Old Habits

Ghost malls are even sadder than living people malls, even though malls of the living are already pretty damned sad places to be. And let me get this out of the way right now, before we go any farther; I’m dead, okay? I’m fucking dead. This is not going to be one of those stories where the surprise twist is and he was dead! I’m not a bloody surprise twist. I’m just a guy who wanted to buy a necktie to wear at his son’s high school graduation.

I wander through Sears department store for a bit, past a pyramid of shiny boxes with action heroes peeking out of their cellophane windows, another one of hard-bodied girl dolls with permanently pointed toes and tight pink clothing, past a rack of identical women’s cashmere sweaters in different colours; purple, black, red and green. The sign on the rack reads 30% off, today only! It’s Christmas season. Everywhere I wander, I’m followed by elevator music versions of the usual hoary Christmas classics. Funny, a ghost being haunted by music.

I make a right at the perfume counter. It’s kind of a relief to no longer be able to smell it before I see it, to no longer have to hold my breath to avoid inhaling the migraine-inducing esters cloying the air around it.

Black Anchor Ohsweygian is lying on the ground by the White Shoulders display. Actually, she’s rolling around on the ground, her long grey hair in her eyes, her face contorted, yelling. I can’t hear her; she’s on the clock. Her hands slap ineffectually at the air, trying to fight off the invisible security guard who did her in. Her outer black skirt is up around her thighs, revealing underneath it a beige skirt, and under that a flower print one, and under that a baggy pair of jeans. She’s wearing down-at-heel construction boots. They’re too big for her; as I watch, she kicks out and one of the boots flies off, exposing layers of torn socks and a flash of puffy, bruised ankle. The boot wings right through me. I don’t even flinch when I see it coming. I’ve lost the habit.

Now Black Anchor’s face is being crushed down onto the hard tile floor, her features compressed. She’s told me that the security guard knelt on her head to hold her down. One arm is trapped under her, the other one flailing. It won’t be long now. I shouldn’t watch. It’s her private moment. We all have them, us ghosts. Once a day, we die all over again. You get used to it, but it’s not really polite to watch someone re-dying their last moments of true contact with the world. For some of us, that moment becomes precious, a treasured thing. Jimmy would go ballistic if he ever caught me watching him choke on a piece of steak in the Surf ’N’ Turf restaurant up on the third floor. Black doesn’t mind sharing her death with me, though. She’s told me I can watch as often as I like. I used to do it just out of prurient curiosity, but now I watch because I feel a person should have someone who cares about them with them when they die. I like Black. I can’t touch her to comfort her. Can’t even whisper to her. Not while she’s still alive, which she just barely is right now. In a few seconds she’ll be able to hear and see me, to know that I am here, bearing witness. But we still won’t be able to touch. If we try, it’ll be like two drifts of smoke melting into and through each other. That may be the true tragedy of being a ghost.

Black Anchor’s squinched face has flushed an unpleasant shade of red. Her arm flops to the ground. Her rusty shopping cart has tumbled over beside her, spilling overused white plastic shopping bags, knotted shut and stuffed so full the bags are torn in places. In the bags are Black Anchor’s worldly possessions. She pulls the darnedest things out of those bags to entertain Baby Boo. I mean, why in the world did Black Anchor carry a pair of diving goggles with her as she trudged year in, year out up and down the city streets, pushing her disintegrating shopping cart in front of her? She won’t tell me or Jimmy why she has the diving goggles. Says a lady has to have some secrets.

I go and sit by Black Anchor’s head. I hope, for the umpteenth time, that I’ve passed through the security guard that killed her. I hope he can feel me doing so, even just the tiniest bit, and it’s making him shudder. Goose walking on his grave. Maybe he’ll die in this mall too someday, and become a ghost. Have to look Black Anchor in the eye.

A little ‘tuh’ of exhaled breath puffs out of her. Every day, she breathes her last one more time. Her body relaxes. Her face stops looking squished against the floor. She opens her eyes, sees me sitting there. She smiles. “That was a good one,” she says. “I think the guard had had hummus for lunch. I think I smelled chick peas and parsley on his breath.” In her mouth, I can see the blackened stump that is all that was left of one rotted-out front tooth.

