Zach Swiss lives in New York City with his wife and daughter. He holds a BA in Government from Dartmouth College and works as Chief of Staff at Heineken USA. His writing has appeared in EVENT, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Typishly, The MacGuffin and other publications.
Only so much could be done on short notice. Whatever they could do, they did. The smell was a must. Parts of the basement had flooded—it was anyone’s guess when. Fetid, murky water covered the old Sam Goody. Fletcher wondered, as the crew he’d hired drained the floor, if underneath they’d find tattered remnants of old CDs, stuff he and his buddies had listened to before the place shuttered, The Eminem Show, Nellyville, Now That’s What I Call Music. They didn’t: just moldy old carpet, which they tore up, carted out and tossed in a dumpster at the entrance of the parking lot, right where minivans used to assemble to pick up kids when it was time to go. Never his parents though. A friend’s mom would always drop him home, and sometimes his mother’s white Mercedes would be there, beside the immaculate lawn, at the end of the long, sloping drive, so he’d concoct some excuse, a migraine or an urgent appointment only just ended, for why she’d not been able to come get him herself, in case the question arose, though it never did.
When they finished drying the basement they flung open doors long ago sealed shut and burned honeysuckle candles to clear the smell of mildew and deep decay. It helped a little.
They were nice people, all of them. They didn’t deserve what Robert felt forced to put them through, even if they’d brought it upon themselves.
He had pleaded his case to his manager early on. And the location of the firm’s second headquarters, future home to 15,000+ employees, winner of a highly-publicized national search, is...Utica, NY! That Utica had applied at all was ridiculous; that a firm representative would visit to assess its suitability absurd. But it was his first site-scouting trip and he’d deluded himself into thinking, like his hosts, that sad little Utica might actually stand a chance.
The second trip, to Fort Lee, NJ, replete with parade and marching band, had been even worse. After, he’d petitioned his manager to reconsider the official policy mandating site visits for all applicants. “These local governments spend more than they can afford on elaborate dog-and-pony shows with no chance of success,” he said. “We’re giving them false hope. It’s cruel.”
His manager had frowned. “They already think we’re elitists,” he’d replied. “Imagine if we didn’t even make an effort to see them. It’s the compassionate thing to do.” They’re customers, the manager had reminded Robert, current or potential, every last one. Customers, Robert thought, but people too. He began scheduling his visits with only a few days’ warning. The towns could do less damage to themselves and their finances, on short notice.
They met at the mall’s east entrance where the Macy’s had been, beneath a flapping banner Fletcher’s crew had strung between stucco columns: “Pick Carbondale!” When Robert arrived three minutes past the hour, Fletcher was ready and waiting.
“Fletcher Morgan, Mayor of Carbondale,” he said, extending his hand.
“Robert Conrad,” Robert said, taking it.
Fletcher and his crew had swept the old Macy’s bare the day before, discarding bent wire hangers, yellowed receipts, loose mannequin parts. He’d positioned the class in a horseshoe by the glass elevators, long ago frozen on the second floor, and arranged posters where the perfume counters had once been—their outlines permanently tattooed on the beige, sun-faded carpet.
“The Carbondale Shopping Mall opened in 1973,” the first little girl read from her tri-fold board. The picture on the center pane showed bunting draped above the front doors.
“The food court was completed in 1990 anchored by Sbarro’s,” the boy next to her said, stumbling over the pronunciation. His classmates snickered.
“With one million square feet of open space, the mall would make an ideal office for a corporation with imagination,” a third boy recited.
Who doesn’t love children, Fletcher reasoned. He’d purchased the posters, researched the chronology, printed the photos, written the script; he’d done everything but assemble the boards, and even there he’d exerted his influence, urging the children to decorate with restraint, to take it easy on the glitter.
It’s a Wednesday, thought Robert, watching and listening. A school day. What assignment are these kids missing to be here, what lesson will they miss?
Mrs. Nelson applauded, small claps as if her hands were stuck together by chewing gum. Fletcher had forgotten she did that. “Well done, kids, well done,” she said. “What do we say to Mayor Fletcher?” She raised her arms like a conductor.
“Thank you, Mayor Fletcher,” they sang out.
