Mike L. Nichols

It All Just Magically Disappears

Sure, you can get into all kind of psychotherapy crap about my mother ditching me when I was three. You can say that her exit left me with this need to get some power in my life because as a kid I had no way to stop her from going or to get her to come back. Don’t think I haven’t considered all that. But, I still say it was just Dawn. She blew on a dying ember, even if she didn’t mean to, brought a flame licking its way to life. I see hundreds of girls every week in the mall. And yeah, a lot of them are what you’d call hot, but it’s all fake. They spend hours getting their makeup and hair done how they think is just right. Their tits are half exposed. Their asses stand out in skin-tight shorts or tiny little skirts and tights so there’s nothing left to the imagination.

And we’re supposed to ignore them, right? Guys I mean. Just pretend that thousands of years of evolution haven’t led us to slobber over the female form or that our evolved brains allow us to be beyond that now. We’re eunuchs or some shit, right? Brains over balls or whatever.

That’s what made Dawn stand out. The first time I saw her she wasn’t all made up. Her hair wasn’t perfect. Her makeup wasn’t done, just what was left over from the night before, smeary black eyeliner surrounding puffy eyes.

Green eyes.

She looked like she’d just escaped from an abusive relationship or had been out all night getting fucked up or maybe both. And she ignored me.

I was just getting ready to knock before I slapped the magnetic Closed for Cleaning sign on the door. Then the routine of pulling on my green Rubbermaid gloves and checking the stalls for empty toilet paper dispensers, for used tampons stuck to the walls, wiping down the sinks and counter and mirrors and sweeping and mopping the floor. Always hoping there was no diarrhea shot up the back inside of the walls as if one of these oh-so-hot bitches had spurted it from the nozzle of a paint sprayer. I hate the women’s room. Women are way more disgusting than men.

Anyway, even the way Dawn ignored me was different. All the women ignore me. I’m short, almost five foot four. Also, I’m not exactly what you’d call charismatic. I can’t really talk to people. Plus the fact that I’m a janitor means that I’m a loser and I’m stupid or whatever, right? What they don’t know is that I graduated from high school magna cum laude. And I still read all the time. I read more in a week than most of these dumb bitches read in a year. I am not stupid. Shit just didn’t work out after graduation, but I’m not gonna work here forever.

So yeah, the women all ignored me but most of them made a production of ignoring me, as if they needed to let me know that I was a walking, talking piece of shit.  

But that first moment, Dawn didn’t even see me. I wasn’t a piece of shit. I just wasn’t. She wore grey sweatpants with what looked like a crusted egg on the left thigh and she just shuffled around me and my supply cart.

She was in the bathroom  a long time. When she stepped out, she looked a little more faded than when she went in, but then she looked at me. I mean, she looked right in my eyes, no up and down appraisal, no sneer, no avoiding my face, like women usually did.

She said, “I don’t envy you. It’s a real shit-hole in there.”

And, real suave like, I said, “Uh-huh.”

And I looked down at the speckled back-splash behind the sinks. Which reminded me of this one time with my mother where I’m sitting at a table, like in the kitchen. The table has speckles all over it like enamel and this fancy silver trim around the edge. I’m digging at the speckles trying to get them to come off. My mother is sitting next to me and she cups my chin and tilts my face up till I’m looking at her. She is telling me something, something serious but not like I’m in trouble or anything. The whole time I’m looking into her eyes and she’s looking into mine and her hair is mussed up and her eyes are sunken with dark circles underneath.

I try, but I can’t remember what my mother was telling me.

 

A few weeks later I was finishing a trash run and thinking about Dawn. I was wondering why I assumed that it was egg on her sweatpants. I mean, it could have been almost anything, right?  So while I was thinking this and pushing the trash cart I wasn’t paying attention and tripped over my own feet. And the first girl, the first of them, was standing by one of the planters.

She said, “Oh you poor little thing. That looks really heavy,” and came strutting over to me.

And I’m instantly pissed off. What am I, seven?

Yeah, the carts are big, this rectangle of industrial grey plastic on wheels with a metal handle at one end. One end sloped like a ramp to make it easier to tip them and dump out liquids. There was usually a lot of liquid, Orange Julius and soda and coffee all mixed together. It gets this not quite ripe rot and cotton candy funk to it, like liquefied cinnamon rolls. They are a little heavy when they are full like that, but still.

