Filed under: Chapter 11 | Tags: Anne Rice, blood, Charles Manson, double Windsor, Fear and Loathing at Twin Pines Mall, Josh Bates, Kevin Wilder, Larry Norman, Motörhead, Some New Trend, Stuntin' & Hustlin, Taj Mahal, Tom Petty
IT’S GOOD TO BE KING :: BY KEVIN WILDER
THE UPPER-FLOOR MEN’S DEPARTMENT is a tough area to pigeonhole. Even the Casual Wear section is spread out, divided into over a dozen territories. Items like guayaberas, cargo shorts, and wool cardigans are sold year-round—making about as much sense as my long-absent Poster Ladies.
Visible to our left is a department I’ve tagged Stuntin’ & Hustlin, where mannequins wear dragon-embroidered jeans and Lugz, and other articles obnoxious people wore a decade ago. I kind of wish Todd placed me in Stuntin’ & Hustlin’. I could sell chain-link necklaces, and visors bearing the Projek Raw logo to rich degenerates. Of all the times I dreamed of weaseling my way into Men’s, I never considered being stuck in Formal Wear. The stuffy department is made stuffier by my coat and tie, not to mention meditating on the many ups and downs yesterday brought.
Laying in bed last night, I was faced with a new dilemma. How would I go about planting a kiss on the lips of Bryanna Summerson? Was I supposed to at all? My life seemed on the verge of falling apart, like the demolition of the New Haven Coliseum. When I finally fell asleep, my dreams were filled with Bryanna and I soaring through clouds in a hot air balloon. It was kind of weird watching Bryanna’s face transform into June’s, but not half as weird as watching Will float by on a hand-glider, trying to stab our balloon with his pair of gigantic scissors.
I awoke to blankets and safety, and got up to spend the first minutes of the morning in the shower, unmindful of the clock. I dried off before the conditioner suds had washed away, and rummaged the laundry room to find my Easter suit. My body demanded some energy replenishment from Burger King, but for the first time in my Macy’s career I was running late. At work, Todd had a plan for my “training” that went like this: I nodded a lot, said “yes,” and asked periodic questions with mock-enthusiasm. Had I been more alert, his tutorials wouldn’t be intolerable. Thankfully, after the first hour he left me alone with Dave and Ray, his attention drifting to a shoplifter on the bottom floor.
Though Dave and Ray are supposed to be letting me in on their eerie Father’s Day procedures and corporate rituals, the pair would rather watch me sort neckties by color and pattern. Currently they’re taking turns dressing a mannequin in a Hawaiian shirt, cummerbund, and suspenders, leaving his pants unzipped so a little undershirt sticks out of the fly. Personally, I find them about as entertaining as a Brendan Fraser movie. I take it my skills are showing promise when Dave walks over to promote me to a new assignment: clipping pants onto hangers, the proper way.
“Now remember,” paunchy Dave tells me, “you can call ‘em ‘slacks’ or ‘khakis,’ but don’t let us catch you running around saying ‘Sunday pants’ anymore.” He’s referring to a mistake I made while assisting a gentleman shopping in search of a new wardrobe.
“Give the kid a break,” skinny Ray says. “Let him call ‘em what he wants.”
“No worries,” I inform them. “Shouldn’t be hard to remember.”
“Oh, and one other thing.” Dave gives my attire a once-over. “You might wanna think about taking your shirts to the dry cleaners.”
“Not a problem,” I say.
Just as Dave’s lectures seem to be coming to an end, he hitches up his pants and says, “Lemme fix that double Windsor of yours.”
“That’s okay.” I back away, tugging at my necktie in defense.
Ray gives some sort of eyebrow code for Dave to ease up on the attacks. He asks uneasily, “Shouldn’t you be icing that swollen lip?”
“Oh. Right.” I realize now I must look like a rowdy bruiser to them, and refrain from going into the details of my first-ever fist fight. Pin-striped pants are far more simple.
If I can brush the criticisms of these two veterans aside, I think we’ll get along smoothly. Already they’ve proved their main objective is flicking rubber bands at one another’s arms, when they’re not fighting for sales. Unlike me, their salaries are based on commission. They like having a kid like me around, willing to sort plastic bags of designer briefs for $7.21 an hour.
