“Architecture is the simplest means of articulating time and space, of modulating reality, of engendering dreams.” —Ivan Chtcheglov
Not long ago I dreamed of a shopping mall. It was not a mall I had ever visited before, or even a mall I had heard mentioned in casual conversation while standing in line at the grocery store or post office. It was a secret mall, hidden from sight within the labyrinthine expanse of the old Westinghouse Electric building near where I live in the Churchill Valley. Still the mall was familiar in the way common places register in your mind: hotels, schools, hospitals, and banks. Its bland architecture was reassuring, so much so that it was almost invisible.
The secret mall had no glowing marquee to signal its existence, and no streams of automobile traffic leading shoppers to its front doors. It existed unseen by the outside world; within a mysterious building I had spent a lifetime associating with bespectacled men in white lab coats and clandestine government projects. These were the same men whose homes I visited when they died and their belongings were liquidated at estate sales. Leafing through books in their personal libraries and ephemera left behind—a well-worn copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, corporate letterhead with the iconic Westinghouse logo designed by Paul Rand, tin toys that their children once played with—I tried to decode who these men were. Men of science and great intellect, I assumed. Men of means who could afford to live in large houses that boasted studies and dens. Perhaps even men who kept secrets from their wives and children and friends.
The laboratories at Westinghouse loomed large in my imagination. The white and black buildings, now mostly vacant, sit on 150 acres of woodlands marked by streams, ponds, and even a waterfall. Herds of white-tailed deer graze on the sprawling grounds, their lean outlines barely visible in the morning mist. It is a landscape both bucolic and off limits—encircled by a green cyclone fence topped with razor wire. Still the site has an almost spiritual presence, the sense that it could be a wellspring for something deeper.
In the dream I still worked at Sears, where I stocked shelves to pay my way through college. On tuition reimbursement forms I would often over exaggerate how I aspired to work in corporate communications at the company’s headquarters in Hoffman Estates. Or how Chicago was my kind of town and that I envisioned a bright future helping the company craft clear and compelling messages about power tools and appliances—all in exchange for a couple thousand dollars each semester to defray my mounting debt.
The concourses inside the mall were empty; its hallways quiet. No shoppers anywhere, no sales clerks to be found. Storefronts were lit and stocked with merchandise, Muzak played. But otherwise, the place was deserted. As I looked around, I noticed that the entire mall was rendered in spare parts pulled from memory, a Brutalist apparition. It had a common area and glass elevator that I recognized from the movie Weird Science, where Gary and Wyatt, played by Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith, are publicly humiliated when their preppy tormentors pour a cherry Icee on their heads from the mall’s second floor. The white hexagonal skylights were an architectural detail pulled from Fairlane Town Center in suburban Detroit—a mall I visited only once with my wife, Michelle, and our oldest son Ethan, when he was still a toddler. And the terrazzo floors were identical to those at Monroeville Mall.
As I approached the food court in the center of the mall, it was as if someone had flipped a switch, bringing an entire community of automatons to life. It was quiet one moment, then cacophonous. There were men and women engaged in conversation while eating large slices of pizza; a father and his young daughter in line at an ice cream shop, deciding which flavor to choose; a young couple kissing in the far corner near a gumball machine; and a group of old men in windbreakers sipping coffee near a decorative fountain. But something strange had also happened. The immediate landscape of the mall was crystalline and defined except where it disappeared into a stark black abyss at its edges. It reminded me of the set for The Charlie Rose Show, and how Charlie and his guests and even the table between them all seem to hover in the eternal black of the universe, as if suspended on wires. When I looked out toward the edges, there was nothing.
The air in the food court was sweet with hints of processed butter, the kind that I assumed came in an aerosol can. It conjured images of soft pretzels slipped inside blue-and-white wax paper sleeves, served by teenagers wearing visors and clear plastic gloves. It also reminded me of a ritual my father observed each Saturday for many years, where he would visit the mall to buy a lottery ticket before ritualistically buying a pretzel on his way out. Deep fryer grease was the other dominant scent that hung in the air. It even had those notes of stray French fries burned black in a permanent hot oil bath, and orphaned onion rings that missed the fry basket and were left to disintegrate in the boiling depths of a subpar burger stand.
It was only on rare occasions that I even remembered my dreams. Yet this one burned particularly bright. The details lingered long after I woke, still replaying in my head as I showered, got dressed, and brushed my teeth; scenes finally fading from memory as I commuted to the office job where I worked.
As I walked slowly through the food court, I realized that almost everyone at the mall was smoking. Even a young girl who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old had a cigarette dangling from her lip. It reminded me of days past, when every trashcan in the mall was topped with a small tray of sand for shoppers to extinguish their cigarettes. If you squinted your eyes and imagined the snuffed out butts as people, you could almost picture a beach scene in miniature—the pink blobs of discarded bubblegum like beach balls lost in play.
