A Story by Lewis Turco
Henry had never liked shopping malls. He'd never gone to them except with his wife before she'd died, and then only to wander around or sit on a bench holding her packages while she shopped happily, hurrying from store to store for most of a day. Henry had humored her, but he had fretted nevertheless, disgusted with himself for wasting the time. So he was surprised at himself when he discovered that he wanted to see the new Carousel Mall in Syracuse.
Not that he'd be wasting anything by going these days. Margaret had been gone two years, and he'd been retired from teaching for six months. He had always assumed he'd have things to do after he'd stopped going in to school, but he guessed that he'd also assumed Maggie would be around to do them with. "And the kids!" he said aloud as he shrugged into his jacket. "Forget it. Tom'll call twice a year, maybe, if I'm lucky." They had their own families to raise now, Liz in Montgomery and Tom all the way out in Seattle. So he got in the car and drove the forty miles from Norville to Syracuse. As he approached the mall on Route 81 he once again noticed how big it was, for he had been watching it going up for months. It was a single four-story glass tower surrounded by wings that were themselves surrounded by vast parking lots. There was parking underneath the mall itself as well, and that's where Henry decided to park. He got out of the car and memorized the color of his lot, its symbol, and its number because he realized at once that unless he did he could wander all day among the vast expanse filled with automobiles and never stumble across his own vehicle.
He went into the mall near Filene's Basement and took an escalator up — the glass elevators were in constant use and always filled. The first thing that happened to him nearly put him off. He went into the men's room that shared a foyer with the ladies' room and, while he stood at the urinal, heard giggling behind him, a man's voice and a woman's, both of them young. He turned his head and saw no one, but the door of one of the stalls was closed, and he looked down to see feet under the door, pants down around the ankles. She was in there with him, no doubt straddling him. Henry got mad and thought about calling a security person.
"Christ, these kids these days," he said. It was one of the reasons he'd taken early retirement. The schools had turned into a zoo, the wild animals roaming the halls and the keepers caged in the classrooms and offices. And besides, Maggie's being gone had seemed to take all the ambition out of him. It was drudgery and nothing else since the day she'd died.
But he didn't call anyone. He just went out to the mall and sat on one of the benches to look around. He was on the second floor, and there were potted trees growing up to his level from the first floor. While he was looking at the branches a bird flew into them and alit. "Why not?" Henry said aloud. A passing couple cast him an odd glance. "It's warm in here, there's plenty to eat, if they like pizza crusts." He nodded his head. "Not a bad place to live. I wonder how they got in."
But perhaps, he thought, "they" are only the one, for that's all he'd seen. In that case, it would be a splendid solitary existence in an Eden for birds. "Solitary splendor," Henry said aloud. He looked down one way along the vast hallway, then turned and looked down the other. "Wouldn't Maggie have loved this?" Shop after shop after shop. "And I wouldn't have minded waiting so much, either."
He just sat for a long time. He soon noticed that, amazingly for a new place, the Carousel Mall had its own personality, and it was very pleasant, like a mood, that settled over him and began to sink in, through the pores, perhaps. He sat for so long he was astonished to realize that it was noon already and he was feeling hungry. He got up and went to the food service area for a sandwich.
While he was there he heard the music and saw the carousel for which the mall had been named. Kids were getting rides and parents were standing around a low railing watching, or riding themselves, holding babies on the wooden horses that rose and fell along their silver poles as they circled.
Henry spent the rest of the day wandering around, exploring the mall at leisure, discovering the specialty shops, especially the museum shop that sold museum reproductions, the nature shop, and the People's Pottery that featured the most beautiful hand-crafted objects he had ever seen. "It should be called 'Rich People's Pottery,'" he said to himself.
He ate again, and then it got to be closing time, so Henry went and found his car and drove home. As he unlocked the front door and went in he heard the phone ringing, and he got to it just in time. "I was about to hang up," his daughter Liz said. "I was starting to get frantic." There was an annoyed and, simultaneously, a relieved edge to her voice. "Where have you been? I've been trying to reach you all evening."
