Mashups

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Kill the Mall
Excerpt

The requirements of the residency were this: 50% of the time I was meant to be “engaging the public” and the other 50% “making work.” Also, every week I was obliged to submit a Progress Report, culminating with a Final Report upon the termination of the residency, at which point the work I’d been making was also to be completed. How I was meant to be “engaging the public” was not specified. Nor was the type of “work” I was meant to be “making.” And since I’d no idea how to go about “engaging the public” or “making work,” it seemed impossible to gauge my progress, let alone craft reports on such a thing. How would it all end? In disgrace.

So on the first day of the residency a sort of pre-emptive humiliation tortured my spirits as I piloted my bicycle across town to the mall, which sprawled at the edge of the suburbs like the last standing outpost of some lost civilization. My application had been accepted via a simple one-page letter that outlined the preceding requirements and a date I was to show up and a date I was to leave. In addition to a small rucksack of clothing and hygiene equipment, this letter, tucked into my shirt pocket for safekeeping, was the only personal item I brought that morning. It was, after all, my ticket inside.

After chaining my bicycle to a conveniently located rack, I was greeted at the south entrance by the mall’s caretaker, a woman named K. Sohail, per her nametag, who wore a beige uniform, a peaked cap, a monstrous ring of keys on her hip, and a perturbed expression, as if I’d interrupted something significant, or at least habitual. It suggested that my presence was, immediately, a nuisance. With an apologetic wince I pressed my Acceptance Letter to the glass and waited for K. Sohail to give it a once-over before she unlocked the door and permitted me inside.

Following a brisk, wordless handshake, with the squeak of her sneakers and the jingle of her keys echoing down the empty halls, K. Sohail led me to a store retrofitted with a small bathroom and a sleeping nook tucked behind a screen. She gestured vaguely toward a desk at which, I assumed, I was expected to produce the alleged work that would comprise 50% of my time; “engaging the public” would apparently happen out in the mall, among the masses.

Even in the abstract, “engaging the public” was a source of distress: I’m at my best at a remove, naturally more observer than mingler, and not much for small talk. Socially, I often sense that I’m disappointing people. But now, confronted with the very spaces in which I was meant to be fraternizing, the impending mortifications were all too vivid. I could think of nothing more dreadful than stalking the mall, arresting shoppers mid-purchase to engage in that brand of casual banter which, as I understood it, confers neither complete disinterest nor alarmingly intimate confession, but a generically moderate politesse that terrifies no one, and in fact somehow promotes camaraderie and goodwill. Such a thing requires an interpersonal dexterity, and perhaps personal dexterity as well, that, then as now, I’ve never been able to achieve. So I could predict the mall’s patrons fleeing my “engagements” with disquiet—and possibly panic.

Acceptance Letter aside, it seemed unlikely that I was the right person for the job. In fact I could sense K. Sohail already sizing up my fraudulence, perhaps even forecasting the first travesty of a Progress Report she’d collect from me—and share in disbelief with her colleagues: Behold this buffoon! Did she have the power to terminate my residency? As always in moments of disgrace, in a sort of ingratiating mania I began to grovel. To not just acknowledge my inadequacies but to exploit them for pity.

I opened with some basic arithmetic.

Did the terms of the residency, I asked K. Sohail, not fail to account for time spent sleeping, eating and in the bathroom, activities that comprise about 40% of an average day, figuring eight hours for sleeping, an hour for eating and forty-five minutes for various ablutions and expulsions? Unless that 40% was meant to double as time spent “engaging the public”—if I was meant to be on display while, say, bathing—and “making work,” whatever that might entail. But if not, the residency allotted only 60% of my time to divide between “engaging the public” and “making work,” or 30%, then, each. Which was a far cry from the 50-50 split outlined in my Acceptance Letter, I told K. Sohail.

K. Sohail scratched her arm, glanced over her shoulder, straightened her belt.

Wasn’t it, I continued, gesticulating madly, a concern that I would be spending more time performing unsanctioned activities than either of the two requirements of the residency? What if this sort of lawless behaviour were grounds for disqualification, I proposed to K. Sohail. It was an invitation to admit that the entire arrangement was a farce, but also an appeal to her humanity: No, I hoped she’d say, don’t be silly, you’ll be fine; you are fine.

Instead she showed me her watch.

The mall opened at nine.

It was quarter to.

Then, in what could have been an act of obligatory hospitality or a slyly cruel attempt at further humiliation, exposing me to every inch of the corridors that I would imminently debase, K. Sohail offered to let me tag along on her morning rounds.

What to do but obey?

Her sneakers proclaiming authority with each squeak, my own loafers pattering wretchedly behind, we passed shuttered shops yet to open for the day’s trade: a jeweller; a plus-size clothier; a shoe store; a hairdresser replete with tri-colour pole. (Blood and bandages, I thought grimly.) In the centre of the mall was a handless clock that towered over a dried-up fountain; beyond it was the food court, but this we skirted to escalate to the mall’s second level. At the top of the escalators was a vitrine dominated by sunflowers pressing their fat heads to the glass—like prisoners watching us pass.

K. Sohail took me down a narrow corridor to her office, a closet-sized room with a desk and a chair and a sink and some cleaning supplies, including a mop standing upright in its bucket, and an entire wall of closed-circuit TVs. On one of these TVs was the space assigned to me for the residency. The view scanned left to right and back again. I’d not noticed a camera previously. As I watched, the image crackled and fizzed. K. Sohail rapped the set with her knuckles. For a moment, a strange, weblike threading drizzled over the screen, as if a spider were casting its net over the camera lens. But then the picture jumped and cleared, and my living quarters returned, static and empty.

I sensed the caretaker waiting. The tour appeared to be wrapping up. Yet the way she lingered suggested that something remained unfinished. A formal expression of gratitude? A blood oath? Payment? I’d brought no cash, only plastic. Would she “take a card”?

But then a new horror dawned on me: what if the appropriate closure to the tour, with the two of us packed into that snug little room, bodies close, was a bout of lovemaking? Perhaps right there, on the floor of K. Sohail’s office—“sealing the deal.”

I turned from the monitors, dreading that I might discover K. Sohail unfolding a cot in the corner of the room, unbuckling her belt, preparing to have me.

But she was already gone, squeaking down the hall to the service elevator.

I joined her as the car arrived with a bang. Using a leather strap, she hauled open the doors, which parted top to bottom like a mandible. In we climbed and descended. I noticed, apart from two buttons conventionally marked 2 (for the second floor) and G (for ground), a third button with no corresponding symbol, blank as a lozenge stuck to the steel panelling. Before I could ask K. Sohail where it led, she was heaving open the doors and leading me past a room heaped with garbage into the main thoroughfare, where the first few patrons were filtering in from outside.

The mall was open for business.

My residency had begun.

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