The brushed cotton was soft against her fingers. Though yellowed with age and darkened by dirt around the hem, the robe had been well cared for. Tucked between layers of tissue paper, it resided on the top shelf of the bookcase, above a picture of the bride and groom on their wedding day.
Jeanie unfolded the robe and laid it out for Carol on the office desk. “It’s a family heirloom, been passed down almost a hundred years,” she said proudly.
When Carol commented on how soft the robe felt, Jeanie sighed.
“Yeah, they used to be. Now they’re all shiny polyester. Plastic,” she said, making a face.
Jeanie left to answer the doorbell. Carol held the robe in her hands, massaging the deep hem between her sweaty fingers. She rubbed a streak on the hem—was it charcoal? —until it turned into a large smudge. Panic gripped Carol as she heard Jeanie close the front door. Afraid she’d be caught defacing this heirloom, Carol refolded the robe, tucking the hem under, and placed it back in the box. On the way home, driving in her Corolla, one of the few remnants of her life before Alabama, Carol smelled smoke. On a hunch, she lifted her fingers to her nose. Wood smoke, humid summer sweat, and something greasy and necrotic sent her stomach turning, and she pulled to the side of the road to vomit into some bushes.
The female members seemed so progressive. One of them, a thirty-year-old mother of two, ran the local co-op. You could pick up local honey, artisan hams, Arnica muscle rub, even organic baby diapers for a fair price. The bigotry was free, courtesy of purchase. Another, a Gulf War widow, sent care packages to soldiers stationed overseas. These women liked church picnics, rom-coms, lattes, and chaperoning their kids’ field trips. They didn’t like Black people, Mexicans, Jews, Catholics, etc. It was a long list.
One had lured her and David over for a dinner of the most perfectly cooked beef tenderloin and endless bottles of wine, all the while making remarks about how they thought people with AIDS shouldn’t be allowed to work in restaurants. During their first week, a neighbor showed up on their doorstep with a bouquet of home-grown roses. Over coffee in the kitchen, he’d warned them not to shop at the new grocery store in town because it was run by a Polish man and, “You know how those kinds of people always jack up prices.” Carol placed the roses in a vase and watched them putrefy on the mantelpiece, the water growing murkier until, worried she was creating a health-hazard, she emptied the vase in the garbage can outside.
One day, over coffee, in one of those shops with too many plants and baristas with the most creative piercings, Carol asked Jeanie why.
Jeanie talked about tradition, community, and a concern over the loss of family values. “But for the most part,” Jeanie said, stretching her legs until they brushed the table’s stand, “I joined to make our marriage stronger. Which it did.”
Jeanie took her to lunch, wouldn’t let Carol pay, and insisted it wasn’t any trouble. She carefully went over each charge on the check, her phone open to the calculator app, the waiter, a young black man, hovering before she finally handed over her card.
Later that night, as Carol watched David mow the lawn, sweat beading on his forehead, t-shirt long abandoned near some bushes, Jeanie’s revelation rang in her ears. It helped our marriage, she had said almost conspiratorially, as if worried someone would hear that her participation wasn’t based solely on bigotry. David waved at her, and Carol gave him a thumbs-up. Nice job, she mouthed.
In college, before they got married, they spent Christmas break with David’s parents. Evening meetings took David’s father from the dinner table, even though he didn’t belong to the Elk’s lodge or a bowling league. Later, David’s mother insisted that Carol trace her family tree with her at the library. So far, she had traced theirs back to a family of Confederate soldiers, she told Carol proudly, tapping the screen on the library genealogy computer.
When she finally broached the subject with David one winter break over shots of tequila, his response surprised her.
“Do you really want to know about this?” he asked, slamming another shot.
Carol almost choked. David’s face, the beginnings of an alcohol flush across his cheeks, swam before her. She shook her head quickly and changed the subject.
Last week, her sister had asked her how to use Tinder. After seven years of marriage, she was getting a divorce and wanted to come out of the gate running. Could that ever be her and David? They had a lot in common, more than her sister and brother-in-law, except for one thing. Carol pulled at a hangnail. The skin around her thumb opened, and blood pooled along the crease. She wrapped it in the hem of her t-shirt, a ratty thing with a hole under one of the armpits. Tonight, they would go out to dinner. Steak and potatoes. And whiskey.
She walked onto the yard and followed the trail of cut grass to David.
Carol shifted in her spot on the couch to make room for Jeanie. Her pantyhose, a derelict pair she’d dragged out of the closet, scratched against her thighs. From the waist down, she felt like a sausage, tightly cased in an out-of-style pencil skirt. The other women were wearing chic knit dresses, floral maxi skirts. David had encouraged her to dress up a bit, “This is the south after all,” he’d said, smiling at her lounge pants.
