The Girl in the White Dress

 

 

The Girl in the White Dress

By Cathleen Armstrong

 

 “Where ya’ll from?” Les Watson spun around on his counter stool at the Dip ‘n’ Dine and spoke to the couple sitting in a booth by the window.

“Lubbock.” The man smiled briefly before returning his attention to his enchiladas. The woman across from him didn’t look up.

“Just passing through, I bet. No one I know is expecting company.”

“That’s right.” This time the smile was even briefer.

“Well, I hope you get where you’re going before nightfall.” He gestured with his chin at the dark, heavy clouds outside just as a gust of wind sandblasted the window. “That wind is really picking up, and Halloween night is no time to be out on a lonely road in the dark. You never know what might be out there waiting for you.”

“For Pete’s sake, Les. Let these poor people eat their lunch in peace.” Juanita walked past him with the iced tea pitcher and crossed to the window booth. “Don’t mind Les. He’s harmless enough, even if he can talk the hind leg off a dog.”

“He’s all right.” The man smiled again and sat back so Juanita could fill his glass.

“‘Course, here in Last Chance, it’s not Halloween that we worry about. Our story took place right in the middle of summer, in broad daylight, too.” Les rested his elbows on the counter behind him and leaned back.

“Les, I asked you to leave these folks alone. And don’t go dragging up that old story, either. You know there’s not a word of truth in it.” Juanita refilled Les’s glass while she was at it.

“I know no such thing, Miss Know-it-all, and neither do you. Now, if you’d just get me a donut out of the pie safe, I’d appreciate it. I see one with chocolate icing and sprinkles. Bring me that one.”

Juanita sighed and went for the donut. “Just leave it be, Les.”

He ignored her. “Yep, you don’t need a cold gray day like this one for a good story.”

“Okay. I’ll bite.” The man in the window booth put his fork down. Even the woman across from him looked up. “What happened?”

“Well, sir, it happened like this, or so they say. It was before my time, don’t you know. You see, in the old days, the biggest deal of the whole year in Last Chance was Pioneer Days. They always held it the first weekend in August, celebrating the founding of the town by Big John Cooley in 1874. They’d hold a parade right down Main street with Miss Last Chance waving at everyone from up on her perch. After that there was a rodeo and a stock show at the barns over at the high school. Then there was a pie-judging and eating contest, and a barbecue, and then they’d top the whole thing off with big old square dance on Saturday night. Anyone who was ever a part of Last Chance tried to get home for Pioneer Days, and it sometimes even drew a few strangers as well.

For probably fifteen or so years after Pioneer Days got started back in the twenties, one Pioneer Days was pretty much like the one before it. And that suited everyone just fine. After all, when you get something just the way you want it, why change it? But one day, something did change. Not so’s you’d notice it right off, of course, but later when they looked back on it, there was this kind of unease, like something just didn’t set just right, but you couldn’t put your finger on it.

It started simple enough. It was during Pioneer Days in 1938, Saturday, after the parade was over but before the rodeo got started that a dusty black Ford drove into town from the north and stopped long enough for a passenger to get out before it headed south out of town.

She stood there in a white dress holding her little suitcase in one hand for a few minutes, so they say, shading her eyes with her the other before she picked her way through the dusty street to the drugstore. Of course, by the time she got there, there were four or five of Last Chance’s best lookin’ young cowboys fighting each other to get the door open for her. She smiled up at them and breezed right past into the store and sat down at the counter where she ordered a limeade.

Of course, everyone—and not just the boys—wondered who she was and why she came to Last Chance. In those days, roads were real bad in that this part of the state and travel wasn’t easy. Strangers just didn’t turn up that often then, not even during Pioneer Days. She turned out to be real friendly, even if she did look just like a movie star, and said she had come back home for Pioneer Days. Her family had been one of the early families to settle in Last Chance, and although they had left after a few years, she had always wanted to come see the place.

The old folks remembered hearing about her family, but none could agree on what they heard. Some said drouth drove them out. Some said the old man just had an itchy foot and couldn’t stay in one place very long. Some said there was something else, though, something gone wrong, but they couldn’t for the life of them remember what it was. The funny thing was, none of those old folks smiled as they tried to recollect what it was they had heard. And they didn’t smile when they met the girl, either.