Henry said, "Hi, Liz. Oh, I've been down to the new Carousel Mall that just opened. Spent the day there. It's great. How are the kids?"
"The kids are fine, and so is Hosmer. He's off on a business trip and Jessica and Melinda are in bed. Since when do you like malls? I remember mother used to practically have to blast you out of your chair to get you to go with her."
"True, true," Henry said, "but this place is different. Besides, I just wanted to check it out. It's like a city all by itself. You'd be amazed. There are even birds that live in it."
"Birds? Wild birds?"
Henry laughed again. "I don't know how wild, but they're free. I saw one today, and the place just opened up." They chatted for a while longer, and then Liz said, "I'll call again next week," and rang off.
The following morning Henry went out to putter around in his garden, but it wasn't large enough to keep him occupied for long. He pulled the weeds, waved to some of his neighbors as they came out of their houses to mow the lawn or get the paper or get the kids off to school and go to work. He decided to mow his own lawn, though it didn't appear to need it yet. By the time he was finished it wasn't even ten a.m. He went back into the house, got a magazine and sat on the front porch riffling through its pages for a while, but he finally threw it down and sighed. "What the hell," he said. He got up, locked the house, and headed for the car.
He decided to explore the big department stores, which he hadn't done the first time. "Much too much to do in one day," he said. But after he had wandered around in Kaufmann's for a while he just went out and sat on a bench again. At one point while his mind was wandering he was yanked back to reality by the figure of a woman moving among the crowds. For a moment he forgot that Maggie was dead, for it looked just like her from the rear. Then he realized that it couldn't be she and came back down from the excitement he had momentarily felt — excitement or anticipation, or an adrenalin rush, hefigured. He felt depressed for a while, but then he got up and went to watch the carousel.
A week after Liz had called, when he got home the phone was ringing again, but it stopped just as he opened the door. Henry figured it must have been his daughter, so he phoned her and when she answered he said, "Hi, it's dad. Did you just call?"
"Where were you?" she asked.
"Oh, I was over at the mall again."
"Again? I can't believe it." He could imagine her frowning and her big brown eyes wide open at the same time. "What's going on?"
"Not a whole lot," he said. "I get bored around the house."
"Why don't you get involved in some of the senior citizens activities in Norville?"
"Senior citizen!" he snorted. "I'm not even sixty-five yet."
Liz paused on the other end. "Dad?" she said. "How old do you think seniors have to be?" He thought about it but didn't say anything. "All you have to be is retired," she told him.
He cleared his throat. "Listen," she said, "if you're going to be out, why not buy an answering machine?"
"Nobody calls but you."
"How do you know? You're never around."
Henry thought about that and said, "Maybe you're right." It would give him an excuse for going to the Carousel Mall next day. "Since when do I need an excuse?" he muttered.
"What?" Liz asked.
"Nothing. I'll look and see what I can find." And they hung up.
Henry spent a good part of the day looking in Radio Shack and Lechmere, and he picked out a medium-priced machine. When he strolled out to the parking lot that evening he caught a glimpse of that woman again, that woman or another one that looked like Maggie. This time he wasn't surprised, but he followed her with his eyes until she got into her car and drove away.
He found that he was getting calls he'd been missing without the machine. There were a lot of hang-ups, which he figured were aborted sales pitches, but now and again someone else would call — one of his former colleagues at the high school, the minister of the church he and Maggie — mainly Maggie — had attended for many years. He returned some of the calls and got invited to dinner once or twice, or to a church or municipal function of one kind or another.
He decided to give it a try, but he didn't seem to enjoy himself much. Mostly he just sat, as he did at the mall, but here there was pressure on him to talk to people, or even to participate physically in whatever it was people were doing. He was asked to be a waiter at the Kiwanis Club breakfasts that were held once a week, but even that was too much for him to handle. He had to be pleasant as he served the plates and poured the coffee, and he didn't much feel like being pleasant.
Some of his customers knew him, of course, and they would begin with, "How are things, Henry?" or some such opening, and he'd say, "Fine, fine. Been keeping busy. You?"
