The Magical Thrift Store Pro
(The Magical Thrift Store Prom Dress is a work of short fiction. I created the story for NaNoWriMo in 2017. #Vietnam #1969 #high school prom #thrift store )
When the hinges on the backdoor screen squeaked, I almost jumped out of my skin. A book report on The Great Gatsby was due, and I still hadn’t figured out what was so important about the green light.
Mama called from the kitchen. You wouldn’t know she was deaf by her voice. Most of her words sounded perfect, only a little off-key. If you listened real close, you might detect a slight error in pronunciation.
The reason she could speak so well was that she lost her hearing gradually. Lip-reading was her vehicle for navigating the world. With a bit of help from the hearing aid, which squealed in her ear, she managed to communicate on a superficial level.
My Mama developed the habit of smiling and nodding her head when she didn’t understand large portions of the conversation taking place around her. This false agreement got my Mama into trouble, especially with people who didn’t catch on to the fact they were speaking with a deaf person.
People chalked that up to ignorance. My Mama wasn’t educated past the eighth grade, but she was the best seamstress in the city of Tecumseh. All the high school cheerleaders came to Mama when they needed their uniforms made.
When I walked into the kitchen, she held up two of the ugliest pieces of fabric I’d ever seen in my life. One of the scrabs of material had a black crushed velvet skirt with one side frayed so thin you could see through it. The second bundle of cloth was two sun-damaged, creamy white brocade draperies donated for resale at the thrift store where she found the scraps of fabric.
Mama tossed the black velvet skirt and curtains onto the kitchen table. They came to rest next to her sewing machine. She was so proud of her acquisitions a satisfied smile spread across her face. I didn’t want to disappoint my Mama by telling her I thought she was wasting her time.
She’d never be able to make a prom dress from the ugly material she’d found at the thrift store in two weeks. Later, I’d be sorry I ever doubted her skill with a needle. The magical thrift store prom dress proved to be the least of my problems connected with the dance and my big date with Scott Monroe.
Mama went to work designing and sewing the dress. She measured me carefully before she cut a pattern out of old pages of the Tecumseh Times. (Mama never threw anything away she might have a use for later.)
Once the design was made, the cutting and pinning began. It was fortunate I was a skinny teenager. There were just enough unspoiled pieces of the black velvet skirt and cream-colored brocade drapes to make the dress possible. The next step in the process was to sew the fabric together.
The constant rat-tat-tat of the sewing machine motor echoed like gunfire in the kitchen. After two days of continuous battle, Mama walked into my bedroom, holding out the magical thrift store prom dress in front of her.
The top portion was a soft pale brocade with puffy sleeves, which flowed effortlessly into the flowing floor-length skirt made of soft black velvet. I tried it on and twitched as Mama pinned up the bottom of the dress. The process of hem pinning made me restless. Mama said I never was one that was good at standing still. More than once, she suggested I needed to learn a little patience.
There was one last step before the magical thrift store prom dress was finished. Mama’s arthritic hands flew over the black velvet as she sewed the hem late into the night. As long as I remember, her fingers were twisted and swollen. She claimed the hand condition came with the seamstress trade.
Mama managed to perform a miracle. No one would ever know the beautiful dress was made from thrift store rags. Now all that remained was for me to wear the beautiful gown she’d manage to make, which contained a hint of magic.
I should have known better than to be flattered when Scott Monroe invited me to go with him to the prom. Guys like him don’t ask girls like me to the most important dance of the year. I’m geeky, wear glasses, and I’m abysmally poor. All of those factors disqualify me, but poverty tops the list.
Scott, on the other hand, was popular, played football and basketball, and c from the richest family in Tecumseh. We were born into different worlds. I was surprised when one day he met me at the door to my class, offering to carry my books. For over a week, he left the table where the popular kids ate lunch and sat with the nerds. We laughed and talked about school until it was time to go to class.
He developed the habit of walking me to my locker when the bell rang, signaling lunch was finished. I got the impression he liked me, and I felt excited about this development. Guys like him might want a girl like me, but they don’t invite them to the big dance.
I thought it a little strange when Scott met me at my locker at the end of our last period class two weeks before the prom. He asked if he could drive me home. I’d never had a boy make an offer like that before. My hands trembled when I took a copy of The Great Gatsby from the top shelf of the large grey metal box where my school stuff was stored.
I nodded my head yes and walked by his side through the main hallway without questioning his motives for the invitation. He left the top down on his new Ford Mustang convertible. The wind blew my hair around and Born to be Wild played on the radio. I was nervous about Scott dropping me off at my house. It was a far cry from the place where he lived on the rich side of town.
