March 22, 2024 Short Story

Town Centers aren’t Shopping Malls

Town Centers aren’t Shopping Malls Artwork by DALL·E

“It’s a doctor’s appointment,” I speak loudly to make sure my colleague hears me on the speaker because traffic’s loud and my older car doesn’t block outside noises like the newer ones do. He hears me and cuts me off: ‘which doctor,’ and I say, “Oh, right. The new primary care, not the urologist or the lady who fixed my ACL. My old primary care guy started talking into a microphone during the exams. It made me feel like a cadaver about to be autopsied.” My colleague laughs, not because my joke was funny but because he knows something I don’t. “What?” I say. ‘That’s what they do now.’ He tries not to be condescending but can’t help it. I’d probably be condescending, too. ‘That’s why I have a stenographer in the room when I see my doctor.’ “Like in a courtroom?” I try to sound flippant but perturbed is a more fitting descriptor. ‘It beats your doctor talking into a microphone rather than talking to you.’ He sharpened his tone for that one, and I feel like a dumbass. “So, you’re saying this new doctor will do the same thing?” ‘Yeah,’ he pauses to laugh at me some more before quipping, ‘unless you request a stenographer.’


I don’t remember saying goodbye or hanging up, it just ends. Kind of like my last appointment with my old primary care doctor. Exhaust fumes seep into the car from the two tractor trailers in front of me trying to will their engines to survive the lethal combination of scorching asphalt and stop-n-go traffic. I push the little button that circulates air because it turned off again, another symptom of my aging car. Looking at the slowly moving vehicles around me makes me feel out of place. How many of them are driving themselves right now? How many of them don’t even use gasoline? A breeze must be blowing outside because the palm trees – the ones without wooden supports buttressing them until they establish themselves and won’t topple during tropical storms – sway slightly to the left and right like drunken fans at a Jimmy Buffet concert. I scan the parking lots, the median, and the sidewalks for a crepe myrtle or maybe an oak with Spanish moss hanging down, threatening to disconnect from the tree and float through the air like some lost kite until settling down in the road and being run over, but it’s palm trees in front of me, behind me, all around me. Like prison bars of progress or maybe due to the global warming, they’ve steadily replaced every native tree until I feel Miami or maybe Naples creeping in, only I’m hundreds of miles north of those places in a city where we used to joke that it was more southern Georgia than northern Florida.

The purgatory that is moving three car lengths for green light that lasts 15 seconds in between red lights that last three minutes ends as I finally turn left, but more traffic awaits me. The newly planted palm trees can’t hide the deserted parking lot of the once proud Park Regal Shopping Mall. I release the brake and let the car idle forward, stopping before the entrance that serves both the mall and the almost deserted Park Avenue Theater. We all hoped Navy pilots playing football on the beach would save the place, but that was one mission those flyboys – and flygirls – just couldn’t accomplish. The once bright red promontory atop its roof – the seventh wonder of my teenage world - continues to fade into lighter and lighter shades of pink until it will one day fade pale enough to blend in with the cloudy sky above it. Many of the other wonders of my teenage world happened there. The whiskey she snuck into the theater in her purse after lugging it around the mall for hours of lap after lap in the air conditioning because the tide was low and the beach was just too damn hot. There was something about cheap booze and watered-down coke that made her breath smell like licorice, made the her neck taste sweet as I kissed it repeatedly. Nothing about the seats that were never cleaned in between showings could gross me out because she was too pretty and too willing. Dizzy teenage love through a buzzed haze brought a sense of order to a disordered universe. I wonder if kids can still make out in those massive reclining chairs you sit in these days or if they are too far apart to even hold hands or caress an exposed thigh or to do anything except grab your drink from the holder and wonder if it’s just you in that theater all alone. I understand now why the place struggles so badly to make any money.

Traffic proceeds forward, and what looked like an all-day jam transforms into a synchronized swimming performance where everyone moves in the same direction at the same time without getting any closer or farther away from each other. A new odor wafts through the dashboard vents and builds around me like an invisible, dense fog. I press the little button again. I need a new car just like I need a new body, but both are too expensive. I dread doctor’s appointments even more than I dread the ‘recommended services’ that accompany oil changes. The aroma intensifies as it circulates and recirculates through every vent in the car. Fast-food smell. Not the kind that greets you when you walk in and immediately crave something fried. It’s the smell that emanates from the exhaust ports as the wind directs it over open dumpsters across 100-degree pavement before blending with carbon monoxide emanating from the cars in the drive-thru line with a heaviness that not only sticks to your nostrils but also permeates your pores.

Fast-food smell. It means I’m that much closer. The doctor. A new patient visit. All those questions. I prepare myself to lie. Occasionally, doctor, right, I only drink occasionally. My old doctor’s cheeks looked ready to burst into flames if his veins didn’t pop out of his thin skin first. I’m pretty sure he drank more than occasionally and so will this new guy, but it’s about me and not him and he gets to judge and be not judged. The power of the white coat indeed. Do I tell him I smoked in high school and then quit in college? Who the hell didn’t back then, and that was more than half my lifetime ago. Lungs clear up, right? One of my previous doctors used to smoke. I’d see her outside her office as I pulled into the parking lot. She must have scheduled gaps in her schedules for cigarette breaks. She was kind of sexy, too, something about the way she wore that white coat buttoned up just right. I always liked her and really haven’t found anyone else like that since. But I was younger then, and questions about risk factors and family history – dementia, heart disease, cholesterol, of course cancer – weren’t even asked.


