Old Grace and New Beauty

Julie McGurn

At the end of the block on Main Street sits a small dry cleaners owned by the Choi family. It is a model of tidiness and precision. Every day the hum and whoosh of electric dryers and steam cleaners sound forth like the beating heart of a great giant. Mrs. Choi runs the register with an efficiency bordering on the brusque, but mitigated by her ability to greet each customer by name. The pronunciation may sometimes be wanting, but she’s got the raw data down cold.

No one could doubt her willingness to extend herself for her customers either. Like one February morning when a regular, Mr. Sam Gilette, came in with a black smudge on his forehead. After her usual boisterous hello, Mrs. Choi leaned over the counter, pointed to her own forehead, and whispered, “Your head,” in a discreet gesture meant to spare the man a day of embarrassment.


“Your forehead. It all dirty.”

“Oh, that,” he said. “Church. I’ve  just come from church. Ash Wednesday.”

“Oh. Church.” A flash of recognition crossed Mrs. Choi’s face as she remembered seeing such a smudge before. She was satisfied by his explanation and her own solicitude, and business could proceed. It’s an admirable service they provide to the public. People bring in their soiled, stained, wrinkled and ripped clothing and receive them back a few days later fresh, pressed,mended and clean.

Serena, Mrs. Choi’s niece, works as a seamstress. She sits just near the front counter, facing the wall under a pegboard of dozens of large, brightly colored spools of thread ready for any contingency. She had left Korea as a teenager to join her aunt and uncle who had emigrated to America several years before, and everything she knows of her new home she learned from them. But she possesses all the softness her aunt lacks. Her face is smaller and finely shaped, not the broad block of Mrs. Choi. She speaks infrequently to the customers, but when she does, a shy sweetness emanates from behind her unfashionable glasses. When things get busy, Serena gets up from her sewing machine and helps at the counter, but this is always a last resort. Everyone knows Mrs.Choi is in charge.

All that changed the day Mrs. Choi suffered a stroke. She had been sorting the day’s receipts when Serena noticed a trickle of drool fall from Mrs. Choi’s mouth onto the counter. The right side of her face had gone completely slack and looked as if it were melting. Now Mrs. Choi is in a rehab center and Serena is running the shop. At first, Serena was terrified. Though her aunt’s imperious manner could sometimes be irritating, it had been so much easier when Mrs. Choi was there. Serena had never needed to think for herself or make any decisions. Submitting to the commands of her superiors was second nature to her. When her aunt told her to step lively and help at the register, barking orders at her one at a time, she would do what she was told. Serena could even anticipate what her aunt would say next, but she always hung back and never let Mrs. Choi know. Out of politeness, perhaps. Her aunt liked it that way and Serena liked to please. But from such submission she had learned to do things on her own. Serena soon found herself doing what she would have imagined unthinkable a mere six months before. “The buck stop here,” she had taken to saying. Sometimes her new motto confused patrons. Some thought she was talking about the bus. Others had visions of marauding bands of male deer.

From her days of hemming and mending, she had gotten good at concocting lives for the garments customers brought in. Bits of the world came to her one hanger at a time, like bodies without spirits. Each suit, each dress, each cardigan, was an occasion for her to wonder about lives being lived on a big stage somewhere.

Say a 38 Long Brooks Brothers suit came into the store. Serena would see a man strutting through the morning rush at Penn Station as if wading in the shallow end of the shore, the other people like so much water in a wave, their presence a slight dragon his progress. In the evening he would reverse course, but slowly, buffeted by more waves than before. Serena would smell the stale odor of cigar clinging to the jacket and conjure a scene of male bonhomie, muttered complaints and bursts of laughter, the slow release of strife amid the billows of acrid smoke.

Serena liked cocktail dresses and ball gowns best. Her eyes would widen at the first glimpse of sequin or bead. One dress in particular caught her fancy. Long to the floor and short off the shoulder, its golden silk ruched on the side to conform to the wearer’s shape. She could almost feel the soft skin of the slightly rounded shoulders, cold like a marble statue. This one, this one, would be worn to a party, a grand party with string quartets and canapés. She could see the lady in the gold dress walking into a parquet ballroom, a row of enormous floor to ceiling windows with layer upon layer of trim framing a Manhattan street scene a few stories below. The darkness outside would be punctuated by a haphazard array of lights—some red from the backs of cars,others white from lampposts or blue from shop signs.