I return her smile. In those few seconds of pseudo-life she goes on the clock every day, Black Anchor tries to capture one more sensory detail from all she has left of the real world. “You are so fucking crazy,” I tell her. “Wanna go for a walk?”

“Sure. I’ve clocked out for the day.” The usual ghost joke. She sits up. By the time we get to our feet, her bundle buggy is upright again, her belongings crammed back into it. Her boot is back on her foot. It happens like that every time. I’ve never been able to catch the moment when it changes. Black pushes her creaky bundle buggy in front of her. We walk out of the south entrance of Sears; the one that leads right into the mall. Cheerful canned music follows us, exulting about the comforts of chestnuts and open fires. Quigley’s standing in front of the jewellery shop, peering in at the display. He does that a lot, especially at Christmas time and Valentine’s Day, when the fanciest diamond rings get displayed in the window. The day Quigley kicked it had been a February 13. He’d been in the mall shopping for an engagement ring for his girl. He was going to put it in a big box of fancy chocolates, surprise her with it on Valentine’s Day. But then he had that final asthma attack, right there in the mall’s west elevator. Quigley’s twenty-four years old. Was twenty-four years old. Would be twenty-four years old for a long, long time now. Perhaps forever. He still carries around that box of expensive chocolates he’d bought before he stopped breathing. It’s in one of those fancy little paper shopping bags, the kind with the flat bottom and the twisted paper handles.

Quigley waves sadly at us. He has pushed his waving hand through the handles of the gift bag. The bag bumps against his forearm. We wave back. Black murmurs, “He’s brooding. He doesn’t get over it, he’ll find himself stepping outside.”

There’s a rumour among the mall ghosts; kind of an urban legend or maybe spectral legend that we whisper amongst ourselves when we’re telling each other stories to keep the boredom at bay. There was this guy, apparently, this ghost guy before my time, who got so stir-crazy that he yanked open one of the big glass doors that leads to the outside. He stepped into the blackness that is all we can see beyond the mall doors. People say that once he was outside, they couldn’t see him any longer. They say he shouted, once. Some people say it was a shout of joy. Some of them think it was agony, or terror. Jimmy says the shout sounded more like surprise to him. Whatever it was, the guy never came back. Jimmy says we lose one like that every few years. Once it was an eight-year-old girl. Everyone felt bad about that one. They still get into arguments about which one of them failed to keep an eye on her.

What that story tells me; we can touch the doors to the outside. Not everything in this mall is intangible to us.

I’m with Black Anchor Ohsweygian and Jimmy Lee sitting around one of the square vinyl-topped tables in the food court; the kind with rounded-off edges that seats four. Like everywhere else in the mall, the food court seems deserted except for the ghosts. But there’s food under the heat lamps and in the warming trays. Overcooked battered shrimp at the Cap’n Jack’s counter; floppy, grey beef slices in gravy at Meat ’n’ Taters; soggy broccoli florets at China Munch. The food levels go down and are replenished constantly during the day. To us, it’s like plastic dollhouse food. We see the steam curling up from the warming trays, but there’s no sound of cooking, no food smells. Kitty’s standing in front of Mega Burger. I think she’s staring at the shiny metal milk shake dispenser.

Jimmy and Black Anchor and I are sitting on those hard plastic seats that are bolted to food court tables. We’re playing “Things I Miss.” Kind of sitting, anyway. Sitting on surfaces is one of those habits that’s hard to break. We can’t feel the chairs under our butts, but we still try to sit on them. Jimmy Lee’s aim isn’t so good; he’s actually sunk about two inches into his chair. But then, he’s a tall guy; maybe it helps him not have to lean over to see eye to ghost eye with me and Black Anchor. Baby Boo has decided to join us today. He—I’ve decided to call him “he”—is lying on his back on the food court table, swaddled in his yellow blanket and onesie. He’s mumbling at his little fist and staring from one to the other of us as we speak. Baby Boo doesn’t quite have the hang of the laws of physics; he’d died too young to learn many of them. He’s suspended in midair, about a hand’s breadth above the table.

Things we miss, now that we’re ghosts:

Jimmy says, “Really good cigars. Drawing the smoke of them into my lungs, holding it there, letting it out through my nose.” All us mall ghosts, our chests rise and fall in their remembered rhythms, but no air goes in or out.

