Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Gold Dress

Issa found a beautiful gold dress, with pearl beads and silver thread, on the rack at Salvation Army. Twenty dollars was much too much for a dress, she knew, and it wasn’t in the budget, but she fingered its silky sleeve for so long that her mother added it to the cart when she wasn’t looking, and went without new hose and some other necessities, because Issa had been such a help, never asking for anything, and she deserved nice things. Hannah and Dore had had so many nice things in their childhood, and Issa relatively few.

She wore her dress to school, because, as her mother pointed out, where else would she wear it? They didn’t go to church, or parties. They didn’t have extended family gatherings. She didn’t wear it to impress anyone. She just liked to feel pretty once in a while. Even poor girls from broken families living in tiny apartments could feel pretty, some days.

“Did Jenny’s mom give you that?” Susan had asked first thing, even before the bell rang.

Issa didn’t understand. Jenny was the most popular girl in the fifth grade, and Issa was only a regular third-grader. She shrugged, and kept shrugging at the whispers all morning.

“Oh, my god!” someone screamed in the lunch line. “You really are wearing my dress! That is too funny.”

Jenny stood right behind her, glamorous in skinny jeans and a sequined T-shirt.

“My mom bought me this dress,” Issa said, her mouth small and quiet.

“Yeah, after my mom gave it to charity!” There was laughter, sharp and cutting. "It cost two hundred dollars new. What did you pay? Twenty-five cents?"

“There’s nothing wrong with being poor,” a fourth grade boy said. Issa smiled up at him. He looked strong.

“Nothing at all,” said Jenny. “Especially when people deserve to be poor. Like, say someone’s dad was a liar and a thief and stole everyone’s money. Then a person deserves to be poor. There’s nothing wrong with Issa wearing my old dress after her dad took practically everyone’s retirement fun and ran away to the Bahamas. I think someone who takes an old lady’s whole savings probably should wear second-hand clothes, especially when that old lady lost her house and everything and had to move in with her son.”

Issa gulped. Her father had done something wrong. Hannah and Dore had made that clear, but her father was long gone. Issa and her mom had moved on. She smoothed the beautiful gold dress over her hips and picked up her tray.

“You get free lunch, don’t you?” Jenny said. “I guess my family bought that for you, too. ‘Cause we pay taxes. Unlike your dad.”

“Maybe we should take her dress back,” a girl said. “To repay you.”

Jenny laughed. “Who wants it now?”

Issa was already halfway to the door, blinking through the wet curtain over her eyes. The fourth grade boy stopped her. “It’s a pretty dress, Issa,” he said. “It looks way prettier on you than it did on Jenny. I once saw her punch a first-grader when she was wearing that dress.”

“I don’t even know my father,” Issa wailed.