This is an odd sort of story with a small kernel of truth in it. Growing up, there was a man who used to sit in the middle of the food court and people watch. He seemed to always be there every time I went to the mall. Then I left for college. Home from break and on a visit to the mall, I noticed he was gone and wondered what ever happened to him. When I returned to school, I wrote this story. I have never seen him again since. I wonder, with the Coronavirus and online shopping, if our malls will go extinct and our mall watchers adapt to new venues.
This version of the story is closer to the rough draft that my class first saw, rather than the portfolio edit based on their suggestions. Re-reading both versions, I think I was a little heavy handed with their request for more of a background and personal motivation behind my narrator. What kind of kid spends all of their time at the mall? Who craves the idea of someone watching over them? I much prefer a subtle story where the reader can sense the answer to these questions without being told. I kept the odd detail here and there–hints of motivation. I suspect that this version is most true to the voice of my unreliable narrator who would not, I imagine, spell everything out neatly.
The Mall Watcher
Kylie Louise McCormick
I had been watching him ever since I was a small child, old enough to notice my surroundings, and to pick out mall regulars. He would sit alone in the food court of our small town mall, at the same table across from Hot Dog on a Stick, in the middle of the room, everyday- or so I would assume, as he was always there when I was there. To be honest, the man was slightly grotesque. His face was a constant red, and his crooked nose produced items he would promptly smear on the bottom of the table. He wore colors that highlighted the color of his face, usually a bright purple. He was bigger man with an odd shaped body. It was as if his spine curved him downward, giving him hunched shoulders but then again I don’t think I ever saw him not sitting down, so he could have been just a man with a slouch. His face did not look welcoming; in fact it scared me a little. His face told me “get away!” I nicknamed him the mall watcher, because every day he would sit there and just watch people. He would never get anything to eat, and he never had any shopping bags, he would just sit there, leaning his angry red face on one hand watching people move about the mall. When I was there I would sit a few tables away and watch him watch people. I never saw him talk to anyone, or even say hello.
When I was ten I decided that he was lonely so I began to say hello to him every time I passed by his table. I always figured before I started to say hello, that I was invisible from his watchful gaze but ever since I could feel his eyes on me when I would enter the food court. He would trace my steps, and follow my patterns through the food court to the rest of the mall and back again. I could feel him tense when I would approach to say my greeting. To most people this would seem “creepy”, but it was comforting to know that he was there, watching me. He watched me grow up. Part of me thinks he was the only one. Then I abandoned him and the mall, went to college, graduated, and moved out of state and as far away as I could.
I hadn’t been back in years. I never planned on coming back. Now I was 25 and still looking for myself, whatever that means. I was out of work, my degree didn’t seem to get me anywhere, and I had no place else to go but back to that small town I used to call home. I don’t know why I came back, perhaps because I felt as though I left a part of me here, and important part, that was holding my life back now, preventing it from jumping forward.
All that is certain is that when I walked into that mall, I finally felt at home. It was the only place I could really call home back in this town. I took a loop around the stores to check on all of my regulars, more like family to me than my blood relatives. There was the mall walker, she had on her classic bright green running suit and was speed walking down the hall. Her short grey hair shot out of her headband like a spray of water, and her high-waisted elastic pants cut her torso off too soon making her entire body look out of proportion. I smiled and waved, and she did likewise, she hadn’t changed a bit. Then there was the mall over-spender, I recognized her immediately. She must have been over or nearing her 50’s by now, but she still dressed like she was 17. I peered into the store I heard her loud argumentative voice coming from and saw her in her tight skinny jeans, ugg boots, and leopard print shirt (huh, guess her fashion grew into a very tacky 20). She was leaning over the counter, bags from other stores surrounded her, “This is not possible, what do you mean it’s been declined?! Here try this one!” She would go through card, after card, after card, wrecking her credit, one poor fashion choice at a time. I smiled, it was nice to know that she hadn’t been banned from the mall for arguing or put in jail for money fraud. Of course then there was Huey, the mall janitor. He was a nice man, with a big grin on his face no matter the mess he had to clean up.
“Hello Huey, remember me?” I smiled at him as I leaned on to the tall trash can as he knelt to pick up a piece of trash some kid had attempted to throw into the bin and abandoned.
