The Secret Lives of Dressesby Erin McKean
Dora has always taken the path of least resistance. She went to the college that offered her a scholarship, is majoring in "vagueness studies," and wears whatever shows the least dirt. She falls into a job at the college coffee shop, and a crush on her flirty boss, Gary.
Just when she's about to test Gary's feelings, Mimi, the grandmother who raised her, suffers
Dora has always taken the path of least resistance. She went to the college that offered her a scholarship, is majoring in "vagueness studies," and wears whatever shows the least dirt. She falls into a job at the college coffee shop, and a crush on her flirty boss, Gary.
Just when she's about to test Gary's feelings, Mimi, the grandmother who raised her, suffers a stroke. Dora rushes back home to Forsyth, NC, and finds herself running her grandmother's vintage clothing store. The store has always been a fixture in Dora's life; though she grew up more of a jeans-and-sweatshirt kind of girl, before she even knew how to write, Mimi taught her that a vintage 1920s dress could lift a woman's spirit.
While working there, Dora befriends Mimi's adorable contractor, Conrad. Is he after Dora, or is working from a different blueprint? And why did Mimi start writing downand giving awaystories of the dresses in her shop?
When Mimi dies, Dora can't get out of town fast enough and cedes control of the store to her money-hungry aunt who wants to turn it into a t-shirt shop for tourists. But ultimately, she returns to Forsyth, willing to battle whatever may stand in the way of her staying there. Dora can trade her boring clothes for vintage glamour, but can she trade her boring life for one she actually wants?
"McKean adroitly combines a warm small-town sensibility with a sophisticatedly modern sense of humor. As well-constructed and appealing as the vintage dresses it describes, this novel is a pure delight." -Claire LaZebnik, author of IF YOU LIVED HERE, YOU'D BE HOME NOW and KNITTING UNDER THE INFLUENCE
"Pleasantly effervescent debut." -Kirkus Reviews
A Dress a Day blogger McKean's pleasantly effervescent debut is chick lit about vintage frocks.
The heroine of this breezy romance is Dora Winston, who is a bit of a blank—no style, no boyfriend, no real sense of her future—until her grandmother Mimi, who brought Dora up while running a fabulous vintage clothes store in Forsyth, N.C., is felled by a stroke. Rushing back from college to Mimi's bedside, Dora finds her life switching tracks. Out go her ratty cargo pants as she starts wearing the vintage dresses Mimi picked out for her. Working at Mimi's shop, she discovers both that she likes it, and also that some of the dresses have secret lives, in the form of short narratives written about them. Dora also wonders about her parents, killed when she was small, whom Mimi never discussed. And all the time she's being quietly pursued by kind, unthreatening-yet-hunky architect Con Murphy. When Mimi dies, Dora inherits her house but not the shop, which goes to her cartoonishly grotesque relatives. She decides to fight for the business. A letter found in Mimi's pre-purchased funeral urn helps answer all outstanding issues.
No surprises here, nor quite enough development, but for those seeking light entertainment this story will fit the bill.
- Grand Central Publishing
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Secret Lives of Dresses
By McKean, Erin
5 SpotCopyright © 2011 McKean, Erin
All right reserved.
DORA HAD A RHYTHM GOING, OR IF NOT a rhythm, a pattern, and it went something like downshift, wipe tears away with back of hand, sob, upshift, scrub running nose with horrible crumpled fast-food napkin, stab at the buttons on the radio, and then downshift again. That had been the order of things for the past two hours. The first two hours had been pure howling, crying so hard she almost couldn’t see, but then it had slowed down, a torrent turning into a spitting rain. Still bad weather, but not impassable.
The cars ahead of her, shiny boxes linked like beads, stretched as far as she could see. Whatever was causing the traffic was as yet undetermined; it could be construction, an accident, the sudden declaration of a state of fascist emergency and its concomitant checkpoints and ritual presentation of papers. Or it could be that Dora had died, and that this was her hell, her punishment for all her white lies and petty sins, stuck driving in miserable traffic to her grandmother’s sickbed forever, without a clean pocket handkerchief or even her iPod.
Her iPod was still jacked into the shop’s stereo. She’d left the coffee shop in a rush, throwing her apron at Amy, and run for the car. Didn’t bother stopping at her apartment; what could she need more than Mimi?
Poor Amy, left alone on the Friday of Parents’ Weekend, with all the boisterous alumni leaning over the counter to tell her that they used to work in that same coffee shop, all the freshmen trying to sit a bit too far from their parents on the off chance that their classmates would take them for strangers, people coincidentally sharing the same table and the same nose.
Amy must have called Gary, or waited until Gary came in after the lunch shift and asked where she was, because there was a text on her phone: r u oj? Gary was usually too impatient to finish keying a text correctly. Dora suppressed the urge to text back, “the glove doesn’t fit.” Gary wouldn’t get it.
Dora was not going to think about her next shift now. Dora wasn’t going to think about Gary, or the coffee shop, or anything that wasn’t Mimi.
Another two hours of sobbing and downshifting, ignoring equally the deliberately pretty country roads near the college and the gantlet of fast-food restaurants along the interstate, until finally Dora was pulling into the driveway of the house on Yorkshire. She fumbled for her keys at the front door; it had been four years since she’d lived at home, but the front door key of the little house in Forsyth never left her ring.
She turned on the hall light and shut the door behind her. “Gabby?” she called. Maybe she was at the hospital. But Dora barely had time to walk into the kitchen and drop her bag on the counter before she heard Gabby coming down the stairs.
“Gabby!” Although her apricot perm was fluffed up and her coral lipstick firmly drawn on slightly wider than her actual mouth, Gabby looked tired. And older.
“Sweetie…” Gabby folded her in a hug. “I was just having a little bit of a lie-down. Want me to take you over to the hospital? You must have been driving for hours….”
“Oh, Gabby!” Dora thought she would tear up again, but even the vat-sized drive-through Diet Coke she had drunk on the way down hadn’t replaced enough liquids to make that possible. “How is she?”
“She’s been better, honey, you know that. But the Lord will provide.” Gabby usually talked about “the Lord” as if he were one of her ne’er-do-well ex-husbands, so hearing her put any faith in him at all was a bit of a shock.
“I should clean up”—Dora gestured to her bedraggled T-shirt and good-enough-for-the-coffee-shop cargo pants—“but I didn’t bring anything with me.”
“Sweetie, that’s never a problem in this house. You still have your closet here, you know.”
The closet. Dora hadn’t considered the closet. She had always had two closets, ever since she was a little girl. One was for her everyday clothes: the jeans and plaid flannel shirts of a nineties girlhood. The other was the closet Mimi was—for lack of a better word—curating for her. A combination wardrobe and trousseau, constantly updated as new pieces came through Mimi’s shop that she didn’t want to (or couldn’t) get rid of. Dora had raided it as a girl to play dress-up, and as a teenager for a prom dress or two. She probably hadn’t looked in it since Christmas… or maybe even high-school graduation.
Gabby led the way upstairs, going on about how Dora wouldn’t recognize the shop downtown, since the city had done over the street to make it look old-timey and all. They’d even closed off the street to cars and put in benches. “Of course, it looks even better now that Larry Sefford sold out his old hardware store and went to Florida! It’s a fancy restaurant now.”
“What, you mean they have cloth napkins?” Dora teased.
Gabby grinned. “And you can’t get a pulled-pork sandwich! How do they expect a person to fill up?” She flipped on the closet light.
The closet was too big to fit within the bounds of an actual closet; it took up most of the spare bedroom. Mimi had kept a guest bed and a nightstand there, because she didn’t want to think of herself as the kind of person who didn’t have a place for guests to lay their heads, but Dora couldn’t remember anyone ever staying there. Mimi changed the sheets on the bed weekly, though they were never slept on. The closet was really a forest of rolling coat racks, with an undergrowth of stacks of plastic shoeboxes, the shoes inside misty ghosts. Two mismatched dressers held sweaters, carefully layered with cedar sachets. There were a dozen hatboxes stacked in the corner, and a dress form wearing a purple feather boa (the boa being Dora’s sole contribution to the closet, bought on a whim in high school and tolerated by Mimi).
Dora elbowed aside two racks of coats (one fur and fur-trim, one good cloth, and a few brocade), a stack of shoeboxes (fifties and sixties pumps, mostly), and a laundry basket of foundation garments. Gabby stood in the doorway, making little encouraging noises. Finally Dora found the day dresses. The rack held forty or so dresses, packed tightly, but not so tightly that they’d crush, shoulders protected with sheets of tissue paper. Dora stood for a minute, not sure which one to choose, before she realized that, since Mimi had picked them all, any one of them would be just what Mimi would like to see, would be happy to find Dora wearing, for a change.
Dora put out her hand, touched a pale-blue shirtdress, full-skirted, tricked out with blue gingham piping and pockets. She had an instant of the old, familiar resentment at Mimi’s attempts to dress her, quickly followed by a shiver of regret. Why hadn’t she worn any of these, why hadn’t she given in, just once, on Easter or Christmas, or even Mimi’s birthday, for God’s sake, and let Mimi put her in one of these absurd dresses? What had she been worried about? Her nonexistent high-school popularity? Ruining the distinctive sense of style she didn’t have? Making her grandmother, even for a day, happy? Dora grabbed it off the rack and turned to show Gabby.
