by: Matthew Heiti
It’s strange how things fall apart. One piece at a time so you almost don’t notice…
She comes back. Because we all do at some point. When things get too much to bear. There you go, upstream, trying to crawl your way back into the womb.
The department store is on the corner of Going and Gone. It used to be a nice neighborhood. The kind where you’d meet for lunch. Or go to do a spot of shopping. There’d be streetcars clanging, people coming, people going – maybe buying a new pair of shoes or a new coat for the coming season, all stuffed in foil and bow-wrapped packages. The whole square maybe lit up with twinkling lights at Christmas and sun bright flowers in summer. It was a gathering place. People sat on the benches around the fountain. Throw a penny, make a wish. You had to sit just to take it all in.
She takes a bus in from the suburbs, subway to streetcar. Like an insect wriggling through its larval stage. The streetcar’s been rerouted, so she has to get off five blocks up. The light and warmth of the tram already shuttling off down the line, leaving her, here in the early morning darkness. The sun is up somewhere, but here the skyscrapers suck it in like thirty storey vampires. Their backsides gleaming black.
She’s hungry. She cuts down King, dreaming of the plate of latkes, maybe a hardboiled egg and dry toast, she’ll eat at Franny’s. But when she gets there the lights are off, the OPEN sign reversed on the door. She checks her watch, shrugs her shoulders and reasons they don’t open for breakfast anymore. The big neon marquee above her is rusted, most of the bulbs missing or broken.
She skirts the park. All the trees have just given up, their last leaves holding on like survivors of a shipwreck, cracked and browning, all the fall colour gone out of them. Deeper in the park, she can see dark shapes on the benches, wrapped in blankets, white steam crawling out of them. It will be a cold day if it ever figures out what it’s going to be.
She waits at the intersection. Out of hope or habit. The street stretches empty in either direction. She can hear a rumble overhead, and she looks up to see the elevated freeway. The underside curling like the belly of a serpent. Nobody came down these old streets anymore, if they could avoid it.
She thinks the light is never going to change. That red spot facing her, holding this whole space together. The street frozen. A newspaper in the breeze. A rat’s tail poking out from the gutter. Dust particles in the air. Her pulse caught in her throat, one elongated tone of morse code. Why? Why come back down here after all these years?
The signal flips and the world shudders on. She crosses the street, out of the shadow of the overpass, and when she makes the corner, she sees it.
It’s one of those cosmic moments. The sun has crept up to the tip of a skyscraper like King Kong, sending a single beam down over her head, hitting the long bank of windows behind her. Everything lights up like Christmas and she stumbles back, throwing up a hand and peering through her fingers. There’s noise and music and laughter and light. There’s a palace in front of her. And then, just as suddenly, there’s nothing again.
The sun’s gone behind a cloud. The department store squats on the corner, silent and brooding. The brick is crumbling in places, stained with exhaust and the windows are spattered in pigeon shit. The majesty of the place is gone, if it ever truly existed at all.
She follows the cracked sidewalk to the square outside the entrance. She sits on the edge of the fountain. It’s bone dry and scaled with pennies, even the bums can’t be bothered to come down here and clean it out. A thousand unkept wishes. Maybe a couple of them hers. Or more.
She takes a package out of her purse and unwraps the waxed paper. Munches on egg salad. A funeral sandwich. She’d throw the crusts for the pigeons, if she’d only kept the crusts. She lops them off like her mother used to. An amputation and into the dust bin before you’d miss them.
She wipes her mouth on her sleeve, smearing a bit of mayonnaise. She hopes it won’t stain. She only has this one overcoat to get her through the winter. It’s enough for her to damn it all and just go home. Home to her empty little two room apartment.
She goes to the store’s entrance. Quickly so she won’t lose her nerve. There are three sets of revolving doors, but the far left ones were always opened first thing in the morning for staff, so she goes there. She places her fingers on the glass. Surprised at how cold it is. Wondering when someone last touched the place. She looks up, the windows above watching her. The sense of the whole place catching its breath. Pausing for a solitary moment, she gives a push. The door moves an inch and then clunks.
