Steven Sherrill

Food Court

Four days after Christmas, three days after his father’s funeral, and still a long day’s drive from home, Mitch sat in the second floor window of a Red Roof Inn looking out over the tarp-covered pool and the chain link fence enclosing it; looking out across an interstate highway running North and South, sometimes around, sometimes over, but there (wherever he was) through the pinched, winter-brown Allegheny mountains, a rocky chasm cut just wide enough for four lanes of traffic, barely room for the on-ramps, the off-ramps; looking out over and beyond the highway, beyond the derelict Quickie Mart, where the side of mountain had been bulldozed away to make a plateau for the Arnesal Valley Mall and its busy parking lot.

Not quite four-thirty, and the January sun, that luminous cataract, was about to blink shut for the night. Mitch didn’t know for sure where he was. Virginia, maybe. Maybe southern Ohio. He’d driven, numbed, and alone, away from Briar Creek Presbyterian Church, away from the platters of deviled eggs and buckets of fried chicken and gallons of sweet tea, away from the mourners, those related by blood, or history. He’d driven without paying attention, wanting only to escape—for the second time in his life—a community that seemed to thrive on grief; wanting only to go back home, where the suffering was, somehow, more bearable. Mitch stopped driving for the day, pulled off the interstate when exhaustion began to blur the traffic signs. The Red Roof Inn was the only lodging option at exit 237.

Mitch sat in the window—because it was the only chair in the room—and moved his fingertip back and forth across the cell-phone’s power button. Sat with his knees wedged against the metal housing of the heating unit, and waited for its rattling, turbojet cycle to end (so much noise for such tepid air sputtering from the vents), but when the heater stopped, the erratic, tidal, roar of the cars and trucks passing on the highway filled, immediately, all the space silence could’ve occupied. Mitch thought of calling the front desk and asking for a room at the back of the motel. But even at his best, his freshest, his most confident, Mitch avoided confrontation, even hypothetical, purely speculative confrontation. As for that day ...

There was no lid on the toilet; he felt silly, embarrassed, but he sat anyway, and had to close the door to do so. How many days since he’d checked messages? How many years since he’d gotten a message from anyone other than his boss, the district manager of all three Copy-Rite sites, or his nearly bed-ridden wife Louise? Mitch couldn’t answer either question.

The voicemail ring tone startled him. A jarring hip-hop beat and some guttural exclamations, no doubt downloaded into the cell-phone by his, at once, caustic and evasive thirteen year old daughter. Donna never really interacted directly with Mitch. Hadn’t for a long long time. But she seemed to thoroughly enjoy wreaking techno-havoc around the house. Cell-phones, the TiVo, the answering machine, the microwave, anything that could be reprogrammed was fair game. Maybe, Mitch thought, all the electronic monkey-business was Donna’s attempt to reach out to him.

As a young man, when he’d left South Carolina for a school near the Ohio and Pennsylvania border—not quite North, not quite mid-West—he thought, for sure, that just the act of leaving the place where he’d endured childhood would change his life, immeasurably, for the better. Twenty years later, Mitch still remembered his mother alternately sobbing then pouting at the kitchen table that day, and his father never coming out of the basement workshop. But he had absolutely no idea nothing really got better.

Maybe Donna was thinking of running away. Maybe her pranks were coded messages. Again, with the ring tone.

“... twerk it to the left … bounce it to the right … rumpshaker … you a rumpshaker ...”

Mitch fumbled with buttons until the song stopped. The cramped bathroom grew suddenly too small to hold both him and breathable air. Mitch undid the second button on his road-weary shirt, sat on the bed to listen to his messages.

Two. Only two. Both from his boss, Thom, who insisted on the h.

The twenty-seven missed calls were from Louise, but the messages were from Thom.

The first was simply an angry “Where are you!”

But Thom knew where Mitch was; had to. Mitch left the note, with Thom’s name on it, saying he was going to his father’s funeral, in plain view.

