From “Street Life”
Last of the Mall Rats
Big Jim Thaxton parked his aging Ford in the usual spot between the security truck and the mall manager's black Lincoln. Tonight, the engine sputtered for a while after he'd turned off the key, thick white plumes of steam hissed out from under the hood, smelling distinctly of anti-freeze.
"Damn," Thaxton growled, slamming the car coor open as he leaped out.
"What's the matter, Jim?" a slick-haired guard said from the door to security.
"It's the car again," Thaxon said, not taking his gaze from the rusted machine-- dents had festered into open wounds. Soon, the body would rust away into dust, leaving nothing but the delapodated engine.
"When isn't it the car?" the man said, crossing the drive-up lane in a laxidazical stroll, swinging his flashlight slowly as he shook his head. "How much have you put into the monster anyway?"
"Not as much as you'd think," Thaxton said, fingers fiddling with the hood release-- the metal hot, burning flesh as he tugged it up. "I do a lot of my own work."
"Which explains a lot," the other man said.
Thaxton cast a dark glance in his direction. "There's nothing wrong with my mechanical abilities," he said. "The machine's twenty years old. Parts aren't always available. And even then, there's only so much you can do before the machine itself gives out."
The other man lifted the flashlight and let its sharp beam move over the engine compartment, showing a world of dirty wires and worn hoses, through which the steam roared.
"This is only April, pal," the guard said. "If it's overheating now, think what it'll be like by Summer."
Thaxton closed his eyes. "I'm trying not to imagine," he said. "Look, Rand, I know what all this is leading up to..."
His gaze shifted passed the security truck to the blood-red camero sitting like a premadona, parked over the line as to occupy two parking slots instead of one. Rand had excused himself by saying he didn't want any dents.
"Well you are bringing down the Mall's reputation driving junk like that. Don't you have any pride? I mean it isn't like you're working for some outfit in Paterson now...."
Another dark glance stopped the man in mid-sentence.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to mention Paterson," he mumbled. "I know how you feel about that."
"Just shut up, Rand, please," Thaxon said. "Despite my so-called prestigious job, I don't have money to buy a car like yours."
"You could borrow it."
Thaxton shook his head. "I don't need the debt."
"There you go with that again? What are you squirling your money away for anyway? You can't bribe your way into the police accademy."
This time, Thaxon's stare was deadly. "I said shut up."
"I'm only trying to set you straight, Pal. You want to be a cop. Well, you gotta start acting like one, get yourself a little class."
Thaxton snorted, closing the hood to his machine again. "And a car like yours is going to give me class, is that it?"
"It couldn't hurt."
"Sure. Next you'll tell me they saw me coming in Verona, and that's.. never mind. I don't want to talk about it any more."
He grabbed his gym bag from the front seat, locked the door, and started towards the double glass doors of the mall, leaving Rand still shaking his head.
The scent of anti-freeze remained on Thaxton's fingers, though under it, Paterson seeped from his pores, its streets and factories staining him-- It wasn't just his car that gave the other guards a bad name, it was the slur of his voice with thick street accents. It had taken him two years to learn their lingo and tone of voice. All their kind came out of fancy houses nestled into the woody sides of the mountains just west of the mall, their lights glittering like distant stars to souls like Thaxton's. Years earlier, Thaxton had stood near this very spot, a boy fresh off the Paterson bus, staring stunned at those lights-- and perhaps his coming here for a job had been the first step in reaching them.
Unlike the others, however, he was still counting pennies, even with the reasonable pay the mall offered. He didn't have the hidden resources of rich parents upon which to depend.
He stopped short of the glass doors[-- the long corridors beyond them showed the slow signs of closing shops, straggling shoppers easing out towards the exit, lingering near the telephones or video displays. The mall had already turned down the lights, creating artifical twilight within. A scrawny figure popped up between the banks of plants near the west wing promenade, coming to a sharp stop as he saw Thaxton. He vanished almost as quickly as he had appeared.
Thaxton frowned. The mall rats should have been cleared out hours ago. Now, it would preoccupy his early night. There were too many places from which to play hide & seek. Thaxton knew many of them. He'd used them himself when he had been in their place. But new construction and rearrangede promenade displays made for a new maze weekly, through which he and the other guards had to route them out.
Of course, the other guards were somewhat skeptical of Thaxton's loyality. One a mall rat always a mall rat, they said, though never to his face. It always came in whispers, or half-finished conversations upon which he stumbled accidentally. Their gazes always shifting away from him, as if having been a mall rat was a crime he could never live down.
A new car would have helped. It would have shown the others that he was trying at least to escape the image of Rat. As it was, his rinky-tink machine only emphasised the connection, half-hippie in nature, and therefore suspect.
But he didn't have money to burn. Not with rent and the cost of application fees to this police test and that. And debt was beyond question. Debt was Thaxton's father's crime, haunting the back of his head with visions of bankers scolding the old man for non-payment, dragging away bits of their lives, the car, TV, stove, and refrigerator. And then, too, there was the vision of their possessions on the street, the proper citizen of respectable South Paterson shaking their heads saying, "And we thought they were a nice family."
And from South Paterson they went north, trading the pale judgemental faces of White civilization for the laughing black faces of the North Side, where more humbled citizens wondered how a white man could come so low.
In those days, Thaxton had come here for relief, roaming the dream halls of the mall to escape the laughter and shame, as if this was Disneyland or the Emerald city, each store filled with glittering treasures that only rich people could afford. But by being here, he'd seemed to share in their beauty somehow.
It was here, he first discovered his affection for men in uniform, remembering how each mall guard seemed to stand ten feet above him, their faces and hands engraved in stone: mighty and just, somehow starkly different from the less signicant beat cops of the Paterson streets.
As a mall rat, he had followed them, peeping at them around corners, captivated by their smiles, cars and sway with women, wanting to be just like them when he got old enough. It was only after he'd donned their uniform that he came to understand he could never be like them.
He would always have Paterson in his blood.
He shoved through the glass door, the sweet warm air of the interior washing over him, eracing the smell of anti-freeze and Paterson. He'd stepped back into the magical city again, breathing its mysterious air. After a moment, the scents divided into coffee smells and frying donuts, perfumes and bath powders, floor polish and glass cleaner. He breathed deeply and moved with more vigor to his step, the uniform pants reflected on the polished floor. It was his sharp heels that snapped behind him, making him ten-foot giant now in the service of the Wizard of Oz. It was an odd irony that the corporate masters actually trusted him-- and Sandman-- with their precious properity.
He turned down the grey-painted hall marked "mall personnel" and into security. The room was empty save for the long table and walls of lockers.
"And what are you grinning at? You're late!" the captain said from the other door, his grey hair one casulty of night duty.
"Sorry, Cap'n," Thaxton said. "It was my car..."
"Again?" the captain growled. "I'm sick of hearing that one, Thaxton. You either get yourself some reliable wheels or move closer. I can't have you late three days out of five."
"I'll handle it," Thaxton assured him.
"Fine. Get out there and start locking up as soon as you've stowed your gear. There are rats inside, make sure they find their way out. Okay?"
Thaxton grinned, the captain's lecture barely brusing the glow in his eyes. He spun the combination to his locker, put in his bag, and removed his flashlight and hat.
He examined himself in the mirror, shifting the angle of the hat. Yet it didn't quite sit right on his head. His fingers fiddled with the inner band, making it slightly larger, then slightly smaller.
"Cheap shit," he grumbled. Guard uniforms were not of the same quality as the stuff police wore. The glow faded from his eyes. He shivered and pressed the hat rudely down without further cerimony. Nothing he could do would make it fit. Now, it was the cops that looked ten foot tall, not him. He was nothing more than a baby-sitter.
