By CLARE BEAMS
The church ladies were having coffee in the living room of the Baker house when Martin Williams delivered his parachute to Lily Baker, his bride. Only some of the church ladies could really have been there, but in retellings they all claimed seats. They allowed one another this. A natural desire, to be part of the story.
At his knock, Lily flitted to the door to show him in, flushed with pleasure. Who could blame her, the way he looked in the uniform he still wore everywhere? Martin was only newly home, and Lily liked new things. But her face fell a little when he set his sack down at his feet and pulled the silk from it in a long, thick rope.
“That’s it?” she said.
They’d all known the parachute was coming. Martin had brought it back with him in order to furnish a wedding dress for his bride. This was an uncommon but not unprecedented idea among the men who were returning. To the church ladies it made some sense: bringing one kind of attachment to bear on another.
A strong attachment, in Martin’s case. He’d made it clear the dress was as fundamental as the bride herself to the vision he had of his wedding day. This vision seemed to be very clear-etched for that of a man.
Martin snapped the chute in the air, laying it out on Emma Baker’s carpet. Pride in his wrists.
Emma grasped her daughter’s arm. “Oh, Lily,” she breathed, the sort of ineffectual thing Emma was always breathing.
“Saved my life,” Martin said. He bent and floated his fingertips along the parachute’s stiff skin, the way he might have caressed a lovely woman’s cheek. “My wife should be so lucky.” He laughed a screaming sort of laugh that was not quite so dashing as the figure he cut in that nice crisp uniform, then said to Lily, “I can’t wait to see you both coming toward me down the aisle.”
He relayed a question from his mother about the reception hall; Emma told him to ask his mother, in turn, about the side dishes. The church ladies had their own opinions on both matters, which they swallowed, for now.
Martin turned toward the door. In some physical way, he seemed to have trouble leaving the parachute behind.
“Be good to her.” He gave a split-wide smile.
“Her?” Lily said, but he was already out the door.
The church ladies closed in on the parachute, reaching to touch it. Going down on their knees to the carpet wasn’t easy.
“It’s silk at least. Not that nylon some of them are made from,” somebody said.
Lily knelt with the others, brushed it with her fingers, then drew her hand back.
“If I have to wear it I will die,” she hissed to her mother, loud enough for everyone to hear.
But what did Lily know about dying? They all remembered half a year earlier, when she’d sworn with equal fervor that the cruel lack of a party for her high school graduation—the absence of records and dancing—would kill her. When there’d been no party, some of the ladies had pointed out to her that she seemed to have gone on living, and she’d sulked like the child she was. It was Emma’s fault, the ladies thought. She’d always been too soft with Lily, who was, in this case, likely just reacting to the scrim of the cheap silk, to the way a fingernail whiskered unpleasantly against it.
“At least it feels,” one of them told her, “like something living made it.”
A month later Emma and Lily went with Martin’s mother, Sarah Williams, to Mrs. Bolland’s seamstress shop to see the transformation. Lily couldn’t seem to stop talking in the car on the way over. “I bet she will have had to use a lot of new material,” she said from the backseat, the words pitched high. “Mostly new material, probably.”
Emma wished Lily would be still. Sarah Williams, silent in the passenger seat, had always struck Emma as intimidatingly stoical. Lily’s tinny chatter seemed a chink in Emma’s own armor.
Lily had quieted down as they parked the car and entered the shop, and by the time Mrs. Bolland bustled forth and ushered them back to the try-on room, Lily would look at nothing but the carpet. This, too, was humiliating. Emma and Gary had taught Lily manners—Emma could recall many small and skillful moments of such teaching over the years—but you would never have known. “Come with me, honey, and let’s get you into it,” Mrs. Bolland said. She took Lily’s arm in one squared-off workman’s hand. Emma felt embarrassed she’d needed to hire those hands, when Martin had likely been picturing some scene of homey living-room sewing, busy fingers flickering in firelight. For a moment, Emma felt sure that Lily would dig her heels in and refuse to budge. But her daughter’s feet tripped after Mrs. Bolland tractably enough.
