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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

Skye Loves Mambo

Submitted by on May 8, 2006 – 11:17 AMNo Comment

Well, it's finished — in the sense that it has an ending. The issue, at a certain point, became just getting to the end one way or another, after getting sick and putting off dealing with it and wah wah; why it took so long is not interesting.

What is interesting, to me, is that, after literally living with this story and carrying my notebook around everywhere and giving strangers paper cuts on the subway, trying to get at it and tell it, I still do not know what this story is. I don't know what it wants or who it belongs to. And it is time to move this along somehow so I can write about something else, like how I almost fell off the fire escape trying to water a geranium (Sarah: "It wasn't funny at the time!" Sarah's neighbor, the eyewitness: "Overruled, Two Left Feet McGee.")

So, if you would care to, please read the story and tell me what you think. Tell me what should stay and what should go. Tell me if the Bronwyn Bickler subplot I pre-emptively chucked should go back in. Jonas: Problem or solution?

If you would not care to read it, but would like to suggest a non-fiction writing topic, please feel free.

It is a little-known fact that giants still walk the earth. The earth doesn't fit them like it used to, chopped into grids and hives, doors and ceilings, as it is now; it's harder for the titans to make their way. But: not impossible. Still, they are among us, few, disappearing.

Skye MacAlary was such a giant, taken in by human parents as an unliftable foundling, quartered in a repurposed hay mow, named for what she would surely touch one day. She grew up in the hay mow and in the fields behind it, learned to read, hated peppers, made forts for her friends by kneeling and brushing her dark brown hair down to the ground. Merry loved it, its two-worlds-ness: "Your face is your face and the roof! And it's your face, too!" Jonas braided little gifts into the walls of hair, violets and paper birds, for Skye to find later, and Skye's human sister, Jude, went along behind him and groomed them out, shaking her head: "You guys. She's not a toy." Skye was three stories tall, and she belonged to the others as completely as their fingerprints.

Jude, Merry, and Jonas came in after school one day to find her examining the Delia's catalog with the old punchbowl she used as a magnifying glass.

"I have a date, I need a dress," she told them.

"You have a date?" Merry said.

"You need a dress?" Jonas said.

"With who?"

"A dress?"

"Where'd you meet him?"

"I've only done separates!"

"Is he a colossus too?"

"That means a zipper!"

"The dance?"

"And oh no, a lining!"

"So exciting!"

"This…oh, this is a disaster."

In the kitchen, Jude worried out loud while her mother poured a bag of pearl onions into a fifty-gallon drum of soup.

"Should we be encouraging her?" Jude said.

"Oh yes, I think we should," Mrs. MacAlary said.

"But what if she…" Jude started to say.

"She is," Mrs. MacAlary said. "She will."

"But that's…" Jude said.

Mrs. MacAlary sighed. "Me too. Measure me out some pepper."

Sifting. Stirring.

"So, tell me about this boy, this Danny."

"Mom. The boy is not the point."

"Oh yes, I think he is."

Jude snorted and went out to the hay mow, where Jonas had gone fetal.

"Find anything?" Jude said to Skye, and poked Jonas with her toe. He moaned.

"The brown one," Skye said, "page twenty-three."

"Let's see," Jude said, and Merry passed her the catalog.

"It's cute, right?" Skye said.

"Totally," Jude said. "Think it comes in a size hotel?"

"Shut up or I'll step on you," Skye said.

"I'll step on you."

"I'm going to step on myself," Jonas said.

"Jonas, good grief," Merry said. "You've made her dresses before, don't be such a drama queen."

Jonas pulled himself upright, snatched the catalog from Jude's hand, and marched over to Merry, waving it.

"That was a wrap dress. One wrap dress, which, I did my best but it still bunched. This is a completely different thing. This is a dress dress, for a date. I cannot do the seaming, I cannot do the zipper, I cannot do what needs to be done! Okay? Cannot!" and he Frisbeed the catalog across the hay mow and startled a cat.

Merry frowned. "I think you're being too hard on yourself."

"Mer, I'm not, if I thought I could I would totally do it but it's too advanced. Skye, back me up."

"It did bunch, a little," Skye said. "But I still love it. The pocket is genius."

"I was proud of that," Jonas said.