The second voicemail was angrier. Less intelligible, and palpably angrier. Thom kept repeating that Mitch “… better check his goddamn email ...” But Mitch didn’t bring his laptop along. He went over a list of possible problems in his mind, but decided not to speculate.

Mitch’s footsteps echoed in the concrete stairwell, as if he were a much more substantial man. As if he carried some weight. He held the lobby door open for an old couple in matching Virginia is for Lovers t-shirts.

“Do ya’ll have a business center?” he asked the desk clerk.

Ya’ll

Mitch had worked hard to put the ya’lls and the aint’s behind him, but one afternoon with the grieving relatives and acquaintances, with the motley band of pallbearers he’d been coerced into joining (two old men he didn’t know, two cousins he didn’t want to know, and one man his own age, in a filthy suit, whom his mother insisted used to be his best friend, and who talked to Mitch in nervous whispers the entire time they carried the coffin, starting every sentence with “Hey Mitch … Hey Mitch, remember that little retarded girl we thought was so cute? Hey Mitch, ain’t them Yankees you live with a pain in the ass? Hey Mitch, ya’ll want to blow a doobie after the service? Hey Mitch ...”), and his tongue was sullied again.

“A what, honey?” the desk clerk asked. She’d checked him in earlier. He’d noted the fatigue, the deep weariness in her eyes. He’d noted her efforts to hide the dark circles and heavy bags behind makeup and a hairstyle that seemed too young for her face. Her efforts made Mitch want to hug her. To thank her for checking him in so nicely.

“A business center? Or a computer for guests to use?”

Mitch looked around the small room as he asked. He saw a coffee machine and a wire rack almost empty of brochures. Mitch looked at her Red Roof Inn nametag.

Lela.

“No, honey. We got complimentary breakfast; coffee, juice, and donuts. Sometimes yogurt. We got Wi-Fi in the rooms, but it don’t half work. But there’s no computer.”

Lela, no doubt, saw the anxiety sweep across his face.

“Is it important?” she asked.

Mitch nodded, yes. Bit his top lip.

“Sit still for a minute,” she said, then slipped through the closed the doorway behind the counter. Seconds later, the door opened, but she didn’t emerge.

“You can come on in,” she said.

It was the manager’s office. Lela left Mitch alone to do his business. He stared at the Red Roof Inn Customer Service Award of the Year “Lela Happenny” plaque until his eyes adjusted to the antiseptic fluorescent light, took a deep breath, and logged into his Copy Rite email account. The sheer bulk of his unread messages immediately overloaded the computer.

Mitch wanted nothing more than to crawl, unseen, out of the office, across the lobby floor, climb into his car, and drive away, but he forced himself to stop trembling and go face Lela. As it happened, the desk clerk was as kind as she was tired. She rebooted the computer, showed Mitch a trick to get the web browser to open his saturated email server, and didn’t leave until he was successfully logged on.

“I’ll leave the door cracked,” Lela said. “Let me know if you need help.”

Thirteen new messages in his in-box, all from Thom. Mitch only had to open one before wishing the Red Roof Inn computer had remained frozen. He heard the front door, and the sound of rolling luggage on tile. As the full extent to which he’d screwed things up at work became clear, Mitch listened to Lela check in new guests.

How many times had he heard Thom give “the talk” at the monthly manager’s meeting? Thom took his job seriously. Every second Tuesday, he gathered his minions in one of the cramped conference rooms and, like some half-televangelist, half-drill sergeant, railed about how much of a monster Kinko’s was, and how Copy Rite could only compete by finding just the right clients, and treating them like kings.

Mitch’s store handled the small company’s biggest account.

Mitch, in addition to basic managerial responsibilities, handled layout mock-ups, collating, and bulk mailing.

The Ohio-pyle Oxbows, a regional Single-A baseball team, affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, was hoping to promote their new mascot before the season’s start.

Their idea was a yoked ox with a smile.

Mitch remembered, clearly, signing off on the final proof.

