The woman in the blue dress appears to move in slow motion, the crowd blurring around her. Her sensible but still flattering pumps, in a shade that precisely matches that of the dress, follow a straight path across the pavement.
Scratch that. Mary doubts Churchill Downs would expect people to walk on bare asphalt and imagines it must be carpet, then quickly dismisses the idea and settles on Astroturf. Yes, that’s it, the rich, felt-like turf of an upscale mini-putt.
Mary imagines she can hear the hollow clump of those sturdy heels against the green surface but the overly excited announcer is the only thing she really does hear from the tinny little speaker on her twenty-plus year old console RCA. Still, Mary manages to tune him out and focus on the steady beat of the woman’s footfalls, watching the silk of her skirt swing in time.
Mary ran for class president when she was in high school but didn’t win. In college, she auditioned for the lead in the annual musical, every year for four years, but never got it, discovering a talent for costume design instead. After graduating thirty-second in her class, she applied for fifteen different versions of her dream job, interviewed for four, but received no offers. After landing in retail, she has finally worked her way up to Junior Buyer for women’s fashion at the fourth largest discount chain in the region. But her job has little to do with its title — calling what they sell ‘fashion’ is a stretch and she doesn’t actually get to ‘buy’ anything but her boss’s morning Starbucks. “I’ll get ya later,” her boss always says. And every day, Mary chokes on almost four dollars for a latte she can’t afford to drink.
The announcer is back on screen, droning on about trainers, jockeys, and bloodlines and Mary aches for another crowd shot. The blue dress caught her eye the instant it appeared, sending her headlong over the coffee table in her rush to press the ‘Record’ button on the ancient VCR. The extravagance of her fifty dollar bet on the aptly-named Super Saver forgotten, she settled her no-longer-firm butt onto the carpet and hugged her knees to her chest, studying the hue of the dress intently.
She knows that colour but has trouble placing it. Hyacinth maybe, but the thought fills Mary’s head with a cloying, old-lady scent that threatens to induce vomiting. She shifts her focus to the hat and notices that, like the shoes, it matches perfectly, its wide brim wrapped in a swath of iridescent organza, finished with a tasteful feather and a small spray of flowers. She imagines chicory, violets, bluebells — and it hits her. She does know that colour and she knows it well — periwinkle.
Mary grows periwinkles in the small garden in front of her trailer. She chose them in 1990, twenty years ago now, mostly because they cover the ground with minimal effort, but the colour of those pretty little flowers delights and astounds her still.
The trailer itself is tiny, less than six hundred square feet, consisting of a bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen, and — the pièce de résistance for Mary — the closest thing to a formal dining room you’ll ever hope to find in a ‘mobile home’. A place to sew, she’d thought at the time, though her grandmother’s Singer sits idle in the corner, covered with an old percale sheet.
Mary bought the place for ten thousand dollars in 1989, when it was already fifteen years old. Her mortgage payments were two hundred and twenty five dollars a month for four years and even with cost of the leased pad in the trailer park, it was cheaper than rent. Even though she paid it off ages ago, the fact holds no pride — the word ‘homeowner’ sticks in her throat and makes her cheeks burn and her eyes water. For all it’s worth, she might as well be living in a used car.
The camera cuts back to the crowd and the woman in the blue dress is still there. Mary watches her weave her way through and around clumps of beautiful people, impeccably dressed, all holding glasses of champagne or some kind of cocktail with sprigs of green floating on top. Some carry umbrellas against the rain that may start again at any moment. The woman stops to speak to a man in a crisp, white button-down, the arms of a butter-yellow sweater knotted across a broad chest.
In the deep V of the dress’s back, Mary notes the woman’s impossibly erect posture and the expensive gloss of dark curls as they bounce between porcelain shoulder blades marred only by a single black mole. Mary flexes her own hunched back and runs a hand through the burnt straw of her over-processed hair, the result of the effort involved in turning red to blonde.
During a commercial break, Mary dashes to the kitchen. She stands in the middle of the floor remembering her high school Home Economics lesson on the efficiency of the perfect ‘work triangle’ — something every homemaker should aspire to and something Mary was conscious of when she bought the place — sink, stove, refrigerator. Her triangle is equilateral, only two feet on each side. She could stir something on the stove, turn the faucet, and kick the fridge door closed all at the same time if she wanted to. If she ever decided to cook again.
She grabs a can of Bud Light from the otherwise empty fridge and heads back toward the living room. Pulling the pop-top, she stops for a moment, goes back to the kitchen and takes a glass from the cupboard. A little class for Derby day, she thinks, in anticipation of Super Saver’s eight-to-one pay out for the win. She pours the beer and settles back onto the carpet in front of the TV.