"You should be," Skye said. Jonas smiled.

"So what do we do?" Jude said.

"I can just wear a skirt and a top, Jonas can make that," Skye said.

"Dude. It's a dance, you should have a dress," Jude said.

"I 'should' have shoes that didn't used to be canoes, too, Jude, welcome to my world."

"This is different, Skye, and since I'm just trying to help –"

"Fine, Jude, then why don't you stuff me in the world's largest washing machine for the hot cycle and –"

"Guys guys guys! Guys."

Merry got up, retrieved the catalog, and tucked it into her bag.

"Guys. This is dumb."

Jude rolled her eyes. "Well, Jonas can't make the dress, so."

"Fine, Jonas can't make the dress, I get it. But can the dress not be made…at all?"

Jude looked at Skye, who looked at Jonas, who thought for a moment, then said, "No, I think it can be made, like, generally. Just not by me. We'd need a pro."

"Fine," Merry said. "We'll ask my grandfather, he'll know someone."

"Who can make a three-story dress?"

"He knows everyone," Merry said. "He's at the VFW. Let's go."

They went. Mr. Rupp, Merry's grandfather, received them in the pool room.

"Sorry to bother you on a members-only night, Grandpa."

"Don't trouble yourself, potato. What's the news of the world?"

"Skye, that's Jude's sister, has a date to the dance at St. Anselm's, and she needs a dress, and usually Jonas makes her clothes — well, he patterns them out and we all help make them, but this is more complicated than we usually do, than he usually does, so we need some help and I thought you would know someone. So…do you?"

Mr. Rupp dug around in his pipe with a paper clip. "Well, my my. Your sister is the rather tall drink of water?"

"Rather, yes sir," Jude said.

"Quite a job," Mr. Rupp said, and kept digging. "And when is this hootenanny?"

"'Hootenanny,' that's fabulous," Jonas said.

"Next Friday, Grandpa," Merry said.

"Friday next, Friday next," Mr. Rupp said, and then he said, "CARTER!" and Jonas and Jude jumped a foot.

"Carter's the quartermaster," Merry said.

"Is Carter deaf or something?"

"Shhhhhht."

Carter appeared. "Mr. Rupp."

"Could you locate Mr. Bickler for me, please, and also three Coca-Colas for the little potatoes here."

"Yes, Mr. Rupp."

Mr. Rupp produced a matchbook from his breast pocket. "Mr. Bickler has a granddaughter about your age," he said.

"Bronwyn," Merry said. "Bronwyn Bickler."

"She's in our class," Jude said.

"Lovely girl," Mr. Rupp said, and there it would have remained, had Jonas not leaped to his feet, struck a righteous puff-chested pose, and bellowed his truth.

"She! Is! OUR NEMESIS!"

Perhaps Merry had already mentioned to her grandfather the world in which Jonas lived, in his mind — a world whose little injustices frequently forced Jonas to enter, for the good of all, the lonely cone of a spotlight, in which he seethed, flailed about, and issued dire pronouncements about catastrophe. The world in which Jonas actually lived took the form of a ranch house, shared by piano-teacher parents who, while they did not claim to understand Jonas's habit of pitching face-first into a plate of food in lieu of verbalized punctuation, supported his right to express himself.

Whatever the case, Mr. Rupp did not seem taken aback.

"'Nemesis,' my my, how grand of her," he said. "And what, please, are her transgressions?"

"She's not really our nemesis, Grandpa," Merry said. "She's just the most popular girl in our class."

Jonas, preparing for a lengthy roll in the catnip patch of melodrama: "MYRIAD TRANSGRESSIONS!"

"She's pretty nice actually," Jude offered. "It's her friends that are horrible," and she yanked on Jonas's arm to get him to sit back down, which he did, but not before a final "…MYRIAD!"

"Oh, come on, Jonas. Maddie Corbett is way worse than Bronwyn."

"Maddie, and Travis Storch." Merry made a face.

"BRONWYN IS THEIR LEADER!"

Carter, coming in with a tray of Cokes, said, "Bronwyn Bickler is friends with Travis Storch?"

"Bronwyn Bickler is going out with Travis Storch," Merry said grimly.

"AIDING AND ABETTING!"

