Constance Johnson is an award-wining freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street, The Washington Post, People Magazine and on ABC News among other media outlets. She is currently working on a novel.
Dead Woman In A Red Dress
My mother died but refused to stay that way. We buried her, two days before her sixtieth birthday, in a dark blue dress and matching jacket made of rayon. The outfit was from a spending spree at Lord & Taylor, the last one we took together. After that, the cancer made her too sick and frail for retail expeditions. It was not her style at all. Mama favored bold and bright colors like a favorite red dress that she designed and made herself. Everyone started talking about what she wore and that red dress after she died. It was her go to outfit as my parents celebrated some of their happiest moments together, pairing it with red shoes with four-inch heels and white panty hose. We briefly considered burying her in that dress, but decided it was too festive for the occasion and left it hanging outside the door of my parents’ bedroom closet.
So many had questions about my mother’s, Henrietta, last words. What did she say? Did we have a sense of what was coming? The answers lay somewhere in between, like Henrietta herself, hovering between life and death. The interrogations were common. They once centered on Henrietta’s health: What’s wrong with her? How much weight has she lost? What did the doctor say? What kind of cancer? And the question we dreaded most: How much time does she have left?
We assumed Henrietta would lay her waters to rest. That was what she told us, but she also promised to exact revenge if her husband, our father, Winston, found love again.
“Don’t worry if your dad gets a girlfriend. I’ll handle it,” she said as from her hospital bed as strangled to breath. “I’ll come back and scratch her eyes out.”
She had shared few words as she lay dying, and this statement bordered on the bizarre. My sister and I thought she was delirious or loopy from the morphine. We exchanged glances, and I hunched my shoulders in a gesture of confusion. Henrietta caught me, rolled her eyes, and attempted her signature stare. The look was more painful than a belt whipping, more powerful than a slap or verbal reprimand. It could subdue the devil and petrified us as kids and into adulthood. That day, Henrietta’s eyes were vacant and weak from fighting the cancer. Her signature glare wielded no power over us, and for the first time in our lives, we ignored it. It was like Samson losing his strength after Delilah cut his hair. She died three days later.
One question we could answer with certainty; Henrietta never shared her plans to terrorize his new love with my dad. She lied during their late-night heart-to-hearts, lying side by side in bed, her body racked with pain. My father said they spoke of how he wished he could take the cancer for her. That they were happy and lucky to have met and loved each other. That she desperately wanted to live. They were both crushed that their love story was ending, cherishing the good times and the bad. All the fights. All the laughs. The love that ripened and flourished over the years. Henrietta was not ready to let go of life or her husband. After the chemo and radiation failed, she entered a clinical trial for a new drug, only to discover that she was among the group given a placebo.
Dad confirmed Henrietta’s lie two years after her death, announcing over a plate of meatloaf and garlic mashed potatoes that his bride of 35 years wanted him to find, if not true love, at least a supportive companion. The meal was leftovers courtesy of a steady rotation of neighborhood women offering culinary comfort to the widower. Nothing, it seemed, made a man more desirable than dedication and care of a dying spouse. They wanted to replace my mother and consoling our dad provided the opening. They delivered food, washed his clothes, cleaned his house, and even chauffeured him.
“We discussed it,” he said. “Whoever went first, didn’t want the other left alone and lonely. She wanted love for me, as I wanted love for her.”
My sister and I both rolled our eyes, knowing this sentiment did not fit into our mother’s stated plans.
“Daddy, I hope you don’t believe that,” I said. “That doesn’t sound like Mama. She probably meant that if you died first, she wanted to find love again. I don’t think that applied to you, if she died first.”
He slammed down his fork and said, “I know my wife and what we discussed. I’ll never love like that again or trust anyone like that again. I know what was in my wife’s heart. You all don’t know everything about our life together.”
I said nothing. Henrietta had ascended to sainthood after her death. It wasn’t my job—and I lacked the power — to return her to mortal status for my father.
Six months later, he took up with Pecola. She was a 25-year-old ex-con, twice married and divorced, a former stripper and recovering alcoholic. Even with that background, Pecola was no match for Henrietta.
