Friday, May 3, 2013

short fiction: the new dress

The New Dress
by Joan Brasher

Enid crossed the kitchen in her new dotted dress, the morning air heavy and warm with the scent of bacon and biscuits and July.

Her frock, snug across the bodice and gathered at her tiny waist, flounced slightly as she moved. Organza over cotton, a Peter Pan collar high at her neck with cap sleeves and a sash: it was her first purchase as a working girl.

It had felt extravagant when she laid out the nine one-dollar bills for it at Sholls department store, the ripped lining of her pocketbook revealed as she pulled out the cash. Enid wondered if she only imagined that the cashier cast an eye of judgment upon her, deeming her unworthy of the dress.

She caught a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror: the dress, the pearl choker Chad had given her for their one-year wedding anniversary, just a week ago. She contemplated the side swept bangs, her brunette hair bouffant and stiff with hairspray, the way the hairdresser showed her. Yes, it all worked. Red lips, face powdered, cheeks dabbed with a bit of rouge. Were the lips too bright?

She reached for a tissue and leaned in to the mirror to blot, pressing her lips together slightly, leaving a perfect lip print behind. She straightened up and considered the young woman gazing back at her, serious but hopeful. She was almost unrecognizable, this professional girl, this modern woman. She looked terrific. Not at all like a little girl playing dress-up, as her mother would say if she could see her now.

The house was quiet. Chad had already left for the manufacturing plant where they both worked. He clocked in at 6 at the factory; while Enid, who worked in the typing pool in the front office, was required to arrive at half past seven.

Each day she boarded the city bus with the other powdered and lipsticked girls, crowded in to the vinyl seats, skirts swishing, crinolines crunching, having to wiggle to fit with their handbags and sack lunches clutched with white wrist-length gloves. When the bus heaved off, the girls settled into morning chatter or paged through the latest issue of Ladies Home Journal, their heads soon encircled with gray wisps of cigarette smoke.

Enid watched the little houses with their postage stamp yards and picket fences dissolve into a blur of colors, breathing in the smell of diesel fuel and Aqua Net. The houses gave way to long stretches of fluttering green fields—hearty tobacco leaves and neat rows of cotton, low and dry in the summer heat, brittle stems flecked with white.

Besides farming, Creech Manufacturing was the largest source of employment for the people of tiny Fray Lake, Kentucky.

Located in nearby Jericho, a bustling city resting on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, the sprawling new brick complex was built on Jericho’s highest elevation, meant to serve as the city’s grandest example of modernity and progress.

As the bus wheezed and lurched up the hill, the girls pulled out compacts and tubes of lipstick to touch up. Enid imagined Chad already at his station in the factory, hunched over what she imagined was a very complicated machine or assembly line. She wasn’t sure what he did, exactly, and he didn’t like talking about it.

Things went better if she didn’t ask. She simply ironed his shirts and dungarees and prepared a hot breakfast each morning, rollers still in her hair. She sent him off with his silver lunchbox packed with leftover fried chicken and apple pie and a thermos of hot percolated coffee. She did all this and did not ask any questions.

Chad and Enid worked all day within a few hundred yards of each other, but did not see one other until they returned home at supper time—she traveling by city bus, he in his sea foam Chevy sedan, a gift from his father for his 21st birthday.

The car meant everything to Chad. He had preened and polished it the morning of their wedding, swearing bodily harm to his brothers if they spelled out “Just Married” on the back windshield with shaving cream or soap.

They hadn’t dared. But they did manage to tie a few dozen empty soup cans to the tailpipe during the ceremony without the newlyweds realizing it until they were driving away from the church. As they dashed down the church steps, pelted by handfuls of rice, Chad had been so concerned about the rice marring the wax job, he hadn’t even noticed the cans.

But as soon as they were out of sight of the well-wishers, he had pulled over and cut them off with his pocketknife, shaking his head at the double and triple knots, cursing quietly to himself. Enid was disappointed but she kept her tongue. She had secretly looked forward to a jubilant ride through town, the clatter of cans and flutter of crepe paper drawing cheers and shouts for the newly pronounced man and wife. Instead, it was a relatively quiet drive to their honeymoon suite at the Champlain Inn in nearby Rockaway, Kentucky.

When they arrived at the hotel it was nearly nightfall. Chad caught hold of Enid’s hand and squeezed it, breaking the silence at last. “I’ll get those jerks back,” he said, chagrined, but smiling.

“I know,” she said, returning the smile, her heart skipping hard in her throat. She squeezed his hand tightly, and suddenly realized she still holding her wedding bouquet—in all the excitement she had forgotten to toss it.

A real honeymoon—a drive to the panhandle or Gulf Shores—would have to wait. Chad had been hired at the plant and they needed money to pay for the small yellow cottage they hadn’t been able to afford—his father had co-signed on the loan. So while Chad worked at the factory, Enid had taken on the role of housewife with vigor. She unpacked wedding gifts, wrote thank-you notes, organized the pantry and baked an abundance of cakes and pies. When she got lonely, she invited the neighborhood wives over, but didn’t particularly enjoy the fussy babies being bounced and patted as the women gossiped over coffee and cigarettes.

It took a while for Chad to warm up to the idea of Enid going to work. But the truth was, they needed the money. Chad’s father expected him to take over the car payments, and then there was the house, and all the other expenses that came with it. When they’d needed a push mower, they’d put it on credit, and Enid worried that they would run out of money. Or that they already had.

Chad had resisted Enid’s suggestion that she find work, but relented in the end. He drove her to Jericho and sulked quietly in the car while she took the typing test, his arms folded across his chest like a pouting child. The next Tuesday she got a telephone call from the human resources department at Creech, notifying her she’d gotten the job. Her hands shook as she put the receiver back in the cradle. Chad looked up at her over the newspaper, his water-blue eyes trying to gauge from her expression whether or not it was good news.

“Well?” he said.

“I got the job,” she said, smoothing her apron, careful to keep a casual tone. “But it’s just for now, just until we get on our feet. A year at the most and I’m sure I’ll run screaming from the building.” She forced a laugh.

His expression darkened but then the smile returned. “Sure, honeybun, whatever you say. I imagine I can still expect three meals a day—Or do working girls let their husbands starve?”

“No, of course not!” She slapped his arm playfully with a wooden spoon. “I can keep up the housework and laundry, and you won’t go hungry—I can promise you that.”

Enid’s voice was betraying her now. He had to know she was thrilled with the news, but his handsome face remained unchanged. She smiled at him and went back to the stove to tend to supper: a simmering pot of soup that was on the verge of bubbling over.

“I guess we’ll be waiting on starting a family, then,” he said quietly, this time not looking up.

She kept stirring the soup, pretending she didn’t hear.

Enid stepped off the bus and filed in to the side entrance of the building. She pulled her time card from her cubby and slid it into the machine until she heard the chunk-chunk sound of the gears inside, stamping the date and time of her arrival on the long narrow manila card with her name at the top.

In the typing pool there were rows and rows of lacquered wooden desks, each with its own typewriter and lamp. She took her place at the one nearest the window and settled in to an armless chair with with squeaky casters, her dress fanning out around her on the leather seat.

As the desks filled, the clack of keys took over. The room came to life and Enid with it. She breathed in the smells—ribbons of ink, reams of paper, hot coffee, cigarettes and freshly waxed floors—and released a sigh.

She crossed her ankles and began to type, forgetting who she was supposed to be.

(c) Joan Brasher

1 comment:

Chris Fenoglio said...

Oh please keep writing about Enid and Chad. Your descriptive writing quickly took me to their world and I'd like to know more. Well done.

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