"Objection sustained," Mr. Rupp said, and Jonas folded his arms and smiled smugly.

"Do you know, that little jerkwater rear-ended my car six months ago," Carter said, clonking down a bowl of unbuttered popcorn, "and I didn't get so much as an apology?"

"The mother sent you a fruitcake, did she not?" Mr. Rupp said, flicking a kernel into the air. Merry caught it in her mouth easily.

"Which is where the apology should come in, if I'm not mistaken," said a baritone voice from the doorway. "Not a friend to candied fruit, that woman. …Carter, a scotch and soda if it's no trouble."

"It isn't," Carter said. Mr. Rupp flicked another kernel, but before it could arc down to Merry's mouth, Carter nipped it out of the air.

"I think I love it here," Jonas said to Jude. "Shhht," Jude said back.

"May I present Augustus Bickler," Mr. Rupp said. "Gus, this is Jonas, and Jude, and you remember Merry."

Mr. Bickler said, "Honored," and pulled up a chair next to Jonas.

"The potatoes do not approve of your granddaughter's boyfriend," Mr. Rupp said.

"Grandpa."

"Well, then we'll all get along fine," Mr. Bickler said. "That boy is unacceptable." He seemed about to continue speaking, but Jonas had picked that moment to clasp him a delighted hug.

"Jonas," Jude said.

"I do love it here," Jonas said.

"Better find yourself a war to join, then," Carter said, prying one of Mr. Bickler's arms loose and placing the scotch and soda in his freed hand. Unconcerned, Mr. Bickler sipped from it and smacked his lips.

"Sorry about Jonas," Merry said.

"He's at his leisure," Mr. Bickler said. "Now, I'm told you need a dress."

Two hours later, Jude pedaled home, a photocopied list of Mr. Bickler's fabric-supply contacts in her jacket pocket. She took a longer way so she could ride down the middle of the streets and let her mind wander, and it wandered straight to the fact that, out here on her bike, invisible in the blue dusk from all the yellow windows she passed, she felt less alone than she had at the VFW.

Mr. Bickler had brought them all down to the low-ceilinged basement and roughed out a plan on the old chalkboard they had down there for some reason, and as things had begun to take shape — the terse "MATERIALS" list, the filing of Skye's hairdo under "SPECIAL OPS" — Jude had had a pang of left-out. She'd had a pang of happiness for Jonas, too, performing at last for an audience who truly appreciated the obstacles he'd faced. All the times he'd sewn the tail of his Le Tigre into a hem — he deserved a sensei, the benediction of expertise. But as Mr. Bickler admired a Polaroid of the famous wrap dress, and especially the pocket ("A box pleat? Why, it's exactly the thing, isn't it."), Jude envied Jonas fiercely.

And Merry, chattering in math-ese on the brown rotary phone with Carter's brother Pat, who evidently could be counted on to hack sets of titanium golf clubs into a pair of kitten heels — Merry had taken shop and AP Calc. Specs and Greek letters flowed out from under Merry's pencil in a seismographic stream for a few minutes, and then Jude had told the room she had to go home, and left before nobody could notice.

Jude coasted down the peat driveway to the barn and went inside, stepping around the fourteen-box tower of Skye's pizza dinner. A man was talking about the retreat from Caporetto — Skye had the A Farewell to Arms audiobook out from the library. A handful of pigeons clustered in the rafters around Skye's head, and from where Jude was standing, they looked like a rustling crown. Skye's great size, the deliberateness of it, let her become at times a peaceful place as well as a girl, and this was one of those times.

Skye used a pool cue to pause the tape.

"God, there you are. Mom was about to call the troopers."

"She only does that to you," Jude said, flopping down on a futon in the corner.

"One time, jeez."

"Twice!"

"What 'twice'?"

"Hello, Halloween?"

Jonas had felt quite strongly that Skye could Re! Define! Greenwich village's annual costume parade. The girls hadn't needed much convincing, but they'd only gotten as far as Kearny before running into Mrs. MacAlary's complete disagreement, in Bradley fighting vehicle form.

"Hello, that was the National Guard? Not the troopers?"

"Oh, excuse me."

"You are not excused."

When Jude failed to supply the customary "Noooo, you are not excused," Skye asked what was wrong.