The next thing I know this girl is pushing the cart with me and basically crowding me out. I’m glancing over at her and miss hitting the door release bar with the corner of the cart and instead I catch the vertical latch bar that runs between the double doors leading to the service corridor.

She laughs and says, “They really should get you some help.”

So she’s pushing the cart with me down the corridor to Compactor 2. We go past the back door of the Foot Locker and then the Bayside Books and I’m getting so spun up with every step. I feel like my face is getting redder and the top of my head is gonna blow off like in a cartoon. When we pass the backdoor of the Fashion Bug, I’m getting ready to tell her to fuck off when I see this metal bar that the Touch of Gold jewelry place uses to prop their door open. I just picked the bar up and I slammed her in the side of her head.

That’s where that expression, “like a sack of potatoes,” comes from. That’s exactly how she went down like she’d just been instantly de-boned.

I didn’t panic like you’d think. I just stood there and stared at her. I don’t know how long. Things always feel longer than they really are at moments like that, like the first time you get caught shoplifting or get in a car wreck.

Then, except for the blood, it was like she was just a real heavy trash bag, like when Bayside Books threw out their stripped paperbacks. They’d fill a bag with dozens of paperbacks with the front covers ripped off. To save everybody shipping costs they’d send just the covers back to the publisher for credit. I got to pick through and read whatever I wanted for free, even though most of the books were crap that I wouldn’t even read even for free, like Harlequin Romances.

Anyway, I took a few bags of trash out of the cart and I heaved her up in there and put the bags back on top of her. It was harder than you’d think, even though she wasn’t real big, but I got her in, kind of in two stages, torso first then I flipped her legs inside. I remember it made me smile to see her all nestled in with the trash bags and think how she’d said, “Poor little thing,”  to me.

First, I got her into the compactor bin where the ram pushed the trash into the county’s trash container. There was a lot of blood in the corridor and inside the cart. I brought a mop bucket and cleaned up the corridor floor. I told Jack, one of the graveyard shift guys, that a bag had leaked, which they did all the time. Then, I sprayed the cart clean with the hose at Compactor 2, and that was that.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure she was already dead, but this movie started playing in my mind with her crawling out of Compactor 2,  like Night of the Living Dead, and me going to jail for attempted murder. So before I put her in the bin and pressed the red start button,  I hit her in the head a few more times until it was mashed in, soft and spongy. Better safe than sorry, right? Then it was just waiting till Tuesday when the truck came and cabled the bin onto the back and took it to the dump.

So yeah, the first two girls were a mess, but I learned from my mistakes. I got a system down and after that, it was a lot easier than you might think. Girls are really very willing to help. Maybe it makes them feel less like the weaker sex to help a man, even a scrawny one like me.

 

That first day I saw Dawn I followed her from the bathrooms, out of the Food Court to the Fashion for All Seasons. I just left my supply cart by the bathrooms, which you are not supposed to do. I was pretty sure that she was hung-over by the way she shuffled along and held her head real still like it was going to fall off.

I stood out by a planter and acted like I was rubbing something off of it with the rag I carried in my back pocket. She was picking up her paycheck, and that was how I learned her name because the girl working behind the counter said, “Hi Dawn,” as she shuffled in past the 40% Off! dress rack.

As she left the Fashion for All Seasons she turned towards the Food Court and the sickly look drained off of her face and she looked at me for the second time and she smiled. That smile was brief but knowing, as if she and I shared a secret. She owned me with a split-second smile.

I didn’t think to smile back until she was past the Sam Goody. My mouth was hanging open like a fool. I smiled anyway. I tried to send my smile to her around the back of her head. I willed her to turn around and see it. She didn’t. She turned the corner into the Food Court and I followed.

As I came around the Bakker’s Cookies she was just hitting the first set of doors at the exit. I started to walk faster to close the distance. Then, Bam! There was Donny, the mall’s G. M.

Mr. Sloan to you. Initials D. S. for dipshit. He came out of the hallway from the restrooms, his eyes scanning the Food Court and locking on to me.

He walked over to me with his cluster of keys jangling against his stupid navy blue polyester pants and said, “Ray, where were you?”

I peered around him trying to spot Dawn in the parking lot.