Thom’s third email, and the accompanying attachment, said it most accurately: “It looks like a turd! Like a goddamn grinning turd! In a cowboy hat!”

And, as if the color shift and some compression in the graphic wasn’t enough, a glaring typo in the banner couldn’t be missed. While Mitch buried his father, twenty-five thousand turds, on the front of twenty-five thousand Ohio-pyle Oxbows Season Schedules, made their smiling way across the state, into twenty-five thousand waiting mailboxes.

Lela was filling the brochure rack when Mitch staggered out of the office. He had to eat. He hadn’t eaten hardly anything since the service. He had to nourish his body before calling Thom. Lela looked a little afraid when he approached, but her kindness, or her commitment to customer service, kept her from running away.

“Is there a restaurant in the Arnesal Mall?” Mitch asked.

“You mean the Arsenal Mall?”

The gods, the powers that be, however their called, wouldn’t allow Mitch to forget his dyslexia for long. Despite having made it through college, his tendency to flip flop letters, transpose numbers, and often overlook glaring typographical errors, held him down to the bottom rung of Copy Rite’s corporate ladder.

“There used to be a Friendly’s,” Lela said. “But it closed.”

Mitch floundered in the silence.

“They got a food court,” she, finally, said.

When he stepped out of the Red Roof Inn lobby and into the parking lot, the stench of rotten eggs made him gag, made him drop his keys, made him change his mind, instantly about trying to walk across the highway to the Arsenal Mall. Fresh air may have done him some good. But Mitch couldn’t deal with that sulfur-y, and oddly familiar, stink.

He hated malls. For a multitude of reasons.

He didn’t know what Donna did with her days. Didn’t know her friends. What she liked about school or even if she attended regularly. All she ever seemed to do was go to the mall. All he ever heard her talk about, while driving her to or from the mall, was auditioning for American Idol, and Next Top Model, and some others he couldn’t remember.

Donna, dear Donna, had clearly inherited her mother’s short legs, wide hips, and thin lips. Had inherited no recessive “singing” gene. And, with increasing evidence, had inherited more extreme versions of the learning disabilities that plagued Mitch. He had neither the heart nor the courage to shatter her dreams.

Despite being wedged into a narrow gap in the mountains, with nothing but steep rocky farmland for miles around, the Arsenal Mall bustled busily. Mitch walked through the doors just in time to have to duck to avoid being hit—practically decapitated—by a remote controlled toy helicopter operated by a grinning dreadlocked teen at a kiosk in the aisle opposite Victoria’s Secret.

He hated malls.

Mitch dodged the toy sellers, the NASCAR memorabilia, and the stand full of rock stars airbrushed onto tee shirts, weaving around the kiosks and their purveyors until he made it to the food court at the heart of the mall. A high, domed, glass ceiling just barely contained the massive palm tree at its center; on nearly every surface of the low brick planter from which the tree rose, groups of tattooed and pierced youth sat, stood, mulled, ate, chewed food or gum, talked or text messaged on their phones, taunted each other, swore and pretended not to, or swore with giddy abandon; all of them, more or less facing out from the center of the planter, as if guarding something there, watching all who came and went at the various food stands, judging, assessing, a hormonal army ready to be unleashed. Teens, maybe, but he couldn’t really tell. Mitch hated malls.

He tucked into a short line at The Great Steak & Potato Company, not because he had a taste for their food, but because few teens sat on the nearby planter. Mitch took his sandwich to the most distant empty table and set about eating. He just needed to get something in his stomach before making those phone calls. Two bites in and he noticed the cart just on the other side of the rail separating eaters from shoppers. Soooo-Real Pets! Fake animals, smaller than normal, curled onto beds or crouching low and looking up. Wiggling their tails. Blinking their eyes. Or seeming to sleep. The fur looked so real. Mitch swore he saw a diminutive schnauzer breathing; saw its fake belly rise and fall with fake breath.