“Oh, honey, that was… that’s one of Mimi’s favorites. I remember her showing it to me just last week! New old stock, see, it’s got the original tag pinned to the label. Mimi washed it, though, so it shouldn’t be dusty. I remember about your allergies.
“You need a slip with that,” added Gabby firmly, pulling one out of a drawer. “Mimi would know if you weren’t wearing one, even if she were in a coma.” Its satin strap caught briefly on the drawer pull, and Gabby twitched it free. “This is a good one… no itchy lace, I know you hate that.” Gabby glanced down at Dora’s clogs. “Shoes. Let’s see. How about some heels?” Dora looked at Gabby in desperation, too worn out to argue. Gabby took pity on her. “No, you’re right, not practical for the hospital. I remember a pair of flat loafers around here somewhere….” Gabby rummaged in the boxes until she pulled them out. Dora stepped out of her shoes reluctantly and tried them on. Like everything Mimi had ever chosen for her, they fit perfectly. The only thing pinching her was her conscience.
If her eyes weren’t so hot and her chest wasn’t so heavy and tight, it would have felt just like one of their old dress-up sessions. Dora had indulged Gabby by playing dress-up well into her sarcastic junior-high years; it was hard to deny Gabby anything once her enthusiasm got going.
Gabby was some kind of relation by marriage, in a very Southern-small-town way: her second husband had been a cousin of Dora’s grandfather, or an uncle of Dora’s cousin, something complicated that Dora had never been able to keep straight. It hadn’t mattered, anyhow. Mimi and Gabby had been at the hairdresser’s one day and fallen into conversation, and three weeks later Gabby had moved in “just for a little while,” as she waited to finalize her third divorce.
Unluckily for Gabby, her third husband was Forsyth’s leading divorce lawyer, and Gabby had come away with nothing. (“No house, no alimony, no kids. I knew there was a reason I couldn’t get pregnant—it wasn’t that I was too old, it was that demons and people can’t breed,” Gabby said.)
Public sentiment in Forsyth—on the distaff side, anyway—had been firmly on Gabby’s side. “Nobody wants to hire a divorce lawyer who reminds them of their almost-ex-husbands,” Gabby said. He had taken off to Miami, where there were more people getting divorced, and where his new wife (and former paralegal) didn’t have to deal with all of Gabby’s friends snubbing her in the grocery store.
In the ten years since, Gabby’s vague family ties to Mimi had become double-knotted. She was a combination aunt and accomplice to Dora, bailing her out the few times Dora did manage to get in trouble (a double-dare shoplifting scare here, a minor fender-bender there). Every so often Gabby made noises about getting her own place, and Mimi squashed them flat. “If you go I won’t have anyone to drink iced tea and gossip with, and that will send me right into a decline,” Mimi threatened. Since Dora had been at Lymond those noises had gotten much less frequent.
Gabby kept up a steady stream of inconsequential exclamations as she moved through the closet room, looking for a sweater. (“Those hospitals are cold, and summer’s a while gone, even down here.”) She oohed and aahed over an evening gown, buttoned the jacket of a tailored suit, giggled at a merry widow (“I should tell you about the last time I wore one of these, now that you’re older”), and pulled out a blouse printed with little cherry pies and rolling pins (“For later”). Finally there was a slip (and a bra, thrown in the pile by Gabby, Dora too weak to protest that her own bra was just fine, thank you), the dress and a perfectly matching little cardigan sweater, white with blue buttons, and the shoes, and Dora headed to the bathroom and a shower.
The upstairs shower had always been hers, but Mimi had made it over since Dora had left for college. Not a remodel, really, but an upgrade. The showerhead no longer shot a finger of water out perpendicularly towards the glass door, and the soap dish carved into the wall had been slightly re-angled so as to actually drain, rather than holding a puddle of scummy soap bog. There was a new medicine cabinet, but when Dora opened it, all her old toiletries were there: an ancient pink razor and a tube of Great Lash, a bottle of witch hazel from a drugstore that had gone out of business years before. Dora closed the cabinet and turned on the water in the shower.
There was an inch of shampoo left in the bottle in the shower, and half an inch of some lily-of-the-valley shower gel: enough to scrub off the coffee shop and the car trip, at least. Dora used it all without thinking, didn’t want to think, about the next day, or the day after that. It was enough to be in the hot water, smelling like lilies of the valley.
The towels were the ones Dora had insisted on in high school, a very dark charcoal gray. Mimi had wanted pale pink, edged with an eyelet ruffle, but Dora had been in a minimalist, anti-girly phase, all solid dark colors and geometric lines. That same year she had once worn a pale-gray wedge dress with red leggings, carefully planned and saved up for, bought on a trip to the big mall in Raleigh, matched with gray suede pointy flats from Mimi’s store, only to have Missy Chambers ask, mock-innocently, where she could sign up for the eighties music-video tryouts, too. The next day Dora was back in jeans and a T-shirt and sneakers.
After struggling with the pointy bra’s back fasteners (all Dora’s bras were front-fastening racer-backs) and pulling on the slip, Dora realized that Gabby hadn’t mentioned pantyhose, or even stockings and garters. She wasn’t going to remind her. Then she slipped the dress from its hanger.
Buttoning up the dress felt strange, like walking into the wrong party. It felt so different from jeans and a T-shirt, so different from anything Dora had worn for years. The little blue plastic buttons, transparent and a bit glowy in the strong light of the bathroom, the hooks and eyes that held the waist stay firm—they made getting dressed deliberate and serious, something to pay attention to. The full pleats of the skirt hung around her hips, counterweighting her as she moved. Dora reached up to shove a little ancient mousse into her short curls, and felt the narrow shoulders of the dress strain slightly. Why didn’t anyone in the fifties ever seem to want to lift their arms above their heads? Dora wondered. Giving up on her hair, Dora decided nothing would make her uncork that ancient tube of mascara, so she slipped on the shoes, grabbed the cardigan, and went out to face Gabby.
Gabby, predictably, was in the kitchen, watching the little TV they kept on the counter. Instead of Mimi’s news channel, though, Gabby was watching an entertainment show that promised an inside look at a starlet’s closet.
“Oh, sweetie, you look like a picture! I should take a picture! You look just like Mimi did at your age!”
“When Mimi was my age she was married and had a son and smoked two packs a day.”
“Well, honey, I’m just saying. You do look like her, you know.”
Dora did know, had always known, that the resemblance to her grandmother was close, if not actively uncanny. Only the yellowing of the edges of certain photographs could prove that they were pictures of Mimi as an infant or young girl, instead of pictures of Dora. There were pictures of Mimi, formal photographs taken at her high-school graduation, that looked for all the world as if Dora had signed up for a series of sepia-toned novelty shots. At the rare family gatherings of their clan, there would be rashes of hair-pats and choruses that involved the words “spitting image,” as if Mimi had ever spit in her life.
Mimi herself had played it down. “Oh, she’s much smarter than I am, and much better-looking,” she’d say. “We expect great things from our little Dora!” Mimi had never made Dora play up the resemblance. She’d suggest that Dora wear a certain dress, but she’d never insist. She even let Dora cut her hair in a completely unflattering Rachel in the sixth grade.
Gabby switched off the TV and picked up Dora’s keys from the counter, handing them to her. “Do you have a handkerchief? We forgot to get you a handbag….”
“No, it’s okay.” Dora grabbed her messenger bag, which was a Hawaiian print in shades of red and orange, and which clashed horribly with her dress. “Let’s go.”
Gabby drove her little Toyota at a walking pace through the neighborhood, navigating the new speed bumps as if they were frosted with meringue and she didn’t want to crush the soft peaks. She waved vaguely at some of the houses, telling Dora about people she had either forgotten or never known, talking about anything and everything rather than Mimi. “The Walraths, he died and she moved to Arizona; not so much as a postcard since then! But the new folks in that house are very nice—Yankees, of course, moved down to work at the university. She’s a doctor. Oh, and didn’t you know Robbie Henderson in school? He got married and works at the insurance place, I forget what they call it now. And his wife had triplets!” Gabby lowered her voice. “They used that fertility-drug stuff, I’m sure of it. Real cute babies, though.”
Dora tried not to feel a rising panic, a fear that they would never, ever get out of the neighborhood and that Gabby would just drive her around, telling inane stories, for hours, days even. While Mimi was lying in the hospital, waiting for Dora.
Finally they were out of the neighborhood’s deliberately twisty streets and onto the parkway. Two lanes and a speed limit of forty-five seemed to throw Gabby into NASCAR mode, and she changed lanes wildly to pass cars that were brazenly keeping themselves to a sedate forty-seven or fifty miles an hour. Gabby’s monologue changed topic; now she was rattling off the new big-box and chain retail stores that had come to town. “We have two Targets—or Tar-jays I should say—and we have an Anthropologie, Mimi loves that place but won’t buy anything there but glasses and dishes, not like we need any more dishes, what with her wedding china, and your parents’ wedding china, and all of my wedding china—I kept all three, of course. I keep telling Mimi we should go in for catering, all the dishes we’ve got. There’s even that place with all the crazy chairs, they put it in where the K&W Cafeteria used to be, I forget what it’s called. Design Within Reach! That’s it. Mimi and I went in there and she said nothing was within reach if you were sitting in a chair three inches from the floor. That’s a young people’s store, for all that those chairs were designed before you were born.”