I take it as a sign the hazing must be over when Dave slicks back his hair and says, “Alright. We have an agreement around this place. If a chick under thirty comes in…I got dibs on helping her shop.”
Ray hoists his shoulders with difficulty and says, “Rules is rules.”
“But early-morning mall-walkers are fair game for anybody,” Dave continues.
The two of them start laughing like a pair of drunks at a comedy club. Clearly they’ve been watching episodes of “The Pickup Artist” and taking notes. “Whenever a woman comes in this department,” I say, “doesn’t that mean she’s shopping for her husband?” They look puzzled. Dave’s expression says I’ve got shit for brains. “Well, I guess Father’s Day makes room for plenty of exceptions,” I add.
“Tell him Rule #3,” Dave says.
“Relax! We’re gettin’ to it.” Ray sits next to Dave on a table too flimsy for their combined weight. He continues: “If she’s got some meat on her bones, this guy right here gets her number first.” He points to himself with a look of self-satisfaction.
“What can I say? I like ‘em big.”
I want to search the room for a broom and dustpan, but instead opt for establishing my placement within these pathetic old geezers’ arena. I say, “Okay homebros. Where does a kid like me fit into this agreement?”
“Slow down now, little guy,” Dave says, getting up from the table with a foolish grin. He knocks over a neatly-arranged stack of belts.
“That goes without saying,” Ray adds. “If a good-lookin’ teenage girl comes in here—”
(There’s more than one in my mind.)
“—and one of us asks her out—”
(It sounds as if they’ve given this matter more than enough thought.)
“—we’re liable to find ourselves locked up,” Dave finishes the sentence for Ray. “Or at least on that reality show that busts fellas for meeting kids on the internet.”
“Strike while the iron’s hot!” Ray yells, not fully understanding the expression. He throws out a hairy fist for me to pound. I shake my wrist in pain.
Dave pulls a bag of crushed vending machine crackers from his coat pocket, and throws one up in the air to catch in his mouth.
Ray frowns at him and asks, “What are you, four years old?”
Yesterday, at June’s impromptu party, I had to face the expected foolishness of Will and my sister, both less bearable than normal. And when I gave June an application to Hot Topic…well, I can’t begin to explain the high-voltage sparks convening between us. Was it criminal to feel this way while we chatted—comfortable, and unburdened by other problems in the world? It only lasted for a minute or two. We said a few words and then parted ways. June’s always had an air about her that could brave bad weather, but a smile that could cut the head off the Great Sphinx of Giza? I had no idea. It reminded me of Honors Chemistry, sophomore year, when we learned about electromagnetic forces binding electrons of atoms. June and I stood with our eyes locked, caught in our labcoats without a science. She was becoming less Stephanie’s friend, and a little more…well, something. If Bryanna weren’t around, I’m afraid it might’ve turned into more ‘birthday’ than June had bargained for.
Bryanna insisted on the two of us grabbing a late lunch, and who was I to decline? As we waited for the Ruby Tuesdays hostess, Bryanna asked cheerfully, “Come here often?”
I explained to her that most days I bring my lunch, or eat at Popeyes or Kujo’s, or how if it’s payday I might grab a table for one at TGI Friday’s. I didn’t tell her how this went against my rule of shunning restaurants that incorrectly use possessives. It isn’t like Twin Pines has too many other options.
“I’m kidding,” she said. “It’s what old people say when they wanna hook up. I was trying to flirt.”
I should have felt more gratification than discomfort, but flirty-talk sounds like Turkish to me.
When we found our table, this metalhead kid hobbled over to say hello. In technical terms, I should refer to this person as a black Black Metal kid. He goes by James. Did I mention he’s black? James is an old friend, though referring to him as such seems like a stretch. He can shred the six-string like a champ, but it’s kind of annoying to hear him pronounce certain words like he’s from Norway (or maybe it’s Iceland, or Sweden?). James and I shared a bus seat in seventh grade. We were both a little odd; no one else in the neighborhood had any interest in trading cassettes. This was long before he made friends with Heavy Metal George, and became a wizard at the guitar, and learned how to entice girls with his fraudulent foreign accent. It’s never fun watching a fellow outcast become a teen heartthrob overnight, but with my successes this summer, the same arguments could be made against me.
