wavered for a moment in front of the illuminated glass front of Tall Towne, then again at Waldens, each stop accompanied by giggles and curses.
The damned fool was still kissing people, I thought, looking for a quick way up. But this far down Sterns wing there were no more stairs or escalators, and it was left to my imagination to picture the elated expression on the boy's face after each little prank. The line of Christmas decorations along the rail prevented me from seeing anything but the stick, bobbing above in mad joy. Down below, the patrons were hardly better, eyeing me and my obsession with the upper floor as if I was crazy, or part of some unannounced disaster which would soon befall them all. Those that did not strain their necks to see just what it was I was looking at, fled down aisles or towards center court in a panic. The fever was spreading and I was now part of the problem.
The stick moved on, passed the widened gap to the upper entrance of Sterns. I leaped for the twisted narrow stairs-- shocked people appearing before me at each of its turns, half expecting me to mug them as I shoved them aside, mumbling `excuse me' and `pardon', though as rude as any rat. The ruckus rose around me and behind me, a wake of angry voices that promised to have my job. But my eye was on the stick as it stopped -- the imagined head beneath it cocked to the sound of my approach, guessing the cause of it, suddenly reversing itself and heading back the way it had come.
The boy was running now.
I leaped the last of the steps to the second level, then down three short steps to the upper level deck. A flock of elderly ladies confronted me, arms full of packages and purses which completely blocked the aisle from rail to store front. I pushed through them, only to confront yet another group, teenage giggling girls, then a family of five, then another group and another, like waves breaking on me as I tried to make headway-- a side stepping dance of rage that seemed to come in fits. And I moved with all the precision of a slow motion film, unable to get my legs on track, or find open space along the tiles upon which to run.
I jerked out the radio and screamed into the mouth piece.
"Roland? Answer me, you little bastard."
The mall rat was visible now, dancing ahead of me, making little better progress than I was, yet moving with infinitely better grace, like an elf dancing on snowflakes, his laughter rising above the brittle flow of muzak with music of its own, mocking me as he reached the top of the center court stair.
"What is it, Sarge?" Roland's sleepy voice answered finally.
"I got the punk spotted, but I'm going to need Johnson to head him off...."
"No can do, Sarge. Dean says..."
"To hell with what Dean says. He allowed it before over in Sears wing."
I had reached the stair and fell against the upstairs rail, puffing like old man, twenty years of cigarette smoking aching in my lungs. I peered down into the crowd below, into the mass of color and light, the glitter of Christmas decoration and moving trains, of people and packages, of screaming, over-dressed children, of upturned, half-expectant faces seeking joy or some idiotic measure of satisfaction from the display and phony cheer- - but where was the mall rat now?
"Johnson's got troubles of his own," Roland said, his voice lost in the cacophony of sound and sight. I wavered, the sensual overload making me dizzy. "That rat of yours is a busy beaver. We've been getting phone calls from all over the mall, store owners and customers complaining about him. They want this kissing stuff stopped."
"I'm trying, Roland," I said, gripping the rail as if afraid I would fall. "Why don't you find the captain and have him give me a hand."
I shoved the radio back in my pocket and studied the crow. It took me a moment, but then I saw the wavering stick, hovering with its green magic over some poor woman's heat, stealing his prize before moving on again.
I leaped down the stairs, swimming through people till I came to the bottom, winter-wear and soft furs sweeping up around me like the sea, scented with human sweat, colognes, perfumes and bad breath. Through all of it, I kept my eye on the stick, watching it move again, floating ahead as if drag-fishing for a kiss.
I was ten feet away from the boy when I took a flying leap over the edge of the white picket fence, catching the boy by the collar. I yanked him back, then threw him on the ground. The crowd parted and stared. But it was like fighting a Cabbage Patch Doll, the boy wilting under me as I twisted him face up.
Only it wasn't Nicholas-- or even Miro-- but another one of the Rat Pack named Dennis.
