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The first thing Rose said to her was, "Girl, you look like something the cat dragged in."
Tara almost walked away right then.
"Um," She said, hesitating. She looked down, as if there was help to be found on the doormat.
"About your ad?"
The stooped old woman with white hair opened the screen door. Her bright eyes shone out of her wrinkled face like car lights in a tunnel.
"You dressing from the back of the closet?"
Tara wore what everyone else wore in high school: a wrinkled T-shirt, Levis shredded at the knees, and flip-flops. That morning, she had forced herself out of bed, stepped onto her carpet dense with tossed clothing, and pulled out the first crumpled thing. On bad days, when her parents had been fighting, she would sleep in her clothes.
"What?" said Tara, stepping past Rose into her house.
"The back of the closet — where old clothes go to die."
Tara hated the way old ladies always said what they thought, as if it didn't matter anymore.
"It's elder care," she said. "Not a fashion job."
"You're dead wrong," the old woman said, snapping the screen door shut. "You could use help in that department."
They stood facing each other in the living room, staring, each waiting for the other to speak. Tara could see herself in a gold framed full-length mirror on the opposite wall. The white label of her tee was flipped up in back. She reached up and tucked it under. The air smelled faintly of perfume, a lavender scent. Every tabletop was cluttered with various glass vases, animal sculptures, photos in frames, all dusty.
The woman shoved out her right hand — wrinkled fingers covered with rings, bright red polish.
"Rose," she said. "Call me Rose."
Tara looked at the transparent skin and thought she had never seen hands so old. This old lady could die any minute.
Tara raised her smooth young hand — nails bitten, cuticles ragged, lime green polish, chipped.
"I'm… um… Tara."
Tara came the next evening and met Rose's daughter who lived across town. The daughter, Annie, took Tara aside and explained her mother was sometimes confused and had started forgetting things. She wanted someone to keep an eye on her and let Annie know how she was doing.
"She likes you best of all the girls we met, because you have red hair," said Annie, laughing. "So you're hired."
Since her parents had separated, her mother was worried about expenses and Tara was on a strict budget. She looked forward to having extra money.
On her first day, after she did a few chores, Rose led Tara into her bedroom. Her twin bed was surrounded by standing racks of skirts, pants, tops and dresses. The walls were layered with colored scarves and jewelry dangling on hooks, and in the walk-in closet hundreds of shoes stood at attention, like the marching band at school, toes facing out.
Tara gasped. The room was packed as tight as a suitcase, every corner stuffed.
"Where'd you get all these?"
"Goodwill, the consignment shop, second hand shops. I love a deal," said Rose, laughing. "I clerked in woman's clothes; got discounts, read fashion magazines. And I saved clothes, all my life. Even the red fedora I wore for my honeymoon. How about putting together some outfits for you," she said.
"I'm no fashion model."
"I can see that," said Rose. "It's more important you've got red hair."
"Um," said Tara, frowning. Her mother called her carrot-top when she wouldn't clean her room. In school, the boys had called her menstro-head.
"I hate my hair," she said.
"Redheads are smart women," said Rose. She drew fingers through her white hair.
Tara tried to imagine this old woman as young, with smooth skin, red hair, and sharp blue eyes, but it was unbelievable.
As Tara sat on the bed in a spot Rose had cleared for her, Rose gathered a sweater, a pair of pants, a scarf, and a necklace, and draped them on. She was humming as she made choices about what looked best on Tara.
Rose's touch was like a massage — calming, respectful, careful, yet firm and full of purpose as she wrapped a scarf in place of a belt, fastened a necklace, or gently slid on a dress shoe. Tara took a deep breath, relaxing into the soft comforter. This was so different from how she felt at home. Her mother's rough pat, absent-mindedly brushing lint off her shoulder, or her father's brisk hand as he gripped her elbow to help her in the car when he picked her up for his weekend, hurting her in his rush.
Tying a scarf around Tara's waist, Rose said,
"Try wearing unusual colors together — this amber skirt with a fuchsia blouse — add a scarf or a pin which have both colors, to draw them together."