Black Anchor Ohsweygian stares at her thin, wrinkled fingers on the table top. She says, “The sweet musk of beets, fragrant as blood-soaked earth.”

“Vanilla milk shakes,” I say, thinking of Kitty over there. “Cold, sweet, and creamy on your tongue.”

Jimmy nods. “And frothy.” He takes another turn; “Going up to the cottage for the first long weekend in spring.”

I nod. “Victoria Day weekend.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy replies. “Jumping from the deck into the lake for the first time since the fall before.” He laughs a little. It makes his big face crinkle up. “That water would be so frigging cold! It’d just about freeze my balls off, every time. And Barbara would roll her eyes and call me a fool, but she’d jump in right after.” His expression falls back into its usual sad grumpiness. Barbara was his wife of thirty years.

Black Anchor says, “Toronto summers, when it would get so hot that squirrels would lie flopped like black skins on the branches, fur side up. So humid that you were sure if you made a fist, you would squeeze water dripping from the air. Your thighs squelched when you walked.” Black Anchor’s having one of her more conversational days. Apparently, she used to be a poet. A homeless poet. She told me there was a lot of that going on.

I say, “The warm milk smell of my husband’s breath after his morning coffee.”

“Fucking faggot,” grumbles Jimmy. It’s an old, toothless complaint of his.

I shrug. “Whatever.”

“Hey,” says Jimmy, in his gruff, hulking way. I know he’s still talking to me because he won’t quite meet my eyes, and his face does this defensive thing, this “I’m a manly man and don’t you forget it” thing. He says, “That’s the closest you’ve come to talking about a person you used to… you know, love. How come is that? Don’t you miss anyone?”

His eyes glisten as he says the word “love,” like he’s crying. Jimmy goes on about Barbara like she was a piece of heaven that he lost. I guess she was, come to think of it.

“Yeah, I miss people,” I say slowly, playing for time. Even when you’re dead, some things cut close to the bone. Sometimes Baby Boo cries, and it makes my arms ache with the memory of feeding Brandon when he was that little, watching his tiny pursed mouth latch on to the nipple of his bottle, seeing his eyes staring big and calm up at me as though I were his whole world. “I miss lots of people.”

Black leans back in her chair and sighs airlessly. “Well, I miss that girl at the doughnut shop who would slip me an extra couple if I went there during her shift.”

Jimmy shakes his head. “Doughnuts. Jesus. How did you live like that?”

“I honestly don’t know, Sugar.”

I shoot Black a grateful glance for getting Jimmy off the subject. When I walk through the darkened mall at night, I try to remember Semyon’s touch. The warmth of his hand on my cheek. The hard curve of his arm around me, his hand slipped into my back jeans pocket. I try to remember his voice.

I say to Black and Jimmy, “It’s so unfair that we can’t see or hear the world. That we can’t touch, taste, or smell it.”

Black replies, “That’s because being a ghost is a disease.”

“What do mean, a disease?” I ask her. For the umpteenth time I wonder; what kind of name is Black Anchor Ohsweygian, anyway? Jimmy thinks maybe she’s Armenian. He says that Armenians all have names that end in “ian.” Someday I’m going to point out to him that some Armenians have names like “Smith.”

“Like maybe we’re not dead,” she replies. “Maybe we just caught some kind of virus that messed up all our senses. Maybe we’re all lying in hospital beds somewhere, and some grumpy cunt of a doctor with a busted leg is yelling at his team that they have to find a cure.”

“And maybe someone used to watch too much fucking television,” says Jimmy. He vees his index and middle finger, puts them to his lips. For a second I think he’s flipping her deuces, but no, he takes a drag of his imaginary cigarette. Habits. Black glares at him, hacks and spits to one side. Habits. Baby Boo belches a baby belch, then giggles. We don’t know Baby Boo’s real name. I don’t remember how we ended up calling him Baby Boo.

Kitty must have heard us talking. She wanders over, coos at Baby Boo. He gives her a brief baby grin; the kind that always looks accidental, the baby more surprised than anyone else at what its face has just done. Kitty says, “I can smell stuff. Again, I mean. Like when I was alive.”

