What will happen when a fully-fueled bomber from the Air Force base ust outside a large Texas city and piloted by a woman named Rory Calhoun is flung by a fierce torando into the county's largest, busiest shopping mall? Begin the day with the mall manager, his assistant, the security officer and Howard the Weatherman -- whose predictions are always uncannily accurate, and inb this case, deadly.
FORCES OF NATURE
It was going to be a two-shoe day.
Howard the Weatherman woke with what he referred to as That Certain Dread and a bad taste in his mouth, to boot. The birthday party for his youngest granddaughter the previous evening was the cause, even though it was just ice cream and cake and no booze, befitting his solid Southern Baptist background.
The feeling lingered on the fringes of consciousness until he was fully awake.
Glancing over at his sleeping wife of forty years, he considered waking her and telling her about his dream. No, he would prepare for work first, and let Neva sleep a while longer.
He eased out of bed and padded into the adjoining bathroom. He allowed the shower head to spray stinging hot water over his face and body, all the while he was reciting his usual morning prayers: “Father, I thank thee for this day that thou hast made. I will rejoice and be thankful in it.”
He continued with his intercessory prayers for his family and friends, and for the nation as a whole. “And so I beseech thee, Dear Lord, heed my prayers. I pray in the name of my savior, Jesus Christ.” Normally, his prayers would have ended at this point with a heart-felt “Amen”, but this morning he added softly, “And Lord, if it be thy will, spare us the agony of this day, and keep us safe from harm. Amen.”
Neva was up and in the kitchen when Howard stepped out of the shower. Wrapping his robe around him and combing his thinning hair, he walked down the hallway past the empty kids’ bedrooms and into the kitchen.
“Morning,” Neva said, setting a cup of coffee at his usual place. “Sleep well?”
Howard paused before replying, “Fine.” There was no sense in telling her now. “You?”
“Fine, until you began tossing and turning. What was that all about, Howard?” She sat across from him and studied him over her coffee cup.
“Nothing. I don’t remember,” he evaded, knowing full well what Neva was going to say next. Why did he even try?
“It’s the dream again, isn’t it?”
He sighed, then nodded. “I knew I couldn’t keep it from you. You know me too well.”
She smiled softly.
“Honey, it’s going to be a bad one today.”
“They’re all bad, Howard. Even small tornadoes that don’t send people to the hospitals, or kill them. Property damage, schools, businesses, all suffer.”
Howard finished his coffee and shook off his wife’s gesture of handing him a plate of bacon and eggs. “I’m gonna be late if I don’t leave now. I should have the official National Weather Service information the first thing when I get to the station. Then I’ll have to butt heads with our new station manager about interrupting the regularly scheduled programs for weather bulletins.”
“It’s going to be that big?” Neva followed him into the bedroom.
“Stay close to home today, honey. I want you close to the cellar.”
Howard wouldn’t have wanted it known that he had a “fraidy hole.” Having been born and raised in southwest Oklahoma known as Tornado Alley, he had spent many hours in the safety of his parents’ cellar while monster winds roared above, snapping power lines, tossing huge trees like matchsticks. To this day, Howard could recall the pungent smells that filled the old cellar: his mother’s canned peaches and preserves, and potatoes by the tow sack full mingled with the faint odor of field mouse droppings.
Howard thought back to one particular day when he was still in high school. He had told his family early in the morning that there would be a tornado that day. His family had come to respect his gift, and they followed Howard’s calm statement of fact: “There’s gonna be a tornado sometime this afternoon.”
He had dreamed of a tornado the night before; he saw dreadful winds ripping huge trees apart, snapping power lines and shrieking its way across the land. Sometimes he woke in a sweat, panicky, while he tried to still his thumping heart and not wake his brother who shared his room. He lay quietly and reviewed the dream, feeling clammy and cold and sweaty all at the same time, until finally he would dispel the feeling – which he soon began to recognize as a certain dread – until it came time for the storm to present itself on the horizon.
Sometimes the Certain Dread came upon him minus the accompanying dream. Or, he had the dream but didn’t remember it. Even as a high school student, he would be sitting in school, gazing at the object of his affections, and scheming a way to get her off to the side in the hallway so he could talk to her. Just talk to her about anything at all except what he really wanted to say, and that was that he loved her and wanted to marry her and live with her the rest of his life, but he was afraid she would laugh at him, because he was, after all, only seventeen.
But while Howard was trying to figure out how to speak to his vision of bliss, the feeling came over him and dispelled any other emotion he may have had. It almost overwhelmed him, causing his head to spin and his heart to pound just as it did in the nightmares. He knew for sure he had to get out of school, go home and warn his family that a twister was on its way and to go to the cellar.
So strong and certain was this feeling that he got up from his seat during French class conjugating verbs, causing Mrs. Dosser to frown and ask him where he thought he was going.
“I have to go home, Mrs. Dosser,” he said simply, and as he passed Neva’s desk he whispered to her to come join him in the hallway. Astonishing both himself and Mrs. Dosser, she did just that.
As she stepped out of the classroom, he told her, “There’s a tornado coming. Don’t ask me how I know, I just know. Go home. Tell your family to get to safety. This is gonna be a real bad twister.”
“They’re all bad, Howard.” Yet she nodded, as if she had known all along about his strange gift. “The others?” She glanced back inside the classroom.
“You think they’d believe me?”
A moment’s pause, then she placed her hand on his arm. “I believe you.”
“You’re different. I knew that. That’s why I told you. But the rest of them…they wouldn’t understand.” They hurried from the building without pausing at the principal’s office to sign out, and parted in the parking lot, where Howard got into his battered old Chevrolet and Neva drove off in her new Ford that her father had given her for her seventeenth birthday.
Howard knew that Neva would hurry to her home in the southwest part of town and attempt to protect her family: her mother, who drank too much during the day, and her father, who sometimes joined her, because retirement, after all, was becoming a bore and he was running out of woodworking projects. Neva was their last, late in life child, and they doted on her, so much so that the girl sometimes rebelled against the role she had been assigned: Savior of their Failing Marriage. Yet she felt some obligation to her parents.
