Chapter Six – The Mall

It was 10 A.M. I’d just started in on the day’s beer-drinking when the doorbell rang. It was Fooz. I grunted and let him in, walked back over to the kitchen table, sat back down, and took a hit of my Budweiser.

“You look like shit, Jack, you know that?”

“Good morning to you too, Fooz.”

“Just sayin’ man. I left you at the Chongo Hut at what, midnight? Did you close the place down again? You’ve been out every night getting ossified, man.”

“You show up banging on my door at ten in the morning and moralizing… like a Jehovah’s witness with pink hair. It’s not my problem if you wanna leave the bar early. You’re a friggin’ lightweight.”

“Why so aggressive, man?”

“Lemme finish this Bud, take the edge off. Then we talk.”

“When I think of your liver right now I see a blue U-Haul blanket covered in cigarette burns.”

“Such poetry. Let’s not talk about my liver. Right now, I need a cigarette.”

“You’re smoking now too?”

I had a pack of Camels in the green terrycloth robe I was wearing. I lit up and held the pack out to Fooz, even though I knew he didn’t smoke. He sat there with a sullen look on his face as I smoked and scratched myself underneath the robe.

“You remind me of my mom right now,” he said.

“Maybe you better go see a psychologist about that.”

Fooz sighed.

“You ready to go, Jack?”

I vaguely remembered that I’d agreed the night before to accompany Fooz to the Glendale Galleria. He was a real pro at that—waiting until I was completely intoxicated to ask me for a favor.

“Why don’t you ask Todd to go with you? I’m in no condition to descend into that seventh circle of hell.”

“You love the mall, man! The happiest I’ve ever seen you is sucking down suds at the Red Robin!”

It was true. Whenever I went on a bender I had a thing for getting drunk at corporate joints. I found my buzz magnified greatly by depressing, sterile environments, and when I was a writer, creating television for middle America, I considered those hours of getting mind-blasted at Chili’s or Applebee’s or The Olive Garden time well spent to “get out among them,” to be tapped like a tuning fork by each drink until I could vibe with the moronic masses.

“Let’s go already,” whined Fooz. “You owe me, man.”

“For what?”

“I picked up the bar tab last night before I left.”

“You were only there with me for a half-hour!”

“Doesn’t matter. You know the rules. I pick up tab, you go with me to the mall. I’m not gonna go there ALONE, Jack!”

“All right, all right…let me get dressed…”

I put on my old cargo shorts and the blue Hawaiian shirt I’d worn for 2 weeks straight. I took one quick look in the mirror to check in on the beer belly and the haggard, bloated countenance.

Four months out of work and I seemed to be completely disintegrating.

Fuck it.

I grabbed another Bud from the fridge, slammed it down in three long swallows, chucked it across the room into the kitchen sink, and belched.

“Okay. I’m ready.”

We walked out into the blinding North Holllywood light. I put on my shades and got into Fooz’s VW bus.

“On these highways full of text-messaging morons, weedheads, and heavily medicated psychopaths…in these times of instant death…” I paused, belched again. “Excuse me. We must carefully gauge the skills of the person who is driving us, and the suitability of said driver’s vehicle. Both the driver and the vehicle in this situation are lacking, in my opinion.”

“What the hell are you talking about? You need to sober the hell up.”

“Just try to get us there in one piece.”

Fooz looked at me like he was about to say something, thought better of it, shook his head, and started the bus. We tooled up Lankershim and got on the freeway. For all his wild on-stage antics and burning intensity, Fooz was one of the most timid drivers I’d ever seen. My 90 year-old grandmother drove her Monte Carlo with more confidence. To make matters worse, the Foozmobile topped out at about 50 MPH, and he always insisted on camping out in the fast lane. I was sure I’d die in that bus one day, the question was how: car accident, or road-rage shooting by someone who didn’t take kindly to Fooz’s liberal use of the middle finger?

“So you sit around drinking beer and watching TV all day, and go to the Chongo Hut at night. Is that really the kind of life you wanna live, Jack?”

“This is all the life I need right now.”

“You gotta get it together, man. You smell like a brewery, and you look like shit too, if you want me to be honest.”

“So I need a shave. What’s the big deal?”

Fooz gave me a half-glance and smirked.

“I’m talking about your outfit, Jack. I mean, a HAWAIIAN SHIRT? What the hell izzat?”

“We’re almost forty years old, Fooz. Don’t you remember the guys we’d see at the clubs when we were kids? The guys who were middle-aged with beer bellies and gray hair and still dressed like Joey Ramone? That’s what you want me to be?”

