A parking lot and two blocks worth of retail place ankered around a Barnes and Nobles book store had replaced the industrial clutter of deserted flat brick buildings and weeds she had known like an internal landscape of suburban dread for all of high school. The place now had the mark of a new era of tidy franchised architecture, the clocks had been reset to zero and were running fast. Fifteen years count-down to decay, or to the day the last book would be printed, whichever came first. There was no emotional reaction to the replacement of her childhood environment with these exchangeable elements of retail culture. The fact that it was nearly impossible to tell whether she was in New Jersey or California actually felt kind of welcome, delaying the realization that she had indeed come back. She pulled into the parking lot next to a brand new looking silver Ford SUV with enough space to accommodate a mini baseball league team but most likely outfitted with only two child safety seats and DVD headrest monitors. It was still raining.
The muted green and white neon lights of the book franchise and a coffee store melted in the dark reflection of shallow puddles over new tar with the circus red lights of a franchise family restaurant branch. For a moment she could hear the animals restlessly pacing in their cages, but the impression faded quickly and made space for the mundane evening traffic of the mall. Families kept arriving to spend a Friday evening searching for a way to wile away some hours for the prize of coffee and a magazine. She held a door to a young mother pushing a stroller with a sleeping toddler. More families passed through the parallel doors, and for a moment the circus was back, forever lurking in her mind, waiting for just about any reason to manifest itself. People in anticipation of a spectacle streaming into the big top tent. She let go of the handle and followed a family with two young kids passing through the small foyer and the second set of doors that echoed the first. The father of the family dropped the door on her, she caught it with her shoulder without a moment of surprise. The whole family then stopped right in front of her to perform the incoming routine, willfully ignorant of whoever should be behind them. Kids immediately shedding their coats into their parents’ expecting hands and taking off towards the kids’ book section. Battery powered books, stuffed character animals and a wooden train table all well within kids’ reach had nationwide proven to be wildly popular with the preschool through elementary school set. The mother feebly called out some warnings and then both parents, strangers to each other now that the kids were gone, walked towards the café to satisfy their craving for caffeine and sugar to get them through the evening and were immediately lost in the crowd of customers stopping at sales tables long enough to scan the back of a book cover or to flip through a brightly illustrated volume of some sort.