I don’t request a stenographer. Instead of making eye contact with me, the new doctor splits his time staring into his laptop’s screen or the top of the tiny white microphone engulfed by his puffy pink hand, like if he doesn’t speak directly into the black fuzzy mic none of his words will be recorded. This inspires me to lie and validates my dishonesty because I never have to look at his face when I talk. It’s like hiding behind the screen and confessing to pretend sins because it’s confession day at Catholic school and the real ones you committed are too personal. I never smoked – ok once or twice in high school but you can hardly call me a former smoker – and I drink once or twice a week at the most. Yes, doctor, you are right. Maybe there’s an extra beer or two during sporting events but not enough to worry about or record for posterity in that stupid microphone of yours. I think of the British Parliament and vellum. Those recordings last 5000 years. Where will the recording of my new patient appointment be 5000 years from now? My lies disappear into his device and descend to meaninglessness.

He suggests getting bloodwork done before I leave, and I almost start confessing. Bloodwork is the Santa Claus of the medical profession. It tells the doctor if you’ve been bad or good, naughty or nice, and what sort of presents – in the form of medications or lifestyle changes – you deserve. I fear the bloodwork report will be a stocking filled with coal but agree to it anyway. The nurse makes my vein pop then inserts the needle with addict-like efficiency. The truth flows red through the tube, filling up a vial that will be my damnation. I say thank you and leave with a forced smile that I hope doesn’t give me away. The nurse doesn’t pay attention. I am one of many liars today who will be forgotten by the many liars tomorrow.


Exiting my new doctor’s office sends me in the opposite direction of the soon to be ghost town that once was a thriving shopping mall and movie theater. At least there are real trees with some Spanish moss on either side of the road as I pass by some residential neighborhoods before the road curves for the final stretch of my drive home. Like the pyramids of Egypt or the Colossus of Rhodes, the big box stores of the Park Royal Town Center rise up and stand tall, surrounded by rows of cars organized into horizontal, vertical, and diagonal parking spaces. The trees change from oaks to palms before thinning out and surrendering to billboards, store signs, and fast-food restaurants that are supposed to be more upscale than the ones by the movie theater. My ‘circulate air’ button again fails, and the fast-food smell seems the same. Old waffle fry and chicken oil mixed with discarded, artificially sweetened, milk-substance shakes. Not even Christian values can exorcise the demons from that stank.

The first shade I encounter since leaving the doctor’s office is the entrance to my building’s parking garage. My soon-to-be old man eyes adjust poorly, so I let the car idle in place until the concrete supports stop blending into the concrete walls and I can read the numbers on the spaces. There’s something about the echo my footfalls make as I trek to the elevator that always bugs me. I’m not really heavy enough to generate that much noise but I feel overweight anyway. I shouldn’t feel all alone up there, either, but that’s the case, too. I pass by the stairs and know my smart watch would be so happy if I just turned right, opened the door, and ascended. The flaming ring of fitness would have to wait another day, though, as the elevator is just too convenient and I’m hungry.


I stare at the pizza box inside my refrigerator and wish there were more items around it than an assortment of light beers. None of them taste as good as the real ones, but all those extra calories aren’t good for me, and they make me feel less guilty after lying to my new doctor. My fifth-floor apartment has a small, east-facing balcony. I grab the pizza box and decide the afternoon calls for cold pizza. Two different brands of light beer occupy my other hand as I walk across the kitchen into the small living area and finally out the balcony door. The building blocks the setting sun, so I can sit in shade far enough above the parking lots of the Town Center to avoid the heat and the fumes.

I contemplate which light beer to drink first and imagine sampling them to find the best pairing for cold pizza then doing it all over again for hot pizza. It must be the new, ‘brewery and wine bar’ below that evokes thoughts of becoming a master cicerone. Streams of people enter as the clock strikes happy hour and no one cares that it is a Wednesday. Florida heat makes many more months feel like summer than June, July, and August. The big box stores near closing time and streams of people exit them, their little cars stopping and going from stop sign to stop light to highway then home. Soon there is noticeably more parking lot space than cars and, from my elevated vantage point, the whole place resembles the abandoned mall just a few miles away but so many years in my past.

The last crust hits the pizza box forcefully causing the nearby beer on the glass table to jiggle, wobble, but not topple. Smiling, I rise from my chair and walk to the railing. The streetlights and some store lights come on, speckling the ground like fallen stars. I feel like a king surveying his kingdom. Town Centers are wonders of the world just like shopping malls used to be, full of just as much potential and possibility. How long will this one last? What new wonder will replace it? Tomorrow, I will take the stairs, both when I leave and when I return, and finally step inside that ‘brewery and wine bar.’ I’m sure they’ve got a decent beer on tap, and maybe someone special will be waiting for me to say hello. Still, the landscape looks incomplete, so I make one royal proclamation into the dusk: “This place really needs a movie theater.”