Serena wondered what the size 6 gold dress lady would be thinking as she stood looking down to the street in between sips of her vodka tonic. Maybe she was steeling herself for the appearance of the woman her husband was carrying on with, andthe fake cordiality that she would endure. Maybe she would be cursing the ultra-support hose this clingy number necessitated, counting the minutes until she could free herself from the flesh-suffocating torturer. Or maybe she was thinking how pretty the street looked below with all the lights twinkling and the noise muted, and how golden the ballroom looked, and how she felt part of it all.

Serena never considered her own life a stage. She was always backstage. She was wardrobe. The real action of life was always elsewhere. She wasn’t depressed by this, and she suffered no envy. She was content with her place backstage. Almost.

Serena’s fear of Mrs. Choi had kept any thoughts other than pleasing her aunt in check. Her job was to do what Mrs. Choi told her, and she did that well. But with Mrs. Choi no longer there and her eventual success in running the shop assured, Serena began to think the stage not so scary either. She could run things. Mrs.Choi had become training wheels she no longer needed.

One day Mr. Gilette came in shortly before close. He placed a slender department store shopping bag on the counter.

“Serena, I have something I need cleaned. I need it tomorrow. Can you help me?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Gilette. It almost five o’clock. I don’t know. But I can try for you. The buck stop here.”

Mr. Gilette reached into the bag and pulled out a dress of lilac silk. He held it for a moment and then smoothed it out on the counter.

“Oh, very pretty.” She liked the smell of tea rose that accompanied it. “For Mrs. Gilette?”

“Yes, it’s my wife’s. Her favorite. I need it for her funeral the day after tomorrow. Is it possible?”

Serena, who had picked up and was admiring the dress, shuddered a little as if death had somehow touched her, too. “Oh, Mr. Gilette. I very sorry. Very sorry about Mrs. Gilette. I make sure it be ready.”

“She always looked so pretty in this dress. So soft,” his voice trailed off.

“You must loved her very much.”

“Yes, yes. Thank you, Serena. See you tomorrow.”

Mr. Gilette walked out the door and Serena took the dead woman’s dress to the machines in the back of the shop. She would take care of it right away. She held the dress out in front of her. It was lovely. A lady’s dress. Three-quarter sleeves, cut slim at the waist, with a gentle flutter of silk at the bottom. No adornments except for a pearly rosette at the neck. Serena checked it for stains. A little smudge of mauve lipstick near the neckline and what looked like tomato sauce on the bodice. All pretty normal. Then she noticed a black smudge of grease near the hem. That would be difficult. Grease is always the hardest to get out.

Serena checked the pockets. She found a crumpled tissue inthe left pocket. It also smelled of tea rose. From the right pocket, she pulled out a small laminated card. On one side was a picture of a sad-looking lady in a blue veil, and on the other side were some words that Serena read aloud: “I fear all things in my weakness, but hope for all things in Your goodness.”

While Serena pondered her weakness and turned on the dry cleaning machine, Mr. Gilette walked home and thought about how he had lied. “You must loved her very much,” Serena had said. But he hadn’t really loved her. He had admired her fine character and had been charmed by her dotty ways and sunny laugh. He was contented with the tidy house she kept and had grown accustomed to the feel of her back as she lay in bed. But love? That was something else. He had felt that flutter once, a long time ago, but it wasn’t with her. He thought he had resolved this long ago. But now that she was gone that nagging feeling of disloyalty unnerved him anew.

He felt a fool for waiting so long to get the dress cleaned. He knew her strength had been waning for a few weeks, but he somehow couldn’t bear to think of that dress.

His head weighed ten tons and his face felt blazing hot. The last two years of Sarah’s illness had taken their toll. But they had also given him direction. Before, he had faced a retirement with more choices than he could comprehend. Travel. Home improvement projects. Learning French. All these possibilities. He could hardly pick one.

Then Sarah got sick. At first it was just periodic stints in the hospital. Then rehab. Then a setback and finally, her last four months dying at home. Her sickness had become their life. It was their retirement. And the choice of what he should do with his time was made for him.