Mrs. Nelson continued, “Did you know, class, that before he became the youngest mayor in Carbondale history Mayor Fletcher was one of my favorite students?” She smiled at him, her big, gummy smile, and began to clap again. Only a few students joined in. “Now, class,” she said, turning away from Fletcher, “did you know that Mr. Robert works for one of the richest men in the whole world! Class, what do we say to Mr. Robert?”
In unison, they trilled, “Choose Carbondale.”
Fletcher had been frightened of the horses as a child. He didn’t remember this himself, but his old nanny liked to remind him, whenever they caught up, that he used to cling to her leg and whimper when they’d round a corner and the carousel would be there before them. Understandable, he’d thought two days earlier, examining them once again, their gnarled legs menacing and lifelike, their teeth bared, nostrils flaring. Relative to the other relics he’d come across during the refurbishment, the carousel had aged fairly well, visible signs of heavy wear limited to a few roughly abraded flanks and small etches in some of the manes where little nails had scratched at the wood. He had apparently not been the only frightened child.
“You grew up here, I take it,” Robert said, as they left the old Macy’s and headed into the mall, petting one of the carousel horses as they walked past. Mrs. Nelson and her class stayed behind. Robert had no idea what Fletcher had planned for him next.
“Yessir,” Fletcher answered. “A wonderful town for children.”
“Born and raised?”
“Just raised. I was born in New York City. We moved here when I was six.” It had never been clear to Fletcher why. The house his parents had built, the largest in town, sat unoccupied much of the time. His father worked in the city and spent weeknights at an apartment they kept downtown. His mother often joined him. They spent most weekends in Manhattan too, or elsewhere: Sanibel Island or Aspen or abroad. When Fletcher was a young child they’d left him home with the nanny. As he got older, friends’ parents would invite him to spend the weekend. Sometimes his parents sent them floral arrangements from a shop in TriBeCa as a token of gratitude. Not always, though.
“Are your parents still in town?” Robert asked.
“No, they’ve moved back to the city. They travel a lot.” Where were they this week, he wondered. Vienna? Vientiane? Somewhere with a V, far away.
“And now you’re mayor,” Robert said. “I’m sure they must be very proud.”
During junior year of high school, on one of the many Saturdays when Fletcher’s parents were gone, he’d thrown a party and half his grade had come. The plan had been to clean in the morning but his parents returned home earlier than expected. Walking in and surveying the damage, his mother said, “This town has ruined you.” His father said nothing, just took the keys to the Mercedes off the counter, picked up the Louis Vuitton valises he’d just put down and left. His mother pulled her fur coat closed and followed a step behind. The handful of friends who’d slept over watched the whole thing mutely and stayed after they’d gone to help clean.
“That’s nice of you to say,” Fletcher said. “I’m sure they are.”
If the skylights overhead had not been covered with dead leaves, if the planters held more than just dirt and cigarette stubs, if the fountains still danced as they once must have, Robert could’ve imagined the atrium being a fine place for a meeting of the sort Fletcher had planned. As it was, the space felt dingy and dreary. Credit the young mayor for trying, Robert thought: he’d covered the table in white cloth and placed a notepad, pen and folded nameplate at each station. Fletcher called it a “Roundtable Workshop” with the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce, but Robert immediately recognized it for the theatre it was.
“To be frank, business has never been better,” insisted Tim Sloman of Sloman’s Hardware on Main, to vigorous nods around the table.
“My sales are booming,” Patricia Lernigan, owner of Butter Bakery, added.
Someone called out, “Ours too.”
“The workforce is stronger than it’s ever been,” contributed Miles Roach III from Roach, Livermore and Baskin, Attorneys at Law.
“Yes it is,” others muttered.