Howard knew all of this through the town gossip, and he had gathered some from Neva herself in casual conversations in the school cafeteria. Howard didn’t care about her parents’ problems; he would have loved Neva no matter what. He also had enough of his own family’s problems to contend with, at the family farm just east of town.
Howard’s father was struggling to keep his head above water, financially, and it was only a matter of time before the entire place would be auctioned off. Times, Howard was told repeatedly at the breakfast table, were tough. His mother said nothing, but kept up her part by holding the family together, cooking, cleaning, washing, taking care of Howard and his brother and a sister, going to church on Sunday and to the Ladies Society on Wednesdays, and filling the cellar with all manner of canned food for the hard times.
Which seemed to be right now, Howard brooded.
After Howard and Neva parted, Howard drove to the elementary school to get his younger brother and little sister. He would explain their leaving school as “family emergency.” Which it was.
His siblings slid into his car without questioning why he had taken them out of school; Jenna was only going to miss math, anyway, and George rejoiced that he would be out of the classroom for the rest of the day.
Howard glanced uneasily at the sky as he drove the short distance from town to the farm. Clouds were building, roiling, towering, from the southwest. It was still, hot, muggy, and his feeling intensified. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, as if drawn by static electricity, and he fought the panic that rose in him. There’s time, he assured himself. Time to get the family to safety before the storm hits.
“Howard, what on earth…” his mother called from the front porch, wiping her hands on her apron.
He parked his car and got out. “Storm’s comin,’” he said shortly. “You kids head for the cellar,” he instructed.
She said nothing but stepped off the porch, headed for the field where Howard’s father would be working.
He stopped her with, “You go ahead to the cellar. I’ll get Pop.”
He set out across the wide yard toward the spot where he knew his father would be working.
As he hurried through the tall grass, he glanced uneasily at the sky. Only a few clouds skittered across the sun, giving no credence to Howard’s prediction of violent weather to come.
Yet he knew. For sure. There would be a tornado soon, and a killer, at that.
“Hallooo, Pop!” he yelled when he saw the speck on the horizon that was his father.
“Hallooo, Son!” his father waved back.
As Howard neared him, the older man paused to pass a stained handkerchief over his sweaty brow. “What’cha doin’ here, this time of day?” His eyes glanced skyward, then, “Storm?”
Howard sighed in relief. Nothing had to be said, or explained. His mother had always believed him, and she headed straight for safety, but Howard had never been sure about his father’s belief in his uncanny ability to predict an approaching storm. Martin had simply followed his wife and family to safety, not that he was convinced of his son’s prophecy.
Today, however, as they made their way toward the cellar, clouds continued to scud across the sun, the mild breeze increased to sharp gusts, and the wind began a soft moaning that almost physically hurt Howard’s ears.
He hated that feeling. It felt almost as though he had put his finger in an electrical socket. He was aware of his shirt sticking to his back, perspiration running down his face. One good thing about the storm, if there was such a good thing, it would at least bring with it drier air, and everyone would be able to sleep without the discomfort of damp sheets and bedclothes. If they still had a house to sleep in.
As the two men reached the cellar, the sky darkened in that familiar pattern, and as Howard descended the steps after his father, preparing to close the sturdy door behind him, he glanced southwestward and his throat tightened in an unuttered cry.
A solid green-black sky was moving inexorably closer, with flashes of pitchfork lightning tearing at the fabric of the wall cloud. Just as Howard pulled the door shut, he saw the familiar elephant’s trunk, dangling, swaying, dancing in the storm wall. God, it was huge.
At that moment, Howard hated the storm. He knew it would leave a trail of destruction like none he had ever seen before.
With a sound that echoed the beating of his heart, the door thudded shut. The aroma of damp earth mingled with the faint odor of ripe fruit, familiar smells, but Howard noted a new scent in the air.
It was the scent of fear. God, keep us safe, he breathed, as he settled across from his parents and patted his sister’s shoulder beside him.
And above him, the storm’s fury descended.
After the storm’s fury had passed, a deadly quiet descended. No more howling wind, no creaking and groaning of the cellar door, no birds chirping. Just silence. An eerie silence.
Howard, seated closest to the cellar door, tentatively poked at the wood’s cracks, then raised the door fully open.
The air smelled of electricity. The cooler air almost reverberated with its brilliant sparkle and snap. The sky was once again clear, its color once again restored to a blue, as if nothing had happened moments ago.
Howard emerged, his jaw dropping at the scene before him. Everything was gone. The house, the barn, the tractor that had stood at the edge of the field. He gestured to his father to follow him outside.
Martin Trent gazed in silence, unable to put into words what he was feeling. His house. Leveled. The barn. Gone. Where did the tractor end up?
Stella and the children followed close behind, all silent in their grief. Finally, Stella asked her husband, “Where will we go? What will we do now?”
Martin sifted through a few boards and assorted household goods scattered over the ground. “I reckon we’ll have to go to my brother George’s. They’ll take us in, until we can rebuild.”
Howard pointed to the Buick which had been untouched. “At least the car is still here. We can get to Uncle George’s, anyway.”
Then a thought struck him. “Neva. I have to see if she’s okay. And her family.”
Martin nodded. “We’ll go into town, or at least what’s left of it, and see about her, and if anybody needs any help.”
Howard was already headed to the car, getting behind the wheel and starting the engine. The rest of the Trent family followed, and Howard began the slow drive into town, some three miles distant. “Looks like this twister took a path straight into town,” he observed as he maneuvered around debris strewn over the highway. “See, the signs on this side of the road are gone, but not any on the other side. So maybe only the east side of town got hit.”