The man appeared again at the door, tie undone, his lower lip quivering slightly-- as it had for two months since his wife had died. "How did you do on the Verona test?"
"Came in fifth overall, captain."
The elder guard's grey eyes brightened. "Not bad for a street kid. Congradulations."
"None due, captain. I didn't get the job."
"What? Why not? They were looking for five new officers from what I heard."
"Affirmative action," Thaxton mumbled, waved his flashlight, and exited to the service hall, where a thin, pale face greeted him from a few feet away. The small boy's body stiffened, green eyes studying Thaxton for a long moment, not a trapped animal, but a curious one. The patched jeans and ragged red shirt suggested Paterson.
"And just what do you think you're up to?" Thaxton asked.
"Nothing," the boy said, his sneakers squeeking as he turned abruptly back, darting out into the wider hall.
Thaxton cursed and started to pursue him, but ran smack into a red-haired guard without a hat.
"Sandman!" Thaxton said. "Just the man I need. Did you see which way the rat went?"
"Forget the rat," Sandman said, face crinkled with some more serious worry. He grabbed Thaxton's arm. "You and I have to talk."
"Down here," the smaller man said, dragging Thaxton back towards to the guard room, though he stopped a few feet short of it. "You've been screwing up, boy. People upstairs have been talking about letting you go."
Thaxton sagged. "Like I care about them or their job," he grumbled.
"You ought to care," Sandman said. "All this might not be the glory life of city police, but it's bread and butter, and you can't afford to go giving it away until you got something better."
"All right. I don't need a lecture. What exactly have I done wrong to attract the wrath of the gods?"
"You're attitude, boy, for one," said Sandman. "You've been snipping at people, and they've been complaining. You don't mess with customers in the mall, boy. That's rule number one around here. And you've been snapping the heads off your fellows, too."
"Those clowns!" Thaxton grumbled. "They deserve it."
"Maybe they do, maybe they don't. But you got to work with them, and that accounts for something. Chill out, boy, before you wind up back in Paterson with nothing to show for your stay here but a boot print on your ass."
"Let someone try," Thaxton said.
"I'm not talking the other guards," Sandman moaned. "We all know what you can do with your fists. It's the man who you got to watch out for, and he's not very happy."
The `man' or `mall manager' was generally unhappy, but irritating him had ended more careers here than one could easily count.
"Look, Sandman, I'm sorry. Things have just gone wrong. That's all. The car. The job in Verona. Me."
Sandman put a hand on Thaxton's shoulder. "That's all?"
"It's a lot. The captain just scolded me for being late."
"So go buy yourself another car. You got money to put down on it."
"Now you're starting to sound like Rand."
"Pardon me," Sandman said. "But good advice is good advice. You get yourself a new car like his and you'll be amazed what kind of changes it works on you, self-respect, girls. Hell, even old fart-head Dean would have to think twice before sacking you."
"Even if I had the money, Sandman, I wouldn't want to play that game. I'll find something."
"What I can afford."
Sandman shook his head. "You still don't know the difference between here and Paterson, do you?"
"Just lay off, Sandman," Thaxton said. "I'll get another car."
"Okay! Okay! I don't need you biting my head off with the rest. I'm just trying to wise you up."
"I'm wise, all right?"
Sandman studied his face. "Say, there's something else wrong isn't there? Something about Verona, right?"
Thaxton sighed. "Does everybody have to know all my business?"
"Well--" Sandman said, stepping back with mock indignity. "I figured since you've been bragging about it for three weeks, you might want to let me in on the result. You fail?"
"No, I didn't fail. But I didn't get the job either. Some stupid nigger did...."
"Calm down, boy," Sandman said as the word `nigger' echoed out into the main hall. "You're letting your Paterson heritege show again?"
"Look, Sandman. I don't mean to be prejudice. I'm just getting that way. This thing has been happening to me ever since I lived in the projects. I've been competing against people with black skin for a long as I can remember, and always coming up on the short side. You know what it's like to grow up white in a black world?"
"No," Sandman said in a low voice. "I guess I don't."
"It isn't fun," Thaxton said. "And here I thought Verona was going to be different, a lilly white town where I could compete with people head to head. And I did. I beat those rich kids, not because I was white or black, but because I worked hard. Yet the minute I prove just how good I am, some bastard comes along and turns the rules upside down, acting as if all my work was shit."
"Thaxton, boy, calm down--" Sandman said, casting a glance towards the guard room-- where the sound of the captain's telephone rose like a voice.
"I can't," Thaxton said. "I'm all bent up inside. It's as if the bankers were evicting me and my family again."
"It's your own fault," another voice said-- Rand's greasy head popping around the corner with a bright and irritating grin.
"Go away, Rand," Sandman said. "This isn't your business."
"What do you mean it's my fault?" asked Thaxton.
"You're going to the wrong places, Thaxton," Rand said, oozing into the hall with a wave of cologne.
"I've been taking every test I can find. They're all in the civil service catelogue."
"There you go, thinking like a nigger," Rand laughed. "You're not in Paterson any more. You've got to start thinking in bigger terms than civil service."
"Like what?" Sandman asked suspiciously.
"Like the state tests, Sandman, that's what," Rand said. "There's a whole different criteria for the state police."
"Come on, it's the same thing all over," Thaxton said. "If they got affirmative action in Verona, they'll have it in the state."
"Not necessarily," Rand said slyly.
"You know something we don't?" Sandman asked.
"Then out with it, Rand," Sandman said. "Otherwise stop wasting our time."
"Well," Rand said. "It seems there's a state test coming up next week."
"A little late for me," said Thaxton. "You have to sign up months ahead of time for that."
"Not if a certain friend of mine slips your name on the role."
"You would do that for me?"
"To be rid of your and your junkie cars?" Rand said with a laugh. "Any time. Can you make the test in that junk of yours?"
Thaxton nodded thoughtfully. "If not that car, then I'll have another by then."
"Good! Good!" said Rand, slipping passed them towards the guard room. "Just show up. Everything else will be taken care of."
"I don't trust him," Sandman hissed, after the guard room door had closed.
"I'm not sure I do either," said Thaxton. "But if there's any hope in this-- I'll try it."
"More than likely it's a bad joke. But do what you want. We've got work to do."
Sandman slipped away, leaving Thaxton to the empty hall. He sighed and stepped out into the mall again, his uniform tight around his shoulders and thighs. He squinted down the polished passageway towards the west wing prominade. Sandman or the captain had already lowered the lights. The store fronts had done likewise, leaving vast shadows around pillars and trees. Out of this darkness, the gurgling fountain sounded almost sweet. But no mall rats were visible, though now in the deeper twilight, their hiding places muliplied, and routing them out became a matter of tedious routine.
He started with the doors, locking them counter clockwise as he moved around the other perimeter, uncovering colonies of Mall Rats near each door, hanging out in the closed fashion displays, or the monkey-bar-like structures of more scientific emporiums imported that week from South Jersey.
"Out! Out!" Thaxton shouted, herding them ahead of him, drawing dirty looks from couples closed to copulating in the corners. But they moved, falling into the routine as easily as Thaxton had, shuffling towards the unlocked doors then out into the parking lot, where they would find new places to hang out. The town police would route them from there, or Sandman would, driving upon their love-making with blaring hours and flashing lights. But for the moment, they were no longer Thaxton's problem, and he sagged against the locked door, grinning.
