Greg had always suspected that had Hitler managed to get into art school, he would have become the Thomas Kinkade of his time. Did it follow then that had Thomas Kinkade not found commercial success selling his art, he would have become the Hitler of our time? Greg wasn’t sure. But it seemed like a viable hypothesis. If only one could test it somehow. In the pinkly lit window of a storefront inside the mall, Greg glanced at three tiny glowing cottages one nestled in a valley between craggy mountains, one beside a glittering lake, and one on the gently foaming seashore, all trapped forever in a perpetually pastel twilight. Horrifying. It was as if they were all being set on fire simultaneously from the inside. Greg imagined three little pastel arsonists peering out of the painted windows as they poured accelerant and struck a match. Above him, the atrium-esque ceiling let in shafts of dust-filled light. Outside of the massive, air-conditioned building row after row of cars were parked in the lot, the sun glinting off their windshields. Greg’s shoes squeaked on the faux-marble floor. Through the trickle of Thursday morning shoppers, past the sluggish escalators and waxy indoor plants, Greg shuffled to work.
In the food court, oil boiled in deep fryers and gloppy noodles congealed under red, glowing heat lamps. Inside Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s shirts were folded and piled on display tables: small, medium, large. Outside Hollister Co., the assistant manager spritzed the store’s fragrance into the empty hall where it mingled with the warm sugar-scent from the Cinnabon a few steps away. Here and there the structure quietly began to fail. Plaster cracked, brick flaked, the cement foundation slowly sunk into the soft, welcoming earth.
Long before it was a mall, the Roosevelt Field Mall was an airfield. In 1927, when Lindbergh boarded the Spirit of St. Louis and crossed the Atlantic alone in the single-engine plane, he took off from the Mall. A plaque was placed on the spot where his plane left the ground to commemorate the event. Greg walked by the plaque everyday on his way to work. Beside it, the glassy eyes of plush toys, piled high on a display table at the Disney Store, watch passers-by. It was unsettling; Greg tried never to look directly at them.
When Lindbergh landed in France after his thirty-three hour flight, he was mobbed by the 150,000 spectators waiting for him on the ground. They dragged him from the cockpit, carried him on their shoulders, pulled the buttons from his shirt, and ripped souvenirs off his plane until the French military came to his assistance. Greg often pictured the landing and the mob, when he walked by the plaque. The plane surrounded. Lindbergh exhausted, being engulfed by the crowd. Greg found the rabid devotion of the French mob oddly sweet. He often wondered if he would ever love something enough to want to destroy it.
Everyday he passed the plaque and the plush toys as he crossed from the parking lot to B. Dalton where he cashiered and shelved increasingly inane hardcovers thirty-five hours per week. Or used to. Or sort of would for a few more months. B. Dalton was about to close. A large sign in the window read 20% off. Soon the one that read 40% off, waiting in the stockroom, would replace it. And eventually the one that read 75% off, which had not yet arrived, would replace that.
Greg passed half-a-dozen empty storefronts, paper covering their windows and doors. “This whole place is obsolete,” Dustin had said. When Greg first started at B. Dalton, part-time during high school, weekends were overwhelming. He barely sat down all day. A decade later, he and Dustin had taken to playing Black Jack for pocket change to kill time on Saturdays. When Dustin was busy, Greg quietly surfed the Internet, that endless series of tubes.
Greg had seen pictures of abandoned amusement parks online, vines twisting up a Ferris wheel, rusted rollercoaster tracks snaking through the treetops, overturned bumper cars bleached by the sun, the still carousel, its horses frozen on their poles mid-leap. He imagined the silence, the sever lack of bouncy music and happy shrieks, the eerie creak of moveable parts swaying in a vacant breeze. Everywhere, paint peeling, the color slowly draining from the signs.
He liked to think of the way the mall would look once it was boarded up, deserted and slowly decaying. The fountain near the glass elevator dry, green, sickly pennies the only things left in it. The grand piano on the second floor tipped on its side, its keys cracked and limply hanging, the lid lost, snapped off, its thick strings exposed and silent. The shattered store windows spilling shards of glass onto the scuffed, tiled floor. Paint peeling, overturned benches and plastic chairs, tables lying on their tops scattered around the musty food court. Here and there a sun-bleached sign advertising a sale tilted, crooked, about to slump to the floor.