“Oh, a lady came and got me to wipe up a spill down at DeMarcos.” I pulled the rag out from my back pocket. It just sagged there so I pointed to it.

Donny ignored the rag, just looked at me. “Ray, you know that you aren’t to leave the cart unattended. It leaves the mall open to some serious liabilities.”  

I just nodded my head because what else could I do?

Then he started yapping about repercussions and ramifications and I’m nodding and peering around him at the parking lot trying to act like I’m listening and as he’s winding down I spotted her. Her mussed up, mousy brown hair, her puffy mascara-smudged eyes. She drove past the mall entrance toward Holloway Road in a green Datsun  B210. It was rusted over the wheel wells. It was a dark green and stood out like neon against all the beiges and whites and reds of the other cars in the parking lot. So then I knew what Dawn drove.

 

The second girl I sort of planned. I mean, I wanted to kill someone. I’d been thinking about it most of the afternoon.

On my first break, that toothless old freak Jeanette came out to smoke with me at Compactor 1, by the Food Court. Jeanette didn’t like to wear her dentures, which was disgusting because they hurt her gums. Like I want to know that shit.

Some days Jeanette was okay. I could handle her. But that day I’d been watching for Dawn’s Datsun and it never came, which bummed me out. I mean,  I just felt high like I was floating around in my own head when I knew she was in the Fashion for All Seasons.

I could picture her folding Tee’s or hanging blouses or whatever while I was pulling on my rubber gloves to peel a tampon off the stall in the ladies room and just knowing she was down there made me feel like nothing else mattered.

So Jeanette’s jabbering at me about her retarded kids and smacking her lips on her gums and really annoying me because first, I don’t give a shit and second, even if  I did give a shit Jeanette never lets you get a word in so it’s not like a conversation it’s just her jabbering on and taking up your whole break and making it completely un-relaxing.

All I wanted to do was think about Dawn and what she might be doing and what she’d be doing right then if she’d been at the mall.

Anyway, later at 8:30 it was a half hour before the mall closed. I was making the rounds with the trash cart and Jeanette had ruined my day, pissed me off, and I heard these high heels clip-clopping behind me real fast and the sound just grated on me, you know?

I turned to look and it’s this tall broad, so tall it’s like why the hell is she wearing heels anyway? How tall does she need to be, right? She’s looking all prissy and holier-than-thou and in hurry, and bam! Just like that I know she’s the one.

I trip and fall and hit my knee, on purpose. I look up at her and I’m rubbing my knee and wincing and sucking air in through my teeth. She slowed up and looked down her big nose at me, all disgusted, and clip-clopped off toward Sears.

I said, “Excuse me?”

She turned and looked at me like I’d just thrown a turd at her or something.  She doesn’t say anything, just stares down that giant nose at me.

So I said, “Sorry, could you help me? I hate to ask but I always have trouble opening the door and getting this cart through too,” which was such a lie. I never had trouble.  I just slammed the cart into the bar that releases the door latch and rammed the cart through.

Then I winced and said, “Plus, I think I just cracked my kneecap,” and I’m rubbing my knee.

She gets all tense and starts looking all around like someone was going to see her talking to the shitty little janitor. Then she sighs and gives me this over the top eye roll and says, “I guess so,” like I just asked her to help me wipe my ass.

She clip-clops over to the corridor and she’s muttering something and I say, “Jeez, thanks. Thanks a lot.”

She can’t figure out how to hold the door and get out of the way of the cart at the same time and she’s getting more and more flustered and telling me how she really has to hurry and why doesn’t the mall have someone to help me and they should have a system for this  and I’m just nodding like, uh-huh, uh-huh .

She is pressed with her back against the wall as flat as she can make herself which is pretty flat because she may be tall but she is also really skinny. I look all around and there is no one in sight and I know it’s perfect.

I have this piece of pipe I found in the lot by my apartment. This pipe fits perfect, snapped up under the plastic lip of the trash cart above the handle. When I get through the door, I pop my pipe loose, and I’m holding it down by my leg, so she can’t see it. The door is closing and she’s looking at me all disgusted like I’m an alley rat gnawing at a week old body and says, “Have you got it now?”

I say, “Yeah, yeah. I got it from here. Thanks a lot.”

