Walking Papers

by Daniel VanTassel


I know what’s happening when I see her talking with the man in the mall. I hear just sentence fragments, but a quick glance reveals the imbalance. I move in closer. She has this rigid voice and posture as he stands there with lowered head and eyes. He tries to argue, but he’s going down for the third time and she has no lifeline for him. I move in closer still.

“I thought we... I... I dunno. I just thought we’d go along like this for a while, and then maybe we’d even...”

She shakes her head slowly in that way that puts a final stamp on things, and then she just walks away. He watches her curve down and around the tiled steps of the terraced food court area and make her way toward the crowd of shoppers. She has an angelic face, the kind of face my dreams used to be made of. Her clothes convey a sort of sophistication, and she projects a kind of... I don’t know... class, maybe.

Of course all of those descriptors are relative. Eye of the beholder. One man’s classy is another man’s déclassée.

At any rate, she seems out of place among the people here who look like refugees by comparison. Many look up as she passes near them. A song comes to mind: And when she passes, each one she passes goes a-a-ah. She projects an aura of classiness so strong that she holds everyone’s attention until she’s out of range. I watch the crowd of shoppers open up around her and take her in.

The drowning man stares at the spot where she disappears. I fight off the urge to approach him, to counsel him. After a few minutes he slowly raises his left arm and extends it toward where he last saw her, his hand reaching out as if to touch her, and then he drops it abruptly. He looks around and catches me staring, and I look away.

He passes behind me and walks down the curved steps, and I can study him again. He’s a good-looking guy with the clothes and boots of a construction worker. I notice a red Bobby J. carved into the back of his wide leather belt, a license plate for anyone who wants to find him.

As if witnessing this event isn’t exciting enough, I’m thrilled to see and overhear the same young woman about forty-five minutes later as I’m looking at some clothes in the store that has those hot ads.

“I needed to tell you that, Sam, before we both made a big mistake and things got more serious.” She is very firm, a little colder than she had been with Bobby J., and I fight the urge to help this guy, too, as I’ve been trained to do. The extent of my hunger terrifies me.

“No, I don’t see,” he says quietly. He has the same look and sound as Bobby J.. “Maybe after a week or so, after...”

“No, Sam.”

“Maybe when you realize what we...”

“No.”

He nods numbly. Again I resist the urge to help, one of the urges I was born with. She turns and walks away, slipping adroitly through the display racks like a cool breeze through boughs of hemlock.

Sam continues to stare at the last place he saw her. They’re similar, Sam and Bobby J., but Sam is obviously a businessman of some success, judging by his clothes, and he’s much taller. Six-five or six-six, I figure, another license plate, if anyone wanted to track him down. A lawyer, maybe, who has just pled his case and lost. He looks about her age, as Bobby J. did. Maybe a little older. Thirty, I’m thinking now, about my age. I know now that both men will need my help in getting past the pain.

* * *

It’s about two weeks later and I’m on another trip to the mall. I return to the places where each man was given his walking papers. I stand where she stood, and then I turn and stand in a sort of reverie where each of the departed stood. I breathe in the remnants of their hurt. Requiescant in pace, I offer, remembering to make the verb plural. I mentally light two candles and picture the men on their knees.

* * *

I return to the mall several more times during the next week. I’m beginning to think I’m seeing her, glimpses of someone in a store. I often follow someone right out of the mall and into the parking lot, only to discover that it’s someone else. And now, on one last shopping excursion, I’m waiting in line at a fast food counter, and I feel a hand on my arm. I turn slowly.

“Excuse me, do you have the time?” she purrs.

It’s a double blow, suddenly having her close enough to smell and having been hit with new information about her, but I’m cool in my response. “Yeah. It’s just about noon.”

She moves ever-so-slightly closer. My thoughts about her carom off the walls of denial and temptation in my head, and I light another mental candle.

“I mean, do you have time to go some place and... you know...” Her voice and breath are like the warm communion wine I took today but shouldn’t have. I feel my heart pound. She smiles. “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?”

It’s such a trite thing to say, and I force myself to walk away. I’m vaguely aware that I’m trembling. I’m feeling a bit out-of-body. When I’m several yards away, I stop and look back. She’s already after the next guy in line, and he’s looking at his watch. But wait... now she’s turning away from him and looking around for me and we lock eyes.

I look at my watch and then back up at her, but she has vanished.


Copyright © 2010 by Daniel VanTassel

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