As Serena worked she took another look at the little laminated card. “I fear all things in my weakness,” she whispered to herself. She knew what that was like. Like the time Mrs. Choi blamed Serena for washing Mrs. Callaghan’s Aran wool sweater instead of dry-cleaning it, and thereby shrinking it to the size of a second-grader. Serena took the rap for that and endured Mrs. Callaghan’s subsequent glares. She remembered thinking that she should have said something. She had not put Mrs. Callaghan’s sweater in the wash; it was Mrs. Choi herself in a distracted moment. But Serena had not said anything; it hadn’t occurred to her to say something. She had been weak. But the weakness in her was really a strength, a docility of spirit that had enabled her to be trained by her aunt and to withstand wrongs done to her without bitterness. She had no complaints to make.

Serena finished pressing the dress. She slipped a plastic bag over the hanger and attached the receipt. “Sam Gilette, 29 Palmer Road, Same Day Special.” She knew Palmer Road. It was only a few blocks away. It was after six o’clock. The shop was closed and everyone else was gone. Sensing the urgency, as if the dead woman might go somewhere, Serena decided to deliver it immediately.

So with the dress in one hand and the shop keys in another, Serena locked up and took off down the street to Palmer Road. She had to hold the hanger way up past her shoulder to avoid touching the ground with the dress. She didn’t want to risk creasing it by folding it over, and tossing it over her shoulder might save her arm, but it somehow seemed to Serena too cavalier and disrespectful. So down the street she went, with the lilac mirage of Sarah Gilette walking next to her.

She arrived at number 29 and rang the bell. Mr. Gilette answered with a look of surprise.


“Hello, Mr. Gilette. I have your dress.”

“Why, I didn’t mean for you to go to all that trouble.”

“No problem. I wanted to be sure it all ready for you.” Serena thrust the dress toward him.

“Come in, come in.”

She hadn’t planned to enter, but walking that peculiar way had made her tired and she didn’t mind resting a minute. The house had the air of a place in mourning, as if it knew that someone had died and had hushed itself in grief. The furnishings of the modest Cape Cod were probably stylish and upscale in 1984. In the foyer hung a crucifix. She glanced quickly away; these always frighten her a bit, and this one was particularly graphic. The arms were more vertical than horizontal. The shoulders looked dislocated, and the body hung low, with only the nails keeping the law of gravity in check.

Mr. Gilette took the dress and hung it in the coat closet. Serena looked into the living room. It seemed oddly named now, since this was where the dying had been done. She saw a hospital bed stripped of its linen. A portable commode still sat in the corner. The night table next to the bed held a neatly stacked pile of books.

“So many books,” Serena said. She indicated the end table. Mr. Gilette stood in the center of the room as if seeing it for the first time. It was a moment before he replied.

“Yes. Sarah loved her books. I used to read to her a little bit every night. I’m not sure how much she even heard in these last weeks. I kind of got to reading them to myself. For myself. Maybe to see how the story ended.”

“You good husband.”

“Well.” Mr. Gilette looked down at his feet. “Thank you again for bringing the dress so quickly. It’s very nice of you.”

“No problem. No problem,” Serena answered, suddenly embarrassed that she had come. She rushed to the door.

She turned one last time and said, “You must loved her very much,” before she walked out into the early October chill. The sky was darkening but a layer of light still shone under the cloud cover. The mottled look of the sky—the dark and light fusing together, hanging low and deepening—gave her a pang. The beauty hurt her somehow. Then she did something she herself couldn’t explain. She turned and walked back up Palmer Street and knocked again at number 29.

When Mr. Gilette answered, and before he could say anything, Serena blurted out, “You tell me where funeral tomorrow?”

“Funeral? You want to go to Sarah’s funeral?”

“Yes. Is okay?”

“Of course. Sure. But it’s not tomorrow. It’s Thursday at St. Clement’s Church on River Road. Do you know the one I mean? The big stone one across from the golf course. Not the one with the red door. That’s the Episcopal church.”

“Oh, so many.”

“Yes, so many.” Gilette could tell from the blank look on her face that she had no clue which church he meant. “I tell you what. You come here Thursday morning, say around nine-thirty. Can you get here at nine-thirty?”

Serena nodded quickly.

“You won’t have to work then?”

She hadn’t thought of that. “No, no, it’s okay,” she said anyway.

“Okay, then. You come here,” Gilette pointed to his front steps, “and I bring you to funeral.” He had started to talk like her. “Or somebody here will. In either case, we get you a ride.”

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Gilette. You so nice. Thank you. I come here Thursday nine thir-tee.”