"Not so bad. You know my wife, Claire, don't you?"
Henry would smile and say, "Sure. Hello, Claire." He'd refill her coffee cup for her. And if she didn't know she might ask, "How's Maggie?" and Henry would have to shake his head or say, "She passed away a while back" while her husband sat uncomfortably looking at the napkin he was smoothing in his lap. All in all, Henry felt the Carousel Mall was a safer spot to spend his time.
Still, he was at home the next time Liz called. "What've you been up to, dad?" He told her about the breakfasts and his dinners out, and she said, "That's more like it. Did you buy an answering machine?"
"Yes," he said. "That's how I found out about some of these things."
"There! See? Didn't I tell you?" He could imagine her grinning smugly at the other end of the line. But the next day he was back at the mall.
The third time he saw the woman he followed her. She walked right by him as he was sitting outside The Banana Republic watching the kids and their parents go in and out. She even looked something like Maggie from the front — mainly brown hair, a little on the stocky side, wearing a dark blue dress with a pin. Her face was largely unwrinkled because of its fullness, but she wasn't really chubby-cheeked. Henry felt a bit sheepish as he got up and ambled along behind her, but she was moving at a steady clip and he soon found he had fallen behind. He had to speed up to keep her in sight. He was sure she never knew he was there, even though he trailed her for a couple of hours.
Henry found that she didn't come to the mall every day as he did, only once a week, but that day was Friday, and she always parked in the same place or as near to it as she could get. It was the same place he had seen her get into her car. He didn't know why he was doing this, but as time went by he got more and more intrigued with her. He had noticed she wore a diamond and a wedding band, but that wasn't enough. He took down her license number and went to the DMV.
"This car parks on private land," he told the clerk. "Can you give me the name and address of the person so I can write to him?"
It was public record, so he got what he asked for. It was registered to Mrs., not Mr., Michael Lloyd, and she lived on Ridge Street in Mattydale. The next week Henry sat and thought about what he would do next.
Maybe he should just say hello to her some Friday and strike up a conversation. He could get lunch and sit down at the table next to hers, or perhaps just introduce himself. But he wanted to have more information about her before he did that. Was her husband still living? Was she divorced?
While he was discussing these things in his mind he felt some body tapping the foot he had crossed over his left leg. He looked up to see a security guard looking down at him.
"Don't you have a home, sir?" the guard said to him.
Henry was amazed. "Of course I have a home!" he replied. "What's it to you?"
"We've noticed that you spend most of your days here," the guard replied, putting his hands behind him. His walkie-talkie crackled. "We were concerned that you might need some assistance." Henry noticed that he talked like a school counselor. I guess they're trained for this, he thought.
Henry uncrossed his legs. "Do I look like I'm a bum?" he asked. The guard didn't reply, so Henry passed his gaze down the length of himself and was surprised to notice how scruffily he was in fact dressed, for he was wearing an old pair of cords and a flannel shirt, scuffed loafers and, he was startled to notice, mismatched socks. He stroked his chin and felt a stubble. "Good lord!" he said. "I guess I do." It was a good thing he hadn't tried to approach Mrs. Lloyd looking like this.
The next day Henry was decently dressed in a pair of blue, neatly creased polyester slacks, a white shirt with a pin stripe, and a silk tie with alternating red, blue, and green stripes. His black oxfords were polished, and his navy blue socks matched. He was cleanly shaven, and his somewhat sparse brown and silver hair had been newly barbered. He hadn't realized how he had let himself go. It was not a coincidence that the day was Friday.
Henry stationed himself near the entrance she was to use when she arrived, and his timing was so good that he had to wait hardly five minutes before she showed up wearing an orange skirt and a matching jacket over her green blouse. Her hair was almost perfectly brown, just like Maggie's, with only a few flecks of gray here and there. She wore it swept back, too. Her face was on the plump side, but she couldn't be called overweight, Henry felt. As she passed by him she glanced into his face with a small frown. Henry hesitated, then fell in behind her at a safe distance.