While stirring a pitcher of Long Island iced tea, Jeanie had explained that despite being full-fledged members since the eighties, the women still liked having their own separate gatherings.
“Men can be so boring sometimes,” Jeanie said, in that conspiratorial manner that passed for feminism here in Alabama, pouring Carol a glass.
Jeanie introduced her as a prospective, explaining David’s long family history of involvement. Then Carol had to give her little spiel, outlining her interest and her own background. She saw half the woman balk when she mentioned her volunteer work for Catholic Charities. It was mandatory, she had assured them, the result of a misdemeanor in high school. She had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing when one members’ eyebrow almost hit the ceiling.
The women talked about their own charity work, their tight-knit community, and times when they had leaned on each other; their eyes brimming with tears, they were convinced of the good work they were doing. Carol asked if they’d experienced any backlash or police interference. They brushed off her question, saying how the media exaggerated, how the organization wasn’t violent like it was a hundred years ago.
Later, around the dessert table, their defenses came down.
“Dan and I just love having something so important in common,” one woman said, slicing into a coconut cake.
Another told Carol how happy her boyfriend had been when she donned her robe for the first time. “He actually cried,” she said, like she still couldn’t believe it.
On and on it went, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, all brought together. Carol swallowed a third glass of iced tea, vision blurring at the edges. She stumbled to the bathroom and stared at herself in Jeanie’s bathroom mirror. She’d once read a story about a woman who sold herself to the devil and woke up the next morning with a black dot on her forehead. Carol scrutinized the crow’s feet around her eyes, her smudged lipstick, and her shiny forehead, damp with nervous sweat, looking for a black dot. “Damn mole,” she sighed when her vision finally focused, and the promising dot on her chin turned out to be the same beauty mark she’d had all her life.
On the way home (Jeanie had to drive her after apologizing for making the tea so potent) Jeanie let slip that Carol’s chances of getting in looked good.
“Nothing is for sure though…” Jeanie said, winking.
Of course, they were going to let her in. She was white and married to a member. Pretty pathetic prerequisites.
Later, David cradled her in bed, cooing into her ears soft things, sounds meant for a baby but said to a drunk adult. He had laughed off her inebriation and helped Jeanie settle her in bed with a glass of water and an Advil. Carol welcomed the fog that finally led her into a dreamless sleep, the first in several weeks.
David made a solid effort to appear neutral, saying how he didn’t want to influence her. But when she went for her first robe fitting, he made her breakfast, blueberry pancakes with a sugar crust, something he usually only did on holidays.
“Make sure they don’t cut the eyeholes too far apart; they do that sometimes. And good luck trying to see out of the hood if they do,” he’d said.
Carol nodded over her plate. She couldn’t even taste the blueberries, and the sugar was like sand in her mouth. She skipped brushing her teeth, something she hadn’t done since a child when her anxiety had made her gag reflex work overtime. Instead, she chewed a piece of gum to mask her stale coffee breath.
Her hand was trembling when she pulled the key out of the ignition. She sat in front of Jeanie’s house, thinking she should check her makeup in the mirror but too afraid to look at her reflection. She raised the key to the ignition and thought of driving off but lacked the courage.
Jeanie was dancing on the balls of her feet when she introduced Carol to her mother, the resident seamstress.
“I convinced her to make yours out of cotton, not polyester,” Jeanie said as her mother wrapped the measuring tape around Carol’s head. She made a note before moving onto Carol’s waist.
“If you two want to have a cup of coffee, I can have this done in an hour or so,” she said, grabbing a bolt of white cotton and heading toward the sewing machine in the corner of Jeanie’s living room.
Her head spun as she watched Jeanie’s mother cut into the bolt of white cotton, watched the needle of the sewing machine move in and out of the fabric, each punch a jolt through Carol’s body. She struggled to keep the thread of conversation: Jeanie’s nauseate gushing about how much fun they were going to have, how happy she was that they had this in common now.
When Jeanie’s mother announced her robe was finished, Carol almost spilled what was left of her coffee all over Jeanie’s table. She willed her hands to stop shaking as she crossed the living room, hoping neither could see just how hard her heart was beating. Jeanie and her mother helped Carol into the robe, slipping it over her head and smoothing it out over her jeans and t-shirt. The robe hit just above her ankles. The perfect length. Next, they pulled the hood over her ponytail, adjusting the front flap. Carol realized she had been closing her eyes the whole time and finally opened them. She saw Jeanie’s living room, could make out Jeanie and her mother as they picked fabric scraps off the carpet and complimented her on her new ensemble. Jeanie’s mother had sewed the eyeholes perfectly; they were positioned right over her eyes. Two little holes from which to see the world.
Later Carol sniffed the robe and hood all over, searching for the same smells of the first robe she’d ever held in her hands. But she only smelled freshly laundered cotton, and perhaps, her own perfume. Her face was, as of yet, blemish free.