"And what the hell do you think you're doing with this?" I growled, waving a fist with the stick under the boy's amble nose, the string and mistletoe dangling like something obscene. Dennis was pudgier than the others and his face quickly flushed red. but he didn't even resemble Nicholas, and I wondered why I hadn't noticed the difference sooner.
"I wasn't doin' nothin' wrong," the boy said, snot-thick voice disguising a bit of his Paterson drawl.
"My ass, you weren't and you have about two minutes to explain where you got this stick from."
"I found it."
"Pal, I'm not fooling with you. If you don't tell me what I want to hear, We're going on a little trip back behind the compactor, where I'm sure I can get a little more information from you. Get my drift?"
The crowd shifted, their warm breath and hot gazes aching for a bit of open violence.
"You take care of him, officer," someone said.
"Yeah, hit him in the head," cried another.
The boy bit his already cold-cracked lips, drawing a spot of blood. It didn't matter to him whether I had a night stick or not, or a uniform. The authority was written on my face-- ten years of accumulated frustration imprinted in my stare.
"Well?" I asked. But the rasp of the radio diverted me again, Roland's voice rising from my pocket like that of God's. I ignored it. "Tell me, boy!"
"Nicholas gave it to me," the pudgy rat said, squirming.
"Oh, he did, did he," I mumbled, straightening, staring off into the crowd as if I expected to find Nicholas standing there.
"Mason!" the radio howled.
"What is it now, Roland!"
"This is not Roland, Mister!" Dean's thick voice boomed. The radio speaker crackled with its inability to handle the volume.
"Sorry, Mister Dean. I thought...."
"Don't be sorry. Just tell me why the hell you're not taking care of this problem with the mall rats. I'm getting calls from all over the mall complaining about this kid with his mistletoe."
"Don't worry, Mister Dean. I've got the little devil here at Center Court."
There was a long pause, the microphone was still open. I could hear the beep of the security system computer in the background and the slow heavy breathing of the mall manager, the fat fingers heavy on the transmit button.
"That hardly seems likely, Mason," Dean said after a time. "Considering that Dalton Books just called me saying they've seen the punk over in the Macy wing."
"Is that Nicholas over by Macy's?" I asked the rat.
"It could be," the boy mumbled, jaw down into his chest.
"What do you mean, could be? Is it or isn't it? How many of you...."
The horror oozed into my head like leaking oil, the shimmering, terrible vision of seventy odd mall rats lined up side by side, each standing at attention like soldiers with stick and mistletoe as a gun.
"I don't believe it," I moaned into the radio.
"Believe what?" Dean demanded. "What's going on there, Mason?"
"I'll get back to you," I said and pushed the boy away from me as I staggered through the still gawking crowd towards the door the Deli sign and the door. The cold air struck me, wind and snow whistling around my face like stinging insects. The parking lot had already been transformed, a dusting of white covered the dark surface of the road. Car tops now glinted with the faceted prism colors refracted through the thin layer.
But my attention was riveted on the islands between the rows of cars where trees had been planted for a more "environmental" effect. They were scrawny and bare now, bony young weeping willows whose yellow leaves had scattered leaving only the empty scarecrow behind. But they were not unattended. The rats had not forgotten them. They looked up at my approach and scattered.
I charged after them, around the belly of the Sears building to the Mall front, where more rats stood clinging to the tops of the thin trees, swaying as they peeled off branches from the top. Those on the ground grabbed the branches, laughing as they tied string to their ends, and mistletoe to the end of the string, swinging around like fairies waving magic wands. Then armed with these, they charged on towards the waiting mall doors in a mad frenzy, cheering as they moved, leaving their dark mark in the snow behind them.
My radio screeched with Dean's heavy voice. And Johnson's. And the others. Their voices blending into a single note of panic and outrage, almost funny in its insistency.
"You!t I barked. "Nicholas!"