“No way, dude. I am not…and YOU are not… THAT guy. THAT guy was always stuck in the past, thinking that CBGBs was the be-all and end-all. Like anybody ever really liked Television or any of that other art shit. At a certain point you have to change with the times, yet stay the same…get it? Look at me…I stay on the cutting edge. I still listen to new music. I never lost my fuckin’ ideals, though.”

“Ideals, huh? That’s a hot one.”

Fooz looked over at me.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“ You talk about ideals and how you’re “fucking shit up from the inside” but when it came right down to it you fucked me over, man. Your so-called ‘friend,’ stabbed in the back at the bidding of The Man.”

“THE MAN DOES NOT TELL ME WHAT TO DO! TAKE IT BACK!”

“I’ll take back shit.”

We drove along in silence.

“I still play out,” muttered Fooz. “The gray-haired guys can take all that Patti Smith fag stuff and go FUCK themselves.”

We parked and walked into the mall through JC Penney. The perfume counter created a wall of cloying stench visible as a fog bank, a faintish cloud of pink and green from which heavily made-up women watched us with black, uninterested, insect eyes.

Fooz stopped in Men’s Clothing to check out a bomber jacket. After examining the tag and the seams he made a dismissive sound and threw it on the floor.

“Cheap piece of Taiwanese shit and they’re charging 150 bucks for it. I could get that for 30 bucks over at the Military Man surplus.”

“Too bad they don’t sell band t-shirts at the Military Man, or you’d never have to come here. And you could leave me the hell alone.”

Fooz stopped, turned around, and pushed me hard in the chest. I staggered backwards and nearly toppled a rack of Rustler jeans.

“What the hell!”

“Enough bullshit, Jack. Are we bros, or not bros?”

“You’re a bro, all right. A backstabbing bro! A bro who works for The Man!”

“That’s it. I’m gonna kick your ass for that, Barajas.”

“You wanna fight, Fooz? I’ll fight you right now in the JC Penney!”

“Come at me then.”

I lunged at him, got him into a headlock, and dragged him to the floor. I was half-drunk and a little looser than usual and my sudden move took him by surprise. He swung wildly and biffed one of my ears real good but I held on,  beer-benumbed just enough to not feel the pain. I tagged him with a couple knuckle punches to the ribs and he yelled out in agony.

“ARRRRRGGGGHHHHH!”

“DO YOU YIELD?”

“I YIELD, YOU ASSHOLE!”

I waited another minute until he stopped struggling and then let him go. He jumped up onto his feet with a nimbleness surprising for one so portly. I got up too. We stood there and looked at each other. Fooz raised his fists and I thought it was time for round two but then he said,

“Ahhhh, forget it. Let’s get out of here before they call mall security.”

We walked out of the front entrance of JC Penney into an indoor plaza with blank paper light coming down from skylights high above.

“Okay, Jack. You got your aggression out. Are we bros now or what?”

“I reckon.”

“Good. My ribs hurt like hell, man.”

We got on an escalator. Fooz looked down at the people walking to and fro beneath us and said loudly, “Look at this scene, Jack! I can’t stand these fucking trendies, man. It’s like…all they wanna do is CONSUME, CONSUME, CONSUME. Like, uh, rats in a maze or something.”

“I can’t stand these places either. I find it helps to look at the mall from an anthropological angle.”

“What the hellzat mean?”

“Someday archaeologists will regard these places like we regard 13th century churches.They will examine what is left of the great frescoes of our world: women running in the surf, half naked; children in the garb of the day, playing; men in sweaters, men of different ethnicities, a representation of our great and prosperous and egalitarian society. They will speculate on the lives of the artists who sign these works: EDDIE BAUER will be considered the Michelangelo of our time, an artist particularly obsessed with the male besweatered form. Future generations will carefully control the temperature in these ruins to keep the “art” from deteriorating. Or maybe there will be no future generations, eh?”

“Why,” said Fooz. “Nuclear war? Global warming?”

“No. The deterioration of our minds due to smart phones and computers. Evolution is going backwards. The human animal is becoming more vicious, and more stupid, by the day. Society will dissolve in the blink of an eye. You watch.”

“Man, you drunk,” said Fooz.

“And about to get a lot drunker,” I said. “I’m going to the Red Robin. Meet me there when you’re done shopping.”

We parted ways at the top of the escalator.

The light coming in from the big glass doors was pale blue and it mixed and bled into the red neon of the Red Robin, and sitting there with a giant schooner I observed the waitress talk to the bartender. The waitress was pretty hot but looked like she’d already put on a bunch of miles at a young age, with the overtweezed eyebrows and green eyeshadow and overall dishevelment, like a dog who needed a good brushing. The bartender was a young man with a neck that formed a solid meat-cylinder from chin to chest. He stared at me with his little pinhole eyes and that bothered me until I realized that I was just another part of the background, like the plastic plants or the sign over my shoulder that read TRY SAM ADAMS.

