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The Horsehair Ball Gown

ISSUE:  Spring 2013

On Thursdays, if the weather was pleasant, Isabella Smith drove her older sister, Maud, to Lexington to have lunch at Harvey’s, the best place outside of Louisville to get a Kentucky Hot Brown. They liked the friendly old-time atmosphere, with its Venetian blinds and antique portraits of forgotten families, and although alcohol was on the menu, the restaurant was never rowdy. It was clean, and their usual waitress, Shannon, knew their preferences.

But they had not been to Harvey’s for two weeks. An incident that had occurred there during their last visit was so unnerving that Maud was afraid to get in the car, even for the ritual delight of traveling to Lexington, which she said was like “going to heaven in house shoes.” What had happened at Harvey’s had Maud so nervous and confused that Isabella was increasingly distraught. At church, her mind wandered, replaying the perplexing incident, and Maud, sitting next to her, silently clasped her hand, as if they were riders on a Ferris wheel.

Maud was near ninety, and it was Isabella’s duty to care for her, much as they had both cared for their mother in her declining years. When Isabella was a child, Maud had helped to take care of her, babying her and calling her “Little Bit.” Isabella called Maud by the familiar term of affection, “Puss.” They still used these names with each other. They were the sort of women who remained little girls around their mothers. They spoke childishly to their mother even while Maud was married to Mr. Burnham—for a tragically brief time. A heart attack felled him at the spring stock sales, and the surprise of it made Maud never trust love again. 

Isabella herself, being unmarried, had led a life of tabbyhood—one of their mother’s quainter terms. At seventy-four and climbing, she still refused age a place at the table and intended that no infirmity should strike her down. Maud was remarkably healthy, too, except for twisting her words around on occasion. She didn’t dither over what she couldn’t remember, and she still groomed herself impeccably as the gentlewoman she had always been. Isabella worried about her sister, though, for refusing medication. Maud had had twenty-four bladder stones once and didn’t give a sign of discomfort. Ever since Maud found out that the “police-bows” the doctor prescribed were just sugar pills, a tricky experiment to see if her heart flutters would abate, she hadn’t trusted any medication. She’d had anesthesia for her bladder surgery, but she declined to take the opiates and dopes afterwards. “Pain helper,” as she called such medicine.

On the telephone now, one of their nieces, Louise, was fussing at Isabella. “Aunt Isabella, you get yourself back in that car and drive to Lexington.”

“I don’t know, Lou-Lou. I can’t get Maud to go. I told her we could try some other eating place.” Isabella steadied herself against the glass-fronted china cabinet, which had a wobbly foot.

“You know how much you love Harvey’s, and I know how you love to drive that Lincoln Continental.”

Isabella gazed at a line of dust on the wood trim of the cabinet.

Lou-Lou ignored Isabella’s silence. She said, “I hate to bring this up, but I got concerned when I didn’t get a note from you after Easter. Remember I brought you those two trays of sausage-twirls? Usually I hear from you first thing. Was something wrong with them?” 

“Oh, Lou-Lou, I’m so sorry. I should have written you a thank-you note. I’ve lost my head.”

“You don’t have to apologize. I was just afraid—well, it wasn’t like you.”

“I didn’t have my manners showing.” Isabella paused to grope for an appropriate response. Impulsively, she said, “Those sausage-twirls were the best things. You are so good to us.”

“Did you freeze one of the trays?”

“Oh, yes. We’re really looking forward to having them for breakfast one of these Sundays.”

Isabella had thrown both trays into the garbage. She had always hated Lou-Lou’s sausage-twirls. They were made with pasty pop-open canned biscuits.

Lou-Lou said, “What if I pick you two up at six o’clock and we’ll go eat at Long John Silver’s?”

“I’m afraid it’ll be too much for Maud. She’s been disturbed since … since the incident. And I already had plans—I have some hose I need to wash out.”

“I forgot—it’s Tiptoe Day!”

On Wednesdays, the sisters had their hair done, and Lou-Lou always laughed at them for the way they tiptoed around, trying not to muss their hair. Maud wore a hairnet, but Isabella liked a modicum of bounce in her hair and refused to wear one. Maud had pointed out that Eleanor Roosevelt was on TV recently wearing a hairnet.