It was a well-worn script and Robert, dutiful one-man audience, hit his beats perfectly, nodding, encouraging, prompting as needed. Every town he visited seemed to be in the midst of an unprecedented economic miracle. It wasn’t their fault, really, that they all served up the same tepid pap. It was what they all thought he wanted to hear. It was what someone in his position should want to hear. But it wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
Things went on in that vein for some time until, from across the table, someone said quietly, “We’re a man down today.” Fletcher, hovering nearby, visibly tensed. The others, boisterous a moment before, grew silent. Some lowered their heads. “The doctors say natural causes. I say bullshit. He died of a broken heart.” The speaker was a small man, an old-timer in a VFW hat, with a gravelly voice and deeply creased face. He’d introduced himself at the outset, but otherwise he’d been silent. “You all,” he said, gesturing around the table, “know who I mean but you, sir,” he jabbed a finger at Robert, “have no idea. So I’ll tell you.” He paused, and when he continued his voice was low and soft. “His name was Jerry O’Farrell. He opened O’Farrell’s Books on the corner of Cedar and Duncan back in the ’60s. Three years ago it closed. Why?” The table was still. “I’ll tell you why. They,” again he jabbed his finger at Robert, “killed his business. He died a broken man. You all fawn over this guy—” he waved his hand dismissively in Robert’s direction “—like he’s the second coming of Christ almighty. But I tell you it was him,” another livid jab, “and his CEO buddy, with all his billions, who did Jerry in. Where do you think those billions come from? Out of the pockets of guys like Jerry. And now you’re begging them to come finish off the rest of us.” He shook his head, disgusted, and glared. Robert thought for a moment he might spit on the tablecloth. “Shame on you.” He fixed Fletcher with a look of unadulterated revulsion. “And shame on you, Mr. Big-Shot Mayor.” Slowly, deliberately, he stared at each face. “Shame on all of you.” With that, he stood and walked out, past an easel Fletcher had positioned along the periphery, with a poster proclaiming: “Carbondale: Open for Business.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Fletcher sighed.
Robert knew exactly what to say. Or, at least, what he was supposed to say. In the event that you encounter someone “skeptical” about our impact on local businesses, respond from a place of empathy. Listen. Ask questions. Emote. Avoid a defensive crouch. At the appropriate juncture, you might mention that our search algorithm links local businesses to customers all around the world. Pages 63-66 in the hard-covered manual distributed during onboarding. There’d been role-playing simulations, too.
Customers, always. Never just people.
Many times he’d encountered someone “skeptical” about the company’s influence. Never once had he deployed the prepared responses. Why? Because fuck the manual, that’s why.
“His name was Wilkie?” Robert asked, recalling the old man’s nameplate. “Of Minnie’s Diner?”
Again Fletcher sighed. “Joe Wilkie, chef and owner.”
For all his festering cynicism, there was a part of the job Robert relished. Meeting Joe Wilkie and others like him. Or not like him at all: that was the whole point. Joe Wilkie, long-time resident of Carbondale, chef and owner of Minnie’s Diner, veteran of a foreign war. Who was Minnie? Which service, which war? He should have followed Joe right out the door. This was what kept Robert going: human contact, personal connection, getting to understand people as unique individuals, not a customer in sight.
And of course, the paycheck didn’t hurt either, he had to admit.
Robert said with a chuckle, “I’ll bet he scrambles one hell of an egg.”
Crumpled wrappers and bits of Styrofoam spilled from an overflowing garbage bin just ahead. Shards of jagged glass shimmered like diamonds on the tiles. Wads of dried gum, like multicolored zits, adorned the railing of the broken escalator as they trudged to the second floor.
What did any of it matter? Fletcher had spent the little time he’d had frantically trying to restore the mall to some semblance of its former glory, and for what? To perpetuate the charade that it could one day serve as the second headquarters for a trillion-dollar multi-national corporation? The place was a half-cleaned shithole, the whole thing a farce.
He’d lined the hallway with rolling whiteboards borrowed from the elementary school and covered them with printouts on Carbondale history. How must it look to Robert, Fletcher wondered. Juvenile and amateurish, undoubtedly. He had half a mind to escort him out right then, avoid further embarrassment. But Robert was already scrutinizing the boards.
“I remember this,” Robert said, lingering at one of the printouts: a still from an episode of The Office. Season 2. The one where Michael Scott clamps his foot in a George Foreman Grill.
“Ryan brought him pudding from a gas station in Carbondale,” Fletcher said, “but the gas station didn’t have the fresh yams he wanted.”
