"Watch it, Buster!" He's talking to me. I jump out of the way of the wheelchair he's pushing. The toothless old man in the wheelchair has a long skinny neck and his head is hanging to the side as if it's too heavy. His eyes are looking at me but I can't tell if he can see out of them. There's nothing in them. I'm used to that.
The reason I didn't see them is, I was walking past The Jewel Box and my eye caught on a bright chain with blue stones. They must have just put it in the window. Sometimes I see something I wish I could wear. But, as she'd have said, that's out of the question.
I wasn't looking for her. I stopped looking for her a long time ago. She isn't coming back. When she was gone that's almost all I did, day after day, look in all the different places. I'd go from the Cookie Jar to Dalton's and then to Dream World, and so on all around Level A. Then I'd take the escalator down to Level B and do the same thing. The Locker Room, Hot Feet, McKendrick's, Waldenbooks, Aunt Marjorie's Potato Skin Heaven, one after the other, even The Rink, where I knew she wouldn't be because she can't skate. Then I'd start all over.
People don't notice me. There's always so many of them and, though I've always been here, only a few salespersons act as if they know me. She used to say, "We're nondescript." I asked her what it meant. "We're inconspicuous. People don't notice us. We don't stand out in a crowd." That made me look at the shoppers in a new way and they seemed pretty nondescript, too. Sometimes there's one who's extremely fat, or tall, or in a wheelchair like the old man. You notice them.
"If you keep yourself clean," she said, "and learn how to dress right, you'll be okay." She taught me how. When my clothes get dirty or too small, I know what to change them for, what colors to avoid, what sizes to take. Then I go into a rest room and remove the tags and change into the new clothes. She showed me how to get rid of the old ones; it's easy. She taught me everything.
Then once in The Sock Drawer, a new salesperson asked me if I was lost. It was my third time in there that morning.
"No," I said. "I'm waiting for her. She must be lost." I shouldn't have said that, but she was lost. I was there, where I'd always been, and she wasn't. She was always there and then she wasn't there, she wasn't anywhere. She must have gone where all the shoppers and salespersons go at night, through the doors, where she said I must never go. Through the doors. I don't know what's out there beyond the cars.
I was afraid the salesperson in The Sock Drawer would ask more questions, so I said, "Oh, there she is now. Have a nice day," and left.
I'm not supposed to answer questions. I'm never supposed to tell anyone I live here. I've always lived here. We both did. Now she doesn't. Maybe she's dead. I know about dead. There are orange fish in The Wishing Well and sometimes one of them floats on its side on top. You can see its white belly. That's dead. Once, in the window of Personality Pets, there was a dead puppy. By the time they opened it was gone and a new puppy was in there barking, yap, yap, brown with white spots.
I hope she's not dead. She used to put her hand under my chin and look at me in a certain way. She looked sad when she did it, but I liked it anyway. She taught me everything. I don't know why she went away. I don't know what I did wrong. She was always here and now she isn't.
I walk around a lot, through Levels A and B, usually without going into any of the shops. I look at the shoppers. I look at their faces. I'm not looking for her any more. I don't know what I'm looking for. I can't find it, at least not so far. No one even sees me, hardly.
At the Wishing Well, I sit on one of the stone benches and watch the fish. It's not really a wishing well like I once saw in a picture book, just a little fishpond about five inches deep, with a rock at one end, water coming over it. A waterfall. You're supposed to throw in money and make a wish. My pocket's full of quarters and dimes. I don't bother with nickels or pennies. It was Bonanza Weekend and there were mobs of shoppers, so the Wishing Well was full of change last night. I never take more than I need, but last night I took six dollars.
She taught me money. She said I'd never survive without knowing money. Anyone can see it's the most important thing there is. Everything has a price. The shoppers go into the places and decide what they want. Sometimes the prices are marked down, like on Bonanza Weekend or Special Sales Days. The shopper gives the money for what he wants to the salesperson who puts the money in the cash register and wraps the merchandise and gives it to the shopper. Then the shopper goes away, maybe to another shop. At night the cash registers are emptied. I don't know where they take the money. There must be some way of giving it back so the shoppers can buy something else, or maybe the shoppers go to other places where they are the salespersons.
