The mall is perverse. It’s a haven to me. Teenage girls look at teal thongs. Young guys with too much cologne offer to massage my hands. I sneak a Cinnabon when I’m supposed to be on a diet. I always see a father at the mall, secretly wishing his toddler would grow up and leave the house. I feel safe. Everything hidden is predictable.
The bridge is unpredictable, and unsafe. When me and Erik Jensen -- I found out his name from the obit -- when me and Erik were there, he said, turn around and, don’t watch. I grabbed at him as he climbed over the railing and he said, I can’t do it. I tried to pull him back over but he said, I can’t do it. He yanked his hand out of mine and fell hard to the rocks.
I look around the mall and wonder who else could do what Erik said he couldn’t. Maybe the young father? A gun or a nice car instead of a shallow river, that way the water wouldn’t slap his Brooks Brothers face. He lifts his giggling son up and calls him buddy.
Dead leaves swell the sidewalk, a long-awaited fall, and Mark’s kicking at them without conviction. “My contract runs out after this year and I still don’t have interviews anyplace we could go.”
“What’s Plan B?”
“I’m not sure. A lecturer position somewhere? I don’t know where though.”
“Where do you have interviews?” I try to keep my voice even.
He names schools I don’t recognize, and I start thinking about what it would be like to live with him in Arkansas or Utah or Nebraska. Or here without him.
We turn on Rockview Street, away from the bridge, a shorter walk than usual. But I look back for the first time. That’s all.
In the studio, the sweat-soaked raccoon costume hides my sigh.
Pickles the Raccoon dances with Ranger Penny, despite the awkward foot covers, then washes his apple. This part I can do: I know raccoons like I know my name. I watched videos of them for hours, miming the paws and snouts. The producer once called a replacement when I was sick. He made three kids cry by terrorizing Postman Bill in the pre-show. Now I’m the only one they call to play Pickles.
I drop my apple and wash it off again. I give it to a wide-eyed boy. It’s probably dirtier now than when it was in the plastic bag. Penny, face turned away from the audience, smirks at me as we trade sections and I pick up another apple from the table just off-set. Once we have the kids warmed up, we can start recording. Erik had a son about this age. Erik spun just enough as he fell so he landed on his neck. I keep the kids distracted by using my paws to clean my face.
Mark pulls his thick sweater closer because he keeps the thermostat low at his place.
“I got a call from my friend Chris,” he says. “He drove by you on the bridge.”
“Yeah, I took the bridge home.”
“He said you were climbing over the railing.”
“Oh?” I put on a hoodie and zip it up.
“Do we need to talk about anything?”
“The thermostat.” I cross my arms and huddle closer into the corner of the couch, like raccoons do when they sleep.
A few days later, I ask Mark to drop me off two blocks short of the studio. My fingers drum on the armrest.
“I don’t mind, it’s only a little farther,” he says.
“No, here’s fine.” Would getting out at the stoplight would make me seem crazier? Nobody needs to see him with me. “I just don’t want to hold you up.”
“I’m fine, plenty of time.”
He waits until I get in the building, looking worried, then leaves. He hasn’t let me walk to work since the other night.
More waxy doughnuts hold my attention through the meeting for tomorrow’s filming--more so than whether I even have any lines. The linoleum hall toward the studio turns my stomach so I go for a walk afterward, alone, even though Mark told me to stay around other people.
“Hey, going out for lunch?” Ranger Penny jogs to catch up and tries to match my pace, but her legs are shorter.
“Nah, just a quick walk.”
“Want to get some real coffee?”
“I’m, ah … naw, thanks. I just need to clear my head a bit.”
Penny pivots in front of me like a hockey player. “What’s eating you, Pickles?”
Anyone who orders a pastrami sandwich.” I pull a clown face to reassure Penny it’s nothing major.
“I know you better than that.”
“That you do,” I say, maneuvering around her.
I wander slowly through the mall. Two girls on a bench scheme to set up their shy friend with a boy who would be perfect for her. I sit on the other end and lean in as they edge away from me.
“Did you ever watch Story Hour when you were a kid?” I ask.
“Yeah,” one of them says. Her face is covered in glitter, like a fairy sat on it.
“I remember a girl named Elaine on it, a few years ago. She was very quiet and the raccoon danced with her. Was that your friend?”
“Is he a fucking pervert?” she asks her friend. She grabs her shopping bag. “Come on, Becky.” Her friend stops texting just long enough to tilt her head and squint at me, as if about to recognize my voice.
I hold up my hands to calm them down, turn before they make any connections, and leave in the opposite direction, to the bridge.
The water sparkles and chatters. I place both hands on the railing, planted firmly, like my feet. People cross behind me, ignore me. The ends of the support cables are fraying and spiraling in crazy directions.
“If I have to move, what will you do?” The air in the room changes. I know the question needs an answer. I had been stroking Mark’s forearm lightly, but now my hand splays out.
He gives me more space to burrow into the crook of his arm and rubs my shoulder.
“Do I have to answer that right now?” I stare at the television, even though it’s still off. My cheap couch feels smothering.
“Sorry. You know, work stuff.”
I feel his hmf underneath me like ground shifting. I ask if there’s a movie he’d rather watch.
