If it hadn’t been for Daddy’s sickness, Opal Pratt might have worked a lifetime at the shoe factory no matter what had happened there.
It probably started at Opal’s high school graduation. Two of her mother’s sisters, three of her father’s brothers and one of his sisters, their spouses, and assorted, slow-witted cousins arrived to celebrate her accomplishment. She was the first from both sides of the family to graduate from high school. The aunts hoped she would be an inspiration to their broods. The uncles only hoped their brats would go to work.
After the ceremony, they all gathered at the Pratt’s modest home. Daddy had dug a pit and was barbecuing a goat with the help of the uncles and several beers. Momma boiled roasting ears and cooked snap peas with hog fat. Aunt Bella worked the churn for peach ice cream from the fruit she’d brought down from Ripley.
Opal took additional helpings of ice and rock salt to Aunt Bella and spelled her working the crank. It was hard work.
“You’ve done a good thing, Opal girl. You got your diploma and you’re goin’ to work Monday. You’re a good girl and you always make us proud. You always will make us proud, won’t you?”
Opal wasn’t sure if it was a question or command, but she said “Yes, ma’am” and kept churning. The whole family was proud of her, and she felt like a star.
Opal was relieved to be free of school. She had not been an honor roll student. On the other hand, she’d never been held back. She didn’t run in the cheerleader/jock crowd, but she wasn’t one of the redneck bunch either. She’d managed to slide through school almost invisibly. Sometimes she wondered if she really existed.
For four days after graduation, Opal luxuriated with no lessons to worry over. She accomplished her daily chores, listened to the radio and daydreamed about her future. On Monday, her world would change.
Daddy never had much to say, but on that Monday morning when Opal climbed into the truck’s cab with him, he practically made a speech.
“I got you this job, girlie, and it’s on my head if you muck it up. I’ll be retiring soon, and I aim to go with my head held high. Do what the bosses tell you. Be respectful. Don’t shame me.”
“I’d never shame you, Daddy.”
And that was her promise.
Daddy left her with Mrs. Blaylock, secretary to the big boss, and Opal’s supervisor. She called Opal a clerical helper and showed her to the workroom where Opal was to do most of her tasks. A large worktable dominated the center of the room. Paper, envelopes, pencils, pens, paper clips and items she didn’t recognize lined shelves across one wall. A mimeograph machine sat at the end of the big table. Opal must learn to operate it. Mail was delivered to the workroom, and Opal would sort and deliver it to the right people. She could barely remember all the instructions and was sure that opportunities abounded for mistakes that would let down Daddy.
There were two lesser managers working for the big boss in the office part of the building. A factory foreman had a mostly glass office in the actual factory. Mrs. Blaylock made it clear, though, that Opal was to be directed first by herself and then by the other two secretaries as she might be assigned. Opal wasn’t to bother any of the bosses.
Everything was more different than she’d imagined. Even the three ladies were unlike the country women she knew. The secretaries looked like women Opal had seen in shops in Vicksburg. They wore high heels, stockings, pretty skirts and blouses or shirtwaist dresses with petticoats. They wore earrings and maybe a bracelet or necklace. Some of her teachers had dressed like this. Dressing nice made the ladies at work look pretty even when they weren’t, like Mrs. Blaylock who frowned all the time and had an odd mole on her forehead. Maybe that’s why she frowned.
Opal was sure that Momma had been pretty once, back before she married and life got hard. None of her first three children reached five years of age. One was stillborn; one had pneumonia; and one had polio. That sister had lived for a while after Opal was born, but not long enough for Opal to remember her. Momma did the remembering and the crying, too. Losing those little ones was probably why Momma held Opal so close to home. Being naturally shy and obedient, Opal never pushed the boundaries. Now she was a high school graduate adult with a job, and the boundaries were way off in the distance.
By the time Daddy retired a few weeks later, Opal had mostly learned her job even though the mimeo machine still challenged her.
One of her favorite tasks was taking correspondence and orders to Mr. Foster, the plant foreman. Entering the factory was nearly like materializing over the rainbow. There was almost a yellow brick road. Of course it was only two, wide yellow lines painted on the floor that marked off a safe walkway. No one from the front office except the big bosses was to step outside this path to Mr. Foster’s glassed-in office. She never even let the toe of her shoe touch the lines.
The sounds and smells of the factory were magic: the whirring, clicking songs of the machines and the delicious aroma of leather and machine oil. It was sweet and primal. Opal always breathed deeply of the scent and smiled. Out there was where Daddy had worked so long on the machine that cut the soles of shoes to each size he was directed.
Back in the office, she’d made a friend. Miss Corliss was secretary to the sales manager. He got most of the mail so Opal had cause to be at Miss Corliss’ desk at least once a day. Corliss was the youngest and prettiest of the secretaries, and she seemed very smart. She always had a smile for Opal and a few words of greeting.
When Opal had made a mess with the mimeo on some of Corliss’ work, she had gone to the workroom with Opal and showed her how to avoid the mistake.
“Sweetie, don’t scrunch up your pretty face to cry,” Corliss had told her. “Everyone makes mistakes when learning something new.” Corliss squeezed Opal’s arm reassuringly. At that moment, Opal would have stuck her hand in fire if Corliss asked. Opal’s parents were good people. They loved her and provided what she needed, but there was little conversation or demonstration of affection. They were plain folk occupied with life other than Opal. Corliss was different. She sparkled. She laughed. She looked so pretty and smelled so good. She was kind to Opal and gave her tips and advice on doing her work and pleasing Mrs. Blaylock. This pretty lady liked Opal, and it made Opal proud. She’d never had a friend like Corliss.
