Embrace the Cardboard Troglodyte

Rose finally convinced me to travel to the Capital with her for a shopping extravaganza at the mall. Truth be told, I’d avoided the proposed trip for almost a year and a half, even though Rose, along with my other friends, gushed over the 80% off sales they hit there. I couldn’t have cared less, really, except that my children did need shoes. While I doubted the 80% off claims, I was still reasonably certain that the price-to-quality ratio of shoes found at the Capital Mall would be better than could be found in our pauxdunc town. So before I sent the kids to my mom’s house for the day, I drew outlines of their feet on paper and folded the little paper feet into my purse. As an opposing force to me, Rose preferred shopping with a crowd and, hence, forced her two eldest boys to make the trip with us. Her other four kids she, too, sent to my mom’s.

Rose was an enthusiastic woman who embraced motherhood right down to her physical appearance. Side by side with her, it didn’t appear that I had birthed multiple children as she had. After all these years, I hadn’t managed to add a single inch to my hip measurement, and that was not to mention that I retreated from being an overweight, energetic mom. I don’t know what it is about women who pack pounds on the general hip region. They run around as if fueled by the EFAs stored there. Oh, yeah, and they make me dizzy. As soon as Rose and I entered the mall, I realized my mistake in making the trip with her instead of going solo. She would drag me around like a recalcitrant child, as she always did. She reminded me of my mom. To this day, I’m not certain why my mom never believed me when, as a child, I complained that the mall gave me headaches. The piped-in synthetic fragrances and new materials were enough to knock out the heartiest, even Rose, who suffered from sinus problems. Yet, Americans still continued to crawl all over the malls, twenty-odd years past their 1980s heyday. What did they think the mall would accomplish for them? Good God above, please let the 80% off myth be true just this once! Maybe that was it.

Rose had already decided that her errands were ten times more important than mine. She ran off in one direction, and then another, as if somebody had fired a Go! shot, but she didn’t know where the fabled finish line waited. Her sons were soon caught in her tailwind and drifted off with her; I didn’t try to keep up. That’s not exactly true. I did at first. Rose needed to visit formal dress shops–her eldest son was to be married in May. He couldn’t manage to feign interest in what his mom would wear to his wedding, but she did all the feigning for him. He was simply along for the ride with a to-do list from his wife-to-be, which I guessed he would not do. He was the type of young man who gave compliant murmurs, and proceeded to do whatever he wanted. In fact, after compliantly following us to various shops that would ostensibly have fulfilled his to-do list, but where he purchased nothing, he slunk off toward the bookstore with a mumbled excuse.

I wished I could be like a compliant young man who wasn’t. For some reason, Rose insisted she needed me to help her pick something that would slenderize her. Rose never listened to me, regardless, and that was part of the pretense. She needed somebody along who would listen to her, not somebody who would advise her. I was, therefore, to feign interest and pretend I had no needs of my own. Her second son was in this for new soccer cleats and would get his heart’s desire if he followed his mom around long enough. As for me, my desires ran to quickly ferreting out suitable shoes for my children. Afterwards, I would find it pleasant to sit on a bench, drink coffee, and stare at the odd cross-section of people who passed through the mall.

Despite the direction-less stumbling around, the three of us managed to find the main plaza. This was the place to be because it had maps of all the shops and eateries, which were centered around an enormous fountain that appeared to be an Aztec pyramid. Rose, true to form, ran down the wet fountain steps as a short-cut to the formal-wear store she wanted. Although I tried to run down the steps, too, I slipped on the top step and realized that what was simple for Rose might be deadly for me. I would come crashing down and, possibly, crack my head on one of the decorative rocks. I took the long way around, hoping I would catch sight of Rose on the other side. To my chagrin, I couldn’t see her or remaining son, not down any of the mall corridors.

At first, this turn of events annoyed me. Rose was an annoying shopper, but she was my best friend, as well as my ride back. I shrugged. She hadn’t exactly waited for me. We both had cell phones and could find each other later. Remembering the paper feet tucked in my purse, I studied the list of stores until I found the Shoe Emporium on one of the maps and headed in that direction. I never did find it in the maze of stores and eventually stopped short by a healthcare booth in the center of a corridor because I recognized one of the two women who were helping people choose health plans there. Back when I was in my twenties and still had hopes of a writing career, the woman and I had joined the same critique group. She was a woman of mysterious charm, no doubt owing to her enormous smile. She stood smiling between two cardboard cutouts that represented the healthcare options. One cutout was of a cartoonish mad-scientist, wearing a monocle and a white doctor’s jacket. The other depicted a hunched-over woman who resembled a Disneyesque old crone.

“Pat?” I shouted at my old friend.