"I don't have a pocket," Jude said.

"O…kay?"

Jude thought about elaborating, but the barn had a happy-dreamy mood, so she left it with, "Never mind. You want anything from inside?"

"No thanks. Except, tell Mom to turn the heat up a little."

Jude walked into the kitchen. Dr. MacAlary was paying bills at the table.

"You might have called," he said, offering his cheek for a buss, which Jude ignored in favor of bitching that she'd told Merry to tell them she was on her way when Merry called before.

"Well, she didn't," Dr. MacAlary said.

"Well, you can call her back and yell at her then," Jude said, sticking her head in the fridge.

"We're yelling now?"

"We're out of cheese?"

"Shall your father call Merry and 'yell at her' for that too?" Mrs. MacAlary wanted to know as she came in from the porch.

Jude whamped the fridge door closed.

"I can't sew. I can't do algebra. I can't make a sandwich. What's the point of anything."

Dr. MacAlary offered, "I think Skye has some pizza left," but almost before the words had left his lips, Jude said in a strangling voice, "I. HATE. HAWAIIAN!" and burst into tears.

"Oh, so do I, honey," Mrs. MacAlary said. "Mickey, get a five out of my purse and go get the child some cheese."

"I don't think the cheese is the poi–"

"Get your daughter a brick of cheddar, Michael."

Mrs. MacAlary led Jude over to the table and handed her a pouf of paper towels. Jude put them on the table in front of her, suddenly exhausted and at a loss, and dropped her face onto them as if she couldn't do anything else. "Pineapple and ham, I know just what you mean," her mother said, rubbing her back. By the time her father came back from the 7-Eleven with a cheese sub and the news that Skye was chilly, Jude had fallen asleep there. Her parents didn't wake her, and Jude dreamed about St. George, his patient face, sure of his reward.

Jude woke up with a neck so stiff, she had to pick her head up with her hands and turn it by hand to look at the microwave clock, and she fancied she could hear her tendons creaking, crying, like an old elevator. She felt fearful and old for a second, and then merely irritated. The clock said 12:25, and it was the only light in the kitchen.

She followed the short, earnest trail of Post-Its her father had left her to the cheese sub in the fridge, tucked it under her arm, and thief-walked up the stairs to her room to eat and look at the list.

Mr. Bickler's handwriting came from an era of party-line telephones and smoking on the train. Jude studied it, occasionally flicking a shred of lettuce off it, and grumbled in her head about how hard it looked — choky Germanic names she'd no doubt mangle the pronunciation of, street names in the city that would take most of a cut school day to even find, hours of operation that suggested illegal enterprise. How was she supposed to talk to these people, these tiny dusty people who dwelt in crooked little storerooms (she assumed) surrounded by mites (she imagined), suspicious of her (as she was of them)?

She yanked on a pair of pajama pants and flounced into bed, but pouting had made her hot and her impromptu cry-nap had made her wakeful and she tried to empty her mind, but the list scrolled across her closed lids like a CNN crawl. 10-12, 2-4, 6-8 T-Th. Wirszinsky Bros. ask for Leonard. No flocked clp. Mitra Chokshi 24 hrs.

Jude scissored the sheets once more with her legs before muttering to no one, "God, fine," and flouncing back out of bed again. She grabbed the list and the phone and curled up in the corner of her room where she'd piled up dozens of pillows, where things of consequence happened among the dated magazines and gummy nail polish bottles. Out the turret window, Jude could see the barn, mostly dark.

Mitra Chokshi, 24 hrs.

"Fine." And she dialed.

"Hello," a man's voice said, said not asked.

"Oh…hi, is…this Mitra?"

"Who gave you this number."

"I…Mr. Bickler? Okay, my friend's grandfather's –"

"Oh, Gus, right right sure. Who's calling?"

"Jude MacAlary."

"Hold on, Jude," the man said, and then, further way, he sang a few bars of "Hey Jude," and then a woman's voice, coming towards the phone, told him to please spare that poor girl his "singing," and then in Jude's ear said, "This is Mitra."

"Hi, Mitra, I'm Jude MacAlary. Mr. Bickler…said I should maybe –"

"Hello, Jude, Gus told us you might be telephoning."