As she left, Serena found that her mood had changed. She was going to Mrs. Gilette’s funeral Thursday, and she was suddenly, oddly happy. The sky even looked less gloomy as she bounded down the street with a spring in her step, unencumbered by the lilac dress. Her arms swung by her sides as if she had just flung open the stage curtains and emerged from the wings.

Mr. Gilette closed the door and stood there a moment. He turned to walk back into the house and began to laugh. A small chuckle was followed by another, then another, until his shoulders shook and he screeched with a mirth he could not account for.

What was he doing? Was he bringing a date to his wife’s funeral? The young girl from the Korean dry cleaners, no less! No, it wasn’t a date. He was being ridiculous. She was a girl, yes. And he was a man, a widower, more precisely. But he was just giving her a ride to his wife’s funeral. It was all perfectly normal. And he laughed some more.

Then he thought of the dress hanging in the coat closet. He pulled it out and removed the plastic covering. Serena had done a nice job. It looked tidy and smelled fresh, though somehow he thought he could smell the scent of tea rose still. Then he remembered the stain. He felt his chest tighten and looked quickly at the hem. Round and around he turned the dress. But it was gone. The black smudge of grease was gone. He couldn’t believe it. He checked the dress again. But, thank God! Serena had gotten it out. Relief poured through him and he sat on the steps and remembered.

It had been a fine April day when Sarah had last worn that dress. It was Easter Sunday and they were coming home from church with a lightness that seemed to be moving through every living thing. The air was redolent with promise and the daffodils on the front lawn danced to the silent tune the breeze played.

But Sam was slightly annoyed. They had declined an invitation to the O’Hearns for brunch. Mass had been long, and Sarah was tired. So it would be just the two of them this Easter. He always liked seeing Janet O’Hearn, still sweet and pretty at sixty-five, and Dave would surely have invited him for a cigar on the back porch. But instead they were coming home to the sliced ham and the potato-cheese casserole someone from the church social ministry had brought over last night.

Sam got out on the driver’s side and reached for the Easter lily on the back seat. Then he went around to help Sarah out.They had done this so many times he barely gave it a second thought. But Sarah seemed particularly slow, and the Easter lily was awkward and heavy in his hand. He reached with his other hand to help Sarah out and thought all was clear when he pivoted around to close the door with the back of his hand.

A sharp yelp came from Sarah as the car door closed on her ankle. She hadn’t been quick enough getting onto the curb. Sam cursed himself as Sarah leaned against him. He dropped the lily to the ground and potting soil spilled out from the purple foil.

He spent the rest of that Easter applying cold packs to his wife’s purple ankle, feeling guilty as sin. Sarah tried to make light of it, but the grimaces she made every time she moved told him that he had really hurt her.

Serena rang the bell Thursday morning at nine-thirty as instructed. She wore a red-and-black flowered dress. He had never seen her in a dress before. They rode to the funeral home together.

“You must really loved her.”

“I wish you’d stop saying that.” He was sharper than he intended to be. “I’m sorry, Serena.”

“No. I’m sorry, Mr. Gilette.” But she was undeterred. “But you read those books to her. You take care of your wife yourself. That why I say you must loved her very much. If you not loved her, maybe you not take care of her.”

“Yes, I tried to be good to her. I tried to be a good husband. But,…I don’t know.”

“You good husband, Mr. Gilette. You did lots of things forher.”

“Yes, I suppose I did. But it’s more complicated.” He stopped there.

St. Clement’s is the kind of old church they don’t make anymore. Built by French settlers, its blue stones gave it the look of a Gothic fortress that could withstand hurricane winds and other less obvious but destructive forces. One main steeple, topped with copper green with age, and four smaller spires, one at each corner of the building, as well as arched doorways and little clover windows, gave it an altogether pleasing countenance.

During the funeral Mass, Serena sat and stood at various times trying to keep pace with the rest of the congregation. Though all the getting up and kneeling down and standing up again baffled her, she felt a peculiar calm. She was swimming in a strange sea but was happy to allow the tide to move her along. The intricacy of the church’s interior overwhelmed her at first. Angels and pillars and statues, all seemed a riot of unfamiliar form and purpose. But rather than feeling put off, she was thrilled. She had found something new and beautiful, and that alone held out a great hope to her. She would nibble at the edges of this new beauty, seeking a tiny part that seemed familiar until she could consume it all, until she could say: Yes, I know this. I can see why people love it so.