I listened to them talk.

“This is not the right time.”

“It’s never the right time. You’ve got trains going into sides of mountains.”

“Did you see that Jessica dropped her phone in the toilet.”

“Bleach is a conduit, you get better reception.”

“I think that order of chicken fingers is ready. I’ll be right back.”

The waitress walked past me away from the bar and toward the kitchen. Meatneck yawned and brushed a fly away from his face and stretched. His arms were freckled, gelatinous, and massive.

I don’t know what it was that made me do what I did. He was just some bozo football player working the bar at a chain restaurant and I didn’t feel any particular dislike for the kid, but before I knew what I was doing I made a gun shape with my hand and pointed it at him and pulled the trigger and said: “Peyyyoooo…”

“What is that? You trying to be funny?”

I smiled and held up the glass.

“The plastic plant lives and breathes. How about another one, chief?”

He stood and stared and then walked over and poured me another. He set it down hard on the bar and the beer foamed over the side and made a pool of suds underneath the glass.

“I don’t wanna deal with no drunks in here, man. It’s waaayyyy to early for that.”

“Okay, chief. Us plants are just gonna disappear into the background again.”

I’d just had a couple sips of the brew when Fooz appeared, face red, out of breath.“You gotta come with me, Jack. We throwing down.”

“Say what?”

“No time to explain. I got in a little bit of a scrap. I need you to back me up…”

“What do you mean, ‘a scrap’?”

“Just drink up and let’s go.”

I looked sadly into the amber hues of the pint. Through the glass I could see Meatneck, arms folded. I was just starting to warm up to the guy. I lifted the glass and slugged it down, ran my hand over the back of my mouth, and belched. I gave Meatneck a wave. His expression didn’t change. I followed Fooz out into the mall.

Fooz was doing the tough-guy walk: fists clenched, arms and shoulders perfectly straight and immobile as he walked purposefully in the direction of wherever we were going. I hoped he wasn’t going to expect me to fight anyone. I looked down at my spindly arms and suds-bloated beer belly: not exactly an intimidating sight. Fooz stopped abruptly and I bumped into him, almost knocking both of us over. We were in front of Goth Topic, the place that sells band t-shirts and bondage gear. This was why we’d come, so Fooz could find a shirt he’d been looking for.  I scanned the inside of the place with some trepidation, looking for our adversaries, but all I saw was one girl with green hair and zits and a teenaged boy with an Errol Flynn mustache and  outsized adam’s apple trying on earrings in front of a wavy funhouse mirror.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

He pointed. “That’s the problem…that fucker…”

He was pointing at the young man working the counter. The kid was done up in a full-bore imitation of David Bowie circa 1974 but with a few modern touches thrown in—in addition to the red hair and white pancake makeup and scarves and pirate eyepatch the kid wore a Justin Bieber t-shirt  and a big button with a picture of Beyonce that said BROWN SUGAR.

“Get my back,” said Fooz. “I’m gonna go wild on this fool.”

Fooz strode in and I followed at a distance, like we didn’t know each other. As he walked up to the counter I strolled casually to the rear of the store and smiled at a chubby girl in a tinkerbell get-up perusing the nail polish. She frowned and turned away.

“I DON’T CARE WHAT FUCKING BAND YOU LIKE, OKAY? WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM, MAN?”

Everyone, including me, looked up at the front counter.

“Uh oh,” I muttered.

Fooz flashed a maniacal grin and said through clenched teeth: “Say what I told you to say…”

“Why don’t you just get out of here before I call security?”

“I am not leaving here until you say it. I’m giving you exactly five seconds, bro.”

“Or what?” The kid was trying to act brave but I could see he was a bit shook.

Fooz reached into the inside of his leather jacket. I knew right away what he was going for.

“Aw shit,” I said. “Not good. Not good.”

He held up the knife and flicked the button to reveal six inches of razor-sharp steel. Fooz called it “The Equalizer,” after that old TV show. He’d never stabbed anyone with The Equalizer, as far as I knew; it was meant as a deterrent. That being said, he’d become a little too comfortable over the years with brandishing the damn thing. One time on ‘shrooms I’d seen him hold the blade to Moody Mick’s throat because he was sure Mick had transmogrified into a chimp. That was scary, sure, but Mick was part of our inner circle, not some teenaged punk at the local mall.

