Hello, shoppers everywhere, from Manglers Mall! Yes, we’re back again, and we’ve learned our lesson. No, please, don’t go. Not now. Please. We were wrong. We admit it. The customer is always right. We know that now. We didn’t know it before.

Before we thought the customer was an unnecessary evil. We thought we could fling boiling water on him and push him into potholes full of hot tar while we looked on, laughing. We believed we could hire thugs to break his fingers, make embarrassing remarks about him in front of his loved ones, stain his virgin wool sweater with beakers of dangerous industrial solvents, and he would still shop at Manglers. We never considered his feelings. Your feelings. So you went away. We don’t blame you, no, but you screamed—a little too loudly, perhaps—and you went away. In droves. You hid in the forest under mounds of pine needles, afraid to breathe, afraid your own fear would betray you. Some of you changed your names and crossed the border, never to be heard of again.

Things weren’t the same here at the Mall. The cash registers grew silent. The colored streamers and tiny plastic flags drooped in the sudden chill. Yes, we had to abandon the furnace, our one source of warmth and delight. No more for us the sound of customers moving their lips as they read the blue neon sign above the incinerator door: THIS WAY ONLY. No more their petulant but docile voices as they climbed inside, still clutching their shopping bags, and the heavy steel automatically clicked shut behind them, their cries fading as they disappeared and the door opened once again and the sign was relit.

Even our cherished mall walkers were gone, the elder ones who walked and walked and looked and looked but seldom bought. Yet such dignity and diversity they brought to Manglers, these superfluous breathers too light to trigger the pneumatic bear traps scattered throughout the food court, too slow to register on the motion sensors attached to the grappling guns lining the mezzanine. In the end the mall walkers finally succumbed to the simple beauty of random laser bursts from the specially enhanced security cameras, and the slow shuffle of Hush Puppies was heard no more.

Then we had to dismiss the guards without notice. We let them go. But they wouldn’t go. They lived in the ventilator shafts. They became despondent. They let their bright yellow uniforms become soiled, and few of them bothered to shave, although they did clean their weapons. They did that for days. Then, without looking up, they would open fire. At the ground. Into the air. Sometimes they would hit a window, sometimes a manager; it didn’t seem to matter. Morale was at an all-time low. We thought you might never come back.

But you did! You were hiding, true, sleeping in shopping carts, we didn’t always recognize you when the searchlights caught you unawares at night, blinding you, making you crawl back into the underbrush like frightened sow bugs. But we knew you were out there. We could feel your eyes poring over every Going Out Of Business sign, every Liquidation Sale notice. When men’s polyester double-knit slacks were marked down 98 percent, some of you almost ventured back into the Mall. You were so close, just inches away, and then the mines began to go off, and you had second thoughts. You decided you could do without our slacks for a while. You settled on one of the cheaper brands, knowing in your hearts all along that Manglers Means Quality, At Prices You Can’t Afford Not To Afford.

When we had Damage Discount Days for Ladies Chainsaws, one woman did enter the Mall—by mistake, as it happened. She wasn’t a shopper at all! She was merely asking directions. We told her where to go, and as she was turning to leave we set the dogs loose. (The dogs, by the way, are so different you wouldn’t know them. They respond only to commands. No longer do they take the initiative. Something to consider when you’re wondering where to buy.)

We at Manglers take your patronage seriously. We’re willing to meet you halfway. We’d be more than happy to disconnect the electro-stun handrails on the escalators if you’d come in—a few at a time, of course—to browse. The free balloons are filled exclusively with helium now. You needn’t be afraid to smoke. You needn’t be afraid at all! We like you. We want you to like us. So? So come here. Now. That’s it. Keep moving. Keep your hands in the air. The man in the watchtower will tell you what happens next. The one with the megaphone. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.