He found the whole scenario nauseating, but, as if it wasn’t nauseating enough, he noticed that some of the kids had left their posts on the planter and were taking turns—he watched it more than once; was certain of the actions—watched them huddle by a door to a hallway that led to a bathroom, and one by one, taking turns, pick their noses and come up wipe their fingers on the Soooo-Real puppies and kittens.

If Mitch had flown to his father’s funeral, like Louise said, he wouldn’t have had to witness such nonsense. He wouldn’t have missed so many days at work. If Louise and Donna had come with him, like he wanted them to, but couldn’t say, couldn’t ask. If he hadn’t moved north, married a Catholic with “different” ideas about the world; a woman who developed a mysterious chronic illness that his mother could neither believe nor pronounce. If he hadn’t spent the past years putting coat after coat of shellac on his past and its inherent pain. If he could only have a daughter that looked real, that seemed alive, but didn’t need to be cleaned, fed, cared for, worried about. If he only had a wife that did want his touch, did need his presence; a woman who did more than curl up and breathe.

Laughter shook Mitch out of his daze. He must’ve been thinking with his eyes open, and looking in the direction of the obnoxious kids. They were clearly looking back at him. Talking. Snickering. Plotting.

Mitch wanted to go home. Or at least back to the motel. He needed to call Louise and Thom. No, Thom first. Mitch stabbed a few last French fries into some ketchup, ate them hurriedly, paused at the trash can long enough to take a final sip of his cola, and headed toward the exit. Escaping the mall without negotiating the aisle way kiosks was impossible, but he looked for a different exit so as to avoid the helicopters. In looking around, Mitch noticed that a few of the kids were following him, ducking in and out of doors, giggling. Mitch quickened his pace. It wasn’t bodily harm that he feared; rather the less tangible and often more permanently damaging public humiliation. When the teens seemed to step up their pursuit as well, Mitch considered dashing through one of those numerous unmarked doors in every mall that led to god knows where. But something changed his course of action.

More accurately, someone.

“Excuse me,” the boy said.

Boy. Man. One or the other. His coal black hair, equally dark eyes, and clearly foreign skin made it hard to tell.

“What?” Mitch said, both grateful for being rescued from his pursuers, and suspicious of what this stranger manning a kiosk full of salves and lotions wanted from him.

“Can I ask you a question?” the guy said.

“Umm ...”

That was a question. Did he mean another one?

“What’s your name?”

“Mitch.”

Mitch looked around. The teens had scattered, but remained on the periphery. The dark man worked to lock Mitch’s gaze with his own. The man extended his hand. A common courtesy.

“Mitch,” he said, holding Mitch’s hand firmly. “I am Avi. Can I ask you a question, Mitch?”

Mitch tried to pull his hand back, but didn’t want to be rude.

“Do you know the Dead Sea, Mitch?”

“What?”

“Do you play the guitar, Mitch?”

By that time, Avi had the fingers of Mitch’s right hand, splayed, examining each fingertip, tracing the ligaments into his wrist. Mitch, embarrassed by the ketchup under his nails, flushed. It all happened so fast, Mitch didn’t know what to do. Avi said strong hands should look good, cared for. Avi said something about salt and mud and the Dead Sea. Something about essential. Avi used the word revive several times. Then Avi opened a jar by his cash register, scooped out a dollop of something clear and grainy, and began to massage it into Mitch’s right hand. So fast. Slow down. Mitch, who’d never, ever been touched so intentionally by a man, of any age, from any country, could not move. He knew the kids were watching from somewhere, laughing. He knew the other shoppers looked at the ground and hurried around him and Avi, as if not wanting to witness such an encounter.

Avi said something about the Dead Sea. Avi pushed his strong thumbs into Mitch’s palm.

A sluice gate opened in Mitch’s mind; a tsunami of memory nearly drowned him.

Mitch and his father. Twenty years earlier. His father needed help wiring several fluorescent light fixtures in the ceiling of his basement workshop. It took all day. They both stood on ladders, reaching up into the tight junction boxes, taking turns with the screwdriver and the wire nuts. It was the last time he and his father ever touched.