If there was no mail for the sales manager, Opal made up another reason to go to Corliss’ desk. Sometimes Opal took a little package of cookies to Corliss when she and Momma baked over the weekend.
Mrs. Blaylock noted the time Opal spent at Corliss’ desk and advised the girl to stick to business.
Mrs. Blaylock said, “This isn’t a soda shop, young lady. You do your visiting somewhere else.”
One day Corliss surprised Opal. “Sweetie, don’t bring your lunch tomorrow. I’m going to fix a special lunch for you and me, and we’ll eat in the workroom. No one can fuss at us on our lunch break.”
Opal hadn’t the courage to tell Momma not to make a lunch, so she hid hers behind some supplies in the workroom. Anyway, if Corliss didn’t really mean it, Opal would still have the sack lunch from home. But promptly at noon, Corliss appeared in the workroom, brown eyes shining, and with a large paper bag. “Little girl, wait ‘til you see the lunch I made.”
On the work table Corliss laid out the feast: cold chicken sandwiches piled high with garden tomatoes, pickles, crisp lettuce and mayonnaise; mustard potato salad, and two slices of rhubarb pie. Corliss dug out plates, utensils and napkins. Her dark curls fell about her face as Opal watched, enchanted. Opal followed Corliss’ lead and began eating when her friend settled to the meal. It was their secret party.
“Opal, dear, quit fidgeting with your dress and eat your lunch. Don’t you like it?”
“Oh, yes ma’am, it’s delicious. You’ve given me such a pleasure. I – I’m just embarrassed.”
“Sweet girl, you’ve nothing to be embarrassed about. What’s wrong?”
“I’m not good enough. Miss Corliss, you’re so good to me, and I’m so . . . nothing. I’m ashamed of the way I look, the way I dress, being so plain, not so smart. You, Miss Thelma and Mrs. Blaylock, you’re all something. And you look like something.”
“Opal, I don’t want to pry, but do you give all your paycheck to your parents?”
“Yes, ma’am. That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
“But your Daddy,” continued Corliss, “he gets a pension from the factory. Surely they don’t need all your check.”
“I never questioned. Daddy’s been feeling sickly lately and there are doctor bills. My little money is needed.”
Corliss served up a slice of pie to Opal. “I just wonder. Surely you should pay something to your parents like I pay rent to my boarding house, but you should also keep a little something for yourself, too. Does your mother make your clothes?”
“And you’d like something different, wouldn’t you? Here’s what I think.” Corliss reached across the work table and took Opal’s hand. “You talk to your mother. You agree on an amount that she needs from your check and you put aside something for yourself. After a couple of weeks or so, I’ll take you shopping to a place where you can buy some pretty clothes that aren’t expensive and will make you feel good. Do you think you can do that?”
Miss Corliss squeezed her hand, and Opal knew she could follow that lead.
Momma was surprised to hear Opal’s proposal, but she agreed after some discussion. Three weeks later, Corliss planned to pick up Opal and take her to the dress shop.
The car Corliss drove was old, but it was her own. She was independent. Opal had waited at the living room window since breakfast so she wouldn’t keep her friend waiting when she arrived. Momma was impatient with Opal’s fussiness. Finally the old car drove up to the porch and Corliss stepped out, more sparkling than ever in casual summer slacks and a crisp blouse. Opal met her on the front porch trying not to appear star-struck. Momma held back in the living room.
Corliss, lithe and bubbly, hopped up the wooden porch steps and gave Opal a kiss on the cheek. “We’ll have such fun today,” she gushed.
Opal took her inside to meet Momma. Daddy couldn’t come out. He was very weak now. Momma greeted Corliss politely, but cautiously, and Opal hopped in the car to go to Vicksburg.
The dress shop was small. Corliss knew the sales clerks and the location of all the best bargains. She quickly found a suitable skirt, blouse and dress for Opal to try on. Since she’d always worn homemade clothes, the dress shop was foreign, forbidding to Opal.
“Not that one,” said Opal. “I’m too plump for that one with so many ruffles. That’s what Momma would say.”
“You leave it to me.” Corliss led Opal down a short hall and into a curtained cubicle. “Take your dress off, sweetie. I’ll be right back.”
In the privacy of the dressing room, Opal shed her homely dress and wondered if she should slide out of her slip. She crossed her arms across her chest instead.
Corliss appeared at the curtain, pushing it aside and laughing at Opal’s blush.
“Oh, look at you, Miss Modesty. You must try these. I think they’re really you, and they’re marked down.” Corliss had returned with a pastel, shirtwaist dress and a tan, flared skirt and middy blouse with military-type buttons.
Corliss handed Opal the blouse and studied Opal’s young, rounded form from her neck to her toes. Under her friend’s scrutiny, Opal fumbled with the small buttons.
“Here, let me help.” Corliss’ voice was husky now.
As instructed, Opal stood still, hands at her sides. Corliss stepped closer and reached for the first button. If Corliss had any reservations, she overcame them. Her head dropped to Opal’s neck; her hands sought Opal’s young breasts. Opal cried out and stepped back, bumping into the wall. The woman and girl stared at each other wordlessly.
On Monday morning, Opal stayed in bed. She told Momma that she didn’t feel good and that she should stay home today and from now on to help tend to Daddy. So, home she stayed. There was no shame in that. No one ever questioned her decision.
A Pushcart Prize nominee, Diane Thomas-Plunk was also recognized by NPR when her entry was selected as a “favorite” in their Three-Minute Fiction contest. Thomas-Plunk’s short stories and poetry have appeared in Belle Reve Literary Journal. Stories have also appeared in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and China Grove Magazine. Deep South Magazine has published multiple of her stories. Born and raised in Memphis, TN, Thomas-Plunk currently resides in north Mississippi.