Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cautionary tale #439

There was a kid once. He had a name like Billy or Bobby, because that's the kind of name kids had back then. Now he'd be named Trevor or Hunter, and if he were a girl he'd be Madison or Riley.

Billy never paid any attention to what his mom told him. He crossed his eyes, and they didn't stick that way. He swallowed gum, and it went right through him. He knew, because he looked. He went out in the rain without a coat, and he rarely caught a cold, but he did catch hell if his mom found out.

So when Billy's mom said, "Pick your feet up at the top of the escalator, Dear, or you might get squashed flat like a postage stamp," Billy ignored her, and nothing ever came of it.

One day Billy was riding the escalator up to the second floor of J.C. Penney's. He liked going there to wander around the lingerie department and look at the bra mannequins. They were truncated women—torsos with heads and breasts, no arms. Faces with painted-on eyes, big and blue. Wigs in different styles. But they had what counted—bras. All kinds—great big ironclad bras with rivets, like the Titanic. Tiny, lacy bras with little flowers. Black, racy numbers that you couldn't see unless you went around behind the case to look at them, so he guessed the manager had mixed feelings about putting them out on the floor. Training bras, whatever that meant. He pictured girls wearing them with long lines hooked to the back. The girls trotted around in a corral, while a trainer stood in the middle and made encouraging clicking noises with his tongue.

Billy steered clear of the panties. That would have been perverted.

This time Billy was on his way up the escalator with his hand on the rubber handrail. The rail crept forward, gaining time against the gliding stairs. He wondered: Is the handrail on a separate motor? Why doesn't it stay even with the steps?

Coming the other direction, down the crosspiece of the big escalator X, he saw Mrs. Demmons, the school secretary. She smiled as they passed and said, "Why, Billy! Hello!" And then she was gone, her back to him in a tan wool car coat, carrying a paper bag with looped string handles.

First Billy smiled. He thought, Was she up in the underwear section? I'll bet she was getting one of those Titanic bras with the rivets.

But then he stopped smiling. Felt cold all up and down his back. She saw me, he thought. She knows where I'm going. Knows I'm on my way up to the lingerie department. Or, anyway, she knows there's nothing but women's clothes on the second floor. What if she tells Miss Garrett at school? What if Miss Garrett tells Mom?

With his head twisted around to watch Mrs. Demmons step off at the bottom, he forgot to pay attention to his own feet. Forgot to pick them up where the grooved steps flattened out to slide under the sharp metal comb at the top.

He felt his foot catch. Looked down, but it was too late. Feet first, before he could call for help, Billy got sucked into the escalator. The last thing the people behind him saw was eight fingertips pulled backwards under the comb.

The thing your mom doesn't tell you, because she doesn't know, is that you don't really get squashed like a postage stamp. There's that comb, and the long, grooved treads that look like the flip-over footrest on a barber's chair. The two surfaces work together like the rollers on a pasta machine. First Billy got flattened out, sure, but then the escalator squeezed and sliced him into long strips like linguini. The strands got tangled up in the machinery. The rolling steps squeaked to a halt, and the motor burned out. The manager of the Penney's had to call out the escalator man. They charged Billy's mom and dad for the repairs.

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