She did, though. She smiled at everyone. And most everyone smiled back, at least at first. It was the girls that pulled away first. Probably because all the boys, boys who they’d had an agreement with since seventh grade, were cutting the fool like a bunch of nine-year-olds walking a fence. Then the old women always had something else to do when she came around.

Finally, Pioneer Days were over, and she disappeared just like she turned up. The boys had no choice but to try to make up with the girls. And you can bet the girls made them pay for their misdeeds, too. Oh, one of the boys left town a few months later, but that happened occasionally. Times were hard and jobs were few. The difference with this one was, no one from Last Chance ever heard from him again. Not his mama, not his girl, no one. It was as if he had plain dropped off the face of the earth.

Life in Last Chance got back to normal, but the next August, wouldn’t you know, here she came again. The same old dusty black Ford drove into town from the north, stopped and then drove south out of town again. And there she stood in the ruts of Main Street, wearing white, looking like she just stepped out of a band box.

This time her reception was a little cooler, especially from the girls, but she was as sweet and friendly as ever. She just said she felt so much at home last year that she had to come back. Later on that year, a few of the boys left town. That wasn’t too surprising in itself. This was the heart of the Great Depression, remember. Jobs were hard to come by anywhere, and in Last Chance, they just didn’t exist. And most of them wrote home occasionally and sent a few dollars when they could. Only one disappeared as if the wide world outside Last Chance had swallowed him whole.

This pattern continued for the next few years. The girl in white would turn up for Pioneer Days, just as pretty and friendly as she could be, and a few months later, some boy would disappear without a trace. I suppose it’s not too surprising that no one connected the two. Pioneer Days took place in the summer, and the boys all left sometime in late fall. And it’s not as if the boys fell all over themselves to get next to her like they did that first summer; they learned better than that right quick. But it did get to where any time some boy talked about leaving to find work, his mama would go to crying and all but lock him in the root cellar. Somehow, though, someone always left, and no one ever heard from him again.

It was about ten years after her first visit that people began to think there was something uncommonly strange about the girl in white, other than the fact she just turned up every year. She didn’t seem to change. Not a whit.

Those girls she made so mad that first summer were all wives and mothers by then. And life in Last Chance was just as hard for the women as for the men. There were a whole lot more galvanized tubs and washboards back then than there washing machines, and more than a few got their water from a pump out the back door. Their hands were rough, their waists were thickened from childbearing, and lye soap with vinegar rinse had left their hair clean, but that was about all you could say for it. But the girl in white still looked about nineteen. Her hands were white and smooth with rosy-pink nails, her face didn’t show one single line or freckle, and her tiny waist left more than one young man wondering if he couldn’t span it with both his hands. And she was always smiling that sweet smile.

Chalk it up to paint, powder, and never having to do a lick of work, if you want to. That’s what the women of Last Chance did—as long as they could make themselves believe it—but after fifteen years of her turning up and never so much as changing her hair-do, people began to feel kind of chill when she went by. Mothers warned their growing boys to stay as far away from her as they could get. But that never did any good. Those boys followed her with their eyes when their mamas were around, and just plain followed her when they could get away with it. And every year, somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, another of them would just fall off the face of the earth.

I don’t know why it took so long for someone to look into who her people were, and why they had left Last Chance in the first place. I suppose it was because people in Last Chance just tend to mind their own business, but finally a woman whose son had begun talking about leaving town after the harvest for work in the city took herself up to San Ramon and parked herself in the archive room of the newspaper and started going through back issues.

