Photography by Lydia Selk
On his break, Dillon liked sitting in his car tucked under the overhanging trees at the end of the parking lot behind the Dove Wood Flower Mart. Leaning back in his bucket seat, with the cool air filtering in through the open sunroof, he half fell asleep thinking of the two girls he had recently seen at the mall.
He remembered standing in line at Dunkin Donuts when a toned young arm grazed against him as it reached for a blue, raspberry Coolata. The girl asked him to get her a napkin. But the moment he opened his mouth to offer her a simple hi, she stomped off on her preposterously high platform sandals, leaving a dew of vanilla Viva La Juicy on his sleeve.
The other girl, the one with all the gold-glazed hair, bumped into him at the bottom of the escalator, setting her three-tiered chandelier earrings swinging. When she dropped her shopping bag and he bent to pick it up, she snatched it from him, as if he had contaminated it somehow. Put off, he was, by the dirty look she gave him when he stepped aside to let her go ahead of him.
Dillon rarely found a girl wandering around the mall by herself. Usually she would be with a girlfriend, forcing him to wait to catch her alone when it was easier for him to talk to her. But often he would find her ensconced in a closely-guarded clique, standing under the palm trees, for example, sharing pictures of boys on her phone. So he would shoulder his way up to her with great determination. Completely ignoring her friends, he would stammer out his name and ask for hers. And after a few intolerably long minutes, he would ask her if she wanted to walk with him to the food court. The girl, of course, would find the abruptness of his behavior unnerving. After shaking her head no, she would completely ignore him, vehemently wishing him away.
It wasn't that Dillon was bad looking. Girls were often attracted to his soft brown curls and chiseled mouth—at first. But something about his wry smile on closer observation warned them to run. His unusual pallor, too, brought on perhaps by spending much of his time indoors on his computer, didn't help his image.
Snapping out of his reverie, realizing he had two minutes to get back to repotting the rubber plants in the side yard, Dillon cut across the flower nursery at the back of the garden center.
First he batted at the bottom of the plastic pots to slip the stubborn plants out. Prying the roots apart with his fingers and jabbing at the matted whorls with his trowel, he coaxed out the coiled roots along with much of the dirt. Then he had to pour some mulch and topsoil out of unwieldy super-sized plastic bags into the new containers before transferring the plants.
After watering his newly potted charges, he hosed down the macadam drive, watching the clear water run muddy as it picked up the spilt topsoil, mulch, severed roots, dry leaves, brown needles, and spring pollen. Squirting some water on his hands, he washed off the dirt as best he could.
Dillon hadn't taken the job at the garden center because he had an affinity to nature. He wasn't into botany or anything. The fine lines of a windflower were lost on him. He took the job because he needed the money. After all he was only 19 and had just barely made it out of high school. He couldn't be choosy.
By 5:30 he had hauled the potted plants back to the nursery; unloaded the newly arrived pallets of seedlings from the delivery truck and set them out on their long tables, shaded from the sun; and was ready to drive home and plunk down on the couch with a Bud to watch TV in the dark.
Eight-thirty the next morning, he noticed a new girl at a checkout counter waiting for her first customer to come through.
"You're new here," he said, thinking she looked as soft as the blue-eyed dove on her apron.
"Yeah, my first day. I haven't been on a register in a while. The keys on the registers are so different now."
"You'll be okay. Just take your time. Don't let anybody rush you. See you later," he said, amazing himself with his thoughtfulness.
"See you later," she echoed, with a smile promising unlimited pleasures.
Walking away, realizing he hadn't gotten her name, he returned to her register.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Em," she said. "Actually Emily, but you can call me Em."
"Dillon" he said. "Or Dill."
"Dill," she echoed, again with the promising smile.
And hope fluttered inside his chest like a large bird in a small cage.
The few times he passed her register the next day, she was so inundated with customers, she had no time to talk. Though twice she gave him a chin up from across the aisle. At six o'clock, however, as they were walking to their cars, they walked part of the way together.
"Do you ever go to the mall?" he asked.
"Sure," she said.
"Do you want to meet there tomorrow at the waterfall?
"Sure," she said.
"You do have tomorrow off, don't you?"
"Yeah," she assured him.
"Okay," she said.
Every time he entered the mall, he was startled by its brightness. He often put on his sunglasses to shade his eyes against all the light streaming down from the atrium, reflected off the white walls, glanced off the white floor tiles.
It was a world of polyurethane palms, animated parrots, and a free-form pool fed by a well-modulated waterfall. Nothing grew there. And that's the way he liked it. At the flower mart everything grew like crazy, so he had to constantly repot—seedlings on up.
Of all the girls he saw at the mall, there were three who stood out. Brittany, Bethany, and Amber. He had learned their names gradually, hearing them call to one another.
The first time Dillon saw them, they were basking on the artificial rocks around the pool, legs tucked under. The mist off the water was wafting around, while on the high white walls encircling the pool, reflections off the rocking water were moving in ever-waving patterns. Amber was doing Bethany's hair, combing half her long locks forward over one breast—the way they all wore it.