Gabby made a quick exit from the parkway, and took her hand away from her death grip on the steering wheel to pat Dora’s knee. “We’re almost there, honey. It’ll be okay.”
Dora put her hand over Gabby’s, just for an instant, and felt the warm crêpiness of her skin, the cool metal of her rings. Then she took her hand away and looked out the car window.
When had she talked to Mimi last? It must have been last week—she usually called on Sundays, right in the middle of the afternoon. Mimi had a knack of interrupting her just when she had finally settled into studying. She’d tried calling Mimi earlier in the day, but by the time Dora got up and thought of it, Mimi would usually be at church. “Not that I believe one word of anything they say,” she’d laugh. “But it’s a mighty convenient way to catch up with all your friends and hear all the gossip. And wear a hat. Church is the last place on the planet you can wear a hat without people making a fuss about it, unless you’re royalty.”
Mimi had always started with news about the shop, assuming that would be the most interesting to Dora, as it was to her. What had come in, what had sold, what she’d found in the pockets of old coats (coats always had the best forgotten items), talking about the dresses and suits as if they were living things, not quite people—more like pets. Sometimes Mimi would try, not so subtly, to add to Dora’s wardrobe.
“Dora, this gorgeous brown wool skirt that just came in, it’s just your size, and has the most adorable pockets…. It’s a fun autumn-Saturday-errands skirt, new books from the library and crisp apples and scuffling through the leaves….” Mimi always spent more time talking about what a piece of clothing felt like than what it looked like. Dora loved to listen to Mimi’s characterizations, but when Mimi paused, obviously waiting for a “Yes, I’d wear that,” she’d make noncommittal noises. “Mmmm, that sounds cute,” Dora would say, and Mimi would trail off. “Well, it’ll probably still be on the rack next time you’re home, you can try it on then….”
Dora loved the clothes in the shop. She loved to straighten them on the hangers, rebutton the buttons that the customers had undone, rebuckle the belts, and retie the ties. She remembered being ten or eleven years old, begging, on her knees for maximum dramatic effect, to be allowed to use “the dragon”—Mimi’s ancient garment-steamer. She loved to watch the wrinkles fall out, like magic. As she got older, she loved to try them on, pretend for a minute that she was the elegant, confident woman that the dress belonged to. But they never seemed to belong to her. However well they fit Dora’s body, they didn’t seem to fit her self.
She once tried to explain it to Mimi. “I love this dress,” Dora said, twirling in a pale-blue sundress with a scalloped hem. She must have been sixteen.
“Wear it to school tomorrow, then,” Mimi said. “It’ll be warm enough.” Her face told Dora that the dress looked right. Mimi never made someone think that something looked good if it didn’t.
“It doesn’t feel like me.” Dora frowned. “It’s so pretty, but it feels—I don’t know—like a costume or something. Like I’m playing the girl who wears this dress.”
“Maybe you just need time to get used to the role.” Mimi stood behind her and adjusted the shoulder straps slightly. “Even understudies have to start sometime.” The dress looked even better, but somehow it made Dora feel worse. She shrugged her shoulders, the universal answer of the teenager. The dress went back on the rack.
Last Sunday’s call hadn’t included any of Mimi’s wardrobe come-ons, but there had been big news, nevertheless.
“Gabby’s ex-husband is back in town, did you ever hear anything to beat that?”
Dora was doing the dishes—all two bowls and two spoons—the phone tucked between her ear and shoulder. She turned off the water and grabbed a dish towel. “What, the divorce lawyer? Big Bob?”
“No, no, Jolly Jerry.”
“I don’t remember a Jolly Jerry… only Big Bob and Stuffy Steve… and did Gabby ever marry anyone without a nickname?”
“If she did he got one with the rest of the wedding presents. Or maybe they wrote it into their vows. Jolly Jerry was Gabby’s first husband.”
“Her starter husband?”
“If you want to put it that way, and I wish you didn’t, yes. Anyway, he moved up to Virginia after they divorced, did some kind of work in trucking, and has come back to Forsyth to retire….”
“At the golf club?”
“No, he’s got one of those new senior apartments. Mary Beth told me.”
“Have you told Gabby?”
“Of course I did.”
“What’d she say?”
“What she always says when she doesn’t know what to say.”
“ ‘Funny kind of world this is’?”
“Yes, but I think Jerry’s arrival might have hit her harder than she’s letting on. She’s been even vaguer and more absentminded than usual, lately. Last week she left the water running and misplaced her keys, twice.”
“Losing keys once a week seems standard-issue Gabby, but twice—plus the water—that’s not good. Do you know why they divorced?”
“She doesn’t talk about Jerry much; the most she’s ever said to me is that they were just ‘too young.’ ”
Dora looked over at Gabby and tried to see her as a young bride. Dora had seen the pictures once, Gabby with an impressive beehive and a mile-wide smile, but the groom was a fuzzy blank. She considered asking Gabby about Jolly Jerry. Had she seen him yet? Why was he called Jolly? But then Gabby turned into the driveway of Forsyth Baptist, and they were there.
Gabby dropped her off in front of the automatic doors. A couple was emerging with their new baby: she in the ritual wheelchair, pushed by an orderly; he carrying a plastic car seat buckled around a red-faced squirming pink-knitted-blanket-wrapped bundle. “You go on in, honey. I’ll park and meet you inside.”
The hospital was even worse than Dora had feared. She’d assumed it would be like one of those hospital shows, with all the doctors and nurses in clean scrubs, all remarkably good-looking, rushing around with great purpose. Instead it was nearly empty, the doctors and nurses unglamorous, not wearing any makeup (much less the dramatic TV kind), and moving just slightly faster than the usual pace in Forsyth—a kind of brisk amble.
While the TV hospitals had one or two grieving relatives, highlighted and set off from the staff, Forsyth’s hospital was crammed with them. Everywhere Dora looked, there was another person who was stiff and uncomprehending and consumed by some nervous tic, waiting for news. Everyone looked vaguely familiar, but no one wanted to force recognition.
When Dora got to Mimi’s room she took a minute to shake out her skirt and straighten herself. Stroke or no stroke, Mimi would hate sloppiness. She ran a hand through her hair. No lipstick, as usual. When Mimi gets out of here I’ll let her pick out a lipstick for me. Even a red one. She opened the door.
The bed was far too big for Mimi. She looked tiny, like some sick Fisher-Price concept toy that never made it out of the R&D department: Your Little Hospital Friend. Her silver hair was dull against the much-washed pillowcase, and her feet barely made a bump in the sheet. There were things beeping in the room, of course, but muffled somehow, like a dying smoke detector in the neighbor’s apartment. Mimi’s hands looked like they’d been spilled over the top of the bed, in a position that was completely without intention.
Dora moved closer and picked up Mimi’s hand. She held it for a while, then arranged it gracefully, the way Mimi would have. Her heavy wedding band and solitaire engagement ring had been removed, probably to a manila envelope somewhere, marked MARGARET WINSTON, the name she never used. The diamond was probably clanking against her Tank watch, scratching the crystal. Mimi would be irritated. Dora could imagine her at the big chain jewelry store in the mall, trying to explain to some clerk that she needed the crystal polished, while he watched out of the corner of his eye for a more lucrative customer.
There were flowers in the room, late-fall ones, orange and maroon, the real kind from someone’s garden, not cookie-cutter stems shipped in from South America. Mimi would have known their name, but Dora didn’t. They smelled clean and fresh and slightly spicy, stuffed in a vase that turned out to be an old teapot. From Gabby, Dora assumed. She wished she’d had time to bring flowers, but Mimi would rather have no flowers than something wrapped in cellophane from the Winn-Dixie. Mimi would want something old-fashioned for a stay in the hospital. A bed jacket, or hothouse grapes. Did they even have hothouse grapes anymore?
The doorknob rattled and a nurse came in. Her scrubs were band-aid pink, her name tag said MARIA RN, and her socks had a pattern of yellow rubber duckies. Dora pulled her gaze away from Maria’s feet and smiled at her, unsure of what else to do. Did she need to leave? Could she ask questions? Maria smiled back, but not in a way that encouraged conversation. Dora felt like a teenage babysitter when the parents came home, communicating in pantomime so as not to wake the sleeping toddler.
Maria started in on her routine, following a checklist only she knew. Various things were written on a chart, other things were just scrutinized. Soft hands checked Mimi’s IV and straightened the already straight sheets. Dora sat still, out of the way.
Her invisible boxes all checked, Maria stopped at the door. “I’ll tell Dr. Czerny you’re here.” Her voice was surprisingly loud.
Mimi’s eyelids fluttered and opened. Dora could see that moment of where-am-I panic, and leaned in so Mimi could see her without sitting up.
“Shhhh. Don’t try to talk. You’ve had some kind of stroke, you’re at Forsyth Baptist.”
