By Glen Pourciau
Featured Art: Mall of America, Minnesota by Melanie Einzig
We were in a Mexican restaurant at the mall, and my husband, as is his habit, was looking at everything but me. I still had half an enchilada left, but Boyd’s empty plate had already been removed and he’d ground through all the tortilla chips and salsa on the table, leaving his eyes and mind free to survey the room. His attention was drawn to the occupants of a booth across and at a slight angle from ours. He could see them better than I could, but I peeked back and saw a man and woman, presumably married, and a young intellectually disabled boy, the boy seated on the man’s side, which may have appealed to Boyd. The three of them were a picture of happiness, talking and smiling and enjoying one another. If the boy was their son they’d likely been married at least ten years, and I admit I couldn’t help comparing how they seemed to how we were after fifteen years.
I’m telling the waiter I’m paying for their meals, Boyd said.
I put my fork down in my plate, but before I could say a word Boyd cut me off.
Don’t start with it, he said. There’s no reason to think it should make them uncomfortable. I’m going to go tell them I’m proud of them and it’s a pleasure to see them here together.
He rose and walked the few steps to their booth. I didn’t want the family to sense my opposition so I waited a minute and then turned to show them my face, trying not to appear disagreeable. The man seemed to be resisting Boyd, but Boyd kept talking, persuading, saying something about dinner, something about glad to have you, his hands moving in front of him. The man, his smile fading, glanced over at me, and I looked away so he wouldn’t see my discomfort. When the waiter came by for my plate I pulled a credit card from my purse and gave it to him. I could hear Boyd telling them he was proud of them, a sentiment he loved repeating to strangers, and I cringed and quit listening to him.
The waiter brought the credit card bill, and I signed and handed it back at about the same time Boyd returned. I got up and told him we were ready to go and both of us smiled at the family. The woman met my eyes, possibly wondering how I felt about what Boyd had proposed or estimating the level of suffering that might be revealed in the face of the woman married to him. I didn’t like the invasiveness of her staring at me. Whatever was in my eyes was none of her business and I didn’t want her to see it. I could have been wrong about her, but I wasn’t going to her booth to find out.
I could tell the conversation hadn’t gone as well as Boyd had hoped. We exited the restaurant in a hurry and walked out into the bustle of the mall, Boyd not making eye contact with anyone. His face had closed, and I knew from experience that it had closed specifically to me.
I changed my mind about picking up their check and asked them to our house for dinner, he said, but the second I mentioned it he looked at you and his face changed. He didn’t feel welcome.
I don’t want strangers coming over for dinner, I said, and I don’t assume that strangers want to connect with me.
People are going to stay strangers to you if you refuse to trust them.
Why is it my fault they turned you down? Maybe they felt awkward because they don’t have the slightest idea who we are. They may have felt vulnerable having you at their table, trespassing on their time together. What did they say when you told them you were proud of them? Did they ask you why?
You don’t want me to show good will toward people we don’t know. Don’t you see what a limited philosophy that is? It comes out every time I attempt a connection or show some generosity. Your voice is always arguing inside my head and I can’t get it out.
Boyd hadn’t once laid eyes on me since we’d left the restaurant and now he stepped up his pace and walked ahead of me. He began noticing his surroundings again, some of it for my benefit, I suspected, setting an example of openness for me. He stepped onto an escalator and I watched him go all the way up without showing any interest in whether I was following. So I didn’t. I couldn’t stomach the thought that he took pleasure in punishing me, dragging me around behind him, treating me worse than he treated strangers. He’d driven us to the mall, but I had a key in my purse and I could go to the car and drive home alone.
But for the time being I decided to watch him from a distance and see how long it would take for him to miss me. I had an idea he was headed to a department store at the other end of the mall. He’d planned to go there to check out a sale. I took a stairway up to the next level and saw him far ahead on the walkway to the left side, his head turning in every direction except behind him.