Through the glass, however, many of the mall rats stared, congregating on the wide tiled veranda under the mall's illuminated logo. There was anger and hurt in their eyes, and a deep sense of betrayal.
No rat should treat them like this, their eyes were saying. But then, no true rat would have donned the uniform of their enemy either. It was the same look Thaxton had gotten from the blacks in Paterson when he'd mumbled to them about being a cop.
The whole trip took him about an hour, and when he got back to his duty station near the southwest wing, he found the cop waiting for him.
Thaxton stopped in the shadow of the prominade. Even from fifty feet there was something disagreeable about the stonish figure, something hauty and distrusting in the spread legs and grey downtown uniform, the sharp stripe down each leg as stiff as metal bar. The figure paced impatiently, then plopped himself down in Thaxton's chair, polished shoes up on the desk.
Thaxton sighed and exited the shadow.
"Oh, there you are!" the cop said, words sliding out of the side of mouth. "I thought you people were supposed to guard this place?"
"We do, Bender," Thaxton said. "Is there a problem?"
The cop's grinned, but the grey eyes remained hard and fixed on Thaxton's face. "No problem. But someone left the goddamn door open. Anyone could have walked right in."
The grin vanished. "Well, yeah, and others less honest than me."
Thaxton sighed again. "Most of them are locked, Bender. I always save this door till last so people can get out."
"Scum," the cop said, looking up and down the now vacant hall suspiciously. "Most of them are from Paterson. I don't know why the mall can't hire more local."
"Because no one from this part of the world will work that cheap," Thaxton said, pushing the cops feet off his clipboard. "Do mind not handing me your bullshit now. I have paperwork to do."
The cop rose, freeing Thaxton's chair, but did not stop glaring, shifting a worn tooth pick from one corner of his mouth to another.
"Paperwork?" he said, spitting the loose splinters into the sand ashtray near the wall. "You guys got it soft around here, boy. All you do is write reports and sit on your ass all night."
"That's not true and you know it," Thaxton said, his face growing red. "We have to deal with all sorts of characters."
"Mall rats and bums," the cop said, spitting again. "But you only toss them outside, leaving us to take care of them. I wish I had it that easy."
Thaxton sat in the still warm seat, his fingers gripping his pen too tightly. He did not look up at the cop. "It's a job, Bender. That's all. It has good points and bad points like any other job."
But his expression betrayed him. The job had no real function in the world-- its authority beginning and ending at the boarders of the mall. Beyond that, guards were helpless. They wore no guns, they carried no clubs, and the pay was not sufficient to chance the darkness outside without some weapon.
Bender sucked on the tooth pick for a moment. "It seems to me that if I had a job this cushy, I wouldn't be looking for work elsewhere."
Thaxton kept his head down and scratched out the beginnings of a report, his handwriting shakey. "I'm busy, Bender."
The cop leaned over Thaxton's shoulder, a faint scent of alcohol floating down from him like cologne. "So I see," he mumbled. "That wouldn't happen to be another police test, would it?"
"No," Thaxton said letting out an exasperated breath. "It is not another police test."
The cop grinned and meandered a step or two before turning again. "Just wondering, Thaxton. It's all over downtown about you taking tests. We get our giggles during the dull hours talking about it."
Thaxton looked up sharply. "People have been talking about it?"
"Sure! It ain't every day we get mall guards wanted to graduate into the big league. Hell, most of us are quaking in our boots about it. It's like sending a kid straight from kindergarden to college. This ain't no way to train for being a cop."
"No one said it was."
"Oh, but you think you've got what it takes to be a cop. Is that it? It ain't as cushy as this job here. You acctually have to do something with these Paterson scum, once you get your hands on them."
Thaxton studied the cops face for a moment-- the alarm that had risen into his eyes faded. "Like I said, Bender, I'm busy."
"Did I hit a nerve, Thaxton? Or maybe you're just a little sensative, eh? Ain't that what the force needs most, a sensative mall guard cop!"
"Lay off, Bender."
"And who's gonna make me?"
This time when Thaxton looked up, there was startled recognition in his eyes, the tone of a thousand incidents with downtown Paterson cops echoing in Bender's voice, or punky white kids from the southside parading in the projects with attitudes of invincibility-- leaving a trail of broken teeth and dreams in their retreat.
"Maybe you should be the one acting like a cop," Thaxton suggested.
The cop's jaw twitched. The two grey eyes studied Thaxton's face. It took a long time for the grin to reappear.
"That's it, Thaxton," Bender said. "But you've got the voice all wrong." He snatched up the security phone. "Mall Rat babying-sitting service here. See? Now you try." He handed the phone to Thaxton.
Thaxton took the phone and dumped it back in its craddle. "You've had your fun, now get. You don't belong in the mall anyway."
For a moment the cop frowned, his eyes sparking with a sudden surge of anger. But this faded quickly and he emitted a laugh.
"All right, mall man. I'm going. But you keep on studying so you know what a real cop looks like."
The man strutted out. Thaxton leaned back in his chair with a long expulsion of breath. Then, he took up the phone and puched out the number to the station house.
A sergeant answered.
"This is mall security," Thaxton said, his voice taunt and official.
"Yeah? What of it?"
"One of your officers was just here giving me a hard time."
"So I want to lodge an official complaint."
"All right, I'll pass it on."
Thaxton slammed the phone down and stared out the glass doors to the shark-like shape of the police car as it pulled away from the curb. A slow, satisfied smile touched his lips.
There was no smile the next night when Thaxton stomped back through those doors, looking tired and frustrated, gaze shifting from side to side like a hunted man, the habits of Paterson projects returning as he scowled at a mall rat.
"Take it easy, general," one of the store owners said, smiling. "You're not going to get rid of them by killing yourself."
Thaxton nodded and leaned against the one foot section of polished fancy brick which seperated the coffee shop from the t-shirt store next door. "I know."
"Here, have some coffee," the old man said, shoving a cup of cimmon brew into his hand. He sipped it. The spice tingled on Thaxton's tongue.
"Did you ever notice how many of the mall rats are black?" Thaxton asked after a time.
The other man frowned. "Well, a lot of them are, I suppose. Most of them are up here from Paterson..."
"But didn't used to be that way."
"Frankly," the old man said. "I don't see how it makes any difference what color they are. They're all a pain in the ass."
"I suppose it doesn't," Thaxton said, taking another swallow of coffee. "It just seems odd that I hadn't noticed it before..."
"You got something against blacks?" the old man asked. His tone wasn't mean, but the eyes were serious and concerned.
"I grew up in the Paterson projects," Thaxton said. "If I didn't have anything against blacks, it would be unnatural."
The old man nodded tentatively, looking up sharply as another band of mall rats suddenly appeared at the mouth of the service hallway, sneakers skidding to a stop at the sight of Thaxton.
"Yo!" Thaxton shouted, shoving the cup of half-finished coffee back into the old man's hands. "Stop right there!"
The small black mall rat froze in mid-stride, the same wide eyes shifting towards the advancing guard the way they had the previous day, not afraid, only angry, a shifting, sly anger grew stronger the closer Thaxton got.
"What the hell do you think you're-- Hey, come back here!"
The boy leaped away, just as Thaxton had reached him, twisting out of the tall guard's grasp with all the skill of a real rat.
"Son of a bitch!" Thaxton said, starting after the boy, only to stop a dozen strides later with a frustrated shrug.
"I'll get them later when I lock the doors," he told the old man as he lifted the unfinished cup again, gulping down the lukewarm liquid. "Got to check in. Thanks for the brew."
"No problem," the old man said. "Just don't blow your top, okay. That's how good men like you get lost."
