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Old Girl by Virginia Reeves


“Old Girl” by Virginia Reeves is one of four winners of the Editors’ Choice Round from the 2019 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest. Our editors chose four pieces that showcase some of the range of forms and styles in flash fiction.


Virginia Reeves’s “Old Girl” is a study in tension. Reeves uses dialogue realistically and effectively to develop her two main characters, and white space to develop subtext and interpersonal tension between this mother and daughter. Laura van den Berg writes: “The right object, appearing at the right time, can change a scene, a story.” Here, the green dress and the photographs are each objects hard at work, providing structure for a powerful, thematic echo and resonant imagery (see Reeves’s author’s note for more on the ability of an object to mirror, and on crafting a story “about the discovery of something that isn’t yours to see”). This story will crawl under your skin and linger.  —CRAFT


 

The last time I picked Hallie up at the airport, she was wearing a ratty beige shift that would’ve been a nightshirt if not for the decorative navy rickrack at the neck.

Instead of hello, she said, “You hate my dress. You’d never wear such a thing.” She was good at mocking my voice, long practiced in her fifteen years. Even her first word harbored a bite, Mama slipping out like an indictment.

“I wouldn’t wear it, but it looks nice on you.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“Why are you wearing it then?”

“Because it only cost a dollar and no one had to die to make it.”

Her birthday had been the Thursday before, celebrated with her father and stepmother and two young half-sisters she lived with most of the time. She came to me briefly and infrequently during the school year, then stayed for the summers, long visits that charred us both with their heat and expectations.

No one was surprised when she’d chosen her dad.

Her face was too thin, her cheeks like the mountain ridges around her home where I’d once lived with her father—the three of us in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. She seemed older, too, almost elderly in her disappointment. She squinted her eyes as she looked out the window. “Look at all these roads,” I imagined her saying. “All this concrete. I remember when this was pasture, back when this country grew its own goddamned food.”

“Stop looking at me,” she said, though her head was turned away.


At the house, Hallie let out a disappointed sigh when she saw the presents I’d left on her bed. “I told you I didn’t want anything.”

“I never listen.”

“You don’t.”

Without the bulk of her backpack, I could see that the rest of her was skinnier too, her body a jumble of sticks inside that ugly sack.

“Are you sick, Hallie?”

“Knock it off, Mom.” She shook one of the boxes. “Will I like this one?”

“I think so.”

She’d selected my favorite—a knee-length shirt-dress from a vintage consignment shop. It didn’t have tags and may have been homemade, its fabric a soft green, its buttons pearly flowers, a sash belt at its waist, deep pockets on the front.

She lifted the dress by its shoulders, pinching it like something filthy or hot.

“How much did you pay for this?”

“I got it at a consignment shop. Used, the way you like them!”

She scowled.

“Try it on?”

She hadn’t changed in front of me for years. She stayed covered even in the summers, her body swathed in light cotton shirts and pants when we went to the beach. She’d quit swimming—water pollution and UV exposure—and I’d wave to her from the surf, though she’d never see, her head tipped to the book in her lap, her body dark in the shadows of the umbrella.

She took the dress to the bathroom.

And she was a different girl when she emerged. The green made her skin look creamy. It brought out her lovely eyes. The fabric hung just right, smoothing out her sharp angles.

“Look at you.”

She smiled—the first of the visit—and put her hands in her pockets, shy.

But she was suddenly angry, quicker than I could track.

“What is this?” She shook an envelope at me. “Did you put money in the pocket? That’s so like you. You get this great used dress—shopping responsibly for once—and then you have to ruin it.”

She threw the envelope on the ground between us.

“I don’t know what that is.”

“Don’t lie.”

“Hallie, I bought that dress used, like I told you. Responsibly. I didn’t check the pockets.”

The envelope was the size of a greeting card.

After a moment, Hallie picked it back up.


I wasn’t prepared for the tiny old woman I saw lying on a bed, Hallie’s dress fanned out from her hips, the pearly buttons gleaming as bright as the woman’s white hair. Her right hand was caught in an incomplete gesture—she may have been preparing to wave or to shoo something away. That was the first photo Hallie pulled from the envelope. In the second, the same woman was curled on her side, her back to the camera, her legs swallowed in the dress’s green fabric, only her wrinkled feet poking from the hem.