For a week after it aired, the episode was all he or anyone else at school could talk about. A few years before, on one of the rare weekends when he’d joined his parents in Manhattan, he’d watched a crew shoot scenes for Spider-Man 2 just across the street from their apartment and never mentioned it to anyone—not even when he and his friends were waiting in line for tickets at the Carbondale Multiplex on opening weekend. But he’d posted half a dozen pictures from The Office to his Facebook wall after the Carbondale episode. He smiled, thinking back on the pride he’d felt.
“That explains the delivery,” Robert said. Indianapolis had enclosed a street sign with its application: the street where the prospective headquarters would sit to be renamed for the firm’s CEO. Huntsville, AL, home to a Toyota manufacturing facility, had sent a Tacoma. Carbondale’s offering had perplexed Robert. “I’d been wondering about the cases of pudding and sacks of sweet potatoes.”
“Yams,” Fletcher corrected.
“Right. Of course. Yams.”
Tough old lady, former Mayor Dorothy Kroger: old back when Fletcher had first met her, on a fourth grade field trip to City Hall.
Years later, it had seemed important that he tell her in person of his plans to run against her. “Well good luck to you, then,” she’d said, as if he’d proposed digging a tunnel to China. Go right ahead: see how that turns out for you.
He campaigned vigorously. She hadn’t expected that. The flimsy little mailers she finally felt compelled to send boasted of longer library hours, some new benches on Elm. She was so certain she was a Carbondale institution it had never occurred to her that she could lose, right up until the moment it happened. A lack of vision—that was her problem.
The old guard, the Joe Wilkies, resented him and made sure he knew it. Hence that performance at the round-table workshop earlier. Maybe it had nothing to do with him personally, just the natural disdain the old feels for the new. Or maybe it had everything to do with him. He imagined their sneers. His folks won’t deign to hobnob with us peasants but their pissant son thinks he deserves to be our mayor. Apples not falling far from trees, and so forth. For what it was worth, his parents had wanted no part of his campaign. A modest donation and a text message a few days after he won; those were their contributions. The florist in TriBeCa must have closed or he might’ve received a flower arrangement.
Dorothy Kroger, Joe Wilkie, that whole lot had had their shot and they’d made the town over in their own image: decent and upstanding but smug and out-of-touch. A town drowning in complacency, convinced that the way things had always been was the only way they ever could be. Fletcher’s campaign promised bold change; HQ2 could fulfill that promise. But change can be terrifying. Perhaps it was not resentment so much as fear driving their scorn.
Fuck ‘em, Fletcher thought as he led Robert to the final stop of his visit. Fuck Joe Wilkie and his petulant self-righteousness, fuck Dorothy Kroger and her haughty contempt. Tough old lady, that Dorothy. But not the only tough mayor Carbondale would know.
Madison was waiting for them in the north wing. A childhood friend, Fletcher said by way of introduction. Slowly they threaded their way through used needles, bent spoons, cracked vials, torn baggies, and a single, singed stuffed animal among the debris. “That used to be a Build-a-Bear,” Madison said, pointing to an empty store. “I had my sixth birthday there.”
They stood for lack of seating. “Dogshit,” she said, tracking Robert’s gaze. “After a while you get so you can tell the difference.” Her family had owned a dog growing up, she told them. “You remember.” She looked at Fletcher.
“Darwin,” he answered. A Saint Bernard. So big they’d try to ride him—Fletcher, Madison and Justin, her older brother—until her dad called them off.
After the mall closed down, she told them, dealers and junkies moved in. “They all seemed to have dogs but no one ever cleaned up after them,” she continued, scanning the desiccated mounds. “Anyway, most of it’s dogshit. Not all though.”
Her eyes kept flitting to darkened corners of the abandoned wing in a way Robert found heartbreaking. Her bare arms were pale and spindly, but that wasn’t what drew his attention to them.
Elsewhere in the mall walls were speckled white where Fletcher’s crew had painted over the most offensive graffiti. Some floors had received fresh coats of wax. But the north wing was not to be touched, he’d decreed.
He had prepared no visual aids for this portion. The space conveyed its message. It was a gamble, a risky way to close, but the whole HQ2 endeavor was a gamble, he reasoned, with odds no bettor would take.