The woman squealed, ran over to me in her signature three-inch spike heels, and caught me up in a hug. She was nearly sixty, yet smelled of perfume that cried out her remaining attempt at sex appeal. Her cheeks glittered with gold dust.

“Wait one minute,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

I watched her sashay over to the next booth, which was filled with gold bling. She waited on some young gang-bangers there, turning on the charm for them. She had always dated younger men, but these “men” were practically boys. Aside from that, during a group chat with some of our other writer friends, I’d learned the young men weren’t falling for Pat anymore. When somebody dared to ask her why she didn’t date men her own age, she claimed men her age were boring and conservative, two of the worst traits a human could possess, in her not-so-humble opinion. Somehow, she’d given my boring life and libertarian views a pass a long time ago. We were artist friends, soul mates. The same martyr blood beat in my veins that beat in hers. Or so she thought.

Back at the healthcare booth, she engaged me in conversation on the typical subjects for discourse among old friends: writing, politics, and universal healthcare. Whenever we stumbled on a controversial topic, she would mysteriously find she had customers at the bling booth and sally off in order to avoid confrontation. After a while, this annoyed me, and I directed a point-blank question at her about the healthcare plans she was selling (healthcare and bling–aye, what writers have to sell for a living!). She already understood that being forced to pay into a corporate health plan enraged my normally calm self. But because I had to have a plan by mandate, I asked her about the options.

On a national level, there were two: I could have care with the Troglodytes (as represented by the mad scientist) or with the Gobernadoras (as represented by the bruja). The Troglodytes were a group of conservative, anti-abortion males, whom Pat despised. The Gobernadoras were traditional curanderas who would provide abortions at their own discretion. Ah, abortion–that was a controversial subject for most people. Pat ran off to her bling booth before I could manage to form any words. The other healthcare woman, quiet up to that moment, gave me a pitying look.

“Don’t worry, the Troglodytes are outlawed in this state,” she informed me. “But it’s the national law to tell you they’re available as an option.”

“I don’t understand. Why would one of the two options be outlawed?” Better still, why were we just hearing about this now?

“It’s part of the culture here. The Gobernadoras are considered to be the protectors of society, and so they sued to keep it that way. They’re the ones who decide whether an abortion is necessary when they divine the baby’s heart post-birth. They’ve been protecting society here for hundreds of years. We don’t need outsiders to take that role from us.”

I swallowed. I’d heard of such things, but when I’d written up reports on the local medicine tradition back in college, I was only allowed to cite the propaganda. According to the official documents, the native herb ladies were Holy Healers who didn’t involve themselves with divining. I shook away my unease as I stared at the mad scientist. Then I studied Pat, whose cackle of laughter assaulted my ears, even though she directed it at the young man examining one of her gold watch bands. After all these years, Pat and I were nothing alike. Writing was no longer a career I longed for, and I wasn’t certain why I’d remained a member of various writing group forums. I liked Pat; that was why. She was my sixty-year-old friend who was destined for loneliness. I liked her, as well as the other writers who moaned and groaned about the sorry state of publishing and the world.

By contrast, Rose never moaned and groaned and, yet, I was nothing like her, either. She directed her energy toward happy endeavors. Likely, her happiness was owing to never choosing to wear spike-heeled shoes. She wasted far too much money on shoes, but her choices ran to expensive exercise wear. Pat clicked back over to the health booth, the smile and gold dust intact on her face. She handed me our state healthcare pamphlet, which detailed the one available option. I pretended to absorb myself in reading the fine print, but thankfully, my phone vibrated. It was a text from Rose, sent to me and her missing son. If others had joined us on this shopping trip, she would have sent the message to all those who couldn’t keep up with her mad sprees. MEET ME AT ROMANO’S! she shouted at her son and me in text.

Unlike both Rose and Pat, I directed my life toward banal endeavors, such as shoes for the kids. Sometimes, though, I needed what others barred from me, and not because it was barred, but because I didn’t prefer to have old crones examining what I brought into the world. Therefore, I needed my own friendly troglodyte, even if I had to leave the state to find him. An overwhelming desire to embrace the mad cardboard scientist washed over me. I determined to snatch him up and run away with him, and I smiled to myself as I imagined Rose’s amusement at discovering my cardboard health provider sitting next to her at our lunch table. I also imagined him ordering a dish not on the menu, and recommending I do the same. Troglodytes were like that.

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4 comments

  1. I like malls. It’s not my natural habitat so I like looking around occasionally. I wish we had a mall nearby on the northern plains to walk in in the winter. I usually go look at the T shirts in the goth store. Then do a circuit around the balcony and walk the length on the lower level. Maybe get an orange Julius. Probably not.

    1. Whose natural habitat is a mall?! Ick. I don’t like malls, either, but an Orange Julius sounds pretty good. I haven’t had one of those in ten years or more.

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