“Bryanna,” I said with urgency. She raised her eyes from the menu. “Meet James. James, Bryanna.”
She took a sip of sweet tea and, indifferently, put out her hand. James grabbed and held it tenderly, slinging his straightened hair away from his cheeks.
I made an accidentally audible noise, and asked, “So you like working in here?” It was obvious he did, seeing how the management had permitted him to wear countless buttons on his apron of bands with names like Bloodthorn, Opeth, and Impending Doom. I had no idea Ruby Tuesdays was a dark enough place for a guy like James to be employed, metaphorically or lighting-wise.
He nodded and asked, “Vere ahr yoo guys goveeng ah-fter this?” shooting me a suspicious glance, as if I were sharing a table with Charles Manson.
“Nowhere,” I told James. “We don’t leave the mall much. We’ll take some Southwestern Spring Rolls.” I didn’t want him to talk us into joining him for a Mastodon show, or watching him rehearse some Motörhead chord progressions.
“I find your vay-ter to taike your ohr-der, okahy?”
James disappeared. Bryanna whispered, “Do you think he’d card me for ordering a drink?”
“A drink?” I nearly spit a mouthful of mine across the table. “You mean like with alcohol?” I calmed down and said, “Maybe he wouldn’t card you, but some of us have a hard enough time passing for seventeen.”
I didn’t know whether this was true or not. She didn’t seem to disagree. “Besides, I’m more frightened of booze than enticed by it. I’ve watched Fear and Loathing and The Filth and the Fury enough times to quote, and a couple bottles always leads to weekend heroine binges in filthy hotels.”
“What filth?” Bryanna asked. “What fury?”
She saw me playing with my straw and asked, “Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” I said. “What for?” I told her I was tired. Of course this was a lie. It really felt as if my brain were an orange that needed squeezing.
I retreated into my head while Bryanna talked. She changed topics quickly, shifting from shoe-shopping to stories of her friends with eating disorders. And then Will’s name popped up: “I mean, he said something about volunteering to be a judge for the Twin Pines beauty pageant. Now I can see why you guys are friends. That boy’s hella funny!”
“Yeah, except he wasn’t joking about that.”
“OMG. Well sorry, but he has grown on me a little.”
“Like a leech?” I asked.
‘OMG,’ I’ve gradually learned, is a common expression in the Summerson vernacular, abbreviating a phrase taking the Lord’s name in vain. It’s more irksome than offensive. Sadly, I’ve already gotten acclimated to it.
There were things I’d been meaning to test Bryanna’s enlightenment on, like why “cute” is the only adjective females use to describe clothes. I realized I was on my third Diet Coke, and showing no signs of slowing down. For the first time since our convergence in Women’s Shoes, I would’ve rather been in my room listening to Tom Petty records than sitting with her. The songwriter’s better songs, I mean. Not Petty’s petty singles played on jukeboxes and sung at karaoke bars. I don’t mean to imply that my date didn’t look lovely sitting across from me. As she fork-fed herself slow, uninterrupted bites of her Portabella Mushroom Turkey Burger, I realized my issues were the ones that needed fixing.
Todd walks in, and Ray and Dave postpone their argument over who scored a goal in some World Cup soccer game. I haven’t gathered why they’re still on a sports contest from over a year ago. Ray fills his arms with knee socks: his best attempt at looking busy. It’s nice watching Todd reprimand someone new for a change. It’s also ironic, since I’m the one who nearly blacked out on a stack of Dockers a few minutes ago.
Todd answers his walkie-talkie, signalling him back to his hiding place. Stephanie’s head peeks through a rack of Sale items.
“You can come out now,” I tell her.
I say, “Hey! That’s s’posed to be mine!”
“It’s supposed to be Dad’s,” she corrects.
Without warning, Stephanie wraps her arms around me with a sorrowful hug. I’m afraid she’ll start crying, the way she does once a month, while in one of her horrifying girl-time moods.
