All the mall cops remember when the Santa Train still ran above shoppers’ heads at Harlem Irving Plaza Mall. At the top of every hour, all twelve months of the year, the bulbous animatronic figure straddled a locomotive with his parade of elves chugging behind him on the tracks, which ran the perimeter of the mall just over the storefronts. As kids, some of them chased Santa until he escaped through the doors above the TJ Maxx like a mouse into its hole, thinking that if they could just get him to stop, maybe he’d rain down his gifts, or at least some cash so they could go to the Lego store. Even now as the mall cops patrol the building, they will occasionally look up when the doors chime open and watch as no Santa emerges, no Santa takes his ride above the Kay Jewelers, the closed bookstore, and the stations of For Rent signs scattered into the distance, and no Santa offers them shit. So they resign themselves to an Auntie Anne’s pretzel and watch the teenagers congregate.
They take the new guy, Jerry, out to lunch at Stir Fry Crazy for his first day on the job, the crown jewel of the food court, with its four different sauce options and bowls shaped like the gaping mouths of a hippo, lion, or shark. They sit in the corner near the hookah shop and listen to Jerry’s jaw click as he chews a rubbery piece of chicken. Cecil, who hates his name and orders his team to call him The Captain, stink-eyes a group of kids playing the serving trays like bongo drums. Lisa picks broccoli from her teeth with her pinky.
“Is this what you guys do every day?” Jerry asks.
They’ve been sitting for over an hour, and Jerry is restless. Not that he wants to get back to work or even have this job in the first place, but he’s tired of watching Lisa poke at her burnt edamame like a cat torturing its prey. The food here has always been shit, Jerry remembers, so he and his friends never chose to eat at the HIP. That was the mall’s nickname back when people still shopped in person. Now kids loiter by the water fountain and trade ironies like isn’t this place HIP or I think this HIP is broken.
The cops look out through the cafeteria, which is only half-alive with the clinking of dropped trays and sad faces shoveling fries by the fistful. The Captain grumbles at the teenagers as if he’s gargling salt water. A kid in a tie dye hoodie stands on his seat and waves his fingers like a conductor.
“Hey, cut that out!” The Captain calls.
“This isn’t enough action for you?” Lisa says through chicken bits.
It isn’t enough action for anyone. They know their job is dull; it was true years ago and even more now that most of the stores are empty. They’re professional pacers, loiterers by trade, and in order to get through the day all the mall cops waste time. Some take naps in their cars or in the janitor’s closet, and the night shift guys host poker games in the kid’s play area. Even The Captain takes far too frequent bathroom breaks. But distracting herself is an art form for Lisa. Every couple hours she tells The Captain she’s going on a smoke break and tokes up in the parking structure, then wanders the sex toy section of Harry’s Gag Garage. She hates the sound of her shoes scuffing tile, the walkie-talkie’s static and silence, the bell chime of the ever soon-to-be-arriving Santa Train set to the tune of Pharell’s “Happy.” Because I’m happy, she finds herself singing throughout her shift and all the way home to her empty two-flat. When her mother calls asking how she’s doing today, Lisa answers happy.
The boy in tie-dye huddles in his chair and pours a clear liquid from a flask into the Subway cup clasped between his knees. The Captain stands, nearly chokes on the fork he’s chewing like a toothpick.
“Damn it, Bustillo!” He says. “Get the hell out of my mall.”
The kid flashes a middle finger and saunters off with his friends. Jerry almost smiles, but The Captain’s scowl stops him. He was once this kid, Slipknot T-shirt and lip full of dip. But Jerry is one of them now, the losers armed with only a pair of Zip-tie handcuffs, treating teenagers like they’re the Chicago Outfit. As The Captain begins to talk, he counts the man’s eye wrinkles, feels his own face for signs of decay.
The Captain leads Jerry and Lisa out of the food court and past the collection of massage chairs, all empty and still except for a single old man in the corner with his hand in his pants.
“We’ve booked that Andre Bustillo four times this year,” he says. “Theft, littering, noise, that sort of shit.”