A thick layer of dust and damp would coat the whole place. Water marks discoloring the ceiling, rainwater leaking into the big empty space, pooling in shallow depressions. A broken clock stuck at 12:28. Whatever inventory was abandoned left to rot: a pair of jeans from the Gap, a few mismatched high heels, a stuffed Teddy bear staring blankly, a heavy-framed oil painting of an eerie cottage in a desolate glen. Everywhere, signs and words and symbols, but no one left to read them. No life at all, except perhaps for a ripple of wind once in a while, and shafts of dirty, dull sunlight piercing the still air.
As Greg passed one of the anchor stores, he glanced at the rows of clothing racks, neat and florescent-lit. Above them, there were dark stains of water damage molding on the ceiling. But most customers never looked up. Only the workers ever saw the damage, and the occasional child, hiding from its parents in the racks.
Everyday was the same now. A steady, boring march. It would still be months before the store closed. Greg would find another job, but he couldn’t imagine it being much different. All that was left was merchandise, unworn, untouched, unblemished, unreal. Rows and rows of the same sweater repeated on the rack, pairs of shoes in the windows, video games, sparkly bracelets, cell phones—the supply replenished whenever their numbers began to dwindle like foot soldiers at the front. The shelves in B. Dalton were increasingly empty as the marked down books left and no new stock replaced them. Shannon, the manager, insisted on keeping the place neat and manicured, so every few days they moved everything that was left closer to the front of the store in what felt to Greg like a Sisyphean exercise in self-punishment.
Dustin was flipping through a magazine at the cash register when Greg arrived.
“Gonna be busy today.”
“It might be. That pop star kid’s coming.”
“Oh yeah. Too bad we don’t sell CDs.” Greg had conveniently forgotten that the Claire’s was hosting an old school mall tour concert in the food court. When Shannon told him and Dustin weeks before they had joked for the rest of the day about Tiffany and Mallrats. A schooner is a sailboat. But it wouldn’t be as interesting as that. Nothing ever was.
“Maybe he’ll sign my training bra?” Dustin joked. “Swoon.”
“Do you think we’ll be able to hear the screams from here?”
“Their squeaky little voices do carry.”
“You really don’t have to have any talent to be famous these days. It’s depressing.”
“Maybe there’s hope for you yet, Gregory,” Dustin said.
The morning passed, as it always did. Greg did what he did everyday. He spent a few slow minutes at the cash register imaging what it might be like to be famous and adored. He wouldn’t play malls, of course. A customer interrupted Greg’s fantasy. He had gotten as far as women ripping his shirt off him as he entered a club. It was a clichéd image, but it must happen, he thought, ringing up the self-help book the customer handed him. Just like it had happened to Charles Lindbergh so many years before.
Greg took his lunch at noon like always. Above the circular food court sat the giant zeppelin build as a tribute to the mall’s former life. Greg barely noticed it anymore; he had seen it so many times. He watched people carry their trays to empty tables. He watched the bussers wipe off the dirty tables and sweep the crumbs into dustpans. He loved the efficiency of the mall. The way, if you weren’t watching too closely, things seemed to happen without agents. It was an elaborate machine that functioned without thought. Products were removed from shelves for purchase and exact replicas replaced them overnight. The mall had the honeycombed feeling of a beehive, buzzing, systematic.
The building was clean and bright. Everything in it so orderly and fresh, hermetically sealed. Even useless, ugly items seemed desirable on shining, chrome racks or in clear glass display cases. His mother used to drop him off at Roosevelt Field on Saturday mornings when he was thirteen to meet up with his friends and see a movie, eat burgers and shoplift things they didn’t want or need. The whole place had always fascinated him. As a teenager he wanted nothing more than to work at the mall.
Years later, the place was still fascinating, but now Greg could see beyond the façade. He saw the cracks and fissures beginning to break up the carefully constructed marketplace. One day it would crumble, like the Roman Forum, like the agoras in Greece. Perhaps tourists would stumble through its ruins, snapping pictures, imagining what it must have been like to live in such a place.
