Joe Kraus is a professor of English at the University of Scranton where he teaches creative writing and American literature. He’s the co-author of An Accidental Anarchist (Academy Chicago 2001), which served as a basis for Aleksandar Hemon’s acclaimed novel The Lazarus Project, and his creative work has appeared, among other places, in The American Scholar, Riverteeth, Southern Humanities Review, and Pulp Modern. He was nominated for a Pushcart prize in creative nonfiction in 2010, and he won the 2007 Moment magazine/Karma Foundation short story prize.
Sears and Roebuck
Come the end of summer, they took to smashing shit at the abandoned mall. They started where the J.C. Penney had been, shearing the padlock off an old service door and forcing their way into the shuttered space. They worked their way along the main corridor toward the Sears at the other end, doubling back sometimes and pushing into the shorter, intersecting halls. Logan carried a sledgehammer he’d stolen from his old man, the plumber. Evan brought his baseball bat, aluminum, from when they’d won the county league as 12-year old all-stars. Andy brought a succession of golf clubs from the set his uncle had given him for graduating high school and enlisting in the army. After he broke most of the drivers the first couple nights, he persuaded Logan to steal a second sledgehammer off the plumber’s truck.
They went after whatever they came across, meandering like the window shoppers of a few years earlier, leaving a trail of cracked tiles, shattered concrete, and pulverized sheetrock. They’d pause, not to imagine buying a thing, but to contemplate how best to strike it. “Measure twice, cut once,” Mr. Franklin the shop teacher had droned, and, if they resented the thought of the years they’d had to slump in those desks, they kept that much of his teaching. Measure twice, smash better, they might have said if they felt the impulse to say anything.
They went in silence mostly, swigging their 40 ouncers, acknowledging each other’s handiwork with measured nods or congratulatory tips of a bottle. Sometimes they applauded a spectacular shot. Logan called out, “Thataway, Baby,” if one of the others’ swings took out a sizeable chunk of wall. Evan sometimes mimed spitting a chew of tobacco as a compliment, punctuating it with a drawn out “shiiiit” of admiration. Then they’d get back to it.
The best was the bathroom fixtures. From the sinks and toilets in the J.C. Penney washrooms on through the four along the central passage, they took their greatest satisfaction in shattering the porcelain. The water had been shut off, leaving perfect targets for their broad frustrations. Evan’s bat didn’t work as well as the sledgehammers, so he’d beg a turn off the others. It could take a whole evening to do the job of the bigger ones. It meant knocking down the stall doors and dragging them clear so they could get a full swing at the toilet. Then it meant tugging the fixture out to expose the copper piping behind. And then it was a brute series of swings to crack and finally break the material itself, littering the bathroom with a satisfying rain of white shrapnel.
As they got closer to the far end of the mall, they took to rationing the remaining toilets. Without quite counting, they knew the number left was shrinking, so they slowed, savoring each one as they went at it. One night they even went back to the first public bathroom, the one just past the shuttered Candy-in-Bulk store, and did a number on the pieces they’d left behind when they first took it apart. Then they discovered, just off a Sears’ employee break room, a final, unspared toilet. It wasn’t commercial grade, Logan explained in a voice that echoed his father’s, but it would shatter just as good. They threw rock-paper-scissors to see who’d get to do it, and Andy parodied a little dance when his paper covered the rocks of the other two.
There wasn’t much space to work with – it was a tiny, forgettable room – but he managed to get Logan’s sledgehammer over his head and bring it down. The cheap plastic seat kept falling, taking the blows, and it bent without breaking. Eventually he had to twist it off to leave the porcelain unshielded. He struck again several times, taking first nibbles and then whole bites out of the bowl. He stood back, generously, and handed the sledgehammer to Andy, inviting him to take a crack at the still intact tank. Andy’s first shot split the lid. His second knocked a large piece clear. Before he could manage a third, Evan grabbed his arm to stop him. Then he pointed.
