I was as surprised as anyone when Marianne Martindale, our most famous and best-loved prosecutor, the only real somebody from our town full of nobodies, announced she was running for mayor. She was just the kind of candidate we needed, after the run of dweebs and bozos we’ve had as long as I’ve been living here, which is since the late 70s, when, come to think of it, Martindale first made headlines for clearing another set of dweebs and bozos out of the Hillcrest Shopping Center on the East Side, and stashing them in the Dead Mall, out at the far end of the Old Farmview Access Road where, as far as anyone knows, they are still, unless they’ve died by now.
I’ve muddled by around here well enough, doing one thing or another, some paralegal work, some years in a realtor’s office, eighteen months in jail, but I’ve never before had anything resembling a sense of purpose, nor any justifiable pride, not until Marianne registered at City Hall for the mayoral race and put out an open call for campaign volunteers. I don’t know what possessed me – I was working as a bookkeeper for a chain hotel out by the highway at that point, pulling long nights in the back office and then sleeping under my desk all day – but it had to do with the fact that she seemed genuinely new, not just because she was a famously intelligent woman but because she opened her campaign to all applicants, stating on public access TV that, “Whoever you are, if you want to work for me, you’re hired!”
It’s true that her campaign didn’t have a platform aside from her promise to “Do what only I can to make this town a more decent place,” but I didn’t see why it should have to. It seemed like if someone like her could do something as selfless as offer to run a failing town like ours, then someone like me could do something as selfless as volunteer on her behalf. To be honest, I’d never volunteered for anything before. Have you?
So I joined her campaign. At first I worked in a casual research capacity, but then, as it became clear that she had a chance of winning, especially after her opponent, Dr. Barry Blit, a local anesthesiologist, was revealed to have settled three separate malpractice suits for undisclosed sums and even more tantalizingly undisclosed reasons, as a full-time paid promoter, scheduling her interviews on public access TV, getting her in the paper at least once a day if not twice, and so on, until, on November 7th, the people of our town, some I grew up with, many in fact, went to the polls and, in an act I’ll always be proud of them for, voted Marianne Martindale into office, our first female mayor since the wife of a slave owner filled in for a year after her husband’s suicide on the eve of the Civil War. The people of our town, like any town, can’t be relied on to be decent or even to reward decency in others very often, but in this particular instance they did. I didn’t think they had it in them; a few years ago, what with some of the things I used to be into, things I have no intention of disclosing here, I wouldn’t have had it in me either. But now things are going to change. I think we all sensed it was time.
As you might imagine, a huge celebration was in order, a week of huge celebrations in fact, all the way from the Vietnam War Club on Route 46 to Giant Chinese out on the Strip, which was done up in a garish but, I’ll admit it, charming Luau style, complete with free Mai Thais and Chicken Macadamia. Every venue was happy to host us, every venue, that is, except for the Dead Mall, which was, throughout the campaign, the one topic that Martindale made a distinct point of avoiding, much as many of us on her payroll, myself included, not to mention two other guys I’d been in jail up with, assumed it would only have bolstered her case. “I don’t want to get into that just yet,” was all she’d say, when asked, which she often was, until the other staffers and I got the memo and started instructing interviewers not to bring it up.
Late one night at Roy’s BBQ, the last party of our celebratory week, where I was sitting with two other staffers (one of whom kept trying to show me nudie pics of kids on his phone) and the incumbent mayor herself – I was in the inner circle by now, an invited guest pretty much everywhere she went, able to express myself freely around her, though there were still some things I didn’t say – some drunk students from the technical college across the river sidled over to our table and slurred, “Weren’t you the one who, like, put all those creeps in the Dead Mall back in the 70s? Why don’t you ever talk about that?”
I sat up straight despite the three or four lagers I’d sucked my meat down with, about to hiss them away, or do worse if I needed to, but this time, to the surprise of everyone within earshot, Martindale shushed me and said, “That’s right kids, that was me. Wanna see it?”