Martin wondered at the knowledge his son possessed. The analytical mind that allowed him to dissect a storm’s pattern of destruction. And the gift to predict when and where such a storm would strike. How would he make use of the gift God had given him? His major fear was that his son would be ridiculed, or worse yet, used by unscrupulous hucksters wanting to lure him into illegal schemes, somewhat like a circus sideshow.
Martin silenced his fears as he focused on the present moment, and wondering what they would find when they reached the Goodnight household.
Boards and tree limbs blocked access to the road leading to their home, so Howard parked the car and raced on foot to what was left of the house. Even in his panic, he noted that the living area and kitchen were left untouched, but the other half of the house was in a large pile of incongruously assorted materials: laundry from the neighbor’s clothesline, still attached to the wire by spring-loaded clothespins. A set of what looked like fine china from somebody’s china cabinet, possibly blown for blocks into this setting. The body of a dog, somebody’s mutt, lying still and silent while buzzards began circling overhead.
“Neva!” Howard shouted. “Mrs. Goodnight? Mr. Goodnight? Are you okay?”
He heard a faint shout. “Over here!”
It was Neva, calling from where her bedroom used to be. “I’m here!”
“Hold on, Neva. We’re coming!” Howard and his father strode toward the sound of her voice while Stella and the other children silently searched through the remains of the master bedroom.
“Neva!” Howard shouted as he saw her hand reaching from beneath a door. “Are you okay?”
“I think so,” she said, her voice shaking. “I don’t hurt anywhere.”
“Don’t move, Neva. We’ll get you out. You may be hurt and not know it.”
“Okay.” Her voice held an edge of fear. “My mom and dad? Have you found them?”
Howard and his father lifted the heavy door off the girl and she insisted on rising to her feet. “We haven’t found them yet,” he said quietly. “Where were they when the twister hit?”
“When we heard the tornado coming, Mama ran outside to get the clothes off the line…” her voice trailed off and she fell silent. Her eyes grew larger, but unseeing.
She’s in shock, Howard thought. Get her to the car, get her to lie down and cover her with something, keep her warm…
“We’ll find them. Let’s get you to the car.”
As they passed Stella, Howard noted a subtle shaking of her head, indicating her parents had been found. Both were dead.
“We’re going to my brother George’s house, over in Maysville. You’re coming with us, Neva. “ Martin soothed. “There’s nothing left here.”
“Gone. Everything gone.” She murmured as she let herself be led to the back seat of the Trents car. “What are we going to do?”
“We’ll survive,” Howard assured her as he tenderly tucked one of his mother’s sweaters over Neva. “You just rest. We’ll be there in a little while.”
In the time-honored tradition of rural Oklahoma in the late 1950s, George and his family welcomed the Trents and Neva without surprise or confusion. It was expected of them to help in any family emergency, and that included anyone Martin Trent and his wife considered family. Neva, in turn, grew to love her foster family, and while she was aware of the fact that her parents were gone, even making funeral arrangements a week later, when the town had gathered its dead and begun the grieving process, she also felt secure in Howard’s love and the acceptance of his extended family.
Two years later, after they both had graduated from high school, Howard and Neva were married.
After having cautioned Neva about today’s impending storm, Howard dressed and drove to the television station, where he had been the weather forecaster for the past twenty years.
Howard grinned as he saw a familiar bumper sticker on the car ahead of him: “We Believe Howard.”
The entire television viewing area trusted Howard the Weatherman’s predictions. Aside from his uncanny ability to predict tornadoes, he was also proficient in other weather aspects. When other stations in the area stated there was no possibility of snow, Howard cautioned his audience to stay indoors after nightfall, because there would not only be snow, but freezing rain and sleet. This, he attributed to his intense studying in school. He had realized early on in his career that he would need credentials; no reputable television station would hire a weatherman without some kind of certification. So Howard majored in meteorology, learning technical advances in weather forecasting and earning that all –important piece of paper that entitled him to earn a living as a weather forecaster. He kept quiet about his archaic “feelings” of weather changes. No sense in his fellow workers casting doubt on his abilities.
As time passed, Howard began implementing sophisticated electronic devices to aid in his forecasts. Would it be futile to plan a picnic this weekend? Would it be wasted money to buy Junior a sled for Christmas? Yes and No; he was backed up by radar, and charts and graphs and messages from the National Weather Service, and all kinds of facts and figures, and viewers put their faith in him, weather wise.
Howard also had been chided for not predicting snow. He refused to say The S Word until actual flurries were in the wind. Too many times, other forecasters predicted dire ice storm conditions, leading the area schools to close for the day, and yet the predicted ice storm stalled before reaching North Central Texas. So he didn’t predict snow unless he saw it personally.
The first time Howard publicly forecast a tornado, however, taught him a lesson about the Gift. He had had the dream the previous night, and he knew the tornado would form and strike sometime that next afternoon. During his regularly scheduled forecast the next morning, he added “There is a strong possibility of severe weather this afternoon, so stay tuned for details throughout the day.”
His unsubstantiated forecast created a furor among fellow forecasters, who deluged him with calls: “How can you say that there is a possibility of severe weather? Where did you get your facts? Not from the NWS. What the hell are you trying to pull, Howard?”
He plodded into his boss’s office, prepared for a tongue-lashing at the least, a pink slip at the most. Quite the contrary.
The reaction from his employer surprised Howard.
“Howard, I loved the tag line ‘Stay tuned for details throughout the day.’ That was a stroke of genius. This will improve our ratings like nothing else.”
“I didn’t say it for the ratings, Sir.”
“I know, I know. I understand you got a lot of flak from your colleagues, because they didn’t predict any severe weather. Now, I don’t give a damn whether you were correct or not, but from now on, Howard, I’d advise you to hold off any of your own forecasts until you get some data, any kind of data, from the National Weather Service. Agreed?”
Howard nodded, aware that he may have overstepped his Gift. It made sense to have some hard data to back him up. And Howard no longer announced an impending evening storm during the first newscast of the day. That was pushing the Gift too much.