Thaxton stared at the man for a moment, but there seemed no more an explanation on the wrinkled face. He shrugged again and barged down the service hall towards the Security room.
Even from the odd angle he could see something hanging on the door, and when he got there, he saw it was in the shape of a man. The breeze from an open door somewhere farther down the hall made the thing sway as if it was really alive. He touched it. It was only paper. A paper effugy with a badly printed sign beneath saying: Thaxton go home.
Thaxton's fingers curled into a fist, the knuckles growing pale. He snatched it from the wall and shoved the security door open, banging it against the wall of lockers.
Sandman and Rand leaped up from over their cups of coffee.
"Hey!" Rand growled, mopping at the brown spill that threatened to roll down onto his expensive civilian clothing-- hip-tight leather pants with black silk shirt. "What are you trying to do? Give us all a heart attack? What you got there?"
Thaxton threw the paper man onto the table. "It's meant to be me," he said.
"Doesn't even look like you, Rand said.
"Nor is it funny," Thaxton growled. "Why me? Aren't there better people to pick on around here? Like Dean or the captain?"
"They were never mall rats," Sandman said in a solumn tone.
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"Stuff it. I don't want to hear that stuff."
Rand looked nerviously at Sandman. "You tell him."
"Tell me what?" Thaxton asked, his back to both men as he openned his locker.
Sandman's calloused hand settled on Thaxton's shoulder. "Did you have a little incident around here last night?"
Thaxton frowned. "Not that I know of."
"With the cops?"
"Oh, that!" Thaxton said. "Just Bender being an asshole. Nothing unusual."
"Maybe not, but you're calling downtown certainly wasn't the greatest idea," Rand said.
"What do you mean?"
"He means rule number one is never mess with the cops," Sandman said.
"But you didn't hear what he was saying about the mall."
"Knowing Bender it was probably pretty bad," Sandman admitted. "But that doesn't change anything."
"So what am I suppose to do, let him shit on my face?"
"It that's what it takes to keep him happy, yeah."
"Bullshit!" Thaxton said, turning on both men. "Maybe you don't have any more pride than that, but I do."
"Listen, stupid," a red-faced Rand said from across the table, jabbing a finger at Thaxton. "You don't have no badge yet, and until you do, don't go messing with Bender. It can only make trouble for all of us."
"But I'm the one who complained."
"But we're all in this together, Jim," Sandman said. "You don't think any of those cops see us as individuals. We're just imitation cops doing things half as good as they do."
"So what do they want? Our jobs?"
"Moonlighting isn't unheard of."
"Don't be silly," Thaxton said. "They'd be bored to death."
"That's not the point," Rand growled. "Some of us like to race along the read mall road on Saturday nights. We don't need a bunch of stiff-necked town boys putting in their two cents. Can you dig?"
"But he's a bad cop, Sandy," Thaxton said. "And he's been drinking, too."
"Bad cop? He's a typical cop, and you'll be just like him when you finally get yourself into his exclusive club."
Rand laughed. "You say that now, but once that badge gets pinned to your chest, big man, you'll sing a different tune. But until then, don't go making trouble for the rest of us. All right?"
Thaxton said nothing. Sandman clapped his hand on his shoulder.
"You've got to chill out, Jim. You're always too tense. Try thinking about what it will be like when you get that new car of yours."
"New car?" Rand said, showing mild surprise. "I didn't hear anything about this."
"I never said I was getting a new car. I said I was getting another car."
"It's the same thing," Sandman said.
"Hey yeah," Rand said. "We might even let you into our little drag race if you come up with something decent."
Sandman and Rand left laughing, the voices echoing in the service hall as they discussed an upcoming race. Thaxton sat heavily on the bench, staring at the row of lockers across the room and the slowly settling dust from their departure, caught in the white glow of florcenent lamp light.
"A new car?" he mumbled. "Maybe if I win a goddamn raffle..."
He shoved back the bench as he rose, grabbing his flashlight, slamming the locker door. The outter hall was empty with only the squeeky sound of his shoes. The newstand near fountain was still open, though the woman was already drawing down the plastic cover over the magazines.
"Can I help you with something, Jimmy?" she asked, wiping the stain of newsprint onto her apron. Her eyes sparkled. She'd been here since the mall's opening and those eyes had seen every change, new guards, growing rats, coming and going stores. Her smile, while missing teeth, had always been friendly. She had given Thaxton candy bars to supplement his lack of food as a rat. Her admiring gaze surveyed his uniformed, clearly approving of the change.
"I just came for a Want Ad Press," he said, unclipping the used auto publication from the display on the counter. He pushed coins into her hands. She pushed them back.
"What? You pay? Don't be silly."
He laughed and wandered back towards the south wing stuffing the rolled magazine into his pocket. He would look at it later after his rounds, when the dark mall grew unfriendly and strange. His gaze roved the usuaual corners for signs of rats. Most of them scurried out ahead of him, though a few always slipped through the initial search, popping up at odd hours and in unexpected places, giving into the rumor that the mall was haunted. But once the doors were locked, there were only two ways out of the vast maze, Thaxton or Sandman. And when the lights went down, the rats came, darting out from their most secret places, seeking light, their frightened gazes always stained with wonder.
None of the other guards quite understood it, mocking the rats, calling them crazy-- as if this ritual of night, of seeing and challenging its darkness spoke of madness.
"Why do they try and stay if they're so fightened?" Sandman once asked.
"Because they need to see if they can stand it."
"Never mind. You wouldn't understand anyway. You've never played the game."
"And you have?"
"Yeah," Thaxton said. "But I can't explain it."
How did one explain the horror and joy of vanishing light, of grand halls slowly sinking back into the marsh of darkness upon which the mall had been built. Even now, with the lights still on, the smell of reed-beds and lilly pads and water washed up from the cracks, reseizing the air stolen by the daylight cookeries. But it was the fading light that dominated all, watching as the stars leaped into the glass panels above their heads, winking down through the dark leaves of plants like gods.
Thaxton shivered, the vision shifting from stars to the paper effugy. He shivered again, unhook his keys and began locking doors. By the time he'd completed the closing rounds, he looked exhausted, the first signs of noon-time shadow staining his face. But he stopped a few feet short of his desk. No, it wasn't the cop this time, standing there, but another paper effugy, swinging back and forth across the paperwork, paper feet dusting the surface. The stink of magic marker was still fresh in the air as the red-eyed creature stared down at him like a convicted horse thief. Another sign had been pinned to its chest saying: Thaxton go home.
"Why!" Thaxton yelled, his voice booming through the now empty chambers like a ghost's. "What the hell did I do to deserve this?"
Only the sound of scurrying feet answered him. He yanked down the paper figure and rushed to the mouth of the service hall. It was empty, save for the whispering voices. Then came the rasp of the drawn bolt of the emergency door near management. He hurried towards it, but it slammed shut just as he turned the corner. By the time he reached it, the parking lot beyond was empty-- only his and Sandman's cars looking remarkly inappropriate in that vastness.
"Damn!" Thaxton growled, slamming the door again, pushing back the bar. The broken padlock rested in two pieces on the floor as if it had been sawed. He clutched them in his fist and cursed again.
There was no wizard in this Emerald City, only illusions created by lights and advertisements. No salvation for wandering little rats of any shape, color or size. But then, "home" for them was little better, a ritual of starvation and violence which still seeped into his dreams as if through the thin project apartment walls: "No, Daddy! Please don't hit me again!" Or the constant moaning of hunger that filled those dark halls the way oblulence filled the halls of the mall, a ghost of a different sort, with exposed bones and brittle limbs.