Mimi gave Dora her best “I know that” face, marred only by the slackness of her right cheek and eyelid, and the indignity of the tube in her nose. Despite that, it was still the same “you’re not getting away with this” expression Dora remembered, except this time she wasn’t trying to stay out after curfew or find an excuse to avoid doing the dishes.
“It’s going to be okay,” Dora said, reaching for Mimi’s hand again. “It’s going to be okay.” Dora was on Mimi’s left side, in the only chair. I wonder if they put the chair here on purpose, she thought. So visitors would sit on her good side. Mimi would have demanded that, if she could. Mimi’s hand twitched in hers. Dora held on tighter.
The door opened again. Dr. Czerny turned out to be a tall middle-aged woman with graying russet hair swept up in a plastic clip. She was wearing a slate-blue sweater under her lab coat, and real shoes—not the plastic clogs the nurse had worn.
“I’m Dr. Czerny.” She stuck out a ringless hand. Dora took it, and flailed for a minute before remembering what her line should be. “I’m Dora Winston, Mimi’s granddaughter.”
Dr. Czerny looked over towards Mimi, whose eyes had drifted closed again. “Would you like to step out into the hall?”
Away from Mimi, Dora felt awkward and costumey in her dress. “Can you tell me what happened?”
“Your grandmother was brought in this morning; she had a seizure in her shop. One of the customers called 911. She was brought here, and we believe she had a kind of stroke called a subarachnoid hemorrhage.”
Dora had a fleeting mental image of a giant black spider, sucking life from Mimi. She pushed it away.
“How serious? Will Mimi…” Dora felt as if even asking would change things for the worse, push the fuzzy cloud of possibilities into a hard, solid wrong shape.
“There’s a chance of recovery.”
A chance. Dora noticed that there wasn’t any kind of qualifier there. Not “good.” Not “slight.” Just “chance.”
“She will be in the hospital for some time. It’s hard to predict, with this kind of brain trauma. We should really have her in the ICU, but we’re full up, and we didn’t want to move her. If you wish to have her moved, the next-closest ICU is in Greensboro.”
Dora must have looked bewildered, because Dr. Czerny’s face softened. “Is there any other family who can help you? Your parents? Brothers and sisters?”
“My parents are dead.” Dora was always surprised at how saying that never seemed to lose any strength, was always shiny and sharp each time it left her mouth. “Mimi has a brother—a half brother. He’s in Fayre.” Dora thought of her great-uncle John, two cell phones bolted to him at all times, his unpleasant habit of holding up a finger for silence whenever one of them rang. Uncle John, in the hospital, arguing with everyone, with his attitude of “I’m rich, therefore I’m right,” bringing her great-aunt Camille with him to fuss over everything. Dora shuddered. “They’re not… they’re not close.”
“I see.” Dr. Czerny looked as if half brothers who weren’t close could be dismissed without a second thought. “I can make an appointment with the family counselor for you; you should see her tomorrow. Right now, if you can, just sitting with your grandmother would be the best thing, for you both.”
Dr. Czerny’s shoes made a reassuring clicking sound as she went off down the hallway. Dora watched her turn the corner before she went back into Mimi’s room.
Mimi was well and truly asleep again, or maybe sedated. Dora wished she’d thought to ask, but sank into the chair and held Mimi’s hand anyway. She felt stupid and hollow. She had always thought that Mimi would go on forever, her immaculately coiffed head held high and her strong, elegant hands always busy. Why had she never realized that Mimi would someday get sick, someday maybe even die? Did she think that losing her parents immunized her against losing anyone else she loved? That bereavement, like the chicken pox, was something you could only catch once?
Dora had caught the chicken pox late; she must have been in the fourth or fifth grade. Mimi, always good in a crisis, had built Dora a nest in Mimi’s big bed, covering Dora’s hands with socks to keep her from scratching. On the worst, itchiest days, Mimi set a kitchen timer to go off every hour, and every time it buzzed Dora picked a card out of a bowl (it was tricky, with those socks on her hands) to find out whether she got a popsicle, a story read aloud by Mimi, or a new video to watch, or (the joker in the pack) had to submit to more daubing with calamine lotion. One of the cards had read “Surprise!” and Mimi had given her a little enamel dogwood-flower brooch, which Dora had worn pinned to her pajamas until she went back to school, and which was still in her jewelry box, on top of her bureau, back at Lymond.
Dora wished she could fix this with a pair of clean white socks, a box of popsicles, and a week of cartoons. At the very least she’d have to stay in Forsyth for a while. She could sublet her apartment, allow some foreign student to study on her futon and make pilaf or curry or Boston baked beans or whatever in her secondhand pots. She had one last class, an independent study, more of a formality than anything else. Missing that wouldn’t be a problem.
The only hitch was the coffee shop. Actually, that wasn’t true. Someone else could do the scheduling and the ordering and show up to unlock the place when Priti overslept again. Someone else could close out the till and banter with the delivery guys so the shop would be the first stop on the route and tell Mark that if he played the “Gods of Death Metal” playlist off his iPod one more time those very same gods would swoop down and kill him, on her invocation. Someone else could empty the mousetraps and refill the napkin holders. Someone else could run to the registrar’s office for change and point, for the umpteenth time, to the sign that said No Credit Cards / No Dining Plan. There was no hitch there.
Dora tried to imagine how Gary would handle her absence. Not gracefully, probably. Gary wasn’t graceful, at least where the coffee shop was concerned.
She had never intended to work at the coffee shop. Her scholarship to Lymond had come with (in addition to tuition) guaranteed summer employment, doing research with a professor on campus. The first summer of her scholarship Dora had spent printing copies of research papers from electronic journals for a professor who had been worried that the library’s switch to digital subscriptions heralded a new Dark Ages, and who felt that hoarding of laser-printed copies of sociological research was a perfectly rational response to the possible collapse of civilization. The second summer was spent doing data entry of student questionnaires on the exciting topic of pedagogical response. (Which Dora still didn’t understand, and couldn’t explain.)
The third summer was supposed to be spent cataloguing catalogues of antiquities (meta-cataloguing, as the grad student who was leaving the job pompously explained) in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, but at the very last minute, her research sponsor received a grant to go to Turkey on a dig, and she was out of a job.
The woman at the scholarship office was sympathetic, but could offer no other options. All of the other spots had been filled, and there were, unsurprisingly, no other faculty members who wanted to take on a new summer research student at short notice. Dora barely argued; these things happened. It was nobody’s fault (although she did treasure some spiteful thoughts about her erstwhile archaeologist). The scholarship administrator was relieved; she’d expected tears, recriminations, possibly even threats—some of the Lymond scholarship students were very well connected. She shook Dora’s hand very firmly on the way out.
“Again, I’m so sorry, Dora. I hope you have a good summer in spite of this difficulty.” Dora thanked her and wandered out of her office, to stand in front of the job board on the last day of the semester. All of the sheets with their paper fringes of phone numbers mostly torn off, informing you that you could work to save the environment and make good money, asking for students to babysit, to wait tables, to be interns of every kind but the medical, left Dora empty and blank.
While Dora was standing there, wondering whether or not she could still sublet her room and head back to Forsyth, a guy rushed up. A cute dark-haired guy with a roundish baby face, hauling an open box from the copy shop. Dora could see that it was full of job flyers. He tried to juggle the box and a stapler, and Dora watched, fascinated, as the box spilled from his grasp. A ream of paper fanned out over the floor.
“Here, I’ll help,” Dora said.
“Thanks.” He smiled up at her, already on his knees, shuffling paper.
Dora went to the end of the spill, where some pages had fallen in a damp spot and were quickly getting soggy.
“Just toss those,” he said. “It’s stupid, anyway, I left it too late, and everyone who needs a job at this point has one.” He ran an exasperated hand through his short dark hair, and it fell back exactly into place.
Dora looked at him again. “I don’t,” she said. “What do you need?”
“The coffee shop is rehabbing. I need someone to help me clean, paint, and redecorate it. And then restock it. And all before August, which is going to be tight, I can tell you.”
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
“Don’t you want to know what I’m paying? Or the hours?”
“Not especially. I figure you’re paying at least the going rate, because you’re trying to get someone late in the semester. And as for hours, if you have to be done by August, it’s as many as possible, which is fine by me.”
“Can you lift seventy pounds?”
“How many times?”
“Once or twice a day will do.”
“Well, then, yes, I can lift seventy pounds.”
He stuck out his hand. “I’m Gary. I’m your new boss.”
Dora took his hand and shook it. “I’m Dora. I’m your new employee.”
Gary swept up the rest of the sheets and dumped them in the recycling bin. He shoved his stapler into his pocket. “Let’s go get your paperwork in order.”
Dora followed him back to his office. Surprisingly, it was in the Music Department.
“The Music Department runs the coffee shop?” she asked.
“Well, not exactly, no. But I run the coffee shop, and I’m a grad student in musicology, and so this is where the office is.”
Dora followed him up the steps. Music was in one of the older buildings on campus. In the distance she could hear a flute repeating the same lighthearted phrase over and over again, stopping and starting like someone trying to tell a joke through an attack of the hiccups.