Telephoning. As though it were an unusual delight still. As though Jude were from a pleasant Hollywood future.

"I understand you're to come and select a fabric tomorrow. Shall we expect you at ten o'clock?"

Jude, focusing on the grand shall and on Mitra's voice, which sounded like a Victorian hotel, overlooked the rather more interesting we expect.

"I'm not sure. I don't know where we — you are."

"In Brooklyn, at the corner of Union and Bond Streets, there is a big green building, a sort of warehouse. Can you find that?"

"I think so."

"We will send someone to meet you there. If you get a library pass out of Mrs. Kolinsky's first period, that should allow you to catch the 8:13 to Penn Station, provided you run. Our man will be at the corner at ten o'clock. No need to bring a bag."

Jude wrote all this down. She didn't ask how Mitra knew her school schedule.

"We look forward to seeing you," Mitra said, and hung up.

Jude subsided on the cushions. Mitra knew her history teacher's name. And the train schedule? Who were these people…no, really. Who were these people? Why did Mr. Bickler know them? Was the whole list like this, like Mitra — weirdly, Hitchcockishly connected to Jude's needs?

Who was "we"?

Her mother was the next thing Jude saw, standing in the 7 AM sun: "Yes, of course, sleeping in an actual bed, how hopelessly old-fashioned."

Jude ran through a shower. She picked out an outfit that she hoped make it look like she was not definitely carrying a knife, but could be. She sat quietly in the carpool, shuffled quietly through the hall to homeroom, went quietly through the motions of asking for a library pass, slipped quietly out a back exit, and sat quietly on the train with her nose in a discarded Newsweek. She didn't care about getting caught cutting; that was almost a given. But she had a feeling — not even a feeling; a knowledge — that, once caught, she could admit only to where she hadn't been. She also knew without saying it to herself that "their man" had already "met" her, somehow, though Jude would never have seen him before.

When Jude arrived at the corner of Union and Bond, having neither hurried nor dawdled, it was precisely ten o'clock. She didn't see anyone around, until a man in repairman's coveralls descended a nearby light pole and greeted her by name. A lifetime of instruction on correct interactions with strangers found her not running away but following Captain Coveralls, towards the long slumped building covered in the rust-hoared window grates and furious graffiti. Captain Coveralls rolled up a bay door decorated with a muzzy submarine, and pointed to a nearby set of stairs.

"Mitra's below."

"Thanks," Jude said, and the door clattered back down. The air smelled of plastic wrap and lint. Jude went down the stairs, carefully remembering the trip down — for Jonas's benefit or a later police report's, she wasn't sure.

At the bottom of the stairs, a hallway jagged to the right, and Jude came out into a work den — an angled roof (somehow this had been accomplished underground), a short counter to the left, a wall of fabric bolts, and behind one of two big tables laid with rugs, Mitra, in some sort of sparkly sleeved sari made of every grey in twilight.

"You must be Jude," Mitra said in her maitre d'hush voice. She came around the table, hand out. "Mitra Chokshi."

"Nice to meet you."

"Shall we get to work, then?"

Shall. Privileged. Honored. Orchid tea.

"Okay," Jude said. She unfolded the paper; she tried to do so authoritatively. "These are the measurements Mr. Bickler –"

"Gus has already sent me the yardage requirements," Mitra said, tilting her head. "All you need to do is pick a fabric."

"Oh. Okay, but…didn't he tell you that? Too? What Skye wanted?"

Mitra smiled and pointed behind her at the bolt wall, hundreds and thousands of spool ends. "As you can see, it still bears some narrowing down."

"…Oh."

"Now, then. Which fabric would you like?"

Jude described the dress from the Delia's catalog, which she stupidly hadn't brought with her. She used slow, crude words like "brownish" and "thingies." And "like." She said "like" about a hundred times. She felt inexplicably angry. Mitra didn't seem to mind, just took down various bolts and held them up, and put them away again when Jude frowned or shook her head. Jude started to feel hot, too big for the space of the den, and Mitra pulled down a bolt that looked close enough and Jude grunted, "Sure, that one."

"Sure?"

"Yeah, sure."

Mitra put the bolt on the table and rolled up a sleeve to reveal a flat toolkit wristlet, from which she drew a pair of super-flat, horribly sharp-looking shears.

