The Mall of Small Frustrations

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by graydonjames - Meet the author

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A darkly comic novel that explores the simmering chaos deep in the heart of a suburban shopping mall.

An unlikely trio of friends navigates through their supposedly humdrum, work-a-day lives just trying to keep their sanity -- shy Jasper wants friends, laconic Kipling needs escape, and irascible Chester seeks the truth. But first they have to deal with tastelessly mustachioed managers, compulsory Christmas parties, mysterious customers, love, regret, revenge, redemption, raccoons, and the dreaded Wheel of Fun.

If they can survive, they get to do it all over again the next day, because in the Mall of Small Frustrations the only real truth is that nothing ever goes quite the way you want. See more details below

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More about The Mall of Small Frustrations

Chapter 1 - The Texan

Everyone knew that the Texan wasn’t Texan. He didn’t drawl. He didn’t swagger. And Chester saw him leaving the Mega-Mart once to get into a dark green Volkswagen – a car quite possibly illegal in Texas. But he wore a cowboy hat pushed back on his round, sloping head and his belt buckle said “Texas” and in the way that all myths are generated he became the Texan.

Most Wednesdays he would roam the aisles of the Mega-Mart, a soft and smooth thumb hooked in his belt, looking at the prices on mops or deck chairs or a gross of elastic bands. The employees would surreptitiously watch him. Even Polito, in his tiny cramped security room in the back of the store, would adjust a monitor or two so he could follow the Texan’s progress through the aisles.

“Look at this,” he would say to Chester, if Chester happened to be lounging back there with him. Then he would point at the unmistakable profile of the cowboy hat in the flickering grey monochrome of monitor 9. “Why doesn’t he buy something?”

“Why should he?” Chester asked.

“Don’t it seem weird? Walking around, looking. Never buying.”

“I don’t buy anything here. I just walk around and look.”

“But you work here.”

“I work for the mall,” Chester explained carefully.

“Aw, shut up.”

“Do you buy anything here?”

“Sometimes,” Polito said defensively.

Chester slid further down in his chair. He tried to get some sleep.

“Now he’s in housewares,” said Polito.

There was something subversive about the Texan. He never spent too much time in one area. He didn’t have a pattern to follow. Sometimes he just walked straight through the Mega-Mart and out into the rest of the mall, without even glancing to one side or the other.

He wore a leathery looking jacket that used to be white but was starting to jaundice, and would swing his arms a bit too high. Sometimes it seemed like he didn’t even notice that he was in a store with other people, and then suddenly he would help an old woman find where the Mason jar lids were kept. He might muse over a stuffed animal for 10 or 15 minutes, delicate fingers stroking his clean-shaven chin, before turning and decisively walking right out of the store. He had a wedding ring, but it was not ostentatious, nor did he ever adjust it. It seemed like it must always be fitting him just right. Chester admired that about him.

The myth of the Texan had been old before Chester arrived at the Mega-Mart, and word had it that the only person who’d been there when the Texan first arrived was Guy Tuffray, the manager of Mega-Mart. Guy Tuffray was an insufferable and opulently idiotic micro-dictator. He never spoke about the Texan, except when you were first hired, at which time he would tell you never to talk to the Texan. Otherwise, he would deny that any such person ever came into the store.

“I heard he tried to talk to him once,” said Kipling, on one of the many occasions Chester saw him in the food court.

“Tuffray tried to talk to the Texan?”


“What did he say?”


“I don’t know, what did they say to each other?” Chester asked, testily.

“Oh. I don’t know,” Kipling said laconically, rewrapping his chicken soft taco with the expert adroitness of an avid pot smoker.

Chester rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“But apparently,” Kipling continued, “that’s why he never goes on the floor when the Texan is there.”

“How do you know?”

“Polito told me.”

“When do you talk to Polito?”

“Every Sunday afternoon. He does his once-around and finishes by the Emporium.” Kipling was the sole employee of the Amphibian Emporium, a specialty pet store in the mall.

He was an iconoclastic figure with a wild rumple of dark hair already streaked with grey at the tender age of twenty-one, and he had an exceptionally mild demeanor. Although each would deny it, he and Chester were best friends.

“Why didn't he tell me?”

“Who?” asked Kipling, biting into his taco.

“Who have we just been talking about? Polito.”

“Oh. Not surprising. He doesn’t like you.”

“He doesn’t like me?”


“What’s not to like?”

“He says you ask too many questions.”

Chester knocked three quick times on the door to the back security room at the Mega-Mart. He waited a second for Polito to say “Come in” and then opened the door and stood in the doorway.

“Hey, I heard you said you don’t like me,” he said accusingly.

“Shh,” said Polito, frowning. “I can almost see into one of the change rooms.” He indicated on the monitor where he had aimed a camera at one of the mirrors on the back wall of change room 17, and could see the head and shoulders of a middle-aged woman as she tried on track pants. Chester sighed, shook his head, and then took his usual seat. Polito stared at the monitor. Polito was a terrible security guard because he was easily distracted, but the thing he hated most about his job was not the dulling effect of ad nauseum watchfulness; it was the uniform.