Quickly, I tell her, “You might want to keep that to yourself.” She hasn’t been here very long. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. She doesn’t know how dangerous it is. I should warn her outright. I don’t.

Kitty ignores my lame hint. She says, “I’m serious. It just started to come back a little while ago. Bit by bit.”

My heart starts pounding so quickly that my body trembles a little with every beat. Even though I know I don’t have a heart, or a body. Even though I know it’s just reflex. Jimmy and Black Anchor look just as avid as I feel. The three of us stare at Kitty, our mouths open. She waggles her fingers at Baby Boo. “I thought I was imagining it at first. You know how you can want something so bad it can make your mouth water?”

We know. Jimmy swallows.

Kitty’d only been fifteen. She and a bunch of her friends from school had crowded shrieking and laughing into the women’s washroom on the main floor to try on makeup they’d just bought. In the jostling, Kitty fell. On the way down, she hit her head on the edge of a sink.

Kitty whispers, “I can smell french fries. And bacon.” She points at Mega Burger, where she’d been standing. “Over there. Someone’s burning bacon on the grill.”

Black Anchor says fiercely, “What else? Smell something else!” Her voice doesn’t sound human any more. It’s hollow, mechanical, nothing like a sound made by air flowing over vocal chords.

Kitty looks around her. A slow smile comes to her face. “Somebody just went by wearing perfume. I think it’s Obsession. She smells like my mom used to.”

Oh, god. She’s really doing it. She’s smelling the scent trails of the living people all around us in this mall. Black Anchor chews daily over the gristle of a long ago memory, but Kitty took a whiff of someone warm and alive as she walked past us just this second. Life haunts us, us ghosts. It hovers just out of reach, taunting.

Longing is shredding my self-control to tatters. I moan, “Kitty, don’t,” but she starts talking again a split second after I say her name, so she doesn’t hear the warning.

“Mister Lee,” she says to Jimmy, “there’s someone sitting right there, in the same chair you are. I don’t know whether it’s a guy or a girl, but they’re chewing gum. You know the kind that comes in a little stick and you unwrap the paper from it and it’s kinda beige with these like, zigzaggy lines in it? I can smell it as the person’s spit wets it and they chew. I should be grossed out, but it’s too freaking cool. There’s someone right there!” She leans in towards Jimmy. She closes her eyes, and no fucking word of a lie, she inhales. Her chest rises and falls, and with it, I hear the breath entering and leaving her lungs. She opens her eyes and looks at us in wonder. “Peppermint,” she whispers reverently, as though she’s saying the secret name of God.

That does it. The need slams down on me like a wall of bricks, stronger than thought or compassion. I crowd in on Kitty. I dimly notice Jimmy and Black Anchor doing the same.

“Can you smell coffee?”

“Sweat! Can you smell sweat?”

“Is taste coming back, too? Can you taste anything?”

“Can you touch? Can you feel?”

Unable to hold the need in check, unable to do anything but shout it in shuddering, hungry voices, we demand to be fed. Kitty, surrounded, looks from one to the other of us, tries to answer our questions, but they come too hard and fast for her to reply. Our hollow shrieks draw the other ghosts. They come flocking in, clamouring, more and more of them as word goes round. We’re all demanding to know what she can smell, demanding that she describe it in every last detail, clawing our fingers through the essence of her as we try in vain to touch her. Needing, needing, needing. And through the din is the thin sound of Baby Boo crying. He’s only little. He doesn’t know how to feed his hunger.

When the frenzy passes and we come back to ourselves, there’s nothing left of Kitty but a few grey wisps, like fog, that dissipate even as we watch. The canned music tinkles on about Donner and Blitzen and the gifts that Santa brings to good boys and girls.

Stay long enough in the mall, and you learn what happens if you begin to get the knack of living again. We’ve used Kitty up. And we are still starving.

Ashamed, we avoid each others’ eyes. We step away from each other, spread out through the mall. There is plenty of room for all of us. I go into the bookstore and stare at the titles that appear and disappear from the shelves. I miss reading. Tearlessly, airlessly, I sob. She was only fifteen. At fifteen, Brandon had been worrying about pimples. Semyon and I were coaching him on how to ask girls out. We’d gotten tips from our women friends. I have just sucked from a child what little remained of her life.

