The mall Santa sagged a bit on his little bench, ringed by giant-sized stuffed animals covered in glitter. Instead of a helper elf, there was a tall, middle-aged woman in sensible lady slacks and a glossy black belt cinched up high. She pulled nervously at her dark red sweater.
"We don't usually do it like this," I heard her saying. "This is too much. It's too much. Usually they reserve a time when the mall is not even open." She had the face of someone who really wanted to say damn it to children.
The source of her stress was a giant crowd of special needs students, all waiting in line to get a picture with Santa. When their turn came up, they would sit petting his beard or squeezing his upper thigh. They had looks of religious ecstasy on their faces.
The girls with me were too cool for Santa school, so we wandered the mall instead.
My favorite thing about shopping malls is that they have clearly marked exits.
I don't like the kiosk vultures slapping me on the back of the neck with heated towels from the Dead Sea or flying remote control helicopters in circles around my head.
One guy had a pretty good sales approach, though. His eyes were shell-shock wide and he just extended his arm out as people walked past, saying nothing. In his hand was a bar of grayish soap. He didn't smile.
If I ever work in sales, I want to be just like him: terrified; not even trying.
"Let's go in there," said Claudia, a stocky 20-year old with short brown hair, blue eyes, and acne covered skin.
Claudia just started in our classroom, and I spent my entire first day with her trying to get her talking. She was sealed tight. The most I got was that her puppy's name was Sally.
The trip to the mall was only our second outing together, and something had changed drastically. In just the first hour, she had recounted for me the entire plots of the three Mummy movies and had started in on the first few seasons of a TV show called Bones.
"She just likes bones. She doesn't know why," Claudia says of the protagonist.
Television, movies, home life; all of it spilled out of her in an unending stream. Claudia had mastered the art of circular breathing and no longer needed pauses for breath. The period and the comma were superfluous to her now.
"There's William, Karen-you know what's crazy? There's a Carrie too. So Karen, Carrie...that gets weird, and Tina, Tron-"
"Tron?" I interrupted her recitation of cousins' names. She looked at me like I was a turd that had learned to speak.
"Yes. Tron. So Robert, Carl...."
"Is Trahn adopted? Like from Thailand or something?"
"No, dummy. T-R-O-N. The movie." She bugged her eyes really far out before rolling them.
It turns out that Claudia's aunt and uncle were so taken with the film Tron, they named their firstborn son after it. The arbitrary nature of it nags at me.
Why not name the kid "Porky's", or "Apocalypse Now"?
I asked if they had tattoos of Tron, but she said that was a really stupid question and of course not.
Claudia kept talking so much, I could not even keep up. She'd lead off with a great starter like "My dad's working on owning all the Die Hard movies" and before I could find out more about all of that, she was on to how you could tell male lizards apart from females.
"They have a frill under their chin, and they inflate it like this" She makes a hand motion like the kind men do when they are pantomiming the act of squeezing breasts. She does the same motion three more times and rolls her eyes again.
The store Claudia pointed out was called "Spencers." I was not familiar with it. Spencers looked cramped and dark, lit only by bulbs of unorthodox color. The walls were lined with shirts and hats sporting internet memes, slogans recycled from the 60s, unamused cats; the lone mannequin by the doorway had oddly exaggerated nipples.
As we walked in, another group of special needs students was coming out.
"Don't go in dere," one of them says to his friend. "It's improprit."
My students walked in ahead of me.
I stopped to admire some ten dollar switchblade combs. I've always had a fondness for anything in the switchblade format: toothbrushes, spoons, etc. But the Ambercrombie pretty boy trying to pass as a greaser on the packaging turns me off. No way I'm giving him my money.
Claudia came quickly back past me, her face grey.
"We should go. We should leave. This store makes me uncomfortable."
"Really? Why?" I asked her, but she didn't answer my question.
"No way I'm staying here till eleven o'clock cleaning up puke. Faaaack no." I turned to look at who was speaking, and it was then that I saw the back shelves loaded with riding crops, plush phalluses, boobie mugs, inflatable looking women. The salesgirl was leaning nearby, continuing to talk into her cellphone about vomit.
When I turned to make a hasty exit, I knocked over a small clearance rack. It was holding up about a dozen T-shirts with the words "Like a Boss" printed on them, right beneath black and white drawings of buttocks.
It bothers me that I live in a society rife with clothing that I don't understand.
"Sorry," I said to Claudia, once I met back up with her outside the store. "I didn't know that place had all those penises and stuff." The other girl with us, Anna, spat out her coffee in laughter.
"Oh my god, you're like not even supposed to say that word even." Both girls started giggling.
We walked for awhile longer, the two of them stopping only to admire a large poster of shirtless David Beckham, his grey shorts pulled down low, just to the foothills of his Crafty Willard.
I didn't know what else to say, so I asked if they thought he was good-looking.
Whenever I ask that question, what I really want to know is if the man in question is better looking than me. Every woman on earth would say yes, David Beckham is better looking, except my wife. She would just smile and say how it's different. There are different kinds of good looking, she tells me; there's people good looking and husband good looking.
"Like your husband looks good forever?" I say hopefully. She grins and pats me on my arm, but her eyes are sad.
Claudia shrugged when I asked her about David Beckham, but Anna said, "He's hot as shit."
"Don't swear, please,"I told her.
I was wearing one of those winter hats with a face mask folded up inside it, and when we walked outside to the bus stop, I tried to pull the mask down. Earlier in the day, I had seen a black guy wearing the same hat. When he put the mask part on, he pulled it down and over in one smooth motion. I tried to do the same thing, but it got stuck on my face. I couldn't see where I was going and I stumbled into a tree branch at the exact moment I cut a tremendous fart.
The girls laughed at me.
I finally got the mask situated on my face.
"Do I look like a ninja?" I asked them.
"Yeah," said Claudia. "A really dumb ninja."
Later that day, I bemoaned the coolness disparity between white men and black men to my co-worker Curtis.
He reclined back in his office chair, folded his hands upon his belly and looked at me for a long time.
"You kind of a dorky muthafucka," he said at last. When I started to cry, he brought me a chocolate milk and assured me he was only playin'.
Either Curtis does a great deal of mumbling or I am losing my hearing, because most of our conversations involve him telling me what Detroit needs to do to fix itself and me asking him to say things over again. I can tell it bothers him sometimes.
The possibility that I am losing my hearing naturally bothers me too.
I do not want the interpreter lady in our room to start following me everywhere and signing everything. Don't get me wrong, she is one of the nicest people I have ever met in my
life, but she is so lost in her world of constant interpreting that she
is unable to shut it off.
A simple question like "Is it cold outside?" becomes
It's so distracting that I miss her answers to my questions.
Just the other day, I was walking the track and I could've sworn the people behind me were having the same conversation over and over again.
"Nauseated?" he kept asking her.
"Uh-huh," she answered patiently every time.
Only when I slowed up and let them pass me did I realize they were actually just speaking Chinese.
Am I really going deaf? I thought.
I went into the bathroom and tried to make that high-pitched sound that supposedly only young people can hear.
It felt all right in there, staring in the mirror, pulling on my jowels and eye bags, whining like a puppy. It felt like aging gracefully.