After the movie he stays, warm and comfortable and able to not talk about it. He generates a lot of heat, but I don’t have the heart to lift his arm off me, so I pull back the covers and lie awake, wondering why I’m not crazy about him.
Alan the cameraman is smoking. He has a thick, groomed beard and ripped jeans. I put the six-pack of craft beer on the dumpster lid and sit on the ground behind the studio, back to the wall. I tried to get people to hang out after filming, but only Alan was interested.
“Who are you hiding from?” Alan asks. “I always come out here to hide.”
“I just wanted to hang out for a bit. How’re you liking the job?”
“It’s a job--I come in, have a few doughnuts, and it pays the bills. Better than the shit I had before. You know, Wal-Mart? Really is as bad as people say.” He hands me a bottle and takes one for himself. “Thanks for the beer. So who are you hiding from? This boyfriend?”
“Nobody. No, not Mark.”
He coughs and his lungs rattle. “Auntie Alan knows you’re full of shit,” he says in a sing-song voice, then takes a big gulp of beer.
“Don’t start. Do you know how embarrassing it is to have to introduce your boyfriend as a children’s show mascot? To other faculty?”
“No boyfriend, so no. Seems like his problem, not yours.”
“It’s not that simple. He’s going on these interviews where they look up--”
Alan growls and flicks away the cigarette. He squats down to my level. “This is seriously the worst you can come up with?”
“It’s pretty big to me right now,” I say defensively, looking down the alley. I throw my empty bottle at something that scuttles across the asphalt. I wish I had a therapist instead of an Alan. Someone who would write something down about me. Like crazy or medicate immediately and underline it twice.
Instead, I decide to make out with Alan, and go back late to Mark’s place and explain that there was a surprise party for Ranger Penny’s birthday and we all got drunk in the Persimmon Forest.
Mark says he’ll come pick me up next time I have to stay late. We climb in bed and he faces away from me. I wrap my arm over him.
The next day, Ranger Penny tells me that the kids told her I smell like ashes.
“Search me for cigarettes. I’m clean.” I reach for something filled with jelly that would require attention to eat without getting the raccoon suit dirty. “I was standing near Alan during a smoke break. That’s all.”
Her eyes narrow. “Mark wished me a happy birthday last week. You know my birthday is in May. Did you tell him it was my birthday?”
“You spoke with Mark?”
“I called to invite you guys over for dinner.”
“Guess he got you mixed up with someone else?” I pull the head back on, wishing I could turn my back on all of this--kids, raccoons, everything.
Penny grabs my arm as I try to leave.
“Tell me what’s going on.” She looks into the plastic costume eyes.
“I’m going to go entertain some fucking children,” I say, and pull my arm out of her hand and walk to set. I pretend to be playing hide and seek and crouch close behind Alan, costumed paws on his hips. A raccoon can get away with many things.
I put my foot right there where Erik would have right before he climbed over, my hands around the top railing. I’m wearing the gloves with rubber grips that I stole from the maintenance closet. I lean forward.
The concrete walkway and the steel rail, the grey-green of the river, and the white trails left by exposed stones.
And then my leg goes over. I’m halfway there and my foot touches the other side, leg stretching long to straddle the railing. My hand switches grip. I could just shift my weight and see what it feels like. The slick painted metal, the empty air underneath, and the river’s tumbling sound. I can do it.
“When do you leave?”
“Tomorrow. The interviews are all day Monday.”
“Do you think you’re ready?”
Mark shrugs. “Best I can be. I’ve practiced my job talk, and there isn’t much I can do for the interviews.”
“Glad you got it, though. I’ve heard good things about Athens.”
“Sure, but it’s still Georgia.” He breaks his scone into smaller pieces, his hands shaking. “Would you go with me? If it happens?”
The little kitchen contracts even smaller and I feel dizzy. I force words out because silence would be worst of all.
“I would need to find something I can do--”
He throws the scone on the plate. “Jesus Christ, this is sounding a lot like no. Just fucking say it.”
I put down my coffee. “No no, it isn’t that.” I grab for his hand. He tries to pull away but I hold on. “It’s not, I’m being honest.”
“It wasn’t Penny’s birthday. She’s worried about you because you’re acting weird. Chris saw you on that bridge. And she said some camera guy is flirting with you.”
I laugh weakly, probably the second worst thing I can do right now. “He has a crush on me. He told me a couple of weeks ago. He’s over three hundred p--no no, that’s nothing.”
“Then what is it? Something’s been wrong for weeks. It’s not ‘work stuff’--so what is it?”
After a long moment, Mark squeezes my hand, jolting me awake.
I lead him to the bridge.
The river flows by, grey-green and sullen. The shores here are stacked with broken concrete and trash. The rocks below are visible from the eddies they leave in the water. I’m cold again, but I know if I pull away right now I’ll lose him.
“I was walking home. Over the bridge a few months ago. And there was this guy looking out over the railing.” I start shivering. Mark’s soft brown eyes are on me, and I choke. I can’t go on.
And Mark lets go of my hand. I know he means it.
Shaking my head, I put one foot on the lowest rail, then the other. I lean out over the river. I miss the mall.
Mark grabs my wrist and pulls.
James Mallory is an attorney and writer in Boston, formerly of Chicago. He has had academic manuscripts published, but never fiction.