Sometimes I see a shopper take something when there's no salesperson around and put it in a pocket or under a coat, and leave without giving the salesperson the money. She said that was called stealing and if you're caught doing it you're in Big Trouble. Capital B capital T. Sometimes I have to do it when I need something like a new shirt that I haven't got enough quarters and dimes for. I do it at night after closing, usually in the K. C. Emporium, where I mostly sleep. Their shirts are the best, the finest long staple pima cotton. There's a night watchman at K. C. Emporium. I see him every night, but he never sees me. Mostly he sleeps, and I know the times he makes his rounds. He has a flashlight and a gun. He gets up and goes to the Men's to pee and then he walks around the shop with his flashlight, waving it around. Then he goes back to sleep. I guess they pay him money to do it. You pay money for merchandise and also for services. The night watchman is doing a service, like the barbers and the beauty shop operators. Sometimes I think when I'm bigger they could pay me to do that service. I could do it blindfolded. I can get around every inch of the K. C. Emporium without a flashlight.
A man sits down on the bench next to me.
"Stand over there," he says to a woman. "In front of the waterfall. Take Riley outa the stroller." The woman lifts the baby from the stroller and it begins to cry. It has chocolate on its face. "Hush, Riley," the woman says. She stands in front of the waterfall, jiggling the baby up and down.
"Hold still," the man says, pointing a camera at them. "Smile."
The baby goes on crying and the man clicks the camera. A blank piece of paper comes sliding out of the camera. The man tears it off and looks at it. He keeps looking at this piece of paper and so I do. Gradually, it stops being blank. First there's like a shadow and then little by little you can see shapes and colors and pretty soon there are the woman and the crying baby and part of the waterfall. It's like magic. First there's nothing, and then it's there, the picture.
"How'd you do that?" I ask the man. He looks surprised.
"Its' Polaroid," he says. "You never seen Polaroid?" I don't know what he means.
"No," I say, "I never have."
"Well that's how it works," the man says. "It takes the picture and develops it right in the camera. Ask your daddy to explain it."
"I will," I say. I haven't got a daddy. I never had one. All I had was her. She could have explained it. She could have explained anything.
The man gets up from the bench and they leave without saying anything else to me. I've noticed that when people are together and one of them goes away, they say "Goodbye," or "So long," or "See ya." Salespersons always say, "Have a nice day," to shoppers when they're finished. She never said any of those things. I had no way of knowing she was going away. One minute she was there and the next minute she wasn't.
I sit a while longer, thinking maybe I'm like that piece of paper in the camera, before the picture comes up. But the man talked to me. Usually, nobody even sees me.
There's one person. She's a little like her, but not really. She's a waitress in The Pizza Oasis. She has her name pinned to her blouse. Millicent. I like to say it to myself. Pizza is my favorite thing to eat, but I try not to go too often. Millicent isn't there every day so sometimes I go when she's away, just to be safe. But that's where I decide to go today, even though I know she's there.
I take the escalator down and walk past Waldenbooks and Hot Feet to The Pizza Oasis. It's empty. Millicent is the only one behind the counter. She's leaning against the soda machine. I sit on a stool and try not to look straight at her. Waitresses don't wear the same kind of clothing as other salespersons. Millicent's wearing a frilly white blouse with a sort of red apron over it, with
suspenders. The skirt is frilly, too, and so short that practically all her legs show. It's a uniform. If the other waitresses were here they'd be dressed the same, except for their feet. Millicent is wearing thick white tube socks and dirty pink sneakers.
"Hi," she says, smiling. "You here again? What'll it be?"
"The number one combo, please."
"Ya got it," she says, and shovels a slice onto a paper plate, then scoops ice into a paper cup and puts it under the coke spigot. When the cup is full, she puts it next to the slice and says, "There ya go."
They always say that.
"Thank you," I say, counting out the money.
I'm the only shopper there. After Bonanza Weekends the mall is always pretty empty. The shoppers come those two days to save and now they must be resting up, waiting until they want something else. Millicent has nothing to do so she stands there watching while I take the first bite of my slice.