I caught a slight scent of autumn leaves in the air as the voice of an announcer interrupted the music with local and national news. Most of what the anonymous voice talked about concerned the war In Vietnam. College kids were claiming it was a bad idea for us to be fighting over there. Pictures of peace marches and protests were on the evening news every night, along with the casualty lists from the fighting.
When boys from the neighborhood started to get hurt and killed, I came to believe the protesters were right.
Scott pulled to the curb in front of my house. He turned the key in the ignition and switched off the engine with one quick motion. He didn’t make a move to climb out of the car, for which I was very grateful, but what he did next created a big dilemma in my life.
Scott turned in the seat and gazed at me with his soft brown eyes. Those eyes always gave me a tingly feeling in the pit of my stomach. ” I was wondering if you would like to go to the prom with me,” he asked.
“I thought you’d take Beth Harper since you were nominated king and queen of the prom.” I’d wanted to ask him about Beth from the time he started paying so much attention to me.
“Beth’s alright, but I think you would be more fun to take to the prom. What do you say? Do you want to go or not?”
I couldn’t force the answer out of my throat. What I did was nod my head yes and reach for the door handle. It was a short walk to my front porch. When I got to the steps, I turned, and I lifted my hand to wave goodbye. I was sure I saw Scott laugh as he drove away.
My instincts told me something about the invitation wasn’t right, but I was too excited to pay attention to what my skeptical mind had to say on the subject. I stood on the porch watching his taillights disappear, realizing I had a serious problem. I needed a prom dress, and I had to have it in two weeks.
That’s where Mama came into the picture. If she didn’t work so hard to sew the magical thrift store prom dress for me, I wouldn’t have a thing to wear
The class of 1969 picked a hippie theme for the prom. The decorating committee made a big deal about painting a giant mural to hang across the back wall of the gym where the dancing was to take place. They drew up a design of bold-colored flowers and peace signs before they asked for Volunteers.
I’m not a joiner, so I didn’t put my name on the list. What I did was sign up for two extra shifts waiting tables over at the Cup & Spoon. I needed to buy for the prom Mama couldn’t make for me with her sewing machine. None of the shoes I owned were good enough to wear with the magical thrift store prom dress she sewed.
I saw a fake diamond necklace that would go with the dress. The piece of costume jewelry didn’t cost much, but the stone dangling from the chain sparkled when the light hit it just right. A professional beautician had to do my hair. An unspoken but important unwritten girl rule declared fancy hair a must for the prom.
The next week flew by so fast I didn’t have time to notice the odd way Scott Monroe was acting. It started to dawn on me about midweek I hadn’t seen Scott since the day he drove me home in his car and asked me to the prom. The guy hadn’t shown up at my locker once or sat at the nerd table.
Every time we passed in the hallway, he wouldn’t look me in the eye or stop and say hello. I would have called him to ask about what was wrong, but I didn’t have his phone number. It was obvious he was avoiding me. If we were going to the prom, it would be nice if he’d at least talk to me. I was starting to think I’d imagined his invitation. Scott Monroe was about to become the biggest disappointment in my life.
I saw Scott in the hallway on Wednesday two days before the prom. From the shadows, I watched him loaded his books into his locker, not sure of what I was going to say to him. I knew I had to move fast before he had a chance to make his getaway. I walked up behind him and waited until he finished with his books.
“Scott, we need to talk. I want to know if you’re still planning to take me to the prom,” I said. The sound of his locker slamming ricocheted through the hallway like a gunshot.
“I’ve meant to talk to you about that. My dad told me I couldn’t go to the prom this year. We got into an argument about the war. He claims I’m too much of a coward to take a girl to any stupid dance.” There was a false tone to Scott’s voice when he made his phony excuse.
“But my Mama made a dress, and I have an appointment to get my hair done I can’t cancel. What am I supposed to do now?” I said.
“I don’t know. You could always find another date.” Scott walked away without giving me time to respond.
The old saying good riddance to bad garbage ran through my mind. Scott Monroe wasn’t the clean-cut all-around good guy he pretended to be. I was more upset about disappointing Mama than I was about him telling me we weren’t going to the dance anymore. Mama would never find out Scott had reneged on his invitation if I could figure out a plan.
I called the girl who headed up the refreshment committee. I needed a reason to be at the dance without paying the price of admission. The only thing I could think of was to do one of those stupid tasks nobody wanted.
I volunteered to cover one of the refreshment tables for the entire night. I could hear the relief in her voice when I made the offer. Nobody wanted to serve orange foamy punch and stale cookies for the entire evening. Two days later, I kept my hair appointment at the beauty salon.
The beautician curled, teased, and piled my hair on top of my head in a huge stack of dark waves. When I stood in front of the full-length mirror hanging on the back of the bathroom door dressed in the magical thrift store prom dress Mama made for me, I almost cried. The image staring back at me looked so confident. I knew the young woman gazing back at me would handle the calamity she was about to strut into with a smile on her face and courage in her heart.