As he neared the department store I saw him stop at the window of a men’s clothing store. He apparently expected me to walk up and stand beside him because after a moment he turned to look for me, seeming disturbed by the lost connection. I hid in a doorway, watching him squint, his eyes scanning the people coming toward him. He started back toward me, on the alert for my image but still smiling at passersby, greeting a family with a wave, asking those who smiled back at him how they were doing. I’d seen it all many times, some people giving him a blank stare when he smiled or waved and others ignoring him. I saw a woman with broad shoulders and long blond hair abruptly step toward him and point. She was several inches taller than Boyd and I gathered she didn’t like the way he’d looked at her or the way he’d smiled. Boyd tried to reason with her, keeping his smile up, but she wasn’t interested in his effort to connect and she wanted to make her point of view clear to him. When she stepped away from Boyd he said something that looked to be conciliatory, but she turned around and made an angry comment. Boyd didn’t accept her anger and reacted by taking a step, and she stiffened and stood face to face with him as he debated with her, I presumed, about being more open to others.
Then a man came out of a store and saw the argument, and he came toward them and joined forces with the woman. The woman didn’t act surprised that the man had appeared and I figured he must be her husband or boyfriend. He was bigger than she was and Boyd backed up, fear of escalation in his manner, yet he refused to stop talking, to cease his attempt to convert the couple to his outlook.
I felt no inclination to go to his aid and imagined the man picking him up and throwing him over the railing to the lower level. I could peer down and see Boyd’s cracked head bleeding on the shiny floor tiles below. The couple didn’t murder him, but they made some hostile or perhaps threatening comment and left Boyd standing with his open hands in front of him, unable to comprehend their attitude.
He resumed his search for me, but I decided to go to the car and drive home. It made me furious to think he’d imagined me trailing behind him, and after what I’d witnessed I couldn’t walk next to him without fearing another confrontation with someone who didn’t want to be browbeaten with his openness and generosity.
It took me a moment to remember where we’d parked the car, but I soon realized it wasn’t far. I walked faster than usual, putting Boyd out of my mind. I pushed through the exit door and walked down the wrong row in the parking lot, but then saw our car on the row to my left. I walked between some cars, and as I dug the keys out of my purse I heard Boyd’s voice calling my name. I saw him wave and smile.
I guess we got separated and you couldn’t find me, he said as he approached. I thought you might be at the car.
I separated us, I told him. I let you go.
You were going to leave me here?
You walked away from me. Why shouldn’t I?
I’ve been looking for you, he said, his smile gurgling down the drain.
I saw you. You didn’t look that long.
You were watching? Why didn’t you come to me?
I thought I might interfere with your openness.
Did you see that couple nearly attack me?
Maybe they thought you were too aggressive and argumentative.
I thought they were aggressive and argumentative, he said. But let’s not have this out in the parking lot.
Why not? Why be closed to others? Or we could go back in the mall and find the couple and ask them over for dinner. I’d like to hear what they have to say, get to know them. I think we could forge a lasting friendship.
Should we get in the car?
Do you promise not to talk?
Hey, is that guy bothering you? I heard someone shout.
I saw the aggrieved couple about to get in their car, but they slammed their doors and came toward us with an air of menace, their anger converging on Boyd. The man had obviously spent a lot of time pumping weights, thick neck and shoulders, bulging veins. A large tattoo surrounded the bottom of his neck, its narrative continuing underneath his shirt, and tattoos of barbed-wire wound around his hands and forearms. The woman also carried the aura of a physical type and looked strong enough to inflict damage if she wanted to.
You get around, don’t you? the man said to Boyd.
This is a misunderstanding. She’s my wife.
Is that true? he asked me.
More or less, I said.
Which is it? the woman wanted to know. More? Or less?
Less, I answered.
Let’s not butt in here, the man said in a lower voice. Let’s back off. He’s not accosting a stranger.
The woman’s mood remained the same, but she didn’t argue.
I’m watching you, she yelled at Boyd as they walked back to their car.
Did you enjoy that? Boyd asked.
I don’t want you bringing angry strangers into my life. It made me sick.
Then why say that to them?
I wanted to.
I don’t get it.
He couldn’t think of anything to say, and I enjoyed his silence. I pressed the button on my key to unlock the car. Boyd drifted to the passenger side, and I took the wheel.
Glen Pourciau‘s third story collection is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2021. His second collection, View, was published in 2017 by Four Way Books. His first collection, Invite, won the 2008 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His stories have been published by AGNI Online, Epoch, failbetter, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, New World Writing, The Paris Review, Post Road, Witness, and others.
Originally published in NOR 15