The Feedsack Dress
Cave Hollow Press, 2007, 228 pp.; ISBN: 978-0-9713497-4-2
When Gail wears a pretty feedsack dress the first day of ninth grade in 1949, the mean queen makes nasty comments about poor country kids. Every time Gail wears her homemade dress, something awful happens. Her refusal to buckle and her defense of the mean queen’s other targets earn Gail an unwanted honor, leader of a revolt against the ruling clique.
“Not even one left?” Gail Albright couldn’t hide her disappointment. She’d counted on buying her chicken feed in a cotton sack with morning glories on a white background. She needed another sack to have enough material for a dress.
“I’m mighty sorry, Gail,” the feedstore owner said. “That pattern’s been awful popular with the ladies. I sold out the day it came in.”
Gail’s father paused on his way to the pickup with a block of cattle salt. “Do you figure to get any more, Harry?”
The feedstore owner shook his bald head. “I don’t think so, Simon. They’re just not makin’ many feedsacks with pretty patterns anymore. Folks ain’t usin’ them the way they did during the Depression and the war. But I’ll sure watch for one for you. How about takin’ a sack of chicken feed with the white daisies on blue? That’s right pretty.”
Gail sighed. “Yes, Mom has one of those. She means to make herself a dress from it. I guess that’ll have to do.”
“Now, honey,” her father said, “you get what you want. You’re the one goin’ to a new school next week.”
Gail swallowed the lump in her throat. “Not really anything else here I want.”
Simon Albright picked up a sack of feed with the daisy pattern. “All right, then. You go get yourself a bottle of pop while Harry and I load the feed.” He turned to the older man. “She’s pretty near as good a fieldhand as a man. Guess she’s earned a drink on a hot August afternoon.”
Harry Holt nodded toward the small grocery attached to his feedstore. “Got some pop on ice. My granddaughter is watching the store for me to earn a little extra money. She’ll be a ninth grader this year, too. Of course, the junior high won’t be new to her. She’s gone there the last two years.”
Excited to meet one of her future classmates, Gail stepped through the screen door into the grocery. In front of the counter stood a teenager who looked like the models in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Wearing a low-necked white blouse and a full yellow skirt that came only two or three inches below her knees, she had turned so an electric fan blew her long, wavy, blonde hair out behind her.
The girl’s fashionable outfit reminded Gail she’d come to town straight out of the field without cleaning up and changing clothes. She wished she were wearing a freshly starched skirt and blouse instead of one of her father’s old blue chambray shirts with the sleeves cut off, paper thin blue jeans rolled up to her knees, and penny loafers so scuffed you couldn’t tell whether they were brown or black. She reached up to untie the two binder-twine bows that held her uncurled shoulder-length brown hair off her neck just as the girl noticed her standing in the door.
“May I help you?” the girl asked mechanically. She didn’t return Gail’s shy smile.
“I’d like a grape pop, please.”
“Help yourself.” The girl picked up a magazine and began flipping through it. She didn’t look up as Gail dropped her nickel in the shoe box by the big red cooler, opened the lid, and took the bottle floating by the biggest block of ice.
Gail used the opener built into the cooler and pushed a strand of hair back from her damp forehead. “Your grandpa said you’ll be a freshman this year. So will I. I’m Gail Albright.”
The girl lifted her eyes from her magazine and stared at Gail a long moment. “I’m Veronica Holt,” she finally announced.
“Gee, Veronica is just the right name for you. Your hair falls over your face just like that movie star, Veronica—umm—”
“Lake.” The girl said, her eyes once again on her magazine.
Gail wondered if she should just leave, but she took a drink of pop and tried again. “What are ya readin’?”
“I’m reading”—she emphasized the “g”—“Harper’s Bazaar.” She looked up from the magazine. “I’m planning my school wardrobe. Mother and I are going to St. Louis to shop this weekend, and I don’t want to waste my time on last year’s styles.”
“You—you buy all your clothes in St. Louis?” Gail didn’t know anyone who did that. Even her aunt who worked in a huge office building in Chicago made most of her own clothes.
“Certainly!” Veronica said as though insulted at the thought she would shop anywhere else. “Oh, you saw those.” She pointed to two or three empty feedsacks with the morning glory pattern lying on the counter. “I wouldn’t have a housecoat made out of that coarse cotton.” She shuddered. “Grandmother is going to make tea towels. Only dirt-poor farmers use feedsacks for clothes these days.”
Hurt and angry, Gail bit back a denial. Feeling the blood move up her neck and redden her cheeks, she finished her pop in one long swig and squeaked out, “I’ll see you at school next week.”
Without waiting for an answer, Gail rushed to the Albrights’ battered red pickup. She stood on the running board an instant to look into the back to make sure her father had remembered the grit for her chickens. Then she climbed into the cab and, aware her face still glowed, avoided her father’s eyes.
“Don’t worry, Gail,” he said as he forced the gearshift into first. “We won’t send you to school naked.”
Gail couldn’t smile at his little joke. “Maybe it’s just as well that Mr. Holt ran out of that feedsack.”
He glanced at her in surprise. “What makes you say that?”