He dropped the pieces of the lock on the floor and stumbled back down the hall towards his desk, the voodoo of their signs and figures floating around him like a cloud. The rats taunted all the guards. It was one of the games played prepetually, they frustrating the macho-military might of this middle class sanctuary. But this taunting was different, more humiliating. The small inked eyes of the paper statue spoke of more serious and personal matters.
Bender was waiting at the desk when Thaxton got there, stiff and ostinant, his stone face turning up from examining the effugy at the sound of Thaxton's step. The mall rat sign was in one hand.
"You're friends love you," he said.
"Rats love no one," Thaxton said, crumbling the effugey into an unrecognizable ball.
"I seem to remember you're being one once," the cop said.
Thaxton looked up sharply. Recognition and laughter filled the tall cop's eyes.
"So maybe you're still one at heart, taking up a job here because you can't bear to leave the mall."
"Look, Bender. I'm really too busy for your bullshit tonight. Unless you have some official business here, leave."
Bender smiled, exposing the small, yellowed front teeth. He looked like a snarling dog. "I don't need some sniviling mall rat guard telling me what to do."
"Someone obviously has to," Thaxton said dryly. "You can't be doing your job if you're here."
"Don't push it, pal," Bender said, leaning close to Thaxton's face.
"I said get out and I meant it."
The cop snorted. "You can't make me leave if I don't want to."
"Can't I?" Thaxton said, hand falling onto the phone receiver, as he stared up into the cop's cold grey eyes. "This is my mall at night."
"Now isn't that a kick! A mall rat owning his own mall." But the cop's laugh ended as abruptly as it had begun. He grabbed Thaxton by the shirt. "Listen, Pal," he said in a hoarse voice. "You ever call my boss on me again, there'll be hell to pay, your mall or not. You get me, Mall Rat?"
Sweat trickled down Thaxton's back. His other hand formed a fist at his side. But the cop let go of him again with a disgusted grunt and moved away, towards the glass door.
A Rat's face popped out of the darkness beyond the doors, frowning, then vanishing again.
The cop stopped and looked back at Thaxton. "A mall rat guard. No wonder these creatures are swarming all over the place. Maybe you should do your job, Pal."
Then, the cop was gone, climbing into his car at the curb. It jumped away leaving burning rubber behind.
Thaxton sagged in his chair, the same lost expression on his face as when the banker had vanished after the eviction notice and their things were piled on the curb, his father sobbing: "They're taking our house..."
Thaxton lifted the receiver and dialed downtown. The sergeant's gruff voice filled his ear.
"Listen to me, Sergeant. I want you to keep your damned goon out of my mall, you hear?"
The sergeant gave an affirmative in a cool voice.
"Good," Thaxton shouted, then slammed down the receiver. He stood. His hands were shaking. He moved silently to the door, beyond which darkness reigned-- the computers had cut off the parking lot lights, leaving only the wash of city-owned street lamps from the highway, like blue water glittering in the distance. Beyond them, New York City's skyline showed through the gap in the mountain like a rising storm. He sagged against the metal door handle, the anger melting from his face-- he looked more tired than anything, and turned back to his desk and the blank report sheet with a sigh. It seemed as complicated as a police test and he stared at the vacant lines for a long time, clicking the pen again and again.
The Verona test still haunted him. The questions had seemed wrong to him, not factually, but spiritually, some minor details that just didn't jive inside of him, as if there was a code beneath the formal language that he could not decipher.
He glanced down. The Want Ad Press had fallen from his pocket. He fetched it from the floor and smoothed out the bent pages over the blank face of the report. Cars, cars and more cars were listed, by make, by year, by condition, and price. Most the details were lost in the mass of repeated phrases like `gem' or `bargain', like founding animals waiting for adoption. His finger ran down the columns, eyeing the all important price tag of each as their cost promised much in the way of status and prestiege. Most were as out of his range as a new car. Still, his gaze lingered over some of the new models,, as he silently calculated his ability to pay.
He had money in the bank. But there was a reluctance to part with his thin barrier between him and poverty. Sandman and Rand had been right about his needing a new car, and his ability to get a loan if he wanted. But to trust a banker now....
His finger stopped over one of the entries. He bent closer to read the fine print, then sat back, looking dazed.
"I don't believe it," he said, then peered again.
A 1969 GTO
"You like to ride, Jimmy?" the voice from the past asked, his uncle's thick figure standing before the open door of the machine like a god. "Come along, then. Hurry up, we'll go for a ride."
Thaxton blinked and shook the vision away, but it returned an instant later, with the rumbling earthquake passions of the GTO's idle.
"Open your window, Jimmy," the man said, shifting the machine expertly into gear, roaring back with squeeling wheels and plumes of smoke. A moment later, they were on the highway, their faces plastered with a driving wind, their hair streaming behind them like wild snakes.
Again, Thaxton lifted the phone and punched out the ad's number.
"Sorry to call so late," he said. "But I just saw your ad. Is the car still available?"
"Oh yes," the voice said.
A minute later, Thaxton hung up, having made arrangements to see it the next day, before he took the state police exam.
He slipped into the mall minutes ahead of check-in, his gaze shifting from side to side, moving only when there were no other uniforms visible through the glass doors. And when he did move, his step was staggered. In the brighter hall lights, his face showed signs of needing sleep, bloodshot eyes strained from hours of reading fine print. Three cups of black coffee barely kept the squinting eyes open. His head rattled with framents of test questions over which he had puzzled hardest, the debate of which answer was right or wrong still went on like ghostly voices.
"Are you all right, Jimmy?" the old man from the coffee shop asked. "You look exhausted."
Thaxton stopped and weakly grinned. "Exhausted and frustrated," he mumbled. "You have any coffee on?"
"Some," the old man said. "But I'll put some on fresh for you."
"No need," Thaxton said. "The bottom of the pot will wake me better."
He stepped into the small store and took the warm paper cup, sipping at the muddly contents.
"So what are you frustrated about, Jimmy?"
"About the state police test I took today."
Thaxton snorted. "Strange."
"I don't know. It wasn't like the local tests I've been taking. I mean most of the stuff on this wasn't even about police work. Algabra, Gemoetry, Calculus-- It was as if I was applying to NASA not the state police. My head nearly bust from digging up all that crap. I didn't do bad, but I don't know why it was even on the test at all."
"Why didn't you ask someone there?"
"And the sergeant looked at me as if I was crazy. He mumbled something about drug testing and radar work."
"That might make sense."
"You don't need Calculus for radar work, and besides, all the local towns use radar, too, don't they? Why isn't it on their tests?"
"I don't know."
"I do, or at least I think I do," Thaxton mumbled, finished his coffee and moved on. "See you later, Joe. I'm late."
Yet even as he edged back towards the service hall the questions rose again into his head, not just subject matter, but tone and attitude to which even he was a stranger, having lived his life in a world that did not match that described in the test, certain phrases and word meanings which did not have the same associations-- he had sat, scratching his head over them, accutely aware of the army of others around him who blowed unhampered through the test. He had grabbed one at the end, asking him how the test had felt to him.
"Hard, man, but nothing I didn't have in my SATs."
Then why had Thaxton found it so hard?
He shoved open the security room door, startling the pudgy bald-headed man seated at the table, three-piece suit looking inappropriate on the man, as if on a monkey.
"You're late, Mr. Thaxton," Dean said, his tone a stark contrast to his appearance, sharp and cold, though he wiped his forehead with a thick white handkerchief as if it was mid-summer.
Thaxton glanced at the time clock. It was eleven oh two.
