Nikki Blake had the demeanor of a nun with a serious yeast infection, the kind that could put Wonder Bread out of business. She was a blue-eyed blondie, a Catholic who only wore neutrals–but only the right neutrals, the most recent Abercrombie and fuck-your-mother khakis, the au courant Con-tramp-o whatever-the-fucks. She was a clotheshorse with an addiction to taupe, and she was also the best shoplifter I ever knew.

Ellie and I met her at school and never went to the mall without her after we watched her steal the white socks off a mannequin in the window of an American Eagle. The bitch could swipe the royal tampon out of the queen’s bush, she was that good.

Nikki was as boring as the shit she stole, but she had a car. She’d drive us so I could stand in some shit shop–some taupe ‘n’ Sahara hell–waiting for her to shovel the 20 cream corduroys up her ass or wherever she put ’em, and then we’d go to like Whoreland so Ellie could get some plastic glittery thongs that couldn’t make her 16-year-old body look a day over 11 even if they came with bloodstains on the crotch.

Fuck I hate the mall. I’m gonna barf just thinkin’ about it.

When you’re garage saleing you’re outside, just you and the street, with the sun in the trees and the morning making your ankles all wet and grassy, until you get to someone’s house, freshly gutted for you to dig through. And that hope that this one–this tarred driveway, rolling out of someone’s garage like a black tongue that picked up Snoopy Sno-Cone Makers, moldy stuffed animals, and ten-cent Tupperware from rank corners–this garage sale could be the flamingo brooch, the creepy lamp, the box of records from ’76 that makes life worth living.

But no. Instead we go to the mall. The mutherfucked mall. Me, the yeasty nun, and Ellie Kern. My best friend. The whore. The stupid stupid stupid bitch whose stupid bitch whore ways shit ‘n’ pissed ‘n’ barfed all over a week of my life. And not just in any butt-fucked mall store, but in gahdamn . . .

I think I’m gonna puke, I swear the stupid bitch.

In GAHmutherfuckinDAHM SEARS. SEARS. Who the fuck goes to Sears? Sears! You walk through Sears to get to your car if there was nowhere else to park, or if you are some fadass motherfucker who wants to be close to the Cinnabon, but nobody goes to Sears–’cause who the fuck wants a green granny girdle that smells like a wrench?

I’ll tell you who. The stupid bitch that looked like she was gonna crap her pants ’cause she saw the sales associate looking at us and shoved it into my bag anyway. Ellie fucking Kern, that’s who.

On Friday, a week after the mall cop hell, when I sat by her stupid ass on the bus again and asked her why she did it, she said, with no remorse in her black-rimmed eyes, in fact justification, that that bustier would’ve looked fucking awesome over her purple tank top. Fucking hot, punk rock as hell.

Then I asked her what she thought a bustier was? Then she stared her hot pink mouth slack ’cause she’s a stupid bitch and I told her the green thing was a coochie stankey granny girdle for fat old ladies, retard. Then we didn’t talk until later that day during the bus ride home, when she told me what happened to Nikki.

She had called Ellie the night before real upset. Told her how she found out her mom was having an affair and was planning to take off–gonna move in that weekend with the person and start a new life.

Ellie was all indignant. Not at the fact that Nikki and her little brother were gonna be abandoned by their mom, or even at how her mom had had the balls to walk in while they’re eating McDonald’s and just tell their father that she doesn’t love him anymore. Ellie was disgusted that she was doing all this to run off with a usta-be crackhead.

People got a real bias against crackheads.

Think about all the acquaintances you have–at the bar, where you get your hair cut, that checkout lady with all the booster buttons–and how they act with you. Now imagine you smoked crack a couple times and they all knew about it?

Maybe it’s different here. Crack is everywhere. The east-side Burger King is like walking into an antidrug commercial: let me fucking tell you, there is nothing that makes you wanna stay away from drugs more than drug addicts themselves.

Staring at you from the booth across from yours with red eyes sunk deep into pools of plum, their bodies like an old street long after the first snow–cold, hard, coated in that ash of old salt stains.

There are crackheads and usta-be crackheads all over the city, not just the east side or the projects, but changing your muffler, running for union official, or even selling you pizza out of the Little Caesars in the Kmart where Nikki’s mom worked and met her lady love.

Nobody knew Nikki’s mom was having an affair with another woman. Well, other than the other Kmart employees. Nikki found out on Friday, the day after she called Ellie, who had offered her little comfort besides “Dude, that really sucks” and a little bit of talk-show-inspired “Guess you just gotta be happy for her.”

After Pat, her brother, caught his car pool for grade school she left her dad, still in his bedroom with the TV on from the night before, and went to look for her mom, who had disappeared after making her announcement.