As he drove to work, Howard mulled over the options open to him today, forecasting this impending storm. He felt that it would strike around five or six o’clock, a terrible time of day, because of rush hour traffic. The NWS probably wouldn’t feed any information to the stations until noon, at least, so Howard’s hands were effectively tied for announcing the storm during the first morning broadcast.
Two blocks short of the television station, Channel 12, Howard saw it: the confirmation he needed that today’s twister would be a real killer. Besides the dream and the feeling of dread, Howard had also decided, almost on a superstition, that whenever he drove to work on the day he had the premonition, if he saw a shoe lying in the road, it most certainly would be a very strong, damaging tornado.
And, every time he drove to work after having had a “feeling” or the dream, when he saw a shoe in the road, the storm had indeed proved to be a powerful one.
Of course, there was no shoe in the road every time. Howard had decided that a shoe in the road signaled only a storm of major proportions, and while he didn’t discount the power of the tornado, he somehow knew it would be a very brief and non-destructive storm.
And what about the rare, if not impossible, chance of sighting two shoes in the street? He mused to himself. Would that mean a larger storm, a really destructive force that might succeed in wiping out the better part of the city?
Howard laughed at the absurdity of his superstition, his mind game. Mere coincidence, he decided.
And at that moment, he spotted it, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up: in the middle of the road lay two Reebok athletic shoes.
He had no idea why a particular phrase sprang to his lips at that moment: “God, I am most heartily sorry for having offended Thee,” he whispered as he passed the site. But he figured that was better than no prayer at all.
The town is gonna need it.
“Good morning. Time for the seven a.m. news and weather,” the Channel Eight On the Move television morning anchorwoman, Justine Williams, chirped happily.
Jeff Martindale groaned, swung his feet over the edge of the bed and groped for his glasses. Without them, he was blind as the proverbial bat. He wouldn’t want anybody to see him wearing his old horn-rimmed glasses, which made him look like a sleepy owl. Normally he wore contact lenses, tinted blue, not so much as to enhance the color of his deep- set blue eyes, but more to allow him to locate a dropped lens.
Hooking the earpieces over slightly protruding ears, he staggered to the bathroom, his rituals of voiding, showering and shaving accomplished in a matter of minutes, all the while his television set on the bureau measured out his minutes. This morning, his ears were particularly attuned for the weather report.
Today, he had to have good weather. Absolutely. It was the first anniversary of the mall, or more precisely, Ridgevale Mall, the largest, most complete and newest mall in the entire Southwest, and his staff had been working on the celebration for several months and the local media reported on the event, building it up to Second-Coming proportions. Local high school marching bands, contests of all kinds, each merchant displaying merchandise outside their stores, alongside the promenades, for easier and more tempting shopping. Refreshments all along the way. Mobs of people would be there.
Pulling a crisp white shirt from the bureau drawer, he spoke aloud: “And you, Jeff Martindale, you lucky so and so, are the manager of the whole shebang. Yessir, you are indeed a fortunate fellow. Especially if we have good weather today…”
“Good morning, everybody.” The cheerful, gravely voice belonging to Howard Trent, broke into Jeff’s soliloquy. “Here’s your weather forecast for today…” and he watched Howard the Weatherman set about summing up the record highs, record lows, for the date.
Jeff recalled when he moved to this area, the local populace, to a man and woman, told him that Howard the Weatherman was a local icon, inasmuch that his forecasts were amazingly and unfailingly accurate. When Howard said “Rain,” it rained, almost to the inch of his prediction. When he said “Rain” at one time in his lengthy career, and it had the audacity to sprinkle a bit on the downtown pavement, he was pardoned, since you really couldn’t call that much of a rain, could you? And when icy conditions threatened, anxious school officials who called the station prior to issuing the announcement that their particular schools would be closed for the day, Howard either soothed or confirmed their fears, and thousands of school children either cheered when they had to stay home, or booed Howard loudly on the way to school under, for the most part, only wet, drizzly skies.
Jeff now felt like one of those school kids, eagerly waiting to see how the weather for today was to shape up.
“I’m afraid we’re going to be in for a bit of rough weather today, folks,” Howard began.
Jeff groaned to Howard’s face on the television: “Not today!”
Howard continued. “Whenever it gets this warm this early in the year, this early in the day, and the moisture starts working its way up from the Gulf and collides with the cold front trying to come down from the north – well, we all know what happens: the possibility of tornadoes exists. According to the National Weather Service…”
Jeff tuned out the rest of the forecaster’s voice; the more important issue at that moment was finding a matching pair of socks. He pawed through perhaps fifteen socks of various colors, looking for two of the same color—preferably brown. Holding up two of what looked like brown, he crossed to the window to inspect them in the early morning light. “Aha! Brown,” he exulted. He seated himself on the unmade bed and worked the winning socks over his size 12 feet.
Tornadoes, he thought. He hadn’t seen one here, in all the time he’d been here in this part of the country, but he had heard tales from the natives about the strange things they were capable of doing. Like driving straws through telephone poles. Bending steel posts while leaving Bibles intact. One of his coworkers at City Hall, where he had first found employment, gave him a booklet on Texas Tornadoes, almost as a joke on his being a Yankee, but actually, the man had been seriously concerned about Jeff’s lack of knowledge about what to do in case of a tornado. So Jeff had read the booklet and thanked the man for his help in acquainting him with a couple of local customs: “Sky Watching” and “Pacing.”
“Sky Watching” was a habit many residents of Texas had adopted from birth. The minute a Texan emerged from his house, he automatically glanced toward the sky, to gauge wind, clouds or any possibility of life-sustaining rain before proceeding to his tasks. This ritual marked the person as a Texan even better than his drawl or his cowboy boots.
“Pacing” was what a Texan did before a storm arrived. Scientists said the custom of nervously walking up and down a room prior to an approaching storm, indicated not only fear and anxiety, but was a reaction to the negative ions being discharged into the air and certain persons reacting to their presence.
