When the new mall opened in our little neck of the woods, I rejoiced that "sophistication" had finally come to town.


When the new mall opened in our little neck of the woods, I rejoiced that "sophistication" had finally come to town.

No longer would we have to make the hour's drive to Roanoke in order to find fashion and diversity. Instead, we would have our very own place of benign forgetfulness, a changeless town with walls and sparkling fountains surrounded by a host of hostas.

I was glad that the mall opened in time for my sister's birthday. She had been sending me tasteful gifts from points north for several years–gifts purchased at the malls of her more urban and snow-glazed region. The last had been a delightful serpentine necklace, store-wrapped in flocked paper, with real ribbon and a little cloth flower.

When I called Judy to thank her, she said that it had come from her favorite store in the mall. Didn't I remember it–the store that used the weeping figs in large clay pots? Yes, I remembered the weeping figs, and all their twinkling lights. And I recalled how those lights evoked a sense of something good waiting to be bought right there at my sister's mall.

At last, I, too, could venture beyond the limits of our simple, Southern Main Street, where my sister and I used to shop for neat wool skirts and Villager blouses. In those days, a young girl could follow a straight line to exactly what she wanted: Weejuns from the shoestore, a cherry Coke from Carson's Drug, and a circle pin from the jeweler, who would later sell us our engagement rings and register our china patterns.

The downtown of our childhood, though, had gradually changed, leaving a few stores, a dentist's office, a couple of banks, and too many empty buildings. With the opening of the mall, I could now look forward to an experience far removed from the early days of my small-town upbringing. It was also a chance to see whether or not I could find my way into a new place.

My afternoon of blissful browsing began with broccoli quiche and melon slices at a trendy mall restaurant. Three hours later I encountered a path of glittery footsteps painted on the floor of the mall's most upscale store. It was clear they wanted to usher me to some secret place so that I might fix my gaze on an undisclosed item. At journey's end, I found myself standing before a locked case of designer pocketbooks. They, too, were glittery–and small, and expensive.

I realized then that I needed to find a main aisle, the straight-and-narrow, like they used to have in the stores downtown along Main Street. But any seasoned shopper knows that there is no such aisle in any self-respecting mall store. And as I tried in vain to get my bearings, I discovered that the dependable perpendicularity of my youth had taken a back seat to getting lost. In fact, getting lost, I found, was more than likely because octagonal is in at malls. And it must work. On my third pass by Housewares I bought myself a bag of gourmet coffee and a candlestick lamp with a Colonial blue shade.

But what of the gift for my sister? Several stores later, I sat on a marble step by the fountain and pondered the possibilities. The options that interested me most were items I had not even seen in this enormous weatherless city.

At that moment of indecision, I thought I detected a brown spot or two on one of the hosta leaves. Then the white noise of the fountain separated into individual, jarring drops of sound. I looked up and saw a rectangle of deep-blue sky above the mall's exposed rafters and knew it was time to go.

As it turned out, I bought my sister a sweater at the familiar Main Street dress shop downtown, where long ago we had both purchased our semiformals for Homecoming. The saleslady was a friend from those bygone days–someone who knew without asking that a certain shade of green would match Judy's eyes perfectly.

I was happy with my purchase and confident in the knowledge that, if need be, the mall could be mine for the taking yet another day. For now, though, I felt perfectly content to be tracing my own footsteps down that familiar straight-and-narrow sidewalk toward home.