Though no one would dare say this to his face, the mall cops joke that The Captain is only still alive purely off of spite and his endless pursuit of Andre Bustillo. He spends most of his day watching security cameras in his office, squinting at blurry shoppers in hopes of catching the kid doing something illegal.
The Captain can tell Jerry’s not following, or simply doesn’t care.
“What are you, 23?” he asks.
“I’m 21,” Jerry says.
“That makes sense.”
An alarm rings in the distance, and the mall cops wait until it goes silent before continuing.
“Lisa’s going to patrol with you,” The Captain says. “I want you two to keep an eye on the kid.”
“Why?” Jerry asks.
“Because I told you to,” he says. “What, do you need a written invitation?”
Jerry doesn’t answer.
“You’re closer than I am to understanding what it’s like to be a punk,” The Captain says.
Jerry can’t stop looking at The Captain’s hands. He’s running fingers along his patches of psoriasis, which splinter from his knuckles to his wrists. A mother walks by with a toddler thrashing in her arms, elbowing her on the side of the head and screeching. It makes him want to call Arielle, tell her they shouldn’t have this baby, not now. Or maybe he won’t go home at all.
“Is this legal?” he asks.
“Jesus, get over yourself,” The Captain says. “You trying to be a cop or a damn lawyer?”
They’re in a stand-off in front of the gumball machine. The mother rocks her flailing son gently against her shoulder, buries her face in his curly red hair so that only her eyes are visible, gaze escaping down the empty mall floor.
The bell chimes and no Santa Train comes. The Captain ushers Jerry and Lisa off with a wave.
Before they were mall cops, they were customers. After shifts, The Captain used to get dinner for himself and his daughter, Margaret, from the Boston Market. Lisa had a $20 allowance from her parents and would roam the Forever 21 and Macy’s, cash in hand. When Jerry got off the bus and made his way inside through the Best Buy, it felt like coming home. Wendy’s and P.F. Chang’s fed him every night. The sample blankets of The Quilt Castle hugged him. Sharper Image was his living room, where he watched Jeopardy on a flat screen TV and fell asleep in a La-Z-Boy until the employees chased him away. Jerry spent nearly every day at the HIP in those days. He’d move aimlessly among clothes racks and check vending machines for spare change until he spotted a group of friends to hang out with or until his father called to ask where the hell are you?
But as they search for Andre, Jerry doesn’t feel at home. In fact, it feels as if his house has been foreclosed on, his family of brands scattered or dead. He stops at every barred doorway and stares into its dark, hollow interior. The Dippin’ Dots stand, where he first met Arielle, has been repackaged as a Cricket Wireless. As a teenager, Jerry would pretend as if he were looking into the nearby storefront while he leaned his arm against her stand, and she’d smile under the brim of her visor.
“Can I help you?” Arielle finally asked on his fourth try.
“Oh hey,” Jerry flipped his hair, “I didn’t see you there.”
They shared a scoop of blueberry blast, holding the cup at waist-level in case her boss passed by. The Santa Train clicked above their heads, and Jerry felt that for the first time it had delivered what he wanted most in life.
“People like this stuff?” Jerry asked. “It tastes freezer burnt.”
“It’s the future of ice cream,” Arielle said. “They make me say that.”
Sometimes Jerry still tries to kiss Arielle the way they did during her lunch breaks, when they’d take bites of the frozen dots and blow cold breaths at one another with their tongues. But he can’t seem to replicate the effects. Arielle holds her stomach like a grocery bag in mid-rip, says It’s kicking again, and rolls over in bed.
Jerry lets Lisa lead him through Kohl’s, though he doubts a teenager would want to spend his time in the women’s shoe section. He leans against the shelves as Lisa tries on a pair of high heels and two different flats.
“Why does The Captain hate that Bustillo so much?” he asks.
“I mean, the kid’s a little shit, but he’s harmless,” Lisa tries to squeeze her foot into a size four shoe. “I wouldn’t waste much time on what The Captain wants. The dude’s just an old, racist loser if you ask me.”
