Mart of Darkness

by Randy Schroeder

The Nellie's Kitchen, a breakfast nook in Thames Mall, settled its timbers in anticipation of night. The scent of old hash and bacon still curtained the doorway, lightened by tangs of lemon soap. Outside, hot rain steamed the pavement. The setting sun blazed over the sheen, and for a moment a great pale river rolled to the sidewalks.

Then the rain stopped, and dark began. Matches flared at the Nellie's windows. Candles were lit. Busboys flitted within, wiping the spills. Children gathered in the corner.

Beneath the smoky beams, four figures hunched 'round a table, joined by the night manager. One was young, a punk drummer. Her comrades were older: a lawyer, a drug dealer, a convenience clerk. It was happy hour, time for sea-shifts in menu and conversation.

"These rolling blackouts." Drake the lawyer hoisted a boilermaker. "Will they affect the mall?"

Jim the manager shook her pig-tailed head.

"No idea." Franklin the clerk lifted his mint julep. As if on cue a string of patio lanterns lit one by one, then winked out, while a wintry wind flushed through the window to rattle the straws. Not a leaf stirred outside.

Kidd and Columbus, the punk and dealer, paid no mind. They were engrossed in a tattoo magazine. Behind them, deep in the gloom, sat Joseph "Conrad" Black, sipping a root beer slush. He was allowed a special dispensation for "outside" food, for he was a legendary fixture in the mall, a store detective from the old days, and known to be lightly mad. He bobbed forward: his giant curved straw resembled a pipe at some angles, giving him the aspect of an old sailor. At each bob something birdlike squawked on his shoulder.

"Love that ink," said Columbus, "Why are there children in here?"

Headlights blinked off and on up the hill, flashing the Nellie's. All five turned to the window. Their irises lit like fox-eyes in a field.

"And this too," said Black suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the mall."

There was a brief silence. Even the candles held their tongues.

After a long pause, Drake sighed. "Do tell, Black."

"Go on." Jim threw up her hands. “Are those children?”

They already knew they were fated to hear one of the old man's inconclusive stories. Black pushed back his chair, into the light's ambit. He did indeed have a gleaming mallard duck on his shoulder, balanced precariously.

"I was thinking of old times," he continued. "Before the concrete was poured."

"Definitely," said Kidd.

Black reached up to scratch the duck beneath a wing. "I suppose you young perks know that I once did a turn as a security guard, in a mall far from these places."

"Definitely," said Kidd. “Definitely not.”

"I have lived my entire life in the malls. And have wondered, as have you, whether a mall circumscribes civilization as we have come to know it."

"Circumscribes?" Columbus burped.

"Where they cut the foreskin," Kidd whispered.

Black didn't hear. "Is the mall the boundary of life? Does it infuse life, exhaust it, enfold it? What is the moral, philosophical, metaphysical status of a mall?"

Chicken wings arrived.

Franklin grabbed three. "Black, care for one?"

"Meat?" The old man recoiled. He had been nibbling a salad culled from the day's leavings: withered beets, carrot tops, teeth-marked peppers. His duck, perhaps a cannibal, stretched at the chicken and flapped excitedly.

Drake plucked a spicy wing and bit. "Do continue, Black. You speak as usual like a man who has weathered many evening storms at the public library."

"Indeed." Black soothed the duck. “I will tell a very long story, in which the Titan Mall expands ‘neath the influence of some occult and dispersed hive-mind intelligence, beholden to no central plan, no corporate control, wrapped whirling and fractal and mitochondrial, the only geography in the world not fully mapped, still home to dime-store explorers and muffin cartographers and washroom frontiers, with its own indigenous myths and peoples, its own ecosystems grown wholly in artificial light, where one of the Titan's wings, especially, is a frontier, a blank on the map: the north wing, which juts north terraced and serpentine, once a self-contained mall in its own right, now abandoned, shut down and called only the Ghost Mall, perpetually scheduled for demolition, but deferred, accreting myths to explain how the Ghost Mall is sealed but still inhabited, by folk without social insurance numbers or credit records or even citizenship, who have lost not only their birth records, but the very memory of their birth records, and have, out of necessity, formed a society completely sealed from the daylight world of commerce and culture, an entire world run on bootlegged electricity, evolving in isolation like Darwin's Galapagos.”

“This is a long story,” Columbus complained.

“I have not begun the story,” said Black.

"Excellent." Jim sighed.

"Excellent," said Kidd, and meant it.

So they settled their chairs for a long evening without text or streaming video. Cold beers arrived, chased with Irish whiskey. And Black began, and ended, with a raveled in-between. The tale lasted only seven hours, and there was no one at the conclusion — no voice, no scattered bones or explanations.

“That’s it?” said Franklin.

“Well now.” Drake sipped morning beer, seemingly pleased.

But Columbus, who had flushed by degrees over the telling, was clearly horrified. Pretzel crumbs spackled his nose in a salty wreath. He had lost at least thirty percent of his hair, which lay scattered and whitened in the French-fry tray. “So…” His teeth combed his tongue. “So this is no story. We are in it right now. Forever. We have always been. WE ARE TRAPPED IN THE GHOST MALL!”

“No,” said the duck. “That would be a misreading of the situation.”

“A complete misreading,” said Drake.

The children in the corner began to sing a Christmas carol.

“My favorite,” said Franklin.

 


Randy Schroeder is the author of many short stories and of Crooked Timber: Seven Suburban Faerie Tales, almost all under the pseudonym A.M. Arruin. He currently lives in the Porcupine Hills of Southern Alberta, where the water is sometimes potable. His story, "Baby Bakes Valhalla" appeared in Issue #3 of The Cafe Irreal.