To Polito the uniform was a polyester monstrosity, despite the crisp lines of the creases that seemed permanent or, at least, unflappable in the face of the mere power of the modern washing machine. Despite, too, the fact that with his broad shoulders and narrow waist, he looked damn good in the uniform. Virtually no one suspected that Polito was actually quite a clothes-horse. He had an eye for colour and texture and balance, and he ordered his shirts from Italy, to be sent to him by his cousins. His pants came specially tailored from Germany, his underwear was Egyptian cotton, and his suits were cut by the local haberdasher from cloth purchased in Japan or Brazil. One of the reasons Polito was obsessed with the Texan was due to a sort of sartorial jealousy. He needed to know where the Texan bought his pants. Chester was afflicted with a form of jealousy for the Texan as well – he needed to know how the Texan had such a profound effect on those around him.

Later that week when the Texan came in, black jeans making crisp sounds as he walked slowly around the store, Chester noticed that Guy Tuffray was nowhere to be found. That was another thing for which he admired the Texan.

The Texan wasn’t a stunningly dangerous-looking man. In fact, he seemed mild, his large soft eyes and his large soft hands. He had laugh lines around his mouth and his eyes, and they were worn easily like comfortable shoes. Sometimes for no reason he would step into his laugh lines while staring at Tupperware or bath towels, and they would crinkle into an amused topography. He seemed affable. He could put his hands in his pockets and just stand and slowly scan a row of toasters without looking like he was killing time.

He seemed to be a man with no schedule, no concern, no agenda, and yet someone who could fit in no matter the social situation. Fit in wasn't even an apt characterization, he would slip in to any group or gathering and casually take the reins with a natural candour. It seemed that any loosely assembled smattering of dog-eared riffraff would cohere into a disciplined democracy under his gentle, distant guidance given a short montage sequence.

Chester could imagine he had a warm chuckle, and if you heard it you would be reminded of a crackling fire. The sound of wood snapping discreetly and collapsing delicately into ash. He wanted to talk to the Texan. Perhaps walk over slowly, stand beside him, admire the fishing lures for a moment, and then say: “So, what do you think?” But Guy Tuffray had made a special point of mentioning personally to each staff member that they were not to talk to the Texan.

Normally that wouldn’t have mattered. No one had any particular amount of respect for Guy Tuffray. But everyone had at least a grudging respect for the Texan. Even Easter, the youngest cashier at 16, and by far the most rebellious, would hold her tongue if he walked past while she was stocking a shelf. But she would stare brazenly at him, watch him as he perused prices. Chester thought her unbroken spirit was a joy to see. It was a moment of purity in a place fouled up by pretension.

Guy Tuffray, for example, with his thin strawberry blond hair and his tasteless mustache, was forever bloated on his own importance. He often clashed with Chester over the tender topic of Chester’s employment and chain-of-command, levelling a pathetically annoyed sneer at him and calling him over with a short: “Ches!”

“What now?”

“You didn’t stock these shelves correctly,” he said, adjusting a package of diapers. “The smiling baby looks out, see?”

“So what?”

“Listen, I don’t need your attitude, Chester. You are on thin ice with me as it is, what with this re-shelving error.”

“They’re diapers. They’re not an impulse item. People will buy them if they need them.”

“I don’t need your lip, Chester. I don’t need your attitude and I don’t need your lip.”

“What’s the difference?”

“And I don’t need your smart mouth, either!” Guy Tuffray’s face was turning the same shade as his thin hair and his wiry mustache.

“Do you need my hands or feet at all? 'Cause I’d like to go home.”

“Oh, I can send you home, mister. I can send you packing.”

“No you can’t Guy.”

“It’s pronounced Guy,” he said sharply. “Rhymes with key.”

“Okay, Guy.”

“That’s it. I don’t want you in my store one more second. You are fired!”

Chester sighed. “You can’t fire me.”

“Well I am! Now march out of here, mister.”

“Only Ipswitch can fire me. I’m a floater.”

“Well then you're suspended!” Tuffray spat. “One week. No pay!”

“Great, then I can head home.”

“No! Not until you re-shelve these diapers, every last one of them.”

“So, I'm not suspended?”

“You're on my last nerve, Chester. Get shelving.”

“And what if I don't?”

“Then I will suspend you, oh, don't think I won't!”

Chester shrugged. “I could use the break.”

“I want to see smiling babies. I demand to see smiling babies!”

“Well, then you should probably hop to it and get these diapers re-shelved.”

Guy Tuffray glared at him with his watery eyes, trying to look either angry or tough. His fists trembled.

“I am going to report you to Ipswitch and recommend that you be kicked out of here on your smart little ass!” he declared, storming away. His entire face and neck was suffused in red. Chester shrugged and watched him leave and then went back to the security room to watch the monitors with Polito.