The paper didn’t even get started until about 1904, so that’s where she started. Fortunately for her, the paper only put out one issue every two weeks in those days, or she might still be there. But she found what she was looking for in the December 14, 1906 issue. Reading it made the hair on her arms stand up, and she got so swimmy-headed she had to grab the edge of the desk with both hands and take deep breaths till she got control again. Then, checking over her shoulder to see if anyone was watching, she pulled her embroidery scissors out of her pocketbook and carefully clipped the article before closing the big books, thanking the lady at the front desk, and hurrying to her car. This is what the article said:

 

Harriet Adams of Last Chance, age eighteen, filed complaint

against several young men of that town, saying they had taken

her against her will into the desert on the night of December 8

where she was mistreated by them for several hours before they

left her to find her own way home. The youths, when questioned,

vehemently denied her account. They admitted to going into the

desert that evening for a cook-out, but claimed they never saw Miss

Adams. As Miss Adams is known by her fellow townsmen to have a

less than spotless reputation regarding both truthfulness and virtue,

and as the accused were well known to the community and of good

families, the complaint was dismissed.

 

Well, you can imagine that woman, along with every other mama in town, told her son he was going nowhere, if she had to chain him to his bedframe. And you can imagine how she reacted that morning between Thanksgiving and Christmas when she went to his room and he was gone. She never did get over it and spent the rest of her life sitting in a rocker on her front porch humming to herself and looking down the road.

That next August, though, when that same dusty, black Ford rolled into town from the north, the men of Last Chance were waiting for it, all carrying their rifles and shotguns. She put one long leg out of the car and they told her to stop where she was, get back in, and keep right on going. They say she started laughing then. Not that sweet laugh that sounded like birdsong or water running over rocks in a little creek, but mean, and harsh, and loud, and she looked in every one of their faces while she did. But she did get back in the car, and it left, heading south as always.

That was the last anyone saw of the girl in white, and the last time anyone left town without a trace, too. Well, I guess that’s not quite true. A few have gone and not looked back, but everyone knew why they left, and most thought it was a good idea. But no one ever just up and disappeared.

Pioneer Days sort of dwindled away after that, like no one had the heart to do all the work to make it happen, and after a few years had gone by and everyone really believed the girl in white was gone for good, they more or less forgot about her, too. Except when they walked past that one boy’s house, the one where his mama just sat on her porch looking down the road. Then they remembered.”

Les stopped talking and took a sip of his coffee. Juanita broke the silence that fell on the Dip ‘n’ Dine.

“Folks, I’m just as sorry as I can be that you had to listen to that old man go on.” She put the ticket on the table by the window, even though the plates hadn’t been touched since Les started talking. “And believe me, nothing like what he said ever happened. Not in Last Chance.”

“Suit yourself.” Les stuffed the last bite of donut in his mouth. “You know everything.”

“I mean, seriously, you told what was on that newspaper clipping like you were reading it. How would you know what it said? You just made it up and you know it.”

“Well, Juanita, maybe I’ve read it a few times.” He opened his wallet and gently removed a small, brittle newspaper clipping so yellowed it was almost brown. “All my life everyone knew my Granny wasn’t quite right. My mama said she was just waiting for her boy to come home. I just assumed he was lost in the war but after Granny died, I found this tucked in her Bible.”

“Let me see that.” Juanita reached for the scrap.

“No, no.” Les held it out of her reach. “It’s about to crumble to dust now. Passing it around will ruin it for sure.”

“For Pete’s sake, Les, you know that’s just some little old thing that caught your Grandma’s eye. Results of a flower show or a recipe or something. You’d let me see it if it was what you said.”

“Suit yourself,” Les said again, returning the clipping to his wallet.

Les let the silence sit in the Dip ‘n’ Dine for a second or two and then slapped the counter with the palm of his hand. The couple at the table by the window jumped.

“Well, I’d love to sit here and chat with ya’ll some more, but I’ve got to get going. I promised Evelyn I’d get on up to San Ramon and buy some candy for the kiddos who’ll be coming by later. Trick or Treat, don’t you know.” He placed a bill on the counter under is coffee cup and stood up. “Thanks for the donut, Juanita. It was nice and fresh.”

The wind caught the front door as Les opened it and blasted its way inside. He tugged it closed behind him and stood just outside, turning his collar up with one hand and clamping his hat to his head with the other. They watched as he bowed into the wind and made his way to his beat-up old pickup, climbed inside, and slowly pulled out of the parking lot, heading toward San Ramon.