“I don’t think the town kids wear feedsack dresses to school.”
“Well, I reckon they don’t buy feed, so they don’t have feedsacks.” He frowned. “Old man Holt’s granddaughter tell you that?”
“She said that only poor people make clothes out of feedsacks. She made it sound—shameful. The big snob buys all her clothes in St. Louis.”
Her father gripped the steering wheel so hard his knuckles turned white. “Gail, there’s no shame in wearin’ what you can afford, long as it’s clean. We’re not rich, but we’re not poor neither. Why, we’ll finish payin’ off the farm in five years, if those years are as good as 1948 was. You know we’d like you to have store-bought dresses, but we won’t have any cash to spare until after we shuck corn and pay off the fertilizer loan in October.”
She’d heard this before. “I know, but maybe if I get top price for my hens, I could buy just one dress. My pullets will be big enough to sell as layers in a couple weeks.”
He shook his head. “No use foolin’ yourself. You got to have shoes and paper and pencils for school, not to mention a winter coat. That’s what we got you the hundred baby chicks for. You’re old enough to understand that a farmer buys only what he can’t produce for himself.”
Gail felt ashamed. She was acting like Bobby, her nine-year-old brother, instead of a teenager who had done a man’s work in the fields all summer. “I understand, Dad. Let’s not say anything to Mom about it.”
As soon as they unloaded the feed, Gail headed for the corncrib to shell corn to supplement the feed they’d bought in town. Since the last harvest she’d almost emptied the crib. She liked coming here. Dislodging the bright yellow grains from the cobs into a rusty bucket kept her hands busy and her mind free. Even better, Bobby wouldn’t come near her for fear of being put to work, and the grains hitting the tin bucket made so much noise she couldn’t hear her mother call her from the house.
The shelling couldn’t stop her from thinking, though, that a feedsack dress would have labeled her a hick or, even worse, poor. Clothes hadn’t been a problem at the nearby one-room school she’d attended for eight years. All fifteen students had worn hand-me-downs, homemade clothes, or jeans.
A wet tongue on her left hand interrupted her thoughts and her work. She patted the head of the short-haired black and white mongrel seeking her attention and then gently pushed him away. “Run along, Ratter. I’ve got to finish this corn, and”—she straightened her shoulders and tossed her head as though her hair were long and glamorous—”I’ve got to plan my school wardrobe.”
“That’s about all your pea brain can handle,” Bobby said from behind her. “Good thing you only got two skirts and two blouses to choose from. Mom says to come on to supper so you’ll have time to let down the hem of that ugly brown skirt Aunt Ellen sent before it gets dark.”
She tossed a cob at him. “Soon as I finish this ear. You go ahead and start washing. Maybe you can get the topsoil off your face by the time I get there.” While she finished, she wondered what to tell her mother about her talk with Veronica, but Flo Albright, busy putting dishes on the table, didn’t say anything when Gail came into the kitchen. Gail stayed silent as she dipped water from the bucket into the yellow enamel washbasin and scrubbed her deeply tanned face. She glanced at her father, already at the table, and he looked away.
“Harry had some good news today, Flo,” he said as Gail’s mother took her place at the oak table. “The electrical co-op expects to have all the wires up and turn on our electricity by the first of November. We’ll need to hire the Kruger boys to wire the house and barn at the end of October.”
“Can’t be too soon for me,” she said, glaring at the huge wood-burning stove that dominated the roomy kitchen.
“Me neither.” He buttered a thick slice of bread fresh from the oven. “I figure I’ll be able to milk twenty cows by machine in the time it takes us both to milk ten by hand now. Soon as we sell the corn, I’m goin’ to buy a couple of Ed’s Tennessee Jersey heifers. They make right good milkers.”
Bobby helped himself to a cold fried chicken wing and half a dozen slices of the tomatoes he had just brought in from the garden. “With an electric radio we can listen to that new Craigsburg radio station all we want. ”
“It’ll sure be nice to have a good light to study by,” Gail said.
Her mother nodded. “And sew by. Si, we need lots of things more than those pricey cows.”
“Those cows will pay for themselves by summer,” Simon argued. “Besides, we need the wood stove for heat this winter. We’ll get you an electric stove next summer, if we have enough left after we get the crops in.”
She glanced at Gail. “I wasn’t thinkin’ just of the stove, Si.”
He frowned. “Gail will buy what she needs with her chicken money.”
Gail was relieved to hear the phone jingle out their ring, two longs and two shorts.
Her mother hurried into the living room and lifted the earpiece off the wooden box on the wall. “Hello,” she called into the mouthpiece. “Yes, this is Flo Albright.” She listened a minute or so. “How very kind. Thank you so much. We’ll pick it up Saturday when we come in to do the tradin’.”
She returned to the kitchen with a step as light as when she had begun work twelve hours earlier. “Good news, Gail. Harry Holt found a morning glory feedsack. His wife had one she doesn’t need. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Gail couldn’t believe her bad luck. She looked at her dad. He was smiling as he put a big bite of potato salad on his fork. She hid her face behind a chicken leg. “That’s just great, Mom. Just great.”