A story by P.S. Mueller
Chapter One––My Name Is Don Pazelchek
I graduated from Waxley High in 1984 and drove off toward the sun in a bent Chevette. You remember the sun on important days like the day you leave Shamburg. On my day the sun was the color of the same artificial dairy product that sickened two Indiana counties last year. That's how I believed we got out of Shamburg back then, in rusty oil-burning Chevettes rescued by the dozen from a junkyard in Steamwood and beaten back into functional life by Chutch Windersen, who said he got four hundred dollars apiece for his single-minded pursuit. "She'll get you to the coast is all I can say." said Chutch. He left town right after me, trapping a generation of Waxley grads behind in Shamburg.
I rode that cushion of blue smoke and counterfeit shock absorbers until it was time to pull off the plates and walk the last mile or so to the Value Video in Glanders, Arizona. Everybody in Glanders was named Vern. Vern gave me a job at Value Video, Vern rented me an apartment, eventually "leased" his video store to me, and sent the occasional card from Bumblebee where he retired and claimed his own double-wide corner of the end times in the country's first underground trailer park. Soon after Vern's departure, predator Dwaynes were spotted hovering near the outskirts of town.
In Glanders I mistakenly bound myself to a hateful redheaded wife named Terri and moved in to her laminated configuration of sheet rock, Celotex, vinyl. Terri owned a very dangerous Afghan dog that growled whenever I entered the house, never taking its eyes off my left leg. Her kitchen counter tops were made of sacred stone that long ago had cradled the bones of a Hohokam demigod who lost everything in the real estate crash of 1550. On days when she wore Capri pants the rages came more easily to her. She despised me and I feared her and we went on like that for far too long. The better part of a decade passed before I learned that the current Glanders city planner was overcome with deep emotion to a Habitable Structure conference he attended in Shamberg in 1979 and had been quietly duplicating my home town ever since. His name was Dwayne and every other morning I saw his car pull away from behind our gazebo.
By early 2009 the house slipped underwater and Terri moved in with Dwayne. I took to living at my store and shuffling out of the back room in my disturbing cat slippers to turn on the blinky sign at noon. I wore bad slacks to go with a Mens Wearhouse blazer I picked up from a red-headed Mexican guy behind the Circle K next door, completing what Terri called "Don's worthless total look." Things will get better and I'll die when they do, I starting telling myself –– out loud–– in the store. Shortly before I turned off the OPEN sign for the last time, Terri started up with a new fellow she promised she truly despised–– "The challenge of a lifetime, compared to you." she hissed across a table at me as we collated our divorce papers at Kinkos.
A few days after dismissing the idea of returning to Illinois, my uncle Paz died and left me his two bedroom condo along with twenty per cent of Brandhurst Mall. I wadded up my divorce papers and shoehorned them into the right front car stereo speaker to dampen a loud buzz stilettoed into it by Terri's left foot during one of her diatribes about something that never should have been made into flakes. I would have my music on the long drive back to Shamburg, dammit. It felt so right to reconnect with Classic Rock with the help of documents intended to dissolve a marriage.
For reasons I will never understand, I started wearing Dockers again after my return to Shamburg. I even thought about picking up a dark blue suit from a Jos. A. Bank store for the meeting, already set, with people somehow partnered with Uncle Paz, but suits make me swagger, and people hate my swagger. Then again, perhaps the sheer formal weight of business attire might convince them to pony up a cool million for my shares. After all, if people believe you have money, they can't give you enough. If they don't, you shall pass, dimeless, into a kind of history that sits up on blocks, sorely missing its wheels. I never used to think like this in Glanders. Plans weren't part of my plan.
Shamburg is a Chicago suburb long considered by some to be living disproof of Darwin's theory of evolution, not to mention any number of his idle thoughts. The town simply blinked into existence on December 14, 1956, displacing 19.3 square miles of cornfields and 52 farmers. In 2009 developers declared it more or less full until a time when the 850 acre Shayner farm could be pulled close enough for a deep municipal kiss. In the unlikely event that the current anonymous owner of the Shayner parcel retained control of the land, a provision in the original village charter will require the compulsory relocation of Shamburg's entire tax base to a sprawling unincorporated wedge of No Man's Land north of Waukegan, known to locals as Muddlehind. Abraham Lincoln provided original language for the town charter before a mysterious consortium of "interested parties" funded his entry into politics, halting forever a promising career in real estate law. We had to memorize this before we could graduate from Waxley High.
