The mall in our town is surrounded by an open-air parking lot you can see on approach from the interstate. It stretches to the horizon and it’s always full. Around the holidays, cars back up at that exit sometimes a quarter mile or more.
Why this sight doesn’t serve as a warning to any sane person I’ll never know. That parking lot is an asphalt-paved River Styx surrounding the Heart of Darkness. It’s a test of fortitude. If you can retain your sanity driving two miles an hour up and down lanes in which you could have sworn you just saw an empty space, but that “space” inevitably turns out to be a mini cooper tucked between two F-150s, and then you find yourself following the Inevitable Three Women moseying on foot directly down of the center, pushing strollers, and balancing their respective gigantic handbags, smart phones, and triple, venti, non-fat, caramel macchiatos, if you can do that, and your head doesn’t explode into a million pieces, you may have the temperament needed in order to enter. Yay you. You just earned the right to enter Hell.
And it is Hell. No guarantees whether you’ll return. Or if you do, that you’ll be able to find your damn car. So keep that in mind.
It’s not a secret around here that I am not a shopping mall fan. Or a shopping fan. It may have been the “heart of darkness” moniker that gave it away.
But this weekend, when Anna asked if I could give her a ride there to meet some friends, I acquiesced. Every exchange student who wants the true American adolescent experience must spend a minimum of twenty-seven hours at the mall every month. It’s a check-box on the to-do list. Some kids go above and beyond. I don’t know why. It’s not like they get extra credit.
I invited Colin to come along because, along with driving to the mall, I was going to do the other thing I almost never do: get a cheeseburger from a drive through. It’s my post-long run treat. I had just finished a half marathon that morning and for at least the last three miles of that event, the vision of a cheeseburger kept me going. If Colin came along for the ride, I’d get him a cheeseburger too, and then I could remind him of that the next seven times he complained about never getting fast food.
Killing two birds and all.
So I magnanimously drove Anna and her friend and Colin to the mall, and on the way explained why I never actually go to the mall, and wished the girls luck. As we entered the River Styx and dutifully took our place behind the Inevitable Three Women while parking spots magically opened and then disappeared to the right and to the left of us, Colin said something that made goose bumps stand out on my arms.
Now that we were here, he said, he really wanted to check out one shoe store in particular.
At this point, two things were going through my mind (well, three, if you count my frustration with the Inevitable Three taking their sweet time down the center of my lane):
- My state of dress. I was wearing what might generously be called jammies. I’d just finished running thirteen miles and taking a long, hot shower, and had planned to spend the rest of the day on the sofa, after all.
- The origin of the request. It was Colin. AKA He Who Never Asks For Anything. Ever. I’m serious. If anyone has ever met a less demanding thirteen year-old, I would like to know because I’m sure I have the least needy child the world has ever seen. This is usually a good thing, but people like Colin also tend to be ridiculously difficult at Christmas and birthdays.
These two thoughts might have canceled each other out, but the Inevitable Three were in front of me, and that cheeseburger image was in my head, both tipping the scales in a particular direction, and I gave a little sigh and clenched my hands on the steering wheel before I could stop myself.
“Never mind,” Colin said. Noting my angst. Tipping the scales back.
Heck, if I was going to let my ensemble and an intense desire for a cheeseburger keep me from doing the one thing He Who Never Asks For Anything just asked for, what kind of a person am I?
I told Colin we could go into the mall for exactly seven minutes. I probably only had that long before spontaneously combusting, but it was something.
I finally found a parking spot and walked the half-mile to the mall without limping too much. We crossed through the Gates of Hell, and Hell itself was just like I remembered from last time: A sea of expressionless faces and crying babies.
Colin couldn’t remember the name of the store, and we wandered around for a bit, found a directory, and figured out where we wanted to go.
This wasn’t like like shoe stores I’m used to, mind you, ones with wide aisles, attractive displays and little booties in boxes and attendants willing to skip to the storeroom and return to slip ridiculously-priced pumps on your feet like you’re Cinderella or something.
Nope. It was a dark nook crammed with racks of hoodies, and tables stacked with shoe boxes, and young people wearing snap-back hats and facial piercings who looked like they would bite my face. There was an electronic beat thudding and no one made eye contact and the air smelled like gunpowder and Axe body spray. I stood outside and looked at my phone and hoped the fact that I was wearing pajamas didn’t make me a target. I didn’t think I could run very fast.
Colin ducked in and was back out in less than a minute. He looked at me and then took off in the general direction of the door.
“Didn’t you find what you wanted?” I was really curious because I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for selecting shoes when one can’t see more than two inches in front of his face and is in fear for his life.
Colin said something about shopping online. We got to a less crowded area and the doors were in sight. I breathed a little easier and he seemed to as well.
“Why is it so crowded here?” he said. “Why are there so many crying babies and everybody is walking so slow?”
I had no answer. The machinations of the population of the Heart of Darkness have always been a mystery to me.
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