Issue 185, Summer 2008
It was Saturday afternoon, and my wife and I decided to go to the mall to pick up a pair of pants I’d bought there and had altered. We couldn’t find a parking space outside so we drove into one of those high-rise parking garages and wound around in circles until we eventually found a spot. Too many stairs, so we took the elevator down after making note of the floor we were on. We didn’t want to be looking for the car until we reported it stolen, then a week later have the police find the car where we’d parked it. We walked into the department store where I’d bought the pants, and we agreed to meet at the ground-floor escalator in half an hour. My wife could go to the cosmetics area to look for special offers and hit them up for samples, and I could get my pants and browse for a while on my own. We parted, and I headed for the men’s department. My wife had found the pants two weeks before on a sale table. Half price, camel colored, neutral, versatile, only the length needed to be altered. A salesman greeted me, and I got my claim ticket from my wallet and told him I’d come for the pants. He gave me a practiced smile, took the ticket, and said he’d be right back with them. I started to look around and I noticed that things had changed since I’d been there before. In the rear of the department, where the dressing rooms used to be, there was now a wide stairway going down. Wooden handrails, dark green carpet on the steps, the whole thing looking as if it had been there for years. I asked myself how they could have pulled off a construction project like this in less than two weeks with no sign of dust or rough edges. I went on browsing, looking at ties, and it began to worry me that the salesman had been in the back room for so long. Finally he appeared empty-handed and said he’d been unable to find my pants, but he was going to check on the other side of the sales floor. He kept the smile coming at me and hurried through a doorway. Again he was gone longer than I expected, and when he returned his smile was showing some wear. I’ll try on this side again, he said, and as he walked away I looked back at the stairway. I was thinking that if they could put those stairs through the wall and floor within two weeks they should be able to find my pants. The next time the salesman appeared he still didn’t have the pants and his focus seemed to have switched to the claim ticket. You know what, he said, I’ve just noticed that this ticket has the store number written on it for our location at the other mall. Could you have bought the pants there? I answered that I’d been to that mall recently but I’d never set foot in their other store. Let me give them a call, he said, and see if we can find your pants over there. I told him I didn’t see how that was possible, but I couldn’t fault him for trying to find my pants. So I stood at the service counter while he called. He apologized for taking so much of my time and said he couldn’t understand why the claim ticket would have the other store number on it. He shrugged at me as I fidgeted, but soon I could tell by the look on his face that someone had come on the line. Great, he said, let me tell the customer. They have your pants at our other store, sir, would you like them to be sent here or do you want to go pick them up? I asked him how they could have gotten there, but he had no explanation, and I said I’d drive over for them today. He told the person that I was coming by for the pants, hung up, again apologized, and then asked if I was sure I hadn’t been in their other store. I told him I didn’t even know they had a store in the other mall. He told me the name of the salesman to ask for and I shook his hand. When I met my wife at the escalator she noticed right away that I wasn’t carrying the pants. Did something go wrong? she asked, and I told her that my pants were at their other store. We’ve never been to the other store, she said. We then discussed how we’d been together when I bought the pants and wondered how they could have ended up at the other mall, pants couldn’t walk without a person in them. They must have taken them there in one of their delivery trucks, my wife said. I told her that I wanted to go there now and pick up the pants so I wouldn’t keep thinking about them. We headed for the exit, making sure to leave through the same door we came in. We got back to the car without too much trouble, one or two wrong turns, poor lighting in the garage, our car now nearly invisible between a huge pickup and an SUV. We drove to the other mall, lots of traffic on the freeway, lots of people going too fast and others too slow and the fast people switching lanes all over the place to get around the slow people. We arrived at the mall and drove halfway around it looking for the department store. It was a so-called anchor store, on the far corner, and we had to park more than a quarter of a mile away from it and walk across the parking lot against a stiff wind. I cursed the store for putting us through this trouble, and we arrived in the men’s department out of breath and windblown. I noticed that there was no stairway in the rear of the men’s department and that the dressing rooms were in the same place they had been in the first store before the stairway had been installed. I asked for the guy who’d taken the call, and in less than a minute he appeared with the pants, his smile beaming. He said he was sorry for having taken up so much of my Saturday in pursuit of the pants. I didn’t give him a hard time. I’d learned that things happen in life that are out of our control and sometimes it is best to just roll with them. My wife suggested I try on the pants. I hadn’t even thought of trying them on, I was so distracted by all the effort of finding them. The dressing-room area looked the same as it had in the other store, and I went into one of the rooms and closed the door. I put on the pants, the length looked perfect, and I got myself squared away and came back out. The salesman again told us how sorry he was, and I shook his hand and told him there was no need for him to apologize since he probably had nothing to do with the error. My wife and I headed back outside, the wind gusting behind us. I flipped the pants onto the backseat and we got inside and shut the doors and patted our hair down as best we could. I suggested that we get a hamburger at our favorite hamburger place. It was a bit of a drive, other places where we could eat were closer, but I wasn’t in the mood to sit in a restaurant for an hour or more, and we could count on the hamburgers at our favorite place, inexpensive, quick, just what I had