Suck it in. Come on, suck it in.”
“My stomach is on the other side of my spine,” Hope wheezed, barely enough air in her lungs to finish the sentence. Becca tugged and jiggled the zipper while trying to maintain a smile for the crowd of elderly residents who’d gathered around for the fitting. Normally Hope would be leading them into the bingo hall, but today was different. Special. There was a certain excitement on all the faces of those who’d managed to stay conscious.
“Are you sure you gave them the right measurements?” Hope whispered to Becca.
“Are you sure you haven’t been eating cheese? Or Popsicles? Both?”
Then, with one final tug, the zipper slid up the teeth and the dress closed. Hope let out the breath she was holding, her stomach
pooching a little. She prayed she wouldn’t blow the seams out.
She turned and smiled for her seamstresses, every one of which was in a wheelchair or held steady by a walker.
“Oh, honey!” Mrs. Teasley gasped. “It looks beautiful. You’re stunning!”
Miss Gertie, who had worked as a seamstress her whole life, wheeled closer. “Did you notice the hem, Hope? It’s done the old-fashioned way. These days, nobody takes time on the hem, rushing through it as if it doesn’t matter. It is the most important part!”
“Miss Gertie, it’s perfect.” Hope whirled around, glancing in the mirror they’d brought out for her. She’d been hesitant when the nursing-home gang offered to make her dress. But she was barely making over minimum wage here, and her mother certainly didn’t have any money to help. It had been a gamble, and for once, she won.
Mr. Collins’s hearing aid went off, sounding like a dying fire alarm. “Mr. Collins!” Hope tapped on her ear to let him know. She twirled again, her fingers sweeping over the hand-stitched pearls and the lace on the sleeves.
“Sam will love me no matter what I look like,” she said to Becca. “But I look awfully good, don’t I?”
Becca clapped. Miss Gertie wheeled even closer to Hope. “I’m so glad this is your last day.”
Hope laughed. “I know you mean that in the nicest way.”
“You’re too good for this place. You’ve got to go out in this world, make a name for yourself!”
That was the plan, to flee Poughkeepsie and move to New York City with Sam right after the wedding. She’d dreamed of it her whole life, and it was almost here. She glanced at Miss Gertie and Mrs. Teasley, both of whom had their hands clasped together, pure delight shining in their eyes.
Hope leaned in for hugs. “I’m going to miss you both.”
Miss Gertie sat up a little straighter in her chair. “Listen, we need to talk.”
“I know this may come as a startle, but when you get married,
you’re going to have duties.”
It was something about the way she said duties under her breath that made Hope realize Miss Gertie wasn’t talking about vacuuming. “We don’t really need . . . we don’t have to talk . . .”
“Doesn’t take long, dearie.” Mrs. Teasley patted her hand. “Just endure it.”
“I bet she’ll be pregnant by Christmas!” Miss Gertie said to the room full of hearing aids. At the word pregnant seven of the ten ladies woke to attention. Ms. Cane was looking at her own belly.
A hot flush crept up Hope’s neck. “Miss Gertie, really, it’s okay—”
Suddenly Mr. Snow shuffled in, moving faster than anyone on a walker should. His bright white hair was blown back and he leaned way forward on his walker, making him look like he was fighting a stiff north wind. Hope knew he was looking for her but probably wasn’t recognizing her in the long, white dress.
“Mr. Snow, over here!”
“Ah! There you are. Didn’t see you.” He shuffled her way, smiling, his always-clean dentures sparkling under the fluorescent
lights. He let go of his walker, which normally didn’t turn out well for him, and grabbed her hand as he wobbled. “I’m going to miss you, Hopeful.”
“I’m going to miss you too, Snowball.”
He reached into the small bag that hung off the side of his walker and pulled out a card. “I couldn’t let you leave without giving you a card to rewrite.”
Hope read it aloud. “‘There are five stages of grief.’” Hope looked at Mr. Snow.
“I’m sorry. Who died?”
“My cousin, Burt. He was one hundred and three years old and wanted to die two decades ago.”
“Ah.” Hope opened the card. “‘Let the Lord help you with each stage, one step at a time.’”
Mr. Snow took out a pen from his bag and handed it to her. Hope thought for a moment, then scratched out the fancy italics, wrote beside them, then handed the card back to Mr. Snow. He slid his reading glasses on. “‘There are five stages of grief.’” His shaky hand opened the card. “‘You’ve been in denial for a while. Can I help you move on to anger?’”
The room was suddenly quiet. Hope fidgeted . . . too snarky? Too insensitive?
Then Mr. Snow threw his head back and laughed. Everyone else joined in and soon the room was filled with chuckles. Mr. Snow slapped her on the back. “Good one.”
Becca looked at her. “We’re going to have to go soon.”
Hope nodded. She knew it was time to say her good-byes. One by one, she bent down to hug each person, careful to avoid any mishaps with the dress. Some of them hugged back. Some of them didn’t. But they all knew she loved them.
She made her way to Miss Gertie and knelt by her wheelchair. “Will you make sure my grandmother’s fresh flower arrives every day?”
“Only if, when you find that job making your own greeting cards, you send me a new card every day. They sure do make me giggle.”