They saw a handful of large plastic bags stuffed with what could have been oregano, and they saw stacks of envelopes. The tank was full. There would barely have been room to add anything else. They stood for a moment unsure what to say or even to think, as the reality of what they saw dawned on them: This was someone’s stash, someone’s serious business. Someone, probably a dealer who knew he was about to get busted, had hidden this stuff here with the confidence no one would come looking for it. But they had found it. In the back of a forgotten space of a forgotten mall, they had most certainly found it.
They sometimes pretended their nights at the old mall were a second job, work they’d been assigned rather than mischief they sought. They went evening after evening, Logan picking up the others in his truck and wordlessly navigating to the same shadow-covered parking space at the back side of the building. If they’d called it anything, they might have called it an escape, but, truth was, they didn’t really want to go anywhere. Their friends might have moved on, but they were the left behind. They didn’t have the college sweatshirts that had popped up their senior year. If it got cold, they pulled on their battered letter jackets and warmed themselves with what they knew.
Logan’s old man had him “apprenticing,” which meant being on his back under sinks and toilets for minimum wage. Evan worked at the service station, changing tires until his hands bled. Andy bagged groceries and tried to ignore questions from his parents’ friends about how he could’ve failed basic down at Ft. Benning. Their time at the mall looked less like a release than an extension of those days. Logan might have given out a whoop every now and then, but they’d set about swinging their instruments with a strange seriousness, a parody of the effort it would take to “make something of themselves,” if they could find anything where their effort might have a chance of paying off in a way that mattered.
As the days shortened in August, Andy started noticing the way the late afternoon light broke through the windows at the top of the atrium. His favorite part wasn’t the smashing but the quiet that followed. He liked to watch the dust dance in a sunbeam after one of them had gotten off a particularly good shot, the way the particles swirled around but never actually went anywhere. He didn’t mention it to the others. He just took a moment sometimes to stand in the middle of it all, feeling the dusk settle around him.
One afternoon they got caught at the far end of the mall when the last of the daylight flickered away, and they had to find their way to the door with Evan holding his Zippo in front of them. After that, Logan stole a pair of mag flashlights from the truck, and those illuminated the space enough for them to keep going. The artificial light made the familiar surprising, giving them a new way to see the benches they’d overturned, the walls they’d pockmarked, and the tiles they’d smashed to powder. They’d sometimes emerge from the mall to full night, surprised to see stars above the rusted and dented parking lot stanchions.
They needed the flashlights to see what they were doing in the Sears bathroom. It was cramped, and there was no window in a place designed for squalid privacy. After the grand ceilings of the heart of the mall, where shadows danced across the indoor sky, the beams showed next to nothing, just an echoing emptiness. They’d certainly have turned around if they hadn’t developed the taste for smashing toilets. There wasn’t anything to see in the tiny room. It took a turn of crazy luck to find what they’d found. Yet there it was, lying still under the flickering beams.
Lifting out the cash and the weed from the broken tank felt like a dream, felt like the commercial for the casino where the coins keep raining out the slot and spilling onto the floor. At the very bottom, they found three baggies of white powder. Two were full, one half, but it was clearly more coke than they’d seen in all their lives. None of them knew what to do with the stuff, so Evan, reenacting a scene from CSI, wetted his little finger, stuck it in, and licked. It didn’t do anything, but he let his eyes get wide as if he’d felt the hit. “It’s good shit,” he said, as if that told them anything.
Later that night, huddled in Evan’s room since they could sneak into it from the garage, they counted, recounted, and estimated street values to get a sense of how much they were looking at. It turned out to be $28,568, almost four pounds of pot, and close to eight grams of coke. Andy, who’d buy a quarter ounce of weed every couple months off a kid they’d known from a rival high school, worked out on a calculator it was worth almost $14,000 at the prices he was paying. They had to go on the internet to figure out they were looking at another $4500 if they could convert the coke to cash. All told, the almost $50,000 was about what most of their parents made in a year. It was more money than any of them had ever seen outside TV or the movies. It was enough, each dimly thought to himself, to change everything.
