The strip malls that reigned as gods in her youth had somehow, before her very eyes, turned into spaces for the walking dead, the last of a race that wasn’t so much trying to cling to the past as unaware of what was happening, oh so insidiously, in the present. Mercedes (she was named for the car her mother always wanted but could never afford) did not consider herself to be one of these people, even though she had, after all these years, worked her way up the ranks of the Old Navy next to the last remaining Circuit City to the senior manager position. Like Vickie Miner in Reality Bites, however, she was not impressed with her “advancement,” so much as rather embarrassed by it. While other people she had gone to high school with had long ago advanced through the so-called requisite ranks of undergraduate and graduate programs in cities across the U.S. that were far more glamorous than Sacramento, she had somehow been left behind.
It was as though, one second, she was the most aloof therefore coolest girl in school, getting stoned as she lazed by the pool every day around 3:30 and letting people shoplift as she turned the other cheek once her shift started, and the next she was the loser still working in a strip mall, forced to exist on a plane that was no longer relevant, just like Old Navy itself (unless it was to that annoying high schooler trying to be “ironic” or a mother in her forties with a middle class family to clothe).
She could see the time warp she was trapped in, like some sort of character in a cliche and predictable plot twist (à la M. Night Shyamalan). But she could do nothing stop it. She was not the master of her own destiny, and there was no one overseeing her universe to write her out of this terrible and increasingly deadening loop. She had, at the bare minimum, moved out of her parents’ house when she turned twenty. But now, at twenty-four, there was nothing else impressive to remark upon regarding her “accomplishments.”
One day, while sequestered in the back office trying her best to huff the fumes from some Wite-Out (since she could, alas, not seem to Wite-Out the trajectory of her life), one of her least favorite employees, Devonte, knocked on her door to tell her that someone was at the register with an application. Pretending that she hadn’t been doing anything sketchy, she randomly painted the brush onto a piece of paper that was already blank. It was a move right out of David Brent’s playbook. “Oh. Fine. Be right there.” Devonte smirked at her as he closed the door. The judgmental cunt.
Sighing as she stared at the paper made even blanker by her arbitrary brushstroke, she rose from the chair to see about what poor soul wanted to prostrate himself to corporate retail for a wage that could afford little better than the palpable feeling of wasting one’s time.
Prepared to see yet another high school drone standing before her, Mercedes was shocked to find, instead, an attractive, chiseled man in what she guessed was his early thirties. Dave, she was soon told his name was, quickly talked her into giving him an interview in the back room, where after he confessed to having zero retail experience and having recently divorced from his wealthier wife who was trying to take their two sons away from him if he didn’t find a job outside of “artist” this week, he proceeded to read the signs of Mercedes’ too long unused body and take her clothes off. So it was that they rollicked on top of a stack of jeans, leading one customer to, weeks later, ask himself where this mysterious white stain had come from when he had only just bought the wide-leg pants in question.
Obviously, Dave was hired. And for about three months, Mercedes forgot about the insipidity of her life, feeling that, at last, the strip mall gods had seen fit to toss her a bone (literally) for her trouble of being relegated to a time bubble, where only customers equally as blacked out to what year it was decided to come and visit. People who wore ill-fitting purple short sleeve shirts with a pocket on the breast and acid wash tapered leg jeans with Keds. The sight of them had always made her shudder as she pulled into and backed out of the parking lot. But now, since Dave had entered her (life), nothing felt as bothersome or small anymore. Her life felt important, purposeful. Later, she would think to herself that being trapped in the time warp had, in turn, given her a warped view as well, placing all of her happiness onto a man as though she was still living in the early 1960s (which, for all intents and purposes, she was).
It occurred to her about two and a half months into the “relationship” that Dave never wanted to go anywhere with her apart from the store and her house (where he often stayed the night before slinking off in the morning). When she found the courage to point it out to him, he balked and called her something tantamount to a silly girl. Delusional. But she knew she wasn’t delusional when she caught Dave leaving one evening after work in his “ex”-wife’s car.
When she confronted him about it the next day, he immediately admitted that they weren’t going to go through with the divorce after all and that this was to serve as his one week notice (he couldn’t stick it out for a full two, and he felt he was already being generous enough in not quitting right then and there). Mercedes nodded, seeing the now former image of her joy being stamped out like a package with the word “fragile.” Of course, she still let him fuck her for the final week that he was there, giving him more head than she ever had in some pathetic expectation that it would make him want to stay with her. It didn’t. And once he was gone, Mercedes hated all her other employees more than she had before, taking out her rage on them by inventing cruelly inane tasks like cuffing one pile of jeans to display next to the same model uncuffed.
She had to reconcile that Dave was one of the people for whom the strip mall was a passing curiosity. A place he didn’t have to live in if he didn’t want to. It was not so for people like Mercedes, people like Devonte. Condemned to the mediocrity that only retail can encapsulate. Mercedes would work at the strip mall until it decayed to its fullest potential, smoking weed every day to numb her unacknowledged sorrow in her darkened house that left her no money for any pleasures other than weed itself.
Yes, Dave was free. He was a different kind of average. And Mercedes reckoned that she wasn’t even average, she was lower than that because she couldn’t relate to the average. For out there, in the world of the present, people such as Dave thrived, passing through the strip mall with their profane treatment of it, as though having no idea of how hallowed a space it was. Is. For the strip mall will never truly go away. At least not in California (all bloated with such structures and homages to Bret Easton Ellis’ 80s). Its crumbling bones will, decades from now, continue to exist to remind, every now and again, that some people are meant for the worship of the false idol called hope. The religion that makes you power through the most unpleasant of existences for the sake of believing that one day, another Dave will come along. A savior from prosaicism. Some feeble flash of happiness that distracts one from the inevitable decay of the body more rapidly than any “declining” cluster of corporate filth.