Inspired by Poe's "The Man of the Crowd"
approximately 2200 words
Incident at Promenade Mall
It was ten AM and I really needed a donut. Not one of those frou-frou ones drizzled with chocolate and covered with fancy-schmancy nuts. A plain old cake donut is good enough for me. Give me that, and a cup of steaming, American coffee, and I'm good to go.
Well, I should say, "give me that and my Sig Sauer," and then I'm really good to go. No scum bag is going to screw with me, ever.
I can hear you thinking a man in my condition shouldn't have donuts, to say nothing of coffee. Well, to hell with that. To hell with what my cardiologist says, for that matter. A man's got to have some pleasures in life, don't he? I mean, I was here at the mall for my morning walk, just like she wanted. That should be enough.
Besides, after my close brush with my maker, I felt a need to get closer to humanity. That's why I take my exercise here, at the mall: it makes me realize how superior I am. You know, I sometimes think God should thank me, not the other way around.
Just kidding. No one ever gets my sense of humor.
Anyway, people-watching at the mall helped me find my mission in life. I've read what the Good Book says about the End Times, and I'm ready. In fact, I'm keeping a list of them that needs cleansed, and it gets longer every time I visit the mall.
Maybe today will be the day. I'm always prepared. The holster holding my Sig Sauer slapped at my thigh underneath my sweatpants. Its heft comforted me.
The kid behind the counter at Dunkin' Donuts looked to be, like, twelve, 'cept I knew he had to be at least 18 to be workin' here during school hours. He gave me a smarmy smile that was all peaches-and-cream and asked, "What'll it be, sir?" He could have sung soprano in the Vienna Boy's Choir, say when castrati was still legal. I figured he must be one of those kind from the limp-wristed way he fluffed his hair.
I pointed at the plain cake donuts in the display case. "I'll have one of them and cup of coffee."
"Yes, sir." Peaches, he put on plastic gloves and reached for my pastry.
The sleeves on his shirt skinned back and revealed barbed-wire tattoos circling both his wrists. So much for innocence. I mentally added the little creep to my watch list. You can't be too careful.
He gave me another of those cheesy smiles and lisped, "What kind of coffee, sir? We've got cappuccino, expresso, latte--"
The lisp confirmed my suspicions. Whatever. Live and let live, I always say, just as long as he don't rub my nose in his crap. "Just plain coffee will do, boy. None of that foreign BS."
"Very good, sir. What size?" At least his voice was angelic, if nothing else.
"Large." I didn't roll my eyes. Next he'd ask me if I wanted a grande or some other French thing.
He nodded and chirped, "Large it is."
I had a five-spot ready when he came back with the coffee. "Keep the change, kid."
"Thank you, sir." His baby-blues sparkled like I'd made his day. Such is the world of low expectations found at malls. What a loser.
I picked up my purchase and slopped some searing-hot coffee on my thumb. It hurt like hell, but I didn't mind. Sometimes pain's a good thing. It teaches me stuff, speaks to me, like God to Moses. You know what I mean? Anyway, I shook it off and stumped to the middle of the mall's dining area. That's as good a place as any to have myself a sit, get my sugar and caffeine fix, and watch the relentless flow of what passes for humanity at the mall.
I found a two-top that wasn't covered with crumbs, empty soda cups, or smears of ketchup and plopped myself down in a plastic chair. The friggin' thing was too hard and had a crooked leg, but I wouldn't be here long. I needed to do at least three more circuits of the mall, according to my cardiologist. Damn her anyway.
I settled in and splayed my food in front of me on a napkin, taking care that nothing touched the table. The Muzak droning from overhead speakers switched from the 1001 Strings version of Bad Moon Rising to something classical. I tipped my head, closed my eyes, and concentrated on the lyrics. They were in Latin: "Libera me..." Don't tell me. I should know this. Satisfaction bent my lips. Faure's Requiem. Yeah, man, free me for the Rapture. Perfect choice for this sleazy place.
I dumped powdered creamer and two Sweet and Low packets into my coffee and started to stir the cloudy mess--thirty two times, not one more or less. I scanned the crowd while I counted, hoping to see something interesting.
I shifted in my hard seat, and the damned chair wobbled. Even more annoying, the Sig Sauer jabbed my leg. I muttered an oath and twisted at the fabric of my pants until the friggin' thing stopped poking me. That was better. The weight tugged at my leg, nice and heavy-like. Reassuring, but not obvious either.
Two tables over, a baby squirmed in a stroller and began raising holy hell, screaming its darling little head off. The girl sitting at the table couldn't have been more than sixteen, from the looks of her. She would have been cute except she had filthy toenails and purple hair. She used one flip-flop-shod foot to push the stroller to-and-fro while she filled a baby bottle from a can of diet soda. At least the brat stopped squalling when it started suckling on the bottle.
Get used to it, kid. You think life sucks now, just wait. I looked closer at his old lady. She had a little string of bruises running up her inner arm. Tracks. I knew it. Hayek was right when he wrote about social decay, you know. Nothin' nobody does is ever gonna make one whit of difference to this kid's already screwed up life, so why bother?
Thirty one, thirty two. I put the plastic stirrer down, took a bite of my donut, and resumed my perusal of the mall patrons. A young hoodlum wearing a gray hoodie, low-slung pants, and black tennis shoes strutted past the Chick-fil-a. I'd seen him earlier, loitering outside Zales, eyein' the diamonds. Now that I thought about it, I bet he lifted something from the display case, all sneaky-like. He looked the type. I'd need to keep an eye on him, for sure. He was already on my list.
