THE PUNCH, chpt 4
Decades ago, the Iowa City fathers decided to start over with a new downtown. They tilled the earth for ten blocks, tore out the old buildings, diverted streets and excavated the tangled roots of the old capital city. They left the business interests a lump of land in the shadow of the Pentacrest, the old Iowa State capitol building. And it was there that they built their great mall, a two-level walking promenade, with food court, theater and several large retail outlets that anchored the whole thing and made it a viable retail destination.
In its first years, families trucked in from the surrounding towns and spent the whole day buying plastic jewelry from Claire’s Boutique and drinking Orange Julius smoothies under the towering palm trees in the food court. It was the social center of the community.
But outside the mall, the grid of streets and old storefronts were left to the cold prairie winds. The whole town was boarded up and everyone sheltered under the shadows of the towering palms, buffeted from the winters by the dull green leaves of exotic rubber plants in decorative planters.
The streets outside became waste lands. Then the bars and college flops, started to sprout up like weeds. But no one cared. They had built their shinning cathedral with two sets of escalators and a glass elevator rising thirty feet above the food court. The downtown was buried and everyone enjoyed walking their circles around the mall.
But that was then. The palms are gone now. They rotted from the inside and collapsed across the promenade, destroying the make your own candle kiosk in ’96.
None of the storefronts were rented on the second floor besides the movie theater and the small hemp shop that peddled scratchy canvas clothing and three foot bubblers to the dreadlocked college students and old faculty who remembered what happened on The Pentacrest’s lawn during Vietnam. About the only store that seemed to be doing any real business, besides the pharmacy that fronted out onto the outside street and faced the College, was a Gap and its affiliate Gap kids.
Lissa never planned on going to that store. She even repeated the promise not to go when she left her car in the parking lot. But there she was thumbing through the racks of khaki pants and cotton button downs. Lissa loved to match outfits on the hangers, create miniature business casual ensembles similar to those that JD wore to his job with Aegon Insurance up in Cedar Rapids.
Usually she spent half an hour or more browsing the racks, then she would sit on a bench next to the closed off street that had become a pedestrian mall. There wedged between three story dance clubs and bars that specialized in jello shots, she sipped the double espresso she bought from the cute tattooed girl and created family memories of vacations she never went on and holidays she never shared.
She knew that one day she’d have to throw out all the miniature denim jackets, jeans and leggings before JD found them. Over the last year or so, Lissa had amassed a collection of outfits that rivaled the most spoiled toddler, but the idea of walking back and forth from the curb to her house with armfuls of children’s clothes made her woozy. So instead she did nothing, and the collection became more and more cumbersome. She kept most of the outfits in an old steamer trunk that belonged to her grandmother. It was stuffed, almost to capacity and strained against its hinges down in the basement.
But today she could at least half keep her promise, and not buy anything. She’d been through all of these weeks ago.
Lissa tracked down Kathy, the assistant manager, to ask her about the fall and back to school clothes. Kathy told her that they were waiting on the last of the summer clothes to move, before they stocked the fall. Everything was in back waiting to be shelved, but there was too much inventory to send back, and the store couldn’t afford to slash prices.
But things were getting dire. Kathy told Lissa to come back in two weeks when everything would be stocked. Then the discount racks would be left out front for the Stroller Strides Moms to pick over and she’d have her run of the new collection. Lissa thanked her and they parted with a handshake.
Three or four storefronts down, she saw flashing lights coming from an old men’s wear store. Lissa walked toward it. In the big glass windows were red, white and blue posters for Senator Barbara Linn. This was the regional office for the Senator from New York. Lissa stood and looked through the great open windows. Inside were a couple of collapsible tables, a wall of filing cabinets, and a cardboard box filled with what looked like telephones all piled in on top of each other. From outside, she could only make out two people inside, each at opposite corners.
Out front, right in the middle of the plate glass windows, huge plasma televisions ran campaign footage and different slogans. “I am the US,” flashed under images of teachers, managers, office workers and farmers, each person defined by various props from their jobs. They all stood together out in a field and the camera looked down on them with, “You & I: a stronger US,” along the bottom of the screen.
Then the camera pulled back. It rose like the space shuttle above the earth and revealed more and more people until you couldn’t make out individuals and all you saw was the outline of the country alive with a quivering mass of life on the surface.
“US Schools Lose Funding.”
The camera plummeted to earth, centered over the gulf coast. The screen faded to a clip of the Senator speaking in front of a crowd of school kids. The crowd behind her was filled with black and white children in school jumpers and uniforms.
The screen went to a black background. White words in an important and accusatory font appeared.
“When Schools Fail, You & I are responsible.”
Back to the Senator, smiling and holding a book surrounded by children.
“US Students at Bottom of Industrialized World. We are Responsible.”
It was all too heavy handed. Lissa was about to turn away, then she saw the little hand. It was a close up of tiny fingers wrapped around the thumb of an adult. It was a delicate, thin, back lit arm that gripped the finger, and you could make out a long plastic tube run under the skin up to the armpit. Through the translucent skin, Lissa saw the dark flow of pulsing blood.
She was transfixed. A golden glow hung around the crown of the baby’s head. It was a halo. The camera slowly pulled back. The baby’s eyes were little slits on the gaunt stretcher that pulled his skin. Its mouth opened and exposed a pink gum line and little tongue.
As the camera lens continued to pull back, it was obvious that the glowing crown, the halo was just the reflection of some overhead lamp on the Plexiglas incubator the child was laid in. But it worked. Lissa felt a physical sensation of guilt, regret, fear. It was personal and stirred deep within her.
“Miscarriages Rise. Every Year More and More Children Born Premature.”
“We Are All Responsible.”
Lissa watched the video loop through its presentation back to the beginning. She stared into the screen and waited to see if there was anymore about infant mortality. Then just as she was about to go into the storefront, two kids zipped past. The wheels of their skateboards vibrated against the tiled floor with a distinctive boom-bip, boom-bip, boom-bip.
Behind them, an old security guard ran, yelling for them to stop. He repeated, “No skateboarding in the mall,” over and over as he gasped for breath. One of the boys smiled at her and tipped an imaginary hat to Lissa as he rode past.
Lissa stepped back from the window and planted herself right in the path of the barreling security guard. He pulled up lame from his run. Lissa asked the guard for directions to JC Penny’s, even though she knew the old Penny’s had long been boarded, moved to better demographics in the Coralville exurbs.
The guard caught his breath and started talking, but she turned away. She apologized over her shoulder and told him she remembered now that it moved. Lissa watched as the boys pushed out past the doors of the decaying shopping mall and roared into the center of town. Lissa smiled and entered to campaign office. She wanted to get involved.