He had long given up on those three. Over the last few months they made it clear they had no interest in him. Whenever he approached them, he noticed a cast would come over their eyes, allowing them to see everyone but him. And he took the hint. These three were goddesses, he learned; he could only admire from afar.
When he got to the waterfall, no one was there. Neither the usual three nor Em. Five minutes passed, and he started to panic. The water at the bottom of the waterfall seemed to roil with a new intensity, and the mist off the fall felt clammy on his face.
But then she was there—without her Dove Wood apron—and he began to think maybe Em liked him after all.
"Did you ever go to the Poster Emporium?" he asked, not sure what to suggest.
"Yeah, me and my girlfriend bought T-shirts there—the same shirt. Except hers is purple and mine is pink. On the front it has this picture of a girl wearing a swimsuit—from the neck down. She has this big, big top and this teeny tiny waist. And when you put it on you look like you're this girl. And on the back it shows the back of this girl, so if someone looks at you from the back they see the back of this girl. Haley wore hers to the beach, but I was too afraid to wear mine. I'd be too embarrassed."
"So, would you like to go look at some posters?" Dillon asked.
"Yeah, I would," she said.
Em seemed to smile a long time then, remembering those T-shirts.
And as they walked along, Dillon thought how pleasant it was to have such an up girl to talk to.
Inside the poster shop, he let her wander by herself, while he walked to the adventure/horror posters hanging in the back of the store in tall, hinged frames turning like the pages of a book.
There was one poster in among the others he visited the last few times he went into the store. It showed a man rowing a boat on open water with a woman in the stern trailing her hand off the side. Pitifully unaware, she seemed to be, of the two gray hands reaching up through the lapping water to pull her under. Dillon often considered buying the poster, but something held him back.
Finding Em then in the section on mermaids, he stood to one side and watched her move from poster to poster. She studied every one, but she kept going back to the print showing three mermaids rising out of a dark underwater cavern into a glittering amber sea.
"Let me buy it for you," Dillon said.
"I'm not sure," Em said.
"Well, why don't I just get it," he said, thinking this might be his one chance to do something for her.
Pausing by the escalator, he asked her if she wanted to get something to eat at the food court.
"That's all right," she said.
He was about to suggest they at least get something to drink when someone called her name.
Brittany, Bethany, and Amber were sprawled out on benches by the waterfall. They were all wearing similar glinty leggings, cropped tops, and streaks of vermillion in their hair—no doubt as marks of their solidarity. A fourth girl in a long tank top over bare legs sitting near them whispered something to them, and they all laughed uproariously. Standing up then, revealing her surprising height, the girl in the tank top motioned Em toward them. In the lull between the tall girl signaling Em over and Em sidling over to the group, Dillon read the words "Mermaids Singing, Each to Each" in script, above three flippered shapes.
As Em sidled over to the group, Dillon called out after her, "Hey, you forgot your poster."
"I thought you were with me," he added under his breath.
After briefly conferring with the other girls, Em turned toward Dillon and fluttered the tiniest of waves.
"I got to go," she said.
Dillon's pale face waxed blue. A great churning started in the pool. He started to walk, not knowing where he was going, with the poster sleeve in his hand. In his confusion, he ducked into Super Buy, having no reason to be there, before trodding down the main promenade.
Taking the escalator to the food court, he picked up some Chicken Chow Mein at the Wok Wizzard and headed for his car. All the way home he realized the tall girl reminded him of someone, though he couldn't place her. Some great strapping girl he had known in some town he had once lived, he assumed.
Not until he scraped the last bean sprout out of its plastic container did he remember who she was—a swimmer with big muscular shoulders. She used to wear a white swimming cap pulled down to her eyebrows. He always thought she had a meaty face, but when she pulled off the cap, a torrent of red hair poured down over her shoulder, changing her looks completely. And he had to admit she looked better than he first had thought.
In the summer she used to take the young boys on the block down to the town lake to show them how to swim. One time out on the dock, impatient with Dillon's reluctance to dive, she picked up Little Dilly and threw him in. Seeing him thrashing around in a panic, she dove in to retrieve him. But Dillon was so afraid of her, he tried to push her away—irrationally kicking away the one person who could save him. In the end the older girl forcibly pulled him out. But it was a fiasco he never forgot, knowing how close he came to drowning.
He hadn't thought about the incident for a long time. It was something he had kept to himself, having been too ashamed to tell his parents, or anyone else for that matter.
The next day at work, still hoping for the best, he went out of his way to see Em at her register.
"Hi again," he said.
But this time she said hi without looking at him. And it wasn't because she was busy.
As he made an about face to walk back to the side yard, he felt something sink inside him. It didn't take two seconds for him to realize the other girls must have said something to her.