"I had something to do," he said, sliding along the narrow space between table and lockers. He opened his quickly.
"I've waiting to talk with you," the pudgy man continued.
"Oh? Did I mess up on a report again?"
"I'm afraid it is a little more serious than that."
Thaxton turned. Dean's eyes glinted at him like two black pearls. "What is the problem then?"
"The mall received a call from the town police," Dean said.
Thaxton laughed. "Oh that!"
"Then you don't deny it?"
"Deny it? You mean I did something wrong throwing that little nazi out of the mall?"
Dean seemed to squirm at the word `Nazi' and shook his head. "I think you over-reacted," he said. "There are better ways to handle such situations without aggrivating the town."
Thaxton cringed. "Who owns this mall, them or us?"
"It doesn't matter who owns it, Thaxton. If you have a problem, you should have come to me. Such things need to be handled delicately, by professionals, not mall guards. Is that understood?"
The black eyes waited; Thaxton nodded. "Anything you say, Mr. Dean."
"Good!" Dean said, rising, clamping a damp hand on Thaxton's shoulder. "I knew I could count on you." He left through the captain's door, leaving the stink of sweat behind. A minute later, Sandman and Rand appeared through the hallway door, laughing, Rand holding the paper figure.
"My God! You're right, Sandy. It does look like him."
"Another one?" Thaxton moaned, sitting down hard on the bench that Dean had just vacated.
"You mean this has happened before?" Sandman said.
"Yes," Thaxton said.
"They love you," Rand said, holding the figure up by the string so that it dangled and danced on the table top. Thaxton glared at him. Rand let it drop.
"Are you all right, Jim?" Sandman asked, sliding onto the bench across the table from him.
"If you don't count the series of disasters, sure."
"My life seems to be falling in around my ears."
"So what's wrong, now. Thaxton?" Rand asked, opening his locker to desposit his things.
"That test you arranged for me is one thing. Why didn't you tell me I needed a PHD to pass it."
Rand frowned. "I don't follow? You had trouble with it?"
"A lot more than I should have? Calculus? On a police exam?"
"Oh that!" Rand laughed. "That's just part of the gimic, man. I told you it was a special test. It's designed to keep out the darkies."
"And just how is Calculus going to do that?"
Rand shrugged. "I guess they figure any nigger smart enough to know that stuff won't want to be a cop anyway. I'm shocked you had trouble, you being white and all."
Thaxon rubbed his eyes and face with his hands. They smelled of oil and gasoline. "This really stinks, you know."
"What stinks?" Sandman asked.
"This idea that there is something wrong with blacks-- I mean inferior or something. One side insists we have to make up for things by giving them jobs they don't deserve, pulling them up by the ear, while the other side presumes they're too stupid to learn something like calculus."
"Well, they don't do very well at it," Rand said. "If they did, there would be black state troopers."
"I didn't do very well at it either, Rand, and it's not because I'm stupid. Maybe it's because I went to the same schools they did and learned the same shit, taught by lousing teachers and from rotten books, afraid to walk the corridors for fear of drug dealers and gang members. None of the others at that test had to put up with that, so they could afford to learn their calculus better."
"Look, Thaxton," Rand said, bending closer, his cologne wafting out like an invisible fog, choking him. "You're the one who complained about getting the shaft, other people putting the blacks up in your place. I was just making things more even for you."
"I don't want things slanted. I don't want rigged tests. I just want what I've earned for myself."
Rand straightened shaking his head. "You don't want to be a cop, Thaxton. You want to be a social worker."
"You have to take it easy, Jim," Sandman said. "Rand didn't mean any harm. He thought he was doing you a favor."
Again, Thaxton rubbed his face, then nodded. "It's just been a bad day all over, firs the test, then Dean complaining..."
"What did the old bastard want now?" asked Rand.
Thaxton told them. Sandman shook his head.
"Didn't I tell you to leave off that cop?"
"Please, Sandy, I don't want to hear it from you, too."
"There goes the Saturday race," Rand said, throwing up his hands. "Bender doesn't take shit like this lying down."
"Maybe not," Sandman said. "I've seen him watching a few times. He likes the races and the cars."
"That's another thing I don't want to hear anything more about," Thaxton moaned. "Cars! Bah!"
"What did your old bomb finally collapse?" Rand asked with a laugh. "I thought you were going to buy a new one?"
"I bought another car, blew most of my savings on it, too."
"A new car, really?" Sandman said, his dimpled face brightening.
"Not totally new," Thaxton said. "But I have it out in the lot."
Rand frowned. "I don't remember seeing any..." Then he nearly choked on his laugh. "Are you trying to say that old GTO is yours?"
"Yes," Thaxton said.
"A GTO?" Sandman said confused. "I thought you bought a new car. They haven't made a GTO in twenty years."
"It's a good car," Thaxton said.
"It's a piece of junk," said Rand. "Can't you get it through that thick skull of yours that old cars fall apart?"
"I'll fix it up," Thaxton said.
A vision of the car new again shivered through him, like an old memory with his Uncle's face floating inside, waiting for him to take ownership.
"Damn, Thaxton, you could have put your money down on a Transam like mine."
"I don't want your trans am."
"No, but before long, you're going to want a tow truck."
"Let's take a look at it," Sandman said. "It might not be as bad as all that."
"Sure, if Thaxton's not too ashamed."
"I'm not ashamed," Thaxton said, rising, leading them out of the security room, down the service hall to the glass doors. Outside, the air was crisp, and the lot lights had begun their sequence of shutting down, bank by bank, leaving vast islands of darkness in the center. But the lights were still on over his machine.
Rand shook his head as he advanced. "You should have kept the Ford," he said. "At least that you could still get parts for."
"It's a good car," Thaxton said, with a combined note of rising anger. "In many ways its better than what you're driving."
Rand's black brows rose. "Oh?"
"You're out of your mind, Jim," Sandman whispered. "His Camero is brand new."
"Which is just my point. They make cars like this any more."
Rand's dark eyes glinted as a sly smile rose to his lips. "You wouldn't want to put your machine to the test, would you?"
"A race along Mall Road."
"From what I've heard, you people hardly race for nothing," Thaxton said. "I don't have any money."
"You won't need money in this race," Rand said. "This would be a matter of honor."
"Don't do it, Jim" Sandman said. "Rand hasn't lost a race yet."
"Don't discourage him," Rand said. "He has to learn not to speak ill of his betters someway."
Thaxton's face reddened. "All right, you've got a race."
"Splendid," Rand said, then slipped into his red Camero and pulled out with tires shredding rubber. He stopped again near Thaxton and Sandman. "This'll be a killing." And with a roar he was gone.
Thaxton stared after the man then sighed.
"Why the hell did you do a thing like that?" Sandman asked. "He already puts you down behind your back, calling you ratman and white nigger. This'll only make things worse."
"If he wins," Thaxton said.
"Oh he'll win all right. Even if this car of yours was up to snuff, he'd win."
"We'll see," Thaxton said. "Let's go close up the mall before Dean has a fit."
They reentered through the glass doors in time to catch a mall rat hanging yet another paper figure over Thaxton's desk. The paper shifted as the door openned and he turned his head around, eyes wide with the discovery. He tried to leap away, but Sandman was quick and caught him up the collar, dragging him back.
"Oh no you don't!" Sandman said. "We've had just about enough of your antics, friend."
The first blow took the wind out of the boy, crumbling his foward, both arms clutching his stomach.
"Hey!" Thaxton roared, yanking Sandman away. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Sandman looked up, a queer, almost sweet expression in his eyes as he stared at the mallrat. He wiped saliva from his mouth.