At the far end of the food court, I stopped outside of a store called The Yarn Barn. The letters in the sign were rendered in the same font as the Dunkin’ Donuts logo. It was an arts and craft store, but something gave me pause. I noticed a clearance bin of action figures near the front of the store. As I stepped closer, I saw dozens of vintage Star Wars figures in their original packages. There was Greedo, Walrus Man, and Snaggletooth, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and legions of stormtroopers. Leaning down, I picked up the bin of figures in my arms and walked over to the cash register.
“Excuse me,” I said to an elderly woman wearing a brown smock emblazoned with the orange and yellow Yarn Barn logo, “Do you take credit cards?” She had a tight perm and a kind face, with peach-framed bifocals that magnified her eyes to the size of silver dollars.
“Can I help you my dear?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, assuming she hadn’t heard me the first time. “Do you accept credit cards?” I could hear the words in my head. But no sound was escaping my mouth.
“You’ll have to speak up,” the elderly woman said. “I can’t hear a word you’re saying.” Looking down at the bin of figures in my arms, and back up at the confused look on the woman’s face, I made a decision that felt desperate but necessary.
“Sorry,” I mouthed to the woman. “I need to have these.” I slowly backed away from the cash register before turning to run. Crossing the threshold of the store, and breaking into a stride, I disappeared into the black abyss just beyond the food court—the scent of French fries still heavy in the air.
I dreamed of a quiet apartment on a hill. It was early morning and I was alone in the living room. Reruns of Tiny Toons played on the TV, an old 27” Zenith I once owned in the real world. On the coffee table sat a bowl of half-eaten Lucky Charms; the green clover and yellow moon marshmallows floating like errant buoys in a harbor of sugary milk. Amber-colored prescription bottles of Paxil and Anafranil littered the tabletop. My routine suggested it was a weekday. I was getting dressed for work, zipping up a pair of orange coveralls. The words Municipal Waste were printed on the back in block letters that rested between my shoulders. On my feet, a pair of dirt-flecked, steel-toed boots revealed wear.
Time often eludes me in a dream. But if I had to guess I would anchor the scene to an alternate version of 1993, when I would have been 16 years old. The room was foreign, still I knew where I was: The Racquet Club Apartments on the rolling hills that overlooked the mall. It was a place where I once imagined I might live. My high school girlfriend and I, a girl named Sesha, even daydreamed about what it would be like. One afternoon we walked every square foot of the mall planning our fictitious life. She would run away from home and leave her abusive father behind; I would attempt to convince my parents that it was the right decision given the circumstances, and we would start a new life together. We would be trustworthy and responsible and both get jobs within walking distance of our new apartment. The view of the mall from our living room would be the same one that Stephen and Francine saw in Dawn of the Dead as they arrived by helicopter—a striking panorama of a place that had become both sacred and necessary in my life.
As I left the living room and walked down the hallway toward the bathroom, I heard the water running in the shower. The door was open a crack and the mirror fogged with steam. Within the context of the dream, I never gave any of it a second thought. Never wondered how I became a sanitation worker, why I was still eating Lucky Charms to soothe the acid reflux caused by the antidepressants, or who might be in the shower. Opening the medicine cabinet, I searched for my toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste. As I started to brush my teeth, the water in the shower turned off.
“Can you hand me a towel,” a familiar voice intoned from behind the curtain. It was Sesha. As she stepped out of the shower she wrapped the towel around herself.
“Don’t look so surprised to see me,” she said. “We talked about this, we made a plan.” Sesha was chitchatting with me as if our conversation at the mall had just happened—as if our daydream had turned real. As I stood there shocked and unblinking, toothbrush in hand, she looked through me. “You better hurry up,” Sesha said. “You’re going to be late for work.”
When the store manager blew his whistle, two confetti cannons exploded, showering red, white, and blue crepe paper stars at the starting line, making it hard to see as I frantically steered my empty shopping cart toward the first aisle of the toy store. I was 11 or maybe 12 years old and tall enough to see over the handle, though keeping a straight line was a chore. Red sirens flashed as the song “Sabre Dance” by Aram Khachaturian, a manic orchestral arrangement I recognized from the movie Punchline, with Sally Fields and Tom Hanks, played loudly on the in-store stereo.
“And he’s off,” an announcer bellowed to the large crowd that had gathered to watch; some in attendance after reading in the local newspaper that a young boy had won a shopping spree while others had filtered in from the mall. A large countdown clock on the wall above the cash register displayed my allotted time: Five minutes.
“First stop, board games,” the announcer said, his voice taking on an almost-vaudevillian quality. Imitating the techniques I had seen on television shows like Supermarket Sweep and Nickelodeon’s Super Toy Run, I reached my arm behind an entire row of Rubik’s Cubes and quickly slid them off the shelf and into my cart. People cheered as the colorful boxes crashed against the silver mesh, and I raced toward model kits at the end of the aisle. With too many to choose from, I started by tossing dozens of glass bottles of Testors paint into the cart, and finished with model kits of the Batmobile, a Dukes of Hazzard General Lee, a MiG-31, an F-14 Tomcat, and a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier so large I had to wedge it on the rack beneath the cart.
