Authors: Rick Bass
Only Bonnie knew of her predicament, but was not much help, suggesting that Maxine ask Birdie to sew her a new dress.
"We can't even afford the material," Maxine said, "and even if we could, she's never sewn silk before. I don't know what to do. I can't go," she said. "I'm queen, but I can't go."
"There's got to be something," Bonnie said. "Maybe one of the other queens would let you share. Maybe she could come out and wave to the crowd, then go back inside and change, and let you wear her dress and come out and wave."
"It doesn't work that way," Maxine said. "There's no girl in the world who would do that. I sure as hell wouldn't. Anyway, it would look stupid. Everybody would know. It would be worse than not going. That's the dumbest thing I ever heard of. I just won't go. Dammit, I just won't go." Her chin trembled and tears welled, but she held them in; there was no way she would cry in front of her little sister.
Bonnie's own chin quivered, but she absorbed the criticism, tried to understand where it was coming from.
Maxine got her dress. The next morning before her own class started, Bonnie hurried across the street to the high school, found Maxine's homeroom teacher, and told her the problem. Maxine's teacher went to the football coach with her idea, which the coach presented to his team that afternoon, for the senior boys to take up a collection to buy Maxine the blue dressâand that first day, they had enough to put it on layaway before the school closed at six, and enough the next day to purchase it, so that the school bus was able to stop and let her run in and pick it up on her way home.
Maybe it was wrong, Maxine thought, to be made so happy by a material thing, and by a superficial beauty rather than the more durable soul within, but she was seventeen and to expect otherwise would have been ridiculous. Walking home through the crisp autumn, with the sound of the men's axes ringing and the scent of the wood smoke from their burn piles, and the dress box in her arms, she felt that every nerve in her body was more stimulated than it had ever been. As if she had passed through some thin screen or veil into a place where the world was unbearably beautiful, and where she would never know hardship or longing again. A lone red sweet gum leaf fell, twisting, and like a baseball outfielder she hurried ahead of Bonnie a few steps to catch it on top of the white box. Jim Ed trailed a few steps behind them, dragging a stick in the thick leaves, with his sisters seeming to him so old now as to essentially be full-grown adults, and he wondered if they would go off and leave him behind.
The girls stopped now and again to lift the lid of the box and peer inside at the silk, still not believing their luck, as if worried that the dress might somehow escape them. Running, then, the last distance to the house, to show Birdie and Floyd, and to go try it on, each of them. If her life had ever been better, Maxine didn't know when.
I can still be a good person and like this dress,
There's nothing wrong with being so happy.
She wondered if this was how Floyd felt when he drank.
Birdie started crying when she first saw the dress on Maxine, and then again when she saw it on Bonnie.
"You're sure it's yours? You don't have to take it back?" she asked, and when the girls told her how the senior boys had pooled their dollars to buy it for Maxine, Birdie cried again.
But the old Brown luck returned later that same day; the best day of Maxine's life turned sour even before nightfall, as the last of the dim light was leaving the forest and Floyd came in from the mill, smelling of diesel. Maxine couldn't wait to show him the dress, and she and Bonnie went back to their room to dress her up again. Getting her hair right, holding the mirror here and there. The dress seemed to fit better each time she put it on, as if her body were learning to fill its curves. As if she were learning to become the kind of person who might wear such a dress all the time.
Floyd wasn't prepared for the story Birdie told him while Maxine was changing. Rather than being touched by the generosity, he was embarrassed, and he wasn't prepared for his oldest daughter to be wearing what he viewed as so revealing a dress before so many people; with Maxine's slight build, it wasn't quite like there was cleavage showing, but almost. It was just too much skin, and the beauty of the skin, and the dress itself, and the radiant young woman wearing it was too much, as was the sudden freedom and power she assumed in that wearing. He looked at her not with pride but shock, and could only think
no without reason, only no, and he forbid her to wear the dress.
Maxine thought she might have stepped into some dream world where words, though familiar to her, no longer made any sense; a land where people, even those closest to and beloved by her, spoke gibberish.
"No," she said, "you don't understand. I'm queen. I have to wear it."