“First thing,” Andy declared, “we don’t go back to that place no more.”
Logan said “No shit.” He’d been thinking the same thing. They were lucky that whoever’d stashed the stuff there hadn’t come upon them in the weeks they’d been having their fun. It was a close call, too close to risk ever again. Maybe, they speculated later, the guy was in jail, but how long could you count on a sentence to last?
Evan took a moment, then nodded his acquiescence. He didn’t say it, but he disagreed. The mall was theirs. It was where they’d discovered themselves in a life undefined by the school calendar. Anyone dumb enough to leave that kind of money in an abandoned bathroom was probably gone for good. He saw no reason they should give back “their” mall to someone they couldn’t even fully imagine.
The following week, they felt the weight of the secret throughout their daytime lives. They’d hidden it all in an old suitcase they threw into the empty doghouse in Evan’s backyard, but the bright image of the stacks of cash and piles of drugs made everything else dimmer, made the everyday almost intolerable. At the same time, they felt more alive in the middle of their routines as they realized the stirring of new possibilities.
Logan found he paid more attention to his old man, not because he liked the work any better but because he sensed there were windfalls waiting somewhere beyond it. It struck him, almost for the first time, that this was a business. He and his father might spend all day with their hands in shit – literally in the shit that gathered in one or another pipe – but then his father, or Cindy who worked part time in the office, would write up the invoices, order new supplies, and balance the books. They got $65 an hour.
Logan had always known that, and he’d always resented that his father let him keep only $12 of it, but he found himself wondering how it all worked, where it all went. He started looking for mistakes, listing in his mind things he thought he could do differently to inch toward something that would give him a reason to care about one day taking over the old man’s business.
Andy picked up a catalogue for the community college. He hadn’t planned to. He saw it at the customer service desk and just stuck it in his back pocket. Then he pulled it out a couple times for a look when the lines got slow. He couldn’t get out of his head the realization that it wasn’t too late to register. Classes didn’t start for another week, and it seemed possible to sign up even a few days after that.
He’d hated school, hated it more even than the others since he’d understood the material he still got wrong on the tests, but something in the possibility kept calling to him. He looked at himself in the breakroom mirror – a breakroom that echoed the one in the old Sears – and he thought, “I have a pile of drugs sitting in an old doghouse, and no one in this goddam place has any idea.” The secret energized him, but the hypocrisy inspired him. He’d always thought of his teachers, the principal, the city council members who gave the good-citizenship assembly talks, as frauds. And, though he wouldn’t have used the word on himself, he felt somehow liberated for recognizing his own hypocrisy, for feeling the full-on adult sense that he lied behind the smile he showed the world.
Evan seethed. He didn’t let anyone see it. He scraped his hands changing tires, reopened cuts when he bumped into shit other people left lying around the garage, and generally busted his ass all day long. He did what they told him, but he let his thoughts run toward the guy who’d left the stash in the bathroom. It wasn’t the drugs or even the cash. It was the secret power of the wealth. Lying in bed, he watched Pacino’s Scarface, and then he watched it again the next night.
He sold some of the pot to a kid he knew at another school, and he put the money back in the suitcase. Then he sold some of the coke, but he kept that money. He started to nibble away at the stash, carefully at first, then with more and more recklessness. He sold some, smoked some, and snorted some. And he liked it. Some felt good. More felt better.
It got weirder to get together all three at once, and when they did, the secret always seemed louder than whatever they were talking about. They were still too young for bars, so they made do with the bowling alley, the movies, or sitting around Andy’s mother’s living room where they couldn’t really talk. Without acknowledging it, they started pretending to a comradery that used to come easier, more pats on the back and “uh-huhs” than were absolutely necessary.
One night in late September, they met at the pizza place, the first time in almost two weeks they’d all been together more than a few minutes. Logan told them he’d scored a date with Sandy Adams. It was only a burger and a movie, but it was more action than any of the three had gotten since the wave of graduation parties had ended in mid-summer. Andy admitted he’d registered for a couple classes at the community college. He might still drop them, he said. In fact, he was pretty sure he would once he saw how boring they were. But it gave him something to keep his parents off his back. Evan lied and said he was thinking about quitting the garage. It seemed the thing to say.