She turns to grab the door handle and I hit her in the back of her head as hard as I can. I actually jump up a little to do it, that’s how tall she is and that’s when the trouble starts.

She was skinny but man, she was so tall and awkward to lift. It seemed like she weighed twice what the first girl weighed. I spent so long trying to get her in the cart and failing and worrying every minute someone was going to come out of one the back doors in the corridor. I’d barely get her shoulders up to the lip of the cart and then my arms and back would give out and I’d drop her. Plus she’s bleeding everywhere and I couldn’t get blood on me or how would I explain it?  So, I wrapped a couple of the longer rags around her head and tied a garbage bag stuffed with a few more rags around her head. All of which became part of my system.

Finally, I got the idea to empty most of the trash bags out of the cart and tip it so that the sloped end was towards her and I got her shoved in the cart that way, even her long ass legs and got the cart standing back up and the trash bags on top of her.

I was worn out and dripping sweat, but there was blood everywhere so I left her in the cart in the corridor and went and got a mop bucket and more rags and cleaned the mess up before I wheeled her to Compactor 2.

Then the whole thing started all over again because I got her out of the cart easy enough, but it took forever to get her up the three feet to the lip of the bin to Compactor 2.  Luckily, once you walk across the landing to the safety railing on the compactor dock, the mouth of the compactor is completely hidden from the parking lot by the compactor, which gives you time to work.

I learned a lot that night, like for example to stick to a size limit.

 

I remember one night my mother came into my room carrying the smell of stale cigarette smoke and sour beer with her. I woke up and saw her standing there looking down at me. Her hair was perfect, but I couldn’t make out her face which was scary so I screamed and pulled the blanket over my head.

I can’t make myself remember any of their faces either, which seems strange.

I dream about them sometimes. Usually, its two or three of them standing at the end of the corridor to Compactor 2, but sometimes they are all there, waiting. They turn their heads to face me. They are always silent in their tight clothes with their tits half exposed and their hair done perfectly but their faces aren’t there, like all their features, nose, lips, eyebrows, have been buffed away.

Sometimes when I get into bed and close my eyes I think one of them is standing above me with her blank face framed by her perfect hair. This usually freaks me out a little.

The next time I saw Dawn, she was walking out of the Food Court on her way to do her shift at the Fashion for All Seasons. I was emptying the trash can in front of Sbarro and it was leaking soda like a waterfall. I noticed her hair first, all done up high, curled and sprayed, but it was her eyes I recognized. Her green eyes took me.

So I was standing there holding this dripping bag up off the floor and staring at her and thinking I gotta quit staring at her, you know, play it cool, but I couldn’t. Her eyes.

She saw me staring and smiled, not a condescending, hey your bag is leaking and it’s disgusting and you’re disgusting you little loser, but a real smile.

She said, “Hey, how’s it going? Cheap-ass bags, right?”

And I replied with something witty, intelligent, like, “Hey. Yeah.”

She kept smiling and kept walking. I looked down and the bag was dripping on my shoe so I’m like, “Fuck. Me.” And some geezers eating Sbarro’s two tables away gave me a dirty look. I flung the bag into my cart and flipped soda all along the floor and on the white pillar by the trash can. I’m thinking, great, because those pillars have a finish like gravel. They just shred the rags and you have to pretty much poor water on them to get them clean. Soda is always sticky, even after you mop like eight times. I guess it’s sort of like blood in that way. I mean, blood isn’t sticky like that but it just sort of dilutes and gets lighter colored but it takes a lot of water to get it all gone.

I said fuck it and dropped my mop right there. I jogged out into the main hall in time to watch Dawn walk past the planter and into Fashion for All Seasons.

 

So, I was expecting the cops to show up after the first two right? Their cars were abandoned in the lot and obviously, someone was gonna miss them and figure out that they disappeared from the mall. I started to get scared, but once the county exchanged the full trash container with the second girl in it for an empty one I figured if the cops found her they would have to think that anyone could have done it, right?

But, they never found the bodies. There were just the cars left in the parking lot so everyone working at the mall was talking, saying that these girls got snatched at their cars by some psycho rapist and all the girls at the mall were scared to go to their cars alone. No one thought it was happening inside the mall.