“What was Eleanor Roosevelt doing on television?” Isabella asked. “She’s been dead for decades.”

“It was an old film reel, without any color.”

Now Isabella thought about her sister’s hairnets wadded up in her drawer like little bundles of spiderwebs. They were too gossamery to wash. Her niece was saying, “Don’t you worry about that man anymore.”

Isabella cried, “Don’t worry about that man? For heaven’s sakes, Lou-Lou, I told you how upset Maud was!”

“You’re so old-fashioned, both of you,” said Lou-Lou. “But you’re sweet to a fault.” 

Lou-Lou had some kind of job in the tall blue building in Lexington, and Isabella thought she acted as though she lived in an advanced civilization.

“Bring us some of that Better-than-Sex Cake next time,” Isabella blurted out. She hadn’t meant to say that. “It was so delicious.”

After hanging up the telephone, she stooped to retrieve the matchbook that had become dislodged from under the shaky foot of the china cabinet. She squeezed it into place and tested the cabinet. 

On that last visit to Harvey’s, Isabella and Maud had been sitting at their favorite table, with the sunlight shooting through the slanted blinds. Maud said she was tired of Kentucky Hot Brown, and they had decided to split an order of ribs after Maud said she couldn’t hold a whole order. Isabella asked for some extra slaw and beans. Shannon brought more yeast rolls, too, along with several napkins to sop up the grease from the ribs. She spoke cheerfully about her young son, who was in a special magnet school. After Shannon left the table, Maud and Isabella had a discussion about whether she meant magnet or magnate. They didn’t know if the child was deformed somehow or couldn’t learn, perhaps, but it would be impolite to ask.

Near the end of the meal, as Shannon was freshening their iced tea, she said, “That gentleman in the corner has paid for y’all’s lunch.”

For a moment, Isabella couldn’t imagine what she meant. “What gentleman?” Isabella looked to the corner to her right and then glanced behind her to the far corner, and all she saw was a black man drinking coffee.

Shannon gestured toward the man. Both sisters stared at him, then turned to each other. Maud murmured, “No, that can’t be.” 

Isabella, embarrassed, said, “Tell him we don’t want him to do that.”

“But he already did it,” said Shannon.

“Tell him he’s not obliged,” Isabella said. She spoke quietly, not wanting to make a scene.

“It’s all right, ladies. He was just being nice,” said Shannon, waving and smiling into the corner where the black man sat.

Maud muttered, “This isn’t done.” She had turned quite pale, Isabella noticed.

“Don’t worry, Puss,” said Isabella, reaching for her sister’s hand.

“Mother would have a fit if she could hear such an idea.” Their mother had always let the maid eat in the kitchen.

Shannon had vanished, and they were afraid to glance at the man again. Isabella opened a packet of sugar for Maud’s tea, but Maud pushed her glass away. She was twisting her paper napkin nervously. 

Isabella tried to finish her slaw and beans, but they had lost their savor.

Then the black man was standing beside their table.

“Ladies!” he said. “I’ve seen you here many times, and it’s my pleasure to extend a little good feeling your way. My name is Herbert Brewster, and my mission is to spread joy and sunshine.”

Isabella was afraid Maud was going to faint. She clutched the edge of the table, her knuckles white. She stared at her lap as the man continued to prattle and gab about spreading sunshine. His large dark shape, silhouetted by the sunlight, leaned toward them as if he might pounce. They shrank—ever so slightly—as his goodwill burbled forth. Isabella could not make out his features, but he wore a loden-green wool jacket and a sea-green turtleneck. His hat, a derby style, was bobbing in his hands.

“I want to invite you to my church,” he said. He laid a card on the table next to the salt shaker. 

He placed his hat on his head, then quickly doffed it about two inches.

“God bless you, ladies,” he said, and he strode away.

Shannon was there again, clearing the dishes. She said, “Oh, he’s real nice. He comes in here all the time.”

“We’ll have to send him a thank-you note,” said Isabella, staring at the card. 

“I was too stupefied to utter a word,” said Maud.

“Don’t worry,” said Shannon. “He’s just a lonesome, sweet guy who wanted to do something nice. I hear he’s a dynamite preacher.”

As Isabella and her sister drove home, they chattered nervously, their talk running together like a monologue.

