The Great Plains
It’s two a.m., Liam is the only one home per usual, and he’s watching YouTube videos of people breaking into dead malls. The man in this one says that abandoned shopping malls are often encircled by locked chain-link fences. Sometimes there are cameras and guards. Gulls swoop in packs behind the man, and then he takes off into a run, scales a fence, and disappears into a dark mass of abandoned stucco rectangles.
The fence won’t be a deterrent for Liam; even with his skateboard, he’s a climber, and he’s not one to fear consequence or retribution. He has grown up in a trailer with his dad and his sister, the trailer park a tiny communal netherworld separated from the Kansas college town’s outer ring of student housing by a block of untapped woods that will soon be purchased and plowed and built on. For now, big fighting dogs roam unchallenged. At night the man who lives next door wears a black ski mask and black clothing and practices with his throwing knives and stars until the old woman on the other side of him calls the cops, which she does nearly every time, and the cops, all obligation but little interest, say, “Craig, enough with the Karate Kid shit. You’re too old for this,” and then Craig pulls off his black mask and gives the finger to the old woman, Karen, who looks out the cracked window above her kitchen sink where she’s affixed a line of bird decals, as if birds walk single file instead of fly: American Robin, Cardinal, Jay, Sparrow, Goldfinch.
The mall Liam chooses, once called The Great Mall of the Great Plains, has been empty for several years. It’s a combination of cracking white stucco and the brown brick no one uses for buildings anymore, three separate hives joined in the center by a massive atrium. Liam’s older sister Estelle agrees to give him a ride. Estelle of the beehive and stilettos, Estelle who should be in a Motown girl group but was born sixty years too late. But she has the voice for it and sings in the car the whole way to anywhere: school to home, home to school, all the way from their place to the dead mall, which is twenty minutes and on the outskirts of the city closest to the town where they live, all of it surrounded by corn fields once productive but now fallow, because what small farmer grows corn anymore anyway?
Estelle drops him off and promises to be back in an hour or so. She taps her phone to say, if you need me text me, and Liam watches her high hair tremble as the car rolls over parking lot potholes and onto the street. He walks around to the back of the mall, climbs over a fence, and pulls away the plywood sheet covering a doorway. It is too easy.
Inside, he turns on his phone’s flashlight and searches YouTube for “Noname Room 25 full album,” turns up the volume, puts on his headphones—bright blue wireless, a present last year from Estelle who probably stole them from the Walgreens where she works—and gets on his board. He’s seen kids downtown doing kickflips and ollies and grinding the railings around the library, but that isn’t his thing. He’s more into the long solo glide. He spent a few weeks watching videos of 1960s California kids in their trashed navy Vans freewheeling down the winding hills into the canyons around LA. Sometimes that’s all he can think about.
The interior is absolutely empty with the escalators stalled out and the only light coming in through the atrium glass, all the panes of which are splattered with pigeon shit in patterns that look intentional and even artistic. In the shadowy yawn of so many blank storefronts, he sees his reflection again and again. His skateboard wheels hit each grout line between the tiles, but there’s a straight-line path in front of him so that he really gets going with a little effort. He likes this: aloneness and space spreading out around him.
He swears he hears footsteps over the music and stops in front of a gold multi-tiered fountain that grows like a tree to the second floor. He wants to lie flat in the pool of it, under water for just a moment before bursting through to the surface, but the water is long gone and only few pennies shine their faces up from the blue concrete basins.
He picks up his board and climbs the stilled escalator. There’s one ghost-white mannequin someone has dragged into the center of the landing, just outside the movie theater. Her hands are positioned palms up as if she’s presenting something or asking a question. He rides a circle around her and then another. She’s wearing a long patterned dress and it’s like one his mother wore in one of the pictures his sister keeps under her bed in a creepy cat-shaped box she made in middle school ceramics. Sometimes when his sister and his dad are both at work and it’s cereal for dinner and he can hear Karen watering her outdoor hanging plants and the drip drip that follows and Karen is talking to herself too loud about viruses and conspiracies and the evils of sugar, he takes out the pictures of his mom and lines them up in a row on the table where they eat all their meals. It’s a table his dad salvaged and covered with particle board squares that he’s painted in the style of famous painters (a Van Gogh square, a Jackson Pollock square, a Basquiat square) and then shellacked over all of it, and it’s always a little weird to see the long dress version of the woman who is apparently his mom up against the Van Gogh face or the Basquiat outlined bunnies, but there she is: big smile, hands out for something. He’ll never know.