in mind. My wife agreed, and we drove to the shopping center where our hamburger place was located. Quite a parking lot, the kind that puts you on edge, a wall of fast-food outlets and banks on the outskirts, cars zipping all around, a network of stop signs and intersections, parking spaces oriented in different directions, the occasional renegade driving through the empty spaces between parked cars so that you never knew if one of them was going to pop through a gap and plow into you. By the time we reached our destination I was ready for a rest, but to our amazement our favorite hamburger place was no longer there. The place where it had been was going to be occupied by a new Italian restaurant. A banner in the window said OPENING SOON! How do you like that? I asked my wife. Are you sure this is where it’s supposed to be? she asked. I told her we’d been there many times and this was where it had always been before and that obviously a new restaurant was moving in. It was always packed, she said, I can’t believe they went out of business. But we couldn’t doubt what was right in front of our eyes. Despite the setback we were still in the mood for a hamburger and we decided to drive to their other location. It wasn’t too far, and we’d eaten there before and had thought the hamburgers were good, though the fries were dry and flavorless. On the way over I remarked on the mishaps of the day and said that I couldn’t help remembering my high-school reunion. My wife looked out the window and asked me not to talk about it. I kept my mouth shut, but that didn’t stop the memories from rolling through my mind. My wife had no desire to go to the reunion with me. She said she couldn’t imagine being in same room with the people I’d told her stories about or why I’d want to dredge up painful memories from so many years back. She asked if I was planning to hurt somebody. I told her I had never been to a reunion and I wanted to see what certain people had turned into, it might help me to replace old images of certain people with images of the way they were now. So I traveled alone and arrived at the hotel named in the reunion information and on the date that was listed. But no one from my high school was at the hotel, none of the planned activities were to be found, and no one who worked at the hotel knew what I was talking about when I asked them about my high-school reunion. Of course I was furious. All that way and nothing, and I’d been fool enough to think the reunion could help me deal with the life I’d endured in high school. I thought of calling my wife, but I knew she’d want me to come back home. My way of looking at it was that I had no intention of letting my former classmates ruin one more day of my life. I made up my mind to stay the weekend in the hotel. I had a few drinks and a couple of good dinners and spent the day roaming the streets and sitting in the park relaxing and muttering angrily to myself only occasionally. Not until I returned home did I fill my wife in on what had happened, though I also told her that I’d managed to enjoy the weekend on my own. But the old resentment crept into my voice and soon I was raving about the people I’d known in high school and telling her that I was cured forever of any desire to attend my high-school reunions. But the so-called reunion stuck in my head, and I kept asking my wife questions about it that she couldn’t possibly have answered. When we arrived at the surrogate hamburger place I asked the young man at the cash register what had happened to their other restaurant. What happened to it? he asked. Did something happen to it? I told him that we were just there and that the place was empty and a sign was in the window for a coming-soon Italian restaurant. I’ll check it out, he said. That’s a two-million-dollar facility and I just talked to them this morning. I don’t think they went anywhere. He picked up the phone and punched in the number. Barry, this is Mike. A guy here says you aren’t there anymore and that a new Italian restaurant is coming in. He listened for a minute and then thanked Barry and hung up. You must have been in the wrong spot, he said. There are two sections of stores on that corner. The Italian place is in the section to the east and we’re in the section to the west. I told Mike that where I went was exactly where the restaurant had been the last dozen times I’d gone there. Easy to get confused in that parking lot, Mike said. Can I take your order? We gave him our order, choosing to skip the fries, but I continued to discuss the other location with him, just trying to understand how the storefront where I’d parked happened to be empty and in the exact place where I was sure their other restaurant had always been. Mike began to get impatient with me, and he reached a point where he didn’t want to hear any more of it or to answer me. After I signed the credit-card receipt he handed me a piece of plastic with our order number on it. I’m going to give you number eleven, he said, because even if you turn it upside down it will still look like number eleven. If you turn it sideways it might look like parallel lines, but just remember that no one is going to call out an order for parallel lines. I’d had it with this guy and I asked my wife if we should cancel the order and leave. She said she was hungry, and I was probably at least as hungry as she was, so I took the number from Mike and we went to a booth and waited. The place was noisy and swarming with kids, and I told my wife that I was almost too tired and disgusted to sit there and get my food down. But before long they called out number eleven and I went to the counter to pick it up. Please check your order before returning to your seat, Mike said. I didn’t know if he advised everyone to check their order, but under the circumstances I thought it was a valid suggestion. I sniffed the food, felt it for temperature, and raised the tops of the buns to see if the hamburgers had been prepared the way we’d ordered them. As I inspected the burgers, Mike said, I hope no one’s moved your house. I told him that if I pulled up in front of an empty lot where my house had been I wouldn’t be fooled into thinking it must be somewhere else. I know where to find my house, I said to Mike and walked off with the tray that held our hamburgers. My wife shook her head when I told her Mike’s comment about the house. Let’s just eat and leave, she said. We didn’t speak for a while, but when we were halfway through I asked if her burger was good, raising my voice to be heard over the noise. Not as good as the other place, she answered. I nodded and took a bite and kept chewing.