Lisa tells him about the time The Captain pulled Andre off the kiddie ride by his shirt collar. Jerry imagines this is what his father would have become if he had lived past 54, eking out the last drops of a cop’s authority by throwing kids off 25 cent mechanical horses.
A grim voice calls over the speakers for a price check at register five.
“That’s disgusting,” Jerry says.
“Yeah, but what do you want me to do about it?”
A part of Lisa admires Jerry’s ability to still experience outrage. It’s been a long time since she herself felt it, back when she still used to cuss out The Captain for saying something shitty or for keeping Andre in his office for hours before calling his parents like the rules required. Once she even threatened to report him to the head of the security firm that employed them, but of course the complaint went nowhere. They said they’d look into it, and she’s sure if she asked them again today they’d still be looking. She wants to explain to the rookie that those feelings are like a candle. If you light them too often, they’ll burn out entirely, and the world will still go on smelling like shit.
Here’s the truth of it as Lisa sees it: They work a dead end job at a dying mall where many young Black and brown kids come to hang out because it’s one of the few places in this sad, hateful city where you don’t need a buttload of cash and a white face just to exist in peace. They can just be kids. People like The Captain don’t understand that, couldn’t even if they gave enough of a shit to try. And sure, they all need this job because it’s all they’ve got or all they can get or all they can imagine anymore; but they don’t have to make other people’s lives miserable too. Keep your head down and your hands to yourself. Emphasize the mall by chugging a slushy or trying on shoes during your shift and limit the cop as much as possible. And do your best to keep yourself from becoming hollowed out too quickly.
“Let me tell you the secret to this job, new guy,” Lisa leans closer. “Don’t care so much.”
Lisa pivots in front of a mirror to get a better look at a pair of loafers.
“I’ve been here for five years now,” Lisa says, “and I’ve learned that there are only two types of mall cops. Lifers and rookies. You either leave within the year or stay forever.”
Lisa readjusts the nylon sock on her foot. A woman rests against her cart, flipping through her coupon clippings. The voice on the speaker calls again for assistance.
“What are you trying to tell me?”
“I give you two months,” Lisa says.
Lisa laughs, but Jerry doesn’t join in. He turns to look out at the woman bending over with the help of her cart, coupons now scattered across the storeroom floor.
“Any updates?” The Captain calls over the walkie-talkie.
“We had an eye on him in Target,” Lisa says. “But he slipped us in the bra section.”
“Get him back in your sight then.”
The walkie-talkie fizzles into static.
Lisa begins to lead Jerry out, nearly tripping on a tower of shoe boxes she’s left.
“Lisa,” Jerry says. “Your shoes.”
Lisa looks at her feet. She’s still wearing a pair of pink Nikes.
“My bad,” she says. “Wouldn’t want to forget that.”
But Lisa spends a majority of her shifts forgetting about the watches, necklaces, and earrings in her pockets or the strapless red dress she stuffed underneath her uniform before she walks out of the store. She likes to try on her new clothes at home, parading past the mirror like a rich, happy stranger.
They continue out of the store and down the mall’s main hallway in silence. A man in thick bifocals is selling remote control helicopters, which whirl as they rise to the glass ceiling of the atrium. Two little girls hit a deflating balloon back and forth as their father talks on the phone. As they walk by, Jerry tries to play along by catching the balloon, but he grips too hard and it pops. One girl begins to sniffle, while the other stomps away in a fit. The father holds the phone from his mouth and calls Jerry an asshole.
“Well aren’t you just wonderful with kids,” Lisa says.
She stares at him blankly and Jerry covers his mouth. He knows he’s going to be a bad father. He had this conversation the night he came home from the bars to Arielle draped in a blanket and holding a pregnancy test, screaming Look what the fuck you did to us. He doesn’t remember the following hours beyond blurred yelling, then crying, then their awkwardly silent half-embrace. Arielle sat knee-to-chest and held herself in a hug, Jerry’s arm strung over her shoulder like a wet towel.