Barbara had been a “Pacer.” At the first mention of a drop in barometric pressure, an increase in humidity or wind, Barbara began the ritual of walking up and down the room, glancing occasionally at the sky until at last the storm passed. Jeff tried not to chide her, and occasionally he even joined her in changing the television channels to keep up with the latest forecast. It was, after all, a harmless diversion.
Jeff half-listened to Howard Trent as he repeated the forecast. Jeff remembered how his wife – his ex-wife, he corrected himself – had been terrified of storms, and he felt a pang of regret that they were no longer together, where he could comfort her…
That was a long time ago, he reminded himself as he grabbed his jacket and shrugged into it.
As he started his car and backed out of the garage, he groaned aloud. “Jesus, it’s hot.”
Maybe there would be no storm. Maybe for once, Howard the Weatherman would be wrong.
As the new manager of the new mall sat brooding at his desk, glancing idly up at the approach of the behemoth, Rory eased the huge tanker around in a gentle arc to return to base, once again flying over the crowded mall below.
The ground shook and the windows in Jeff’s office rattled. And he cursed not only City Hall for its insistence on placing the mall in this vulnerable spot, but he also had a few choice words for The Main Street Gang for spearheading the land purchase.
Long ago, a power broker system had sprung into place in the booming city. Oil drillers, cattle barons and attorneys gathered in an informal group who met almost daily at the City Club, high atop the Landmark Bank building, where they would smoke good cigars, admire beautiful women, and plot the growth of their city. Every new building that sought a building permit had to pass through their scrutiny, never mind the official P&Z folks at City Hall. The Main Street Gang had the power, not the elected officials who toiled for mediocre pay by the citizens of this fine city.
As the city grew over the years, the original power brokers died and left their heirs to take their places. Trust babies, they had been schooled in the fine art of negotiating and sealing deals with a handshake over a martini. Contracts be damned. A man’s word is his bond. Simple as that. The male heirs of this invisible empire were schooled and trained as carefully as any young female debutant, making her bow to society in one of the many social events of the year. And
these young men were often betrothed to these young women, thus sealing the tradition of the true movers and shakers.
One of the men who inherited the Main Street Gang’s invisible cloak of power was Nicholas Stephens. Tall, well-built and tanned from his extensive trips to the Mexican border cities, Nicholas had attended the finest prep schools and after he passed the bar exam and became a partner in his late father’s law firm, he was married off to one of the debutantes, Bitsy Johnson, who, while beautiful and graceful, didn’t inspire him in the least, as far as love and fidelity went. Of course, many men in his circle took on mistresses while their wives looked the other way, and a somewhat amicable truce was maintained between the husband and wife. Above all else, the men were very discrete in their affairs, with only men in their circle aware of the dalliances.
Today, however, Nicholas found himself in a quandary. His latest mistress had gotten herself pregnant. How careless of her! He fumed. I wonder if it’s even my child. She could be seeing other men….” Yet he knew that thinking was futile.
She had come to him, tearfully saying, “I’m pregnant, Nicholas. What are we going to do?”
“We? What are we going to do?” he raged at her behind the closed mahogany door to this office high above the city. “How could you let this happen?” he slumped into his leather chair behind the massive desk littered with papers. He lifted one and fingered it absently.
Barbara Holt, the lovely young associate he had hired some two years earlier, sat shriveled in her chair, knotted handkerchief in hand. “I thought you would divorce your wife and marry me,” she said quietly.
“You know that’s not going to happen. My wife would ruin me in a divorce. I’d be left with nothing. You think you would want to marry a poor man?”
“I don’t care,” she emphasized. “I just want our baby to have a father. And a home. Not a rich home, but stability. And your name.”
He shook his head. “Barbara, you knew when we began this…this thing….nothing would come of it.” He adopted a soothing tone, which served only to further infuriate her. “You’re an attractive woman. You’ll find someone right away. Use your feminine wiles on him, like you used on me.”
“How despicable of you!” she raised her voice, then after glancing at the closed door to the secretarial area, proceeded in a lower tone, but no less filled with anger. “I didn’t lure you into anything. You came willingly. Besides, what kind of a man are you, if you think you were tricked into this relationship?”
“I have nothing more to say, Barbara. Except if you’re worried about losing your job, please know you’ll still have your job here, of course. You need a way to support your child, should you decide to carry it to full term. Have you considered alternatives?”
She shook her head. “I can’t abort this baby. I don’t believe in it. I don’t want to opt for adoption, either. I would always want to know who has my child; I would want to part of his life.” She paused to reflect on what he had said about her job. “You’re telling me I can still keep my job here? If I keep my mouth shut about this child’s paternity? Is that the deal, Nicholas?”
She stormed out of the office, causing the secretary outside his door to raise her eyebrows. Wonder what’s going on? Fodder for lunch gossip, she thought.
Barbara returned to her office and shut her door, where she sank into her desk chair and cried silently. The bastard. How could I have been so stupid as to think he would be cooperative with this pregnancy? What do I do now?
And the answer came to her and she considered it carefully. Jeff will know what to do. I’ll go see Jeff…. For the first time since her doctor had confirmed her pregnancy, Barbara had a sense of hope.
Jeff glanced idly at the traffic below, all orderly, stopping and starting up again at the entrance to the mall drive. Then his attention was drawn to a fast-moving F-16 rising quickly from the runway at nearby Carson AFB and soaring overhead, drowning out every other word spoken below, leaving a trail of jet fuel in the air, and causing the entire area to shake as if in an earthquake.
“Goddammit,” Jeff raged, half aloud. “I told them, they built this place too damn close to the base. Idiots! ”
As if on cue, the door opened and Barbara walked into his office.
He had almost forgotten how truly beautiful his ex-wife was. No, more than beautiful. Stunning. That was the word for Barbara. Brown hair, lush and full, brown eyes that seemed to take in everything at a glance, framed with long lashes. Her full lips were naturally curved in a small smile and her figure would have qualified her for starring modeling jobs.