Mrs. Bolland took Lily behind a screen, and there were rustlings of fabric, thuds of shoes striking the floor. “I think you’ll be happy with how it turned out,” Mrs. Bolland said. “I gathered it all nice.” Not a sound from Lily; you would have thought Mrs. Bolland was back there alone. “All right,” she said at last, and led Lily out to stand in the center of the room.
The dress wasn’t bad-looking, in Emma’s opinion. It didn’t look much like a parachute unless you had your eyes peeled for the resemblance. The white of it dazzled, as white does. Mrs. Bolland had given it pretty sleeves with points at the wrists, a drop waist that made Lily look streamlined and almost elegant, like something turned on a lathe. Also a fetching neckline, dipping to a V, just low enough, framing the collarbone. What was least pleasing about that silk was its feel, and how many would really be laying hands on it at the wedding? There did seem to be a slightly unusual voluminousness to the skirt, especially noticeable in motion, as if the thing could not quite forget how to catch the air—somehow this gave Lily an unsettling appearance of leglessness—but mostly it looked like anyone’s wedding dress. The whole effect was just fine.
Do you see? Emma wanted to say to her daughter. Do you see how it’s not so bad? He comes back from over there and asks only this of you—what else could you possibly tell him? But she could not seem to catch Lily’s eye.
The day of the wedding arrived, wet and warm for November. The mothers planned to put Lily into the dress in the minister’s room off the vestibule of the church. “I think today you need it more than I do,” he told them jovially.
Lily Baker, on this, her last day of being Lily Baker, made no effort to smile back at Reverend Barris. She knew it was the mothers he was smiling for anyway, that they were who he had to please, really.
Inside, the door shut, Lily was seized with a need to have the thing over and done with as quickly as possible. She took off her blouse and stepped out of her green woolen skirt before the mothers had put their things down or turned their attention to the wedding dress in its garment bag and waited in her slip, divested of her coverings, for the dress to reach the same naked state.
Mrs. Williams took it from the bag. She draped it across her knees to set to work on the buttons. Lily had thought herself ready, but at the sight of the dress, her panic returned. It was possible, when not in the same room with it, for Lily to convince herself she was exaggerating her own feelings, a tendency not foreign to her. She had been thinking that even this morning when she awoke with dread curling her toes. This is your wedding day, she had told herself sternly (trying to employ her mother’s voice for the purpose). It’s a pretty enough dress, and it’s a dress to be worn once. You’re just disappointed it’s not how you imagined—a froth of lacy newness for everyone to see you in.
But now there it was, right across from her, and disappointed was not the word for what Lily felt. The dress was every inch as bad as it was possible for a dress to be. It had such a terrible, gleeful gleam, beckoning the touch malevolently, and then how repellent its feel on the fingers. And all this was nothing compared to the smell, which Lily could not smell now, not yet. She had first smelled it on that day months ago when Martin had snapped the parachute in the air and laid it out on the living-room floor, as if introducing Lily to a third party entitled to all wedding considerations. Her. Only a very slight smell, sour, one Lily couldn’t quite place or name, but somehow it had crowded everything else out of her head. She knew now that the smell was only waiting.
Her mother eyed Lily critically. “You won’t be needing that slip,” she said. “The material’s thick enough.”
“Just to be sure,” Lily said. She hoped she sounded reasonable. She would not have the dress right up against her skin. She would not. She hadn’t been successful in making anyone understand her feelings, and so she would wear this dress, but she would sooner run shrieking from the room than feel its slippery skin against her bare stomach. Let them try her.
“You’re going to be so hot,” her mother said, but Mrs. Williams looked up from the buttons she was still undoing and said, “Oh, let her wear the slip if she wants to, Emma. Who’s the bride here, after all?”
That was the end of the discussion, for Lily was; Lily was the bride.
Mrs. Williams finally had the dress undone. The back of it yawned. “Step in, or over the head?” she asked.
“Step,” Lily said. That way it would never have to touch her face.
