Have you ever thought about what’s going to happen to all those big box stores now that they’re all closing down? One day there’s a Circuit City in the Market Square Shopping Center and the next day it’s boarded up and empty. One day you shop at a Linens N Things at the Meadowbrook Crossing and one day you can’t anymore because it’s just an empty shell. The Borders at the edge of town is gone, too, and you used to love going there. But now it’s a vacant hole in the middle of an even-more-vacant parking lot. The companies that own them have a public name for these places: “dark stores.” Like they’re just temporarily dark, like the one night a week a Broadway show gives it a rest, as if soon they will be light again once everyone gets their act together. But inside the industry, out of the eyes of the public, we fixers call them something else: ghostboxes. Because they’re dead and empty and haunted, and even though I’m coming to town to flip a switch so one isn’t dark anymore, that light won’t last. Not really. Once they’re dead, they’re dead.
There aren’t many too many fixers like me out there. At least, not many good ones. It’s a tougher job than it looks, it requires just the right touch. See, what I do is figure out what should be done with the ghostbox once it’s dead. Sometimes I get hired by the city if it owns the property that’s gone to shit, but mostly I’m on retainer for the corporate giant that shut down the store but is still on the hook for the taxes. You can’t just knock down the building and start over, no way. Not anymore. The environmentalists will be all over your ass for creating waste and the big carbon footprint. Plus who’s going to pay to acquire that land and then build something else there? It would be like building a house over an Indian graveyard. No ma’am, there is no market demand for something like that, none whatsoever.
Instead, you gotta get creative. You have to breathe an afterlife into that 100,000 square foot monstrosity, figure out how best to reclaim that large single room, twice as big as a football field but with no windows and bad lighting, so that a few more dollars can be squeezed out of it. The lazy fixers take the easy path: they find some two-bit hustler who wants to open an indoor go-cart track. They work out a deal with a company that’ll make the ghostbox into a roller-skating rink in the summer, a Halloween haunted house in the fall, a ghetto ice-skating joint in the winter. They negotiate with a guy who’s going to cram a call center into a corner of the space and work the phones 24 hours a day. Not me. I’m an artist. That’s why I’m the best goddamn fixer alive and I have 17 jobs lined up after this one.
Usually I like to spend a whole week in town so I can get a feel for things, get a better sense of what will fit best in the ghostbox. That’s something most fixers don’t do. But even though I’m booked to be here through Friday, I really won’t need a full week for this job. I used to live here, before I went full-time on the road as a fixer four years ago. I know all about this place: where the kids hang out, what the old guys talk about at the diner, where the moms in yoga pants spend their afternoons, all that. In fact, I already have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to pull together to fill the old abandoned Bed Bath & Beyond in Crescent Hill Plaza. No, the only reason I’m going to spend five days in town is because Julia still lives here.
It’s 2:00 in the afternoon and it’s just me and some guy from the city zoning commission standing in the empty parking lot outside the ghostbox. These guys like to do their business over the phone or, worse yet, at their crappy depressing government office. But I insist on making my meetings with them a site visit. Getting them out there standing next to the hulking, decrepit old store often does wonders to move the process along.
“I’m just not seeing it, Mr. Chambers,” he says, shaking his head with a tight little expression on his face. “I don’t see how your employer expects us to negotiate down the missed tax payments and allow you to just waltz right in here with some fly-by-night subtenant. I don’t see why we’d allow that sort of – ”
My phone rings, interrupting him. Normally I keep it on vibrate, that’s the professional thing to do. But today is different. I look to see who was calling, then look up at him while pointing at the phone and say, almost apologetically, “I gotta take this.”
“Well – ”
I don’t stick around to hear what he says. I answer the call while walking away a few steps.
“It’s certainly a surprise to hear from you, Jules,” smiling and smooth and calm as can be.
“Really? Cause you left me four messages this morning.”
“I wasn’t sure if your voicemail was working. I wanted to be sure you got my message.”
“Oh, I got your message,” she says with her sarcastic laugh, “and the next three messages too.”
God, it’s good to hear her voice again. I tell her so. “God, it’s good to hear your voice again. How long has it been? Like three or four years?”
She sighs. “What do you want, Patrick?”
This is going great. I’m surprised she called me back so quickly, and I’ve already kept her on the line longer than I thought I would. “Well, I just thought you would want to know that I’m back in town. I’m going to be here all week.”
“Oh my God, are you for real?” she says, but not in a happy sort of way. This isn’t going so great.