The office was tiny, ancient, linoleum-floored. Gary shuffled through the papers on his desk, and came up triumphantly with a battered folder marked COFFEE SHOP.
“Wait—you’re a U.S. citizen, right?” He looked so alarmed by the possibility that she wasn’t that Dora was almost tempted to claim that she was Bosnian or Venezuelan.
“I’m a citizen,” she reassured him.
“That’s good; I have no idea where to get the noncitizen form.” Gary dug around and thrust a stack of papers at Dora. Dora held them while Gary realized there was nowhere for her to sit and fill them out. He rushed out to the hall and dragged in a chair, and then shoved a stack of journals from his desk to the top of the radiator. With a last flourish, he produced a pen.
“Sign here,” he said.
Dora sat, accepted the pen, and filled out the forms. Her name, her Social Security number, her complete lack of any felony convictions. It didn’t take very long. Gary hovered.
She pushed the papers back to him, and stood up.
“When do you need me to start?”
“How about now?”
Dora shrugged. “Fine by me.”
Gary talked the whole way over to the coffee shop. He was from Detroit, well, the Detroit suburbs. His folks were retired. He’d been at Lymond five years, with two to go. “Except two years ago I also had two years to go.” Running the coffee shop was new for him; the previous manager had actually, finally, really finished her dissertation and left. Dora listened, amused.
Gary was fumbling with the keys to the coffee shop. Dora watched. “It’s probably the biggest,” she offered. “That’s a Medeco key, most of the university facilities use those locks. The others are probably storeroom keys.”
Gary looked at her. “You are quite possibly the best hire I have ever made.”
Unaccountably, Dora blushed. “I’m the only hire you ever made, aren’t I?”
“Unless you count getting my embezzling stepbrother to help at my lemonade stand, yes.”
Finally he had the door open and they were inside. Gary flipped on the lights.
“Where do we start?”
Gary looked so confused by this that Dora had to laugh. “You don’t know, do you?” He looked indignant for a moment, and then laughed himself. “No. No, I don’t. They left me a manual, but it’s for the cash register.”
“First of all, we’re not going to get anything done in here today. We need cleaning supplies, furniture catalogues, paint, probably some new shelving, information about distributors….” Dora stopped, realizing that Gary was staring at her.
“So we need all that, do we? You are now officially the brains of this operation. I am reduced to mere clerical support. Hold those thoughts while I get pen and paper.”
Gary went to rummage around behind the counter, emerging with a coffee-stained legal pad and a capless ballpoint. He looked at his watch.
“Hey, it’s getting late…. Do you have any plans right now?”
Dora realized that she should probably say yes, start off firmly on the right foot, not let herself be imposed upon, but what she said was “Not really…”
“Good!” Gary beamed at her. He really was cute, Dora thought. She tried to avoid thinking about exactly how cute he was. He was now her boss, after all. “How about we head over to the Skell? We can work over dinner. Coffee shop’s buying,” he added quickly.
Dora felt, unreasonably, as if the coffee shop had just asked her out on a date.
The Rathskeller was empty; the visibly bored hostess waved them to a booth in the front. “I can’t believe we got a booth without begging and pleading,” Dora said.
“Summer at Lymond.” Gary shrugged. “Nobody here, and the people who are here don’t want to be. If it weren’t for this coffee shop I’d be bumming from music festival to music festival. That’s what I did the last couple of summers. If you know the right people you can work at them and get in for free.” Gary polished his fork and spoon with his paper napkin. “What would you be doing?”
“Nothing much, I guess. Working a research grunt job.” Dora folded her menu and set it on the table’s edge to serve as a flare for their server. Gary didn’t note her diffidence, or, if he did, he didn’t seem inclined to pursue it. He shoved his menu aside, putting down the legal pad. He rummaged in his pockets. The pen had disappeared.
“I have a pen,” Dora said, and took one from her bag.
“Thanks.” Gary smiled at her again. “What would I do without you?”
“Write with the place-mat crayons.”
“Yes, a list in purple crayon just screams ‘efficiency.’ ” Gary hesitated, the ballpoint hovering over the first line.
Their waitress showed up. “Youse guys ready?” She took a pencil from behind her ear. Her Skell T-shirt, with its cartoon-skull logo, was stretched tightly across her chest. Gary seemed to be doing a stress analysis of the fabric. With his eyeballs.
“I’d like the burger, very rare, with fries, and an iced tea.”
Gary’s gaze transferred itself regretfully from the T-shirt to the face. “I’ll have the Reuben and a Heineken.”
Gary made a big show of pulling out his wallet and showing her his driver’s license.
“Huh. You’re thirty?”
“Some people are, you know.”
The waitress shrugged and wandered off with their order.
“Very smart, not to drink on the job. Or are you not legal?”
“Ah, undergraduates. Otherwise known as forbidden fruit.”
Dora didn’t know where to look. Gary picked up his pen again. “Where were we?”
“Cleaning, we were at cleaning.” Dora focused on the list. She knew she could handle the list.
“You were at cleaning. I was at beer. Okay. I can call the facilities head about cleaning tomorrow morning. Good.”
Gary wrote “Cleaning” on the list. At least, Dora thought it was the word “cleaning.” Gary looked up and saw her squinting at it.
“I know, I have terrible handwriting. It’s a very manly failing, though.”
“Do you want me to make the list?” Dora asked.
“Nah, you’ll have to learn to read my scrawl eventually.” He turned the pad around and pushed it across the table. “But move over—I’ll sit next to you, and then at least you won’t have to read it upside down.”
The booth was slightly too small for two adults to sit side by side, but Gary didn’t seem to notice. His leg pressed against hers.
Dora went on. “Furniture.”
Gary wrote down “Furniture.”
“What’s the budget? Is any of the stuff there still good? Does the university have preferred suppliers? Who has the catalogues? What’s the delivery time? Eight weeks is cutting it a little close to have commercial-grade stuff delivered.”
“How do you know all this stuff?”
“My grandma owns a store….” Dora trailed off.
“My grandma plays bridge in Florida and calls me on my stepbrother’s birthday. She’s kind of losing it.”
“I’m sorry.” Dora looked down at the list again.
“You have nothing to be sorry about. You’re a lifesaver. I should stop on the way home and buy a lottery ticket, as I’m obviously the luckiest guy at Lymond today.” He looked around the empty restaurant. “Of course, there’s not all that much competition….”
Dora didn’t know what to say. She took a sip of water.
“Hey, where’s your iced tea?”
“Over there.” Dora could see it on the counter.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get it.”
Gary hopped up and walked over to the counter. The waitress intercepted him, and he gestured back to the table. Dora couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the waitress smiled. Gary grabbed the tea and came back, grinning, to sit across from her again.
“I told her I was going to make you tip me.”
“I don’t think you tip your boss.”
“Even if he waits on your table?”
“That might be a special case.”
Gary pulled the list across the table. “What’s next?”
“Stocking. Do you have any invoices from previous years? Catalogues? Does the shop have credit accounts anywhere? What do the students like to eat? Who delivers the hot food, and from where?”
Gary scribbled. “I think I have a big file from the previous manager.”
Dora looked at Gary. “I could come by tomorrow and look at the file… maybe make some calls. I bet some of them have online catalogues. I could call the suppliers while you figure out the cleaning stuff.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Gary looked at her consideringly. “I am beginning to think that you are the kind of girl a man could come to rely on, Dora Winston.”
Before Dora could respond—not that she knew what to say—the waitress swooped in with their plates, giving Gary the hamburger with something that looked suspiciously like a wink. She put the Reuben in front of Dora like an afterthought. Gary let her walk away before switching the plates.
“I think you made the better choice,” he said. His sandwich was oozing Russian dressing and sauerkraut. He took a bite, and winced as dressing dripped onto his shirt. Dora laughed.
“Hey! Laughing at your new boss is not a good career move.” Gary grinned, and swiped a French fry from Dora’s plate.
“So you want my letter of resignation? Already?” Dora smiled back at him. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so at home with a person. With a male person. A male person whose last name she didn’t know.
“I wouldn’t even know how to address it,” she said. “Dear Mr.…?”
“If I don’t tell you my last name, you can never quit! This works out great. It’s like ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ in reverse.” Gary stole another one of Dora’s fries to mop up the Russian dressing on his plate.
“No, really. You must have another name, you’re not famous enough to have only one.”
“Ouch. Okay, it’s Dudas. And whatever joke you can make out of it, I already heard. In the third grade.”
“All right, Mr. Dudas.” She smiled across the table at him.
“C’mon, it’s Gary.” He looked at her a bit too long, and there was a tone in his voice that gave her a little shiver.
The waitress came back for their empty plates, and dropped the check on the table. Gary covered it with a couple of bills, standing to go.
“Don’t you want a receipt?” Dora asked. “So the coffee shop can reimburse you?”
“You are really gunning for employee of the month, you know? I see a very shiny plaque in your future.” Gary waved the waitress over.
Dora scooted out of the booth. “I’ll be right back.” As she turned the corner to the ladies’ room she saw the waitress laughing at something Gary must have said.
When she came out, Gary was hanging over the hostess station, still chatting with their waitress.