“Reckon what he wants with us?” … “Wonder why he paid for our ribs?” … “Did he think we couldn’t afford a whole dinner apiece?” … “How shameful to give such an impression.” … “What if he wants us to buy his dinner next time?”

Isabella almost slammed into a dog in the road.

“The nerve, inviting us to his church,” said Maud, who still had her tattered paper napkin, which she had worried into the shape of a twist of tobacco.

“We don’t have to go, do we?”

“Did he think he could buy us a dinner and get us to come to his church?”

“Maybe he feels it’s his duty to feed widows and orphans,” Isabella said. “You’re the widow and I’m the orphan.”

“I’m an orphan, too,” said Maud, patting a platinum curl that had escaped her hair net.

Maud couldn’t sleep that night, hurting from her arthritic hips and knees. Isabella had a bad night, too. When she heard Maud thrashing, Isabella brought her a glass of water and offered her some ibuprofen.

“No. And I don’t want any of those police-bows either.”

“How would you know which is which?”

“I’m not taking the chance.”

The next morning at breakfast, Maud said, “Little Bit, I can’t get my mind off of this. It carries me back to when Mother was alive, how she would get so distressed at any little thing. She could work something up in her mind and then it would take over.”

“You’re not that much like Mother.” Isabella realized she sounded snappy.

“All the same, Mother wouldn’t have stood for this.”

Although Maud argued against sending a note, Isabella wrote to the preacher, a simple, proper thank-you on one of her floral, sachet-scented notes. Too late, it occurred to Isabella that he might interpret the fragrance incorrectly. The church was some sect Isabella had never heard of, the House of Glory on Harrodsburg Road.

Maud began having her little dizzy spells, and her stomach bothered her. She stayed in bed for two days, eating broth and boiled custard until her digestion improved. Although usually patient, Isabella was growing irritated by her sister’s behavior. She was tired of not being able to watch the news. Maud had refused to have the news on since Obama had been elected president. Sometimes Isabella stayed up to watch the eleven o’clock news, with the sound barely a whisper, and she got goose bumps at the sight of the President.

Maud, who had slept unusually late, seemed agitated the next morning when Isabella brought her breakfast on a tray. A little sigh and a groan escaped as Maud twisted in the bed to sit upright.

“Did you have bad dreams, Puss?” Isabella asked. 

Maud nibbled a triangle of toast and sipped her coffee. Isabella stood by her sister’s bed, listening to her tell about her dreams.

“We were all in a wedding, and then it rained and all of a sudden we couldn’t get across a creek that was flooded, and Mother said, ‘Hold on! Hold on!’ Oh, it was dreadful, and Gisela was on the other side, but she got washed away, like a big washtub floating away.”

“Gisela!” Isabella hadn’t uttered Gisela’s name aloud in years. “Puss, why did you dream about Gisela?” 

“It was her—holding her head up high and singing to beat the band!” Maud paused to reach for more toast from the tray.

“What happened then?”

“She was hanging around here. She wanted some scraps, and I said we didn’t have any scraps. They were reserved for the dogs.”

“How did she look?”

“She looked like a Gypsy. Long, tangly hair and a scarf.”

Isabella remembered Gisela only vaguely and hardly ever thought about her.

Maud said, “She was a pitiful sight.” 

She wadded her napkin—the pale-peach linen napkin from their mother’s absolute best breakfast set. Isabella had not meant to use that, it was so hard to iron. Now it had coffee stains on it. She lifted the tray and stood there with it, spoons akimbo. 

“It was just a dream,” she said. “Gisela wasn’t here. She can’t worm her way back in here. She won’t bother us.” Isabella tried to comfort her sister, assuring her that Gisela wouldn’t be returning. They didn’t have to worry.

But Maud began to weep. “I haven’t seen Gisela in over sixty years,” she said. “We don’t know if she’s dead or alive.”

With the tray shaking, Isabella retreated into the kitchen, her heart pounding. Her sister had dreamed about Gisela, of all people. The family had lost contact with her decades before, when she was only nineteen.

“I always hated that,” Maud called out. “I lost Mr. Burnham and I lost my sister.”

Isabella was afraid to hear any more. She didn’t know why Maud should suddenly be wrought up about Gisela, after all this time.