I thought about that. I figured that no one believed anyone could snatch these girls from inside the mall. No one saw how that long corridor to Compactor 2 was the perfect setup. No one saw it because no one gave any of it a second thought.  No one thought about the trash after they set it out. It just magically disappeared. And in a way, it does. I’m the piece-of-shit magician who makes the shit disappear from their world when they set it out. Poof! Maybe even before that. Maybe it starts to disappear the instant they pick it up, carry it through their stores, to set it out for the piece of shit little janitor dude. Maybe not even all that. Maybe the little janitor dude is invisible too.

After the third girl, a detective actually talked to me. He asked me about my routine, my duties. He asked if I’d seen anyone suspicious. He asked me to keep an eye out, to “be aware of any suspicious activity,” and to let him know about it right away. He gave me his card.

Dipshit Donny lectured me in his office for like half an hour about “being on my toes” and “keeping an eye out.” He said this psycho was probably a loner, probably middle-aged, and I should look out for guys like that. He said the guy probably had a van. I say he’d been watching too much TV. He also said that these disappearances had everyone scared and were having a negative impact on the mall’s reputation.

A couple of old ladies who worked at the Fabric Stop had me escort them to their cars at night.

 

How I first thought I might be crazy was that I started day-dreaming about telling Dawn or even inviting her to the Corridor 2 to watch. I fantasized that she’d be impressed.

Like, I wouldn’t tell her what was going on, I’d just have her wait a little way down the corridor, maybe by the door to Bayside Books, and I’d tell her, “Watch this,” and I’d wink and out would come the pipe and, bam! Down goes another one.

It was stupid really. Like what, she’d clap her hands and hop around like a little kid watching some cheesy birthday party magician?

 

I’ll admit, I started to get a little obsessed with Dawn. Luckily, I was supposed to be at the Food Court before the mall opened, just generally checking for any spots the graveyard shift missed. Donny was a real prick about it. So anyway, I would take my time and wait for her to come in. She always came in through the right side doors, never the left.

I’d work my way close to the entryway and sometimes I’d see her Datsun when it turned into the parking lot. She always parked in Lot B, right by the handicapped spot over by Compactor 1.

God, I’d get so amped up, like an electric charge.

Then she’d walk in and I’d try to act like I wasn’t watching her, you know, play it cool. We’d make eye contact and she’d say, “Good morning,” and then look down, kind of bashful.

I’d say, “Hey, How’s it going?” Maybe throw in something witty like, “Another day, another dollar. In the hole.”

On the days that I worked the closing shift I’d hurry to get out on the floor, to go past Fashion for All Seasons and see if she was working. I could tell Dawn wasn’t there when that fat bitch Trina was. Trina always give me this disgusted look like I was some mangy dog pissing on her tire. Dawn and Trina only ever worked together on Saturdays.

Before Dawn, I hated working Saturdays because the mall was always busy and people are such fucking slobs. Teenagers making fun of you behind your back and you can hardly move in the Food Court.

It was a Saturday that it first happened, the first girl.

Dawn worked an early shift and I was closing. All day I’d been practicing what I would say to her while I mopped up soda spills and swept up pizza crusts and popcorn.

I made sure I was at the planter right outside the Food Court because Dawn always walked out that way to her car.

She looked at me and said, “Hey.”

I made myself look into her eyes and everything I’d practiced saying just floated off and I said, “Hey.’”

Then I was thinking, idiot! She’s leaving! Say something. So I said her name, real quiet and she was still walking away so I said it again, louder, too loud.

She turned around, looking a little scared. I felt so stupid.

She said, “Yes, what is it?”

So, like a fucking fool, I just blurted it out, “Would you like to maybe, I don’t know, go get a drink sometime, or something?”

I said that. I actually said, “Or something.” Real smooth. God.

Those two words were just hovering in the air between us and she was just looking at me all worried like and she said, “Oh.” Like that, “Oh.” Nothing else. Silence except for my stupid last words replaying in my head.

I said, “It’s alright if you don’t want to.”

I couldn’t look at her, couldn’t stop looking at the ceramic tiled floor at my feet, and she walked over to me, there was nobody around because the mall got pretty empty that time of night.

She bent down a little so I had to look at her and she said, “No, it’s not that, it’s just . . .” She was trying to make up some excuse and I was feeling so lame that I just want to go hide in a storage closet.