"I'm teaching the punk a lesson," he said. "You don't want them to keep this shit up, do you?"
Thaxton's fingers dug into his forehead, pushing back the hair as if it caused him pain. "I don't want them stopped like this, damn it. We're not their parents. We don't have any right to smack them around."
"Rights?" Sandman said, frowning. "What are you talking about? You're the man whose been telling the cops off, friend, saying this is our mall. Well this is how we clean house."
Sandman's frown deepened. "The boy's just a nigger, Jim. You weren't very fond of his kind a couple of days ago when they took your job at Verona."
"Damn it, Sandy-- I didn't mean that. I was only angry. I wouldn't go belting people around because of it."
"Shoot!" Sandman said, casting the boy away. "And you want to be a cop. Maybe Rand's right about you after all."
"What does being a cop have to do with anything?"
Sandman's expression shifted frustrated to puzzled to amazed. "You're not that stupid. You don't think the cops escort these little punks to the bus stop after we put them out, do you? They take them off to a dark spot and teach them a little lesson about coming up to this part of the county, sending them home with a few scars so they remember."
"Those are bad cops, Sandy."
"No," Sandman said. "Those are ordinary cops, doing what they get paid to do-- which is what will happen when I put this one out." Sandman grabbed the boy again and propelled him towards the door. Thaxton stepped in front of both.
"Let the boy go, Sandy."
"What? We're supposed to put them out, remember? That's our job."
"I'll put them out later when I do my rounds, when I'm sure Bender and his boys aren't waiting to beat their brains in."
"Shoot!" Sandman said, spitting off to the side. His fingers loosened from the boy's collar. The mall rat scurried away down the service hall, pausing only briefly to look at Thaxton before vanishing.
"Nope," Sandman said. "You've never be a cop."
"Maybe I don't want to be one any more," Thaxton said. "Got check the lot. I'll lock up."
"Yeah, yeah, just don't forget about your race with Rand Saturday. You don't want to look like a total wimp."
"I'll be there," Thaxton said, then turned away, towards the now dark interior of the mall to do his rounds.
Joe had a cup of fresh coffee waiting when Thaxton finished his shift. He took the coffee and squinted out at dawn as it broke over the blank parking lot, tall lot lamps like twigs against the backdrop of houses in the distance, a burned forest laid bare for the birds, a moonscape over which humanity was particularly proud. He shivered and sipped.
"Sometimes I feel like a vampire, hating sunlight, having to hurry home before I turn to smoke or something."
"That rough a night, eh?" Joe asked.
"That rough a life," Thaxton said, drained the cup and stepped through the glass doors to confront the day. For a moment, he gazed at his usual parking space looking somewhat confused, the pattern of the old Ford so firmly imprinted on his morning consciousness that he started at the sight of the older machine. And in that moment, the face of his uncle seemed to appear behind the glass, smiling and waving for Thaxton to hurry up.
"Want to go for a ride, Jimmy?"
He shivered and shook his head. The vision faded, but a new one replaced it-- a black-faced figure of a mall rat standing next to the car, worn sneakers, ragged jeans and patchwork sweater. It could have been the pale face of Thaxton a half dozen years earlier if not for the sweaty brown colored skin, and the curious eyes, and the host of other rats whose heads popped up from around the car, like the true rat pack they were.
Thaxton had always been a loner, floating in and out of the mall without real associations, though he had seen plenty of this kind before, here and in the projects of Paterson.
"What do you want?" Thaxton asked.
The whole lot of them stirred, shudder moving enmass as if through a single entity, their gazes shifting towards the mall rat from the night before who was apparantly their spokesman.
"We came to tell you we was wrong," the black rat said.
"About you," a smaller, hispanic rat squeeked, tiny nose bobbing up and down behind the others.
"About you betraying us," a third rat said, tugging on his red football jersey.
"I betrayed you?"
"We thought you did," the first rat said. "You becoming a guard and all. We heard about you taking tests to become a cop. We thought you was ratting out."
"So we heard you're gonna race Rand," the rat said. "We want to help you."
Thaxton laughed. "What did you have in mind, blowing his car up?"
There was an exchange of giggling and glances among the pack, as if they had thought up such a plan. But the black rat shook his head.
"We want to help fix up your car," the boy said, looking over at the old GTO with sudden reverence, a reflection of the expression Thaxton might have worn watching his uncle.
"You have a garage?" Thaxton asked. "Or am I supposed to bring the lot home with me and have you fix it up while I'm sleeping?"
"We could fix it up in the lot at night," the boy suggested. "While you work."
Thaxton laughed. "I can just imagine what old Dean would say about that, a pack of rats taking apart my car in his parking lot."
"He wouldn't have to know. We can be careful."
Thaxton ceased laughing. Ten serious faces stared at him, expectantly, each of them with the glint of Emerald City in their eyes.
"All right," he mumbled. "Do what you can."
The whole pack leaped up and whooped, less rats now than a tribe of indians, dancing around him, in a rain or pain dance, perhaps the prelude to some greater more painful prank for which Thaxton would later be sorry. But for the moment, he seemed to be apart of them, a central pole around which they chanted, the last of the old mall rats joining the new generation in a joint revolution against the world.
It, however, would likely cost him his job, though as he slipped into his car and peered up at the mall sign, he didn't seem certain he cared.
The intervening days before Saturday were filled with a errie ritual of coming and going, a half-dreamy state of habit which grew even more errie as the days progressed-- his role becoming a mockery of his earlier duties, marching about in the pretense of chasing mall rats out as the sound of their tools scraped from under his car. They were like Gremlins which he struggled to egnore, once or twice drawing the suspicions of other guards, though mostly egnored by them as well.
On Saturday night itself he drove to work looking half-ill. Sleep had eluded him during the day, sunlight and street noise resulting in a string of restless hours in which he tossed and turned. The lack of it hung on his face like stones, and around his neck, though in his eyes, fear showed, leaping at him from the rearview mirror. Twice he had picked up the phone to call in sick. Twice he had hung up again.
The car itself purred beneath him, humming an odd tune that sounded nearly new, its pistons and sparkplugs filled with an odd pep which he himself did not feel. It dragged him to the mall as if it wanted to race, radio blaring an old Beach Boys highway song that soon caught in his head. He started to hum. The ghost of his uncle seemed to ride in the passenger seat, whispering instructions.
"No, no, Jimmy, easy on the clutch. That's it. That's it."
The music was still blasting when he pulled into his parking spot and turned off the key. Rand and Sandman were standing on the walkway before Rand's red Camero, eyeing him like suspicious neighbors, shaking their heads as he turned the radio off and climbed out.
"A bit old for crusing, don't you think?" Rand asked."Or is that to calm your nerves?"
"My nerves are fine," Thaxton lied, fishing his gym bag from the back seat before locking the door.
"Are you ready for the big race, Jim?" Sandman asked-- though his tone was colder and more distant than it had been, paired off with Rand the way Mall Guards had when Thaxton was still a Rat.
Rand looked surprised. "You mean you're not going to give us an excuse as to why you can't race tonight?"
"If I said I would race, I'll race. Leave off, all right."
"Say," Sandman asked. "Something else wrong?"
"No, not exactly wrong," Thaxton said, moving with the others through the glass doors and towards the service hall. "But I'm not thrilled either."
"About what?" Rand asked.
"About that test you sent me to"
"Oh, man! Are you still harping on that. You'll get the job. You're white."
"I'll get nothing," Thaxton barked. "I failed."
Rand and Sandman exchanged startled looks.
"Failed?" Sandman said. "How on earth...?"