She entered the room with grace and poise; her eyes steady on him, studying him as she always had. She was able to read him like a book, he thought idly, and today was no different.
“Hello, Jeff,” she said, crossing the room to sit across the desk from him.
Her eyes missed nothing, taking in Jeff’s bemused expression, the magazines on his coffee table, the new tie he was wearing.
It was this last item she zeroed in on. “New tie?” She raised her eyebrows.
“Not very,” he answered defensively. Yet he unconsciously straightened it. “What’s new with you? Gone to the Supreme Court yet?”
“Not yet. Mostly, I’m handling civil cases. Not much glamour in that, but it’s steady work. But I didn’t come here to talk about my work.”
“Then let’s talk about mine,” he offered, hoping to delay finding out Barbara’s real reason for her visit this morning. Something was not quite right in her demeanor, her attitude, but he couldn’t quite figure it out.
“Please, Jeff.” Her voice trembled. “Let’s be friends. I need your help.”
Incredulous, he saw tears running down her cheeks.
“What? Barbara, what’s going on? ”
“I’m pregnant,” she sobbed.
Jeff drew in his breath. Not at all what he had anticipated. Worse.
He rose from his desk, coming around it to sit in the chair opposite her; he moved it toward her, facing her. Their knees were barely touching.
“I don’t know what to say, Barbara. It’s been too long for it to be mine,” he half-heartedly joked.
“I suppose I deserved that,” she said, her voice muffled by a well-worn tissue.
Jeff plucked his handkerchief from his pants pocket and handed it to her.
She blew her nose loudly.
“You don’t need to return it,” he offered.
She managed a laugh. “Thanks.”
“Barbara, what do you expect me to say? Am I supposed to congratulate you, commiserate with you, or go out and find the father and beat him up?”
“No, you don’t have to congratulate me. And the father didn’t, either.”
“Tell me about the father. Did he acknowledge it?”
She nodded. “He acknowledges paternity, all right. But he’s married…” she dissolved once more into tears.
Jeff patted her awkwardly. How could such a smart woman get herself into such a mess? Then the thought struck him: She was smart, all right. She thinks she can turn on the old charm, wheedle some money out of me, or --- his mind almost refused to entertain the next possibility – might beg me to remarry her, so the baby could have a name.
He mentally dug in his heels. No. Barbara had never wanted children. Now that she’s having one, she wants my help. No way. Not now, especially with Celia interesting me more and more. No, Barbara can’t do this. She can’t expect me to fall for her old stuff, just like that.
“What are you going to do?” He asked her deliberately. “Keep the child? Give it up for adoption? Try to get the man to marry you, after all?” He gazed levelly at her, so the message was not lost.
Her helpless act vanished. She straightened in her chair. “Wouldn’t it be ridiculous for me, at my age, to have a child? To carry one full term and give it up? Or even to marry the father and become a happy little family? I think not. None of the above is viable.”
“And the other alternative?”
She barely nodded. “You know it’s against my beliefs, Jeff. Always has been. For somebody else. Now, it’s me. Now it’s different. It’s my only option.” Her poise shrank and she began crying again. “I’m sorry, Jeff. I didn’t mean to come here and cry all over your office. I know you have work to do, and so do I. I’m in court in an hour, and look at me! I’m a mess! And I don’t feel well. Morning sickness, I suppose.”
“You do look a little green,” he concurred.
“Thanks.” She finished dabbing her eyes. “I don’t know why I came here, to tell you. I guess I just wanted you to know….to care. Just a little bit.” She stood, stuffing the handkerchief into her purse.
Jeff stood and put his arms around her. “I care.”
He rocked her gently, as he had done so long ago. “I don’t know what to tell you to do. But you know, the father of this baby has some say in what happens to it. Maybe you should ask him. Strictly from a man’s viewpoint, I’d say he’s probably going through a bad time, himself, wondering what he’s going to do about his marriage. About you and the baby. Can you tell me if you’ve asked him about divorcing his wife?”
She nodded, her head still against his chest. “He said no way. At least, he said no way today. When I told him about the baby, he just sort of – turned pale. I asked him then about divorcing his wife. Bastard!”
“Who, me?” Jeff joked. “I thought you came here for my help?”
“Then don’t call me names.” He realized his pitiful attempt at a joke had backfired. Forget trying to soothe her with humor, he thought. “I don’t know what to tell you, Barbara. We could kick this thing to death, and still not reach a decision. In the end, you’ll work things out. I know you will.”
She pulled away, eyes flashing. “That’s right! No help at all! You’re no different than you used to be. I don’t know why I even came here….”
Jeff retreated to his desk as she stalked to the door.
“I can’t help you, Barbara,” he repeated. “We would be right back where we were, but with a child added to the mix. I think you know that.” This he said so softly he was almost sure she hadn’t heard.
But she paused, looked back at him through tear-filled eyes. “Well, I thought it would be worth a try. But you’re right.” She dabbed at her eyes and said brightly, “Okay, not to make this an entirely wasted day, I might see you around here later.”
“Oh?” Jeff replied.
“Yeah. I have to be at The Gardens early this evening. It’s the office’s monthly birthday celebration. Remember?” Her eyes grew misty again.
“I remember,” he replied softly. “We had some good years, you know. You’ll be fine, whatever you decide. Let me know, will you?”
Too full of unshed tears to speak, she merely nodded, her head bent, as she opened the door to the outer office.
And nearly collided with Celia Donovan.
“Oh, excuse me!” Celia inhaled sharply, but Barbara hurried away without replying.
“Sorry for bursting in like that. Is she okay?” she asked, eyes wide.
Celia had met Jeff’s ex-wife at a luncheon in The Gardens last year,
She had arrived in time to see Jeff rise from his place at the table to greet a woman warmly and with some surprise. As Celia approached the tableau, Jeff released his arm from the woman’s and smiled at Celia.
