by Becky Z
Will you find what you really want? A little nostalgia, a little Twilight Zone.
| On Saturday mornings Claire and Lucy liked to meet at the Thornfield Mall, which had, a few years ago, sprung up at an interstate exit between their neighboring towns. In the parking lot, the sisters would greet each other affectionately. They’d complain that it sure was toasty or freezing or raining cats if not dogs, and that “gas at Chevron was three-and-a-quarter today, can you believe it.” They’d go inside to Starbucks and have coffee, and maybe split an over-sugared scone. Lucy would report on her daughter’s schoolwork and critique the teacher. Claire would listen, picking at her fingernails. As they passed the store windows Lucy would point out how this skirt was the latest thing, or how those boots looked comfortable. Claire would usually agree. Sailing along in her sister’s wake, she never bought anything for herself on these excursions; nothing was to her liking.
One Saturday in October found the two walking through the scattered dieffenbachia in the east concourse of the mall. Claire was lagging behind.
“You stayed up and watched movies again last night, didn’t you?” asked Lucy. “I wish you’d get out more. You can come over anytime, you know. Amy would love to see you.”
“I know,” said Claire, “But I spent a lovely night with Ray Milland at Windward and Laurence Olivier at Manderlay.”
“I watched The Uninvited and Rebecca.”
“How can you watch those old black-and-white movies over and over? I would go crazy.”
“I love them.” Claire flicked muffin crumbs off her tee shirt. They tumbled onto her sneakers. “When I win the lottery I’m buying a haunted house on a windswept moor.”
“Oh great! Then we’d never see you.”
They sat down on a bench shaded by a tall artificial tree. An electronic puppy was barking at them from the toy emporium next door.
“Malls are built to be uninspiring, I swear,” said Claire, looking around her. “Do you remember Nana telling us about how it was when people went downtown to shop?”
“Not really,” said Lucy.
“It must have been so elegant and civilized,” said Claire.
“It was probably dirty and cold.”
“People would dress up to go downtown. Nana said she would wear her ‘good blue suit’ and those half-long kid gloves I always used to play with, the kind with the little pearl buttons at the wrist.”
“You mean the ones you slept in? I remember that!”
Claire rolled her eyes. “I mean, it just seems that it was so much more glamorous back then. Nana told me that all the big downtown department stores had fabulous window displays, nothing like these.” She pointed at a bald, eyeless mannequin in the boutique across from them. It looked forlorn. “They were like little fantasy worlds. Nana said she would stand on the sidewalk with the palms of her hands on the glass, squeeze her eyes shut, and imagine she lived inside.”
“Sounds like you and your movies,” said Lucy. “Didn’t you use to watch them on TV with her all the time?”
Claire nodded and smiled. “That’s why I collect them. You’d be out on a date as usual,” here Lucy got a swift poke in the arm, “And I’d be at Nana’s. We would watch every movie we could find on the air, but her favorites were the ‘curious’ ones, like The Enchanted Cottage or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. We would gather the pillows, make tea and cookies, and turn out all the lights.”
“You are such a romantic,” Lucy said, laughing.
“Every day, I wish I had that cozy feeling back,” said Claire.
They walked on.
It was that season when all the kiosks and carts would spring up at the Thornfield Mall. A few outposts hawking cell phones and sunglasses were there all year long, but in mid-October a full army of modular laminate shoplets, decked out in tinsel, transformed the mall into a holiday obstacle course. There must have been twenty of these booths in the east concourse alone, selling calendars, perfume, slippers, Christmas sweaters, hot mixed nuts, cheese-and-fruit baskets, or chocolate truffles.
From a small cart near the end of the concourse, a flash of orange caught Claire’s eye. A basket of crystals, glittering in the light of a small beaded lamp, was the source. Next to the basket were others, filled with amulets, incense sticks, and tiny vials of oil. A woman about Claire’s own age sat on a tall stool next to the credit card terminal at the end of the counter. Her hair was styled in a long page boy, swept back on one side with a small barrette. She wore a pleated gray skirt, a black sweater set, and a single strand of pearls. She gave Claire a brief smile. Her name tag said “Millie.”