They stretched it wide, her mother on one side and Mrs. Williams on the other, and Lily positioned herself in its circle. They pulled it up over her. It wafted air ahead of it, and there was that slight smell again, beneath the potpourri odor it had picked up in Mrs. Bolland’s shop—What was that smell? Where had Lily smelled it before?—there and then gone. Lily extended her arms to allow them to be encased. The mothers drew the collar around her neck and set about the tedious work of buttoning the minuscule bridal buttons. “My fingers are so stiff!” and “Mine too!” they chimed. When they had finished at last, they tugged Lily to the mirror and exclaimed over her some, and touched her hips, her shoulders—though Lily noticed that each time they pulled away, quick as instinct, from the feel of the fabric. Then her mother cupped Lily’s cheek, and Mrs. Williams stood on a chair to drive the comb of the veil into the back of Lily’s head, teeth digging, and the mothers’ eyes moistened and leaked (a thing Lily would have thought impossible of the monolithic Mrs. Williams) as they hugged her and cooed and hugged each other. “Your father will come back to get you when it’s time,” her mother told her, with a little whimper, and handed Lily her bouquet of white roses. Then the mothers were gone, off to take their seats.
Lily, alone. She looked down at the flowers and fingered their springy, resilient petals, considering.
She wasn’t really unhappy. She had always looked forward to her wedding. And it wasn’t as if she had qualms about Martin himself, who had always been so sweet to her. At the beginning, her friends had all told her to be careful with an older boy, but there had been worship in Martin’s eyes and in his fingers when he touched her, so lightly it seemed he considered her some perfectly ripe, bruisable fruit. He held her that way even when they danced. She remembered spinning around her streamered high school gymnasium with him—and despite the whirling there was still, somehow, almost no force in his hand on her back, in his other hand pressing hers. She’d breathed in—the gym, no matter how transformed, still smelled like a gym—and looked up to find him smiling.
“What?” she said.
“Nothing. I just feel lucky when I look at you.”
Between that and the heart’s-blood-red of the streamers reflecting on his face, and the music, Lily had felt like she was in a film.
Martin wrote to her all through his two years away. When I close my eyes, I can almost see your face.
She’d written back, Thinking of you always, my dearest. Every letter she sent was full of romantic phrasing and pet names: prince, sweet, darling. She did not use that kind of language naturally in speech, but she enjoyed the powerful feel of loading her letters with more freight than she thought Martin could easily bear. She’d imagined him reading them in his uniform and shaking for love of her.
Now he was home again, and wasn’t that what she had spent all that time wanting? True, he seemed somehow changed, his eyes, fingers, words not quite the same. Last week he’d told her, “Soon you’ll be mine,” so little mist in his voice she’d been startled. Yet all that was to be expected. Lily’s mother said that she must expect changes and that she must be patient, since Martin would of course take some time to get back to himself again.
Lily began to pace back and forth, but the movement of the dress stirred the air and raised the unplaceable hint of the smell again. And there was the sound of the fabric trailing across the carpet behind her, a sound like something creeping stealthily through leaves. So she stood still instead and gazed at herself in the mirror. She turned half to the side and clasped her bouquet low in front of her, which was the pose her mother had struck in her own wedding photograph two decades before. The sight of herself that way made Lily feel better, as if she were inhabiting an already established scene. She took a deep breath that smelled only of the white roses she held, romantic and ceremonial. This is my wedding day, Lily told herself, again.
Soon her father knocked at the door and opened it. “Oh, honey-pie,” he said when he saw her, and this made Lily feel better too, and it wasn’t hard to smile at him and say “Daddy” and go and kiss him on his fresh-shaved cheek.
She took his arm. He led her in a satisfyingly stately way from the room and toward the sanctuary.
They paused at the start of the aisle. The organ was already playing, and the people turned in their seats to look at her. There was Martin, at the front of the church. His uniform made him striking and serious, just the way Lily had hoped. The music shifted to the wedding march, and her Aunt Nancy appeared out of nowhere to arrange her train, and the people stood up from their seats for Lily, and she was feeling much better, better about everything, until Aunt Nancy fluffed the dress and the breath of it washed over Lily’s face just as she was inhaling deeply to steady herself. She had never before gotten so much of the smell into her mouth and nose.