She tries the other doors, her stomach already sinking. Locked. Locked. She grabs a chunk of brick, feels its weight in her hand. She could break the glass. There’s no alarm. There was a time when you didn’t need them. But it makes her feel dirty, busting into the place. She puts the piece of brick back down, carefully, not wanting to make a fuss.
What would she have done if she got in anyway? Like driving by your childhood home, a battery of your memories, to find it has moved on. Another laughing family. Places don’t remember. Don’t hold on too long. Only people do. And he wasn’t here anymore. He couldn’t be. Not him. It.
She tightens the belt on her overcoat and turns to face the wind. Maybe she’ll walk back uptown. Stop at that little bookstore near her place. Get herself something trashy, but good. Curl up in her armchair with some chicken noodle soup.
There’s the familiar sound of the door swishing as it revolves. She stops.
She turns around. Hoping against hope. But there he is. Sam. The same as ever. That bushy moustache. His uniform crisp, every crease pressed, and cap tilted back.
“Well, don’t just stand there in the cold.”
They walk the main concourse, footsteps echoing off the tile. The vast space is dark, patches of it lit up as Sam’s swings his flashlight in a wide arc with each step. Metal clothing racks, the glass of the jewelry displays, the deli counter, and at the end, the escalators dark and silent.
“They kept me on. To keep things up and running. Check the boiler. Run the riff raff off the property,” He gives her a nudge. “Like you, Jodie.”
They stop at the electrical panel near the washrooms. Sam fumbles with his key ring, trying a few of the wrong ones first and cursing with colour. He finally unlocks it and starts flipping switches.
The first switch starts music mid-song, winding up like an old toy. It’s Bing Crosby singing “Winter Wonderland.” Then the lights pop on, one bank after another, and with each reveal she expects the place to jump into action. People everywhere. Janice in ladies-wear. Mrs. P. in the stockroom. Benny the tailor, even Mr. Druckman in his old-fashioned starched collars strutting around the place like a turkey.
But the place feels even emptier when it’s all lit up.
Sam shuts off the music. He flips one last switch and the escalators hum to life. The glossy metal leading up and out of sight.
“Let’s have some tea.”
Sam’s “office” is one the second floor. It’s the size of a closet. Not even a large closet, but the kind you’d squeeze into a bachelor apartment. The smallness is punctuated by the weight of the massive space crushing it on all sides.
Sam moves a pile of old store catalogues to make room for a little hotplate and gets the kettle going. His desk is jammed into the corner and the rest of the space is consumed by the old security system, an elephant grey wedge of computer.
He crawls under his desk and pulls out an old ice chest. He struggles to stand, wincing with pain, his knees cracking. Maybe it’s the fluorescent tubes, but in this light, Sam doesn’t look the same to her as before. Not exactly. His uniform’s wearing thin at the elbows. His hair and moustache have lost the last of their colour. Everything about him is a bit thinner. Like he was vanishing.
He opens the chest and pulls out a carton of milk, which he smells, makes a face, and puts away again. Instead, he unwraps a wad of cheese and takes a bite. “They got me setting mouse traps.” He places the cheese down near a hole in the baseboards. “Only I don’t set em.”
He fixes their mugs, remembering that she takes hers with a bit of sugar. He clears off a chair for her and they sit, waiting on the kettle. They don’t bother with small talk. Old friends don’t need to. They just pick up where they left off. Sam pats her hand a few times while they wait. “Twenty years,” he mutters each time he touches her, as if he’s trying to make sure she’s really there.
When the kettle whistles, Sam pops up again, filling the pot and bringing it all over to them on a plastic tray from the deli, so they can wait some more while the tea steeps. When it’s ready, then they’ll wait for it to cool down. Waiting. It all just seems too much. She stands up.
“I just can’t, Sam.”
“I know, I know.”
“It’s just too much.”