"Wait," Jude said. "It has to be…I have to be sure."

Mitra, shears poised, said, "Yes."

"I'm…not sure. Actually."

The shears zinged closed. "All right. How about you explain the dress to me."

"I don't know. What you mean by 'explain.'"

"Explain." The shears disappeared back into the wristlet. "Translate it."

Jude said again, more irritably than she wanted to, that she didn't know what that meant, although what she meant was, "I can't. And I have to. And I can't."

Mitra looked down, folded her hands, and looked back up at Jude, levelly.

"Jude. Now I will tell you a few things. You already know these things, but I will say them for you differently from the way you might have heard them before.

Everything has a language, or is a language. Every object, every state, for all of them this is so. It is how a poem becomes a song. It is how a tale becomes a film. It is how a kiss becomes a wedding vow. It is how a friend becomes.

Sewing is a language. It is a language I speak. Fabric is a language and I am able to speak that language as well. You are a girl. That is a language you speak. Skye is a girl so you can speak for her."

"But –"

A lifted hand.

"Skye is a titan. You live with her, she is your sister, you may not know every word of that language's dialect but you have heard it spoken, when a picture is painted in it you know the colors.

Your job now is to translate Skye to fabric."

Jude did in fact know these things but had not in fact heard them put in quite that way before. She turned her eyes to the bolt wall.

"My job."

"You were the one they sent," Mitra said.

"Well, that'll teach them," Jude sighed, half-joking.

"I doubt that," Mitra said, not joking. She returned to the bolt wall. Jude stood, silently.

"It wants doing. Do it," Mitra said.

"What does your dress say?" Jude said.

Mitra gave her an eyebrow and then struck a runway pose.

"…Evening."

Mitra threw another eyebrow.

"No. Long night."

Mitra snapped her fingers. "Here we are, then."

Jude began to talk. At first, she said only a few words at a time, unconnected things, shades of brown, and Mitra stood still, waiting. Then a few phrases came, about playing in the woods with Skye, the dappling of the sun, the safety there from wires and roof beams, the many uses they found for leaves and an old red wagon, and Mitra paced then, absently, drumming the fingers of one hand on her hip, marking the bolt spools with little orange stickers. Jude talked about the day Skye had moved into the barn for good. She talked about bucket-brigading presents through the snowy backyard to the barn on Christmas mornings, and the tree as well, one year. She talked about her own first kiss, and then the second one, the one that counted, that feeling of homecoming if home were a speeding car. She almost didn't notice Mitra's movements as she warmed to the story, her story of Skye, the story so far and Jude's imagining of this next chapter in its best form, love, college, no mishaps with ceilings or birds' nests, and when she paused with Skye halfway through a job interview, there on the worktable was a bolt of patterned cream and brown, and a bolt of dark green, and a spool of a very wide cream rick-rack.

"Wow, that…really worked."

"It is a fine choice."

The two of them regarded the cloth for a moment. Then Jude asked what happened next.

"You go home, and I will send these along to Gus and your friend — Jonas."

"Jonas. I hope he's okay with this stuff." "You can explain it to him too," Mitra said. "I will cut you some samples now, to take with you." The flat scissors flashed out again.

Jude showed herself out. On the train home, she stared out the window. Her phone peeped with a message from Jonas telling her to meet them at the VFW. Jude typed back that she had to make a stop first, and she walked home from the station the back way, the better to approach the barn from the off side of the house. She found Skye just sitting.

"What's up?"

"Nothing, I just finished A Farewell to Arms."

"Oh, dude." Jude shucked off her bag. "So sad."

"Right? And it's so SUDDEN, the end. I had to listen three times to make sure what happened."

"Same thing reading it. Like it rushed up on me."

The sisters had this sort of exchange often, how a book sounded versus how it read.

"Do you think he felt he should have stopped it somehow?" Skye said.

"Yeah, of course he did."

"No, I mean — are we supposed to think he felt that way?" Skye said, and when Jude didn't answer for a moment, Skye added, "Or does he just feel nothing?"

"He felt like he should have protected her," Jude said, getting impatient.

"Well, right, but it wasn't his –"

"She died, Skye," Jude said.