Claire averted her eyes to the countertop. Centered before her was a neat stack of movies. She fanned out the discs in their cases like a hand of cards; underneath The Grudge, The Ring, The Sixth Sense, and What Dreams May Come, was a copy of The Innocents. She looked at the picture of Deborah Kerr on the cover, and then at the saleswoman. How odd, she thought. Claire replaced the movies and backed away from the counter, still scanning the merchandise. She bumped into Lucy, who was waiting.
They headed home.
All the rest of the day Claire thought about The Innocents. She remembered Miss Giddens, Miles and Flora, Henry James and The Turn of the Screw. “We lay my love and I,” sang Flora in the movie, “beneath the weeping willow.” She pictured herself in their garden as she drifted through her Saturday chores. She thought of her grandmother, the pillows, the cookies and the gloves.
She thought of the quiet saleslady with the pretty hair and pearls.
The next day she returned to the mall and hurried to the cart with the crystals. The saleslady was sitting demurely on the stool with her legs crossed at the ankle. She smiled as Claire approached.
“We have some new items,” Millie said.
Claire studied the counter, wondering what new items might arrive on a Sunday morning. On the far ends were the crystals and amulets, pushed to the side, as if their importance had dwindled since yesterday. Before her was a carefully arranged display of movies. She surveyed them slowly: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Topper, Wuthering Heights, Laura. All were among her favorites, and hard to find.The more recent films were not there.
“We have some other items around on this side,” said Millie, moving smoothly off her stool to the back of the booth. Claire followed.
The counter was much deeper on this side, and was adorned with rhinestone brooches and powder compacts; vintage handbags dangled above. There were more movies here: Jane Eyre, Dragonwyck, Portrait of Jennie, The Spiral Staircase. She leaned forward, peering around and behind the brooches and discs, suddenly anxious to see what might be hiding in the booth’s dark interior. She reached in and pulled out a small black felt hat. It had an outcropping of curly feathers on one side, and netting like a sequined spider’s web attached to the brim. She put on the hat and smoothed the web over her face. It smelled like English garden roses and lavender and her grandmother's house.
“Go ahead and browse,” said Millie, lightly touching Claire’s back. “I’ve been waiting a long time for my shift to be over. I can wait a little longer.”
Startled, Claire turned to face Millie, and looked into her eyes. In those amiable wells Claire saw something unexpected, yet familiar. Perhaps it was the promise of a charming and gracious life; perhaps it was the lure of sinuous staircases and rugged cliffs. She pressed her palms against the saleslady’s pale fingers and squeezed her eyes shut. At once she was caught, entangled in Millie’s silken grip. The trap was soft and warm, maybe even cozy. Claire wasn’t unhappy about being there, but it did feel rather curious.
Although ordinarily a happy person who seldom contemplated the extraordinary, Lucy mourned her sister every day. As months and then years passed, she put hope away in a little corner of her heart. She had no memorial to safeguard, no grave for a sister maybe not dead. Their last meeting still tormenting her, she avoided the Thornfield Mall.
One day in October she did return, with her daughter in tow. They looked at the clothes in the windows and at all the happy shoppers around them.
“Your aunt Claire thought the mall was tacky,” said Lucy to Amy, kissing the top of her head. “Maybe she was right. I hope she’s happy, wherever she is.”
“I hope so, too, Mommy. Can we go to McDonald’s now?” said Amy.
Across the country, in a beautiful new shopping center, on an interstate highway between two small towns, an army of kiosks and carts opens just in time for the holidays. One small booth features crystals, amulets, incense, oils and, perhaps, unimaginably more for the right person. A smiling saleslady in a tailored blue suit, a little black felt hat, and half-long kid gloves sits on a tall stool next to the credit card terminal at the end of the counter. Her name tag says “Claire.”