“Dora! Thanks again for everything tonight. I’m so glad I found you. You’re a miracle worker, possibly even a miracle…. So I’ll see you in the morning? Not too early. Maybe ten?”
“Um, sure.” Dora stood there maybe a second too long, wondering why Gary was saying goodbye now, lingering in the restaurant. Then the waitress tossed her hair and smiled again, a deliberate smile, focused to a pinpoint, directed squarely at Gary.
“See ya,” Dora said, and stumbled out.
Dora had been stumbling around Gary ever since. She was always off-balance with him. Just last week she had been sitting on the counter in the coffee shop (in a blatant violation of health-department policy), swinging her legs and talking to Amy, who at that point was just called “the New Girl.” Nobody at the shop bothered to learn a new hire’s name until they’d been there three weeks. It was a tradition. You were either the New Girl or the New Guy, and Gary had even (on Dora’s suggestion) made name tags with those sobriquets. It was one good way to sort people out; if the New Girl got huffy at wearing a New Girl name tag, you could be sure she wasn’t going to work out in the long run. The ones who relinquished their New Girl name tags reluctantly after the three-week period were the ones that turned out to be the most fun to work with.
Amy had been loading the coffee machine, and Dora had been sitting on the opposite counter in part to stop herself from taking over. Amy had to learn, and if learning involved getting up to your elbows in wet grounds because you didn’t seat the filter right, well, that was all part of the process.
“So—where are you from?” she asked Amy. Being able to answer customers while fiddling with the machines was a necessary skill. Since the shop was nearly empty, Dora had to step in and provide the distraction.
“I’m from Chicago….” Amy almost had the clip in place.
“Chicago-Chicago, or Chicagoland-Chicago?”
“You got me.” Amy didn’t sound defensive, like that guy last semester who had claimed New York as his stomping ground and then turned out to have been from the mean streets of Old Lyme, Connecticut. “I’m from Lincolnwood. Lincolnwood cozies up to Chicago, but it’s not Chicago. Lots of fancy houses and nice schools. Golf courses. You know the kind of place?”
“I think so.”
“How about you?” Amy had finished setting up the machine, and was now looking at it in a puzzled way. Dora jumped down and walked over to flip the switch that would start the coffee brewing. Letting people learn from their mistakes stopped short of actually running out of coffee.
“I’m from Forsyth. Little town in North Carolina?”
“Oh, I went to North Carolina once. Chapel Hill. I was thinking about going to school there. Or, actually, I was thinking about a boy who went to school there. A total Felicity moment, but it passed.”
Dora smiled at Amy and turned to wipe the counter where she’d been sitting.
“Felicity had a lot to answer for. Stalk-friendliness as criterion for college admissions, cruelty to hair… Forsyth’s a bit farther west, almost in the mountains.”
“Is it pretty? The whole time I was thinking about North Carolina, everyone said, ‘Oh, it’s so pretty,’ like they didn’t have anything else to say about it. It was the state version of ‘She has a nice personality.’ ”
“It is pretty; they weren’t lying.”
“Do you miss it?”
“I don’t miss the place as much as I miss my grandma. I can’t get her to come up for a visit; she doesn’t like to leave her store.”
“What kind of store?”
“She runs a little clothing boutique down there. It used to be a department store—her family ran the town department store for years. They kept it going well into the 1980s, but then my grandpa died. She decided to sell the old building to a condo developer, but kept a ground-floor retail space for her own little shop.”
“What kind of boutique is it? My cousin works in one of those four-hundred-dollar-jeans places in Chicago. She always looks like she mugged Mary-Kate Olsen and stole her clothes.”
“It’s weird, actually. It was a little-old-lady place for a while; Mimi—my grandma—would go up to New York for buying trips, get those coordinated beaded-top-and-skirt things that mothers of the groom always wear, but she hated it. She doesn’t like to travel, and she doesn’t really like modern clothes—she always says that if Jackie O wouldn’t wear it, she wouldn’t, either. She was the last woman in Forsyth to stop wearing white gloves in the daytime. So about ten or twelve years ago she turned it into a vintage boutique. She sells a lot of deadstock that she had in their old warehouse, and other stuff she gets from folks she knew from the department-store days—there used to be a lot of old family department stores in the South, and she knew everyone, so when people have stuff to get rid of they come to her—and she buys vintage from estate sales and old customers and pickers who bring her stuff from the eastern part of the state or from Virginia.”
Amy had stopped to look at Dora, completely ignoring the guy trying to buy a Coke at the register.
“You’re kidding. Your grandma runs a vintage store? Your closet must be to die for!”
“Not really. I’m not that into clothes, actually.” Dora looked down at her khaki cargo pants, baggy at the knees, and her scuffed clogs. Her brown T-shirt had a pinhole near the hem. Mimi would be clucking her tongue and shaking her head at everything Dora had on. Not in a mean way, but just to show sympathy, in the same way that she would have clucked at a skinned knee or some junior-high drama. Mimi would feel sorry for Dora, beset by some accident that had resulted in clogs. Dora missed Mimi terribly, right at that moment.
Amy finally took Coke Guy’s eighty-five cents. “I can’t believe it. If my grandma owned a vintage store, I’d look like Doris Day, every day.” Amy was wearing a yellow polo shirt and a pink cotton skirt under her apron, and black ballerina flats. Her hair was held back by a grosgrain headband striped in pink and yellow. Dora realized that if she ever needed someone to stand under a sign that read “Coed” she could grab Amy.
“I don’t know…. I love the clothes, I just never end up wearing them, somehow.”
Just then Gary came in. Dora felt a moment of panic, the same flush that always came over her. The shop was fine—all the tables clean, the counters wiped, the music not too loud, the bakery case stocked, and the coffee hot. Dora was even sure that her hair was neatly clipped back and her hands were clean. Not that it would help, at all.
“Hey, New Girl—nice headband! Hey, Dora.” Gary came around the counter to the back. “Anything up?”
“All set,” Amy said, before Dora could get a word out. She felt her face redden slightly, so she turned to the coffeemaker. Too bad there was nothing to do to it.
“Hey, Dora.” Gary was at her elbow now, too close. She turned to him. He took an elaborate, cartoony inhale. “I love a woman who smells like coffee and doughnuts.”
Dora never knew how to respond when Gary got flirty. She supposed it was the kind of advice you went to your roommate or sorority sisters for, but Dora didn’t have either. Her friends at Lymond were more of the “Hey, can I borrow your class notes?” kind than the heart-to-heart boy-trouble kind. She’d been concentrating so hard on her coursework and on keeping her scholarship that she’d barely had a date. In high school, she’d gone to Mimi with all her boy troubles, but Mimi’s answer had always been the same: “If he can’t see that you’re too good for him, shame on him,” usually followed by a rewatch of a Tracy-Hepburn movie. Dora couldn’t imagine calling Mimi and saying, “My boss is really flirty, and I wish he’d make a move.” So Dora settled for a dull “Hey, Gary.”
“Dora, I was wondering, if you have time, could we go through some ordering this afternoon?” He smiled at her, sure of himself.
“Sure.” Dora had been planning to work on her grad-school application all afternoon, but doing the ordering with Gary sounded far more appealing.
“At the office, then? Thanks!” He didn’t wait for her reply, but gave them both a sketchy wave on his way out.
The rest of the shift with Amy went quickly; she was a fast worker and managed to keep a light chit-chat going. That was a good coffee-shop skill, to manage a conversation with a co-worker that could be interrupted without disintegrating; that could let in a customer who wanted to come in with a remark or a joke.
Dora wasn’t working lunch shift that day, but she stayed in the shop, watching Mark and Amy deal with the rush and the crowd, eating her own slice of pizza, and reading a discarded section of the newspaper. Someone had already done the crossword, badly. She kept looking at the clock. Probably wouldn’t work to go see Gary before two. At ten to two she was walking across campus to his office.
Gary’s door was open, his desk covered with the ordering sheets. Dora realized on the threshold that she hadn’t even reapplied her lip balm, but it was too late to back out and do it.
“Dora! You’ll know—should we try out that new bakery? They’ve offered us a discount….”
“Sure, we could give them a shot.” Dora sat down across the desk.
“Don’t sit there, you’ll get a headache if you read upside down. Sit here.” Gary gestured to his side of the desk, and Dora moved her chair around, trying not to let it screech on the old linoleum floor.
He smelled of soap and strong coffee, and his arm was warmly companionable next to hers. She grabbed a pencil, peered over his shoulder at the menu.
“Oh, they have Rice Krispie squares; those are sure to do well.”
“Sounds good. Hey, how’s the new New Girl working out? Amy?”
“She’s good—learns fast, nice to work with, takes initiative. She took out the garbage yesterday without being asked; I thought Bea was going to fall to her knees and kiss Amy’s feet.”
“Glad she’s working out. Although she seems a little young to be in grad school.”
“She’s undergrad. I think she wants to study English literature.”
“Oh, man. That means two months until she starts dressing like a French auto mechanic.”
“What’s wrong with dressing like a French auto mechanic?”
“They hardly ever wear skirts. Much less short skirts.”
“You know, you should be glad I manage to keep you from saying these things where your employees can actually hear you.”
