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George Pollock

State Kid
Issue 13
Hiding Out in Plain Sight

Being a full-time fugitive is serious, high-stress work.


Except for Mr. Caulfield, Billy was alone. Danger lurked everywhere. Every other person
-- even Mr. Caulfield --had to be a presumed betrayer. With probably dozens of people
knowing enough to deprive Billy of his freedom with a word, he always felt minutes
away from the handcuffs.
Still, he believed he was better off than being a piece of dirt at the Stojaks or locked up
like a mangy dog in some juvenile prison. Though he had never stepped foot in New
Hampshire, the kid was a true son of the quirky state, whose motto, engraved on every
license plate, is “Live Free or Die.”
Well, he was living free and, thanks to Mr. Caulfield's intolerance for a hangdog slouch,
his posture had never been better. He had done so well, in fact, that he had come to feel
entitled to some time off -- and even a little fun.
Hey, he was a kid wasn't he? He was free, wasn't he?
For starters, the late July heat, with its vacation somnolence hanging heavily in the air,
had drawn him to the lake. For security purposes, he went into the water only at night or
during the day on weekends when lots of other kids were swimming. He reasoned that, in
the light of day, one kid among a crowd was less visible than one alone. He swam like a
young African croc, effortlessly, soundlessly, unseen, aware of everything around him.
Police cruisers regularly appeared at the beach area. Sometimes the officers got out and
surveyed the swimmers. At such times, like any croc sensing danger, Billy slipped
soundlessly underwater, always surfacing out of sight behind a bunch of kids or amidst
lakeside bushes. Owning a strong set of lungs, he could go a long way underwater; he
was a swift, silent, shadowy torpedo knifing past thrashing legs and arms. Coming up for
air, he poked his nose and mouth through the surface, gulped, and then re-submerged
without a sound and with barely a ripple. On his swims, he spoke to no one and avoided
all eye contact -- even the fluttering glances from girls noticing the hair and pecs and abs
of the mysterious amphibian.
The malls also beckoned. For Billy's morphing subspecies -- no longer a child, not yet an
adult, a work in progress -- the windless malls exert an irresistible pull, even though the
social combat there is brutal. Yet, like any other kid, Billy had to go to this proving field,
a place of few ecstatic winners (cool, in the know, at the center of everything); many
miserable losers (lame, clueless, banished to shadows); and faceless masses who make no
impression at all.
Billy could always stay away, off course -- if he didn't mind missing out on the only game
in town. If you don't play, you automatically lose. It is the only way to see how you stack
up in the ways that count: your body, especially your hair, skin, and figure; your clothes,
with rigorous emphasis on brand names; your chat -- knowing what to say, when to say it,
and how; your charisma, or how much you can illuminate a space and attract others to it;
your family, which says who you are.
It's all added up for a total score.
***
Up to this point, Billy had never been in the game and was therefore a loser by default.
However, he had observed the game from afar and, from what he had seen, he was
definitely a candidate for serious points. He had a great body. From swimming and raw,
brute-strength labor on the castle, Billy had added pounds of muscle. His arms and
shoulders were sculpted to ancient Greek standards. His long, thick sandy mane billowed
as he walked; and he was taken to tossing it back with a dramatic shake of the head. The
bod more than offset his loss of points for open literacy and currency in the finer points
of grammar.
The trouble was, the body was in desperate need of telegraphic adornment. As a foster
child, Billy made do with cheap generics and hand-me-downs -- and he had always
looked like he had just grabbed coverings from the Salvation Army rejection bin. But
now he was a working man with cash in his pocket. He had earned the right to the brand
names and, for the first time ever, to look like he felt: worth something. As a foster child,
he had often felt invisible. (In extreme cases of neglect, some very young foster children
come to believe that they are invisible.)
So Billy decided to get himself some decent duds. As a fugitive from the law, however,
he would need to go for a look that was visible and opaque at the same time; visible to
other kids, opaque to the law enforcement eye. His plan was to hide out in plain sight.
Call it a fashion cover. Like Proteus, he would change form, assume a new color, texture,
and scent -- a new look and identity. Let the police look for a slouching loser in rags; he
would be better dressed than Oscar Wilde. If the right clothes in a mall are everything for
your average kid, they are even more important for your average fugitive.
Fashion is not about clothes, in other words.
It's about what clothes can do for you. For Billy, it was a way to rise in the eyes of the
world and feel safe. For the lucky kids not on the run from the law, fashion can be the
luxury of the body as an art form. It can be about trends, which are virulently contagious
and spread by the wind like foot-and-mouth disease; suddenly everybody contracts an
incurable desire for the same cut of colored cloth, shoe, or hat, which must be bought and
displayed now.
Clothes make kids in a mall look, feel, and act differently; they make them be different.
By chance, Billy's decision to go for a makeover coincided with changing political winds,
resulting in reduced police presence in the malls. After weeks of frequent patrols, the
empty-handed police had cut back. Nothing kills motivation like failure. Creditable
reports that Billy Stone was in California had led to even more drifting of police attention