She finally said, “Look, you’re really cute and everything but I’m not sure that you are my type.”

Her type? Really cute? So I knew that it was because I’m short. I never thought about our height until that moment but she was maybe a little taller than me.

“I just got out of a really bad relationship too and . . .”

But I interrupted her, “Yeah, I understand, no problem. I’ll see you around,” and then we were both walking away and I was feeling torn apart like I was going to cry which made me so pissed off at myself and the whole situation.

So all this was boiling around inside of me. I walked around the mall hating everybody, and myself most of all, feeling like I wanted to cry and then feeling really pissed, back and forth like that for like an hour. I was picking up trash in the cart and I started wondering again if that was really egg on her sweatpants that first day by the bathrooms. All of a sudden I tripped on my own foot and like out of a dream someone said, “Oh, you poor little thing. That looks really heavy.”

 

Hope springs eternal. That’s what they say. I guess it’s true because I kept replaying what Dawn said to me. I thought, maybe if I was taller she would go out with me. I bought some boots I couldn’t afford that had two-inch heels. I figured that would at least make me taller than her. I also told myself that the reason she added that part about getting out of a bad relationship was kind of a subliminal clue, one she wasn’t even aware of herself, and she was actually telling me that after some time went by and she was over whatever the last asshole had done to her then she would maybe go out with me.

So that’s how I spent the next two months. And meanwhile, they figured the girls were being snatched out in the parking lot, so there were cops patrolling outside mall. Then they figured the girls were being lured or coerced from inside the mall, so there were cops patrolling inside the mall. They even set up a schedule for me to patrol, walking around checking for suspicious vehicles and shit. Me, looking for suspicious activity. Ha. And still, no one paid any attention to the loser janitor dude. I wasn’t above suspicion. I was beneath suspicion.

I thought about Dawn constantly. I made up all these stupid fantasies about how she and I would get together and how we would be in the future and even how we’d tell our kids how we first met and she rejected me but I wouldn’t give up and so they were lucky that I hadn’t because otherwise they would have never been born. Stupid.

Other than in my fantasy world, we never even talked again. It was always just awkward after that. Dawn would look away when I looked at her and eventually she didn’t look at me at all.

Then she quit coming to work. After a whole week of that, I went into the Fashion for All Seasons and asked the manager, who was always nice to me, not like Trina, who if I could have ever caught near Corridor 2 . . .

Anyway, the manager told me that Dawn got a job in Boise. I never even knew her last name. Her leaving tore me up all over again but in a different way. I felt hollow, like I was grasping, trying to pull something to me, inside of me, but only coming away with a fists-full of air. At least while she was working there I had some hope, something to cling to, you know?

You would think maybe her leaving would have really set me off, but it didn’t. The night I found out she was gone, that was the last of them. Lucky seven, right? My heart just wasn’t in it. If someone had walked out one of the doors in the corridor and caught me that night I would have just given up, admitted it all, sat down next to the body and waited for the cops to show up.

 

I remember this moment, like a movie except it actually happened. I’m sitting on carpet, playing with some toys, maybe tinker toys or something. I don’t know. Anyway, the memory is my mother walking out of the apartment we lived in, and what’s really vivid is the yellow dress she was wearing. She was like sunshine in that dress. She was walking away. I couldn’t see her face, just that dress and her brown hair bouncing. Perfect. That was the last time I saw her. I don’t know how I know that, but I do. I didn’t know she wasn’t coming back. I just kept playing with those toys or whatever. For a long time, I thought she’d come back. I’d fantasize what it would be like, that moment when I’d first see her. You never know what could happen.

What’s dumb is that I wish I had known she wasn’t coming back. I wish she had told me, even if I was only three because then I would have said goodbye. I know I would have. A real goodbye, a forever goodbye.

Even now sometimes, especially when I can’t sleep, and I’m staring at the water stains on the ceiling, I fantasize about Dawn. You never know what could happen. I got hired for the nightshift at the mall in Boise. Hope really does spring eternal.

***

Mike L. Nichols is a graduate of Idaho State University. He lives in S.E. Idaho. Mike was awarded the 2014 Ford Swetnam Poetry Prize. Look for his work in Black Rock & Sage, Underground Voices, Bewildering Stories, and elsewhere.  

 

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