Gary grinned and leaned over her to write a “6” next to “Rice Krispie treats” on the order sheet. “I know you have my back, Dora.”
“That’s pretty much my full job description. ‘Have Gary’s back.’ ”
“You’re very good at your job,” he said. His cell phone started playing a tinny version of a complicated piece of classical music, and he looked at it in disgust before picking it up. “Yeah…” He gave Dora a half-wave.
Back in Forsyth, in the cold hospital room, the door opened with a clack and a whoosh, and Gabby came in. Dora started to get up and give her the chair, but Gabby waved her off. “You sit, honey. Hold her hand. I know she’d like that.”
Gabby’s eyes filled and she turned her head away. “I’m gonna go get us some coffee, okay?” She left without waiting for Dora to answer.
Gabby had been right—it was cold in the hospital—but Dora had left the perfectly matching sweater in Gabby’s car. How Mimi would have loved to see Dora looking coordinated, for once. Dora felt further away from being the right kind of person to wear Mimi’s clothes than ever.
If Dora had come right out and asked if she had been a disappointment to Mimi, Mimi would have, of course, said no. Mimi would have said no with great force; Mimi would have been indignant at the thought; she would have reassured Dora with a hug, and praise, and a recital of all of her accomplishments, right down to her delivery of the only line in the kindergarten nativity pageant (“The star!”—added at the last minute because the special effect, such as it was, of a large flashlight shining through the backdrop hadn’t worked out as planned), with special attention given to Dora’s precocity in learning to read at three and her turn—however unwilling—on the mall’s catwalk for the eighth-grade fashion show. But Dora knew differently.
Dora’s parents had died when she was a baby—nervous new parents, they’d been taking a feverish infant Dora to the hospital emergency room. A cold January, too cold for Forsyth, a late night, black ice on the road, harried parents rushing to the hospital, and a skid were all that was necessary to send them into the concrete divider. Dora, safe in a car seat, had merely been teething. An hour later she was wailing, loud enough (Dora imagined) to drown out the siren of the ambulance that had arrived too late.
Dora was sure Mimi expected her to be some kind of genius, the universe’s recompense for the loss of her only son. Mimi had watched carefully for signs of prodigyhood, giving her the opportunity to learn Suzuki violin (the teacher had gently dissuaded Mimi after two years of scraping and screeching, and by then, Mimi was willing to listen, or, rather, stop listening) and sending her to math camp every summer until Dora had a stomachache for an entire week of it after seventh grade. (“I’m the only girl this year,” Dora had explained. “And the teacher never calls on me and all the boys stare at my chest all day and I’m never going back.”)
Mimi, around ninth grade, had started casually floating careers at Dora, like lantern boats down a river. There was the neurosurgeon Mimi had cultivated, inviting her to dinner and asking bright leading questions about her work; the doctor, tired of being Woman Role Model, started turning down Mimi’s invitations after the second interminable dinner of ham and medical-school anecdotes. Undaunted, Mimi moved on to the more accomplished of her circle of friends and acquaintances: every lawyer at church, a professor of English from Forsyth College, two city-council members, and once, painfully, the principal of Dora’s high school. Principal Morton, in his early sixties, hale and only slightly deaf (an advantage in a high-school principal, really), had misinterpreted Mimi’s interest and brought flowers, chocolates, and an air of romantic hopefulness. When he found Dora there, a miserable realization clouded his face, reinforced by Mimi’s questions about where Dora should apply to college, and, in tacit understanding, Dora and Mr. Morton both pretended the evening had never happened.
Mimi’s hints, suggestions, and outright demands had never made a dent in Dora’s lack of career aspirations; she remained completely uninterested in Deciding What to Do with Her Life.
“I don’t understand,” Mimi said once, at the beginning of Dora’s senior year of high school. They were in the kitchen. Mimi was making a batch of brownies. “You’re smart, you’re pretty, you could do anything you wanted; why don’t you want anything? Even your scatterbrained cousin Lionel wants to be a psychologist.”
“Lionel wants to be a psychiatrist. The kind that has to go to medical school. And mainly for access to drugs, I bet.” Dora had shrugged. “Anyway, I’ll know what I want to do when I find it,” she answered, stealing a fingerful of batter.
“You won’t find anything if you don’t look,” Mimi said. She poured the batter into the waiting pan, and put the mixing bowl in the sink, running water into it.
“Hey, I was going to lick that!” Dora had protested. It was the closest Mimi had ever come to showing her disappointment.
College had been another sticking point. Dora had halfheartedly applied to State, and to a random college in Pennsylvania that her guidance counselor proclaimed “a good fit,” but Mimi chivvied her into applying to Lymond, where, much to everyone’s surprise (except Mimi’s, of course), she had been offered a merit scholarship. Since she had no other place she’d really rather go, she took it. Lymond was prestigious, if sleepy and safe, and not too far away; better yet, to Mimi’s way of thinking, they offered a surprising number of majors for such a small school, including a very broad, highly nonspecific, department-tasting smorgasbord Bachelor of Liberal Arts—what Mimi jokingly called “vagueness studies.” Naturally, that’s what Dora majored in.
When Gabby came back, two paper cups in her hand, Mimi was sleeping again. Dora took the cup gratefully, then held it without drinking it. Gabby stood next to Dora, drinking hers in silence. Gabby’s bright lipstick left a mouthprint around the cup’s rim. She unconsciously rotated her cup with each sip, leaving a fresh print and transferring all her lipstick from her mouth to the cup. Dora didn’t even taste hers. When Gabby’s cup was empty, and Dora’s stopped leaking heat into her hand, MARIA RN came back in the room.
“You should let her rest now,” she said, in that surprisingly loud voice. Mimi didn’t stir.
Gabby put her hand on Dora’s shoulder. Dora covered it with her own. MARIA RN started straightening Mimi’s already straight sheets, fussing them out of the room. They walked back to the parking lot in silence. When they got to the car, Dora realized that she was still carrying the cold coffee; she carefully poured it out onto the garage floor, where it slicked like some machine effluent, which, she supposed, it was. There wasn’t a garbage can, so she held the empty cup all the way home.
When they walked in the door of the miserably dark and empty house, Gabby made a halfhearted offer of dinner, but neither of them was hungry.
Gabby fussed with her earrings before managing to take them off and dump them in the little dish on the hall table, where they promptly tangled with three other dangly pairs.
“I called Maux today and let her know the store will be closed for a while,” she said.
“Closed?” Dora was confused for a minute. It was as if Gabby had suggested that they burn the place down, then jump up and down on the ashes. “Close the store?” Her throat closed. She swallowed, hard, and refused to acknowledge the tears building up again.
“Yeah—it’s a shame, but with Mimi… Maux’s only part-time, and she has her classes to consider, I couldn’t ask her to take over.” Gabby looked guilty. “I’d do it, of course, but I’ve got three clients scheduled this week. And I never did get the hang of the store.” That was true. Gabby was much in demand as an interior designer, but had never, as she put it, had the “wardrobe knack.” Mimi had started turning down Gabby’s “help” in the store after she had dressed a mannequin in a leather-fringed denim jacket over a bouclé suit, combined with a headscarf and 1980s visor sunglasses. “Lord help us if people start wandering the streets of Forsyth dressed that way, with me to blame,” Mimi said.
Dora tried to remember if Mimi had ever closed the store before. She certainly hadn’t ever done so deliberately. A few years back, the whole block had been closed for two days because of a broken water main, and the police hadn’t let anyone through. Dora had never seen Mimi so angry. She’d come back from an unsuccessful attempt at passing the barricades, untouched plate of cop-bribing brownies thrown down on the counter in disgust. “They can’t keep me out of my own store! And it’s not like I can’t swim,” she had complained. Gabby had murmured something about possible downed power lines and water to a grim-faced Mimi, then retreated in cowardice to her own room. Mimi had spent hours redialing Duke Power’s automated service-information line until Lou from the Hallmark store had finally called and said they’d given everyone the all-clear.
“I’ll do it. I’ll run the store.” Dora sounded more confident than she felt. “Just until Mimi’s better.”
Gabby let that pass. “Honey, what about school?”
“Gabby, I’m all done except for one independent study—I was planning to graduate early, anyway, so even if I have to take an incomplete it won’t really matter.” Dora dismissed all of Lymond with a wave of her hand.
“I don’t know, sweetie. Mimi would hate for you to miss school….”
“It’s not high school, Gabby. There’s no truant officer.”
Dora managed what she hoped Gabby would think was a brave smile, and not a grimace of fear. “Listen, I can handle this. I run that coffee shop at school, right? I can at least make change and keep the doors open. I think knowing the store is still going would help Mimi—and what am I going to do all day, otherwise?”
“Study,” said Gabby firmly. Dora laughed. “You sounded just like Mimi when you said that.”
“But what about that grad-school fellowship thingy you told Mimi about? Don’t you have to study for that?”
“No, not really—and it’s a long shot, anyway. Staying down here and keeping the store open won’t affect that either way.”
“If you say so.” Gabby looked doubtful. “Mimi’s spare store keys are still on the hook in the pantry.”
“I remember. And I’ll call Maux tomorrow, and let her know.” Dora glanced at the hall clock. “It’s too late now, even for Maux.”