Nicholas turned from the top of a tree, his dark eyes catching the parking lot lights, flashing with alarm. He scrambled down to the hood of a car, then off through the maze of bumpers, the other laughing rats at his tail. But I was quicker this time, cutting across the lot on an angle, rolling over the top of a car to tackle.
"Now, pal," I said, huffing. "Do you mind telling me what the hell you're trying to do to me?"
My voice was frail and echoed off the blank walls of the mall. A snow ball cracked against the hood of a chevy inches from my head. I leaped up, but as I did, Nicholas rolled away, running again, waving his stick in the air.
"Merry Christmas, Sarge!" he yelled.
"I'll Merry Christmas you...." I growled, but couldn't run any more. I leaned against the car and coughed. Dean's voice went crazy over the radio. Yet the sound seemed somehow pleasing. I laughed, then dragged a cigarette out of my pocket.
"Mason!" the infuriated voice howled. "Where the hell are you?"
"Out here," I mumbled, but made no effort to speak into the radio. Only the forgotten souls of the old marsh land beneath the parking lot could hear me. Only the cars and trees and thick gray clouds seemed real. The snow came harder, covering me.
Merry Christmas, Sarge?
"Mason! If you don't answer me, you're fired!"
I smiled, jingled the keys in my pocket and slowly walked across the lot towards my car, bending to retrieve a single switch of mistletoe from the ground.
I was going home to celebrate Christmas with my kids.
December 28, 1993
It happens every Christmas.
I get nostalgic. It isn't a planned thing, though back in the 1970s I used to play Xmas music two months in advance to engender the mood. Since the mid-1980s I don't even want to know what Xmas is, preferring to get through the yearly ritual as quickly and quietly as possible. But a big part of that process was visiting friends in West Jersey, a Xmas eve festival where aging friends met for a drink or joint before moving on to whatever relation's house needed to see us next.
The whole process has been ritual since 1974 or there abouts, first in Haledon, later in Paterson and finally in the wondrous hills of Sparta. One year I abandoned by ill girlfriend in Rutherford to be part of the process. Another year, we wandered aimless back through thick fog, stoned and scared the cops would bust us-- despite the holiday.
Most years, however, it was merely ritual, four or five lonely men struggling to create a holiday euphoria. It was always a good time, and I always left there feeling better than when I came. But a few years ago, it all changed. I sat there exchanging rude comments with buddies I'd not seen in a whole year, stunned by how much each had aged when one of our missing companions arrived carrying a bag of gifts over his shoulder. He looked like Santa Claus, or at least the version of St. Nick I'd come to accept over the years, his face red from the cold, his eyes shimmering with honest joy. He reminded me of my uncles coming home to the big house when I was small. Then, I saw this friend -- and the rest of us -- in those terms, as this generation's uncles bringing in presents.
We were old, damn it, and graying, and acting too much like adults; acting the way my uncle's acted, half remembering the early days when they were free to look like kids. It hurt to think we had grown up, and couldn't go back to being those foolish -- often reckless -- souls I felt so much fondness for.
After that, the ritual grew painful. I only saw the aged men when I came on Xmas eve. I wanted to see them, but the way memory made them, young, vital, careless and carefree. Not the gray- headed men recalling tales that they would never live through again. I heard them talking to the children, telling the children about ``the good old days,'' and it scared me.
Three events changed things this Xmas. No, these fools did not suddenly grow younger again, or even take on second childhoods for my benefit. But the next generation, the children to which we were telling tales suddenly became human beings to me, real people with distinct personalities, each carrying forth some aspect of who and what we had been. Not imitations or clones of ourselves, but with enough genetic and historic similarities as to make me understand how life goes on-- how we few carry on in our children, not just by teaching them, but by some mysterious process of adaptation that makes them take on our aspirations and dreams, building upon the foundations that we inherited from the previous generation and it from generations before it.
Strangely enough, it made me appreciate Xmas again, though I'm still not playing Xmas music or getting into the mood.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307