Mitch jerked his hand from the dark boy’s grasp. Tried but could not stop the surge of tears. Avi looked, first confused, then disappointed, then fixed his attention on a dumpy middle aged woman coming out of The Body Shop. Mitch ran all the way out to his car. Was still crying, sobbing even, when he dropped his keys, again, in the dark that time, under the front wheel. Had to get on his hands and knees and reach, blindly, until he found them. And that smell. Those smells. The piney oil Avi had massaged into his hands blended with the odor of sulfur permeating everything at Exit 237, and Mitch suddenly knew why the egg-y stench was so familiar. Mitch, in an instant, was seven years old again, and on vacation, in Cherokee Village, with his parents, and on the drive, all the way there, they’d joked about the smell of the paper mill, and on the chairlift up to the park, Mitch had cried, sat in his father’s lap all the way to the top, his father telling him, over and over, hush … hush … hush.

Back at the Red Roof Inn, Mitch thought briefly of going in to tell Lela Happenny about what happened, but through his tears—and the glaring irrationality of the action—he thought he saw a different clerk on duty. Couldn’t risk it. He had to call Thom. No way around it. He should call Louise. He ought to call his mother.

Mitch, exhausted, climbed the stairs. Couldn’t think clearly. Couldn’t remember Thom’s phone number, or any other phone number. Couldn’t imagine what he’d say to anybody even if he did call. Mitch opened the control panel of the heater unit, twisted the knob, turning the blower on high, hoping the noise would drown out the storm in his head. Mitch drew the thick, plastic-backed curtains fully across the window, and without undressing, climbed into bed and pulled the covers up. Felt certain sleep would elude him. Knew, without doubt, he’d lay, he’d wallow, in his confusion, his exhaustion, until daybreak, then drive home no less weary, no less mixed up.

But Mitch was wrong.

He slept. Slept soundly, for about ten minutes. Then the dreams started.

Mitch moaned and twitched beneath the covers as he dreamt of walking, over and over, down the aisle of Briar Creek Presbyterian Church, walking up to his father’s open casket, while all his relatives and all the people from his past sat in the pews and laughed and snickered and mocked him for his fear and his sadness. And his father, old, older than he’d ever seen him, naked, eyes open, and every time Mitch got close the man whispered “hush, boy, hush.” And someone called his name from the door.

When Mitch left that dream, he found himself wading in a concrete river, through a rocky chasm, each labored step almost impossible. Beneath the surface, and breaking the surface of the fluid stone, monstrous mechanical leviathans swam, their maws gaping and clanging shut, their chrome teeth gnashing the January sunlight.

“Mitch.”

Someone called his name from high up on the bank, and Mitch reached up, without being able to see who was up there. Mitch left that dream, left it, running, kicking his legs, twisting the blankets around his feet, as if shackled, fettered, in the middle of a desert, someplace hot and dry, in the distance a grove of gnarly trees, their blue grey leaves shimmering, Mitch bound at the foot, unable to escape the mammoth horned turd charging directly towards him, dragging a shattered yoke on a broken chain, no less dangerous seeming, deadly even, for the fact that the monster was a cartoon come to life. In the distance, from the grove of trees a figure, a voice, a boy, or man. Avi? Mitch held his hands up, trying to protect himself. But each cartoon breath that snorted from the creature’s cartoon nostrils blistered his skin. Avi began to run toward Mitch. The hellish cartoon turd charged nearer and nearer. When Mitch realized they would all collide at the same time, he screamed. Jolted himself awake.

Awake.

In the Red Roof Inn.

Sweating.

And so incredibly erect, aroused, hard, that it hurt.

Shame and embarrassment coursed through Mitch’s tired body.

What the hell.