As a child, Madison told them, she couldn’t swallow pills. “When I was sick, my mom would mash them into applesauce like she did when she had to give Darwin his medication.” A wisp of a smile. “Anyway, at some point I learned how.”
It hadn’t seemed like a big deal that first time, she said. Her brother Justin, three years older, home from Penn State for the weekend, had a Ziploc full of pills—different shapes, sizes, colors—and he’d sifted through, looking for the right one for his kid sister, just as he’d once set aside her favorite candy from his Halloween stash. It’s just medicine, he’d told her. Never mind that she didn’t feel sick.
“I was sixteen. I never knew how he first got into it,” she said. “Do you?”
Fletcher shook his head. “We’d drifted apart by then.” They hadn’t seen each other after Justin dropped out and moved home.
Accidental, the medical report had concluded. “Mom was the one who found him,” Madison said.
More often than not, Fletcher remembered, it had been Justin’s mom driving him home in his parents’ place, Justin’s mom receiving the fancy floral arrangements, Justin’s mom inviting him to stay over and escape an empty home.
“The thing is,” she continued, “the need doesn’t die too, just because you no longer have a brother with a Ziploc. But pills are expensive. So you move on to things that maybe aren’t so expensive.” Her left hand unconsciously brushed the crook of her right arm.
When he was alive, she said, Justin had never let her go with him to the north wing, and he’d never let her go alone. After, she’d had no choice.
She stared at the vacant stores. “The paramedics found me here,” she said. “If not for Naloxone…” Her voice trailed off. “Right there,” she told them, pointing to a spot a few yards to Robert’s left. His eyes stung.
Fletcher had helped get her a bed in a facility a few towns over. She’d moved home with her parents afterward, was now working as a waitress at Minnie’s, studying to be a social worker. Ten months sober, next week, she told them.
“I hope you choose us,” she said to Robert before pivoting to leave the two men. “We need it. Carbondale needs it.”
Whatever anxieties Fletcher had sublimated during the frantic preparations for Robert’s visit returned on their silent walk back to Macy’s. He’d practiced his final speech in the mirror many times, even recorded himself saying it: a testimonial to the town’s worth, a paean to underdogs, a plea for consideration, a bid for rebirth, and he planned to deliver it right then, on the way out, before reaching the parking lot. He should begin now, he knew. Now. Do it. But the words wouldn’t come.
A pigeon stalked the counter of the old Auntie Anne’s; must’ve flown in through a broken window, drawn somehow to a faint whiff of sugary dough still riding on the air. The pretzels had been Justin’s favorite—Auntie Anne’s the final stop in the scavenger hunt Justin’s mom had organized for his 11th birthday.
What if? Fletcher thought for a moment, passing the pigeon trotting along the counter of Justin’s favorite stall, wondering if it was some sort of sign, a message, a portent, an omen. But no, he caught himself. It was just a lost bird.
I would if I could, Robert thought. Truly I would. But I can’t.
It’s not up to me, you see. It’s made to look that way from the outside, an optical illusion, but I’m just a bureaucrat, a pencil-pusher, a cog in some massive, anonymous machine. Somewhere far above my pay grade the HQ2 decision’s already been made and it isn’t you, it was never going to be you. Carbondale never stood a chance.
But, you know what? You’re better off. It would just make things worse: it wouldn’t solve your problems, just bring new ones, bigger ones, tougher ones.
I’d like to thank you for today, honestly, sincerely. Much work went into this, that much is clear. And I’d like to thank you for Madison, for Joe Wilkie, even for Mrs. Nelson. I’m touched.
You won’t win. You’d be lucky to be considered for a small distribution center. Get over it and get back to work. There’s much to be done.
Robert thought all of this but said none of it. Neither man spoke during the long walk to the entrance.
The wind had died down. The “Pick Carbondale!” sign hung limp and motionless overhead.
“I want to thank you for coming all this way,” Fletcher said at the East entrance, extending a hand once more.
“My pleasure,” Robert said, taking it. “We’ll be in touch.” His rented Accord sat at the far end of the lot. Within the hour he was heading west on 86, towards his next assignment.