Iowa Writes

AMY BERNHARD
Westfield


My sister and I are raised as mall children, bred in the dimly lit corridors of the Westfield mall in Joliet, Illinois, a town once layered with corn fields, now cropped with shopping centers and fast food restaurants that serve butterball burgers slathered in mustard and grease. We sit on a curb outside the mall, picking the sloppy buns apart with our fingers while we watch for the flash of Mother's silver car in the distance.

Mother first brings us to the mall the day after her divorce is finalized, and my father has moved out of our home. I am twelve, Paula is nine. We are dropping off Mother's car at the dealership in Joliet for an annual check-up.

"It'll be a two hour wait," the mechanic says, "Do you want a ride somewhere?"

"We're going to the mall," Mother beams, "It's a beautiful day, we'll walk."

My sister and I are raised as mall children, bred in the dimly lit corridors of the Westfield mall in Joliet, Illinois, a town once layered with corn fields, now cropped with shopping centers and fast food restaurants that serve butterball burgers slathered in mustard and grease. We sit on a curb outside the mall, picking the sloppy buns apart with our fingers while we watch for the flash of Mother's silver car in the distance.

Mother first brings us to the mall the day after her divorce is finalized, and my father has moved out of our home. I am twelve, Paula is nine. We are dropping off Mother's car at the dealership in Joliet for an annual check-up.

"It'll be a two hour wait," the mechanic says, "Do you want a ride somewhere?"

"We're going to the mall," Mother beams, "It's a beautiful day, we'll walk."

It is a beautiful day, the sun just beginning to rise, warming our backs as we cut across parking lots to Westfield. Once inside, Mother turns to us, a glint in her eye, says, "You girls can have anything you want. Pick anything." She sweeps her arm to the side, revealing rows of bright stores with neon signs and frozen mannequins in the windows, manipulated into grotesque positions, colored tank tops and skirts draped across their thin plastic frames.

The three of us weave in and out of stores, stopping to conference around clothing racks. Mother holds shirts to our chests, urges us to look in the mirror, see how beautiful we are. My sister and I nod, dreaming of our imminent style takeover on the school bus. Father allowed us to buy new clothing only once a year each spring, insisting that our shoes still fit, despite the straining of our toes against the tops.

We slurp milkshakes in the dressing room at JC Penny's while Mother tries on cocktail dresses. There is a red one that clings to her waist and chest, and an older male cashier humming the beginning of Chris de Burgh's "Lady in Red" as she emerges, glowing, from the dressing room, ready for her debut.

The mannequins watch from underneath plastic lidded eyes as we pass, shopping bags swinging at our sides. We eat Taco Bell in the food court, strips of rubbery cheese falling from our mouths onto the blue tabletops while shoppers swarm around us. It is mid-afternoon, the busiest time of the day. Customers stampede through the front doors, entranced by pulsing techno music and the fried-dough stink of Annie's Pretzel Stand.

In Wet Seal I buy a shirt that says Scorpio in sparkly silver letters. My sister buys sweatpants that say Cutie Bootie on the butt. We leave the mall and trek back across the parking lots, our arms weighed down with bags. A homeless man stands at the intersection between Best Buy and the movie theater. I nod in his direction, as though we understand each other.

Mother takes Paula and I shopping whenever she is off work from the hospital, usually on weekend afternoons. We spend most of our time in Fashion Bug, dragging our feet while Mother sifts through the sale racks. Paula and I invent a game while we wait, called Who Will Claim Us? We wiggle between t-shirts and sweaters hanging from the metal racks and pretend we are made of cotton, stiffening when we hear the clink of hangers, see the flash of a stranger's hand as it pulls a sweater from the rack, revealing my sister and I sitting with eyes closed, arms folded tight over our chests, hoping to be claimed.

We play Who Will Claim Us? in almost any store—the bookshop, the grocery store, the florist, morphing our bodies into hard cans of peas or curling our fingers to look like thorns. Our favorite store is Home Depot. Mother heads to the Home Goods section to spend time with our carpenter, Frank, leaving my sister and I to crawl onto metal shelves and crane our necks toward the ceiling where our fellow light fixtures sway, blinking in time with the lamps, turning ourselves on and off, on and off.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


AMY BERNHARD

Amy Bernhard is a senior undergraduate in the creative writing track at the University of Iowa, majoring in English with an emphasis in nonfiction writing. She plans to take a year off school to breathe before applying for her MFA in nonfiction.

This page was first displayed
on April 16, 2010

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