Mitch kicked off the covers and got out of bed. Moved away, as if the bed itself were contaminated. So many things coursing through his mind, he couldn’t parse out dream from memory, fear from desire. He tried. But everything rolled and roiled together, and everything became Avi’s face, Avi’s dark eyes, Avi’s strong hands. Mitch was drenched in sweat, wanted to open the door to let both the stifling air and the demons out, but was too embarrassed. Ashamed. And still hard. He tried thinking. Thinking of banal things. Thinking of—as he had in sixth grade, when Lisa Rummage wouldn’t stop flashing her underpants while he gave a book report on Tom Sawyer—embarrassing moments. He tried not thinking. He thought about going down to the lobby, under the pretense of asking for directions or something, but his erection would not be suppressed. Simply to relieve the discomfort, Mitch had to loosen his belt. Unbutton his pants. Remove his pants. Simply to relieve … what … a force larger than himself, driven along by a lifetime of missteps, Mitch gave in. He tried, as a last resort, picturing his wife Louise … practically bedridden. Picturing, finally, Avi … Avi … Avi.

line break

At 2:37 in the morning, a moonless, cold morning, somewhere between South Carolina and Ohio, Mitch fell into the deepest, most restful sleep he’d had in years. Decades, perhaps. No dreams. No anxieties. No throbbing temples or aching back. And when he woke, without an alarm, eager to be awake, not quite sure what had happened in the night, uncertain what day of the week it was, but remarkably ok with it all, his first thought was to apologize to the boy with the Dead Sea salt and mud for acting so strangely. Nothing more. Just to say he was sorry for crying and running away like that.

Mitch whistled as he showered; some hip-hop song he didn’t know the words to. Hung a clean oxford shirt in the bathroom as he did so, to smooth out some of the wrinkles. He dressed, and as he snugged up the knot of his tie, the cell phone rang. Mitch’s belly lurched. He had an idea. He peeled a couple sheets from the Red Roof Inn notepad, took the only envelope, despite the stained corner. Took his suitcase. Left his phone, vibrating and ringing, on the nightstand without checking to see who was calling. He looked out over the interstate, through the pure, clean morning air. The mountains cut a crisp silhouette into a hard blue sky. The domed ceiling of the Arsenal Mall, with the food court at its heart, glinted like a jewel, in the sun. In the lobby, Mitch ate a strawberry and banana yogurt, then, because it was the best thing he’d ever tasted, he ate another. Mitch borrowed a pen from the desk clerk, spent a few minutes writing a note that spilled over onto both small rectangles of Red Roof Inn paper. He printed the address for Copy-Rite on the envelope (attn: Thom), and was grateful when, as he checked out, the desk clerk offered to stamp and mail it. As he signed the receipt, Mitch couldn’t help but notice how much softer, how much healthier, the skin on the back of his right looked, compared to the left.


Steven Sherrill has been making trouble with words since 8th grade, when he was suspended from school for two weeks for a story he wrote. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade, ricocheted around for years, eventually earning a Welding Diploma from Mitchell Community College, which circuitously led to an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

He’s been making visual art since 1990ish. And those images are venturing out into the world. Self-taught, he tries to repeat the things that work, and not to repeat the things that don’t. Steven has wanted to make music for his entire life (owned and abandoned guitars, fiddles, harmonicas, banjos, a saxophone, an accordion, etc.), but never felt he had the right. Then he formed the Allegheny Bilge Rats Shanty Choir. Arrrgh!

Now, Steven is an Associate Professor of English and Integrative Arts at Penn State University, Altoona, with three novels and a book of poems in the world. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Fiction in 2002. His first novel, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, is translated into 8 languages and was recently released as an audio book by Neil Gaiman Productions. His second novel, Visits From the Drowned Girl, published by Random House (and nominated by them for the Pulitzer Prize), US and Canongate, UK was released in June of 2004. The Locktender’s House, novel #3, was released by Random House in Spring 2008. And in November 2010, CW Books released the poetry collection, Ersatz Anatomy.

Much more info can be found at http://stevensherrill.com

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