At exactly seven-forty-five, a white car pulled up in front of the house and honked. I arranged to pay a lady I worked with ten dollars to pick me up and drive me around the block.
I gave the Janis Joplin poster hanging on my bedroom wall a wave goodbye. The thought crossed my mind I was doing what Janice would do if she were about to confront an egotistical creep and his prom date.
There was a question in Mama’s eyes when my date didn’t come into the house to pick me up. “Scott can’t come in. We’re running late,” I mouthed, rushing out of the house. There was no reason for me to give my lie sound when Mama couldn’t hear the words. I could feel her eyes gazing at me from behind the window curtains when I climbed into the car.
My plan worked flawlessly except for one thing. I still had to go to the stupid dance. I could have found a place to hang out for a couple of hours, but I had a deep suspicion Scott was taking Beth Harper to the prom instead of me. There was an evil need lurking in my breast to look him in those soft brown eyes across the punch bowl and catch a glimpse of discomfort on his face.
My feet hurt by the time I hike to the door of the high school gym in those stupid fancy high heel shoes I bought to go with the dress. Watching Scott Monroe squirm would be worth the pain.
I took my place behind the table where the punch bowl sat. The refreshment committee girl was mad because I was ten minutes late. She gave me detailed instructions on how to dip the ladle into the orange foam before she disappeared into the crowd.
I must have issued thirty cups of punch before Scott Monroe and Beth Harper made their way to the refreshment table. Seeing them together made me realize Scott used me as leverage to win some sort of concession from Beth. I was collateral damage in whatever battle was raging between them. I had earned an enemy in the girl draped over Scott’s arm.
It was apparent I was going to have to watch my back in the halls and gym class until I graduated in May. The shocked expression on Scott’s face told me he didn’t expect me to be serving punch. He held the mistaken assumption I’d be at home watching TV. I smiled when I handed him a cup of the sickening sweet orange concoction, which passed for punch.
I fought off the urge to dump it over his head as I planned to do when I decided to come to the prom alone. It surprised me to discover I had more class than that. I owed my mature reaction to the magical thrift store prom dress. I couldn’t disrespect the magnificent garment my Mama made for me out of rags. He hurried Beth away from the table and left me standing there, watching them disappear into the crowd.
Anger filled my chest when I ladled the next glass of punch. The encounter with Scott upset me so bad I didn’t notice the guy dressed in a sharp military uniform until a deep baritone voice said, “A penny for your thoughts.”
I glanced up from the table and looked into a pair of familiar blue eyes. I recognized the face those eyes lit up as belonging to Bill Roberts. The army drafted Bill a month after he graduated high school and send him off to war.
“I thought they sent you to Vietnam,” A smile spread across my face, almost against my will because I wasn’t upset about Scott Monroe anymore.
“They let me out on a medical. I took a bullet to the leg.”
“I remember your Mama saying something about you coming home early, but I didn’t catch the reason why. Welcome home. ” My voice sounded shaky. Bill Roberts had grown into a man during the time he spent in the army. He’d turned into a fine example of the male species.
“It’s not bad. I guess you could say it could have been a whole lot worse. How did you get stuck with this job?” He asked, taking the cup of punch from my outstretched hand.
“It’s a long story I’d rather not tell. What about you. Who are you here with?”
“My cousin Sandy. She thought it would be funny to bring a military man to this flower power lovefest. She went off with some friends. They ran off to smoke pot,” Bill looked me over from head to toe. “You look all grown up with your hair fixed like that. Would you like to dance? Nice dress, by the way.” He reached out his right hand and glided me around the table.
“My Mama made it,” I said with pride.
“She did a real good job. Your Mama could always work magic with a needle and thread. That dress attracted my attention the minute I walked through the door.”
The band played a slow song, and Bill and I glided across the dance floor together. I forgot all about my duty at the punch table, and the way Scott Monroe dumped me for Beth Harper. Nothing seemed to matter except Bill and me.
The night of my worst humiliation had turned into an evening filled with romance. When Sandy didn’t return to the dance, Bill offered to drive me home. We must have parked at the curb in front of my house for an hour. We talked until we ran out of words, and then we kissed in the dark until my Mama knocked on Bill’s car door.
I knew when I stepped onto the curb; Bill Roberts would be my first love. A girl doesn’t have that sort of magnificent experience every day of her life. There was something special about that magical thrift store prom dress my Mama stitched for me.
Molly Shea is an accomplished fictional short story writer from Indiana, who writes short stories and novels about a fictional town called Tecumseh. To read more of her short stories and adventures click here.
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