None of the children had ever told Floyd no to anything before. This, on top of the humiliation of the gift and the surprise of seeing his daughters dressed up like movie stars, accenting rather than hiding their beauty, was all he needed to know and hear.
"If you go to Homecoming," he said, "you won't be wearing that dress. I forbid it. You can take it back. You can give the football boys their money back. You can thank them," he added. "That was nice."
Birdie was still and silent in the cabin, frozen as if with foreknowledge. There was only one way this could turn out, and Jim Ed and Bonnie knew it. Birdie willed Floyd to soften, set her mind straining toward that wish like a woman shoving uphill on a boulder, but she could feel no movement in that regard, and she felt sick, and thought,
We just have to get through this.
"No," Maxine said again, quietly but firmly, "it's mine and I've been named the queen. I have to go."
"You can go," Floyd said, his anger quick in him nowâthe drinking voiceâ"if you don't bring it up again. But you can't wear the dress. You'll have to wear something else. Wear your church dress," he said. "Wear one of your mother's dresses." He stared Maxine down, but was troubled by what he saw and sensed, a fury little different from his own. He turned and went to the cabinet, got his jug down, and to show that he was not rattled, that he was supremely in control, poured only half a glass, and sat down by the fire and took just one sip before rising again and going into the bathroom, where Birdie had hot water waiting in the porcelain tub. The steam coming from the door as he opened it, and him disappearing into that steam. Birdie and the girls not looking at one another, chastened not so much by his temper or ultimatum but by the strange unspoken collaboration of their betrayal-to-come. No words needed to be passed.
Maxine glided through the remaining days before the dance largely unconcerned; she had made up her mind, and there was no force on earth that would change that. She took the dress to school two days before, left it with a friend, and the afternoon of the dance, went straight from school to her friend's, where she changed out of her Sunday clothes and into the blue dress.
A little of the pleasure was goneâFloyd had sullied thatâbut the other girls' gasps and adulations strengthened something else inside her. It seemed better than a fair trade.
She moved past the feeling of secrecy and gave herself up to the honor of being queen. Was it her imagination, later that night, when the royalty court was presented at halftime, or were the cheers loudest for her? And whether because of her beauty or the magnanimity of the community's gift, no matter; the cheers for her were loudest, and her breath came so fast during those cheers that she could not have spoken if she had to, could only wave.
The presentation passed, the game resumed, and the evening stretched out. She knew it was ending, but no matter: something else was beginning, and she felt she had somehow imprinted herself upon the worldâas if she had only now just entered it. This was who and how she was supposed to be, and now that she had crossed over into that place, it did not matter whether she took the dress off or not, for she had become that personâshe was safely over on the other side, and realized only then that she had even been laboring to cross to some other side.
After the dance, she and Bonnie hurried back to her friend's house and she changed back into her regular dress. She and Bonnie got a ride to the end of their road with her friend's parents, and they walked down the moonlit lane, scuffling leaves and remembering the night, listening to owls, blowing delicious silver smoke from their lungs, and they marveled at how wonderful the world could be.
They were back a full half-hour before curfewâit was not yet ten thirtyâbut Floyd had been drinking all evening. He was not yet incapacitated, only belligerent and plague-ridden; the humiliation of the gift had become mythic in his mind, the one heavy stone to which he clutched in his descent, like a diver seeking ballast to help him make it all the way down to the bottom of where he felt he needed to go.
Jim Ed was in his room, playing his guitar quietly, pretending to be someone else, and Birdie was by the fire, rocking and knitting and waiting, listening to Floyd's tirades about pride and work, listening to him with passive detachment, knowing it wasn't Floyd speaking, but a strangerâthe Floyd she knew was a good provider and hard worker, an honest man who knew right from wrong and who would do anything for his familyâand as she rocked, she hoped Maxine would have the good sense rather than saucy rebellionânow that her perfect evening was overâto hide the dress rather than to still be wearing it.