Tara looked down at the scarf. She wanted to say, keep going, keep dressing me, but it came out,
"No one wears this stuff."
"We don't need to follow the crowd, do we?"
Tara didn't agree, but she let Rose try one outfit after another. Trancelike, Tara looked out the window at a Japanese maple whose branches folded across the window pane; its crimson leaves sparkling in sunlight, like strobe lights at a dance.
The next day, Rose announced she had developed a list of fashion tips for Tara, and each day she planned to explain one. Normally, Tara ignored bossy adults who thought they could improve her, but there was something about Rose; she acted as if she had known Tara a long time. Rose was so confident in her presumption they were old friends that some part of Tara began to believe it. Besides, Tara told herself, this clothes thing was something to keep the old lady occupied.
Rose's first fashion tip was to remove all tags from clothing.
"Pull those little white buggers off," she said. "A woman with a tag flipped up across her neck is like someone wearing a flag, uglier than sin. Those tags are advertising for some designer or store, and who cares? No tags. It's more democratic. Each piece stands on its own merits — ready to serve the woman inside."
"But how do you know to wash or dry clean?" said Tara.
"I never wash," said Rose, "ruins the colors. And no dry cleaning, costs too much."
Instead, to freshen the clothes, Rose used Lavender Spritzer, something she special-ordered from Hawaii. Occasionally, waving the can in wide circles, she would spray some in the air above Tara's head "to revive the room," she said.
The next week, Rose's fashion tip was to make sure everything fit perfectly. She asked Tara to get out her sewing machine and, because she couldn't see well enough to thread the needle, told Tara to do it. Tara sat down and, following Rose's instructions over several sessions, learned to make alterations. She discovered that she loved the unique feel of the fabrics — ribbed corduroy, soft cashmere, smooth silk.
One day Rose opened the front door dressed in a long blue velvet gown, with silver dress shoes and a silver-sequined clutch. She was holding a silver tiara. Tara had seen the dress before in her closet; Rose called it her opera gown.
"Um, going to the opera?"
"Don't feel so good. Happens some days. Just old age, catching up."
"So you put on your dress?"
Rose shrugged, "Gives me a lift. When I pass the mirror in the living room I don't see an old woman, I see a velvet gown."
Rose put the tiara on her head, "Now I won't see my crinkled face, I'll see the glittery silver. I'm hiding behind the clothes."
"Hiding?" said Tara.
"They're protecting me. Like armor."
"Hiding behind your clothes," said Tara. "So cool."
"Not for you," said Rose. "You're young, beautiful. What you wear should bring out your face."
Tara didn't feel beautiful. She felt she was her parents' disappointment. Once, after a big fight over going to the new school, her mother had called her an Orangutan. She knew how to annoy Tara with remarks about her hair. Her father worked long hours and was always too tired to talk to her. Tara hated going to his apartment. She felt she was an only child for a reason — they didn't want to risk another one like her. Other people's parents stayed together for the children's' sake. Not hers.
One day Rose was tired. Instead of dressing Tara, she sat in her chair and watched Tara put together an outfit. When Tara twirled around in front of her, Rose said,
"Mixing a plaid with the paisley, very unique. Against the rules, but somehow it works."
"I used your idea of a pin or a scarf with the colors of the amber skirt and fuchsia blouse. Just for fun, I combined the plaid and paisley with the same red."
"Tara honey, red is never just red. Red is brick red or barn red or blood red and your red — crimson. But yes, it works. Delicious. You are welcome to take these clothes home and wear this outfit to school."
"No thanks," said Tara.
Rose stared at Tara, her bright eyes piercing like a camera flash.
Tara looked away. At school, she wanted to disappear, not stand out. She felt lost in the big freshmen classes at her new school and missed her old friends. Between classes, in the din of yelling around her, she walked alone in the hallways, looking down at her phone, pretending to text, but swallowing and blinking to avoid crying.
The next time, when Tara refused again to take a new outfit home, Rose shoved some sweaters aside and motioned to Tara to come sit next to her on the bed. She said,
"What's the problem?"