When they first started dating, they’d take walks through the mall and list what they most wanted to own in their ideal futures—a pair of headphones, matching leather jackets, a surround sound stereo, a car, preferably a Camaro, ocean front property. As time passed, their dreams became more modest, dull, as if they were haggling with themselves and losing. Maybe not a five car garage, just two. Maybe not a mansion, but at least a townhouse. Or an apartment with a dishwasher, air-conditioning, or at the absolute bare minimum no cockroaches. And dear God, no children. They’d watch the kids run in the play area, pushing and screaming, crying from scraped elbows and nearly pulling their parents’ arms out of their sockets when it was time to leave. All of them sticky. No, absolutely no children.
“Are you going to…” the words keep it stuck in his throat, so he broke his sentence with a cough.
Arielle wobbled in his arms until she leaned away from him.
“You’re going to need a job,” she said.
The playground is empty now except for one little boy, who trips and rolls as he tries to climb up the slide. The kid’s father plays a game on his phone on a bench nearby.
“I’m sorry. It’s just,” Jerry pauses. “I’m going to be a father.”
It’s the first time he’s told anyone. He almost continues to tell her everything inside of him, but Lisa holds up a hand.
“I don’t want to know about your personal life.”
This is the first and most important rule the mall cops follow. Some say keep your life to yourself. Others say leave personal problems at the door. But they all agree that they want to know as little about one another as possible, because no one gets into this job for the people, or the culture, or the work environment. The mall cops want to shut up, run out the clock, and go home, and the best way to do this is to remain a stranger, to offer no more than nods as they pass one another in the halls.
They continue walking toward the dead end of the mall, the side which features a mattress store, an e-cigarette cart, and an Ace Hardware. The silence cleaves them in two and creates a person-wide gap between them.
“What do you want to talk about then?”
Lisa doesn’t answer, and instead points at a group of teenagers who are rocking a vending machine. They stop when she shakes her head at them, then continue once the cops are far enough down the hall.
“Do you have kids?” Jerry asks.
“What the hell did I say about personal talk?”
“You said you don’t want to talk about my personal life.”
They’ve reached the end of the mall, where the TJ Maxx is bright and bare. Lisa leans against the window of the dollar store and looks up at the closed doors of the phantom train.
“No kids,” she says.
“How long have you been married?”
For a second Lisa is confused, until she follows his eyes to her ring finger. She almost laughs, relieved that she won’t have to lie about something she’s stolen. The diamond ring was true and honest. Her ex-fiancée Ralph was true and honest. When Lisa talks about him, she only lies about the details.
“God, how long has it been?”
Lisa pretends to think as two young women pass by with shopping bags seesawing between them. The truth is that Ralph broke off the engagement three years ago, or at least she assumes he did when he moved out during one of her night shifts without even asking for the ring back. The lie, which she repeats to her mother whenever she asks why Ralph doesn’t visit, is that they’re three years happily married, eloped in Vegas and lost the camera with all their wedding photos. He’s so busy, Mom, Lisa says. You know how finance people are. That’s plausible. And besides, the ring is real. Ralph can’t make it to Thanksgiving, Mom, she says. Work trip to Beijing. No, Christmas doesn’t look good either. Less plausible. But the ring is still real. And when Lisa visits her parents on the South Side, she always has a new necklace, watch, or bracelet to show them, a gift from her wonderful husband Ralph. Her mother’s always been blinded by shiny things, chased gold and silver and diamonds all the way to a loveless marriage to an actuary. You found yourself a keeper, Lisa, she says. And is he still paying for you to go back to school? Of course he is. She’ll be a lawyer next May.
“Three years,” Lisa says. “I’ve been married three happy years.”
They both smile to let the other know they are indeed happy.
