If only there was not cause, thought the man, for the boy to accompany him here. To this place of commerce. But as the woman reminded him two hours prior, when she dropped off the boy in her Chevy Silverado, it was his weekend.
The man grasped the boy’s hand tightly as they made their way across the asphalt expanse of the parking lot. Their breath spiraled from their lips like plumes of smoke. Ghosts of a burned encampment. The frost had come early this year.
Mind your haste, said the man. He felt the boy’s hand quivering within his own like a hare on the verge of bolting into the brush. The man did not wish to crush the spirit of the boy. But the Crossing was treacherous.
They stopped at the bonewhite lattice of the crosswalk, vigilant for the halogen eyes of oncoming vehicles.
Where do we look?
Both ways, said the boy.
Right and left.
Good, said the man. Right and left. Never back. No good comes of that.
The mall had once been a bustling outpost of humanity. Now as the man led the boy over the threshold, he perceived how the crowds thinned and order gave way to the entropic pull of the wild. Gone were the Borders, the Limited. None of man’s boundaries remained to cleave Bed and Bath from that distant horizon, the Beyond.
Can I get a pretzel, said the boy.
The boy sighed. His coat was too hot.
The man pondered his responsibility. He had to help the boy buy a gift for the woman. The task was vexing, a renegotiation of the contours of their lives that now intersect only through the boy, their flesh and blood.
Perhaps Macy’s, he thought.
The sale bins had already been looted by a legion of scavengers. The talons of bargainhunters tore ruthlessly through stacks of silk blouses and left a tangle of unpleated garments upon the earth. The man knelt to comb through the castoffs like a haruspex searching for truth in the entrails of a slaughtered animal.
Is there something for mom, asked the boy.
The man surveyed the wake of society’s craven want.
They’re all the wrong size. We arrived too late.
Overhead, a banner swung in the manufactured breeze like a hanged man. The banner said SAVINGS. No one was coming to save them.
Can I get a pretzel now.
Not yet, said the man. The back of his neck prickled with sweat. His coat was too hot.
See the roving bands of searchers, all about the man and the boy. Desperate creatures converging on Foot Locker and J. Crew with the bared intent of a vulture orbiting a mule’s carcass. Prices had been slashed bonedeep, and their hearts knew no mercy. The man wondered why he had not simply done his shopping online.
They found refuge in Bath & Body Works. The air was close, but warm and redolent with the scents of a thousand harvests. Country Apple. Cotton Blossom. Raspberry, sunripened on the cane. Here it was always high summer. A meadow in bloom and a hot spring where coarse flesh is rubbed smooth by Eucalyptus and Spearmint Aromatherapy Salt Scrub.
Mom likes that soap, said the boy.
The man took the translucent bottle in his hands. Cradled it. This time and in this place, he understood the woman. Who among us would fail to be moved by the prospect of cleanness.
At the counter, the stonefaced cashier wrapped the tonic in tissue and put it in a bag tied with red ribbon. She drew the blade of her shears along the ribbon, which sprang into curls with the force of blood pouring from a slit throat.
The man took the bag so that it would not be the boy’s burden to bear and they began their inexorable progress toward the food court.
The court’s abundance was an assault on the senses. The ochre of the Orange Julius, twice lit by Panda Express’s neon glow. The exotic meaty tang of Sbarro intermingled with the sizzle of teriyaki and wafts of sweet cinnamon. But they held no sway over the boy. He cut a straight path to Auntie Anne’s. The women in blue aprons serving their twisted frybread, slicked with butter and pebbled with salt.
A rawcheeked teenage girl took their order. As she grasped the hot fry bread with her tongs, the man thought that she looked very young to be a tía. An auntie. The world, thought the man, forces many of us to grow up before our time. He told her to keep the change.
While the boy filled his belly, the man considered the sweep of the mall, its lonely vistas, from the aluminum portcullis shuttering Spencer’s Gifts to the husk of what was once a Sam Goody. Their footsteps echoed in the atrium, the heart of a wild place now growing cold and empty. So this is how we leave the mall, thought the man. But what of the mall? Does the mall ever leave us? Whatever is begotten, born, and dies, we commend to dust, but what purchase has the mall upon our souls?
The boy grasped the man’s sleeve. They had reached the crosswalk.
You have to look both ways.
The man turned to the boy as if seeing him for the first time.
That’s right. Thank you.
Hand in hand, they made their crossing into the outer dark. Toward home.