Authors: Susan Gloss
For my grandmother Sally Baker who taught me that every seam has a story
: wedding gown
: good, minor discoloration on lining
: Ivory, tea-length gown with scooped neckline and cap sleeves. Silk taffeta with crinoline understructure.
: Dress acquired from the couple’s daughter.
BENEATH THE ASH TREES
on Johnson Street, just east of campus, Hourglass Vintage stood in a weathered brick building, wedged between a fair-trade coffee shop and a bike-repair business. Behind the boutique’s windows, Violet Turner was buttoning a mannequin into a smocked sundress.
She sighed as undergraduates with bright scarves and
red faces rushed by the shop without glancing at her or the garments on display. Gray spring days like this one were all about hurrying and practicality, and Violet didn’t like either concept. People in practical moods didn’t wander into the shop to buy Bakelite jewelry or turn-of-the-century kid gloves. Even the hearty street musicians—bearded bluegrass players who usually staked out a spot near the crosswalk—had packed up their banjos and left.
Violet tucked a strand of short black hair behind her ear and bent down to tie an espadrille sandal onto the mannequin’s ankle. When she got back up, a pair of blue eyes stared back at her. A girl stood outside, just inches from the window, clutching a 1950s wedding dress against her fleece jacket.
Violet remembered the girl. She had come in a few weeks earlier and tried on half a dozen bridal gowns before selecting the full-skirted one she held now, which flapped in the wind like a surrender flag.
The girl entered the shop and spread the dress on the counter. “I need to return this.”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t allow returns.” Violet took her place behind the register and smoothed her checkered skirt against her hips.
“Can’t you at least give me back part of what I paid?” The girl ran her hands over the silk fabric of the wedding gown, letting them linger on the tulle rosettes along the hem.
“I wish I could, but it’s store policy,” Violet said. She felt a blast of dry heat from the old radiator affixed to the wall and peeled off her pearl-buttoned cardigan—a find from her grandma Lou’s closet after she passed away.
The girl stared at the tattoo of a flame-licked phoenix on Violet’s freckled bicep, then looked away when Violet caught her staring. “I guess I hoped you could make an exception,” the girl said. “I could really use the money.” Her eyes clouded with tears—a layer of water over blue ice.
Violet started to bite her lip, then remembered she was wearing red lipstick. She felt sorry for the girl, but she needed to be firm on her rule. Since she sold secondhand items, there was no way to tell if an item had been worn when a customer brought it back. If she allowed returns, she worried that her shop would become like a lending library for vintage clothes. She handed the girl a Kleenex from a crocheted tissue-box holder.
The girl took the tissue and wiped her wet cheeks. “Sorry, I’m a mess.”
“It’s okay.” Seeing the heartbreak in the girl’s face reminded Violet of a time in her own life she didn’t like to think about—the pain that had permeated the breakup of her marriage and culminated in her moving to Madison five years earlier.
“I don’t usually cry in front of strangers,” the girl said.
“I helped you pick out your wedding dress. I’d like to think I’m not a
stranger. I’m Violet, by the way.”
“I’m April Morgan.” The girl shoved the crumpled tissue into her purse—a battered leather schoolboy satchel.
“I like your bag,” Violet said. “It looks like it’s from the seventies.”
“Yeah, it belonged to my mom.”
Violet sensed the girl had a story to tell, and listening to other people’s stories was her specialty. Every item in the boutique had a story behind it, from a Missoni caftan to a Fendi baguette bag with the tags still on it. If Violet didn’t know the real story behind something, she liked to fill in the blanks with her imagination. She knew the caftan, for instance, was from an Italian professor who bought it when she studied abroad in Italy as a college student in the seventies. The professor said she’d had a short but passionate love affair with a distant cousin of Vittorio Emanuele, the last crown prince of Italy. Violet believed her, too, because of the way the woman’s cheeks had burned as she recounted the story.
Violet didn’t know the details behind the baguette bag. A young journalist from the local alternative newspaper had sold it to the shop for rent money and simply said it had been a gift. Violet liked to imagine that the journalist received it from a cruel but brilliant New York fashion editor who gave it to her to try to entice her into a life of reporting on runway shows and seasonal trends. Perhaps the journalist had turned down the job in favor of writing about what she saw as more important matters, like politics and environmental issues, but kept the bag for a while as a reminder of the road not taken.
“Do you want something to drink?” Violet asked. “A cup of tea? Shot of whiskey?”
The girl looked startled. “I, uh, no. I’m only eighteen.”
Violet laughed as she plugged in an electric kettle on a small table behind the counter. The midcentury table, all angles and Scandinavian oak, held a silver Victorian tea tray and an assortment of mugs. The effect was a hodgepodge of styles, like the boutique and like Violet herself.
“I’m kidding about the whiskey,” Violet said. “I don’t have any booze in the store.”