“Oh Josh,” she says, “Kirkland’s is killing me. No one ever warned me I’d be lifting forty-pound wooden elephants.”
“Wooden elephants?” I ask.
“Yeah. They’re manufactured in Poland. Except I think they were made in China.”
“How can you tell?”
“My life’s so boring,” she says, smacking her gum. “Have you seen June?”
I shake my head no. I have not seen June. June, June, June. Not unless my cluttered mind where she’s taken up residence next to Bryanna counts.
Stephanie looks around the room and asks, “Am I gonna get you fired for being here?”
“No big deal,” I say. And I don’t want to shoo her off. The times I need her may be few, but this is one of them. Steph’s the only familiar face I’ve seen today, except Dylan, and all he did was complain about Taylor Gonzales’s church girlfriends, and how they had been dropping by disrupting his workflow with their weepy farewells.
“These guys don’t seem to mind,” I tell Steph. “And besides, they’re clueless that you’re my sister, so I’ve got automatic dibs.”
Stephanie gives me a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” I say. “Forget it.”
After finishing another fancy-ish meal, Bryanna could tell I was tired and not thinking straight, and I could tell she would have rather been with Rose. We said our goodbyes in the parking garage, where I was too scatterbrained to conjure up a plan for smooching. Some things are better postponed.
“Wanna ride?” she asked.
“No thanks. I drove today. Which reminds me, I gotta swing ‘round to pick up Steph.”
“I meant a ride to your car, dummy.”
“Oh right.” I forged a laugh.
When she dropped me off, I was astonished to find Will, sitting cross-legged on the hood of the Eagle Medallion.
“It’s about time,” he said. He slung his Anne Rice novel across the lot like a frisbee. “This real-life vampire stuff is worse than Twilight. I don’t understand it.”
I bent down to tie my shoe.
“So have you banged her out yet?” he asked. It might have been one of his crude attempts at good humor, but it only made me want to hop in the car and skid away. I could knock him off the hood and onto the pavement, and return home in peace.
“Shut up,” I said. “By the way, what was that all about today?”
He hopped off the hood. “What was what about?”
“You scamming on June.”
“Whaddaya mean?” he said defensively. “Don’t be such a boner.”
“Oh, you think I’m the boner? That’s a riot. You’re the one who invited yourself to June’s birthday party and acted like an idiot.” There it was. I didn’t know where these attacks were coming from. Maybe exhaustion was giving way for more honesty.
“I didn’t invite myself. She told me to come.”
“Whatever. Stephanie told me about that weird crap with the watermelons too, you freak.”
“Screw Steph,” he said. The street lamps were turning off one by one. “Say me and June have been kissing…why the hell should you care?”
My blood was boiling. I really hated him.
“Ever since you made your move on that stupid trophy girl you’ve made it perfectly clear you don’t want anyone else around.”
“That’s not true,” I said. He pushed me out of the way and stood in front of my door. I couldn’t believe this was happening. “You’re wrong,” I said. “I care about stuff…” I held out my fingers and began counting things that were dear to me. “…family, work, church—”
“Like hell you do,” he said.
“Sorry Will, but unlike you I’ve got dreams. What have you ever wanted?” I looked away from him, at the mall and the red carpet highway leading up to it. Blinking yellow lights beamed for miles, reflecting off the slick pavement. I realized if we had a town of our own, it was Twin Pines Mall—nothing more, nothing less.
Will squinted his eyes and said, “Why’d you give June that Hot Topic application?” His telepathic powers must have been kicking in. (Shouldn’t they have faded with our friendship?)
“’Cause I was being nice. I was trying to help.”
He kicked the ground theatrically. “You’re not nice. You’re just meddling. Nobody ever knows what you’re thinking.”
I kept silent.
He asked, “Tell the truth, man. Are you in love with June?”
I wanted to answer him honestly, but it seemed like a subject too big to cover, like summarizing the origins of West Coast hip-hop. Truth is, ever since the party I had been taking inventory of my thoughts. Perhaps I’d be doing this for eternity.
Will looked away.
I retaliated. “What if I WAS in love with June? Don’t want the competition, do you? Not like you’ve got a chance anyway.”