They hear the chimes of the Santa Train at 4 pm, once the most magical time for mall cops. Due to a mechanical error, the train runs twice this hour, one lap after another, disappearing through the doors only to return once again. No one remembers why this repetition was never fixed, but during the peak of the HIP’s popularity no one cared, since by 4 pm the halls became rivers of purses and shopping bags swaying to the current of bodies. Teenagers who’d just arrived from school weaved their way through walls of middle-aged men and women stopping on their way home from work. For the mall cops, one hour away from the end of their shift and one hour into the haze left in the wake of an afternoon coffee buzz, walking among the gentle flow of shoppers was to be awake once more, lost in the mingling scents of perfume, body odor, and fast food grease. But now, with no crowds and no train, the mall seems just as hollow at 4 pm as any other time of the day.
The mall cops make their discoveries at the same time. Jerry spots Andre unfolding T-shirts and scattering them across the tables in the Hot Topic just as Lisa sees a woman at the hotdog stand, short and draped in a flowing cardigan, pixie-cut hair dyed black. It’s her mother, she’s sure of it.
“Let’s go talk to him,” Jerry says.
Lisa can see her mother begin to turn.
“Go ahead.” She retreats into the jewelry store. “I have to check on something.”
“Official police business.”
Jerry nods and the two separate. He makes his way toward Andre as Lisa pauses in the doorway, searching for places to hide from her mother. A young man in a loose-fitting suit and polka-dot tie smiles from behind the display case. She hustles behind the counter to join him and crouches down.
“Can I help you with something, officer?”
“Official police business,” Lisa answers.
Through the glass lens of the lighted display case, Lisa thinks Jerry looks nearly angelic as he enters the Hot Topic. She scans from left to right, worried that her mother is still in sight.
“Are you almost finished, officer?” the store clerk asks, tapping his finger against the countertop.
“Sorry,” Lisa says. “It’s for your own safety.”
Inside the Hot Topic, Andre is unfolding the assortment of band T-shirts and returning them in crumpled heaps. Jerry pinches his shoulders back and clears his throat.
“You’re supposed to fold those,” Jerry says.
“That’s what employees are for,” Andre doesn’t look up from his work.
“Kind of an asshole thing to do though, don’t you think?”
Jerry tries to lock eyes with Andre, even craning his neck and squatting as Andre moves from one shirt to the next. He knows this kid. He was this kid. If he can just get him to look, Jerry thinks, Andre will recognize they’re the same.
“Are you going to arrest me for shopping, officer?” Andre asks.
Jerry mutters no and shuffles through the rack, every shade of black and gray. The kid smells of body spray and smoke, his hair dark and greasy under a thick layer of gel. When he was younger, Jerry would bum cigarettes from his friends in the parking structure even though he hated the taste, letting the smoke leave between his curled lips the second he felt it swirl against his tongue. He thought that if people smelled the stench on him, they’d know he was mature, not some kid with no place to go and no one to care if he came home or not.
Any mall cop could see that the rookie is fumbling from the way he’s carrying himself, his shoulders slouched and arms hung limply over a pile of black sweatshirts instead of resting his hands on his belt buckle like any self-respecting officer would do. Lisa peeks her head above the glass to get a better look. She wants to help the rookie, but wonders what she will say to her mother if she’s caught dressed in full uniform, her name plate pinned beneath her badge. Lisa can almost see her face now, confusion turning to pity as she realizes her daughter, who left the University of Chicago with a fake husband and no degree, is now working as a mall cop. Maybe she could say she’s in costume. No, she thinks, that makes no sense, so Lisa begins to unbutton her shirt, intending to walk out in her pizza sauce-stained undershirt.
“Officer,” the store clerk raises his hands, “I’m not exactly sure what’s going on, but I’m going to have to ask you to keep your clothes on.”
Then the woman walks into view, checking her phone in the doorway, and Lisa drops beneath the counter again. She pokes at her throbbing temples as if her face is a game of Whac-a-mole. She has no lie ready. She can’t even remember the last time she told the truth.
“Please, officer,” the store clerk says as he leans down beside her. “Am I in danger?”
Lisa pushes him away and stands.
“Hey Mom,” she says. “It’s me.”
The woman looks up from her phone. But her face is too round, her glasses too pointed for her to be Lisa’s mother.
“I’m sorry,” the woman says. “Do I know you?”