The kid was trying to show a stiff upper lip but tears were welling underneath his dyed-red eyebrows. I assumed that he was just another suburban white kid who had never seen violence up close. Never been hit by his father. Never jumped by a gang of punks because his skin was too dark (or not dark enough). Never told no, never shown the appalling truth of his own insignificance.

“SAY IT!” screamed Fooz.

The kid rolled his eyes. “Septic Death is the greatest punk band ever,” he said.

The tip of the knife touched the soft spot underneath the kid’s chin. His head twitched involuntarily. Fooz pressed the tip in ever so slightly.

“And?”

The kid’s eyes looked past him, glazed over as shock set in.

“And…and Blink 182 sucks the big one.”

“Right…”

Fooz pulled the knife back. There was a dot of blood on the kid’s neck, one microscopic dot of blood in stark contrast with the pale white skin. The kid started to tremble.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Tinkerbell crouched down behind a rack of Harry Potter costumes, cel phone pressed to ear. I knew right away she was calling the cops. I reached down and plucked the phone out of her hand and stuck it in my pocket and she looked at me with not so much shock or fear as indignation: to take away someone’s cel phone is to today’s youth the ultimate human rights violation.

“Fooz, we’d better go now…”

He looked at me and smirked and hit the button on The Equalizer. The blade disappeared back into the handle. He put the knife back in this pocket and said:

“Always remember. Always. Recognize. The old school.”

“Come on, let’s go,” I said.

We walked quickly out the front entrance. Behind us I heard a scream; whether it was the girl in the tinkerbell outfit or the Bowie clone, I couldn’t tell you. I threw the girl’s cel phone into the wastebasket by the escalator and we backtracked through the entrance of JC Penney and into the parking garage.

“I asked the kid for a Septic Death shirt,” said Fooz, “and he rolled his fucking eyes at me, said he never heard of them, and asked me how old I am. You believe the nerve of that little shit?”

“Little asshole,” I said. I figured it was a bad time to tell Fooz that I had no idea who Septic Death was either.

We got back in the Foozmobile and made our way out of the parking structure. Fooz pulled a left and we stopped at the light to make a left onto Colorado Bouelvard.

“These kids don’t know shit about punk rock,” said Fooz. “Speaking of, you coming to the show tonight? Or you gonna keep up the whole friggin’ hermit routine?”

“I dunno, maybe. OH MY GOD!”

“Wut? Wut izzit?”

He was on the corner of the sidewalk to our left. It was Meatneck, and he was standing with the Bowie kid from Goth Topic. The kid’s face was blotchy and flushed and streaked with tears; he held his finger to the little dot of blood on his neck, trembling like he was about to drain out. He saw us at the same time we saw him. He pointed at Fooz and I saw him mouth: “That’s the guy.”

Meatneck turned to the kid and they engaged in a passionate french kiss. When finally they broke their ardent embrace Meatneck pointed in the direction of the mall and the kid set off, still holding his fingers to his neck and walking slowly, as if from blood loss.

Fooz looked over at me with a grin. “You believe this?”

“I believe I just watched Lyle Alzado french kiss David Bowie.”

Meatneck stood by the driver-side window and stared at Fooz with intense hatred. He looked like he could crush both of us at once with those hamhock arms. “Roll down the window,” he said. Nothing moved on him save for the neck-meat, which seemed to be tightening and slackening in turn as he readied himself to fight.

Fooz looked at me and winked. “Watch this,” he said. As he rolled down the window with his left hand he reached into his leather jacket with the right.

“Don’t do it, man. Don’t do it.”

It was too late. He had the window rolled down now.

“What seems to be the problem, good sir?” said Fooz in a jovial tone.

MeatNeck’s eyes bugged with indignation. He opened his mouth to say something.

He didn’t get out a word.

Fooz’s hand came out of his pocket. There was a popping sound, a puff of smoke. Meatneck screeched and fell back like he’d been punched in the chest. Fooz threw the taser in the back seat and as the light turned green he floored it and the Foozmobile putt-putted out onto Colorado Boulevard. Pretty soon we were back on the freeway.

“Hey Fooz?”

“Yeah bro.”

“I’m not going to the mall with you anymore.”

“Well maybe next time we’ll go the Grove. Might be best to stay away from the Galleria for a while.”

“Gee, ya think? You’ll be lucky if they don’t get you on an assault charge. I keep telling you, I’m getting too old for this.”

Fooz looked over and smirked.

“You a big Patti Smith fan, Jack? A gray-haired, tired old geezer? Or are you gonna realize age ain’t nothin’ but a number?”

“Good God.”

“Hey listen. I appreciate you coming out with me. How about we go have a couple drinks at the Chongo Hut and chill?”

“The most sensible thing you’ve said all day, Mr. Pinkley.”