“I remember every face that walks in this mall!” His extraordinary claim did not surprise me one bit as he smiled wider, glancing up at me. He was a wonderfully happy man, but very forgetful. I used to walk with him on Tuesdays when I was 16. He would give advice on all sorts of different things, from drugs, to insurance, to music. Yet, every Tuesday he would forget that I was the same person he walked with last week, so much of my life advice was repeated. This might seem sad to some, but it wasn’t to me because Huey was content. Imagine if every day there was something new to discover. In this way life never got old for Huey, and happily for me, neither did his job. He was right where I left him. They all were, except one.
I finally made my way to the food court, to visit my favorite regular, my mall watcher. I actually got excited, and quickened my pace; it would be good to see him there. He would bring the most comfort to me I thought, because out of all the regulars, I was his regular right back. However, when I rounded the corner I found the busy room lacking. His table was abandoned; he was nowhere to be seen. I felt my senses slow, everything was out of place. The people around me didn’t even notice he was gone; they just kept going with their lives. The noise of their existence pounded in my ears. I needed to scream. I needed to yank these people out of their own worlds and show them that other people existed- that he had existed. They moved like he had never been there. They talked as though there was nothing wrong. They were oblivious to the man who was my friend, the man who was all of their friends. He had watched over them, he had protected them all this time. They were ungrateful. They didn’t even care, because they never even noticed.
Everything blurred from there. I just remember being pulled into the mall office by two lanky new security guys asking if I was okay. I sat in that small room for hours, crying, while they stood there watching me. After awhile I had nothing left to cry, and was informed that since the mall was closing I had to leave. They didn’t understand.
I wandered through downtown for the night. I saw him in everyone, from the bum begging for cash, to the store clerk closing up shop. I finally stopped at a park bench across from the hospital and stared at the tall building of windows. I contemplated going in, demanding to know if he was there, but what would I say, “Is there a man here who likes to go the mall and watch people?! I need to see him immediately!” I would get kicked out and land on the very bench I was sitting at. It seemed worthless, I felt worthless. I could never find him; I didn’t even know his name. My only luck was the mall.
I returned to the mall the next day when it first opened. It seemed odd, because it was so empty. I went to his table, and I sat. I sat there all day, watching people, and waiting for him. I watched my regulars. I watched the new flood in and out. I watched women drag children through the mall, and teenagers ditching class. I watched men come in and the promptly leave with a shopping bag or two. I watched mall security bullshit around. I watched Huey clean up after people who were too lazy to take their trash 5 feet to a trash can. I watched my mall walker making her rounds. I watched the morning turn to afternoon, and the afternoon turn to evening. Then I watched the people filter out. I numbly followed them outside.
I couldn’t bear to leave the mall that night, and I hadn’t gotten my hotel yet so I just stayed in my car, waking up at dawn to sit outside the main doors, waiting for the lanky security guys to unlock them and let me in. I sat at his table once more. The morning seemed clearer now. I saw a woman I recognized from yesterday and nicknamed her the early bird, she was all done up and bursting with energy. She would order a breakfast from The Pretzel Maker and then run out again. The people seemed to jump out at me, everything was new. I loved observing their dynamics. In the afternoon a mother, father, and son strolled through. The mom’s make-up caked on heavy and the boy fearful of every move the man would make. The man himself unshaven and his smile forced. I looked at the boy harder, he had been crying, his face strained red. I knew that one day he would return to the mall, looking for the peace he had at that moment, safe under the gaze of the public. I then saw my mall walker rush past, in her new pink sweat suit. I became absorbed in every person, not just my regulars. By the time the mall closed, I had almost forgotten my mall watcher, but not quite.
I don’t remember the night. My car had been towed. But I was there when the doors opened again, back to waiting and watching for him. In the hours I waiting, I felt myself get distracted watching the crowd again. The people needed someone to watch them. They literally begged for it, why go to the mall if you don’t want to be seen? I kept my eyes peeled for the young boy too, but he never showed again. It made sense, at this point he wasn’t old enough to come by himself or every day. I would be on the lookout for him as long as I was waiting though. I had to be there every day; I couldn’t miss a single second. There had someone there to watch them, someone to take care of them in his absence. I don’t know when exactly I stopped waiting for my mall watcher. I don’t think I ever really have.