The next week I had lunch with Julie Rhinehart, this dirty-haired mathalete, who told me more of what had happened when I asked if she’d seen Nikki. They had been neighbors since grade school and friends in an on-and-off sort of way. I figure Nikki called Ellie before Julie that night because she was making her way down the line of cool.

That and Julie just seemed so sheltered, and not just sheltered sheltered, but a little bit like homeless sheltered. I mean she’d be talking about the dolphin-safe tuna on her bread like it was just the gahdamned thing to be talking about, and the whole time you’re thinking is that today’s sandwich or a glob of yesterday’s sandwich still on her jacket making me nauseous?

And besides, that first night Nikki probably didn’t feel like running to the neighbors to tell them the big news.

It was good that she found Julie to talk to–she could act compassionate and kind. Her hand never left her chest and she wrinkled her brow to half its impressive size while she told us, her closest cafeteria confidants, what she couldn’t believe had happened to her poor friend Nikki.

I guess first Nikki went to Georgio’s, the Greek restaurant attached to the bowling alley, and bought a pack of cigarettes from the machine in the back. Ellie and I had showed her that machine.

Then she drove down the street to the Kmart and waited for her mom to take her break at ten.

The only time Nikki looked like she was in charge was when she smoked. She was good at it. Maybe she shoulda smoked more. Probably does now. Even when she was stealing, the thing she did best, that look of hers, that embarrassed feminine discomfort, didn’t give an inch.

It wasn’t until we were in her car and she bummed some of our squares that I saw her face not so much relax but get . . . quiet. I remember she never coughed or anything. I still cough. It was just . . . When I think of her, it’s like that.

The Kmart parking lot’s gotta be the most depressing one in the city. It sits way back from a busy corner, but it’s always empty except for cars cutting through to the White Castle. It hasn’t been touched since the 70s, and it isn’t so much worn-out as faded. Even the lighting inside has gone yellow.

Nikki saw them right away, walking out to the lot wearing their reddish orange smocks. And smocks or no, it was her mom, and you just know your mom. She probably thought she didn’t though when she watched her get into a pickup with that mullet-wearing, middle-aged pixie, who grabbed her mother by the back of her head and threw her mouth on hers before the truck door had even closed.

Bet she coughed then.

She was always closer to her dad and closest to her grandma, who took her to church and gave her her car after she bought a new one. But it wasn’t until that moment, peering through a dirty windshield, that she realized how far she was from her own mother.

She doesn’t remember the distance between the two cars, just the sight of her mother’s skin, soft rolls on her back where her shirt had been pulled up, and her own fist pounding on the passenger’s side window.

They looked up at her, her mother only slightly startled, and her lover with dead eyes as she twisted the key and lowered the window.

“What the fuck do you want?”

It must have been a horrible dream.

It took her years to scrape the word mom out of the back of her throat, and a moment for her mother to sigh and say, “Nikki, just go home. I don’t want to talk about this.”

Her arm reached through

the window toward her mother only to be seized by the pixie.

She dug her dirty nails into her skin, leaned over like she was gonna take a bite out of her arm, and said, “She doesn’t want to deal with your shit right now. Get over it.”

Then she let go, tossing Nikki’s arm so she stumbled back. The window rolled up, the truck started, and then it was just her and the Kmart parking lot.

That night Pat fell asleep watching TGIF sitcoms, and Nikki put him to bed. The TV was still on in her parents’ room but she heard her dad get up to go to the bathroom a couple times. Later she knocked on his door and opened it to find him asleep, snoring. She turned off the TV, covered him up, and went upstairs to bed. Everything was quiet.

It was around three in the morning when the phone rang. She picked up the cordless in her room to hear the steady, firm voice of a police officer. He told her to stay calm, keep quiet. He needed her to get her brother and walk straight out of the house, not stopping for anything, just walk straight out of the house. They were outside waiting for her. Did she understand? Straight out of the house. It was very important for her and her brother.

She saw the red strobe painting the garage outside her window as she answered and hung up. In the next room she whispered something about a fire to Pat and covered his head with a shirt. He didn’t really wake up till Nikki laid him down in the wet grass behind one of the many police cars.

That was when the officer told her everything the newspaper would tell everyone else the next day. Her mother came home to get some things and while she was on her cell with her girlfriend, her husband confronted her.

They argued. He wanted her to hang up and when she refused he pulled out a gun and shot her in the head. The pixie called the police. Then they found Nikki’s dad in the garage. He had tried to hang himself and done such a piss-poor job in his hurry that he just passed out. He woke up on the floor, under arrest.

Ellie and me never went to the mall again with Nikki Blake, though sometimes Ellie’d bring up how much it sucked to have to pay for stuff now that Nikki had moved away. Last I heard from Julie, Nikki lived with an aunt in Minooka but spent all her time with her new boyfriend, listening to death metal, smoking pot, and wearing black.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Scott Shellhamer.