Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Department Store

The boy hated that store. It was magic, but not in a good way. His mother called it different names - Macy's, Nordstrom's, Nieman Marcus - and the outside sometimes looked different, but he knew it was really just one store. It looked the same every time they went. And they went a lot. He begged his mother not to go, but she had no patience for his protests. “You love going on the carousel!” she would say, as if that was enough, but the carousel was like the store – same thing over and over again, up and down around and around. Besides the carousel appeared and disappeared without pattern, just like the parking lots and trees outside the store. “There's nothing to DO!” he would shout, and she would get angry and tell him not to cry, as if he could turn off his frustration and helplessness.

She was always tired at home, staring distantly at the windows or hungrily at the computer screen. She would slip in a DVD when he asked her to play, turn her back when he shouted “Mommy! Watch me! Mommy! Mommy! You're not LOOKING! Watch this!” as he clowned around trying desperately to make her laugh, to make her see him. He would steal her cell phone, begging her to color with him or build something, but she would snatch it back, shouting, “Don't grab!” and then stand up so tall he couldn't reach; he was left with her knees for company.

But that store was magic. It gave her purpose and intent. Head up, focus tight, alert, searching. The colorful signs atop the racks were scanned, absorbed, ignored or noted in moments. She circled the racks, screeching the hangers left and right so he only saw glimpses of her between the clothes. He knew her ankles better than her face. 

He never did figure out what she was looking for. Sometimes he would grab at the hanging fabric and say “Oh, this is nice!” like she did, but she always sighed and told him “Don't touch! I don't want to have to pay for that.”

When they went, after they parked, she tugged him from the car and hastily buckled him in to the stroller. She would toss plastic bags of goldfish and cartons of juice within reach on the tray, then speed toward the door, moving faster than anywhere else, and with a little bounce. As they entered she thrust her cell phone at him, placating his sadness with distraction. He learned to fall into that flat dull world but eventually the battery would die and still his mother would be questing. He held in his sighs and fidgets because fussing caused her to flare into anger and shake the stroller until his stomach hurt.

Inside she insisted that he stay in the stroller while she stalked the aisles. He was so big it pinched but when he tried to tell her she would say "I can't have you running around, you might get stolen!" as if the stroller kept him safe while she hunted. He didn't understand her fear, so he looked around with suspicious eyes. The floors were slippery stone that shone like water. The nubby gray carpets were like cloth sidewalks. The racks of clothes reminded him of bushes and trees, but there was no wind or sun. It smelled funny, like sweet dust, and made him sleepy. His mother didn't mind. At home she made not-funny jokes about going to the store so he could take a nap, as if his presence alone wore her out. But she really told him to stay in the stroller to keep him out of the way.

All of which is why he wasn't surprised when the strange skinny plastic people came to life. What was surprising was how nice they were.

They approached slowly, quietly. His eyes had been drooping; he was bored beyond tears into indifference. When he saw them moving his eyes grew wide, he opened his mouth to shout, but then he stopped, fascinated. They weren't scary. They didn't move fast or sneak around. He didn't know what game they were playing, but they stood in front of him, arms open, inviting him to join. He looked around for his mother but she had wandered off. He squirmed out of his buckles, stopped to pick up a couple of goldfish, and walked over.

“Can I play?” he asked. They nodded. He reached out, slowly, and took the tall one's hand, and they started walking. The hand was stiff and had no fingers, but it was gentle. They all trooped up the escalator to the beds and pillows department, and he was invited to climb up onto the biggest bed there. He stood, taller than the encircling mannikins, and wondered. He'd never been allowed on one of the beds before. They lifted a small fellow up, and he began to bounce gently. They boy laughed. The adults raised their arms, creating a safety rail, and the two of them started jumping. Leaping and laughing, every time he stumbled or flew toward the edge he was caught and tenderly returned. Finally he collapsed, to tired even to giggle.

They collected him then, the largest carrying him – head on shoulder – back down the escalator. He panicked for a moment, begging not to go back, but a gentle pat on the back calmed him. Instead they went to the big TVs and piled together on a couch to watch his favorite movie. He had never had friends to watch with, and he became so excited that he shouted his favorite lines and grabbed their hands at the scary part. They laughed silently, enjoying his happiness as much as the movie.

Afterward they went swimming. The shiny bright floor, so highly polished, melted before them into a golden liquid that was warm and dry and held him up when he plunged in. They cavorted, fully clothed, his noise echoing through the store without disturbing anyone. When he tired they sat on the edge and plotted more adventures through the jewelry and makeup counters, dressing up as kings and queens and putting on plays. They played hide and seek between the racks, which was particularly easy for him since some of the people didn't have heads, and others had no eyes and they all had to feel their way to him. They made up indescribable games that made sense only to the players, and through it all they surrounded him with love.

The store was magic. He had friends who paid attention to him, who soothed his hurts and listened to his stories. He was never hungry. There were no grownups to lecture him. He was given complete freedom, and the store which had been so odious became his playground. But finally it had to end. He collapsed in tears, begging to stay. He loved them. Didn't they love him? He grew angry and yelled, striking the hands that reached for him. He wanted to play and play and play with them. He didn't want to be in the store every day, just waiting for his mother, doing nothing, tied down. When he finally calmed to hiccups they bowed their heads and sweetly embraced him, then walked him back. The biggest attempted with stiff hands to buckle the boy in, but the boy took the hands and kissed them instead, laying his cheek against them. Finally they all waved a quiet goodbye, plastic expressions never changing. He felt their sadness and knew it would never happen again. He leaned his head back and dozed off, once again waiting for his mother.

He never knew how long he spent with them. He hadn't aged, and his mother never noticed he was gone. But if he'd had his many adventures in the real world they would have taken weeks. Years later he tried to explain that afternoon to someone he trusted. She was horrified, first by his mother's neglect, and then by the idea of a child terrified by mannikins that came to life. No, no, he protested. They were wonderful. It was, it was . . . He couldn't finish.

As he grew older, he understood his mother's desperate attempt to find meaning in pointless acquisition. He grew and exchanged the boredom of the stroller for the tedium of school, and then the dull gray beige of a cubicle farm. He paced the same sidewalks, ate the same food, visited the same stores. And many years later he looked back and understood what he'd tried to say so long ago. It was . . . magical. That had been the very best day of his life.

Prompted by Nightmare Fuel

1 comment:

  1. >screeching the hangers left and right so that he only saw glimpses of her between the clothes.

    Wonderfully put, Yanna.