The Funeral Dress

 

Emmalee Bullard became a Tennewa girl on the last Thursday in May.  She woke early that morning, like always, in the back of a two-room house squeezed in tight at the foot of Pine Mountain.  But today, she’d slipped away beneath the oaks and cedars without waking her father.

A steady line of cars pulled into the Tennewa parking lot, and women, mixed in conversations, spilled out of each automobile and herded past her.  They giggled and pushed against one another as they funneled inside the one-story building, not noticing the willowy teenager lingering behind them.  Standing on the rough asphalt drive outside the shirt factory, Emmalee listened to the hum rolling from the building’s open doors as it swelled and deepened.  The sound coursed through her body and lured Emmalee closer.

The shift bell rang.  Emmalee climbed the concrete steps leading to the sewing room and slid onto the factory’s floor, hugging the wall like a shadow skimming along smooth and silent.  A dozen fans spinning from the whitewashed ceiling provided the only relief from the thick morning air.  Fluorescent bulbs cast an artificial glow about the room, and the hardwood flooring, its patina burnished with age, sparkled beneath the light.  High-set windows spanned both sides of the building, but most of the panes had been painted gray.

Heavyset women with thick, flabby arms and weathered skin sat in perfect rows next to younger girls with slender frames and long hair clipped behind their heads.  Concentrating on the fabric streaming through their hands, they looked almost dwarfed in the large space.  Their bodies nearly touched as they hunched in front of their machines, trying to make ends meet with every single stitch.

 

Susan Gregg Gilmore