Meanwhile, Jerry tries to get Andre’s attention as he rearranges a stack of jeans. Two employees are watching the brewing confrontation from behind the cash register.
“You know, Andre, I was a lot like you growing up,” he says, “just wanting to do my own thing, hating authority and all that.”
“My dad was a cop,” Jerry says. “I thought he was such a prick.”
“And now look at you,” Andre glances at him, balls up a Lil Peep shirt.
“If you’d told me at seventeen that I’d become a cop, I would’ve laughed at you.”
“You’re not a cop,” Andre says. “You’re a mall cop.”
Andre crumples another shirt. Jerry opens his mouth to answer but has no response, and a low hum trickles from him like a flatlined EKG. As a kid, Jerry enjoyed counting how many seconds of silence he could draw from his father. Sometimes he would ask nonsensical questions like how many jellybeans can fit in a horse’s ass, hoping to stump the man who seemed to know everything. And when he was angry, Jerry would taunt his father, remind him how much he hated him, which was good for at least one to five minutes of silence. He once called his father a pig, thinking this was the ultimate insult for a cop. He slapped Jerry on the side of the head so hard he heard buzzing in his ears for the rest of the night.
“I’m just asking you to clean up after yourself,” Jerry says. “Please.”
Andre drops a shirt at his feet.
“Pick it up.”
Andre tries to step between two clothes racks, but Jerry moves as well, forcing them into a standoff.
“I asked you to pick it up,” Jerry says.
Jerry realizes he’s begun counting at Andre, 1, 2, 3, the only thing he can think to do, his pauses growing as the count climbs, 4…5….6, as if he can reach a number that will make the kid listen. His mother used to count at him when he didn’t pick up his toys, but his father would simply stare, his face the anvil and his sharp, teal eyes the hammer. And now Jerry’s doing a mix of both, staring as he counts 7…..8……9, thinking that if he has to go to double digits he has no chance of being a father. Sometimes when he can’t sleep, he squints at Arielle in the darkness and wonders if they will have a boy or a girl, if it will be healthy, if they will be happy. But he always returns to what grips him now, as he repeats 9…….9. Maybe I shouldn’t go home,Jerry thinks. 9. 9. 9.
“Dude, what the hell is wrong with you?” Andre says. “I’m not a fucking toddler.”
Andre squeezes between Jerry and a rack of skinny jeans and steps toward the door, but Jerry catches him by the wrist.
“Let go,” Andre says, finally looking Jerry in the eye.
“Pick up what you dropped.”
“Let me go, dammit,” Andre says. “You getting some kind of power trip from this?”
Jerry holds on tighter until he can feel the bones twisting in the kid’s thin wrist. Now the look in Andre’s face is nearly unrecognizable, no smirk or scowl, but fear. Jerry wonders if this is what he looked like when his dad hit him, as the man rubbed his ring finger and Jerry held a hand in front of him like a crossing guard, the chiming in his head unmistakable.
They all hear the chime now as suddenly Lisa is on him, her hands grabbing at Jerry’s shoulders and pulling him off Andre. The chime nearly drowns out Lisa as she tells Jerry to calm down and go home, his shift’s over, get ahold of himself. Jerry listens for that chime as he walks to his car, turns on the ignition, and sits with his hands on the wheel wondering whether or not he will go home. It’s a simple yes or no, a multiple choice question he could’ve easily solved back in high school. But now it feels more like an essay. Even when he backs his car out of the parking spot, he’s still no closer to an answer.
Later, Lisa will pack her things and pull down barred gates over the dark storefronts while reflecting on the day. She’ll think about how she vaulted the counter like an action movie star, how mechanical and subconscious it all was. But when she saw Jerry and Andre up close, she burned. She wanted to scream and tear the rookie’s arm off and hold the boy until his welling tears dried. But the truth was, even those feelings were just an ember, a glimmer that faded just as it sparked. And when her mother calls tonight on her way out, this will be what she tells her. The truth, all of it. The words will echo in her ear like her hollow steps on tile and the sound of the Santa Train always approaching, never returning.