The shopping mall is hollow, a cavern of mangled sounds rising to the vaulted ceiling three stories up.
The aisles are filled with shuffling bodies, slowly passing by like workers assigned to the late shift waiting to punch the clock; even the children in their red-and-green holiday clothes seemed dispirited as if the long slog to Christmas wore them down.
Once, long ago, he stood at the edge of that shuffling mob, poised at the entry door of a shop, glanced left and then right, and fled as if a force repelled him back through the store into the parking lot and into his car.
The phone in his pocket buzzed once.
That’s what it said,
But he knew it was her.
That’s what we’ve become.
Anonymous electronic links.
Unknown. Unidentified. Little electric signals that we hide behind; little electric signals.
Once it was not that way.
Once we pushed through the shuffling crowd, ran east southeast and west southwest, not north and south, diagonally across the squares; ran because all that mattered was that we met somewhere at the fringe of that mob.
Then we ran past. Unseen. The wall, the mob enclosed.
He tucked the phone back into his pocket and rubbed his chin, rough with three or four days of beard growth.
Another way of hiding. Gone were the pants with sharp creases, dark suits and tasteful ties. Now it was jeans, jeans with bleach stains, holes on the back cuff where they dragged on the floor. Sweat shirts, wraps too large, a way to hide; faded blues, greys, and mottled browns, a place to blend and disappear.
If no one can find you, how can they hurt you?
He stood and entered the shuffling, shopping mob, stopping at a wagon loaded with shaving items. None seemed interesting. Fruity, musky, brutish. Alcohol with a trace of scent.
He smiled as he recalled the name. Pinaud Clubman.
Suddenly he was eleven and sitting in the tall leather chair as Bernie the barber deftly brushed the hair off his neck with the white towel and dusted it with the soft brush after he had coated the head with scented powder shaken from a can with a dapper man in a top hat wearing a great coat with tails and leaning on a cane. For good measure, Bernie reached for a tall bottle with a slightly yellow liquid and shook a few drops into his hands before rubbing them together and rubbing his cheeks.
He held the small box to his nose and drew in the scent: A little citrus, a little musk, but faint, light. He smiled.
He remembered how hard it was to find the brand in stores, so hard that once when he found it on sale, he bought three bottles.
They are buried now in a cabinet, and get pushed to the rear every time a new item is placed on the shelf. One of the bottles tipped over and the cap was a little loose so for weeks the cabinet smelled like Clubman.
But still he didn’t use it.
“Can I help you?” The voice of the clerk at the wooden cart pulled him back to the shuffling mob. He fingered the Clubman box and shook it slightly.
In his car he took the bottle out of the box. The same tall, thin man in the same top hat, black, long coat leaned on his cane. The bottle, once glass, but now plastic like everything else. But it still had the classic shape. Broad shoulders at the top slimming down to a narrow waist, just like the man on the label. A marvel of marketing.
He twisted off the green, plastic top and tipped a few drops on his fingers. The silky liquid spilled into his palm and the car filled with the slight, refreshing scent of the aftershave.
He placed his hand over his nose and mouth and breathed in deeply.
There you are.
Here I am.
The phone buzzed again.
He pushed “Answer.”