|This is one of about a dozen stories based on true life experiences from my childhood. While I’ve always had these experiences and scenarios to draw from when writing fiction, I recently started thinking about how they would stand on their own.
When I was a young boy, my mother toted my younger brother and me along to wherever she had to go, including the most boring of all excursions, the dreaded department store. Shopping for clothes in Korvettes Department Store was a mundane way to spend a summer day. Row upon row of clothing and accessories stood upon racks, in aisles that stretched for miles, or so it seemed to my six-year-old eyes. My younger brother, confined to the shopping cart seat, watched with envy while I was free to explore, as long as I stayed within earshot of Mom. Even in such a dismal environment, a young boy like me could find ways to keep myself entertained.
Upon chrome clothes racks that extended thirty feet or more - they were actually divided into six or eight-foot segments - were long vertical poles that held wire and plastic hangers draped with the latest fashions. Up one side would be dresses and skirts and down the other side would be nightgowns and pajamas all hanging in a tight alignment. On the other side of the aisle would be more nightgowns and pajamas. Down the next row, on the other side of the rack, would be sweaters and jackets. This layout continued, aisle after aisle, to the ends of eternity.
If you looked at the clothes rack from its edge, dresses on the left, nightgowns on the right, there lay a small space between these garments, down the center of the rack, where a boy of my size could squeeze in. From there, I could traverse the length of the rack, as my mother browsed the aisle. I kept up with her by occasionally poking my head out from under or in-between the clothes, seeing how far she had progressed, and adjusting my pace to match. This path was much more exciting and adventurous. Scampering through this thin tunnel between the garments, I imagined traveling through a cave to center-earth where strange creatures and prehistoric beasts would be waiting for me at the cave’s end.
One quiet Wednesday afternoon, during my expedition of one of these clothing caves, awakened me to a larger world beyond the confines of my loving family.
At the end of the long garment tunnel, my mom’s hand waved me forward, signaling for me to come out from between the clothes. I knew if I delayed my presence, I would next hear her angered voice, the usual mix of stress and aggravation that would crescendo into a mad dog bark. I did not want to anger her on this trip because I fully intended to ask her for one of those big salted pretzels, heated to toasty perfection under a heat lamp, as they sat behind a glass display case at the front of the store.
I made my way to the light at the end of this cloth cave, seeing the hand wave periodically then disappear as it became blocked by hanging coat sleeves, robe sashes, and lace frills of dresses. I pushed through fabrics soft and coarse as I neared the end of this secret world and stopped at the edge of the exit. The hand waved again but it was not my mother’s hand. Hairy knuckles preceded short stubby fingers that curled like breakfast sausages. A gold band wrapped snug around a stumpy pinky finger unfurled once more before my face. I looked up at the man signaling. He was preoccupied, nervously scanning the horizon of the store. His face, aged with wrinkles, ashen gray in the florescent light displayed no emotion. A brown mole on his chin had three black hairs growing from it like insect antennae. I did not recognize this man and he was not wearing a department store uniform.
I slowly and quietly backed up into the tunnel space trying not to make a sound. When I got a few feet in, I turned and began paddling back through the space not wanting to get out near the man. Even though the man made no threat and had no sign of anger in his face, I was afraid.
Momentarily, I heard the heavy footsteps as the man walked up the aisle trying to match my movements through the tunnel. His footsteps got ahead of me and stopped. I halted my pace then continued slowly and as quiet as I could be, almost holding my breath. Suddenly a large swath of clothes was removed from the rack, loose hangers falling upon me. Bright light from the store invaded my secret place destroying the sanctity and illusion of safety. I quickly moved forward again, not seeing the man but knowing it was him rifling through the garments, knocking clothes to the floor behind me. I pushed through and around the dividers where one rack ended and a new one started and continued at high speed for quite a distance. I stopped and listened, trying to control my heavy breathing. I lowered my head under the garments which gave me clearer hearing than trying to listen through them.
I heard no more footsteps in the aisle. Several aisles down, a woman spoke to a friend about the color of a dress and if it matched the shoes she owned or if she would have to buy another pair of footwear. From someplace further in the store, a child cried as his mother yelled, “Put that down this instant!” Escalators hummed and the noisy vibrations of metal shopping carts moved about the store. I could not hear my mother or my baby brother’s constant baby-talk ramblings that usually accompanied the cart's noisy racket. Most importantly, I did not hear the man with the hairy knuckles and the brown mole on his face. He must have moved on, tired of waiting for whatever it was he wanted from me, something which I could not even fathom in my six year old mind.