"You aren't one of those depressed teenagers are you?"
Tara swallowed hard. She shook her head. She looked down at her hands and pulled a thread on the comforter.
Tara said, "Of course not… I've never…" She jumped up. "How could you think that?"
"Okay, okay, sit down," said Rose, patting the bed next to her. Rose looked out the window at the maple. A storm was building and the branches, blowing in the wind, were hitting the window with a snap, snap sound, like a drum in the small bedroom.
"I was depressed once." Rose took Tara's hand in hers.
"I lost a baby," said Rose. She stared blankly ahead and told Tara of the baby born with the almond eyes and flattened face, and how the doctors took her out of the room so quickly. Rose's voice hardened as she spoke of sending her daughter to an asylum, where the baby died soon after. She told Tara how the family never spoke her name. And how Rose always felt that it was somehow her fault.
Tara put her arms around Rose and hugged her.
"An asylum?" She asked.
"It's what people did in those days."
Tara sat, slowly tracing her fingers over the veins in Rose's hand and down over the polished, immaculate nails.
"Lately I have been thinking of her, what she might have been."
Tara put her arms around Rose and hugged her. She thought it must have been horrible to send a baby to an asylum. And Tara knew what it felt like to blame herself.
"What was her name?" asked Tara.
"Clara," said Rose.
Rose threaded her fingers through Tara's long crimson hair. Then, she switched subjects, as she often did without warning.
"Tara, you mustn't be so sad. You have your whole life ahead of you."
"So what? It's today I hate. So much wrong." Tara looked away and rubbed her eyes.
Rose put her arm around Tara. "Like what? Tell me."
Tara leaned into Rose. "Like…like answering the door to a strange man."
"Yeah, there to date my mother…" Tara shook her head. "And I hate high school. Because mother moved, I have to go to this new school. No friends. I skip lunch to avoid sitting alone."
Rose began to gently massage Tara's shoulders.
In a whisper, Tara said,
"My parents…I thought they would get back together."
When Tara was older, she realized Rose must have called her mother that day after she left. Her mother suggested Tara join the group designing costumes for the school play. Her mother would never have thought of it on her own.
After this, Tara was determined to be more enthusiastic about trying on the old clothes, to make it up to Rose, somehow, for her lost baby. She started to combine the clothes in new ways. She put on the cowboy boots from Goodwill with a mini dress, and then added a beat-up motorcycle jacket which Rose said was her nephew's from high school sixty years before.
"Can I try the red fedora?" Tara asked. She knew it was special to Rose.
Rose said yes, but when it was on she shook her head.
"I like everything, but the hat," said Rose. "That hat is gilding the lily."
"What's gilding the lily?"
"Over the top, too much, not necessary. Besides the brim hides your face."
"But I love the hat best."
"So take it home. Wear the hat to school. Start small. Baby steps. Surprise your friends."
Tara was thinking she trusts me with her red fedora, but she said,
"They don't allow hats in class."
"All the more reason to try it. Wear it on the way, before and after school and during lunch. What's the worst thing that could happen?"
Tara reached up and took the hat off.
"Everyone would laugh at me."
Rose took the hat out of her hands and ran her fingers back and forth around the brim. She held it for several minutes, silent. Finally, she set it back on Tara's head.
"This hat needs a new home," she said. "On you it's daring — wearing a red on red hair. And you have talent, talent, did you hear me? Talent. You know how to choose and mix color and style. Tara, honey, it's time to show a little courage."
"Courage?" said Tara, shrugging her shoulders to cover her tears. "It's just a hat. What's the point?"
Rose stood up, stretched to her full height, squared back her shoulders, and pointed her finger at Tara.
"The point Tara my dear," she said, her intense bright eyes double their size. Rose paused a moment, like she did sometimes for dramatic effect.
"The point is God gave each of her women only one life to live — and She wants us to spend it well-dressed."
Tara had to smile. For the first time, to please Rose, she took something home.
After each session with Rose, calmed by her touch and the caress of the clothes, Tara would go home relaxed. At home in her bed, the lingering scent of lavender would remind her of Rose and she would feel safe. She would drift off imagining satin as it slipped through the sewing machine, the raised pattern of brocade against her fingers, the familiar slide of suede on her shoulders.