When she went into a store Henry stopped outside and began looking at the things in the window, keeping an eye out, he thought, for her if she came out of the door, but his mind must have wandered because, when he looked up and scanned the interior of the shop he couldn't see her. Then he felt someone tapping him on the shoulder.
He turned and said, "You again!" It was the security guard who had spoken to him the day before. Mrs. Lloyd was standing behind and to the right.
"Would you come with me please, sir? We'd like to speak with you in the office."
Henry began to blush. "Oh," he said, "I'm not a bum. I've got decent clothes on today." He felt his face was crimson and he glanced at Mrs. Lloyd and then flitted his eyes away from her hostile stare.
"This isn't about clothes, sir. This lady would like to know why you've been following her, and so would the management."
Henry was stunned. He felt his heart begin to pound loudly against his chest wall. The blood in his ears sounded like a waterfall. The guard reached out and took his arm and the three of them walked to the security office where Henry sat down in front of a desk where a heavy man in shirtsleeves was shuffling papers. Mrs. Lloyd sat down behind Henry where he couldn't see her, and the guard stationed himself by the door.
After a few moments of silence the heavy man looked up at Henry and squinted at him over his half-specs. "May we see some identification, please?" he said.
Henry started, then reached for his wallet in his hip pocket. He took out his driver's license and passed it over the desk blotter. The heavy man took it, stared at Henry's picture there, then at Henry. "Thank you, Mr. Murchison," he said, writing down the particulars on a yellow pad and passing the license back. "Now, what's this all about?" He smiled over Henry's shoulder.
"This man has been following me for weeks," Mrs. Lloyd said. "Every time I come shopping he's there behind me. I want him to stop it." Her voice, which was nice and husky as Maggie's had been, had a little tremble in it.
Henry turned around to look at her. "But you don't understand," he said. "You look like my wife — or the way she used to look before she died. I just like to look at you, that's all. I don't mean any harm."
"Your wife?" Mrs. Lloyd said.
"Sure," Henry said. "Look." He got his wallet out again, rummaged through it, and pulled out a photograph. He gave it to Mrs. Lloyd who took it.
After a while she said, "My, we do look alike, don't we? What is your wife's name?"
"Maggie," Henry said taking the picture and passing it to the security man. "That is, it was. She's been gone about a year now. The first time I saw you, I thought for a second it was Maggie."
The coldness in Mrs. Lloyd's eyes was gone, replaced by a certain neutrality. "I see," she said. "Well, but it's still got to stop," she told him. "It frightens me to see you behind me all the time." She reached into her handbag, took out a tissue, and dabbed under her chin with it. Henry noticed that there was a film of perspiration on her face, despite the air conditioning in the office.
"I didn't know you noticed me," Henry said.
"All right," the heavy man said and Henry turned fully around again to face him. "And the management also wants it to stop. Joe here tells me you're always hanging around." He glanced at the guard who nodded. "You were spotted even before Mrs. Lloyd complained. We don't want homeless people hanging around."
"But I'm not homeless!" Henry said. "I have a house in Norville."
"Then you should start spending some time there."
Henry was chagrined and angry at the same time. "Are you kicking me out of the mall?"
"No, Mr. Murchison." He took off his specs, leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and passed a hand over them. "Not at this time. But I am suggesting to you," leaning forward again, "that it would be just as well if you spent less time around here."
The session was over. The guard opened the door for Mrs. Lloyd who breezed through it. Henry followed her to the lobby and then hesitated before he turned away toward the parking area.
When he got home he was surprised to notice how abandoned his house really looked. The yard was overgrown with tall grass, weeds had taken over the borders, there were old leaves among the bedraggled looking peonies. But Henry didn't feel much like doing anything about it right then.
He went in and turned a rocker around so that he could look out of the front window facing west. The sunshine shone in on his lap. In the kitchen the refrigerator kicked in and began to hum through the silence. Across the street his young neighbor came out of the breezeway door to look for her four-year-old who was right there on the walk sitting on his tricycle. Henry sat for a while and then reached up and twisted the rod to close his Venetian blinds.
When his daughter called the following week he was at home to answer the phone, and she sounded relieved to hear his unrecorded voice.