“Ah, there you are. Celia Donovan, my ex-wife, Barbara Holt.”
Barbara had appraised her coolly. Definitely some competition, she thought. If Jeff was up for grabs. Which he might be, she surmised from his greeting.
“Good to meet you,” she told Celia. ”I understand you’re really Jeff’s assistant, more than Natalie. I’m glad he has a capable person by his side. Well, I’m late for a meeting. Have a good lunch,” she said.
“Nice meeting you,” Celia replied. “I hope to see you again.”
Jeff indicated that Celia should be seated, even as his eyes followed Barbara’s progress through the crowded restaurant to the private meeting room.
“Your ex-wife is very attractive,” Celia said.
“Yes. She is. She’s doing well at the Stephens law firm. Ready to order?”
He’s still stung by their divorce, Celia thought. But he doesn’t know it.
“She’s upset about something, isn’t she?” Celia insisted.
“I don’t think you really want to know,” he said grimly.
“None of my business,” she agreed, aware and embarrassed that she had pushed him for an answer that he wasn’t willing to give. She changed tack to her intended mission.
“Do you have a few minutes to discuss security plans for the Christmas season?”
Jeff collapsed in his chair, a hand clutched mockingly at his chest. “Oh, no, not now. My heart can’t take it! Seriously, Celia, I’d rather get this anniversary bash over with first, before I can even think of the next onslaught.”
“That’s just the point!” Celia was excitedly gathering up his jacket, his two-way radio transmitter and cell phone. “I think if we look around now, during this crowd, we can see more accurately where our strengths and weaknesses lie, because it’ll be almost as bad as the day before Christmas…or as good as, I should say. So let’s go.”
“You’re right. Let’s go take a stroll through this asylum, see what’s going on…”
She helped him pull on his jacket, smiling happily. He knew it was good for business, for the manager of the mall and his security staff to be seen making the rounds of all the shops on all the levels, chatting with the tenants, keeping an eye on all the “regulars;” just being visible helped the morale of shop managers and customers alike.
They paused at the end of the hallway separating the mall offices from the great halls of commerce, peering out at the throngs milling about. “Why do I feel like saying, ‘Cover me,’” Jeff joked as they stepped into the stream of humanity.
“Because,” Celia said, striding alongside, “It is almost like a battle zone.”
** Beginning on the mid-level, Jeff and Celia merged into the shoppers, all the while Jeff thinking of the unique place this mall, or any mall for that matter, held in the American psyche.
The Shopping Mall is today’s version of the old town square, he mused. The meeting place for young and old. The hangout. The place for upwardly-mobile women to meet for afternoon cocktails, for middle-aged matrons to gather in community rooms for bridge, pausing at the tea room, or the cocktail lounge for a lady-like glass of wine, before returning to their well-ordered, empty homes. It’s a place where young housewives can do a bit of window-shopping, and a great deal of daydreaming.
It’s the place where you may cash a check at your branch bank, buy a set of tires, eat lunch at one of the twenty-five assorted eating areas, consult your attorney, check in at the spa for a short swim, or arrange for an afternoon with your lover in the attached hotel. Whatever your needs for that day, they were met under glass and chrome and steel and cement. The mall, air-conditioned, climate controlled, music filled, where waterfalls cascade alongside escalators that whisk you five floors up to the indoor jogging track. Where ice rinks entice would-be Kristi Yamaguchis and Scott Hamiltons to fall hard on its cold, unforgiving surface.
Where a junk-food junkie could overdose, working his way from anchovy-laden pizzas to macadamia nuts. From pickle emporiums to ice cream parlors. Tempting aromas rose from Hamburger Havens and hot dog booths. From beer to wine to lemonade stands. Bavarian pastries, Swiss cheeses, Danish hams, it was a veritable United Nations of gastronomy. Chips, nachos, cookies, hot from the ovens. These fast food emporiums were lumped together like congealed fat at one end of the mall, segregated from the shops in one gigantic smorgasbord. Teens, cruising from one shop to another, as they relied on this area for their entertainment. It was their equivalent of table-hopping charity balls and country club patrons.
Soon after the mall had opened, parents quickly learned that they could drop junior off at the mall entrance with twenty dollars in his patched Levis and the kid would find plenty to keep him entertained. At five o’clock, or eight o’clock, or at the nine-thirty closing time, when the gigantic clock in the middle of the mall boomed its goodnights, the parents would suddenly remember that Junior was still at the mall, reluctantly seek him out, standing with hands on hips in front of the Good Times Pizza Place looking for his offspring.
On the third level were middle-of-the-road department stores, mostly locally owned and operated; a jewelry store, full of middle-expensive watches and diamond rings, where a struggling young discount store manager could afford to buy his fiancée a nice, if not expensive, engagement ring.
Fourth level: Assorted offices and a cosmetic firm’s headquarters, next to its retail outlet. Free facials kept the clerks busy all day, trying to make Mrs. Average American into a Miss America, with a dash of color here, a blusher, there. Shoe stores. Handbags. Hats, wigs. Accessories. A store for leather goods, luggage. A bridal store, formals, mother-of-the bride dresses. A maternity shop, languishing in this day and age of career couples opting out of having children. A bath and bedroom shop, where towels and sheets were marked up at ridiculous prices, when the same sets could be bought elsewhere for much less. A sports shop. A tennis shop. Video and audio.
Closer to the north end of the mall, a grocery store. A bank. Shoe repair shop. Movie theatres -- 12, count ‘em -- twelve screens. A cafeteria. A major department store. A bowling alley.
Fifth level: The spa. Tennis courts, jogging tack. The spa encompassed the entire fifth floor, north, south, east and west. A private club, offering saunas, massages and a fitness center, complete with pool. A businessman could drop in during lunch hours, order a diet plate, play a game of tennis, top it off with a brisk swim, then a sauna, and finally a deep massage, returning to work refreshed in mind and body.