He’s Googled her, of course. But her name is too common, and in the old pictures she’s just a woman with brown hair curling around her face. Is she the Facebook Ann Davis in Caspar, Wyoming, married to a cattle rancher and holding a baby cheek to cheek in front of a low and dusty mountain range? Or is she the dental hygienist Ann Davis in San Diego, part of a caring team devoted to your smile?
He stops riding, takes off his headphones, goes up to the mannequin, and puts his palms down on hers and leaves them like that for what feels like a solid minute. And then without thought, he grabs the hand of the mannequin and drags her behind him, which does not go smoothly. She’s heavier than he anticipated she’d be, and there’s something caustic about the process. Chips of mannequin toes bang off and ricochet against the tile.
When he gets to the area above the fountain, he’s sure someone else is in the building. He hears something rattle and then the muffle of words at a distance. The mannequin is cracked all over in the way of something museum and ancient now, and he leans her against the glass and tries to hoist her over the chest-high wall from the second story to drop her down into the fountain where for some reason he thinks she should be, but he can’t get her higher than a few inches off the ground, and now he’s sure he hears yelling, so he grabs his board and runs down the escalator.
He skates past the carousel whose animal seats have been pillaged. Only a few graffitied ducks remain. He hears footsteps and sees what he thinks is the reflection of a security guard coming around one of the distant corners. There’s a ceramic horse head lying on the ground and he stops rolling, picks it up, and throws it through a plate glass window. The crash and the resulting echo sound like the time Craig put ten M80s inside a metal box and set them off in the woods. Somehow it’s more satisfying than anything Liam has ever done, and he races toward the door and into the parking lot.
Outside, the sky is turning pink, and Estelle waits for him with the car running. He motions her to go, go, and they take off through the lot in a rush of bumps and out onto the street. She’s blasting what he knows from previous rides with her to be Bratmobile. She yells, “Hello world I’m your wild girl,” along with the song, and they speed up the on ramp and onto the highway. The farmers are dead and their sons have moved to cities. The river fish are full of plastics, but the homeless men by the river catch them and eat them anyway so that Liam imagines them morphing into men with plastic fingers and toes with some super plastic power to withstand extremes and outlive them all.
Tomorrow, the police will arrive at their place, and Craig—smoking out front with a pack of throwing stars rattling in a gloved hand—will give Liam a thumbs up and throw one of his stars into the side of his own trailer just for weird emphasis. “Fuck tha police and all that shit, am I right?” Craig will say a little too loud while leaping ninja-style into his front door, and one of the officers will roll her eyes at the other, and they’ll both laugh a little. They’ll all go inside and sit at the artist table, and the eye-rolling officer will say “Interesting. Van Gogh a favorite of yours?” and Liam’s dad will say yes, and then they’ll talk for a minute about art and France (the officer has been, Liam’s dad hasn’t) and then there will be paperwork, and Liam’s dad will play stern, but Liam will know his dad can’t maintain that, and there will be detailed plans for community service and diversion and squirreling away money for recompense that will bog down and steer his next eighteen months, at the end of which he will be nearly sixteen and ready for who knows what the world will bring.
But for now, this: Estelle, normally a solid, even reticent driver, goes faster than she should, eighty-five in a seventy-five, and he leans his face against the cool window glass so that the dead corn is a blur of sandy color in his side eye. He wonders for a second where Estelle has spent the last hour. He likes to picture her in some bar tipping a little on her heels and singing to a roomful of pleased strangers, but really she was likely pocketing lip gloss in a Walgreens familiar in layout and merchandise to the one where she works.
In front of them on the road the sun is dropping down in such a dramatic show that he wonders if it’s for the last time. Estelle turns down the music and asks him, “How was it?” and he says, “It was dope,” and then she turns the music back up and they ride like that all the way home.