I sank back in my seat, so stunned by her response that all I could do was watch as the interview escalated into an expedition. Soon we were marching out of the restaurant, the incumbent mayor and myself and the other staffers, and the two drunk college kids who’d asked the question, and six or seven of their friends. By the time we made it up Elm St. and onto Main, two reporters from the Daily Dispatch, our paper of record, were in the fray too. As we processed, we picked up members, drawing them from the bars and alleyways and underpasses they were lurking in, and down from the windows they were watching from, some in nightshirts, some in briefs and undershirts, some naked. When we passed the Town Hall, a lot of the previous mayor’s staff joined in as well. People high up in the town’s politics, mesmerized by the parade Martindale was leading.
Everyone was elbowing their way toward her, pressing her to recap the story of the “Purge of the Pervs,” as her 70s mall bust had come to be known. Since she refused all such questions, and since the Dead Mall’s a solid half hour walk from downtown along the Old Farmview Access Road, I’ll recap it here:
As the 70s wore on, growing ever seedier, the situation at the Hillcrest Shopping Center, where, for what it’s worth, I spent a lot of my childhood, became untenable. It had been an open secret since the 50s – anyone around in those years could’ve told you that it was already full of middle-aged men sniffing around for young girls, junkies shooting dope in the bathroom stalls, and even a precursor to John Wayne Gacy who lured boys away from their parents in the shorts aisle of Woolworths and killed them in the stinky backroom of the pet store, where no one but a few caged puppies ever saw – but by 1975, the year after Watergate finally ended Nixon, Marianne Martindale, at that point a 29-year-old hotshot prosecutor fresh out of law school up at State, put her foot down and said, “Enough is enough,” and, through means I still don’t understand and I’m not sure anyone does, managed to oust the worst of them, in a giant, theatrical exodus, leading away from the Shopping Center, up the Access Road, and into the Dead Mall, a gaggle of perverts and murderers and, though I know it’s a bad word now, retards, all of them traipsing grimly behind her, just as we are now, in the exact same formation in fact, following Martindale like the rats following the Pied Piper, or the children later in that same story, if I’m remembering it right, out of town, across the cracked and weedy parking lot, past the rusted hulks of A&W trucks that never made their final deliveries, and vans in which gypsies of previous generations once slept, past the sagging yellow police tape, and in through the boarded-up doors of what was once J.C. Penney.
She led them then as she’s leading us now, and now we, like they, are inside the Dead Mall. She’s still walking, leading us deeper in, into the dead center where I’ve always imagined the perverts and villains of the 70s lived out the sad ends of their lives and died in cobwebbed corners, rotting like cats in an alleyway, but, even with the lights out, I can tell that the odors, though foul, are those of living contamination, not only dead.
When we’re in the center of the food court, the mayor turns on her phone’s flashlight and sweeps the premises so we can all see. What we see is crawling, scuttling forms, hissing from the dark nooks under metal tables and behind bolted-down trashcans, the children of rapes I barely want to imagine, leering out at us from behind the fry stations of what used to be the bourbon chicken stall and the Arby’s and the blenders of the Orange Julius knockoff juice stand.
They slaver and lick their lips, chawing, looking at Martindale as if awaiting permission to pounce. She doesn’t grant it. “These,” she says, slowly and clearly, like she rehearsed what she’s about to say on the walk over, “are the current inhabitants of the Dead Mall. The offspring of those I rounded up at Hillcrest in the 70s, or, in some cases, the same creeps, older and less sane now, but in all other regards identical. All these years they’ve been out of sight, all these years that many of you have spent growing up and entrenching yourselves in town, succumbing to its atmosphere, becoming what you now are … well, here’s where they’ve been all that time. You wanted to see them; here they are.”
She then closes her mouth and shuts off the flashlight. In the dark, she adds, “If I could only live long enough to do this every forty years, our town might stand a chance of becoming a decent place one day.”
Then she walks out, alone.