There was nothing specifically wrong with the photos, but I could feel their indecency. I’m sure Hallie felt it too.

She locked herself in the bathroom, and I knocked tentatively. “Honey?”

When she opened the door, she was back in the shapeless shift.

“Do you think that woman’s all right?” she asked.

I looked at her, and then to the photos still in my hand. How was I to know what was all right? I couldn’t tell if my daughter was all right, and she was standing in front of me.


Hallie eventually opened the rest of her presents. She took only a hand-embroidered Guatemalan shirt.

I told her I’d return the dress to the shop and inform them of the photos, but instead I hung it in my closet. It’s still there, the photos, too.

Hallie didn’t come the next summer, nor the one after, and her visits through the school year dried up, too. She is away at college now, and our relationship exists mostly in generic cards around the holidays. We were never close, but still, I find myself missing her, and I return often to that green dress and its photos. I know the woman well, by now. She is a distant relative—a great aunt, a third cousin, or maybe she’s closer than that—a daughter, an elderly daughter I once pretended to know.

 


VIRGINIA REEVES is the author of two novels, Work Like Any Other (2016) and The Behavior of Love (2019). Her first novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the French translation has been adapted into a graphic novel that will be released in early April, 2020. Virginia’s short story “Bloodlines” is collected in an anthology from Sasquatch Press called Pie and Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze. Virginia lives with her husband, daughters, and three-legged pit bull in Helena, Montana, where she teaches writing and speech at Helena College.

 

Author’s Note

In the spring of 2010, I was nearing the end of my first year at the Michener Center for Writers. We had a guest coming to visit for a week-long workshop, and my colleagues were abuzz with excitement. Several of them named this particular writer as one of their all-time favorites.

Already feeling a bit of imposter syndrome at my very admittance to the program, I feigned excitement of my own, even though I was unfamiliar with the name: Who the hell was J.M. Coetzee?

(It’s embarrassing, I know. And don’t worry—I’ve since caught up; he’s one of my favorites now, too).

Coetzee gave us a prompt at the start: Write a story about the discovery of something that isn’t yours to see. There was more to it than that, I’m sure, and it likely stemmed from a story we all read together, but I only remember the idea of voyeurism through random discovery—of the consequences of experiencing a sliver of someone else’s life and having that sliver impact you in some unforeseen way.

The challenge, of course, is to find something that reflects your characters’ lives, or speaks to their lives, or shapes their lives, but not too obviously. For example, my narrator and her daughter couldn’t find photos of an estranged mother-daughter duo (I can hear the workshop criticism even at the suggestion). They needed to find something that simultaneously brought them together and drove them further apart.

The woman in the photos came to me through the dress, a dress inspired by one I saw in a vintage clothing shop in South Austin. Anything that passes through multiple hands carries echoes—houses, clothing, cars, land—and most of the time, those echoes are left largely to our imagination. But what if we find concrete evidence of our belongings’ past lives? What if those past lives are ugly? What if they’re more beautiful than our own? What if they mirror ours in ways we don’t want to admit?

The woman in the photos isn’t a mirror of Hallie and her mother, yet somehow these images conjure similar feelings. As the narrator says, “There was nothing specifically wrong with the photos, but I could feel their indecency. I’m sure Hallie felt it too.” There is nothing specifically wrong with Hallie and her mother’s relationship, but we all feel the distance between them.

The characters in the present moment of the story are echoing something from a past they don’t know, and I think that’s the power of this particular prompt. Isn’t all literature an echo in some way? Isn’t this why we use metaphor—to find similarities in disparate moments?

 


VIRGINIA REEVES is the author of two novels, Work Like Any Other (2016) and The Behavior of Love (2019). Her first novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the French translation has been adapted into a graphic novel that will be released in early April, 2020. Virginia’s short story “Bloodlines” is collected in an anthology from Sasquatch Press called Pie and Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze. Virginia lives with her husband, daughters, and three-legged pit bull in Helena, Montana, where she teaches writing and speech at Helena College.