The commercials end and we return to our regularly scheduled program, the camera still focused on pre-Derby festivities. The woman is there, turned slightly so Mary can see an angled view of the front of the dress. She can tell the neck is a V, like the back, though not as deep. She sips her beer and calculates the dimensions, noting that the exposed curve of the woman’s breast is neither too much nor too little. A large clutch in the same shade of blue hides the woman’s midriff and against the purse, Mary notices an unexpected clash of color. The woman’s left hand, ivory against periwinkle, appears wounded by a flash of brilliant green — a very large emerald solitaire.
When Mary’s fiancé left, he told her to keep the ring. “It’s the least I can do,” he said. Mary thought later that an emerald engagement ring should have been her first clue. No one, not even a thirty-five year old freckled redhead, deserves less than a diamond. Even a tiny diamond would have been better than an emerald — as if the preciousness of the stone were a measure of the sincerity of the proposal. She put the ring in a Ziploc sandwich bag and stuffed it to the bottom of her underwear drawer.
She wept for the first week, then spent the next sending notes to the guest list. “I regret to inform you…” It sounded like someone had died but Mary couldn’t be bothered to think of another way to say it. Besides, deep down, she found it appropriate. A month later, she went on the non-refundable honeymoon, sat next to an empty seat on the plane, stayed drunk for seven days on a poolside lounge chair somewhere in Mexico and never saw the beach, never even got wet.
With an awkward segue, the announcer hands off to a taped interview — a jockey in purple and orange silks — interspersed with shots of skittish horses approaching the starting gate. Mary presses the ‘Stop’ button on the VCR, then ‘Rewind,’ and spends the rest of the day drinking Bud from a glass and watching the woman in the blue dress. At some point, she spends almost an hour hunting down a sketchpad and pencils and begins drawing details, taking notes. She shortens and straightens the woman’s hair and widens her behind. The woman’s perfect upper arms grow flabby and cap sleeves become three-quarter length.
After the honeymoon that wasn’t, Mary stopped sketching and sewed only to repair her aging wardrobe. She accepted the fact that the closest she’d ever get to designing anything was deciding which mass-produced outfits, made from computer-generated designs based on already-stale trends, would be displayed on the mannequins in her little corner of the retail world. She packed away pads of paper, charcoals, colored pens and pencils, watercolors, started wearing track pants though she never worked out, and acquired a taste for cheap beer and off-track betting. Oh, and as a final fuck you to the ex-fiancé, she started smoking again.
At two in the morning, Mary is lying in bed, staring at what remains of the 1970’s glitter in the ceiling, marveling at how over thirty years after being sprayed on in the factory, those few remaining flecks still manage to sparkle in the light from the streetlamp outside. She’s been tossing and turning all night, dozing occasionally to dream of blue dresses, both the one on the TV screen and the one in her head. She gives up and goes on a hunt, searching closets and cupboards, digging through boxes of old books and vinyl LPs, fabric remnants and crumpled pattern pieces, and finally finds what she’s looking for in the kitchen junk drawer, of all places.
Next, she takes a dining chair to her bedroom closet, climbs onto it, and stares for a minute at the large, rectangular box on the top shelf, twisted and dented from stacks of shoeboxes and accordion file folders haphazardly piled on top. Mary almost causes an avalanche when she tries to slide it out from beneath all the crap but manages to extricate the box without catastrophe. She maneuvers it with difficulty through the too-narrow bedroom door and down the too-narrow hall and deposits it on the dining room table. She gathers the rest of what she needs, props her sketches on the built-in sideboard made of cheap wood paneling, sets out her seam ripper, tape measure, and her best sewing scissors, and pauses to see if anything is missing.
Finally, she opens the box and unfolds layers of delicate tissue paper. She pulls out the only piece of designer fashion she’s ever owned and never worn, and, pushing the box to the floor, lays it out on the table. She looks at it for the first time since she put it in the closet almost fifteen years ago and feels nothing but an appreciation for the beauty and quality of the fabric.
Mary notices that the silk is horribly creased and the lace is yellowing slightly at the edges but she glances at her junk drawer find — three boxes of Rit dye, Periwinkle Blue #46, purchased long before the color was discontinued — and knows the yellowing doesn’t matter. She studies her sketches for a moment, picks up her seam ripper and sets to work.
As the first seam starts to separate, it occurs to Mary that she never did find out who won the Derby. As she brushes threads from the severed stitches to the floor, she realizes she doesn’t care. She smiles and imagines her hair back to its natural red, including a few dignified strands of gray, the emerald solitaire on her right hand, and a stunning blue dress.
And two weeks later, Mary uses her windfall from Super Saver’s surprise win to buy sensible but flattering pumps to match.