The zoning guy interrupts me, he had walked over to where I had wandered. “Mr. Chambers – I have a meeting at 2:30 so we really must –”
I scowl and turn my back on him and cover my free ear with my hand.
“Listen, Jules. I’d like to see you, really. It’s been too long,” and just like that I was talking into a dead phone because she had hung up on me somewhere around “I’d like to see you.” I wasn’t too worried, I had known it would take a little work. I realize I am smiling.
“Mr. Chambers, please. Unless you can convince me…”
I turn my attention back to him and listen to him for a few more minutes, letting him vent and get his point across. I nod a couple of times, too, showing him that I am listening and acknowledging what he is saying. Just as he’s gathering up some steam, I hold up my hand and start talking over him.
“OK, look. Here’s the deal. The city’s going to approve this. I know it, and you know it, so let’s stop bullshitting each other. For one thing, you’ve got so many vagrants and meth heads crawling through this shit heap that I’m surprised your car hasn’t been broken into in the five minutes we’ve been here. I know the other tenants around here are bitching about it and threatening to leave town unless you do something, so I know you want to fill this space like now. So here’s what’s going to happen. I’ll find a subtenant for this space by the end of the week and they’ll agree to pay 20% of what Bed Bath & Beyond was paying in monthly taxes.” He opens his mouth to talk. “Nuh-uh-uh – I’m not done,” I say, holding up my hand again with one finger extended like I was telling a kindergartner not to interrupt. “They’ll move in within two months and this disgusting blight will be gone and your other tenants will calm the hell down. You’ll be the big hero because you even brought in some new tax revenue. Meanwhile you’ll let us pay down the outstanding tax payments within three years at zero interest. You can issue a press release about how you reclamated this land and did it in an environmentally friendly way and all that horseshit and no one will complain about the taxes. The voters will love it.” He starts to say something else but I continue, just a little louder. “And if you don’t approve the deal, have fun explaining how all this fell apart. My people are in bed with the holding company that owns the Times-Courier, and they’ll start a 10-part series about how corrupt you are and how the rest of your zoning commission are incompetent fuckwits if I give them the word.”
I pull a business card out of my pocket and hold it out to him.
“I’m going to be here the rest of the week finding a subtenant that works for this space. Call me by Thursday to tell me we have a deal. My cell phone number is on here.” He doesn’t move, so I slide the card into his jacket pocket and pat it for good measure.
I always include my cell phone number on my business card. That’s the professional thing to do.
Nothing much happened on Wednesday. Well, the zoning guy called me late in the morning. I let it go to voice mail and then listened to his message right after. Of course the city agreed to the deal. In order to save face a little he told me that they would need to approve the tenant that I found for the space to make sure it was consistent with the city code and appropriate in all respects and blah blah blah. That afternoon I started working to finalize the deal with the new tenant I’d lined up.
Oh, and Julia agreed to meet with me. That’s the big news from the day. (I’m trying to do that thing where you say, “It was your pretty average day, I just hit the lottery, that’s all” or “Things were pretty dull today, except for discovering life on Mars, you know.” I’m not really good at expressing my feelings, so I sometimes try to downplay the really good or really bad things.)
We’re going to meet up after work tomorrow night at the Valleyview Game Center. It’s set up where the old Woolworth discount department store used to be. It was the first ghostbox I converted here in town right before I took to the road. It’s now one of those places where adults can go to play around. You know, bowling in one area, video arcade in another, mini-golf over here, karaoke over there. Just like one of the kid fun centers, but with alcohol. I’ve scouted it out two straight nights and each night it’s been pretty crowded with the after-work happy hour crowd, pretty lively. It’ll be perfect.
How’d I get Julia to agree to meet with me? Consider that a trade secret. Let’s just say I’m a pretty persuasive guy when I need to be.
I will say this. I’ve found that the best way to sell is to do more listening than talking. Figure out your customer’s pain point and then explain to them that you are the person who can solve that particular problem. I’ve never understood this: how can you sell a pen to someone if you don’t know whether they even need a pen? No, it’s better to sit and listen and listen some more and then once you know what it is they need, you transform what you are selling into that very thing that’s going to solve their problem. So with Julia, I know she’s perpetually lonely. She just is, that’s her thing. She’s the kind of person who can be at a party and feel sad because she thinks she’s alone. I remember once we were on a romantic getaway weekend and strolling down the street at dusk after dinner, and she looked up at this building with apartments or condos or whatever. All of a sudden she just started crying. She told me that at first she thought the dozens of glowing lights in the windows of the building were beautiful, but then the more she thought about it, the more she started to feel sad because she imagined all the people in those apartments were doing things that she wasn’t doing. She felt left out, she said.
