Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 570 short stories – new and reprints – published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published.
A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, being published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers is due out in January, 2022. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
The Feedsack Dress
by Steve Carr
“Twere yer grandma’s favorite dress durin’ those years. Hard years, they were. Nothin’ as hard since,” my grand-uncle Jessup said. “In them days, folks livin’ in Cimarron County were about the poorest human bein’s you were likely to find on the face of the planet. It was the time of what’s called the Dust Bowl Years.”
The dress, that dress, my grandmother’s mint green feedsack dress, laid in a box wrapped in beige newsprint paper for many years, but it was talked about, often. It had become so well known in our family that when “the dress” or “that dress” came up in conversation, everyone knew immediately which dress was being talked about.
I had seen the dress once, years ago, right after my grandmother’s death. My mother took it out of its box, held it up for me to see, and then put it back, re-wrapping it exactly as it had been.
The ten cents that Irma laid on the counter of Swilly’s Pharmacy was the only ten cents she had held in her hand in weeks. She placed it as gingerly and hesitantly on the counter as a butterfly landing on a ball of cotton. She then placed a Movie Mirror Magazine next to it. Jean Harlow looked up from the cover, her head filling the entire space, displaying a smiling, rouged face and neatly coiffed platinum blonde hair, her neck encircled in black feathers. Jean Harlow was Irma’s favorite actress. Well, maybe. Before the Cinema Reel Movie House shut down she had also tried to see every movie that Myrna Loy or Carole Lombard were in. The nickles it took to see the movies were easier to come by then, but that was the year before the worst of the dust storms practically wiped what remained of the town of Willsby from Oklahoma’s map.
She waited expectantly as John Swilly, the pharmacist, standing behind the counter, put a cork in a small brown bottle and placed the bottle in the bag. He was a tall man, stoop-shouldered with a bald head that was as smooth as a freshly laid egg. His piercing blue eyes looked right through a person when he spoke to them. He wrote “Marge Henley” on the bag with a pencil, set it aside, and first looked at the magazine and then at Irma.
“You’re much prettier than she is,” he said.
Irma giggled. “You oughtn’t talk to girls that way Mr. Swilly. It ain’t a proper thing for a druggist to do.”
He chuckled, picked up the dime and pushed a key on the cash register. Accompanied by an inordinately loud ring, the cash register drawer opened. He dropped the dime in the slot with a few other dimes and then closed the drawer while thoughtfully gazing at her. “That’s a fine lookin’ dress you got on.” He slipped the magazine into a brown paper bag sized for magazines.
“You say that every time you see it,” she said. “This is one Ma made,” she replied. “Bye now, Mr. Swilly. You stop flirtin’ with the girls or I’ll tell Mrs. Swilly on you.” She grabbed the magazine, turned, and holding it close to her chest, walked out of the pharmacy.
On the horizon, the earth had risen up to a great wall of swirling dirt and sand and was rushing toward Willsby. She thought about going back into the pharmacy knowing she would never reach home in time but even though she knew he was harmless, she didn’t want to be alone in the drugstore with Mr. Swilly during a dust storm. She glanced up and down the street and saw only one truck parked at a curb a half block down. Most of the stores and shops were boarded up, their owners having departed for California. She then saw a classmate, Caleb Henry, crawling between two boards nailed to the front window of what had been The Good Times Furniture Store. The plate glass window had been broken in one of the previous storms. Behind the boards was a display space where a naked mannequin sat in a kitchen chair. As the first storm-driven grains of sand began to blow across the street, she ran to the furniture store and called into the dark space beyond the display.
“Caleb Henry, you in there? This is me, Irma Grace. Can I come in there with you and get out of the storm?”
“Hey, Irma Grace,” he said. “Sure, come on in.”
Willsby had never been a large town, even before the onset of the dust storms. The sign on the outskirts of town gave the population figure as 800, but that was just before Ned Trewson, who maintained the sign, lost his job with the town of Willsby because they could no longer afford to keep him on the town payroll. Most of the town’s occupants that paid the taxes which in turn paid Ned’s wages had left for the west coast. Ned then also took his family west, leaving the final census number of 520 from being painted on the sign. The Mesa School had relocated its classes from the larger school building that stood abandoned near the center of town to two smaller buildings on the eastern edge of town, where the sixty students were divided into two, with the upper grades in one building and the lower grades in the other. Irma and Caleb were both in the eleventh grade.
