I edge my sister’s yellow Beetle near the old Karamel Korner. Although it is only ten, the blacktop sticks audibly to the soles of my Doc Martens.
I am not one of those women who goes around with a dog in her purse. And yet, here I am. My borrowed straw tote contains cigarettes, keys, return ticket home, and my sister’s miniature dachshund, Inbetweenie.
I’ve been sent to the dying mall in my hometown to pick up a wig for my sister, now that chemo has rendered her nearly bald.
This trip is different. There is the cancer, obviously. My sister’s pale face, sans brows or lashes. The lilac bandana knotted artfully on her head. But there have been no accusations leveled at me for leaving the microwave door ajar, or setting my soda can on the dining room table, or mixing darks and lights. When I arrived last night, a neat mound of dog crap awaited me in the middle of the kitchen floor.
I’ve looked forward to being engulfed in refrigerated air. Instead, the inside of the mall is barely cooler than my skin. I logged a lot of hours here back in my high school days. Hot Topic. Casual Corner. Hickory Farms, where you could get a slice of beef stick or a little plastic spoon of soft cheese, if you forgot your lunch money. The Nut Hut and the Chess King. The throat-tightening Karamel Korner, where I worked.
Today, there is no aroma of burned sugar or warming pretzels. Most of the storefronts are covered with plywood and papered-over with images of fashionable folk under turquoise skies, all face-splitting smiles and wild eyes.
The Wig Spot is located in a minor vein at the end of the mall. Its neighbors are a darkened, steel-grated toy store and a space that sells Christian t-shirts.
I need a cigarette. I take a seat on a yellow bench and scoop Inbetweenie out of the bag. She licks my face then clambers to the waxed floor. Jumps back up again. I kiss her head and read the messages on the T-shirts in the Christian store’s windows. “Devout Woman.” “Because: Jesus.” The wordiest reads, “Its Not About RELIGION; Its About a Relationship with God.”
I do not have a relationship with God. Nor does my sister, as far as I am aware, despite her living room wall of folkloric crucifixes from across the Americas. It is all of a piece with our Spanish ancestry, her mission-esque sensibility and style. A bones-deep belief that there is a right and a wrong way to do things. A disdain for the poor. Snazzy vestments paired with sensible shoes.
It’s time to face the music. I introduce myself to the elderly Russian woman who runs the place. Lidiya. Surprisingly, my sister has chosen a black page boy, like the one worn by Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. My exact hairstyle.
A rush of feeling rises in my chest. I run my fingers through its strands, in a way I would never do if my sister were wearing it. Then stop. My tobacco-smelling hands.
I am seized by an impulse to flee, taking only my cigarettes and return ticket. But I also want to press the wig to my own chest, as if to rub my healthy cells into its fibers. Inbetweenie, perhaps spurred by a similar feeling, grabs the wig in her teeth and skitters into the mall, heading for the main artery.