But during the next few weeks, Tara became concerned about Rose. Tara never saw her eat anything but See's candies. Tara had sometimes bought her a box as a gift. But now, Tara began to worry whether Rose was eating anything else. When Tara would ask Rose if she ate yesterday, she would say yes. Tara checked and found no evidence of cans in the recycling bin, or leftovers in the compost.
Rose's daughter called her once a week to get a report on Rose. Tara wondered if she should tell Rose's daughter about her eating problem, but it seemed like breaking the confidence of her friend. Tara began to prepare supper for her, and she told Rose she couldn't go home until Rose ate something. It seemed to work.
One day Tara burst in the door and yelled for Rose.
"I'm having a lie down, in the bedroom," said Rose. "Come in here."
"You were right about wearing the red fedora," she said, breathless. "I wore it to school. And now… it's so cool…the girls all want to know where to get a hat like this one…"
Rose didn't get up out of her bed, but she threw kisses at Tara with both hands.
The next day Tara took home the motorcycle jacket, the cowboy boots and the mini dress. Rose didn't say anything, acted as if this was usual behavior. She continued to focus on her tips — she introduced a regimen of required daily exercises for good posture, and after that it was a list of foods to eat to improve skin tone. Rose always got dressed before Tara came, but more and more often Rose would instruct Tara while lying on top of her bed, saying she was just a little tired.
Rose's daughter began to call Tara once each day to ask how Rose was doing. Tara, feeling loyalty to Rose, said she was fine, just a little more tired than usual.
One Monday morning, Rose's daughter called Tara and said Rose had had a small stroke over the weekend. She was recovering well but needed full time help, and Annie was hiring a worker from Senior Care in the Home.
After a week passed and Tara came to visit, when she opened the front door, the house looked different somehow. She found Rose sitting in her chair in the living room with her daughter at her side. Someone was making noise in the kitchen, probably the Senior Care helper thought Tara. Rose was dressed in her blue velvet opera gown, the shiny silver heels on her feet, the silver-sequined clutch hanging across her arm. She held the silver tiara in her hand, and was looking down at it, as if she was thinking about putting it on.
"Hi Rose," Tara said. "It's me, Tara." Tara walked over to Rose.
Rose was distracted by the noise of the gardener's leaf blower and turned away to look out the window.
Tara noticed the smell of lavender was gone from the room. And everything was clean, too clean. Someone had been dusting. None of the knickknacks were in their usual places. Many years later, when Tara was an old woman herself, living in a retirement home, she found her knickknacks moved by the cleaning staff in the same frustrating way. By then she would forget what day it was, but she remembered Rose's face distinctly.
After a moment's pause, Tara lifted the tiara out of Rose's hand and laid it gently in her hair.
Rose smiled and said, "Thank you." She was polite, distant.
"I'm so sorry she doesn't know you," said her daughter. "She's having one of her bad days. She really loved the time you shared together."
"It's OK," said Tara, gently arranging Rose's dress. She knew her Rose was still there, hiding behind the clothes.
In college, Tara majored in fashion design. She tacked the red fedora on the wall above her bed and, after she graduated, she hung it on the entrance wall of her New York apartment. She often thought about how Rose taught her the fall she was fourteen — in small, incremental steps she barely realized at the time. Years later, when she knew her picture was going to be on the cover of Vogue, she spent a week's pay to have the hat restored and, for the photo shoot, she wore the red fedora.
Jeanne Althouse lives in Palo Alto, California. Her flash fiction has been published in various journals including Opium, Pindeldyboz, Temeros, Flashquake, Literary Mama, PIF Magazine, Rumble, and Flash—the International Short-Short Story Magazine. She has won the Foothill Writer's Conference and the Lunch Hour Stories short story contests. In addition to The Written Wardrobe, her longer stories have appeared in the Madison Review, the Stanford English Department Newsletter, The MacGuffin, Redlands Review, and the Porter Gulch Review.