Maxine would one day become the woman who would have worn the dress right on into the cabin, but the seventeen-year-old Maxine did not. Instead, she peered in the window, saw Floyd with his jug, and set the box down on the porch to come get later after he was asleep, and then she and Bonnie went on inside, bright and cheery and radiating pleased guilt, duplicity, relief, joy.
Birdie saw it all and smiled but felt a heaviness at the same time. Her needles clacked a bit faster now, as if she might somehow be able to weave a different outcome.
When Floyd drank like that, he reminded Maxine of a snarling dog, and it went unquestioned by her that on the best night of her life it was to that dog which she returned. She and Bonnie lingered a bit, not wanting to be in his presence but not wanting to abandon the box on the porch.
When he rose to go outside to urinate, they could only hold their breath, and were relieved to see how drunk he was, weaving and cursing, muttering. He looked at Maxine as he passed, assessed her plain dress, laughed, then went outside.
He found the box while stumbling around trying to bring in a piece of firewood. Sickened, they could hear him dropping the firewood, then the silence, then the sound of the box being opened.
He came inside carrying the long blue dress like a sash, eyes glittering, and went straight to the woodstove. Maxine shouted
and grabbed his arm, but he threw it off, opened the stove door, and shoved the dress in, where the silk plumed immediately into brilliant crackling flame, flooding the cabin with a brief, fierce heat.
"I told you not to wear it," he said. "I told you no."
Strangely, it was Bonnie who cried loudest. Maxine didn't cry at all, simply went silent and coldârefused to acknowledge, in that moment, what the dress meant to herâand focused instead on hating Floyd. If she missed the dress overmuch, it might take away from energy she could spend hating him. She went and picked up his whiskey-smelling work jacket and brushed past him and opened the stove quickly and began shoving it in, amid the charred and flamed sheets and curves of her dress, but he snatched it back out, the sleeve afire, stamped it out, ashes and coals scattering all over the floor, and with the foul scent of burning silk filling the cabin.
Birdie had gotten up and was protesting, "Floyd, Floyd, please," and was patting his arm, trying to change his course through words aloneâ"
"âand he was laughing now, pulling on his still smoldering jacket and laughing. With his sleeve still smoking, he turned to lecture the children about obedience, but then passed out, pitched forward, hitting his head hard on the cabin wall as he fell, and Birdie hurried to tend to him, and to extinguish the burning.
"I'm sorry," Bonnie said that night, thinking that she might have heard Maxine crying in the bed next to her. "You sure looked pretty. You were beautiful." The scent of the burning fabric was acrid throughout the cabin, stinging their faces, and they could hear Floyd's snoring below, beneath the blanket with which Birdie had covered him, and could hear more clearly the sounds of the night, from where Birdie had opened the window to try to clear out some of the smoke. An owl calling that night, sounding just like it did in good times; the slow autumn-chilled trill of crickets. The girls reliving the good part of the night, not the bad.
"It was just a dress," Maxine said. "I wore it, and was queen, and the sonofabitch can't take that away. I wore it," she said.
Now she thought she heard Bonnie crying, and she sat up and told her not to worry, to stop it, that she had gotten to wear the dress, and that that was what mattered, but still Bonnie kept crying.
"What is it?" Maxine asked, and Bonnie whispered, "I don't know. I just miss Raymond."
This same year, a handsome country music disc jockey, Dick Hart, drifted through town, stopped in Sparkman to sign autographs, noticed Maxine's looks straight away, and invited her to come up to Little Rock the next night to meet him at a radio station he was bound for. He said he could get her plenty more autographs, that there would be all kinds of stars there.
Maxine and a friend snuck out that night, borrowing Floyd's Model A, pushing it a quarter-mile down the road before starting it, then driving up to Little Rock. A year before she wouldn't have dared, but now she felt she had less to lose.
They met Dick Hart at one
and he was not in the least bit interested in getting autographs for them. The girls resisted his attentions but were thrilled with their adventure. They flirted, giggled, pushed away his pawing, then drove back home in the night, only to have the Model A overheat and break down just before daylight a few miles outside of Sparkman. She'd run the radiator so dry that it had melted a gas line and caught on fire, and they had to put the fire out by tossing handfuls of dirt on the engine.