While washing the breakfast things, Isabella accidentally broke a coffee cup. She had never liked the Blue Willow pattern, but it was Maud’s favorite. She fished the pieces out of the sudsy water and gratefully flung them into the garbage pail. In the laundry room, she hunted for something to remove the coffee stains from the peach napkin, but she forgot what she was looking for. She didn’t know what to do next. It seemed as though she had a list of important matters to take care of, but she kept losing it.

She sat rigid for a long time, with the memory of Gisela raging through her mind like a fresh blaze.

Maud was sleeping. As quietly as she could, Isabella hauled the stepladder into the dining room and stepped up to the third step, holding on to some molding, until she could reach a high cupboard, where some boxes of pictures had been stored. Balanced precariously, she lowered several of the dusty boxes onto the table. They were filled with several decades’ worth of postcards, greeting cards, and snapshots. She rummaged through the boxes, not allowing herself to become distracted by the bygone messages, until she found a solitary photograph nesting in a glove box beneath a sheaf of postcards.

The girl in the picture was young and fair, with curled bangs and flipped hair—not a beauty, but someone whose rebellious air always attracted attention. Isabella could recall the amusement Gisela had generated. With her careless laugh, she seemed to encourage disapproval. In the picture she was wearing a big hoop skirt with a strapless bodice. Her bare shoulders were bony and shiny. Isabella remembered little about her sister, but she recalled the dress quite well. It was the horsehair ball gown, a gift from overseas, from a cousin who had toured Europe. It was foreign, a style not worn here. The cousin had sent it to her as an amusement, knowing it was outlandish, but Gisela loved it and paid no attention to the sneers it elicited. Gisela’s features in the photograph were unclear, but the dress stood out like a haystack, which it resembled. Isabella remembered the gown’s stiff texture—the loose, lacy weave shot with gold and the black taffeta undercoat. It was round and bouncy, large enough for a small child like Isabella to hide beneath. Gisela was determined to wear it to the Harvest Ball, but their parents disapproved of the strange garment. Isabella could remember her mother saying, “Horsehair is so dirty. Who could wear such a thing?”

“You have a fur coat yourself,” Gisela said. “You can’t say muskrats aren’t dirty!”

“Young lady, don’t you talk back to me!” Mother cried. “And it’s not muskrat. It’s mink!”

The Harvest Ball was on the last weekend of October, while their mother lay ill with a seasonal complaint at their grandmother’s and their father was away in Lexington at a tobacco sales meeting. Isabella, too young to go to the ball, had stayed at home with two garrulous aunts who played gin rummy and whooped and sipped gin. It was her impression that gin was sinful, because her father was in the bourbon business. The aunts, she recalled now, told her to keep quiet and do as she was told and to study her Bible verses. “You’re a good little girl, Little Bit,” they said, as if they were speaking to the cat.

When Father came home the next day, he demanded to know if Gisela had worn that damnable dress to the dance. Gisela, lying, denied wearing the horsehair gown, and Isabella, who had seen her sister pirouetting in the dress before dashing out to the ball, sided with her. But when Maud came in, she told Father that Gisela had indeed worn the disreputable horsehair ball gown.

A day passed, during which Isabella’s lie seared her conscience like a coin burning a hole in her pocket with its desire to be spent. Gisela had slipped away from the house—for a rendezvous with her young man of the moment—without even thanking Isabella for her loyalty. Maud, who had spent the afternoon at the Burnhams, admonished Isabella for her lie. Her enthusiastic report about the Burnhams’ Thoroughbred yearlings seemed to diminish the significance of Gisela’s behavior. Maud urged Isabella to confess her lie. “Father doesn’t know which of us to believe,” she said.

Isabella found him in his “counting house,” the mahogany-paneled room where he calculated his tobacco and whiskey profits. She felt that she was being a good girl, but she was trembling while he leaned over her, annihilating her with his shadow as she confessed. “Remember, your reputation is your fortune,” he said, as he caressed his gold watch absently. “Good girl,” he said like an afterthought as he dismissed her with a pat on the head.

