It Never Happened
I learned of Rand and Sunny’s engagement when, the day after the night at the dock with Jimmy, Delle stepped into my room and said, “Get dressed. You’re getting fitted.”
My eyes were raw from lack of sleep, my body shaky as the whiskey left my system in hungover shivers, but Delle didn’t seem to notice. She had too much on her mind with the surprise wedding of her only son.
“Fitted?” I asked.
“For a bridesmaid’s dress for Rand’s wedding. It’s you and Sunny’s little sister. She’s maid of honor.”
The dress was done a month later, everything a rush with Rand’s wedding, everything bobbing along on an undercurrent of panic. Bright yellow with daisy trim around the neck, the dress lived in a zippered bag in the back of my closet, a ghost waiting for my body to bring it back to life.
The first moment I suspected, the first time I crawled back to my bedroom after throwing up my dinner, the first time I allowed myself to count the weeks since Rand had taken me out drinking with Jimmy, since I had to pick splinters from the dock out of the back of my thighs, it was the bridesmaid’s dress that triggered a collapse into silent sobs at the foot of my bed.
I flung open my closet door, unzipped the bag. The dress was a fortune, a destiny, a warning, a life sentence in one gathering of chiffon and stitch. I wanted to crawl into that dress, inhabit it, let the zipper slide smooth up my back and assure me that my suspicions were wrong. It was food poisoning. An undercooked chicken chunk. A flu passed around the senior class. It wasn’t such a rare thing to vomit, was it?
Although only a few weeks had passed since my measurements were taken, the press of the fabric on my chest made me ache. I unzipped the dress, let it pool at my feet. I wanted to rip the dress, tear every last stitch, pluck each daisy from the neckline and leave a shredded heap. I was staring long and hard at the dress when Delle found me crouched over the puddle of yellow taffeta.
“What’s going on here?” she asked.
“It doesn’t fit,” I said.
“How you mean, it doesn’t fit?”
She saw the flicker in my eyes, knew before I even let the words form in the barren tube of my throat. There was something catching in our household. A curse on the Rockfords. First Rand, then me.
“Mama, I think I’m—”
She pulled me into the cigarette cloud of her chest, more hush than hug. The buttons of her shirt pressed into my cheek. The word needed to remain unspoken.
“We’ll get it taken care of,” she said.
Delle wasn’t a mother who hugged. She didn’t gush over us children or spill more words than were necessary. Her affection didn’t linger. We held each other in my room as daylight dimmed into orange streaks. In my vision, the dress swam and then refocused into shape. Delle released me and looked me in the eye.
“It will be like it never happened,” she said.
I didn’t hear more about it for an entire week, dragged myself through school and dinners and homework. The following Saturday, Delle woke me early before Rand or Daddy had stopped their night’s snoring. She was fully awake, her lips a thin crimson strip.
“We’ll be gone for the day,” Delle said. “If you need anything, get it now. I packed you a bag.”
During the drive, Delle pulled over once so I could throw up. When she started the curving ascent up the mountain, I found the courage to ask, “Are we going—?”
“We’re taking care of this. They’ll give you a test and then they’ll do whatever they need to do and then it will be done.” She didn’t look away from the road.
After our first conversation in my bedroom under the watch of the bridesmaid dress, my mind had swarmed with the meanings of taken care of. Would Delle send me away to have it then give it up for adoption? Would she force me to tell her who had left me in this state and then negotiate a wedding like she had between Rand and Sunny? Sunny was going through with it. I couldn’t figure out if Rand was happy about his impending fatherhood. He and Sunny had been a fluke. No one talked about what she and Rand would be after they got married. The other option, the one we were speeding towards in Delle’s Chevrolet, had seemed impossible. Illegal for one thing. But I wasn’t the only girl in Cane County who’d driven this road. Not the first, not the last.
The last sign I saw before we pulled onto the gravel road said Charlottesville 15 miles. The driveway was carved between thick trees. Not much more than a path in the forest.
Delle stopped the car at the end of the driveway of a squat brick house. I sunk my fingernails into the meat of my palms, and slivers of half-moons appeared and disappeared in the pink flesh. “You know them?” I asked.
“We haven’t been acquainted before, no. Friends of friends. Something like that.” She tapped a cigarette from a pack, then offered the pack to me. Delle had poked fun at me the time she caught me puffing on one of Rand’s smokes. “Look who thinks she’s Lauren Bacall,” she had said.
I shook my head at the cigarette, wondering if this was a test. Another chance to disappoint her. She shrugged and dropped the pack into her pocketbook. She smoked with the windows rolled up, the air thickening with each moment.