"I know she died, Jude, I'm not retarded."

Jude, of course, had stopped talking about Hemingway several minutes ago, but she thought that perhaps if she stayed silent and stared at a fixed point, Skye wouldn't notice that, and the conversation could continue in another direction, so she looked intently at the opposite wall, at the pictures pinned to it of their family. As a three-year-old, Skye had still fit into the frame standing up, like the teacher in a class photo, wearing sandals intended for female impersonators.

"You try to protect people, but you can't always," Skye said. Jude's eyes burned. Skye had noticed after all.

"We're easier to protect," Jude said. Than you, she did not say. Because we're smaller, she did not say. Because you're not really the teacher. Jude waited for the customary "oh-hhhho" that preceded a Skye rebuttal, that sound of a furnace coming on, but Skye said in a conversational tone, "You'd think that, you know. You'd think so. But you aren't anymore."

Skye would go on, and she did, mostly to herself.

"Bullies, thunderstorms were one thing — what if Jonas doesn't get into FIT? What, I'm going to step on the rejection letter?"

Jude answered carefully that she'd assume Skye would at least offer to step on the entire school, while Jude and Merry would claim handle the stepping-on of the dean of admissions at his home.

"But it wouldn't help," Skye said.

"Oh, yes, it would."

Skye made her h-heh-h-heh-h-heh laugh like an old wooden rollercoaster and laid her head on her knees and said, "But not really," and her hair came down to the ground near Jude's feet. Jude leaned forward and tugged one of the bell-rope braids that ran along Skye's part.

"No, it would."

Jude's phone peeped.

"Her master calls," Skye said, and Jude heaved herself up to go to the VFW.

She had chosen well, Jonas said, and so Jude and Jonas and Mr. Bickler, and sometimes Carter and other times Merry, spent the next week in a wedding tent in Mr. Bickler's yard, calling out numbers, zinging the tape measure, setting up chicken wire at night to keep the raccoons from nesting in the bodice. A couple of days, it rained, and they huddled under sawhorses and tarps, hemming the sash, while Mr. Bickler phoned Jonas's cell with suggestions.

Doubling the thread. Rolling the shoulders. Zipper measure, check, zipper set, check, zipper inlaid, check. Sixty soft tape measures daisy-chained together and wheelbarrowed to the barn to take Skye's proportions. Merry's own welding mask. A system of levels and pulleys to ensure the straightness of the hem. Jonas on a skateboard, Jude pulling him slowly along a seam, tack tack tack, check check check. Carter in an Elizabeth ruff of rick-rack, sewn cuticles, every knuckle corn-padded, necklaces of scratches and needle bites, short tempers and calls home from school. Old-school Polaroids.

At last: Friday next. Jonas and Jude rolled the dress onto a hammock storage tube and nestled it carefully between the kitten heels in the spotless bed of Pat Moran's truck. Then Mr. Bickler pulled up with Merry's grandfather in the passenger seat. Merry grandpere held up a tray of extra-large iced coffees.

"Weary potatoes, table for two."

At the house, Mrs. MacAlary and Carter's brother Pat were on the porch with a collar of white roses like winning horses wear; Mrs. MacAlary waved a Yale lock, explaining something about bracelet hasps of the twenties, and Pat nodded with a finger on his chin. Next to the barn, Jude could see the shoes, carefully parked under a patio umbrella so the setting sun wouldn't heat them too hard. She and Merry hoisted the rolled-up dress like a carpet — she and Merry alone, because Skye was shy in her undies inside.

The barn had a haze of dishwashing liquid and rose oil. Skye was standing, fidgeting. "Here we go," she said, and asked the time, and then said the time to herself a few times quietly. Merry hummed an Elton John song as they unrolled the dress on the tables at the end of the barn.

"Okay?" Jude said, and Skye said, "Okay."

Jude and Merry donned helmets and threaded the zipped-up dress onto a guy wire by the shoulders, unzipped the dress, clipped the wire ends to their belts, then went to the tall ladders on either side of Skye, silent in prayer, and climbed the ladders. The dress rose off the table behind them, yard by yard, and Skye steadied each of the ladders with two fingers for the inevitable backwards pull when the end of the dress left the table and the heavy hem swung down through the air. Merry almost got tugged off the ladder even though she was bracing for the pull, and interrupted "Tiny Dancer" with a gusty "WHOA shit!" and then all three of them started giggling.

