I spent my last day in Massachusetts at the Independence Mall in Kingston. It was my first favorite people watching spot. This is where I became Rock Stone, Private Dick. I would come down here and pace the length of the mall, from the cinema at one end to Sears at the other, looking for a compelling story. Sometimes I'd find a first date in Borders and I would watch it and critique the young mans performance in my little notebook. Or I'd follow the security guards as they'd walk their beat. "If this place gets attacked by terrorists, I'm the first line of defense" I thought they thought. But they were as much cops as I was a private eye.
A young woman plays with her phone and keeps an eye on 2 men as they lurk around Sbarro's. She is young and neatly dressed, ready to get out of Kingston. Probably college bound soon. The men are not likely college bound, unless they are kidnappers (which is totally possible). They are odd ducks with an uncomfortable presence. They might both be a bit slow. Maybe they're disabled enough that they live in a group home. I look around to see if there is a staff member near by. The short one tries to flirt with a middle aged chinese woman who is handing out samples of Orange Chicken on toothpicks. I wonder how long they've been coming here to enjoy looking at young women. I wonder if she'll feel nostalgia for this food court someday.
There's an older guy a few tables down. He's got a newspaper and some $1 tickets. Grey slacks, blue shirt. No visible scars.
The case goes cold quickly. I want Orange Chicken now. It comes with Lo Mein and Spring Rolls and a fresh chance to find a hot lead.
The mall has neighborhoods, and the far end of the food court is skid row. There is a little news stand that sells lotto tickets, scratchers, and Keno. Old folks sit down there and piss away social security checks all day. I set my tray on a clean white table in the shade of a potted tree and pick at my greasy feast while I peer out from under the brim of my ball cap.
I find this guy at my 10 o'clock. It's the perfect position for people watching. 12 o'clock is too aggressive, 9 requires too much head movement. But at 10, I can watch him out of the corner of my eye without moving my neck at all; and even if notices my presence (which they never do) I can use the front cover of my sketch book to shield my sketches and notes from his sight.
He's got a great face for sketching and he's covered in clues.
- A military hat with the name of his unit on it. "Special Weapons Unit" across the top with "SWULANT" underneath an embroidered eagle insignia. There are a few buttons pinned to the side of it. I can't tell what they are but they mean something to him, and that means something to me.
- Gold watch. But not a flashy gold watch. The kind you'd get for retiring from a Union job.
I thought he was playing the lotto, at first, but he's not. He's pouring over a crossword puzzle. The story starts to come together.
He was a good kid. Focused, determined, loyal, honest. He looks to be in his late 70's or early 80's, which means he probably saw time in the end of Korea or the beginning of 'Nam. He went to college on the G.I. Bill. He did well there, he's clearly got an intellect on him even though he's from working class roots. Probably played a sport, too. Maybe football in a leather helmet. He's busted that nose more than once. Maybe he met his wife after the big game. They lost, but only because he couldn't keep his eyes off of her while she cheered from the stands, so he dropped every pass. He never considered the day a loss though. He'd been with her ever since. With a college education and military service under his belt, he got himself a good job. She raised a few kids for him, and they saved every penny to put them through college. Their kids moved away and started families of their own as they grew old together. They fell in love again and again. Spring, summer, fall, winter. He never imagined that she would go first but one of them had to, I suppose. He was strong at the funeral because that's what a man of his generation is meant to do. He wouldn't cry in front of his grandchildren, but when he went to bed alone that night he wept like a babe.
And after all that, this is all he has left. Sitting alone in the food court, trying to figure out an 8 letter word for "TV's Mork" and waiting to...
An old woman sits down next to him. For a moment, I'm looking at a ghost. But he's not. He sits right up and flashes her a great big smile. Only his bottom row of teeth show. I can see his eyes through his thick glasses for the first time. They are bright and full of life. She's been shopping-- she has 2 big paper bags with her. He is so happy to see her.
They get up and leave together. He throws his crossword in the garbage bin on the way out. I close my sketchbook and put my pencil away. I am mad at myself. I sat down and tried to steal this old man's moment and make it something else. Was it... rude? I came into this moment as an uninvited guest and I got real comfortable. I put my feet up on the couch and I kept telling my host to turn the channel.
On the drive home, I can't stop thinking about him. I quickly forgive myself. Maybe some of that story was right. I'm good with the details, but I am prone to think of tragedy. I'm happy when I think of them going home together and cooking dinner.
I hope their kids call tonight. And I hope that she was shopping for trampy lingerie. He deserves it.