Hardtimes
Chapter 2

Copyright© 2020 by Lazlo Zalezac

Patrolling the mall early Saturday morning, meant staying out of the way of the horde of mall walkers who descended upon the place. Little old ladies who walked at a snail’s pace, occasionally blocked the paths of soccer moms who power-walked. Once in a while, a walker would trip for no apparent reason and he would have to write up a report. About once a year, an elderly walker would clutch his or her chest and he would have to call for an ambulance.

Burl hated working Saturday mornings. It wasn’t the mall walkers who made him feel that way. After all, they were there every morning. He hated the horde of teenage girls that would arrive shortly after the stores opened. It seemed like every weekend, one or more of them would get talked into shoplifting some item from a store. It was his job to take statements from the store personnel and the suspect.

The girls traveled in packs chattering and acting like a troop of angry baboons. He wished he had a nickle for every time one of them had made a nasty comment about his weight and general build. He wasn’t the only target of their biting tongues. Every Saturday he was called upon to break up a couple of shouting matches.

Burl made his way around the mall while the stores were opening. His route took him by the candle shop where Mrs. Temple was trying to raise the metal gate. She was a short woman, an inch shy of five feet tall, and always had trouble raising and lowering the gate. It seemed to him that the elderly woman was shrinking.

“Hello, Mrs. Temple. Let me help you with that,” Burl said while approaching the store.

“Thank goodness you’re here, Burl. I can never get that damned thing all of the way up,” Mrs. Temple said.

Burl reached up and pushed the gate so that the storefront was completely open. She could get it most of the way up, but the last foot always gave her troubles. There was a little footstool that she could use, but it was a lot easier when Burl helped out.

He said, “There you go.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” Mrs. Temple said. She gave him a big smile.

“You’d hire someone taller to open the store in the morning,” Burl said repeating a conversation that took place nearly every morning.

“I hired a new girl. You might want to stop by and meet her. She’s real cute,” Mrs. Temple said.

Burl frowned. Mrs. Temple was one of a number of store owners who was always trying to fix him up with young women. Half in jest, he mentally refered to them as the gray haired matchmaking brigade. They meant well, but young attractive women had their sights set a little higher up the social scale than him.

“I’ll do that, Mrs. Temple,” Burl said.

Mrs. Temple said, “Don’t give me that sour look. You’ll like her.”

“Me liking her isn’t the problem, Mrs. Temple,” Burl replied, “Getting her to like me, is.”

“Balderdash and poppycock. You’re a nice young man,” Mrs. Temple said. “A girl would have to be pretty shallow to let a good catch like you get away.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Burl said.

This was about the time when the conversation would get awkward. Usually she would start to discuss his past failures to win the attraction of the women to whom he had been introduced. Rather than continue on with the topic, he said, “I better get on with my route.”

“Stop by later, Burl,” Mrs. Temple said.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Burl said.

She watched him walk away thinking it was a shame that such a nice young man was still single. She returned to the store to finish preparing for a day of sales. Weekends had a lot of browsers who picked up candles and smelled them, but not a lot of sales. That meant she had to spend a lot of time straightening out the displays.

Denise was zipping down the mall in her wheelchair. She had a special tray that held a dozen medium cups of coffee. She had a parttime business as a ‘mall runner,’ working afternoons and weekends. She delivered items from the food court, to business owners who couldn’t get away from the store. Basically, she was working for tips. She pulled in a decent income despite having lost both legs in an automobile accident.

“Hey, Burl. How’s it goin’?” Denise asked.

Grinning, she pulled up to a stop in front of Burl. He had helped her get her business started. She had been at the mall looking for a parttime job. He had suggested the delivery business to her and then had taken her around to meet all of the people working in the food court. It took about three days for her to get established as a fixture in the mall.

“It’s going. Looks like you’re busy today,” Burl said while gesturing to the tray of coffees.

Denise smiled and said, “Saturday mornings are always good for business. Too many of the shop clerks drink too much on Friday nights, and get in late Saturday mornings. They’re all screaming for coffee.”

“Don’t let me delay you. We can’t have hangovers hurting business,” Burl said with a grin.

“I’ll see you around,” Denise said, heading off down the mall.

“Take it easy,” Burl said watching her go.

