WNC Woman is a great magazine whose writing contests I’ve enjoyed entering over the years. In 2007, they offered a themed contest to write about a “yellow dress.” I gave my imagination the reins and came up with the following story:
The yellow dress lay crumpled on the floor. Where it belonged. I struggled free of its crepey embrace, unpeeling it from my body like a banana skin, before kicking it aside. Who, in heaven’s name—with all the million bridesmaid choices available—would choose something as dreadful as a polyester sheath in “lemon meringue?” Vintage glamour, indeed. The dress was guaranteed to look wretched on everybody, and every body.
Come to think of it, that’s probably what Dally had in mind. Make sure your bridesmaids—all 12 of them—look like a plate of deviled eggs fanned out behind you. Dally’s cousin got the worst of it; with her dark hair and eyes, she looked like a waxy wedge of old cheese. Or maybe Dally’s soon-to-be-sister-in-law, who was adorable in a tow-headed, freckled, girl-next-door way, but whose secret was revealed by the dress: flabby upper arms that jiggled and flapped, lending her an unfortunate resemblance to a flying squirrel.
There was nothing like a wedding to bring out the worst in people. Sometimes the best, too, but that was rarer than the squabbling, the bickering, the refusal to compromise. I could only imagine what Dally’s fiancée and her wedding planner must be going through, trying to make everything just so for Dally’s big day. And the worst part? It was not possible to please Dally Horton. She came from a long line of Horton’s—male and female—who could never be pleased. If they felt in the slightest danger of being satisfied, Hortons up and changed the rules, adding another layer between them and contentment.
“Miss? Do you need any help?” one of the bridal boutique consultants called through my door.
“No, thank you. I’ll be out in a moment,” I answered, eyeing the puddle of yellow dress on the floor. I felt like kicking it again for good measure, but reached for its padded hanger instead, wincing as my Invisabelle shaper dug in to my ribs. As if banana pudding polyester weren’t enough, each of us bridesmaids first had to wriggle into a one-piece undergarment that surely owed its design to a deep-sea diving outfitter rather than a lingerie company.
“SCUBA gear,” I muttered to myself in the empty dressing room, scrabbling behind my back for the first infinitesimal hook that helped force one’s bosom into an improbably-sharp, cone-shaped formation. “Self-Contained-Uncomfortable-Bridal-Accessory.”
“Hurry,” Dally’s voice floated past the door. “The rest of us are ready to go.”
Her voice hadn’t hit the Horton High Note yet, but I wasn’t fooled. It would come soon enough, over some detail of shoes or jewelry or during the let’s-celebrate-the-final-fitting luncheon that was next on Dally’s agenda.
With an effort, I shucked off the Invisabelle and dropped it on top of the yellow dress. Let the staff pick up the pieces and replace them on hangers; they, at least, were being paid for their participation in this Dally Horton production. It wasn’t as if dress could wrinkle, either; that gauge of polyester had no natural enemies. Neither rain, nor snow, nor sweat—not even proximity to the underarms of bridesmaids slowly melting under the combined influences of an outdoor late summer wedding and the rubbery grasp of the Invisabelle—would alter its role in the Horton-Maslin nuptials.
I joined the others gathered in the bridal salon outside the dressing rooms. Everyone but Dally looked hot and rumpled—they must have struggled with their Invisabelles, too.
“Oh, good,” Dally clapped her hands, “we’re all together. And now—” she said, motioning for the little flock of salesladies near the counter to bring a pile of tissue-wrapped somethings to us, “here’s the crowning touch for your gowns!”
With much rustling, we pushed layers of tissue aside to reveal pillbox hats in yellow faille, ornamented with a stiff frill of netting at the back.
“Aren’t they divine? Try them on, girls,” Dally commanded. “I want to see how they look.”
Dally’s dark-haired cousin perched the pillbox on her hair, trying to smile. Her vigorous curls rejected the hat, forcing her to hold it in place with one hand. The soon-to-be-sister-in-law’s pillbox looked too small above her sturdy, earnest face, and both Dally’s younger sisters were giggling, tilting theirs forward like a pair of matching bellhops. I couldn’t see myself, but felt sure that I lacked only a chinstrap to complete the illusion of organ-grinder’s monkey.
“Oh, girls,” Dally breathed at us, her bridesmaids, “you just wouldn’t even believe how you look!”
I exchanged a furtive glance with her cousin. We’d believe it all right. And soon there would be photographic evidence from the wedding to confirm our suspicions.
“Look at the time,” Dally exclaimed, tapping the dainty little face of her antique wristwatch. In addition to collecting several sizable fortunes over the generations, the Hortons had no end of family jewelry that was passed down in some elaborate ritual based on birth order, the whims of very elderly family members, and other kinds of gris-gris that might include goat entrails, for all I knew. Dally was in line for the pearled “crown” that anchored the wedding veils of all eldest Horton girls; rumor had it that her mother and grandmother had paid a visit to the bank vault to retrieve it earlier that week. I wondered—and not for the first time—if Dally’s fiancée understood he was marrying not just Dally, but more than two centuries of Hortons.
“We’re supposed to be lunching at Spout House in less than half an hour. Let’s go, go, go!”