He keeps patting her back over and over, her tears staining the shoulder of his uniform as they embrace.
“Don’t you want to see him?”
They ride the escalators higher. The metals stairs squeaking underneath them. Sam matches their tune, whistling through his teeth nervously. They pass the sign for the Children’s Department.
The first thing that comes into view is a skull, shining in the light. Then more. Hundreds more. No, not skulls – heads. White and featureless. Trailed by entire naked white bodies.
The third floor is a graveyard of mannequins. Some grouped together, as if in conversation. A few knocked or fallen over and still others piled together in the corner, nesting.
Sam leads her through the rows. It gets darker as they cross the space, fluorescent tubes above them flickering and dying. It’s strange how things fall apart. One piece at a time so you almost don’t notice. The last day at the store, even while the old hand-lettered signs were coming down and the last of the stock boxed up, she didn’t really believe it. But then, she didn’t stay to see it locked up like a tomb.
She can feel the crowd of bodies thin out here at the end of the room, and Sam stops before one. It looks like just the shape of all the other mannequins at first. But light from the street spills in from the half-moon window, and she can see the tweed vest it’s wearing.
The features on the face are barely distinguishable. Like the body has absorbed its own geography. A slight ridge of lip, an island of nose, the hint of eyebrows turned upward in mild surprise, but where the eyes should be there’s only flat skin. Not skin. Skin is for the living. The surface used to be white, but it’s yellowed with time. There’s nothing remotely alive about it, but it’s strange how he still feels like an old friend. Not he – it.
She reaches into her purse and fingers the piece of fabric inside. A hat. A flat top Gatsby. Tweed, just like the vest.
“Well, there he is.” Sam clears his throat. “Some of his foot has been chewed up down there. Not all the mice are good like Muffy.”
She lets go of the fabric. She doesn’t want Sam to know she’s hung on to it all these years. Doesn’t want to have to put it on the mannequin’s head right here, playing make-believe or dress-up. It just seems so silly now. Like a children’s game.
Instead she picks the mannequin up. It always surprises her how light they are, even when they are taller than her by a few inches. Every night, she would carry it from the display windows up here. After hours it had been like a private world up here. Not like now, when the privacy held no warmth.
She gets on the escalator with the mannequin tucked under her arm, rigid like a surfboard. Sam steps on behind her. He doesn’t stop her, doesn’t say anything at first, but midway down the escalator jams. They stand, waiting for it to come back to life.
“Why’d you leave?” He almost whispers, his voice so quiet she wonders if he’d said anything at all. She can’t see his face. Can’t tell if he’s angry or accusing her. She wants to say, “Who remembers these things? Twenty years, it’s all in the past.”
But the past is what you’re standing on right now. Like this escalator. The same ground underneath you, even when you think you’re moving. And she can envision that day clearly in her mind. Walking out before things have really finished, but with the writing all over the wall. Going uptown before they cut the ribbon on the new mall. Running her own displays. Walking out, but not walking out on them. She’ll be back. They’ll see each other again.
She leaves him at his office. He doesn’t want her to see him cry, so he turns his back, leans over the computer and fiddles with switches as if it might come back to life. As if anything might. The last thing she sees is the short grey snout of a mouse in a hole in the baseboard, poking out to nibble at Sam’s cheese. And Sam bending down and cooing to it. “Muffy, Muffy, Muffy,” he says. But she knows there is no way a mouse lives that long. Muffy’s been dead for years.
When she steps out through the front doors, they don’t slam ominously behind her. They just revolve, barely whispering.
She waits a half hour for the streetcar, and when she boards, nobody looks up. Nobody sees the woman and a mannequin sitting together. Nobody sees her reach over and hold its hand. People are so busy living their own personal tragedies to ever notice anything.
She pays the fare for two all the way home.
She tries to sit the mannequin on the chesterfield, but the legs won’t bend. So she lays it out. But it looks too much like a corpse. It’s unsettling, so in the end she just leans it in the corner.