She could really move that wheelchair. For a high school student, she wasn’t going to let a little setback stop her. She was always looking for an angle to improve her business. Sometimes she delivered goods from one store to another.

Burl thought to himself, “She’s going to go far in life.”

The shoe store was running a little late in opening that morning. Burl stopped in front of the store and saw that the manager was running around taking care of some last minute details. He waved to the manager who acknowledged him with a curt nod.

Burl continued on his way knowing the store would be open soon. He was supposed to write up any store that opened late, but he normally gave them a few minutes leeway. There was no need to beat up someone who was trying to make a living. He felt sorry for a guy in his mid-forties stuck selling shoes in a discount shoe store. It wasn’t the kind of future that young men out of high school dreamed about.

The remaining stores on that end of the mall were all open. He paused at the door of each store and waved to the sales people inside. He knew most of the folks working in the smaller stores by name. The large department stores were a different matter. They provided their own security in the form of surveillance cameras and seldom called upon mall security, unless there was a major problem.

Upon hearing the rattle of the gate at the shoe store, he took his push to talk radio from his belt and called in that all of the stores on the west wing of the mall were open. Shelly, the young woman working the office, acknowledged his call. It was followed by a call from the security guard who was walking along the east wing.

The hordes of teenage girls were beginning to arrive. There was a swarm of them over at the food court waiting in line to get cinnamon buns. He could hear them giggling from forty feet away. One of them gave forth a shrill squeal that shot daggers through his brain. He sighed, thinking it was going to be a long day.

He headed over to the taco stand for a cup of coffee. The taco place sold a breakfast burrito and coffee first thing in the morning. He didn’t like the burrito, but prefered their coffee to the gourmet brands that the coffee shop sold, and the short line compared to long line that formed up at the burger place.

Stepping up to the counter, he said, “Hello, Juanita.”

“Hey, Burl,” she replied.

She held out a cup of coffee for him. “Just like you like it.”

“Thanks,” Burl said.

He dug through his pocket and pulled out his money clip. It took him a few seconds to find two dollar bills. He dropped them on the counter and said, “Keep the change.”

“You always leave us a tip,” Juanita said collecting the bills. She made the change and dumped it into the tip jar they kept there to get a little of the change back for service. It helped make the low pay a little better.

“How are the kids?” Burl asked.

Juanita had three kids, aged 6, 8, and 9, who often spent the day at the shop. They tried to help out at the stand, but it was usually with activities out of sight of the customers. Having them there allowed Juanita and her husband to keep from having to hire an additional person. The accommodation made the little store solvent. Burl figured there were laws preventing kids from working like that, but he wasn’t going to make the call.

He knew that he was a little old fashioned when it came to raising kids. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with kids working in a family business. They learned to appreciate money and developed good work habits. The parents were able to take a little more money out of the store and that benefitted the kids.

“They’re getting the food ready for the lunch rush,” Juanita answered.

Burl said, “The morning is going to be overcast, but the afternoon will clear up. You’ll probably get a good lunch crowd, but the evening rush is going to be more like a trickle.”

“Si,” Juanita said.

Burl took a drink of his coffee. She was right. It was fixed just like he liked it.

Juanita said, “Mrs. Temple has a new girl starting work today. You might want to stop by and meet her.”

“She already told me,” Burl said.

“No need for the ugly face. I’m sure you’ll like her,” Juanita said.

Burl wondered why all of the women thought he was the problem. Rather than address the question, he said, “I guess I better make another round of the mall.”

“I start talking about senoritas and you run away,” Juanita said in a teasing voice.

“You know how bachelors are,” Burl said.

“Si,” Juanita said.

She wondered how a nice guy like him remained single. She recognized that he wasn’t great looking, but he was a real nice guy. There had to be a woman out there for him.

“I’ll be by later,” Burl said.

“Adios,” Juanita said.

“Adios,” Burl replied.

He waved to Denise when she wheeled towards him with another tray of coffees. After coasting for the fraction of a second it took to wave at him, she continued on her way. Mornings and lunch time were two of her busiest times of the day on weekends. He’d see her a half dozen times rolling from one end of the mall to the other.

There was an argument between two packs of girls. It was nothing physical, just a lot of name calling. He would have ignored it except the language wasn’t appropriate for a family environment. These girls liked to drop the f-bomb for the shock value. He stepped in and sent the two groups to opposite ends of the mall.

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