Now for the creepy part. After many years away from Shamburg, it became apparent to me that I was the only 1984 graduate of Waxley High who left town. They all stayed, and I came back. Uncle Paz's condo sat right between two competing developments known to locals as as Mom City and Daddyville. During the late 70s and early 80s waves of rolling divorces conspired with the Reagan Recession to uproot Shamburg parents from their hard-won ranch house kingdoms and thrust them, separately and alone, into a tackier world of cheap, poorly constructed condominiums notable for infinite variation and oppressive monotony. Historians point to the Wandering Oaks section of Daddyville and its 1981 name change to "The Chock-A-Block," as the birthplace post-modern irony. Soon every place from Hazard Street to Sunspot Boulevard had new names: Screaming Pines, Wutherland, Drywall Penitentiary. My parents fell under the spell of Ayn Rand, a woman who believed, among other things, that children were traps made of dependency and snot. Bob and Margaret Pazelchek, left me with Uncle Paz in 1975 and were shot six months later for attempting a coup in Venezuela.
My old classmates, except for the Cockneys, were now my neighbors. I saw Mimsy Wheeler walking what appeared to be a red fox. Carl Vanderhagen still drove his dad's 1976 Olds Cutlass. Cupcake Wilson walked everywhere and was obviously still very seriously baked. Howard Large Bear had trouble placing me until I brought up the tamale fight we had with the Cockneys at the Twin Drive-in over in Wheeling. Lance Patel weighed 300 pounds and wore a jet-black mullet-style hairpiece. His dramatic weight loss threw me for a second. The Whitelaw sisters served twenty years in prison for killing their parents and lived in a condo they legally inherited, eventually. Chaz Langway remained an asshole. The Chinese kid from gym class who looked to be about thirty back then never did pick up English. And Old Man Marburg was still Old Man Marburg, or I should say, Really Old Old Man Marburg. Everyone else's parents were either gone or had been installed at the Legacy Hill Center For Continued Existence.
The Cockneys continued on in the same small corner of Shamburg they claimed upon emigrating from London a century ago. They never intermarried with Yanks, and despite a hundred years of all that America, they stubbornly kept on talking like chimney sweeps. Even the kids stayed to themselves, except when we mingled at school and the Cockneys made us gaze upon the unspeakable foods they carried to lunch in greasy sacks–– a challenge for us to witness what they called "eatin'." The Cockney dads didn't go to work and would have nothing to do with the planting and maintenance of lawns. To this day the people of Shamburg know nothing about how the Cockneys survive or why on earth they seem to like it here.
At the time of its grand opening, in time for holiday shopping, on November 1, 1962 Brandhurst Mall offered more parking than any other major retail facility on earth. The place was home to three major anchor stores, dozens of specialty shops, four banks, and a movie theater. Generations of suburban teens coursed through the place like blood through the arteries of some great homunculus, mindless but alive to the nearly limitless potential of consumption. Brandhurst thrived on us, and most of us eventually went to work at Brandhurst, or something newer, bigger, and grander in other towns much like Shamburg. Business looked thin when I babied my Ford Focus into a parking place a few feet from the main entrance. I looked back across the vast empty lot toward my uncle's condo and wondered why I bothered to drive.
The food court was new, or newish. There were a lot of people camped at tables strewn throughout the commons area, people who had apparently arrived on foot or by bus. I recognized the fat crazy guy who spent whole afternoons staring and whispering to the fake "Oranges of Julius" when I worked there in 1982. Today he was intently poking a remnant of Cinnabon with a soda straw in a CSI kind of way. He looked up and recognized me as well, turning away abruptly, yielding to the distant muscle memory grip of fading public shame. The first store I passed on my way to the mall office was Musicland.
"Hi, My name is Don Pazelchek. Paz was my uncle and––"
"He left you twenty per cent of this place, right?"
"Ember? Ember Deetz? Is that really you?
You had a cat. His name was Mister something…"
"Puddles. Mister Puddles. I still have him."
"Amazing! Remember when we got back to your place after seeing Repo Man––"
"And Puddles peed on your hat. Puddles hates hats."
"Well, uh, how long have you been here?"
"Since 1990, I guess."
"Never got married."
"You need to see Mr. Failure"
"Uh, well, uh."
"Jerome Failure. Jerry's the boss and one of your partners. He was really hoping to see you today. So was I. We'll catch up later. Now go on through that door."