She puts a pot on the stove and opens a can of soup. “You want some? It’s chicken noodle.”
And there it is. A crazy woman, talking to a mannequin. The first words she’s said to him in twenty years. Him. Him? It.
She gets out dinner on a TV-tray with a slice of dry toast. She sits. She eats. She watches a show on the TV about a war in a faraway country she’s never heard of. Then she watches a cop show starring that guy who was in that movie she liked.
As she watches, he’s watching her. Just standing there at the edge of the television’s glow.
She shuts off the TV. “I didn’t leave, you know.”
She stomps over to the sink and drops her dishes in. “We all had to move on.”
She goes to the bathroom to wash up and brush her teeth. In the mirror, she can see him, turned toward her out in the living room. She spits in the sink. “Everything ends someday.”
If he could talk right now he’d probably say something like, “I forgive you.”
And she’d say, “I didn’t ask for your forgiveness.”
“But it’s okay.”
“I know it’s okay, I don’t need you to tell me it’s okay.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Things changed. Empires rise and fall. Stores close.”
“I had to get a new job. I couldn’t stay there on a sinking ship.”
“Of course not. It was a better job, a step up. Who could blame you?”
“No, I didn’t. I don’t.”
“I would’ve come back.”
She goes into the bedroom so she doesn’t have to look at him anymore. She digs through the bureau, through underwear she can’t even remember owning and pulls out a rectangle wrapped in a fragment of torn nylon. For emergencies. Du Maurier Slims. She goes to the living room and cracks a window to the cold night air. Lights a dart. Inhale, exhale. No cough. It’s like getting on a bike. Parts of you go on remembering, even if you don’t. She takes another drag, deeper.
“Don’t give me that look.”
“You always had a way of smoking like it was a performance.”
“You mean put on.”
There’s a photograph of all of them on the wall. Sam in between, his arms wrapped around them and Muffy on his shoulder. She’s dressed in a pink jumpsuit with that afro of hers all teased out. And there he is, just tweed tweed tweed. A smile like the Mona Lisa or a Sphinx. All mystery and wonder. Even with the proof, they were never that young. You could never be that young if you had an inkling of what was to come.
“So this is what your place looks like. I always wondered.”
“Now you know.”
“It’s better than the store. The roof was going, I was getting dripped on.”
“It’s dry here.”
She’s only six floors up, but she can make out the skyline between the buildings that have sprung up in recent years. A crane’ is working on a highrise downtown. The little lights of the buildings flash like the stars she struggles to make out at night.
“Why’d you come get me?”
“You know why.”
“But why now, after all this time?”
“Because Sam’s getting old. Someday he’ll be gone. Someday it all will. They’ll bulldoze that place into the ground. It’s what they do. Build something bigger.”
“You can’t stop it.”
She looks at him there. Same as always. Same as ever.
“You save what you can.”
She pulls the hat out of her purse. Tweed, just like his vest. She puts it on his head, tilts it a little so it’s at that angle he likes. She could say the magic words now. But she doesn’t. Can’t get her mouth to form the words.
She puts out her cigarette, but leaves the window open. He never liked it too hot.
“I’m going to bed.”
He doesn’t say anything. She knows he’ll just stay out here. She could bring him into the bedroom. Lay him down beside her. But it would be ridiculous, if anyone ever saw. A woman lying next to a mannequin in bed. One arm over his chest and her head tucked up under his chin. In the morning she might say the words. Hocus Pocus. Maybe she’d say them and nothing would happen, like nothing always does. Or maybe he’d come to life.
But she’s scared either way, so she just lays there for awhile in the dark. Waiting for a small ray of light to play across his face to tell her morning will come again.
Born in a meteor crater, Matthew Heiti holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of New Brunswick. He is an award-winning playwright, a Genie-nominated screenwriter, and his first novel, The City Still Breathing, is published by Coach House Books. His play, Black Dog: 4 vs the World will be published by Playwrights’ Canada Press in 2016. In his downtime, he gets nostalgic at harkback.org.