and additional decreases in mall surveillance.
***
So on a Tuesday morning, when few people were in the malls, Billy asked Mr. Caulfield
for a few hours off -- as well as a big advance on his pay -- and rode his Silver Streak to
the Fairview Mall.
First, he got his hair cut and styled and then he hit the best, most expensive store in the
mall, Kabachnick's. He wanted attentive sales associates who could make thoughtful
suggestions about what would be his best look. After a couple of tours around
Kabachnick's without attracting a salesperson, he took out a wad of bills, licked his
fingers, and began counting.
In seconds, he had two stylish young women sales clerks competing for his attention. “I
would like to leave here in my best casual look,” he told them. “Don't worry about the
price. I will be paying cash. And I'll want a few outfits.”
He struggled to jam his wad back in his pocket. Failing, he made a big show of splitting
the wad in two and stuffing bills in both front pockets. The two sales clerks scurried off
like school girls who had been favored by Mr. Big Spender himself. They brought him
the only armchair in the place, which was normally reserved for the store manager, an
age-battling woman who cast a skeptical baggy eye on the strange scene unfolding in her
store.
There was Billy sitting in her chair like the Emir of Dubai while a good part of her staff,
in an impromptu fashion show, paraded ideas before him. An approving nod from him
brought excited squeals. Billy tried on several outfits before making his selections. He
paid in cash by peeling off bills like an international playboy. He declined change with a
disdainful flip of the hand.
“Keep the change,” he said, “for being so helpful. Nice job, all of you.”
Billy wheeled and marched smartly out of the store in a new outfit and carrying bags of
new purchases and trailing vapors of an expensive cologne sold to him as “subtle but
manly.” Slack-jawed, the entire sales staff, including the manager, who had been warmed
by the diffident handling of cold cash, watched Billy as he left. Little did they realize that
he had actually spent far less than the average customer; he had just made it seem like so
much more.
***
On Friday night, after much kidding from Mr. Caulfield who told him he “smelled like a
perfumery” and looked like a “boulevardier,” Billy strode into the big upscale Fairview
Mall. Instantly, heads turned. Languid eyes snapped open. He wasn't a police mug shot
any more; he was a walking magazine cover. He wasn't a slouching, sad-faced state kid
that you looked quickly away from. He was a star on a stage captivating the audience
without saying a word.
A patrolling uniformed police officer approached, heading right for him. In a burst of
bravado, he walked straight at the unsuspecting police officer. The officer gave him a
vacant look, displaying not a trace of interest, much less recognition, despite having
Billy's mugshot outside in his cruiser. To the officer, he was just another mall rat with too
much money to spend on clothes, another upper middle class kid spoiled rotten by
indulgent parents.
If his visibility in the eyes of the law had been reduced to zero, Billy stood out to other
kids like a giant billboard in Times Square. Guys noted his rippling build which Billy
showcased without being obvious about it. Following him with heavily lined and
mascaraed eyes, Fairview princesses toted up an impressive point total for the new guy.
They asked each other, “Who's the neat-looking guy?”
Nobody knew.
***
Being male, Billy's lower instincts came into play with so many female eyes exploring
him. Liking the package the kid had put together, the girls turned up the eye-contact heat.
Time after time, a flashing smile, as if flipped on by switch, said to Billy, “I like what I
see. Your move.”
Some of the eye shots delivered up by long-legged nymphets in one-inch skirts and
chandelier earrings, could only be described as smoldering. Billy's blood heated up and
gushed in all directions, coloring his cheeks.
Maybe Mr. Stojak was right. Perhaps the boy did let certain thoughts linger longer than
was healthy. But Billy knew this much: if he permitted himself to consort with any of
these provocateurs, he, not they, would pay the price. A word from one of them -- and he
was sure every one of these girls would blab; they always do -- and his run was over.
He was only being realistic. Which is more believable -- a sweet young thing with a
family or a hardened juvenile fugitive with a long, state-documented record of causing
trouble?
The whole scenario, with Billy as the creep who gets what he deserves, unfolded before
him even as he strode cooly among the fashionista. Dressed like a star, he marched
straight on as if the path that magically opened up before him were normal and expected.
If the girls only knew. Well, he thought, they wouldn't know. He was a fugitive with
discipline.
Fighting hormonal impulses and oppressive, aching loneliness -- he was still the same
emotional wasteland, just not looking it -- Billy did not return a look nor say a word to
any of the girls. Actually, this is not exactly true. He gave in once, but not dangerously, or
so he told himself.
After giving Billy THE LOOK, one of the girls in full vamp costume, said, “Neat look.”
“It's okay, I guess,” Billy said, not breaking his stride, leaving the girl wondering what
was wrong with her outfit; Billy had aborted their relationship at seed-dropping stage.
Of course, he was dying to dive into this pool of sweet-smelling girls bombarding him
with sizzling messages, but he gave them nothing -- even though he could tell he was
catnip under their ski-sloped noses. This he knew: messing with them would be like
walking into the Fairview police station and asking for the cuffs. Yet ... yet ....
One of these days ...one of these days.