“You sure have a lot of pretty old bottles, though.” April pointed toward a shelf full of vintage glassware in every shape and shade—green, cobalt, ruby red. “What’s that big jug for?”
“I’m not sure.” Violet went over and took down a stoneware crock with a tiny finger-sized handle. She plunked it on the counter. “It doesn’t have a mark or a label or anything. Maybe someone used it to make moonshine.”
April picked up the jug and examined the blue floral design on the front. “Where did you get it?”
“Bent Creek, where I grew up. The owner of the local tavern gave it to me.”
“Is that here in Wisconsin?” April asked. “I’ve never heard of it.”
Violet nodded. “There’s no reason you would have, unless you’re a hunting and fishing enthusiast. It’s a tiny town up near Lake Superior. Population of less than a thousand.”
“Huh,” April said, eyeing Violet’s tattoo again. “I wouldn’t have guessed that.”
“Yeah, I didn’t fit in very well there,” Violet said. “When I was a kid, my mom used to scold me because I’d wear my flapper Halloween costume to school on a regular Tuesday or put on my First Communion gloves for a trip to the grocery store.”
Violet remembered with a smile that on such occasions, her maternal grandmother would stick up for her if she was within earshot. Grandma Lou would wink at Violet and say, “Some people were just meant to sparkle more than others, honey.”
Violet waved a hand to avoid any more questions about her past. She opened a mahogany caddy and thumbed through rows of tea bags nestled inside the satin interior. “Are you sure you don’t want some tea? I’m making some for myself anyway, so it’s no big deal to make another cup.”
“Okay, sure.” April put down the jug and unzipped her jacket. “Thanks.”
“And here, lemme hang up that dress. It’ll get wrinkled.” Violet whisked the wedding gown from the counter. She smoothed it out and put it on a tall rack next to the register.
“I don’t care if it gets wrinkled,” April said.
“I do. That thing took me over an hour to steam before I put it out on the sales floor. Silk taffeta is a bitch to press.”
thought Violet, scolding herself for swearing in front of a customer.
There goes my mouth again.
She cast a glance at April, who didn’t seem to have noticed or, at least, seemed not to have minded.
“What kind of tea do you want?” Violet asked as she poured hot water into two hand-painted china cups. “I’ve got green, Earl Grey . . .”
“Do you have anything without caffeine?” April asked, placing her hand on her stomach.
Violet noticed a bit of roundness at the girl’s waist and wondered if April was pregnant. Her speculation came with a wave of jealousy and pity. Violet had always loved babies, but lately the desire for one of her own had kicked in with unexpected ferocity. This new longing bothered her, not because she was thirty-eight and single, but because she liked to think she was content with her life the way it was. She had Miles, her pit bull, and an eclectic group of customers who had become her friends. Babies and biological clocks were, in her opinion, conventional. Violet prided herself on being independent and nonconformist—never mind the fact that she sold vintage aprons and corseted dresses in her shop.
“I like chamomile, if you’ve got it,” April said. “My mom used to make it for me.”
Violet put tea bags into the cups and handed one to April. “So what made you decide to buy a vintage gown?”
“I live down the street, so I walk by here a lot,” April said. “And I like old things. I don’t know why. I guess I like the idea that everything has a life behind it, that the past has meaning.”
“I know what you mean,” Violet said. “I also like to think things were simpler years ago, though I’m sure I’m kidding myself.”
“I still remember what you told me about the dress, that the lady who wore it ended up being married for fifty-five years.”
“Wow. I’m glad someone actually listens to my stories,” Violet said. “I mean, I tell customers details about the merchandise all the time, but I figure most people kind of nod politely and tune me out. I realize not everybody is quite as obsessed with old stuff as I am.”
“What you told me about the dress is one of the reasons I chose it. Well, besides the fact that it’s beautiful, and so unique.”
“Isn’t it?” Violet cast a wistful look at the gown, which kept its shape even while hanging on the rack. “It was handmade by the bride. You just don’t see that sort of detail on something mass-produced.”
“Did the lady who made it bring it in?” April asked.
Violet shook her head. “The couple’s daughter did. Her parents died within a week of each other.”
“That’s so sad.”
Violet sipped her tea. “I suppose, but they had a long, happy marriage. That’s more than a lot of people get.”
“I meant sad for the daughter.” April’s voice wavered. “Were you in the middle of something? I don’t want to hold you up if you have stuff to do.”
“Business isn’t exactly booming today.” Violet gestured around the empty store. “Do you want to talk about what happened? Why you wanted to return the dress, I mean.”
The girl shook her head, whipping strands of blond hair against her cheeks. “I don’t want to take up any more of your time.”
“I’m just changing out the window displays for summer. It’s nothing that can’t wait.” Violet glanced over at her two mannequins in the window, now mismatched with one in a sundress and the other in a peach mohair sweater.