She placed it all at once and irrevocably. The moist, smoky smell of meat in a fire.
Where could Martin’s parachute have picked up such a smell? Lily wondered, and instantly an answering image rose in her mind. She saw Martin dangling from his parachute, falling through a clear blue foreign sky, closer and closer to men on the ground who were burning, and the screams and the smells they gave off rose, rose, until the parachute caught them and soaked them greedily into its skin, the skin that was now layered over Lily’s own. Her father started them down the aisle, and Lily went with him blindly. The parachute rustled around her as she moved. The sound somehow shifted the image so that she was no longer watching as Martin dropped from the sky. Instead, she herself was the one descending, tied more tightly to the parachute than Martin had ever been. She saw this, and she saw the church before her, Martin and Reverend Barris waiting for her at the front; but she saw them as if they were at the bottom of a long well shaft, down which she was, by slow increments, falling.
There is no way to unsmell a thing once you have smelled it. Lily was able to stand and say her vows and kiss her husband, walk with him back down the aisle. She was able to pose for the camera and then climb with some grace into the car that was waiting to drive them to the reception at the VFW hall, to interlock her fingers with Martin’s, to climb out and smile and wave bridally to the people who’d arrived first, to take her place with Martin at the table where their parents were waiting. But through it all, the odor lingered in her nostrils in a terrible parody of the campfires of her childhood. She chewed limp salad leaves during dinner and pushed her chicken to one side, hating its weight against the tines of her fork as it slid.
After dessert, Martin reached for Lily’s hand and pulled her up. “Come here a minute. I have something to show you.”
“They’ll miss us,” Lily said.
He looked pointedly at their parents. Hers had their eyes on their dinner plates; his were talking to the couple beside them. In fact, though the room was full of people who had come there to see her and Martin, somehow no one was looking at them right at that moment.
Outside the main hall, Martin opened a door on a stairwell and began to climb. He moved quickly, ahead of Lily, as her shoes pinched her toes and the dress snagged on the steps’ rough edges. “Slow down!” she said.
“I’m excited for you to see.”
At the top of the stairwell he opened another door and led her out into the dark. They were on the roof. Lily had been expecting a room, and the expanse of the sky surprised her. The lights of their town stretched a long way. The night air had a wonderful coolness after the strange warmth of the day; something in Lily’s stomach settled for the first time in hours. Martin was watching her face. “Well?” he said.
“I didn’t know you could get up here. It’s pretty,” she said.
Martin drew her to him. He pressed his lips to her forehead, right at the edge of her hairline. He did not seem to smell anything unusual on her. “Not as pretty as you,” he said.
That was nice. That was the sort of thing Lily had always thought Martin would tell her on their wedding day. She closed her eyes.
“My Lily-lil. My wifey-wife,” he said, and laughed. That was less nice. She could not recall Martin ever before calling her Lily-lil, and there was that painful note to his laughter since he had returned, that scraping of raw parts together. She took a step back, but he grabbed her hand again. “This way.”
She followed. He had her hand, after all. “What?”
“You have to come closer to really see.”
They stopped just before the railing and stood together. He was right; you did see it differently from here. A carpet of lights was spread below. It was easy to believe that if you stepped out you could drift down and walk across them, that they would warm the soles of your feet. Sounds from the party slipped through the open windows downstairs: the clink of silverware on dishes, someone laughing. Lily straightened her shoulders and tried to breathe the sounds and the lights in.
A movement, a stirring by her legs caught her; Martin had let go of her hand and was fingering the skirt of the dress. He pinched a layer of it between his fingers and lifted it closer to his face. The way he looked at it made Lily feel as if he had forgotten she was there.
“Stop that,” she said, harshly. She pushed his hand away. The fabric dropped.
“It’s amazing,” Martin said. “In the air. Your chute, it sort of slows time down. You’re supposed to be falling—all around you things are falling—but you just float.”
Lily wasn’t sure what she was supposed to say.