As I charged down the next aisle, I could see my entire family cheering me on. They were standing behind a stanchion at the front of the store, each wearing iron-on T-shirts with a photograph of me as a five-year-old, the one we had taken at the Sears Portrait Studio. In the picture, my hair is combed to the side and I’m wearing a brown plaid button-down shirt and khaki pants. The image always makes me a little homesick when I see it. Other familiar faces were in the crowd too. There was Dr. Hile, our pediatrician who had died several years earlier; Mr. Duda, a substitute teacher at St. James who wore a class ring with a large red ruby; our neighbors P.J. and Todd, whose swagger I idolized; and local news anchor Don Cannon, who my sister and I once saw when we went sled riding on the steep hill behind the Channel 4 Action News studios.
“Our young shopper really knows his way around,” intoned the announcer. “His parents must be proud.” I brought my shopping cart to a halt next to a rack of G.I. Joe toys. By this point my arms were trembling from adrenaline, the way they often did on Christmas morning. I grabbed as many action figures as my arms could hold—Snake Eyes, Duke, Baroness, Cobra Commander, Roadblock, and Destro—and dropped them all into the cart. Happy with my haul so far, I turned around to survey what I might have missed. But when I looked at the shelves behind me, all I saw were toilet plungers, hundreds of them in just as many colors: red, orange, black, green, rainbow, camouflage. Why are there plungers in a toy store? I wondered. I’ve never seen them here before.
“We could use a new plunger,” my father yelled from the crowd. “Grab a couple.” Confused, I threw two plungers in the cart before making my way to the next aisle, which I discovered was stocked with stuffed animals, wigs, and bedpans. After checking the countdown clock in the front of the store, which was down to three minutes, I threw two Kermit the Frogs and an E.T. stuffed animal in my cart and soldiered on. But as I moved from aisle to aisle, the layout of the store continued to degrade. Shelves were either empty or strewn with garbage—candy wrappers and old coffee grinds, deflated Mylar balloons and crushed beer boxes. And the store itself appeared to be falling apart around me.
“Our contestant appears dismayed,” the announcer noted, his voice growing sinister. “Perhaps he’s discovered more than he bargained for.” I felt scared. My knuckles were sore from clutching the handle of the cart so tight. Lights flickered in the next aisle. All the ceiling tiles were missing; I could see the night sky and its canopy of stars shining down. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I pushed my cart toward the last aisle. As I navigated around debris, my feet started to feel wet. Looking down, I saw that the floor was flooded with brown water. It appeared to be coming from the open door of a nearby stockroom. I considered turning around and going back the way that I came. It seemed safer. And maybe I could pick up a few more toys along the way. But when I looked back I saw that the store was disappearing—its toys and shelves and lights and walls turning to smoke.
“C’mon, boy,” Don Cannon yelled from the front of the store, hands cupped like a megaphone around his mouth. “What’s taking so long?” He was holding a martini when I looked back at him, and he winked at me. Mr. Duda raised his fist in the air in what I assumed was a show of solidarity, and P.J. was waving me home like a third base coach in the major leagues. My family was wild with excitement, cheering and clapping. My father and sister stood side-by-side jumping up and down; my grandmother and grandfather were holding air horns, each blast of abrasive sound causing everyone around them to wince.
The countdown clock had less than a minute remaining. My legs were all pins and needles, like they had fallen asleep. Moving myself forward, let alone the cart, seemed impossible. I could see the finish line. There was a black-and-white checkerboard strip on the ground and a red ribbon with the word “Winner” emblazoned in white letters. I imagined breaking through the ribbon with my cart. How wonderful it would feel to be hoisted on the shoulders of the crowd, celebrated by those who had wished me well.
As I struggled to push the cart out of the water and across a small patch of sand, I saw my mother’s face in the crowd. She was smiling and clapping and trying to tell me something. Her mouth was moving but I couldn’t hear the words. All sound had drained from the store. The crowd’s excitement was telegraphed in silent pantomime. My shopping cart, piled high with toys and games and stuffed animals and plungers, was harder and harder to push. My arms were tired and my legs had gone numb.
Beyond the finish line was the world of the mall. I could see it, hear it too. It hummed like a great machine. But not the type dripping with oil and powered by gasoline and iron gears. Instead, it consumed oxygen, carbon dioxide, and body heat. And the more it had the more it came alive. The concourses were populated with strangers who appeared to be lost in dreams of their own, moving past the entrance to the toy store like traffic at a busy intersection. The mall was at the center—pulling each of us toward its doors, urging us to lock in, coaxing us to give ourselves over. And its long, neon hallways represented a future I couldn’t know then but which has now become the past. As I neared the finish line with only seconds left on the clock, the cart’s black rubber wheels covered in sand and garbage and unable to roll, I woke up.
Originally published by 3:am magazine in August of 2017. Image via WishItWas1984.