A woman in dungarees and a brown sweater stepped onto the porch. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She held her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun’s glare. I imagined what she saw: two women encased in smoke in a gray car. Gray on gray.
The woman went back into the house, then came outside shadowed by a tall thin man with short-cropped hair and a thick line of moustache that cut his face in half. They stood for a moment before the woman approached the car.
“I reckon it’s time,” Delle said. She stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray and opened the door. “Wait here.”
It was unsettling to see Delle outside of our house, outside of Grace Episcopal or the lines of apple trees in our orchard. She looked smaller. Her steps were slow, careful, her shoulders curved around her chest. When she approached the woman in the brown sweater, it was like she came back to herself. Her shoulders pulled back, her chin lifted. I couldn’t hear them, but they were talking about me. The woman’s eyes lingered on me.
Delle shuffled back to the car, opened the door. “Alright, then,” she said. “Like it never happened.”
Fear, lack of food, exhaustion, the large pills that the woman tucked into my hand—all of it turned the day into a collage of mirages that rippled and swayed. A table draped with a gray sheet in a kitchen with yellow linoleum, the same linoleum that was in our pantry. The way the man’s mustache rose and fell as he sorted through silver instruments on a tray, how it bisected the impassive upper part of his face from his mouth, which talked and smiled and gathered beads of white spit at the corners while the words, “It’ll be like it never happened,” floated between us. An incantation to plaster over the jabs and cold metallic scrape I felt inside me, even though the woman assured me that the pills would keep the pain at bay. The crush of cramps, the blood that stained the sheet beneath me and later the heavy-duty pads that leaked onto the dungarees that Delle had brought.
The man and woman weren’t kind. They weren’t cruel. Their faces faded quickly, all but the man’s mustache. Afterwards, I dreamed about its stillness in the center of the man’s face. In the next room I heard Delle’s voice. “Is there anything we need to keep an eye out for?”
The woman and Delle appeared in the doorway. “We have another appointment,” the woman said. “It’s time for your mama to take you home.”
The first day afterwards was a Sunday, and I thought I would die. I would be one of those cautionary tales, one of those girls, the ones the church ladies whispered about while they spread paper tablecloths with lemon bars for the bake sale. Did you hear about the Rockford girl? How is Delle holding up? Will she show her face on Sunday? Delle told Rand and Daddy that I caught the flu during our trip to Charlottesville. She told them we had gone in search of the perfect bouquet for Sunny, the right flowers to festoon Grace Episcopal on Rand’s big day. The men rolled their eyes at things that women care about: flowers and dresses and seating charts.
Lying in bed, still foggy from whatever pills they had given me, images of those church ladies and their slithering voices swirled through my head. When I shuffled out of the room and broke down weeping as I told Delle about the third soaked pad, the stain on my sheets, the mattress, her red lips remained straight.
“It’s all normal. You’re fine. Go lie down. I’ll bring you tea.”
Delle lit a cigarette and pushed up from her chair. I couldn’t tell if she was bound up by fear or fury or what, but I obeyed.
The next Tuesday, the phone rang in the middle of the afternoon. A moment later, Delle spoke loud enough for me to hear from my room. “That’s impossible,” she said. “How on earth?”
Turns out, Jimmy’s parents had been driving home from a trip to Hartsville where they were seeing about a horse. On the drive back, Jimmy’s dad took a turn too quickly and tumbled down the side of the mountain. Killed instantly, was the official line. I overheard Delle talking to one of her church friends; telling her that Jimmy’s mom, Frosty, had still been alive when they found her, awake and coughing blood.
The day of Jimmy’s parents’ funeral, I tried to beg out of attending. I wanted to stay ensconced in blankets.
“I reckon I should stay home and rest,” I said to Delle as she passed by my bedroom.
Fully dressed in her best navy suit, Delle stepped into my doorway. “The world does not stop for you, Katherine. The world does not shed a tear for your—” she paused. “For your flu. If you aren’t dressed and on the porch in ten minutes, I will show you tears.”
Rand hovered behind Delle, shaking his head. “It’s the least you can goddamned do.”
Rand knew the Nelsons better than I did. He had grown up in their house, spending nights in Jimmy’s bunk beds, getting scolded by Frosty, shooting tin cans with Big Jim. He was wearing the suit they’d pick out for his wedding. I laughed at the thought of stepping onto the porch wearing my yellow bridesmaid’s dress, at the face Delle would pull to see me in it. A smile tugged at my lips.
That afternoon, I was already drenched in sweat when we stepped into the stifling heat of the church vestibule, already slick when Jimmy and I stood in front of each other, words drying in our mouths for different reasons.