I could see the words getting under his skin. The truth bites like a bad cup of coffee.
“What’s your plan, Will? Gonna wrap up some more Red Bulls for her?”
“You’d better watch what you say.” Will paced toward me angrily, raised his arms, and pushed me with force into the rear bumper of a minivan.
“What’re you doing?” I yelled. This was the stuff of B-movies, but he actually did plan on doing something, in the physical sense. He seized my shoulders and shook me.
“Easy fella!” I said. I tried to push him away with what strength I could muster, and grabbed his head to send him to the ground.
Will hit me in the face, puncturing my lip. He backed off and for once didn’t say a word.
I straightened my shirt and jerked my head up. If there were a perfect time to disappear, it would’ve been now. I stood, raised my fist, and flung it toward his face, punching him in the eye.
I bolted to the Eagle Medallion for a getaway, expecting Will to chase after me. He didn’t. I stopped at the car and wiped my lip with my shirt. Of all the crappy ways to end a friendship, this might have been the worst.
Some lightning sounded in the sky. I turned around to notice Will sauntering back to his car. Where were my keys? I needed to pop my trunk. Surely it was already too late, but I wanted to give him the t-shirt sketches I’d been working on over the past couple of nights. Will had probably forgotten this business model, but maybe he’d change his mind after seeing how well the designs had turned out. Starting a company felt like the one thing that could salvage the camaraderie of a previous lifetime. I checked my pockets. No keys. I felt like breaking down, but could only yell across the lot. My voice lacked power, sounding decrepit and weak.
Will’s car was out of sight. I inspected my lip in the side mirror, and tended to the cut. Blood was filling up my mouth, worse than all the times I’d slashed my gums on my braces. Within moments, a girl in a light green Volvo pulled over some speedbumps. Did June Marley have a car already? It’d be weird if she did, being only a day over sixteen. I wasn’t thinking clearly, and needed to believe this was her. Fate pulled me closer as I ran to her door. Rain started to fall.
The girl looked terrified at the sight of me, but rolled down her window. “Can I help you?” she asked, looking at my matted hair and busted lip.
“Hey. I thought you might be a girl I know.”
“I am not,” the non-June said, pulling away quickly.
I hurried to the Macy’s entrance doors, and shook them. The alarms were set, and I knew Todd wouldn’t answer the phone while counting money. I dialed Mom and began the walk around to find Steph. Drenched, with hands in pockets, I looked toward the mall again. The structure was losing its allure.
Whenever my mind is occupied with stressful matters, staying busy at work is all I know to do. As evening rolls around in Formal Wear, the department is closer to perfection. Father’s Day banners are hung from the ceiling, and in addition to the ties, pants, and underwear, Dave and I have set up a caged display housing sophisticated products every dad needs. Handkerchief sets, electric razors, wooden cases for poker chips…
When architecture does its job, the world benefits from it. It might sound silly, but buildings offer places for people to live and work. In the best examples, they add a touch of manmade beauty to a landscape. You don’t have to look at Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal to see what I mean—just go to your favorite local park. The danger lies wherever architecture is ineffective, ravaging and raping the land. You see it all the time: history turning itself into a building site, until next thing you know, an ugly warehouse is standing where a horse barn once sat. People like Will remind me of architecture gone bad. Get to know someone well enough, and you’ll start to lose hope. At least architects try to make the world prettier or more useful than it was before they were put on it.
If college scholarships and Bryanna don’t pan out, I’ll probably descend into living the retail life until I die. Ever heard a more depressing thought? No one wants to picture themselves selling suits or scamming run-of-the-mill chicks when they’re forty, but look at guys like Dave and Ray. Who’s to say Josh Bates won’t end up in the same boat, taking their place in the grander scheme of things?
The upper floor doesn’t provide a clear view of the clock above the Food Court fountains. Unlike before, I can’t see the people making their daily rounds. Maybe it’s better like this. I rub my tongue over the roof of my mouth, doctoring an oncoming toothache. I tap the chestnut linoleum with my newly-purchased, freshly-polished loafers. Things have changed considerably in the past couple of weeks, but I’m still here. Better think of ways to improve my life before time runs out.
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