And that was the last conversation the three of them ever had. Two days later, Andy got a call from his mother that Evan had overdosed on “some kind of drug I hope you’re smart enough to stay away from.”
Sometimes when they wandered through the old mall, they recalled the way it had been years before. They remembered handing over lawn cutting money for the new Kid Rock CD at the Sam Goody’s, and then how they’d listened to “So Hott” until it degenerated into a parody of itself, a song stuck on repeat in their own imaginations. They remembered their parents selecting belts and ties from Ardinajian Mens Wear for eighth grade graduation, a rite of passage that had meant only the start of the humiliation of high school where, mediocre athletes and worse students, they piled disappointment on top of disappointment. They remembered wandering the increasingly empty corridors, eying the girls from their class, sometimes getting a response, but generally realizing they were never better than someone’s second choice. They did not remember the thousand separate insults of their high school days, the quiet ways their teachers and administrators had shown their condescension, but they remembered the cumulative message that they were destined to lose at life’s game.
They remembered vowing to abandon the place once the shuttered storefronts made a jack-o-lantern’s smile of the ranged display windows. They were back again, though, and then again for what the signs outside promised were “Unbeatable Liquidation Deals.” They squandered their money on things they’d tired of even before returning home, things so disposable they sometimes forgot to unwrap them, throwing them to the backs of closets or corners of trunks and never recalling them. Yet they’d returned and claimed the place when no one else had any use for it.
As soon as Andy heard the news, he snuck into the doghouse and claimed the suitcase. He climbed through the old fence, pulled it out, and slunk away in the dark. Evan’s mother was still at the hospital, talking to sheriff’s deputies and grief counselors, and he didn’t wait to hear from Logan. He took it out to a hunting blind his old man sometimes used, walked fifty paces east, double wrapped it in Hefty bags, and hid it under a camo tarp. Then he went to work, where he spent the day with the paranoia he felt whenever he got stoned, certain that everyone suspected his secret.
He and Logan were bit players at the funeral. They sat through the affair in stiff dress clothes, wearing ties that chafed and choked. Condolences went first to Evan’s mother, then to his sister and uncle. They waited their turn in the line that led to the casket and the family, but they could think of nothing to say beyond, “He was a good guy” and “So sorry for your loss.” They heard the emptiness in their own phrases, but they had no idea how to fill it.
Some of the family friends, teachers, and old classmates proffered handshakes or offered sympathy. “You was friends, wasn’t you?” one neighbor said as if making the discovery while he spoke. They nodded, doubting “friends” was really the word. They wondered how much they’d had to do with his death, how much their shared discovery had chambered the bullet. They wondered, without sharing the thought aloud, whether they were glad he’d died, whether they should feel relieved. They wondered whether there was now more of the money for each of them.
Logan caught up with Andy two days after that. “So when was you going to tell me, huh, Buddy?” He left the last word as sharp as he could make it.
“I was always planning on telling you today, Logan,” he answered. “There’s detectives and they want to know where he got the shit that killed him. If we act dumb now, we could end up in jail.”
“This is it?” Logan asked when Andy pulled the suitcase from under the tarp. “It looks light to me.”
“It’s all there,” Andy told him. “I ain’t touched any of it ’cept to move it.”
“You telling me Evan took some?”
“I’m telling you I didn’t touch it.”
In Logan’s truck on the way back to town, Andy asked if they oughtn’t to split it. “I’ll take 60 percent of the cash,” he suggested, “and you can have the rest and all the drugs.”
“Fuck that, Andy,” Logan said. “You don’t get a penny more than half.”
And, as he drove, he wondered whether Andy’d get even that much.