Another example: I’ve always been a pretty sound sleeper. Near the end, when things weren’t going so good, Julia and I would tend to fight with each other in the evening. That was our special “argument time.” She’d be all wound up from work and then the cooking and cleaning and whatnot, and I’d come home from working late, and then we’d fight. Anyway, I was always able to fall asleep just fine, but she had this thing where she couldn’t sleep after we fought but would just lay there in bed, wide awake most of the night. One morning I woke up and she looked awful; she hadn’t slept a wink. She told me that never in her life had she felt lonelier than she had that night, laying there next to me, waiting for me to wake up. That morning was the last time I’d seen her. I left town that afternoon.
Long story short, Julia’s a lonely person and I’m going to solve that problem for her tomorrow night. But I’ve probably said too much already. I didn’t get to be so good at my job by just giving away all my secrets.
“I’ve convinced quite a few churches to take over ghostboxes. That always cracks me up.” I smile broadly to show how good-humored I am over the whole thing and Julia takes the bait.
“Are you serious? Churches?” she says with a laugh.
“Oh, yeah. You go down South or into the Midwest and they treat their religion in a lot more of a functional way than the rest of the country does.” I tick off the reasons with my fingers. “Those empty stores can fit a whole lot of people, they have a ton of parking, and because there’s no windows, it’s pretty easy to regulate the temperature. That’s really important when most of your customers are old people.”
“I don’t think they call them customers,” she says, sipping at her drink. “Congregants.”
“Right. Congregants,” I say, and then I laugh.
We’re in the biggest bar area of the Game Center, right near the stage where karaoke is being sung poorly but quite gamely by a group of office workers with a fairly large crowd around us. ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’ by Captain and Tennille.
We stop chatting for a minute and watch the performance. Jules turns to me and smiles. “Woof,” she says.
“I know, right?”
“You’d never catch me doing that,” she says, clearly wanting to do that. “So, you’re only in town through tomorrow, huh?”
“Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” I say, good-naturedly.
“No,” she says, laughing, “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“It’s OK. Yeah, just through tomorrow. I have a flight to Reno at around noon.”
“Going to turn a Kmart into a synagogue?”
I can’t tell if she’s being critical or not, so I just let it slide and act like she’s being playful.
“Ha-ha. No, this time I’m working with a 75,000 square foot abandoned Ross Dress For Less. This will be an easy sell, though, I think, I should wrap it up in a day. I already have a commitment from a community college to convert the store into their new satellite campus.”
“Now you’re screwing with me.”
“No, swear to God! I’ve done a bunch of community colleges and trade schools and that sort of thing. Huge market out there for that, and no one wants to build anything new.” I tip back my beer and the song ends; there’s applause and cheering from the crowd. Julia joins in for a minute, turning towards them and giving a few whoops. I enjoy just looking over at her while she’s distracted. I missed looking at her.
She turns back to me and could probably tell I was looking at her. She just smiles and looks down. “Well, I’m glad everything is going well for you, Patrick. I really am.”
I’m about to say something back to her when the karaoke announcer yells into his microphone, “It’s 6:00 o’clock, and that means that our Challenge Hour is about to begin! If you get challenged to sing, you can’t refuse, or you’ll face public humiliation and the scorn of your peers. Are you ready!”
By the sound of the yelling and hollering, the crowd is quite clearly ready.
“Our first challenge victim is – oh, right, this is a special one. We received this request two nights ago from someone who wanted to make sure they were first tonight. OK, is Julia Pershing here?”
Julia’s head pivots towards mine and her eyes are enormous.
“No you didn’t,” she says.
“Yes I did,” I say. I raise my hand and yell over to the announcer, “Here she is!” The crowd cheers.
A few minutes later and she’s up on stage, looking pretend-terrified but happy to have the attention. She’s got a pretty good voice and she knows it. The announcer queues up the song: “Here it is, Julia! Your challenge song – ‘I Want You Back,’ by the Jackson 5!”
The bass line begins and the guitar intro starts and the crowd is yelling and Jules is laughing at having to sing in a young-Michael-Jackson-falsetto. But once she starts to sing the words, she realizes what I’m trying to say to her and she gives me a look. Just for a second, but it was definitely a look. For the rest of the song, though, she doesn’t look back at me at all.
We’re on the first hole of the mini-golf course, and she’s trying to knock her ball through a five-foot plastic white whale.
