Lost in the Mall


It was December 23rd and the Neshaminy Mall was packed. The shops were overflowing with deranged shoppers. The food courts were like Valhalla sans booze or war hammers. The mall staff looked crazed and exhausted, as if they’d just been on a weekend bender with Charles Bukowski. The walkways of the mall were jammed with people trying desperately to get last minute gifts to bolster Christmas piles. It was all happening to a soundtrack of Christmas music, store announcements, and screeching children.

My mom and I had made a morning of it. Well, she makes a morning of it every day. My mom rises at about 5 a.m. every morning and begins a day that would flatten a senator. She is the most active person I have ever known. Three decades raising four kids and five decades raising my father has left my mother in a perpetual state of activity and motion. I have never known her to not be busy. She shops every day, works every day, and does a number of activities within our little community. When she is at home she’s cooking, cleaning, reorganizing, and building. This is in direct contrast to my dad, for whom a bank run and a nap in the same day requires another nap.

Since my mother would be up and out early, I knew I would be too. And sure enough we were up at 6 a.m., caffeinated, organized, and out the door by 8:30. Once at the mall, we had a bagel and coffee and made a game plan. Her priority was to get me a coat for Christmas. My priority was to buy 97% of my Christmas gifts. We started at Boscov’s. Boscov’s is a department store where my mother dragged me each August for a decade to buy back to school clothing. She brought me and my siblings here before countless Christmases to shop in the evenings after work. The ground level is immense, aisles cut through uncountable racks of clothing and accessories sectioned off in age-old classifications: ladies, misses, juniors, men, young men, intimate apparel, active, LL Bean. Upstairs is kitchen and dining room, downstairs is living room and bedroom.

Department stores are my mom’s natural habitat. Today she read the crowd and store conditions the way a Sioux tracker might observe a valley or a forest perimeter. She grabbed a cart three times her size and swerved it down the aisle in the same way she drives the SUV that is fourteen times her size. She clipped me in the hip twice and then took it off-road without warning. She squeezed it through the racks of clothing into nooks and crannies where carts aren’t supposed to go and, thusly, do not fit. It was like watching someone maneuver an airboat through a miniature garden pond. She whistled the whole time until she shouted my name from some invisible locale. We then had a disembodied conversation.

“Damien?”

“Yes?”

“What about this one?”

“This one what?”

“This coat?”

“I can’t see the coat.”

“Why not?”

“I am not with you!” I looked around wildly. My neck began to heat up. She was nowhere to be seen and I ran into a rack of shirts more expensive than my rent. I took several deep breaths and listened for my mother’s response. When it didn’t come I offered: “Mom?”

“What about this one?”

“Holy shit.”

“Oh that’s real nice language.”

“Hovno!” Hovno means shit in Czech and I screamed it to get one in on her.

“What’s that mean, shit in Czech?” she laughed.

My blood pressure rose so drastically that my vision got blurry. I needed to get away. “I’m going to the bookstore!”

An elderly gentleman holding a pair of shoes popped out of a rack of trousers like Henry Stanley and gave me a frown. No doubt he was judging this immature behavior coming from a middle-aged man. I wanted to tell him that the woman (or her voice, anyway) that was getting under my skin was my mother. It might have gained his commiseration. Before I could say anything my mother spoke again, making the man and I both search our immediate space.

“But don’t you want to try this on?” my mother’s voice had said. We heard the shifting of hangered jackets being thrust to the side and the slinks they made when they met their reorganized brethren. From behind me, my mom appeared. She was holding up a jacket. I calmed.

“Hm. I don’t think…”

Before I could finish, my mom looked at the man and said, “Can I help you sir?”

My mother has made perpetual involvement in other people’s affairs her life’s goal. No simple trip to the store can go without investment into a stranger’s life. She will engage in a personal discussion with someone, mediate an argument that has nothing to do with us, or go out of her way to direct a salesman-client intervention of some random sort. Deity forbid there’s a person wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey, we could end up in a fistfight. My mother’s nosey tendency has always aggravated me, but I became even more sensitive to it after I moved to the Czech Republic. The Czechs are a reserved people who seemingly don’t want to engage in conversations with those they have to talk to, let alone strangers. In terms of conversation, they keep to themselves and rarely chat up a person they don’t know. When my mom and dad visited me in Prague a few years before, she made random comments in English to people on the street a number of times. They, in turn, looked to me for clarification. So several times a day I stuttered through my intermediate-at-best Czech to translate that she had just complimented their dog’s collar or asked them to pick up their trash. Naturally, an explosive tantrum occurred, and my dad, occasionally brilliant in his solutions, gave me two hundred Koruna (about $10) and pointed out a pub where I did a double shot of Becherovka and told the barman that my parents were going to cause me to murder someone. He bought my third shot.

“I’ll be at the bookstore for a while.” I needed to get out before I lost my temper and had a meltdown. My toe knuckles were cracking in my shoes, a sure sign that I was about to explode. My mother stopped flagging down a salesperson for the man to say “meet me in Junior Miss in an hour.”