I feel it coming on, like a migraine aura. There’s a whoosh of dislocation and the world rushes over me. I’m on the clock. My hand slaps down onto the moving rubber handrail. The slight sting of the impact against my palm is terrible and glorious. Sound, delicious sound battered against my ears; the voices of the hundreds and hundreds of people who’d been in the mall on my day. I felt my nipples against the crisp fabric of the white shirt I was wearing under my best grey suit.

There were people near me on the escalator. Below me, a beautiful brown-skinned man in worn jeans and a tight yellow T-shirt. He was talking on his cell phone, telling someone he’d meet them over by the fountain. Beside me was a woman about my age, maybe Asian mixed with something else. She was plump. Girlfriend, don’t you know that sage-coloured polyester sacks don’t suit anyone, least of all people like us whose waistlines weren’t what they used to be? Lessee, I’d gotten a silk tie geometric pattern in greys and blacks shot through with maroon I thought it went nicely with my suit really shouldn’t have waited so long to shop for it Semyon was pretty ticked at me for going shopping last minute he’s just stressing but we had plenty of time to get to the graduation ceremony just a ten minute drive and oh look there were Semyon and Brandon now waiting for me at the bottom of the escalator and Brandon’s girlfriend Lara that’s a pretty dress though I wondered whether she wasn’t a little too well dumb for Brandon or maybe too smart but what did I know when I first started dating Semyon my sis thought he was too stuck-up for me but she’d thought the guy before him was too common Mom and Dad were going to meet us at Brandon’s school and Sally and what’s his name again Gerald should remember it by now he’d been my brother-in-law for over two years hoped my dad wouldn’t screw up the directions we’d sent Tati an invitation to the graduation but she hadn’t replied probably wouldn’t show up you utter bitch he’s your grandson Semyon and I had never tried to find out which one of us was his bio dad we liked having Brandon be our mystery child kept us going through his defiant years god I hoped to hell those were over and done with now I mean that time he got mad and decked Semyon it was funny later but not when it happened and look at him nineteen with his whole life before him grinning up at me I was just kvelling with pride and oh shit I should have put the tie on in the store better do that now why’d they wrap it in so much tissue paper there did I get the knot right oh whoops ow my elbow’s probably bruised so stupid falling where everybody can see that cute guy turning to lend a hand to the clumsy old fag who can’t manage a simple escalator oh crap I’m stuck my tie

The fall by itself probably wouldn’t have killed me. But my snazzy new silk necktie caught in the escalator mechanism. And then the lady beside me was screaming for help and the cute guy was yanking desperately on my rapidly shortening tie as it disappeared into the works of the escalator and then my head was jammed against the steps and some of my hair caught in it too and pain pain pain and then the dull crack and the last face I saw was not Semyon’s or Brandon’s, not even my sister Sally’s or Dad or Mom or my dearest friend Derek, just the panicked desperate face of some good-looking stranger I didn’t know and would never know now because although he’d tried his hardest he hadn’t been able to save my bloody lifemylifemylife.

Broke my fricking neck. Stupid way to go. Really stupid day to do it on. And for the rest of this existence, I’d regret that I’d done it while my son and my husband looked on, helplessly.

I’m standing alone on the down escalator. The canned music chirps at me to listen to the sleigh bells ringing. I’m off the clock. I let the escalator carry me down to the main floor. At the bottom, I step off it and walk over to the spot where I’d last seen my family. For all I know, no time has passed for them. For all I know, they might still be here, watching me ruin Brandon’s graduation day. Maybe I brush past or through them as I walk this way once every day.

I straighten my tie. It does go well with my suit. I walk past the cell phone store, the bathing suit store, the drug store. I turn down the nearest corridor. It leads to an exit. I stand in front of the glass and steel door. I stare at the blackness on the other side of it. I think about pushing against the crash bar; how solid it would feel under my palm; how the glass door would feel slightly chilly against my shoulder as I shoved it open.

Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo Hopkinson was born in Jamaica, and went on to live in Guyana, Trinidad, and Canada. She is a recipient of the Campbell, the World Fantasy, the Sunburst, and the Andre Norton Awards. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside. She believes food is a very good idea.

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