Relieved there was no sign of the man, I took a deep breath, attempting to settle my fears. However, a new anxiety began within me. I had to find my mom before she moved too far from where I had last seen her. Panic closed its icy hands upon me and my mind raced with fearful thoughts. What if she couldn’t find me and decided to go home? How would I get home? Would someone call her for me? What was the phone number? Mom had asked me constantly to memorize the number but I never did. What was that number? I couldn’t even remember one digit now, not even the first number. Oh, my god. I have to find her. I moved toward the end of the rack and jumped out into the aisle, determined to find my mother immediately. I looked down to brush the dust off my pants. A shadow engulfed the area of the floor by my feet.
I looked up and the man was standing before me.
“Oh, my,” he said putting a hand to his chest. “You startled me.”
His face did not look like he had been startled at all. He hadn’t jumped, his eyebrows were not raised, and no look of surprise purged his expression. He leaned over a little, resting his hands on his knees so he could look at me, face to face. His eyes were a dark brown, almost black, unflinching in their study of me, making me more nervous with every passing moment. His rounded cheeks surmounted a small cherub mouth with white spittle in the corners of his lips. A scar divided his bushy right eyebrow and gray streaks laced his frizzy windblown hair.
“Are you lost, little boy?” he asked. His whimsical voice radiated; a soft singing quality flowed through his words.
“No, my mom is around,” I said. I tried to look around the store, hoping to see my mom and run to her but standing against the clothes rack with this man’s bulky frame above, I could not see past him. His solid frame blocked my entire view of the store.
“I will help you look for your mother, what do you say?” He extended his hand for me to take it. Perhaps I had been wrong about this man. He seemed friendly enough. He had a very pleasant voice and disposition. He offered to help me find my mom; surely, there was nothing wrong with that. I cautiously put my hand in his and we began to walk. He asked me questions as we walked and I answered them honestly. I saw no reason not to. I continued to look left and right, up every aisle but did not see my mom.
As we walked, the man increased the pressure holding my hand. I was so busy trying to field his rapid-fire questions; I had no time to protest.
“What grade are you in? Do you play sports? Do you like matchbox cars? I have a big collection of them at my home, you would really enjoy them.”
I answered politely but with simple one word answers, concentrating and hoping to find my mom because this man was again, making me nervous.
When I realized where we were headed, I stopped and pulled my hand from his. The set of double electric doors lay directly ahead.
“Why are you taking me outside? I questioned.
“Your mom has to come out this way, No?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“This will be the best place to see her, when she is on her way out of the store.”
“I don’t know. Maybe we should just look around.”
“If we walk around the store we could miss her. If you remember where your mom parked we could wait for her at the car.” He explained.
He put his hand on my back and applied light pressure, nudging me forward. I took a few tentative steps and stopped again. Suddenly, he grabbed me by the back of my upper arm. His grip, like steel, sent waves of pain into what little meat and muscle I had there.
“Come on kid, I don’t have all fucking day,” he said in a nasty tone.
He pulled me forward, his vice-like grip able to guide my whole body through my arm. His image reflected in the storefront windows and the pleasant man trying to help me find my mom was gone. He smiled but something wicked in him caused this expression. His teeth clenched and his brows pushed down over his gleaming eyes. Silent tears fell from my cheeks. I knew something terribly wrong was going on here.
Finally, she came rushing out of the aisle, the very last aisle we were to pass before we left the store. She looked mad as hell.
“There you are damn it!” She hollered. Shoe heels clicked to a stop before me. She grabbed my free hand and pulled me toward her. The man let loose his grip and I bobbled, feeling a little off balance.
She leaned down to scold me.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to leave the shopping cart and go off on your own adventure in a big store like this? I have been looking all over the store for you.”
The man backed away from us, nervous about all the commotion and the loud scene that had erupted. People from the snack bar twisted their heads and shoppers at the registers a few yards away stretched their necks for a better view. She stood and looked at the man with pointed and accusatory eyes. I never heard such venom in a woman’s voice as when she spoke. “You git lost mister, I will call the police right now!” She hissed through bared teeth.
The man left abruptly, the electronic doors closing behind him as he exited.
She leaned over to look me in the face, once again.
“Do you know where your mom is?” The woman asked. She pulled a tissue from her pleated skirt pocket and began to wipe the tears from my cheeks. “Don’t worry, we’ll find her,” she said.