“So this is supposed to be Moby Dick,” I tell her. She looks up at me. “The guy who owns this place has an English Lit master’s degree from UCLA. Each golf hole is secretly supposed to represent some great work of literature.”
She’s trying to gauge whether I’m pulling her leg. “Shut up.”
I hold up my hands defensively to show I’m telling the truth and explain: “English Lit degrees aren’t really worth a whole lot these days. You gotta do what you gotta do. And this guy is cleaning up with this place, trust me.”
She shrugs and lines up her putt. “Call me Ishmael, bitch,” she says as she knocks the ball towards the whale’s mouth.
We’re on the third hole, trying to navigate an area marked by undulating hills and crests (“Valley of the Ashes,” I explain. “Gatsby”), when Julia asks me about my job. “Do you like it?” she asks.
I stop my swing and look up at her. “Do I like it.” A long pause. “Well, I’m good at it.”
“That’s not the same thing,” she says.
I decide how to answer her question. “Want to hear my personal favorite conversion I pulled off? I single-handedly put together the deal that saw an old ghostbox that used to be a Kmart in Austin, Minnesota turned into the national Spam Museum. Seriously – look it up if you don’t believe me!” She’s laughing now, and I’m on a roll. “This godforsaken town in the middle of nowhere, 15 miles north of Iowa and 100 miles from anything worth a damn, is now the home of a 67,000 square foot monument dedicated to a canned meat product. Hundreds and hundreds of people visit that each day. That deal alone would get me into my industry Hall of Fame if there was one.”
She’s laughing still, but she asks anyway, “Right, but do you like it?”
I heave a sigh. “You know what I like? I like seeing the results of what I do.” I spread my arms out wide and point around the Game Center with my golf club. “Like this. I like looking around and seeing what these things can become. I don’t know, I guess I think everything deserves a second chance.”
She ignores that one and turns around and putts her ball away.
The sixth hole looks just like your classic mini-golf windmill.
“Don Quixote,” she says.
After we finish the hole, I say to her, “You know, it’s still sort of a secret but I can tell you now. I finalized a deal today to turn the old Bed Bath & Beyond in Crescent Hill Plaza. By October, it’s going to be the first indoor dog play park in the city. People can take their dogs there and let them run around with other dogs out of the rain and snow, and there will be a day care area, too.”
She nods and says, “Hm. That sounds good.” Nothing more.
I’m a little surprised at her reaction. For the first time all night, I’m thrown off a bit. “Y-yeah. It will be good. Real good. You can take Lucy there, she’ll love it. I know you always hate to walk her in the rain.”
“Lucy’s dead, Patrick.”
“Oh. Oh. Oh, I’m sorry, Julia.”
“She died two years ago. She was an old dog.”
I’m an idiot. “Really, I am so sorry.”
She just nods a few times. “Yeah, well. She died. I have a new dog now. Max. I got him as a puppy last year.”
“Oh. Well, there you go! You can take Max. I think they’re gonna call it ‘Dog Town’ or something like that. You’ll love it.”
“Yeah. It sounds great.”
The eleventh hole is a tribute to Romeo and Juliet. You have to walk up a short flight of stairs to a fake balcony, built cheaply like on the set of a play, and then knock the ball down a spiral ramp until it spills out onto the green.
Julia’s up on the balcony and knocks the ball down while I remain down on the ground. She looks down over the balcony rail to see where the ball spits out, and after seeing it carom off the wall and within inches of the hole, she takes a dramatic bow.
I slow-clap a few times and she raises her head.
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!” I call up to her.
“Wrong story, buddy. You’re mixing your literary metaphors.”
“Really?” I say. “I thought that was part of the same story.”
She looks down at me over the balcony rail with mock sternness. “You have an annoying habit of making me wonder whether or not you’re serious just about every time you say something.”
“Hey, Jules. I want to move back to town. I want to be with you again.”
The playful smile on her face melts into something that is technically still a smile, but not really. “See?” she says. “Like that.” She shakes her head slowly. “Patrick. Oh, Patrick. We were having such a good time tonight.”
“I know. I know! And that’s the way it could be again. Don’t you want to have fun like this again?”
“You really think a night playing mini-golf is real? Look at this place! I’m standing on a goddamn Shakespearean balcony. This isn’t reality. There’s no bedroom back here, you know.”
A mother and father and their two young kids are at the beginning of the hole now, waiting their turn to begin. “Umm – are you guys almost done?” the father asks.