“Fine!” I snapped. A woman gave a who’s-this-jerk look. While I am mostly a reasonable and level-headed adult, nobody can transform me back into a six year old faster than one of my parents. It is one of their combined superpowers. At the university, I might do a writing workshop for a hundred students, handle classroom management with different personalities, and sit on an examination board. But three minutes after getting on the phone with my dad I might engage in breathing exercises to keep from forkballing my phone into a wall. I do not believe I am alone in this tendency.

My temper drained as I was overwhelmed by nostalgia. I had been in the Neshaminy Mall thousands of times. My mom would sometimes drag us here for dinner, maybe for fast food, or, if we were lucky, to the too-spacious diner whose name I can’t remember. Sometimes on Saturdays when I was twelve or so, my mom would give me five dollars and my best friend Eddie and I would walk around the mall reveling in our temporary freedom and wondering how to blow our wad. We’d go to Spencer’s Novelty shop and browse the naughty adult games and snicker at jokes we didn’t get. We’d marvel at the models in the rack of posters. It was all so brilliantly 1980s. Inevitably, we’d end up in the food court and our cash would go to ice cream or pizza. We came here as kids to sit on Santa’s lap, and I have a distinctly embarrassing memory of asking him if he’d brought Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer along. His response: “Uh, how old are you?”

It was about ten o’clock now and the mall was filling up. It was the day before the day before Christmas. It would be mayhem soon. After I left the bookstore I moseyed around for nostalgia’s sake. In front of Macy’s, they had set up a Christmas train village down the road from Santa’s house. Santa hadn’t set up shop yet, but I walked by anyway. A woman was explaining to her small child that Santa wasn’t there yet, he was busy this time of year. The child was processing the news by kicking a trashcan and holding his breath. As he began his rampage, another boy came from out behind a bench and slapped her in the rump. She looked at me. Perhaps I read too far into that look, but I was pretty sure it said if you take me to a bar for two hours, I will put you in my will. I smiled at her. I multiplied that kid by two and wondered exactly how it was that my mom didn’t bring us all to a mall and leave us there one day. I can’t say I’d have blamed her if she had. She could be on a beach in Maui right now instead of in Boscov’s measuring coats against an unlucky and uncomfortable stranger with my physical dimensions. But she wasn’t.

On my way back for our appointed rendezvous, I stopped in a sweets shop and picked up a tasty olive branch in the form of a Santa coconut chocolate. I knew my mom would have forgiven and forgotten my brusqueness without a second thought, but it no doubt hurt her when I was a dick and I felt guilty for being unpleasant to her when she was only trying to do something nice for me at Christmas. When I got back it was nearly lunchtime and Boscov’s was absolutely packed. Carts were in gridlock traffic, under-the-wire people were bickering, kids were shouting. Shop assistants stood around with perfumes and creams. A woman asked if I wanted to try a new age coffee which I couldn’t pronounce let alone afford to purchase. I walked through active wear, and dodged a group of peculiarly similarly clad elders by cutting through cosmetics. In intimate apparel a shop assistant asked: “Can I help you find something?”

“My mother,” I said, realizing too late that what I considered a witty retort was made creepy by our location. We both looked at an Olga sheer Front Close and I ran away with a red face. I gazed through huge groups of people. An inner alarm went off that foretold a frustrating hour of looking around for my mommy while she blended in with 2,500 shoppers looking for last minute deals on quilts and toasters. I retired to shoes and made a plan.

My dad would be much easier to find. For starters, he prioritizes shops and departments by whatever is closest to his parking spot. To track him throughout the mall I would simply find the closest vendor of soft pretzels and then follow the trail of crumbs to the nearest bench. He would be there eating pretzels and drinking a lemonade. But my mom was small, quick, and crafty. I could only use her sounds to track her down: a conversation she’d start with a man holding an axe, her distracted whistle of no-known-tune, a series of tongue clicks.

I headed back towards junior miss. There was something inherently upsetting about losing a parent in a mall. I had to quell an instinct to have a shop assistant call for my mom on the intercom. Would an Almarita Galeone please come to customer service, we have found your son in intimate apparel. Please bring your credit card… From over the heads of a few people gawking at a mannequin better dressed than I have ever been in my life, I heard it: a meandering whistle. I listened more closely. The whistle was off-tune, chaotic, nonsensical. It sounded like wind running through a metal grate. No song was discernible. Around the corner she came, pushing her cart filled with bags.

“Hey,” she said, naturally, as if there was no question I would be standing right here.

“Hey.”

“Ready?” she asked.

“Yeah, let’s look for a coat after Christmas.”

“They’ll be better deals then.”

I handed her the chocolate I had bought her and she laughed aloud. She reached into her purse and handed me a Philadelphia Eagles chocolate she’d bought me at the checkout. A child started in on the opening salvo of a tantrum. My mom rolled her eyes and winced. We cut through handbags and accessories and the familiar terrain of junior miss before pushing through the east door to freedom. Maybe I could price tickets to Maui.

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