Ipswitch was the staff manager for the entire mall. He had a personality like a cannon: explosive and intractable, prepared to withstand the siege and batter the walls of his employees' excuses with an inexhaustible supply of pure, iron-hard questions launched in volleys at high speed. His great failing was that he did not understand the simple rule that the recoil could do more damage than the missile. It went without saying that he was unpopular.

His head was square and his hair was smooth and dark. He parted it in a ruler-straight line on the left, and it swept over his scalp in a wave despite the pomade he used to tamp it down. He was clean-shaven to a fault, with olive skin that complemented his green eyes, and his suits and shirts were pressed, severe, and dark-coloured but not black. His ties were plain or striped, nothing fancy. All of his clothes were bought for him by his wife, who had a conservative taste. In college Ipswitch had worn jeans and button-down shirts, sometimes with a sweater, sometimes with a blazer. He had actually been borderline stylish.

Ipswitch hired the floaters. They were the people not assigned to any particular store, but who helped balance the load, especially around the holidays. Chester had been hired as a floater three years ago and had manoeuvred by blind luck into a fireproof position. Guy Tuffray hated Chester but didn’t have the authority to fire him, and Ipswitch hated Tuffray with a furious passion that was almost inspiring to Chester.

Whenever Tuffray went to Ipswitch to complain about Chester, the conversation was always more or less the same. Tuffray would be made to wait and Ipswitch’s secretary, an efficiently sour woman named Consuela, would watch him until he stood up to go to the bathroom. She was told to wait for this, and instructed to bark at him that Ipswitch was ready to see him right now.

Mumbling, self-conscious, Tuffray would enter Ipswitch’s office with his bladder on the edge of uncomfortable fullness. In the time that he had been waiting, Ipswitch would have the guest chairs removed from his office so Tuffray would have to stand, shifting back and forth foot to foot as Ipswitch talked on the phone, looked over some papers, typed on his computer. After fifteen minutes of this he would finally turn to Tuffray, whose legs were, by this time, turning to gelatin.


“It’s about that floater, sir. Chester.”

“Yes?” Ipswitch was obviously annoyed.

“He has no respect for authority, sir. I simply cannot work with him. He can’t do the easiest jobs. He isn’t a team player. He forgets to face items when he’s re-shelving them, he gets the price wrong when he is re-pricing them, he is useless in the stock room and useless on the floor. He can’t be trusted as a cashier, and when he cleans something it is dirtier than before he touched it. He—”

“Slow down, slow down. Honestly.” Ipswitch glared at him and waited for a slow count of ten. “Now tell me what your problem is with this Chester, and slowly.”

Knees shaking, Tuffray repeated what he had said.

“So what?”

“So what? Sir, he needs to be fired.”

“Tuffray,” he said with a note of warning in his voice. “I did the hiring and I will do the firing. I don’t need you to tell me who to fire.”

“Sorry, sir. Whom, sir.”


“Whom to fire. You said who to fire.”

“I just told you, you don’t tell me who to fire!”

“I know, sir.” Tuffray paused, his face nearly grey. “It’s whom, sir.”

“Whom what?”

“Whom to f-fire,” he said quietly.

“Listen, Tuffray,” Ipswitch began in a rage, “I decide who gets fired and who doesn’t when it comes to the floaters. You hear me? If you can’t handle your own workers then maybe I should be firing you. Now stand there and look me in the eye like a man and tell me you have things under control. And then get out of this office and don’t come back unless you have something important to talk about!”

Gasping quietly, Tuffray would turn and flee before his bladder exploded.

After he had sent him on his way, Ipswitch would lean back in his chair and chuckle in his rich baritone. And when the next floater schedule came out Chester would invariably be spending at least four days out of six at Mega-Mart.

The only way Chester could leave was if he quit, but he didn’t have it in him to go to Ipswitch and serve notice. Ipswitch was mean, irascible; he was also possessed of the stately tenacity of an asteroid plunging through the atmosphere. Regardless of heat, friction, or plain common sense, once Ipswitch was on a path he followed it to the inevitable moment of impact. If it so happened that a few species wound up extinct, so be it. To Ipswitch there was no difference between death and uselessness.

Chester knew which was the worse fate. At least when you died you got a funeral, a parade, a notice in the newspaper, something. Some shining outward display for your personal suffering. Chester sometimes daydreamed that his ultimate end would cause a public outcry matched only by the paroxysm of national grief that occurred when Elvis got drafted and all those beautiful women wept on TV. But he wasn't one to be picky about it. He'd be happy if he got a single tear from January Chajkowksi, who worked as a sales clerk at Candida's Fashion in the mall.

Death and utility were far removed from Chester's future, though, because Ipswitch needed Chester. He needed him to be the thorn in Tuffray's side, the vinegar in his milk. Ipswitch needed Chester for revenge, and Chester was just the blunt instrument for the job. Ipswitch's idea of revenge was so frigidly soulless and protracted that it made the ice ages look like a balmy long weekend.
As it turned out, the Texan gave Chester his chance to be free. That was another thing that Chester admired about him.

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