Outside, Mr. Bickler slurped and observed, "Ah yes, the yips."

"I used to get the yips, times like this," Merry's grandpa said, laughing. "Hated the yips."

"The yips are how you know it counts," Pat said, and began plinking at the toe strap of the left heel, and Mr. Bickler and Merry's grandpa both said, "Hm."

Jude shook it off and kept climbing, and so did Merry, but every few seconds, a burst of snorfly chuckling erupted.

"Okay, okay," Jude said, and Merry echoed "okay" and then got taken off by another wave of pig-snorting hysteria.

"Must really count," Mr. Bickler said, dry as a bone. "Well done with the caffeine, sir."

"Okay," Skye said, not laughing.

Jude unclipped the wire on her side and tipped it down to catch the shoulder, pulled the shoulder off, and tipped the wire up so Merry could do the same on her side. Arms looped through the ladders, they held the dress up, two cherubs on a theater ceiling. Skye whispered, "Okay," and stepped in.

When the dress went over her shoulders, she pivoted slowly and zipped the dress partway as Jude and Merry went down their ladders. Jude dragged her ladder around to the middle of the floor and started up it again with Merry a few rungs below, spotting her. When she got to the zipper pull, Jude grabbed it in her right hand and marched the rest of the way to the top, twenty feet up, twenty-five, thirty, pull clamped in her hand, right bicep twanging, left hand white-knuckling the ladder steps, passing the lower rafters, never looking down, up up up to the nape of Skye's neck where a necklace of bike chains locked with a deadbolt.

"Next time I'll kneel down," Skye said softly.

"You couldn't you'd wrinkle it yank it down at the hem," Jude panted. Skye gave it a downward hitch, and Jude pulled the zipper up into the little bay it made at the end and patted the tongue down flat and boomed, "Coming down," and Merry firmed her grip as Jude descended, the pattern going all busy and swimmy in front of her eyes.

"Next time I'll kneel down," Skye said again, and this time Jude had enough breath to tell her that, next time, she'd better freakin' be getting married.

"Jonas and a wedding dress," Merry said, sounding exhausted by it already. "God, please."

"I HERR FET!" Jonas bellowed from outside.

"Oh no, he's eating caramels," Jude said, and Skye said, "Speaking of things I can't protect you from," and Jude and Merry backed up to the tables to get a good look. They just looked for a minute until Jonas yelled, "If's too ki-eh in theh!"

"It's perfect, Jonas," Skye said. "It fits perfectly."

"It really does," Merry said. She put her arm through Jude's. Jude just nodded.

"That's always the best part," Mrs. MacAlary said. "I couldn't agree more," Mr. Bickler said, and he and Merry's grandpa clinked plastic cups.

Skye said, "What'd she say?" but Jude couldn't think of a way to put it that didn't sound like a warning, so she said she hadn't heard. Skye let out a puff of sigh. Merry's bangs fluttered.

"Okay," Skye said.

"Okay!" Merry clapped her hands and ran over to open the barn doors. As she slipped out, Jude stayed behind.

"Okay," Jude said, nearly to herself.

"Okay," Skye said back, telling it to Jude, ordering her, and Jude smiled.

"Okay, Stretch."

"Okay, Bits."

And there she was, floor to ceiling.

"It worked!" Jonas said, breathless. "I can't believe it worked!"

"I can't either," Mr. Bickler said.

"Wonderful ruffles," Merry's grandpa said. Jonas, speechless now, capered in front of Dr. MacAlary's camera. Dr. MacAlary waved him away as his wife heaved the horse-collar corsage down the stairs to the side lawn.

Jude shaded her eyes to watch the final touches, Pat and Carter going over the shoes with a chamois, Merry taking pictures with her phone, Skye's carefully finger-painted lashes blinking against the sun. A boy would come out of the horizon shortly, and Skye would go back into the horizon with him and disappear like all towers and cities must, and when she came home the stars would hang around her head. Jude would think about the rest later. For now, as Jonas committed a debutante bow, she would just applaud.

May 8, 2006

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