Maggie was flustered, I was wrinkled.
Stumbling from the Uber into the restaurant, she was panting. I tried to give her room to breathe. Wisps of hair had escaped from her ponytail and her mascara had smeared, but the sweet kid was only concerned about me. She straightened my scalloped collar, shook my skirt.
Inside, boyfriend Jeffrey was standing with his family. Maggie waved and called to him but, looking down the shirt of a pretty server, Jeffrey didn’t notice. Beside him was his mother, holding court in a long black sequined gown. When it saw me, it twinkled a haute couture sneer. Oh God, wasn’t tonight supposed to be a casual ‘get-to-know-you’ dinner?
Maggie plunged right in. ‘Hello, everyone! Sorry, I’m late.’
The woman turned and eyeballed the smiling girl and me, her stressed dress. Pulling Jeffrey close, she said, ‘Oh, darling, where did she find that frock?’
On the teary ride home, I tightened my belt. Then I spoke up.
Maggie could be flighty – she had fled the restaurant without a word and without her coat: I saw it waving frantically from the cloakroom – but she didn’t flinch as I whispered in her ear, ‘“Don’t get involved! Don’t get involved!” I hear it from the clothes in your closet every time I say he isn’t treating you right. That pushy red lingerie he bought is really on his side.’ I patted her knee with my pleats. ‘But I’m here for you, Maggie.’
She wiped her nose on my sleeve. The kid needed a friend. And a tissue.
‘You’re my Fairy Dressmother!’ she sobbed.
Back at her little apartment, I got Maggie out of me and into her pink pussycat pyjamas. They were warm and kind. They’d keep all this hush-hush.
‘Want a drink?’ I asked.
I poured myself a stiff gin and tonic. The pearly buttons on my cuffs were handy for such things. Hiking up my skirt, I swung out of the window onto the fire escape. The cold night air didn’t cool me off.
‘That witch!’ I yelled back inside.
Maggie shushed me from the couch. The neighbours might hear. And, didn’t I realize, creeps on the street could look right up me where I was?
‘Dearie, what are they going to see?’
Maggie had found me in a second-hand shop.
‘I want something for a family dinner, to meet my boyfriend’s parents,’ I heard a short, plump young woman tell the saleslady. ‘Nothing too tight or too flashy. I don’t like bright colours either.’
As she and the clerk wandered from rack to rack, Maggie frowned and grumbled that nothing seemed right. They came closer to where I was hanging. I admit it: I shoved the fussy linen suit next to me further down the rail, ignoring its threats to tell the management. A silk shirt with yellow roses – I couldn’t take a chance: it’d look nice with a black skirt – slipped from the hanger and lay whimpering on the floor. I struck my prettiest pose.
‘Oh,’ Maggie said. ‘This is cute.’
The saleslady nodded. ‘From the 50s or maybe the 60s. Homemade, but a really nice job and it’s in great shape.’
Sell me, sister! Don’t mention the rip under one arm.
The clerk flipped up my skirt. ‘Look, a slinky black silk lining. You can be a good girl on top, but naughty underneath! Try it on.’
My pink polka dots brightened Maggie’s pale round face; my brown background warmed the big misty blue eyes behind the horn-rimmed glasses. I sat nicely on her hips and hugged her waist. My sleeves were a bit long, hanging past her elbows. I puffed them up.
‘I think it’s too short.’ Maggie pulled at my skirt.
‘They called it tea-length back then.’
The girl picked at the darts on my bodice. ‘Does it make me look busty?’
Nothing wrong with that!
As she stared into the mirror, I hung very still. Then she whirled, swirling me and flashing my black silk until I was a dizzy, breathless old dress.
‘I love it.’
I drummed my buttons on the rusty railing outside her window. ‘Come on! Yell or kick something. Your Prince Charming just stood there while The Evil Queen insulted us!’
Maggie could only moan, ‘Mom will say I blew it, that I can’t take back a bad first impression. I can hear her now: “Why the hell did you wear that?”’
I took a swig.
She gasped. ‘Oh, I’m sorry! It’s not you, it’s me.’
I was about to pop a seam—how mean could her own mother be?—when Maggie’s phone buzzed.
With another cry, she read out a text from The Jerk. ‘Made excuse. U got sick. Pull it together. Family Christmas party on Sunday. Dress up.’
‘Don’t go!’ The pink polka dots were raging red.
‘I have to. I’m expected. What am I going to wear?’
Daphne may have said something like that.
I remember coming together on a table in her blue kitchen, more and more alive with each pin, each stitch. Being an impatient little scrap, I was eager to be finished. But no sooner would Daphne sit to work on me than little Freddy would pull at her arm. Or the phone would ring with someone expecting her to be here or there. Or a pot on the stove would boil over. Then she’d leave me, sometimes on that black brute of a sewing machine with its big needle poised to strike.
Every night, I’d be cleared away when the man of the house—damn, what was his name?—was expected. Daphne would put dinner on the table, smooth her blonde hair, and wait. He would slam the front door and shout so that even the sewing machine cringed when he got home.
Daphne wore me downtown with snooty white gloves, as a lady did, or with a straw hat to take Freddy to the park on sunny afternoons. Sometimes, when the boy went upstairs for his nap, she’d sit in me on the back porch and cry. I should have spoken up then.
Out on the fire escape, I drained my gin and swirled Maggie’s words around and around with the last of the ice cubes. Expected. She was expected. Nothing to wear.
I climbed back through the window and flopped on the couch beside her. ‘You do have something to wear.’
‘I don’t! You’ve seen my closet. All I have is that awful tan bridesmaid dress from my sister’s wedding or the purple blouse with the big bow.’
‘I can’t. Not again,’ Maggie said, twisting a wad of wet tissue. ‘Don’t be mad at me!’
I took her hand. ‘Use my lining and I can become your little black dress.’
Squealing, she hugged me. Then she went on and on: Should she go with her silver earrings or the pearls? Would a necklace be too much? Did I think it would be okay to wear flats? Had I ever seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
If it came to it, I’d help Maggie choose a wedding dress. I’d find something smart and sympathetic that flattered her curves and which would hang beside me, both of us on the girl’s side.
But I wasn’t there yet.
I wiggled out of her arms and wagged a sleeve at her. Plenty of advice stitched in me. ‘I’ll turn myself inside out for you, but listen: You’ll have to do the same every day with Jeffrey. I’ve seen it before.’
Karen Walker writes short fiction and flash in Ontario Canada. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in online magazines and anthologies including Spillwords, Reflex Fiction, The Brasilia Review, Commuterlit, and Blank Spaces. People say Karen is fun and frustrating, and her chicken lasagna is pretty good.