Jerome Failure asked me to call him Jerry, which I jumped at the chance to do. Jerry was indeed one of my partners. As a partner of mine he was also a partner in a venture capital concern registered and incorporated as The Partner Group. But as a single investor I was not part of The Partner Group or their separate interests. Wily Uncle Paz, the only mixed blood Cockney/Hungarian in town, purchased his twenty per cent of Brandhurst in five per cent chunks, one each from each of the four partners, thereby side-stepping any of the Partner Group's liabilities, aside from his own initial investment, of course. HOWEVER––
Jerry unconsciously and repeatedly checked his desperate combover and explained. The Partner Group's majority control of voting stock allowed them to hire and fire Brandhurst management and more or less scrape off annual profits year in and year out. All went well until business started to slide after Thunderstore opened two years ago in neighboring Griftwood. Thunderstore debuted as "The World's First Big Box Mall––" a bricks and mortar challenge to the internet itself, a roofed structure amazingly footprinted over the entire Griftwood city limits and containing: a Walmart, Target, Costco, Home Depot, Cabela's, PetSmart, Hobby Lobby, Staples, Safeway, and so on. Jerry's partners in The Partner Group fired their longtime Brandhurst manager, leaving Jerry no other choice but to take the job. "My partners refuse to take any active role with Brandhurst. Hell, they won't even maintain their own lawns," Jerry said. MEANWHILE––
He went on to tell me that the developers behind Thunderstore expect the Grifton city council to annex half of Shamburg and have Brandhurst Mall condemned, razed, and converted to a long-term parking lot feeding into the shuttleway to Thunderstore. "Let's go have a lot of drinks," Jerry said.
As we walked through Brandhurst I felt it–– a kind of warm familiarity, sadly absent from my life for so many years, had returned. Ember titled her head just so and waved good night as she stopped in to visit with her sister at Kinney Shoes. On our way to Chi Chi's we passed Crazy Eddie's and Bombay Company, exiting through Wickes Furniture. As Jerry opened the door to Chi Chi's I turned to look back at the mall and froze, realizing only just then that every retailer under Brandhurst's leaky roof had long since disappeared from the American mallscape, brought low by countless takeovers, swindles, catastrophic ideas, and small mistakes. Jerry pulled me through the door and steered me to a booth near the fire exit. Patrons were smoking cigarettes.
"Jerry, how long have you known about the stores?"
"Known? I still don't know for sure what I seem to know. Sometime before the partners put me here the four of us spotted a trend. An anchor store like Sears would leave and Monkey Wards came in. Penny's moved out and Gimbel's just sort of showed up, demanding and getting 15% off a year-to-year lease. I think all the stores that ever were and are no more got folded up and put away somewhere, and every now and then people we don't know yet sneak a few things back into the mix. Same with the smaller stores. Hell, some of them are left over from chains that never made it west of the Mississippi. With lawsuits dragging on for decades any unnoticed outfit can go rogue and run wild out here on this godforsaken range. And who the hell pays attention to bookstores? In this business cash flow is everything, so even if the rent is less or late or whatever, a revenue stream is a revenue stream. Let's have two drinks now."
"What about the managers and clerks, Jerry? The customers, for God's sake! And Ember!"
"I don't know about Ember. The woman keeps her own counsel. But the rest of everybody else either doesn't talk about it or can't see it. I have this theory about suburban kids born in the middle 60s. We kind of grew up in or around shopping malls––dropped off on a hot summer afternoon or a cold Saturday. That was our life beyond TV and school. It became second nature to us the same way our kids all seem hard-wired at birth for any future software. In darker moments I suspect that Brandhurst and Shamburg are hand-in-glove experiments, performed where a guy named Failure nurses a failing mall through its slow decline."
"What kind of experiments? I mean, what's the point if everyone is losing money?"
"Brand resurrection. My partners, the Cockneys, in case you haven't already guessed, know something more than they are telling me, which is why you have to take over."
"But what about Thunderstore?"
"I'm supposed to handle that."
"Drinks are good. I like many drinks."
The Partner Group offered Ember and me fair salaries to run Brandhurst and the Cockneys installed Jerome Failure as the new mayor of Shamburg. Jerry didn't let Thunderstore consume us alive with its slavering maw. The truth be known, Ember runs the whole show now and we're cheating the Cockneys just a little. The Cockneys would suspect us of cheating more if we didn't cheat a little. Ember says I'm smart to let her run things and she's smart enough to pull it off. Terri never once uttered a soft word to me in all those years. Ember never raises her voice. But it only made sense for her to manage. She had done it all along from one manager to the next, long before Jerry Failure showed up. Jerry came in, squinted at the books, drifted over to Chi Chi's, and that was that. When I'm not handling calls for Ember, I'm usually hanging out with the rat-faced kid at Musicland, driving him nuts about Frankie Goes To Hollywood's comeback plans. Ember and I have picked up where we left off, dating again and all that. Last night after seeing a movie we stopped at Chi Chi's to have drinks and look at the back of Jerry Failure's head and marvel at his combover. She made a joke about having my cool million in cash salted away in the First National Bank of Libertyville. Ember was friendlier than I'd seen her since high school. She reached across the table, squeezed my hand, and told me Mr. Puddles had finally departed from this world.