Abandoned didn’t mean altogether empty, and they often found batches of left-behind items. In a drawer in a storefront they thought might once have been a Spencer’s Gifts, they found half a dozen bags of hard candy, the sort no one but a grandmother with a coffee table candy dish could have any use for. They started pelting each other with them, Evan and Andy ganging up on Logan until, at last, Andy switched sides and the other two went after Evan.
At the back of a place that still had the sign “Fashion Boutique” in front, they found a wheeled cart full of strangely mismatched clothes: sleeveless blouses, men’s slacks, track suits, a bag of toddler-sized onesies, and a terry-cloth bathrobe. They were returns, no doubt, so worthless even back then that no one had bothered to put them back on the shelf. They tore what they could into strips and knotted the strips into home-made ropes. Then, when they found no use for what they’d made, they abandoned the rags on top of the now battered and unwheeled cart.
One afternoon they found an abandoned box of cassette tapes in a back office that some assistant manager hadn’t bothered to lock the last time he closed its door behind him. The tapes had been marked down from $6 to $1.99 to $.99 and then discarded altogether. There was no sense to the selection: a Bing Crosby Christmas album next to a Peabo Bryson next to a David Lee Roth. At first they smashed them through the plastic cases. Later they discovered they could extract the reels and hurl them so the thin tape trailed behind, wrapping over the empty light fixtures that punctuated the ceiling of the mall’s upper level. The effect was something like the toilet papered trees the cheerleaders had left in front of the football team’s houses, even theirs, if the game was crucial enough and there’d been time to get to the bottom of the depth chart: like a kind of false cheer, like snow that wouldn’t melt even after it was blackened with soot.
The cops came for Andy toward the end of his shift at the IGA. They did it low key, asking the manager to call him into the back office. No cuffs, they said, so long as he promised to come along slow. They did make him sit in the back of the car, though, behind the screen. As they drove, he felt the tears start to come, and he didn’t have the will to make them stop. The cops were decent enough to pretend they didn’t see.
He talked, of course. It never was clear whether Logan set him up or they’d run into some bad luck, but he told them all of it. His and Logan’s lawyers were legal aid out of Columbus, both of them young and both earnest. Logan’s told it to him plain. “You can play it two ways. You can try to help your friend and go down, or you can say it was his idea. There’s no staying friends and getting out of this.” Andy’s didn’t even describe it as a choice. “Tell the judge what you know about your friend in all of this, and I might be able to do something for you. Play the hero, and you may as well be defending yourself up there.”
They got three years apiece for possession, with parole a possibility in 28 months. Andy got sent downstate while Logan got a place near Toledo. The bailiffs took them out in different directions, so neither got to see much of the other’s reaction. After the sentencing, their parents wouldn’t even acknowledge each other. They walked out separate doors, leaving Evan’s mother sitting in the courtroom, too dazed to speak or move.
The mall is still there. You can see it when you drive out past town. Someone shot out the ‘e’ in the biggest Sears sign a while back, but otherwise the only change is the continued general decay. No one’s bothered to put a lock back on the service door, and it’s still open a crack. When you look through, you can’t see much except the dirty light swirling around the upper windows and maybe a trail of broken fixtures and punctured walls. And maybe, if the sun’s at the right angle, you can see all the way to one of the empty storefronts where there’s nothing left to sell and no one left to buy it.
“ This story started for me three years ago, the moment I saw a series of viral photos of abandoned shopping malls around the Midwest. It made me think of the mall I’d grown up going to in Newark, Ohio, (which is still thriving, by the way) and I saw all at once my characters who, feeling left behind, came to think of themselves as agents of that destruction. I had a first draft that came quickly, and I enjoyed writing what felt like a poetry of despair, but I hit a wall. I couldn’t understand a larger context for their frustration, for the sense that nothing they did would ever be good enough. Then came the election in November 2016, a political moment that came like a gut punch, and I realized the despair I’d sensed for my characters was more present in our broader culture than I’d let myself acknowledge. Once I came to understand the characters as attacking something that we still shared rather than something I’d outgrown, I found I could finally finish it. ”