In 1933 Irma’s mother took down the large pale blue box that she kept dress, skirt, shirt and blouse sewing patterns in from its place a on a shelf in her bedroom closet. She sat on the edge of the bed, holding the box in her lap while looking at the empty closet. The dresses and blouses that once hung on the hangers had all been sold or given to others in more need of them than she was. The few remaining dresses in the closet were similar in design and made of feedsack cloth that she bought from Tom Kelly, the feed store owner, before he closed his store only weeks before. Although cattle and sheep had once been abundant on the farms and ranches that surrounded the town of Willsby, the livestock had died or been sold-off, leaving only a few goats and chickens on farms where they were kept for the goat milk and eggs.
She called out to her daughter, Irma Grace, the only girl child to survive of three girls and five boys born to Yearly and Thomas Kern. Although she never admitted it, Irma Grace was her favorite among her children. Feminine, pretty and smart, at age 14, Irma was everything that Yearly Kern had wished she had been at that age.
Irma ran into the bedroom holding a movie magazine, one with a picture of Joan Crawford on the cover. “What is it, Ma? I’ve already made the boys take their bath in the tin tub.”
“It’s not about that,” Yearly said. “I thought you might want to pick out a pattern for a new dress?”
Irma’s eyes opened wide with surprise. “A new dress? We can’t afford the fabric, can we Ma?”
“I have all that beautiful mint green feedsack cloth that would make a very pretty dress. It’ll have to last you a long time, but we can let it out as you grow and change things here and there as we need to to keep it modern. ”
The smile on Irma’s face quickly disappeared, but seeing the fear of disappointment in her mother’s eyes, she broke into a large grin. “It’ll be the prettiest dress in all of Willsby,” she said as she plopped down on the bed next to her mother.
For the next two hours they sorted through the patterns until a pattern was decided upon.
“I weren’t nothin’ but seven years old when Ma made that dress for Irma Grace,” Grand-uncle Jessup said. “I weren’t really that interested in it, but seein’ Irma Grace dancin’ around the house in it as if she had just been given a dress fit for Marlene Dietrich was a sight to behold. I think down-deep, Irma Grace hated the dress at first. It were a sign that it would be a long time before Irma Grace would see a store bought dress or a piece of clothing not made of feedsack, and she knew it. It weren’t till she wore it to school and Caleb Henry made a fuss about it that Irma Grace fell in love with it. Her love affair with that dress lasted a long time after that.”
As a farmer who owned the land he farmed along with the house and barn that sat on it, Thomas – Tom – Kern considered himself lucky when the stock market crashed in 1929. He was one of the few in the county who didn’t owe the bank something. Some of the farmers and ranchers, many who were his friends and neighbors, lost everything when the bank had to call in the debt to keep its doors open. Tom didn’t think what was called The Depression would last forever, and everything would return to normal. It was the change in weather, the lack of rain and the heat, and its effects on his wheat and corn crops that he worried about more.
In 1930 he was standing in his cornfield, examining a puny and unhealthy looking ear of corn, when he looked east and saw for the first time a wall of dust-filled clouds illuminated by flashes of lightning rushing across the landscape, heading toward Cimarron County. He jumped onto his horse and sped home, nearly whipping the horse to death. In the yard, he jumped from the horse, scooped up the two youngest boys in his arms, and ran into the house, screaming for Yearly.
She came out of the kitchen, an apron around her waist, holding a bowl of dread dough. “My lord, Thomas Kern, whataya throwin’ such a fit about?”
Barely able to get the words out, he pointed east. “Headin’ this way. Some kinda storm.”
“No, not a twister. Something worse.” He put the boys on the floor and rushed about the house, closing the windows and sealing the spaces under the doors with throw rugs and towels.
“What about the school?” Yearly asked as she looked out the window and saw the oncoming storm.
As if suddenly remembering he had four other children, Tom abruptly stopped nailing the curtains across the windows in the living room, and made a dash for the door. “Get the boys and stay in the food larder,” he said to Yearly as he went out.”
Inside The Good Times Furniture Store, Irma let her eyes adjust to the ambient light, slowly looking around at the few pieces of furniture – a sofa, a mattress and a cupboard – that had been left behind. Covered in dust and hidden in the shadows they were like apparitions of their former selves. She could hear Caleb moving something about in the back of the store but couldn’t see him.
“What you doin’ back there, Caleb?” she asked at last.
“Found me an old safe and tryin’ to get the door open,” he said.
“Ain’t goin’ to be nothin’ in it if you do open it,” she said.
After several moments of silence, he said, “Yer probly right.” Then there was a thud, the sound of his foot kicking the safe. He walked out of the darkness and towards the center of the store.
“Looks like quite a storm headin’ this way,” she said.
He stared at her for several moments before speaking. “You look so pretty in that dress.”