"Careful," she says. "It just came out of the oven."
"It's okay," I say. "I like it hot."
She watches me chew a while then says, "How come you're always here alone?"
"I'm not alone," I say, though I'm not supposed to answer questions. "She's in The Linen Closet."
"Your mom? She works there?"
I make a noise in my throat, not really answering. "Did you go to school today?" she asks. I nod. She used to say she wished she could send me to school but there's no way. Out of the question, she said. I don't officially exist, she said, there's no record. I was born in the custodian's closet. She showed it to me, a big closet, with brooms and mops and buckets and a big sink. "In that corner," she said, pointing. "What a night!"
I've gone back a couple of times and slept in that corner, but I don't like the way it smells.
"You come over to the mall after school for supper? Because your mom works here?"
"She doesn't care for pizza," I say. She's asking too many questions. I shouldn't have come. I have plenty of money, enough for a tuna melt or macaroni and cheese at The Red Oven. A Whopperoo at The Beeferia. I sneak a look over my slice at Millicent. She's still looking at me as if she has more questions. Half of me wishes she'd go on asking them, even if I can't answer. But then a shopper comes in, a guy in blue jeans can't be any bigger than a twenty inch waist size. He goes straight to the jukebox and starts it playing. The Barn Owls doing Gonna Rock My Sleepin' Beauty Awake. I never play the jukebox. Sound is a funny thing to buy. It only lasts a few minutes and then you don't have anything.
The guy sits down at the other end of the counter and Millicent goes over to him. He says something and she laughs and says something back, I can't make out what. I sit chewing my slice, sipping my coke, slow as I can.
"You want another slice?" Millicent says, drifting back to my end. She leans over and whispers, "On the house."
"What do you mean?"
I look at her, surprised. "I can pay," I say. "I don't have to steal it."
She laughs. "That's not stealing. If I give it to you, it's a gift."
I know what gifts are. The Gift Horse features them. Fancy soaps shaped like fruit or shells, silk flowers, candles. Things like that. But you still have to pay for them.
She's waiting so I say okay and she smiles and gives me another slice. I thank her.
"Are you always so serious?" she asks. "Don't you ever smile?" I guess I don't. I never thought about it before. I try out a smile.
"That's better," she says, laughing. "What's your name? You're in here so much and I don't even know your name."
"Buster," I say.
"Buster?" She laughs again. I like making her laugh. "Okay, Buster."
She stands there and I want to say something but I don't know what. I don't even know why. Then I think of something.
"Nice day," I say. "Whaddya mean, nice day? It's pouring buckets." I'm not sure what she means. Sometimes shoppers come through the doors wearing sweaters and heavy jackets and hats and their ears and noses are red. She said that meant it was a cold day, like in The Rink, only more so. Other times, shoppers wear light clothes and come through the doors, their faces red and sweaty. That means it's a hot day. Hot like a slice right out of the oven. Then there's rain. Rain is water coming down. Maybe that's what Millicent means by buckets. Umbrellas are for rain. The rain falls on the umbrellas the shoppers hold over them so the rain won't fall on their heads. The shoppers come through the doors with the umbrellas folded and dripping. Here it's always the same. Pleasant, she said, no rain, no snow, no cold, no hot. "Climate control," she said. On hot days, some shoppers come through the doors just to cool off. On really cold days, they come to get warm. It must be terrible through the doors, all those different ways it can be. Here it's always the same. You don't need coats or hats or boots or umbrellas. I never needed any of those. If I decided to go through the doors, which I probably never will, I don't know what I'd need or how I'd carry it all.
"Yeah," I say to Millicent. "It's pouring buckets, but here in the mall it's always a nice day."
"You've got beautiful eyes," she says. "Anybody ever tell you that?"
"No," I say, "they never did."
"You've got to be kidding."
"No," I say, "I kid you not."
"Well, believe it, you've got beautiful blue eyes. Those long lashes, I wish I had them."
I feel something, her telling me this. I don't know what it is. It's good, though, it's something good.
