In Fairmont, West Virginia, there is a an almost dead mall next for a former indoor go-kart racing track. I say almost dead because for all intents and purposes, it is in fact no longer living and certainly no longer a mall. It holds onto life by one single thread – the DMV, which is smaller than most people’s living rooms and lives only to give teenager’s their learning permits and license, nothing more or less. I got my license there. They asked me to turn on my hazards, drive around the parking lot, and parallel park. It took about 15 minutes.
The inside of this nearly abandoned mall still carries the layout – the store fronts shuttered up, fake plants sitting next to abandoned push stalls. The ceilings are too high for the northern cold, so there is always a draft. The walls – the walls! – are painted all the way up. At least a dozen different murals carried over from the 80s. There is a jungle scene of a deformed elephant with a nose and a smile on top of its trunk; an underweight Dorothy walking down the yellow brick road, hands behind her back so no one would have to paint fingers; and of course, a wizard (because every multi-mural mall marketing itself to teenagers in the 80s must have one wizard) in the direct center, with flowing purple robes and green eyes that stare right down the one entrance that still works.
I never knew this place in it’s prime, but I worked at the other mall, the one that ran the Fairmont spot out of business, so it’s pretty easy to imagine. If you stand in the center and close your eyes, you can almost imagine it’s prime. The retirees walking up and down the sides in their track suits, coming in before the first store has raised its bars. Teenagers flipping through J.C. Penny’s, dreaming of a homecoming dress from a department store instead of a hand-me-down. Employees, in and out, their lives individual orbits bumping up against hundreds of people everyday.
How can I help you? is what they trained me to ask when I worked at Payless. It was at the Clarksburg Mall, which opened with just a few better stores, just a few miles closer to the rural towns like mine, was just better enough to flourish while the Fairmont Mall died.
I loved that job. I loved going to the mall, which was 45 minutes from my town and always felt like an event, even for work. I loved how little responsibility I had, the people watching, how I didn’t have to pay any bills so I spent whole paychecks at the Aéropostale next door. I loved that I really did feel like I was helping customers sometimes.
How can I help you?
There is a translation:
Our lives will touch now for the just the briefest of moments over low-priced sandals. In this way, we will know each other. Maybe not forever, maybe not deeply, but certainly for a moment, we will know something about each other.
What is it you’re looking for here?
What does it mean to be alive in this container that holds so many things and people? So many that you will never know them all, each with their own quiet hopes and dreams and catastrophic pains?
What do you need?
How can I help you?
That mall is starting to die too. The Sears left a few years ago, which is an indicator of the plague to come.
As far as the Fairmont mall goes, the DMV will close any day now and then they’ll shut down the Fairmont Mall for good. The former indoor go kart track is a Chinese buffet now – it’s got about 20 stations of any food you can imagine. Sometimes I take out of town friends there.
I know the food is just okay, I’ll say, but after this, we have to go to the mall.
Kirsten Reneau is working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of New Orleans. A Pushcart nominee, her work can also be seen in Hippocampus Magazine, Xtra Magazine and is forthcoming in (Mac)ro(mic) and The Threepenny Review.