She giggled. “You seen me in it plenty times before,” she said.
He plopped down on the mattress, waved away the cloud of dust that sprung up from it, and began taking off his shoes. “Yep, and yer always pretty in it.”
Irma blushed. “You goin’ to sleep?” she said.
He placed his shoes side-by-side next to the mattress. “Might as well make ourselves comfortable until the storm passes.” He laid back on the mattress. “He patted the empty side of the mattress. “You might as well join me.”
“I can’t lay on a bed with some boy, Caleb Henry. You know that!” she said.
“I ain’t fixin’ on tellin’ anyone if you ain’t.”
The dust storm began to strafe the store’s roof.
“Mrs. Hunley, my second grade teacher, and the other teachers, had never seen anything like it,” Grand-uncle Jessup said. “We all had our faces stuck to the windows as if they were glued there, watchin’ the first storm we’d seen that looked like that one. You can’t really describe it, but try to imagine a sky-high ocean wave of nothing but dirt about to wash over you.
“Suddenly Pa pulled up to the school in his truck, jumped out and ran into the building. It didn’t matter where ya were in the school, but he could be heard yellin’ ‘get into the hallways.’
“It lit a fire under the teachers and school principle. Every kid in the school were herded into the halls and made to sit on the floor with our heads between our knees.
“Pa was lookin’ for all his kids, but he found Irma Grace first. It was the first time she wore that dress to school. She later said the first thing he said to her was, ‘You look pretty, Irma Grace.’”
Yearly had one box left and one sheet of newsprint for the last dress of Irma’s, the mint green feedsack dress, to be taken from the closet, packed, and stored away in the attic. It was then she noticed for the first time the long rip that resembled a hairline scar just beneath the left breast that had been sewn with surgical precision.
John Swilly watched from the pharmacy doorway as the Rowen family left town forever, the roof of their car piled with their belongings tied together by lengths of hemp, the inside crammed full with Mr. and Mrs. Rowen. their six children, grandparents, and their longtime Black farm hand. They were headed North, to Montana. He looked up at the white-hot sun, wiped sweat from his forehead with an already sweat-dampened handkerchief, turned, and went back into the store. From the radio setting on a shelf behind the counter, Bing Crosby crooned “Pennies From Heaven.” He straightened the recently acquired Post Office sign that hung above the cash register and then went behind the counter. He looked at the one prescription order he had to fill and set it aside with plans to fill it before he left work for the day and deliver it himself to Mrs. Junny who had just returned from the sanatorium with plans to spend her last few weeks at home dying from consumption.
When Irma walked through the door he crossed his arms on the top of the cash register and eyed her from head to toe. She was turning out to be a real beauty. He hadn’t seen the pale yellow dress she was wearing before. “Where you been keepin’ yourself, young lady?” he said.
“I guess you heard Pa sold the farm to the bank and we’re moving to Virginia? Lots of stuff to do getting ready for that.”
“Yeah, I heard,” he said. “I’m gonna miss you and your entire family. I got the most recent issue of Movie Screen Magazine in. Ginger Rogers is on the cover if you need something to read along the way..”
“I ain’t seen a movie in a long time,” she said. “Buyin’ the magazines don’t make much sense.”
“You’re pretty enough to go to Hollywood and be on a magazine cover yourself,” he said. “Where’d you get that dress?”
“I made it myself from the last of the feedsack Ma’s been storin’ up. She’s been teaching me how to sew.”
The storm, like all the storms before it swept over the town, peeling tiles from rooftops and adding mounds of sand to the entrance ways and the insides of the abandoned stores. The force of the wind made the walls of The Good Times Furniture Store shake.
Nervously, Irma laid down on the mattress next to Caleb, careful not to allow any part of her body touch his.
After a few moments of silence, Caleb said, “See ain’t nothin’ wrong with just lyin’ here.”
“I guess not,” she said.
He turned onto his side, facing her. “Whenever you wear that dress I want to kiss you,” he said.
“Behave yourself Caleb Henry,” she said. “Ma and Pa don’t want me kissin’ a boy until I find the one I want to marry.”
“That’s so old fashioned,” he said. “In the movies girls kiss boys all the time.”
“This ain’t the movies.”
In that instant he was on top of her, his hefty weight and muscles pinning her to the mattress. He kissed her, hard.
“Get off me,” she said, struggling to push him away.
He was then nothing but arms and hands, grabbing and pawing her. He ripped her dress just beneath her left breast. He pushed her dress up to her waist.
“Stop it,” she screamed.
That egged him on. He couldn’t be stopped.
In succession, her final words to him were, “No. Stop. Please stop.”