The mall's rent-a-cop patrol must be thinkin' the same thing. One of them plodded along after Hoodie-guy, following him to the Dunkin' Donuts where they both stood in line. Peaches-and-cream, he gave Hoodie-guy a cheese Danish and a carton of milk, but didn't ring up the sale. They exchanged one of those backwards, gangland handshakes like you see on Law and Order reruns.
By all appearances, the rent-a-cop was oblivious to the petty theft that just took place under his bulbous nose. The young hoodlum swaggered to a nearby table, where he hunkered down and started scarfing his pastry. Meantime, the fat ass cop ordered a dozen donuts and one of those boxes of coffee that serve a half dozen people. Of course--he was picking up cop chow for the security team's mid-morning break. It's not like they'd be, you know, actually providing security or anything.
They didn't know how lucky they were I was here.
The mall guard waddled away while I finished my donut. The coffee was still too damned hot to drink. It's best cold anyway, like revenge. Whatever the hell that means.
A young businessman, dressed in a three piece suit, wandered into the cantina like a lost puppy. He couldn't have been more than twenty-two or twenty-three. He glanced my way and stared at me, then through me. Asshole. He gnawed on his lower lip while his gaze roamed over the half-empty tables.
The thing was, his eyes were amazing. I mean, I've heard people talk about piercing blue eyes, but his guy's were something else. They really gored you. He was handsome, too. If he'd been in a movie with Brad Pitt and Colin Farrell, he'd be the handsome one.
You could tell he knew it, too. I mean, he must have spent over an hour this morning with his blow-dryer and mousse, getting that tousled look to his hair. He didn't buy that suit off the rack at The Men's Wearhouse, neither. Plus, those pointy shoes had Italian written all over them. So he was handsome and rich. Probably smart, too. But not as smart as me. No one at this pathetic mall was as smart as me.
Just kidding again. Really.
Anyway, I hated this privileged jerkwad already.
So, what was this scion of the one-percent doing, slumming in the Promenade Mall at 10 AM on a Tuesday morning? I glanced at my cheap, plastic watch. Correction: it was 10:23 AM now. Shouldn't he be at his bank, foreclosing on a widow's mortgage or firing Tiny Tim's father? I admit, you gotta admire these rich guys. They don't take nothing off no one.
Like me, 'cept I ain't rich. I deserve to be, but I ain't.
Dreamboat seemed to reach a decision and set out toward Dunkin' Donuts. But instead of getting in line, he stopped and said something to Hoodie-guy. I could swear dreamy Richie Rich tried to slip the little gang banger a wad of money, but whatever it was got shoved back right back in his face.
About this time, the baker at Dunkin' came out front and said something to Peaches-with-the-lisp. Peaches nodded, doffed his little paper cap and sauntered to the gang banger's table. They did another one of those ethnic handshakes, like they was rapsters, or gangstas, or somethin'. He must be on mid-morning break and planning to hang with his bud, Hoodie-guy.
But then Richie Rich, he said something to Peaches. Hoodie-guy slapped his forehead, like he was exasperated. But Peaches, he gave this coquettish smile to Richie Rich. Coquettish. I heard that on TV the other night. Don't feel bad, I had to look it up, too. It means he was flirting. Before I knew it, he took that wad of cash or whatever it was from Richie Rich, leaned in close and whispered to him. Then he sashayed off toward the can, just like that, his hips waggin'.
Richie Rich froze. His gaze followed Peaches's ass like a wolf's follows a doe's. But once Peaches disappeared into the can, Richie sauntered off and eyed the Chick-fil-a menu, pretendin' he was gonna order something. Less than a minute later, he headed off to the can, too.
Okay, now it all made sense. Disgusting, but it made sense. They was gonna commit what we used to call in less enlightened times an unnatural act. Just more social decay on display at the Promenade Mall, as if anyone cared. If the mall cops weren't off swilling coffee and donuts, they might do something, but probably not. Rich assholes, they can do anything they want and there ain't never no consequences.
The gang banger stood and cleared his table. I narrowed my eyes. His hoodie had a strange swing to it when he walked to the trash bin, like there was something heavy hidden inside. He turned to face me, and that was when I saw it. It was just a glimpse, but I'm sure it was there: a gun. Something else glittered in that pocket, too. Was it diamonds? It was! I was right. He shoplifted them in plain sight from the jewelry store, not thirty minutes ago. I saw him do it.
He was a gang banger, right here in the mall, my mall, and a sneak thief. And he had a gun.
I slipped my hand inside my pocket and fingered the grip on the Sig. Hoodie-guy, he was just an animal that needed put down. But the other two, Richie Rich and Peaches, they was perverts. I pictured Peaches with a nice, neat hole right between his baby blues. Richie, I'd plug him in the heart, 'cept he probably didn't have one. I could shoot out those piercing eyes of his. Or maybe he'd take it in the crotch instead.
My heart, it went pitty pat, and my breath, it quickened.
Wait, wait. I'm just kidding. That's crazy talk. Besides, my Sig wasn't even loaded. I just carry it as a gag.
No one ever gets my sense of humor.
I stood and strode toward Hoodie-guy.
I had two main purposes with this story. First, I wanted an unreliable narrator and, second, I wanted the narrator to have narcissistic personality disorder. This was largely an exercise in characterization, but I tried to have a plot, too, that was consistent with the character. I
I don't know if the characterization works or not, but I can tell you it was pretty unpleasant being in this character's head. At least one reviewer pointed out that the narrator's contradictions, deliberate false front, and impulsive rage are more indicative of a borderline, and I tend to agree.
Fans of Edgar Allen Poe will recognize the inspiration for this story as his 1845 tale The Man of the Crowd . I've updated it a quite a bit, and modified the setting and plot, but the basic outline is there.
If you enjoyed this, you might check out some of my other short stories in