“Give us a minute,” I say. I turn back up to Julia. “No, look, I know this isn’t real, but that’s not what I mean. I mean us, together. Isn’t this good? Don’t you want this again?”
Now she looks angry and her voice is raised a little bit and things are getting a little awkward. “YOU LEFT ME, PATRICK. You just picked up and left and you were gone and I was left with nothing. NOTHING. Did you really think I was just going to sit around and wait for you to come back into my life? Did you think I just put everything on hold waiting for you?”
“Jules, I’m sorry. Really. Come down, we’ll talk about it.”
“No. I don’t want to come down.”
“Julia, honey, this nice family wants to play this hole and they can’t until you come down.”
“Well they can PLAY. THROUGH.” she says loudly.
I look over at the family and smile. “You can just play through.”
The father says thanks quietly and they line up to play.
I look back up at her. “Julia, I’m different now. I figured out what I want. I don’t want to do this anymore. I just want to be here with you.”
“You are unbelievable.”
One of the kids putts his ball and it hits me in the foot. “Sorry there, champ,” I say. I tap it with my club towards the hole. “There you go.”
I look back up at the balcony. “Julia, I love you. I’ve always loved you. I’ve never stopped loving you.”
Now she looks pissed. “You think you can say that and then I’ll let you fuck me tonight, is that it?”
The mother and father look over at me. I half-shrug and try to laugh, pointing up at the balcony rail. “Heh. Romeo and Juliet, you know?”
They pick up their balls and grab their kids by the shoulders and hustle off onto the next hole, leaving me and Julia alone once again.
“Jules, please, come down.”
“I’ve figured it out. I know why you’re so good at your job. Because you’re a – what did you call it? A ghost town?”
“Ghostbox,” I correct her.
“Ghostbox!” she yells. “A ghostbox. You’re a ghostbox, Patrick. You came into my life with such promise and you were wonderful and you said you’d be different and you said you’d be there. I started to rely on you! I got used to you being there. You were a regular part of my life, and even though you had problems, that was OK, because we all have problems. I have problems. I was so upset when the Barnes and Noble closed down. I really like books and it sucks to have to look at everything online. I had to change my whole life when they left! Barnes and Noble wasn’t perfect and they had a crappy mystery section but I still liked going there. And then one day, just like that, you were gone!”
“I know. I know.”
“You were gone. You were gone! Just an empty space. And I was left having to figure out a new way of doing things without you.” She’s crying now. Her voice had gotten quiet.
“Julia, I am – so – sorry. I messed up, and I hurt you. I know that. But I want a second chance. I – I’ve changed. Look, you know what I do? Transforming things? I can do that, too. Me. I can be better.”
“No, really! If I’m a ghostbox, if that’s what you think I am? Well, I can change. I’m the best at it! Really!”
She has her head down now, resting on the balcony rail.
“Jules, look at this place! It’s great now, isn’t it? It’s like me! It’s all different. It’s better. It can be better, I promise.”
“It’s not real,” she says softly, head still down.
She picks up her head and looks at me. She’s not crying anymore. “I said it’s not real. This won’t be here one day. It’s all just temporary.”
“I’ll be here. I promise.”
“You’re leaving tomorrow. You’re going to Reno.”
“Not if you say so. Not if you say you want me to stay.”
“Just leave, Patrick.”
“You mean, leave as in tonight leave? Or tomorrow leave.”
“Please. Just leave.”
“Jules, listen. OK. I’ll leave now. I will. I’ll let you come down from there whenever you want. But if you want me to stay for good, just call me tomorrow before noon.”
She doesn’t respond. She’s looking at me but she looks numb.
“Just call me before noon, that’s when my flight boards. If you call me before then, I’ll quit my job, I’ll stay and move back to town. We’ll take it slow, we’ll figure it out together.”
“You have my number, Julia. Please call.”
I’m sitting at the gate and it’s five minutes before my flight is supposed to board. I have my phone in my hand and I look down at it every few seconds to make sure it’s on and still working.
Dealing with ghostboxes is tricky business. You can’t really recapture the magic, not really. Things will never be the same there. You can’t take a blown-out retail store and turn it into another new retail store. That won’t work, the customers won’t like it. Like you can’t take a JC Penney and turn it into one of those buy-it-for-a-dollar stores. The customers will be walking around looking at shadows and expecting things to be the same as the previous store, and they won’t be. They won’t be the same and people will get angry. Instead, if you want it to work, you have to transform it completely. Listen, you might not believe me, but you have to trust me. I’m the best goddamn fixer alive.
I look down at my phone.
© 2015 Rich Meneghello