He never smiled when he was supposed to.   The photographer, a big woman with small hands propped him roughly on the dusty velvet.   She had stiff curls that stood up off the back of her neck, which she worried her fingers over while disapproving of the soft cowlick that framed the baby’s bulbous forehead.

Some help here, she said to the mother who bit jagged pieces of skin from short fat fingers, with nails chewed down to the quick.   Mechanically the mother walked over to the baby, picked up his hands and dropped them by his side.   The baby stared at his mother, burrowed a balled fist into his tiny eye socket and rubbed. The photographer huffed a bit.  She waved a toy animal, its species indecipherable.  She sucked her teeth.   The baby blinked, and then looked to his mother, who stood with hands on her hips.

Tell you what, the photographer started to say then stopped, placing a finger to her lips.  The mother raised the pencil thin brows that snaked over her small eyes.    Tell you what, she said again, like she was thinking hard.  I’m going to step out for a cig.  You get the little guy to smile, okay?

The mother stood in front of the baby, his plaid little tie a bit askew, tiny stiff collar and corduroy vest.    The baby looked into her face, brought two hands together.  An attempt at a clap, then nothing.

The photographer brought back a strong whiff of smoke on her clothes and the mother breathed in.  What she wouldn’t give. 

How we doin’ here?

Well, the mother said. She looked apologetically at the baby, who seemed serene in his sadness.  Well.  She said it like a proclamation.

The large woman sighed.  Listen, these pictures don’t come cheap.  Another day, okay?

The baby slumped.

No one else was waiting.  The sound of the children’s carousel whined on and on, where it clashed with the generic Mall music that made you feel far away and unreal.

The mother grabbed her bag and leaned down to pick up her boy.    Instead, she  stopped and looked into his eyes. She took his nose into her thick fingers and gave it a squeeze.  The baby closed his eyes and began to cry.   There, there she said, like mothers who wear aprons on television.  There , there , she cooed, looking around her.   The boy’s cries slowed to a whimper.  His eyes shone.  His cheeks a high, pink color now. She stuck a finger in his armpit, wiggled it around a bit.  A half smile.   A spurt like a giggle.

She looked around and called out.  Now.  We’re ready.

She saw the woman back in the office, at a desk littered with Styrofoam coffee cups, and the proofs of so many children scattered like trash  on ever surface.   Her big shoes lay on the office floor as she stretched her legs in front of her , feet up.

The mother heaved the baby onto her jutting hip.  He grabbed at her hair and squealed. He pressed his wet lips against her cheek.  The mother wiped the residue of tears with her hand.   His little nose was still bright red, making his eyes look even bluer.

Together, they took the long walk down the brightly lit corridor of the mall.

The sound of the children’s carousel droned circus music on its rusted mechanical tines.   It clashed with the generic Mall music.  The kind that had always made her feel far away.  And not quite real.  

Michelle Reale is an academic librarian on faculty at a university in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her work has been published in a variety of venues such as Eyeshot, Word Riot, Smokelong Weekly, Monkeybicycle and others. Her fiction chapbook Natural Habitat was recently published by Burning River. Her fiction/prose poem chapbook , Like Lungfish Getting Through the Dry Season, will be forthcoming from Thunderclap Press.

Malls are both fascinating, though grotesque and depressing places to me.  This story came out of a unsettling feeling I had after going to the mall  one day and seeing young , tired mothers pushing strollers , hearing the eerie sound of the carousel  and watching them  wait in line for  a photo special that was going on that day and had been set up near one of the entrance/exits.  Little boys dressed  in silly, cheap  outfits, which made them look like little men, cried and misbehaved. Little girls dressed like sirens whined.   The "photographer" was a hulking woman with a tight smile and little patience.   I still can't get the image out of my head! 



Copyright 2009