“They took the candy store away,” Peg said, waiting her turn. She started the conversation into the air, turned at a forty-five-degree angle, not looking down the escalator or up at her husband, but across the chasm to the empty space where the candy store had been. It was not polite to stare and she did not want to embarrass the fallen woman. Peg said it loud enough, so people could hear her over the crying baby.
The fallen woman was a few feet in front of Peg. Peg had even politely waited a moment so the woman carrying a baby and a bag of shopping could use the escalator first, and the woman hadn’t noticed, mistimed that tricky first escalator step and had stumbled, fell back and sat down hard. The woman’s bags slammed against the rubber railing and her baby, jostled but not dropped, began to cry. Everyone was tacky and gasped. Peg composed herself and offered up her candy store observation as the stairs continued to flow.
A line had formed in the few moments while the stairs slid under the fallen woman, their metal teeth trying to grip her back, her legs and her bags. She’d tried to fight it, but didn’t try hard enough and she eventually just let herself be swept away. Peg thought it best to look away, not because it was too much to handle, but to not participate in the fuss, and instead search for and find something else to focus on.
The candy store was only open a year, maybe not even that. A bright purple storefront, big looping letters, candy by the pound and never a soul inside. A chain, but what’s wrong with that? Peg’s husband Tom did not enjoy the mall, found flaws in everything, and did not think it was nice that there were still candy stores if those candy stores were part of a larger chain. It didn’t count.
She enjoyed their visits to the mall because they were at an age when they were able to walk, but no longer at the same pace and so it gave them time to be together but also to be apart. He’d been ten steps behind her when the woman fell and had given her a good reason to mention the candy store so loudly, over the sound of the child. She offered up her voice to everyone, so they too could have a reason to look away from this woman and her flailing. It was courteous. She hadn’t meant to sound quite so distressed, as though she’d personally owned the candy store and some evil had come up behind her, grabbed it from her, and left her to float down the escalator alone.
Peg’s voice locked her into the decision not to help, and left her clear headed enough to make a proud and careful selection of her escalator step. She hoped her husband saw her do it, saw how capable she still was, especially compared to this younger fallen woman and even himself, with his knee that he never took proper care of and which left him dependent on railings, her kindness, and someday soon a cane. Peg claimed her stair and thought for a moment that she wouldn’t hold the rail out of spite, but did, out of wisdom and spite.
Helping was inappropriate. The lord helps those who help themselves, but she was stubborn besides and once she’d changed the subject to the candy store she didn’t see how she could change it back to the fallen woman. Even if nobody heard her, not even her husband, who never heard anything, hadn’t noticed the fall and seemed always to be concentrating intently on something else. The moment to help had passed and she was beginning to feel the weight of it lift, somewhere between the second and first floor, and started to feel annoyed for being forced to even have these thoughts in this place.
She wouldn’t want help herself, so why offer it. She was no hypocrite. She’d never accepted help from anyone, thought it was rude. “I’m fine,” was something she said reflexively, if someone startled her, or tapped her on the shoulder, or asked for directions. A two-word shield against a world that seemed to be endlessly aware of her. She was just fine, thank you very much.
Peg’s parents were quiet, miserable people who enthusiastically encouraged her to marry a stoic and maybe stupid man, because he owned his own failing business. At his insistence, she dusted off his poorly-kept books and rescued him, his business, their home, and their marriage time and again.
It was Peg’s solitary and relentless effort in life that made it so that she could afford to retire and enjoy the mall on a Tuesday afternoon to walk for exercise in reasonable, but fashionable, walking shoes through this climate-controlled eyesore that she railed against in city council meetings. She hated most the things that she enjoyed. She was certain, becoming only more certain as they descended, she would have slapped the hand that offered help. What a shame for that woman to be so helpless, not to mention the baby, to be saddled with such a mother, born into the kind of life that was ruining this neighborhood.
If she’d fallen, she would prefer it if everyone looked away, looked at their phones, or dispersed like a shot had been fired. She would also have had the dignity to not continue to ride the escalator seated, she would have had the strength and humility to stand. She would not have sat there in a heap, demanding attention, generating pity, radiating her pain into others. She would have thrown her bags into the penny fountain below and forced her child to stop wailing. That child deserved to learn a valuable lesson about self-reliance, minding your step, making better choices.
Peg made relentlessly good choices and to the best of her memory had never once fallen down.
Peg and Tom did not have children, though she couldn’t remember the exact circumstances of how they came to that decision. Sometimes she remembered that there was a matter-of-fact doctor’s visit, and sometimes during a night of drinking and listing regrets, her husband saying something about barely surviving their own past and not creating more burden. He would take it away from her, she would try to pull it back and they’d argue over their non-child until they wondered why they were talking about it.
She was certain that she once knew the exact moment they made the decision, she memorized it so she could deflect criticism from her parents, or when Tom became stricken with regret. She remembered remembering that there was one conversation when decisions were made and when they chose this life over that and they were done with it, put it away forever. She dusted off her hands whenever she thought about it, even now, on the escalator. But it was a long time ago now, long enough that it seemed like a reasonable thing to forget. She was deciding not to be worried about the forgetting.
Tom had been hinting that she’d been getting chronically forgetful lately, and agitated, angry. He liked to scare her, and she had decided to let herself resent him for scaring her, as he did about her knee-nagging. Resenting each other gave them something to do. She kept a list of the things that he said she’d forgotten and looked at it every day. Forgiveness was hard, required too much reflection, which she thought was haughty.
They were at the age now when their children would have forgotten about them anyway, so it had all sorted itself out. They’d have non-grandchildren by now. They’d be ignored by two generations and they’d still have just wound up here, trying to ignore each other and this woman at the end of the escalator, her adrenaline wearing off and finally allowing herself to cry about the fall.
Peg took the appropriate caution and planned her dismount as the stairs flattened out to merge with the floor and accidentally locked eyes with the crying woman. Her baby was cooing, coming down from her emotions as the crying woman was ramping up. Peg looked away and up, deciding that the cooing reminded her of the summer birds that would become lost and fly overhead, trapped in the giant expanse of the mall.
The birds would nest in the rafters under the fake sky painted on the arched ceiling, or perch in the big fake trees in the food court, living on stepped-on french fries, or occasionally, bravely swooping down after someone holding one of those giant food court pretzels, or chase each other through the open air above the atrium fountain. She wondered if they didn’t know the difference, if they were born in the building and didn’t know there was an outside world, or if they knew but didn’t care and they knew that they were safe and good enough was good enough, and made the smart decision to stay.
Three people helped the woman up from the floor, and held her baby as she limped to a bench between two potted plants, which Peg knew to be fake. She stared at the baby, felt the five empty stairs to the bottom of her husband’s feet and from the last stair, she called back over her shoulder. “Did you hear what I said, I said they took the candy store away.” He hadn’t heard, and she took his hand, and they guided each other around all the unnecessary commotion.
Dan Sanders is a writer in Pennsylvania. His writing has appeared in Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, The Daily Dot, and elsewhere.