"It was all that calculus. I wasn't ready for it. I was busy studying police procedure."
Sandman blinked at him, but his expression grew even more distant, till he looked more like Rand than ever.
"Ah, calm down sport," Rand said. "It's not as bad as you make it. They repeat the test from time to time. You can brush up on your calculus and take it again."
Thaxton shook his head. "I could, but I won't. It made me think about me wanting to be a cop and why. I think I've been dreaming the wrong dream all along."
Rand laughed. "Of course you have. You should be dreaming about beating me, because that's the only way you'll ever do it. Stop worrying about police tests for a least one night and think about the race, will you."
Rand held open the security door. But he and Sandman didn't follow Thaxton in.
"Got to go check on my machine," Rand said, taking Sandman with him. In the cold room, Thaxton sat, staring at nothing till the time clock clicked onto Eleven. He rose finally with a sigh, put away his bag, and marched out to do rounds.
He wandered the great halls, staring at them as he did, frowning at various points as if he'd never quite seen them like this before, drooping with ad-banners and seasonal displays, Christmas and Easter, Fall and Spring-- the colors of the mall changing to each with its own perverted sense of nature that defied what went on outside its walls.
It was not Emerald City; it was Disneyland. All of it built upon illusion, paper mache and lies. Though there was reall magic underneath it all, blossoming up from the swamp land upon which it had been built, magic planted here in seeds from other places like Paterson and Passaic, scurrying ahead and around Thaxton as he walked, their step echoing his own, their voices whispering spells of hope that kept this place and its illusions from crumbling in upon itself like a precariously built castle of cards.
The hours passed. He had locked all the doors and checked them twice, but kept wandering, looking more perplexed as he circled the mall again and again. He did not go back to his desk right away. Sandman might be there. Or Rand. Or worst of all, a laughing, mocking Bender with his brutal badge and bitter wit. The word of Thaxton's failing would have already filtered downtown to the station, joke for the day-- and yet, his wandering eventually brought him there anyway. But it was not Sandman, Rand or Bender waiting, just the pack of odd-sized rats, sprawled on the floor around his desk like they belonged there.
Their spokesman scrambled to his feet when Thaxton appeared, grinning, eyes bright, coming forward like a trusting creature from the wild.
"It's done," the black rat said.
Thaxton sighed. "Does that mean my bumper falls off when I start the car?"
The other rats exchanged glances. The black Rat shook his head, looking slightly hurt. "We wouldn't do that to you," he said.
"I'm sorry," Thaxton said, shivering. "It's been a bad night. I'm not thinking straight. What exactly did you people do to the car?"
The grins returned. "Fixed it like it's supposed to be fixed," the Rat said.
"You'll see. Just be careful. The gearshift sticks. We couldn't fix that."
Thaxton studied their faces again more closely. But there was no sign of a gag here, just the same shared magic that underlined their existance here, sparking up at odd moments of need, a union of a dozen individuals with him momentarily at their head, not leader-- there were no leaders here-- but another soiled individual, moving in their mass, not as gang member so much as unity of spirit, as if each and every one of them was the last of the mall rats, the first, and the only....
He mumbled his thanks and took back his keys. But they lingered.
"What is it?" he asked. "Did you want money?"
"No," the Rat said. "But you are gonna go through with the race, right?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
It was in their eyes, the shifting doubt, Thaxton's new form as guard reflected in their eyes, drawing up images of betrayal which they could not shake any more than he could. They were backing him, but he was a mall guard now. Did mall guards operate the way mall rats did, keeping the faith among one another, stealing and cheating from others outside their circle but never within. How little these rats knew of Emerald City, or of the life-style into which they'd stumbled. Here in suburbia there were no such connections. People waved flags in patriotic fervor, but behind the curtain they wheeled levers that honored no heros only their own self interest: everyone lied and cheated for reasons of their own.
Thaxton sighed. "It's time, isn't it?"
The pack of rats nodded.
"Then, maybe I should get going."
The doubt vanished. Thaxton had stepped back over the line which separated mall rat from guard. They led him out the glass doors to his car. From the other side of the mall, an engined roared, Rand warming up. His car sat in the lot alone. He climbed in. The faces of the rats appeared around him, staring through the windows as he pushed the key into the ignition. He turned it slowly-- his uncle's face appearing there with them. Or perhaps each of their faces as a shifting aspect of the slightly off-centered man of the past, smiling, holding thumbs up. The machine came to life under him, panting and heaving like a furious beast.
"Just take it slow, Jimmy," his uncle was saying.
"If I take it slow, Uncle Max, I'll lose," Thaxton mumbled.
The mall rats looked at him oddly, then darted away across the lot to a spot where they might watch the race. Thaxton rev'd the engine a few times before shifting the car into gear. Shifting was stiff and he had to bang it-- after which the car moved like a dream.
Rand's Camero was already at the staring line when Thaxton arrived. The man himself sat behind the wheel, grinning smugly.
"So," he said. "You're going to go through with it."
"You still had doubts? Why?"
"Because you're a dreamer, boy," Rand said.
"And what's wrong with that?"
Rand's grin widened, his dark eyes shimmering with cold reality, anger even, staring not at Thaxton but towards the wide angle of road upon which they were about to race. "Dreamers always lose."
Thaxton stirred, his face red, his hands tight on the steering wheel. "Why don't we stop talking about it and find out, eh?"
"Anything you say," Rand sai, motioning towards Sandman who stood on the side of the road just ahead of the cars, his face and hands pale in the bright headlights, more wraith than human, holding up a make-shift flag. Around him, others stood, an audience of local people and off-duty cops. The mall rats were farther on, sitting on a grassy hill along the long curve. Thaxton's fingers shook on the wheel.
The flag flashed. Rand's car leaped ahead like a jet of flame, tires squeeling, smoke spewing from its exhaust. Thaxton's foot pressed down on the gas, his other foot jamming the clutch, hand shifting but the gears had frozen.
"Damn!" Thaxton yelled, engine roaring wildly beneath him, wanting to dart after the red devil but unable to without permission from the gears.
"Take it easy, Jimmy," his uncle said, the shimmering puffy face floating beside him.
He breathed deeply and caressed the stick, feeling the thing give way in one direction. Then, he popped the thing in and the car charged ahead, a thick cloud of grey smoke billowing from its rear like a rocket. The other guards hooted. then faded into black. The mall rats were on their feet leaping up and down in his headlights, but they vanished, too. Only the red opponent remained, tail lights weaving slightly as it headed into the curve.
Closer and closer Thaxton came, the shape of Rand's car forming around the wide red tail lights. The engine beneath Thaxton trembled. His high beams outlined the driver in the car ahead. Rand's eyes glanced up into the rearview mirror. They were struck with panic. Thaxton pulled up to the other man's bumper, but the Camero did not give way, weaving back and forth across the narrow road to keep him from passing.
"That's cheating, Rand," Thaxton yelled, unheard over the roaring engines. "We're supposed to see which car is faster."
But when Rand swirved too far one way, Thaxton darted around him, waving as he passed, at the new car, at the raging face of hate. Once in the open, there was no competition. The old car had been built for this, moving faster and faster, around the bend, passed the cheering mall rats and over the property line which ended Mall property.
It wasn't until Thaxton reached the highway that he noticed the lights. He slammed on the brakes, car twisting sid3eways in a confusion of burning rubber and exhaust fumes. Four police cars were stretched out across the highway like a wall. Bender walked slowly from the nearest.
"Say, Pal," the grinning cop said, leaning close to Thaxton's open window. "I just wanted to let you know, this isn't mall property now."