For amidst the color and commotion, Serena landed upon the thing that was familiar: the rows of stained glass windows that flanked each side of the church. Their color dazzled in blues and reds and reminded her of all the spools of thread she sat beneath day after day. The people pictured in them wore long robes and held various things in their hands—a little lamb, a bouquet of roses, a quill pen, a palm branch. One even had a little baby. She didn’t know what it all meant, but she liked the look of it.

And that feeling came again, that strange pain. Looking around her at this new beauty, she wanted to take it all in, to have it and to keep it. The thought of losing it hurt her. Part of the pain was knowing that even if she didn’t forget it entirely, the memory of it would not be quite right. She couldn’t replicate it perfectly. But she would try anyway. She would glue all the bits of beauty in a scrapbook in her mind. There, next to the image of the mottled October sky from the other day and the magnificent embroidery of the dress she repaired two weeks ago, she pasted this new beauty.

She studied the windows happily as the sad singing went on and people started to go up to the front of the church to get something. As she watched the line of people, Serena looked up and saw an enormous cross hanging high above everything else. She was surprised she hadn’t seen it before. It was huge. This one also had the body on it, but unlike the one at Mr. Gilette’s house, it didn’t frighten her. The hands and feet were nailed on, sure enough, and the head wore a painful-looking thorny crown, but something about the face made it beautiful to look at. That face, which should have been contorted with agony, was placid and lovely. She found herself staring at it, unable to look away.

But the service was almost over, and the casket of Mrs. Gilette was being carried outside. Serena watched as Mr. Gilette walked alone behind the wooden box. The look on his face seemed more like the one she would have expected to see on the face of the suffering man on the cross. It was not calm and lovely. To all the world he looked like a grieving widower, lost without his wife.

But Mr. Gilette alone knew that the seeming anguish on his face was really shame. “Lord, forgive my lack of love,” he whispered again and again. “I tried, Lord, I tried.”

Outside Serena made her way over to a group of middle-aged ladies who looked at home and relaxed, as if waiting for their table at a café. She heard one say, “Oh, he was good to her. Other men would have put her in a home. But not Sam.” Another said, “Do you know he fed her and bathed her himself? Every day. We used to bring Communion to Sarah, and the home-health nurse would tell us that there was nothing for her to do. Well,except for her meds and caring for her skin.” A third said, “He’sa saint for all he did.”

At that Serena chimed in, “He read books to her, too. All the time. He love her very much.” The women turned to face the newcomer. Serena blushed at the sudden attention. Feeling on the spot with nothing more to say, she blurted out, “Yes, the buck stop here.” The ladies stopped for a moment and were quiet again. They looked at Serena with a politeness that could barely mask their bewilderment.

“I better go find Mr. Gilette. He give me ride home.” This did not make things any clearer to the ladies, who were trying to make out Serena’s connection to the day’s events.

The procession to the cemetery was beginning to take shape in the parking lot. Serena saw Sam Gilette on the curb next to the black Town Car that had brought them to the church.

“Mr. Gilette, I go with you?” She had no other way of getting home.

Gilette looked up from his grief and said absently, “Ah, sure, sure, Serena. Why don’t you get in?” Sam held the door open, and Serena started to get in the car. She stopped abruptly and said,“Oh, Mr. Gilette! I forgot to give you this before. It was in Mrs.Gilette pocket.”

Serena held out the laminated card with the sad lady in the blue veil. Sam took it from her, looked at it, and read: I fear all things in my weakness, but hope for all things in Your goodness. Then he began to cry.

Mrs. Choi returned to the shop a bit slower than her old self. She no longer works the counter but sits most of the day in a chair, separating the darks and the lights, and keeps Serena company by offering unsolicited advice. She tells Serena she needs to keep the counter tidier or the customers will think their clothes won’t be clean. “If counter not clean, clothes not be clean,” she says.

While tidying up a stack of papers near the register one day, Mrs. Choi spotted a lavender-colored paper, folded in half, with a picture of a cross and the words Mass of Christian Burial for Sarah Gilette printed on the cover. “Sarah Gilette,” she said. “I know this lady. She die? I know her. She in the rehab with me. She all the time go to the chapel. I say ‘you pray to get better?’ She say, ‘No, I pray for my husband.’ I say, ‘Why? He sick?’ She say,‘No. He thinks he doesn’t love me.’”

Mrs. Choi tapped her finger to her head. “Strange lady.”