Becca tapped her watch. “We’ve got about forty more things to do today.”
“Just a few more minutes.” Hope hiked her dress up to her shins, headed down Wing Two. She smiled and nodded at all the familiar faces: Mr. Speigel, a once-successful CEO for a large bank, who hadn’t had a single visitor in the last four years; Aunt Jackie, as she liked to be called, who suffered a stroke in September and lost the ability to move any muscles in her face—but there was life in those green eyes of hers; Old Benny, once a major-league baseball player, now with amputations at both knees because of diabetes. He lost his sight and his mind back in ’08.
The door to Hope’s grandmother’s room was open, like always. Two towels were tossed on the floor. Hope dutifully stooped to pick them up and throw them in the hamper. Her grandmother sat by the window, staring out at nothing more than an empty lot washed in hazy sunlight, twirling a Columbine flower in her hand.
Hope scooped up tissues, flattened the silky bedspread, fluffed the pillows, wiped clean the sink, and replaced the tissue box. Five cards lined the same table that held the tissues. Ten more sat across Grandmother’s nightstand, and another ten on the cabinet. There were weeks when Hope wrote a card a day and brought them to her grandmother’s room. Sometimes they didn’t move, other times her grandmother would give them away or, when she was more lucid, mail them. Mostly they just sat with all the others, simply signed Hope. A glance at one of the wittier lines she wrote caused her to laugh, and her grandmother looked her way.
“Thank you, young lady.” Her grandmother’s smile, though feeble, was gentle and genuine. She didn’t seem to take notice of the long, white dress Hope wore.
Hope stooped by her wheelchair. “Grandma, it’s me.”
“I wanted you to see me in my dress. It’s finally happening. This weekend.”
“I wish you could be there, but I know you’ll be there in your heart.”
“Did I tell you that Sam is writing me a song? I probably did. He’s been writing it for a long time. I thought he was going to have it ready at Christmas, but he said he needed a little more time. He hasn’t said it, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to debut it at the wedding. I heard he’s been inquiring about getting a grand piano into the church.” The thought made her smile. She’d been dying to hear the song, imagining it over and over in her head. “So, Grandma, Sam and I are moving to New York City. That’s right. I’m finally getting out of Poughkeepsie, just like you always wanted.” Hope paused, searching the elderly woman’s eyes. She laughed at the memory of her grandmother, before she lost her mind, trying to talk her into some boy from Hope’s school days. “I have a feeling about him,” she would say.
But Grandma also always wanted bigger and better for Hope, and everyone knew bigger and better was not to be found in Poughkeepsie. The name itself implied its own identity crisis. Few knew how to even pronounce the name and those in the know disagreed as to whether it was puh or poo or poe. The kips-see was generally acknowledged by all as the proper way to end the word, but then there was the question as to whether Poughkeepsie was upstate or downstate. Also in question was the matter of the town and the city. For no reason anyone could identify, Poughkeepsie was split into the Town of Poughkeepsie and the City of Poughkeepsie. The town boasted enormous houses and even larger taxes. The city had low taxes and lower housing.
To grow up in the Spackenkill District was to go to its privileged high school, where lockers didn’t even need locks. Hope did not live near nor even infrequently visit that district, but overall Poughkeepsie was a decent place to grow up, with a glorious view of the Hudson at dusk. The smog did wonders for the color spectrum. It was home to Vassar College and the Culinary Institute of America and city-dwellers were flocking to Poughkeepsie, pushing the population over thirty-five thousand.
She looked out the window her grandmother stared out of every day. It was a colorless view of warehouses and smokestacks. Her grandmother was born and raised here and as far as Hope was concerned, she was Poughkeepsie’s shining star. But eleven major-league baseball players also hailed from Poughkeepsie, as did professional poker player Hevad Khan and the inventor of Scrabble, Alfred Mosher Butts, who sold his invention to entrepreneur James Brunot. Brunot renamed it Scrabble, from the Dutch word scrabben, meaning “to grope frantically, to scrape or scratch.”
It was that word, scrabble, that defined what Hope always felt about this city and her place in it. The word pointed her toward the escape chute, so to speak. She always felt, someday, she would make a disorderly haste straight out of this town, clambering and scraping and climbing her way to freedom.
Ironically, or perhaps not, the word was also used to mean the act or instance of scribbling or doodling and that . . . that . . . was her ticket out of Poughkeepsie. Simple doodling would set her free.
That, and Sam.
She turned to her grandmother, stroked her knobby shoulder with the back of her hand. “I won’t be able to see you every day.”
“But the ladies will make sure you always have a new flower. And Mom will of course come by to see you.” Tears stung Hope’s eyes as she looked into her grandmother’s bright blue gaze, twinkling
with a life Grandma no longer remembered. Hope knew—her grandmother loved this dress. Would love the wedding day if she could go, and would love Sam if she could ever know him.
A soft knock came at the door. “Hope, we have to get to the church,” Becca said.
Hope squeezed the hand that didn’t have the flower. “I will send you a card as soon as I get to New York City, okay?” She stood and kissed her on the cheek, which smelled like baby lotion. “I love you,” Hope whispered into her ear.