“Okay, honey… if you’re sure.”
Gabby gave her a quick, tight hug. “Good night, sweetie. I’ll wake you when I get up.” She looked as if she wanted to say something more, but Dora turned quickly and headed up the stairs.
The fabulous closet held several peignoir sets and a couple pairs of really over-the-top, ludicrous baby-doll PJs, but nothing comfortable enough to actually sleep in. Luckily there were still a few of Dora’s old Forsyth High T-shirts around. She picked the biggest of them as a nightgown, tossing the blue dress to the floor. She lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. She should really hang up the dress, she knew, but, then again, she should also brush her teeth, plug in her laptop and check her email, call some people back at school, let them know she wouldn’t be back for a few days more. She should go online and read up on stroke rehabilitation. She should check her cell phone and see if Gary had called. But she couldn’t bring herself to do any of those things.
Dora left the blue dress crumpled on the floor and fell asleep.
Excerpted from The Secret Lives of Dresses by McKean, Erin Copyright © 2011 by McKean, Erin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Erin McKean is the blogger behind A Dress A Day, the inspiration for this novel. Her writing has been featured in many media outlets from The NY Times Magazine to Foreign Affairs. She currently works as the editor of VERBATIM, and was previously at OUP.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
Mimi was an lady who believed that everything had a purpose and that few things should be thrown away. She manages a vintage clothing store selling old clothes from the 20's and up. Nothing is ever considered out of date or out of style. Each piece of clothing is uniquely designed to fit the wearer and transform them like nothing else could. Mimi met each customer's needs unlike your typical sales person. She believed that her store was not a thrift store. She believed that customers should not feel that they are being sold something less expensive, but selling them something more special. "We have to tell them the story of what we're showing them. And then we have to show them how they can be the new heroine in the story" she would explain to her granddaughter Dora, who spent hours working in the store while doing her homework. As Dora grew and made plans for college, Mimi made sure she had plans for the future. Dora never felt compelled to wear any of the pieces Mimi felt would compliment her. However, when Dora is called home from college to hear that Mimi has suffered a stroke, she believes she has missed out on something special. All these years Mimi has a collection of pieces of clothing she felt were meant to be Dora's and since arriving with no bags packed, she begins to explore every piece that Mimi has so meticulously selected with her in mind. She wishes that Mimi could see her just this once in something more than sweatshirts and jeans. When Dora decides to take over the store til Mimi recovers and in that time discovers a secret that Mimi has created in each dress that she sells. Each one comes with a timeless story that upon reading will transform the lady wearing it and show her that she truly is something special. I received the beautiful classic novel, The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean, for my honest review from Hachette Book Groups, and fell in love in a completely different way. This novel is a must read and will change the way you see ordinary things in your daily life. This one is a 5 out of 5 stars hands down! No longer when I dress will I be wearing clothes but each piece tells the story of the life they have witnessed being worn by someone special. Each has a story to tell. What does yours say?
I love this book. The characters are well-developed and interesting. The story is enjoyable and I love the idea of the "secret lives" of the dresses. Love it! Reading the secret lives is the best part!
This is a gem of a book. Good book for a rainy day, easy to get engrossed in. Such a creative idea. I look forward to more by this author.
Interesting book and concept. I like the characters and was impressed with the different style of writing when the dresses "spoke". Will look for more from this author!
I had fairly high expectations for this book that weren't really met. The first 50 pgs were very hard to get through because there were lots of unnecessary details everywhere. After that, it was an ok story,but moved slowly. Many flashbacks rather than present day scenes caused confusion. Erin McKean had good intentions and the idea had great potential, but for me the quality didn't meet this potential. It didn't really stand out to me and I wouldn't recommend it.
While this will undoubtedly be compared to 'A Vintage Affair'--and the novels certainly share similarities--this rather light, breeze of a read does stack up nicely with that other well-written title. McKean has fashioned appealing major characters and a rather convincing 'young college graduate unsure what to with her life' scenario. My only complaints are that the actual 'lives' of the dresses--interspersed throughout the story--are not always interesting or attention-grabbing. At times those stories are so tragic (or sordid) quite honestly, I don't know that I would want the accompanying dress! What would have been nice is more of the relationship with Mimi: we get some but really fleshing that out would have been better. Overall, an easy, afternoon read--good for a diversion--and dreams of couture clothing.
You won't look at your wardrobe the same way again. While the plot and characters are as predictable as a Hallmark channel movie, the book does help change the reader's view of the world just a little. Vintage dresses in the book tell their own stories about the women who have worn them. It is a charming variation on the old saw "if the walls had ears".
I enjoyed the book and loved the concept. I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more on Dora's family and grandmother - their pasts were limited and yet they all played a part in Dora's character. I will never look at dresses the same and really want to consider my own wardrobe.
Truly charming story. Sweet and engaging.
This book was surprisingly good. It was a quick read, however had some depth to it. My only complaint is that it could have been a little longer so the reader could see the main character attach herself more to the people she meets along the way. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good book.
Dora was brought up by her grandmother, Mimi, after losing her parents when she was a child. After graduating high school she just seemed to be going through the motions, she attends the college that offered her a scholarship with a major of liberal studies, unsure of what she truly wanted to do in the future. Her planned summer job falls through, but then a job at a coffee shop with a hunky boss just falls into her lap. She is thinking of graduating early and attending grad school, but still is moving through life just day to day. Then she receives a call, she has to return back home, her grandmother has suffered a stroke. Dora drops everything and returns to Forsyth, North Carolina with just the clothes on her back. This is't a problem though because she has a full closet at her grandmother's house, but it not your typical closet full of clothes, the closet is full of vintage dresses. Mimi runs a vintage dress shop and she has always brought home dresses she thinks would look great on Dora. As a child Dora played "dress up" with these clothes, but now with Mimi in the hospital, Dora must take over things at the dress shop and Mimi requires employees of the shop wear vintage clothing so she gets to wear the dresses out in public. Dora had been brought up being taught that a vintage dress can life a woman's spirit no matter the problem. While working at the store she meets Mimi's friends and selfish relatives seem to appear out of the woodwork. But the best thing about working at the store was learning that some of the dresses came complete with their own story. Mimi had been writing the stories and giving them away to the customer who purchased the corresponding dress. This story had me running through the gambit of emotions, joy, sadness, hope, excitement, anger, amusement and even envy. This book is truly minor stories, those of the dresses, interspersed within the main story of Dora's life. She grows from an immature girl flying through life "by the seat of her pants", to a wonderful confident woman and we get the pleasure of tagging along through the pages of this brilliantly written book. It is hard to believe this is the author's first novel. I haven't ever heard of the idea set forth in this book of a garment's history whether fictional or true following simple dresses around. You only see a snippet of that in museums of dresses worn my famous people and those stories basically don't go beyond, who wore it, who designed it and where was it worn. I bet after reading this book vintage shop owners will try to copy the idea, but it will take some special creative writing skills to pull off the level set by this story and the unique way that it started will be impossible to duplicate. Have some tissues handy while ready both for tears of laughter and tears of melancholy. There is romance, friendship, greedy relatives and even a little suspense. Fans of small town or woman's fiction will love this book. I really did. Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free Hachette Book Group. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255 : "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonia
Dora Winston majors in "vagueness studies", which means in this case aimless time and space. She is attracted to her grad student boss at the coffee shop, but he ignores her outrageous flirting. However, when a hospital informs Dora that her beloved grandma Mimi, who raised her, suffered a stroke, Dora returns home to Forsyth, North Carolina to be with her. Dora also takes over running Mimi's vintage clothing boutique while her grandma heals. The two employees Gabby and Maux prove very helpful, but it is finding tidbits of Mimi's life that excites Dora especially the stories about the dresses in the store. When Dora and Conrad, the contractor renovating the apartments above the store, meet, they find they are attracted to one another. The three wise women are wonderful eccentric characters with much of what Dora and the readers learn of Mimi come from her dress tales. Conrad is fully developed too, but in some ways feels more like a genre requirement because the coming of age heroine needs a male lead. Like the rest of Dora's journey from vague nothingness to relational enlightenment, the trek lacks evil witches and flying monkeys, but is still fun to accompany the amusing threesome guide the heroine down her yellow brick road. Harriet Klausner
This sweet book has intriguing characters and good plot. It is an easy fun read. Perfect for relaxation.
A well written tale about finding your identity - and the twists and turns that go along with growing as a person.
Beautiful story and love how it all came together at the end. Highly recommend.
Enjoyed all of it, especially the dress stories. Easy and sweet read.
This was a snoozer. I finally flipped to the back to solve the "mystery" of the letter writer. I truly do not get the good reviews. There just wasn't much plot nor character development.
Loved this book.
This was an absolutely wonderful book! I loved the characters, and I could relate to them so much. Even though some parts were sad, it was a great read with lots of comfort and good advice. I don't like reading something more than once, but I'd love to read it again. I'm so glad that I read this book! Love, love, LOVED it!
I loved this book. And since I personally own and have read more than 5000 books that is saying something. The characters were real and effortless, the plot beautiful, and the writing clean and perfect. Dora is someone I would like to know. Please write another novel soon!