Today, the food court and the surrounding area were packed tight with people. Everyone was talking and looking toward the cheaply constructed, empty stage. Greg overheard bits of gossip as he pushed through the crowd.
“He just tweeted…”
“He’ll be here any minute…”
“I can’t wait!”
“Why is he so late?”
“I’ll, like, die if I don’t see him.”
The halls were full of parents and children. Cell phone camera snapped pictures of the empty stage, the massive crowd. Everyone seemed to be wearing matching t-shirts. Greg was horrified by the spectacle. All of this for some no-talent kid whose songs barely had words. Greg was weaving through the horde, trying to get to the Sbarro, when he heard the rumor ripple through the packed halls. It flowed out from some central point and whispered past him as he said, “Excuse me,” for the hundredth time. All around him people murmured, “He’s not coming? He’s not coming? What do you mean he’s not coming?”
There was a pause. A gasp. A brief moment of quiet confusion. Everyone looked around, checked their phone, wondered what to do. And then it began. Greg felt the wave of bodies move him. He lost control of his forward motion. He was an unwilling part of the mass. The screams began, shrill shrieks from the young girls, low rumbles from the adults. The mob rushed the stage. Greg was pushed and pulled by the crowd around him. He would have fallen down if he could have, but there were too many people to bump into; they held him up.
All this for some kid with a bad haircut, Greg thought, as he tried not to trample a woman who had fallen next to him. The crowd loosened as people on the outer fringes fled the building. The few guards hired to manage what was supposed to be a docile audience did what they could to calm the crowd. All around children cried and Long Island housewives swatted strangers with their purses. Greg felt something hit his head. He stumbled, lost his balance, and landed on his back staring up at the great glass ceiling above him. In the seconds before anyone noticed what had happened, he waited patiently for his life to flash before his eyes. Greg was having trouble shaping his fleeting thoughts into a coherent narrative. He supposed he must not be dying if there was no montage of poignant memories flooding this neural pathways. Or, perhaps there simply was nothing worth including.
Mall security was not prepared for a riot. Greg heard the sirens as the local police came to investigate the 911 calls they were receiving. Sure enough, there was pre-teen riot at the mall. Stunned police officers broke up fights and scooped up the fallen. The crowd slowly calmed, the screams stopped, but the heavy rumble of voices continued to fill the large space.
“Mom?” Everyone in the place was called mom. Parents frantically searched for their offspring. Children searched for their friends. Greg lay dizzy on the floor, blood seeping from his head wound. He hazily watched as men and women, girls and boys, scurried at a frenetic pace back and forth under the atrium, nearly colliding at times, just missing one another, as they looked for the people they had been separated from.
The whole scene was muted for Greg, slowed down a beat by his throbbing brain. It appeared to him to be a poorly choreographed dance that no one was directing. Greg tried to focus. His gaze landed on the glass elevator. Two little girls rode it up and down alone, pushing the button again and again whenever it stopped.
Around him, people gathered, knelt, asked if he was okay, told him he would be. Someone looked for a paramedic. A crowd gathered. He knew, even as dizzy and confused as he was, that this is what they would all discuss over their respective dinner tables that night. He would be the local news. His allotted fifteen minutes wasted. He wouldn’t even get to do a man-on-the-street with the reporter sent to the scene. He would be what was reported. Some number injured, some number killed. Greg tried to write his obituary, but he couldn’t get past the first line, “Gregory Jones was trampled at the Roosevelt Field Mall Thursday by rioting teenage girls.” If this was dying, it was slow. Greg tried to sit up and was told not to. So, he lay on the cool tile floor and watched as a rack of clouds passed by overhead.
He imagined Charles Lindbergh taking off from the Disney Store in 1927. Greg saw above him, out the atrium’s windows, the wobbling plane lifting into the sky. He thought of Lindbergh looking down at the patchy green and brown square fields, at the little houses and cars getting smaller as he rose, at the blue choppy water off the coast, and he wondered if Lindbergh had wondered if he would ever see land again.