"Did you really go to school today or did you play hookey? I bet you play hookey a lot." I don't know what she means. Once I played a Video Game. I didn't really know what I was supposed to do. A kid standing next to me watching kept yelling, "Get it, get it! Look out! Boy, you really suck."
"You'll be sorry some day if you don't get through school. God knows, I am. I'm probably stuck in this underground dump for life. If I'd of finished school I could of done other things."
"You could be a salesperson," I say. "Or an operator in The Beauty Spot. You could do manicures."
She snorts. "I mean something important, not shit like that. A secretary in an office downtown, maybe. Or better still, a veterinarian. That's what I wanted to be when I was little. I always loved animals."
"You could be a salesperson at Personality Pets."
"I can't stand to see them locked up in those cages," she says, sighing. "Waiting for someone to come along and love them. I couldn't stand that, all that waiting. How they look. So anxious and hopeful and sad."
The other shopper goes back to the jukebox and puts in another coin. Wah, wah, wah. Loud.
"I wouldn't be able to sleep at night, thinking about them," Millicent says. "I'd want to take them all home." Home.
"I have to go now," I say, wiping my mouth.
"You want another slice? I'll heat you up another slice."
"No, thank you. I couldnt."
"Oh, come on. You're a growing boy. You can handle it. You're too skinny."
"Doesn't your mom tell you that? You got to put some meat on those bones if you want the girls to fall for you."
I can see she really wants me to have it so I let her give me another slice. The jukebox is so loud it makes the place less empty. The other shopper, the guy down the counter, calls Millicent over. He calls her Honey. She used to call me that sometimes. Honey. Sweety. The guy tells Millicent he wants another slice, this time pepperoni, and another 7-Up. I sit there thinking: I have beautiful eyes, I'm serious, I'm too skinny.
I've never sat here so long, and I never had so much conversation, not since she stopped being here. She should have said something, have a nice day, take care, see ya. I was size eight when she stopped being here. Now I'm a twelve. I stuff some more pizza into my mouth but I can hardly swallow it. I don't want to go. I want Millicent to keep telling me things. I want to keep on looking at her. But I force myself to get up off the stool. I put a dime down next to the paper plate with what's left of the third slice. I know about tipping. The dime doesn't look right, though, so I put another one alongside it.
"You going?" Millicent asks. "You didn't finish."
"I honestly can't," I say.
"Well, take care."
"So long," I say. "Have a nice day."
"This day is about over," she says, looking at her watch. When I get back to Level A, I look through the doors and I see she's right, the day is almost over. There are only a few cars and it's dark. It's time to hide.
Usually I go to the K. C. Emporium in one of the stalls in the Men's. I sit on the toilet seat with my feet up and hold the door open about two inches so it looks like nobody's in there. After the lights go out I wait until I know everyone's gone and the night watchman is probably asleep.
But I don't go to the K. C. Emporium. Instead, I go to Personality Pets and look at the puppies. They sold a bunch of them on Bonanza Weekend and half the cages are empty. The puppies still there are mostly asleep, looking like used dust mops. The two salespersons are covering up the parrots and the cockatiels for the night.
"Closing time," one of them says. I nod and head for the doorway, but when I see they're not looking, I duck behind a pile of 25-pound sacks of Purina Chow and Sta-Fresh cat litter and crouch down, listening to the last of the cockatiel's squawks and the thumping of a hamster on his wheel. Soon the salespersons are gone and the lights go out. I get up and go back to where the cages are.
One of the puppies is whimpering, sad little noises, not loud crying like Riley, sad little noises. I put a finger through the bars and the puppy licks it with his furry tongue, then flops down and falls asleep.
I'm sleepy, too. There's a big empty cage where they had two German Shepherd puppies and I don't know why, but I climb into it and pull the barred door closed until I hear it latch. It smells like newspapers in there, not a bad smell. I fold myself up on my side, my knees under my chin and my arms wrapped around my legs. I don't know why, but that's what I do, I go to sleep, thinking that in the morning when they come I'll just stay here and look out at them.
That's what I'll do.
* * *