There’s a break in the cornfields off highway 57 that is filled with pre-fab apartments, car dealerships, and run down strip malls. Five lanes of traffic chaotically battle in a race with no finish line. Potholed streets lined with weeds lead to a myriad of driveways where cars anchor in a sea of asphalt. Just shy of a half-mile from the freeway is the grandest of these driveways flowing into a vast, grey landscape in front of a low-slung cinderblock mall. There are countless flower pots scattered near the main entrance, which is a large white stucco structure with a sizeable Frank Lloyd Wright inspired decoration above the doors. As you enter, there is a jewelry store and a candy shop. Continue to the right until you find the electronic store where I’m standing in the window.
I’m reorganizing the cell phone display, again, per instructions from headquarters. The store is a cluttered cavern of diodes, adapters, and transistors in stark contrast to the other sleek, white retailers. The store manager watches porn on his tablet as he runs reports and gets his marching orders from corporate; the same faceless entity that tells me to rearrange the shelves. Rows and rows, columns and columns of cheap products with high margins. Low-quality plastic molded into every shape and color. A variety of brands all manufactured at the same sweatshop.
On the other side of the window is a young woman. Her face is pressed against the glass and she’s dressed in black. She waves at me excitedly. It’s Anabelle and she runs in to give me a hug. I feign a smile as I stand surrounded by merchandise waiting to be shelved. I’m silent as she babbles about everything at once. She always looks up and to her left, avoiding eye contact, when she talks. My hands are in the pockets of my boring uniform khakis and I glance toward the ground. I’m engulfed in plastic goods destined for the landfill in the near future.
“Whatcha doin’ workin’ here? I’d think ya’d hate bein’ inna place like this,” Anabelle states while looking around like she’s hoping to find an answer somewhere.
“Well, I gotta pay da bills somehow, right?” Anabelle just stares at me as I lightly tap a charger with my foot.
“Yer not payin’ any bills with this job. Do ya even make eight an hour? Hmm? Didn’t think so. Yer comin’ with me ta get lunch: my treat. ‘Nd leave that ugly shirt here.” She skips to the food court as I toss the polo shirt onto the pile of junk and follow her. We grab a couple slices from a stand - a red neon bordello of grease. Spoiled fat kids gluttonously cram pizza into their sauce-covered mouths.
“Where da hell are we?” Anabelle asks. Strange question since I followed her here.
“Uh… Da mall.” I reply sounding a bit confused.
“I know that. I mean, is there anythin’ here that’s unique ‘nd tells ya what city we’re in? Or that we’re even in da Midwest?” It just seems like a normal mall to me.
“Umm… Whatcha lookin’ fer?” I’m still trying to figure out the question.
“This looks like every damn mall I’ve ever been ta. It could be New York or Mississippi. Or it could be Georgia or California. If ya were blindfolded ‘nd brought only ta malls ‘cross ‘merica, I bet ya never be able ta tell where ya were. Do ya see anythin’ ya’d only find in this miserable town?” I see chain stores in beige boxes. There are elderly people slowly passing fake plants. The same teenagers you see everywhere stand around a kiosk pimping sunglasses. But, I can’t find anything to indicate my specific location on mother earth.
“Hmm…” I think for a bit, “I never noticed that before. We really could be anywhere right now.”
“Or nowhere,” she retorts as she dumps a tray of garbage. We wonder down the sterile corridors passing shops tended by bored adolescents on smartphones. Every square inch of sales floor is intensely lit. A group from a nursing home speed by on power scooters. There’s an occasional uncomfortable bench in the middle of the hallway. We are stuck behind people walking so slowly that we barely move. We are impatient to get around them even though we have no place to go.
Anabelle grabs my arm suddenly and stops. I look to see what’s wrong. Staring intently toward the atrium, she blurts out, “Oh. My. God! We gotta see what’s goin’ on over there!” In front of the boxy fountain that looks like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, are two middle-aged men in Hawaiian shirts. The skinny guy is jamming on his acoustic as if he is Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. The large gentleman pounds on his keyboard and emotionally serenades a Kenny Loggin’s song or something. Everyone walks by as if we are the only people who can see them.
Anabelle starts dancing when they play Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock. She’s probably the first person to gyrate her hips in this uptight suburb. Unsuccessfully, Anabelle invites me to dance with her. She dances as if everybody is looking at her and they are. The song ends and Anabelle runs up to the smiling musicians. There’s some discussion, flirting, and somehow she ends up with their microphone.
“I’M DA SEXY SPIRIT OF DA CLEARANCE RACK!” Anabelle bellows followed by laughter and a bluesy beat on bass. The collar on her worn leather coat is flipped and her black jeans look like they commute regularly to hell and back. I watch the shoppers as they gather at the developing spectacle. What is she thinking? Proving she doesn’t care what anyone thinks, her raspy little voice begins to wale:
“On da day I was born
Da nurses gathered 'round
‘Nd they gazed in wide wonder
At da joy they had found
Da head nurse spoke up
Said ‘leave this one ‘lone’
She could tell right ‘way
That I was bad ta da bone”
Anabelle fell to her knees and was gradually working into a rage. Her voice becoming louder and more graveled. “’Nd when I walk da streets, kings ‘nd queens step aside!” The mall’s complete attention is on Anabelle as she crashes onto her back. “B-B-B Bad! Bad ta da bone!” She winds-up motionless on the dingy white tile to a smattering of surprised applause. George Thorogood’s soul was in that mall courtyard.
Anabelle raises her hand and I walk over to pull her off the ground. She gives the mic to the keyboardist, “Thanks guys. That was a lotta fun. See ya!”
“Nice singin’,” I tease. “What made ya do that?”
“Aww, thanks. Just thought one interestin’ thing had ta happen here today. Let’s get outta here.”
“Didja do whatcha came out here fer?” I never asked her why she was at the mall in the first place. Anabelle usually makes all her purchases as garage sales, consignment shops, and thrift stores.
“Nah, but I did somethin’ better.” I’ll accept that answer and head for the exit.