$12.99 I paid for that poster, he thought, and she didn't even want it. Why didn't she just say she didn't want it? Twelve-ninety-nine wasted. It isn't something he was ever going to hang on a wall.
A certain paralysis took hold of him. He felt so rigid he could hardly walk. To steady himself he grabbed onto the nearest garden glider. What is it with girls and mermaids? he wondered. Some ancient sisterhood, I suppose. He began to hear a kind of burbling in his ears, like the sound of bubbles rushing up through water. The burbling grew louder, like the sound of the fall at the mall.
Back at his station, he was instructed to shift some concrete garden statuary from one end of the store to another. And he lit into his job with abandon.
He picked up six concrete statues of a boy with a slingshot and plunked them down on the transport wagon—with no care for the protruding slingshots, letting the statues jostle against each other with cement scraping against cement, causing two of the statues to lose some toes. Then he dropped three boys clutching rabbits in on top of them. And for good measure, he jammed four toads in among the arms and legs of the boys with the rabbits. Hauling the transport wagon to the other side of the store, he crammed the concrete creatures on the waiting shelves, many of them wobbling and reverberating before coming to a standstill.
On his next run, he was rougher still, chucking the remaining gray boys with the rabbits onto their heads. The rest of the toads, toadstools, and toad houses, he piled precariously high above the cart's wire sides. He was tiring now and dragged the wagon down the main aisle in a desultory manner, deliberately thwarting customer carriages filled to the brim with geraniums and fertilizer. Trying to make his presence felt.
Returning for the sleeping foxes, he noticed some statues farther down the shelf he hadn't noticed before. His eyes zoomed in on a pale gray mermaid, sitting demurely on rock, with her tail flipped to one side, her eyes downcast, one hand pressed against her chest in a half-hearted attempt at modesty. There was something about the mermaid he didn't like. And his repugnance multiplied as he scanned 11 others just like her.
Reluctant to lug the transport wagon all the way back to the starting point, he left it where it was. Confiscating a shopping cart, he heaved the packages of birdseed inside onto the floor. In went seven curvaceous temptresses. In went half the sleeping foxes. He stuck the other half under the cart. This time, avoiding the main aisle, he zigzagged past customers, smashing the cart into a number of gas grills and picnic tables in his way.
The burbling water inside his ears started to whirl, and his head began to throb.
Still he persisted. Almost defying the manager to bear down upon him, he grabbed the mermaids by their concrete locks and slammed them down on the shelves, causing the other statues to rattle in sympathy. Forcing one pale sister into a row where there was no room caused the end statue to crash to the floor.
The mermaid shattered, shooting debris in all directions. Not wanting to lose his job, he rushed to the utility closet for an industrial-size dustpan and broom, a whirlpool now spinning in his head.
After sweeping the smaller shards into a dustpan and piling the larger shards on top, he rushed back to the closet to dump the debris and ditch the pan and broom. A man with a six-pack of tomato seedlings saw him coming and flattened himself against the shelves.
Coming back he noticed a sizable residue of gray dust on the floor. But by now he was in no state to go back for the broom. And as far as the remaining mermaids went, they were the least of his problems.
The whirlpool was a raging maelstrom. His head ached. He thought the sound might be coming from the sprinklers out in the nursery, for when they were all going at once, they could make quite a racket. He stuck his head out the nursery, expecting to see dozens of oscillating sprinklers swishing back and forth. But they were all off.
He knew then the noise was in his head. He assumed it was a kind of ringing in the ears brought on by all the recent stress. His only hope was to get home and find a way to relax. Even though he had 20 minutes left to his shift, he strode out the rear door.
Across the parking lot where the workers parked their cars, he saw Em sitting above the front fender of a car with a boy standing between her legs. Dillon stopped in his tracks. So intent were they in their conversation, they didn't even notice he was there.
When the boy pushed Em's hair behind her ear, Dillon could feel its softness. And when the boy took her hand, Dillon could feel its warmth.
How could Em let such a loser put his hands on her, he wondered.
He could only hear the boy then, five cars over. Em was probably just listening while the boy went on—trying to talk her into something, no doubt. Getting into his car, Dillon unwrapped a piece of gum and slipped it in his mouth. He took out his android and called up Google. And with one finger typed in the letters g, u, n.
Scrolling through endless websites offering pro-gun T-shirts, pro-gun dog jackets, bullet cartridges, pistols, revolvers, rifles, automatic handguns, automatic rifles, not to mention gun shows, calmed him. The roaring water subsided.
After about 20 minutes, he revved up his car as loud as he could and tore out of his space, sending bits of gravel flying. Making a hard left, he stopped short when he reached the car with Em and the boy.
"Hey you!" he called, spitting out his gum.
Utterly perplexed, Em and the boy stared at the driver in the idling car.
Dillon's hand shot out the car window. With his lower fingers curled around a pretend handle and his thumb cocked, he pointed his first finger at them as if it were the barrel of a revolver. With the trite smile of a silent movie villain, he said, "Bang," and drove on with a new sense of mission.