His wife was most likely at the mall, herself, far removed from the spa, shopping the trendy stores on the south end of the mall, gleefully charging items until she finally got tired of punishing him. Or until she ran into a sister-under-the-skin who was likewise occupied, and they retired to the elegant tearoom for more than a little tea.
The south side of the mall contained fewer shoppers, as though it were “off limits” to ordinary folk, and an invisible barrier sprang up midway to the entrance of Merrywoods. Somewhere after the third level, and approximately six shops from Sakowitz at the extreme south end of the mall, an ordinary shopper would stop dead in his tracks, bemused by the sudden, if not subtle, changes in the display windows.
Manikins clad in the latest style offered no price tags, on the theory that, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” Lighting, too, changed, from bright, almost gaudy windows, to a simple string of pearls, spotlighted on a velvet display case. Or a single sable coat thrown casually on an oriental rug.
And the quiet. A person automatically lowered his voice, to match the hushed tones of money that pervaded the area. The smell was of expensive perfumes – not colognes, or toilet water, but ninety-five dollar an ounce perfume. One’s feet trod not on brick and heavy-duly tile floors, as in the rest of the mall, but on parquet, where the slightest footfall echoed and announced a heavy footed approach. Subdued lighting, clerks who spoke in carefully modulated tones and appraised prospective customers like vultures choosing the choicest meats, even before the victim was dead.
The very wealthy, of course, disdained to enter the mall for any reason whatsoever. They called to have their favorite clerks “send something out. “I’m having a dinner party. You know what I like,” she would coo at the hapless clerk. If a socialite did stoop to entering the mall area, she did so by going into the door that led directly into Merrywoods, and the occasion would be only because she needed to introduce her daughter to the knowledgeable and formidable Mrs. Southerland, who would be providing gowns for the girl to accept or reject for her coming-out-parties.
Only those who occasionally blundered over the invisible barrier, found themselves mumbling and stumbling out of the sanctified places of business, swearing to never make that mistake again.
The tale was widely circulated among the clerks at Merrywoods about a young woman, a bleached blond trailer park-type hussy from one of the nuveau riche families in town, who had millions in the bank to qualify them as millionaires, technically, yet they had not earned the cachet of the movers and shakers. The daughter had evidently snared an equally rich young man and was planning a very expensive and very gaudy wedding to be held in the city park next spring.
Very bad taste, everybody who was anybody agreed. And such bad timing. Springtime in North Central Texas was notorious for its unexpected torrential downpours, hail, and tornadoes. It was typical, though, of the newly rich crowd’s mindset that they thought they were immune to anything and anybody, and they would, by God, have their own way. They must have thought they had enough money to order decent weather for an outdoor wedding.
So when this young woman began the rounds of looking for the ideal, very expensive wedding gown, from the best designers, she was déclassé enough to actually bounce through the main door of Merrywoods, jeweled cell phone clutched to her ear, babbling to someone about her latest conquest, how cool he was, and all in a loud tone, punctuated by shrieks of laughter. Her bleached blond hair was in pigtails, she was wearing cut off blue jeans, a tight tank top that bared her jeweled navel, and flip flop sandals that echoed over the parquet floor.
A shudder ran through the store like a wave, as each clerk recoiled in horror. What to do? Who is going to take on this challenge? They murmured.
The young woman headed to the couturier department, intent on her mission, when she was blocked suddenly by an imposing figure: Mrs. Southerland, the matron of the department, who was never addressed by anything other than Mrs. Southerland, and who was always clad in either navy or black dresses with pearls at the throat and sensible pumps to match, raised both finely manicured hands in a “stop” gesture before the young woman could go no further.
The would-be patron gasped in surprise and a touch of anger at this gesture. She yanked off her earphones and shut her cell phone off. “What are you doing?” she managed to ask.
“You need go no further, Miss,” the woman coolly answered. “I’m sure we have nothing here for you.”
Red painted lips forming words, but no sounds emerging, the young woman turned and stalked from the store, muttering under her breath, “The nerve! Nothing for me here? The old bitch. I’ll see to it that she’s fired, her life made miserable.” She threw open the door of Merrywoods and ran to her Mercedes. “Daddy will take care of this,” she swore.
She had no idea, the gossip continued, that the indomitable Mrs. Southerland, working on a salary at Merrywoods, actually wielded much more power and influence than her Johnny-come-lately –status- seeking father would ever have.
And the gossip inevitably ended in that classic Southern expression of thinly disguised disdain, “Bless her heart.”
The mall itself pulsed. It had a beat, similar to a heartbeat, a dance beat. Hours of the mall itself were all day and all night; individual stores agreed on an opening time of ten a.m., when the great wire screens in front of the stores would crank slowly upward, admitting waiting customers, until they clanked down again at 9:30 PM. This last hour was a compromise. Some merchants had wanted 10 to 10 hours, but the clerks had balked at that. They wanted to get home in time to watch David Letterman, or Jay Leno. To make a sandwich, to make love, to fall asleep during the late movie.
The security forces waited for 9:30 PM. Only then could they rest. The mall was quiet, at that hour, with only a few stragglers to be swept out.
A few unruly patrons, mostly kids stoned on something, circled the mall, trying to find their cars, and at last, they disappeared. The hours until dawn passed quietly and quickly, and the entire mall was deserted, save the security force and the all night supermarket, which was freestanding of the mall, so it was excluded from the mall’s hours of operation. Here and there a customer buying a loaf of bread, a pizza, a can of motor oil, an extension cord, shampoo – all necessities of life, to someone, even at that hour.
In a few hours, the housewife brigade would enter the main mall entrance, to walk their couple of miles per day in air-conditioned comfort, without the threat of errant traffic and other road hazards if they had walked outside. The next couple of minutes would pass swiftly, with storeowners and managers darting through the employee entrance, until the ten o’clock opening, where mesh screens would rise again.
Mack Odom’s security force would be ready.