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A Trace Story by Rodger Jacobs

Trace and the Christmas Shoppers

short fiction
by Rodger Jacobs

It was a dry and crisp Saturday afternoon with fifteen days remaining on the calendar before Christmas. Trace never paid much attention to calendars except for their usefulness in plotting a magazine deadline. There was a time when he always had a calendar next to his desk — usually bought at a 50 percent discount after the holidays — but he found that the numbers staring him in the face every day filled him with dread and anxiety. The rent was due on the first of the month. The pay day advance had to be rolled over on the fifteenth. The bank loan payment was due on the eighteenth. There were always doctors appointments on certain dates and lunch appointments and cocktail get-togethers and birthdays to remember. So he stopped buying calendars altogether and lived a relatively disordered week-to-week existence, jotting down on a legal pad what had to be accomplished in any given week, always ordered by day, not date.

He decided to walk the ten blocks to the Glendale Galleria to buy a new bathrobe that December afternoon. That was the first mistake. The L.A. air was dry and he was suffering from a bronchial ailment brought on by the inhalation of the white flecks of dead skin that cascaded off his body every morning. When his psoriasis was ragingly acute — as it had been lately — he spent the first few hours of every day sitting at the desk, quietly surfing the internet for research on whatever he was working on at the moment and using an array of blunt instruments to scrape the dead skin from his legs and upper torso. He found that the bottom edge of a hard plastic Bic lighter worked best for this purpose. He stopped using a wooden fork years earlier after he suffered nerve damage in both legs from employing such a cruel implement.

“You just need to stop scratching so much,” a doctor once told Trace with a jovial smile and a hand clasp to the shoulder.

“And maybe you need to stop breathing so much,” Trace countered. “Telling a psoriasis patient not to scratch is like telling someone with TB they need to stop coughing.”

It wasn’t until he was two blocks away from the mammoth indoor shopping mall that Trace realized how close it was to Christmas. On the narrow residential streets adjoining the Galleria the vehicle traffic was heavier than usual, cars swarming like slow-moving sharks in the vain search for a parking spot. Trace soldiered on regardless. He needed that new bathrobe, something bulky and warm to wrap around his scarlet and scaly white skin in the cold and dry winter evenings and mornings.

Inside the mall it was far worse than he imagined. There they were, the happy hordes of the healthy. Fat ones, skinny ones, families walking five and six abreast, unsupervised children, men and women shopping alone and happy couples shopping together. The task was going to be as difficult as trying to navigate through Disneyland in the summer.

Trace looked upon it as a game of hop scotch, navigating from one open space to another as he made his way toward the Mervyn’s flagship at the eastern edge of the mall. He seized a piece of open space surrounding a woman pushing a baby stroller and used that gain in ground to shoulder past a Hispanic family strolling so slowly that Trace wondered if they thought they were in a park. Passing the slow strollers, he veered to the left where there was an open space near a jewelers shop.

“I need to buy a new cross,” he heard a woman say as she grabbed her boyfriend or husband by the hand and pulled him into the jewelers.

Strange way to put it, Trace thought. Most people would say “crucifix”.

He darted through another open space and made his way to the escalator to the second floor that led to the men’s department at Mervyn’s. The restaurants were also on the second floor. Fast food. Burgers, Chinese, pizza by the slice, stir fry. There were long lines outside every food venue so he gave up on the idea of procuring anything to eat from the mall even if it was nearly three o’clock and he hadn’t eaten all day.

Once inside the department store he grabbed the first bulky bathrobe he found and seized a place in line. The three cashiers were frenzied. The shoppers were impatient. When it was Trace’s turn to step forward he made the mistake of hesitating for a beat, causing a woman standing behind him to snap “Next in line!” He glared at the woman and wished he had his cane with him. He was capable of causing a lot of mischief with his cane, little upsets and injuries that had the appearance of being accidental.

He fled the mall at the Brand Boulevard exit and began the ten block walk home. Three blocks into his retreat he realized too late that he was walking at a pace too fast for his ailments, still employing the aggressive land grabbing technique that carried him through the hordes of Christmas shoppers. The dry December air was swooping into his bronchial passages afflicted with dead skin. He slowed his stride but already he felt his throat tightening. He tried to clear his throat but that only brought on a dry, hacking cough.

Trace always prided himself on being able to carefully disguise and conceal his ailment from the public but this wasn’t going to be one of those days. He desperately needed water to clear the dry air in his throat but there was none to be found. He grabbed the edge of a bus bench with one gloved hand and began coughing with violent fury, looking every bit like the character he never wanted to be, a desperately ill man who needed bed rest instead of shopping with the hordes of the healthy and rushing to meet another magazine deadline and yet another and another after that, and promoting his book when not on a magazine deadline. Except for the two hours every night when Trace lathered his burning legs and torso with a Vaseline-like topical substance while watching a movie, his life was one endless deadline, one story after another to write, like some demented tribal elder chattering around the campfire, never knowing when to shut up but his ability with words was keeping everyone enthralled and it was paying his way through life so there it was.

Trace tried not to notice the reaction he was drawing from pedestrians and motorists, hunched over the bus bench as he expelled in loud barks and hacks the irritant in the back of his throat.

The coughing spell passed in less than five minutes. The slam to Trace’s dignity would take much longer to go away.

*****

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