It had never occurred to Isabella that after all these years, Maud still anguished over their missing sister. Maud’s dream of Gisela washing away in the flooded creek gripped Isabella’s own mind, and she could hear Maud still sobbing. Thinking that Maud needed a tonic of sassafras tea, Isabella set the teakettle on its hob. She had dug some fresh root. Even though sassafras had been discovered in recent years to be a poison, she did not believe it was unhealthy. Sassafras, which her grandmother used to call “sass’ras,” had always served them well as a spring tonic.

While waiting for the water to boil, she shuffled through some more of the old snapshots. She paused over a few poses of Gisela and Maud together. Her sisters, wearing similar drop-waisted frocks and cloches, appeared relaxed, smiling at each other, sharing some secret—a sisterly love that excluded Isabella, who was still little. And in another set of snapshots, there was Isabella, in her prim pinafore and bonnet—a goody-goody child who was jealous of her big sisters! She hadn’t seen herself that way before, but now she observed her priggishly superior countenance—a spitefulness that suddenly evoked her father in a way that made her shudder.

She had lied to her father, and she had confessed, and she had been forgiven. Then later that night she had witnessed her father with Gisela in the foyer when she returned after midnight. Isabella could see them from the dining room. Armed with the truth, he greeted Gisela and held it in her face, swinging it like a lantern to illuminate her sin. She had turned out wild, he said. She had disgraced herself and the whole family by wearing the nasty dress to the Harvest Ball, and she had disgraced them all further by her behavior with a Mr. Pettigrew. The family could not abide her indiscretions. He went on and on, his face puffed and crimson. Isabella remembered Gisela saying, almost calmly—as if she were saying, “Pass the butter, please”—“I’ll run off and never come back again.” And she left. She departed with Mr. Pettigrew, a ferret-like little man, for Joplin, Missouri, and points beyond. She wrote home, but no one answered her letters, and eventually she stopped writing. Her last letter was from California.

Isabella had always felt justified that her confession had helped push her wayward, disobedient sister out of the family. But now the tears that began flowing down her face were for that lost sister, for whom she had never before shed a tear, and for her sister Maud, who had suffered the loss without complaint. Isabella, eight years old, had believed she was being good. She hadn’t let herself care about Gisela. She had confessed to her father, whose mistreatment of Gisela was only one of his crimes. He had been a dirt farmer who forgot his raising. His children should have been brought up in a hillside tobacco patch, hoeing and gleaning like people in French landscapes, Isabella thought; but Silas Smith had had aspirations, marrying a lady from the horse-and-bourbon country and angling his way into the gentry with his artful real-estate ventures. Eventually he owned tobacco land in Cuba, and on that he claimed his fortune. There was really little fortune, and he was dispossessed of it during the revolution, but he denied his loss, still handing out fine cigars to business associates as if his wife had just had another baby. Again and again, those cigars appeared, and, she thought now, they may not have even been Cuban, but only show cigars, devised for the occasion.

But Maud had always upheld his deceptions. Isabella was shocked by the vehemence she suddenly felt rising from her closed heart. She hated her father and resented Maud for complicity in Gisela’s exile. It was Maud’s own fault that Gisela had run away. She had told on Gisela when she should have lied as Isabella did. Instead, Gisela had been driven away, and Isabella had been bound to Maud in a little teacup-and-doily world ever since Maud’s Mr. Burnham died. She and Maud had never been anywhere and they didn’t know the world. Isabella felt she should have been like Gisela and run away! Instead, she had been tied down, tiptoeing around Maud all these years.

The teakettle blew, and Isabella angrily splashed boiling water over some splints of sassafras root bark to steep. She selected another Blue Willow cup for Maud. It clattered in its saucer on the tray but did not break. The Reverend Brewster’s House of Glory card caught her eye. It lay on the secretary desk like a butterfly that had drifted in. When the black man had appeared at their table, his presence a dark silhouette like something jumping out of the shadows, it was as though a slit had opened into the past, where there was more sorrow than she could grasp.

Maud was calling her, and Isabella rushed in to assure her that she was near and that the tea was brewing. 

But she would save the surprise she had for her. She was going to invite Brother Brewster to visit. She would not write another sachet notecard. She would select a different card, one bolder and more colorful. She turned back for the tray, the words forming in her mind already. Brother Brewster, please come to visit and to pray over my ailing sister, who is troubled in mind and has a lot to answer for. There will be tea.


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