Fannie and Tassie Horton were two of the only reasons I’d agreed to be a bridesmaid for Dally. They were some of the oldest living members of the Horton clan, but the only old things about them were their money and their lovely manners. Any excuse to visit them at Spout House, so named because its whimsical eaves sent rainwater arching onto the lawn as though poured from a teapot, was a welcome treat that I’d been enjoying ever since Dally and I had somehow wound up as roommates in college.
They were waiting at the door of Spout House, waving to us as we spilled out of Dally’s father’s enormous SUV. The street was as small and elderly as most of its residents, and the sleek SUVs Dally had commandeered from her father and her fiancee looked like a tanks at a tea party.
Each aunt grasped us with bird-like fingers and drew us in for a kiss on their soft cheeks, which felt and smelled like touching your lips to a satin bag about half full of the old-fashioned rice powder ladies of a certain age still used. They exclaimed over each of us, making us—or me, anyway—feel that a few hours stuffed into a banana peel wasn’t that much of a sacrifice.
More than two hours later we were finally nearing the end of the luncheon the aunts they insisted they’d just “thrown together” for their great-grandniece and her bridesmaids. They hadn’t allowed us in the kitchen, of course, but I think there was a small army of some kind of hired help in there. Certainly more than just Dorothy, the lady that had been doing for Fannie and Tassie since forever. In any case, the luncheon was a miracle of fragile china, heavy silver utensils whose purpose wasn’t always immediately identifiable, and curls of pink ham so delicate you could read newsprint through them if they hadn’t been nestled in the folds of Dorothy’s angel biscuits.
“We’ll have coffee now, Dorothy,” Tassie said, looking to Fannie for confirmation.
“Yes, that will be fine,” her sister concurred. “And do let’s have it on the lawn, girls. I think a change of scenery is in order. “
“You mean an admiration of your maypop is in order, don’t you, Sister?” Tassie murmured. “It’s been especially vigorous this year, and I believe you’ve had the whole neighborhood out there to see it.”
The girls—and we were all girls by at least 50 years compared to Dally’s aunts—began to move obediently toward the sweltering tradition of afternoon coffee under the shade of the live oaks and the venerated maypop. Fannie Horton touched my shoulder, motioning me to follow her rather than the others.
“I just need a spot of help,” she whispered. “And you young things have so much energy. Just wait till you’re my age,” she said, “and no—I won’t tell you what that is—but trust me when I tell you it will catch up with you, no matter where you go.”
I followed her into one of the rooms that overlooked the lawn; I could see colorful swirls of girls—Dally and the others—blurred by the heavy window glass.
“If you could carry this—“Aunt Fannie gestured toward a cloth-draped salver atop a spindly writing desk, “Tassie and I have a little surprise for you girls, to thank you for being so kind to our Dally. She can be,” Fannie hesitated, “a handful, at times, can’t she?”
I had to smile at her careful choice of words. “Isn’t that a requirement for Horton brides?”
Aunt Fannie laughed in agreement; a rich ripple of sound that I loved to hear.
I reached for the tray and bumped one of several photographs watching me, some with obvious thin-lipped Horton disapproval. “This must be you and Tassie?” I asked, turning the picture so it faced front again.
A sigh from Aunt Fannie. “Yes, love. That’s Sister and me, right around our fifth birthday. Not long before our Mama passed away.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Fannie. That must have awfully hard on the two of you.”
“Yes, it was. Very hard. Of course, Papa remarried within a year. But I had Tass and she had me, so we made out okay. Better than some, in that situation.”
“I know Dally is named for her mama’s great-grand-somebody,” I said, hoping to lighten the conversation we’d drifted into. I hefted the tray, which weighed as much as a spare tire. “Were you girls named for anyone particular?”
Aunt Fannie laughed again, but it was a very different sound. “Not for any one in particular. But Papa was very definite about having had twin girls when he wanted a boy so much; said we’d be as useful to him as tassels and fans. So that’s what he named us.”
I just looked at her, imagining that story being told over and over to two little girls from the time they were old enough to understand it.
“And to think: neither of us ever married, so the family name lived on anyway, all this time. Until now. Dally and her sisters will be the end of it. That’s one reason Sister and I decided on this gift for you girls—”
She pulled the linen tea cloth from the tray, revealing a tidy stack of white leather cases embossed with an elegant “M.”
“Mirliton?” I asked. The jewelry store that was only open by appointment or bribe or the promise of a Horton-sized estate appraisal?
“Mirliton,” Fannie nodded. “Just a little something for you young things to wear with those charming gowns Dally chose. And the hats, too, of course. The hats were the other reason we went to Mirliton. Sister and I felt that if you were willing to wear that…entire ensemble…in Dally’s honor, then Mirliton was the least we could do.”
“So,” she draped the tea cloth carefully over the boxes again, “we thought yellow diamonds would be a nice match for those yellow dresses. Don’t you agree?”
“Forgive me, Miss Fannie, for disagreeing with your father, but I think fans and tassels are two of the best things in the world.”
“Thank you, child,” she said. “Now bring that tray and let’s join the others, before Dally tries to wheedle some of my maypops for her bouquet.”