“And now, wifey, look at you. You’re the one wearing the chute, aren’t you?”
A thrill of fear quieted her. It seemed very important to be silent, not to move.
Martin turned to look at her with an evaluating kind of shine in his eye. On his face a smile was growing, growing, a smile that was somehow like the smell she had been smelling all night.
“What do you think, wife? Do you think you would float?”
A rush in her ears, like a current of air. She could not take her eyes from Martin’s face, which seemed a sudden horror to her. My God, Lily thought, this is his skin I’m wearing, and now I’m looking at the rest of him—what used to be hidden.
She could try for the stairs. If she darted, she might make it. Down in the main hall she could find someone—her father, her mother—and explain, and surely they would save her. We see. Of course you don’t have to. Of course it doesn’t count.
But they’d made her wear this dress, hadn’t they?
So she would pass through the hall and just keep running. Find a car or a bus to get on. People found buses, took them to places. There must, after all, be other places. The lives Lily could have in those places extended in a hazy multicolored wash, just beyond the rim of the town’s lights, vague at such a distance. But in none of them would she have to carry this moment with her forever, listening to it breathe. Imagining every time she looked at Martin—at the dinner table, as they drove down the street, when their eyes met over the head of their first child—how it would feel if he chose that moment to slide the ground out from under her. The drop in her stomach, the feel of every last thing rushing up.
Downstairs, someone shrieked playfully—the sound you make if a handsome boy, one you could possibly love, swipes the napkin from your lap. Floating, Lily thought, was only another word for falling. If Martin took a step toward her, she would scream, and then she would run, and she would figure out where she was going as she went.
He’d heard the noise, too, though. It seemed to loosen something in him.
“Sounds like we’re missing quite the time down there,” he said. With his head turned that way, she couldn’t see his face at all. From this angle he might have been almost anyone. He might have been someone glimpsed once in a crowd, never to be seen again.
In the dining room, Emma noticed a single bridal button on the tablecloth by her daughter’s empty seat, looking as unalterably detached as a lost tooth. She plucked it up in a hurry, but the movement drew Sarah’s eyes.
“She must have knocked into something,” Sarah said. “Loosened the threads.”
“Or maybe the material doesn’t bear up,” Emma said defensively. But it was hard to defend Lily in good faith against charges of carelessness, and she was relieved when Sarah went back to staring in disapproval at the girl two tables over who had shrieked a minute before.
Emma looked down at the button in her palm, wrapped so prettily in silk and edged with tatting. Then she looked around the room at this gathering she had so carefully planned, the tablecloths and shining glassware, all her friends and relations in their best clothes. These, she thought, are the ways we cover over the things that are meant to catch and hold. She could remember very little from her own wedding. So many years ago. Just a happy blur, and music, and her shoes rubbing and giving her blisters, and Gary’s face, nervous and lean, so little like his face now.
Gary returned from the drink table, then, and extended his hand to her for a dance. Emma felt very tired, but what could she do? She laid her hand in his.
The church ladies watched the Bakers dance. Some of them were dancing too, with their husbands, or with their husbands’ close friends; some of them had worn out their feet, or had more to drink than they’d meant to, and were sitting down. The Bakers shuffled, the Bakers leaned. They reminded the ladies of their own age. Who wanted to watch the Bakers? The ladies wanted to watch the bridal couple, who, yes, would remind them they were old, but also that they used to be young. Where had those brand-new Williamses gone?
Again, the ladies scanned the room, to no avail, and puffed out their faded, powdery cheeks. The ladies were owed this, the sight of the bride and groom, the dress and the uniform, whirling around the room, stitching the past to what came next. Somebody ought to find them and tell them so.
Clare Beams‘s story collection We Show What We Have Learned will be published by Lookout Books in October 2016. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Ecotone, The Kenyon Review online, Willow Springs, and elsewhere, and has received special mention in Best American Short Stories 2013 and The Pushcart Prize XXXV. She was a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts fellow, and the 2014 Bernard O’Keefe Scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She has an MFA from Columbia University and lives with her daughter and husband in Pittsburgh.