My mom was a lovely but jealous woman, at least about her Winston. Before they wed, she smashed a beer bottle over a lady’s head for daring to dance too close to her Winston at a nightclub. Her victim ended up in the hospital with dozens of stitches. My mother miraculously avoided a jail sentenced. Henrietta was not the type to share a husband and, nothing or anyone could separate her from him, not even death.
We did not know if my mom would strike, but my father’s five sisters launched an immediate attack. They ridiculed Pecola reveling in bringing up her past as if she needed reminding about her troubled life.
“Pecola, are you still working the pole? Is that where you hooked my brother? At a strip club?”
“Did men pay you for lap dances?”
“Pecola, were you a prostitute?”
“Pecola, I can’t believe your son doesn’t live with you. Lord, you must be a mess. No judge would deny a fit mother custody of her child.”
“Pecola, did you have a female lover in prison? Do you prefer, men or women?”
“Pecola, are you turning my brother out? Do you and Winston have three-ways with other women?”
“Pecola, what are you doing with that decrepit old man? He’s my brother, and I love him, but he’s way too ancient for you.”
“Pecola, what are you going to do when that ex-boyfriend of yours gets out of prison? Bet you won’t want Winston’s old ass then.”
Daddy ignored their taunts. And so Pecola did the same. They ignored too much, and it cost them dearly.
Pecola was walking to a restaurant to meet Winston for an early dinner when the sidewalk collapsed, trapping her in a sinkhole with cat-sized rats for over two hours. She feared screaming for help, afraid that the rodents would crawl inside her mouth. As she waited for someone to save her, the rats nibbling her flesh, she heard a woman repeating: “Leave my Winston, alone. Leave my Winston, alone.” She spent two weeks in the hospital. Daddy visited her every day. She did not tell him about the woman’s warning, believing stress had caused her to hallucinate.
A month before their three-month anniversary, and still mending from her accident, Pecola lost her vision. Her bedroom felt chilly, so she got up to close the window. She noticed a woman down below staring up at her. The woman wore a red dress with white stockings and red high heels. Pecola shook her head in disgust, thinking the woman was looking to sell her body, and wondered with a pang of sadness when prostitutes had invaded the neighborhood. No one else was around, so she assumed that the woman would move to a busier area. She went to bed seeing the bright stars light the night, but awoke to darkness. Something had clawed her eyes out as she lay sleeping. Pecola didn’t know what happened, except that she felt a searing pain. A piece of red fabric was the last thing she saw.
Winston promised to stay by her side, but she dumped him.
He rebounded about a year later with Camila Rothmuller, a 63-year-old retired nurse. She had dated a married man for 20 years, waiting for him to leave his wife as he had promised to do for years, but Camila no longer wanted him once he was free. She was ready for a new romance, and my father wanted to provide it. His sisters deemed her only slightly better than Pecola. But this time, they muted their opinions.
Camila dreamed of my mother wearing that red satin dress. It had a handkerchief hem with sheer, diaphanous sleeves. My mother added them to hide her dimpled, fleshy arms. It was an ugly dress that haunted our father, reminding him of happier times.
One night he saw Henrietta sitting in a chair in their bedroom wearing that red dress. She said nothing, but smiled and winked at him. Winston did not know if he was dreaming, or if Henrietta had really returned. He asked us to remove the dress because he could not bear to touch it.
“I see that dress and think Henrietta is coming home to wear it again,” he said, as his eyes watered.
We tucked it deep inside their bedroom closet.
Henrietta told Camila to leave her husband alone. My mother came to Camila five times in that outfit. Odd things started happening to Camila. One night she ran screaming out of her apartment after spotting a cat eating her parakeet, a gift from Winston. The cat belonged to a neighbor. She did not know how it had entered her apartment.
One day she went to take a shower and before stepping inside, she noticed her bathtub flooded with poisonous red widow spiders. They crawled out of the tub and chased Camila out of her apartment. The superintendent and exterminator said her apartment was bug free. Once she came home to find bats flying around. Winston told her to move in with him. On her last night there, Camila woke up screaming. She could no longer see, and her eyes burned with a blistering ache. She swore the last thing she saw was Henrietta standing over her with one long nail aiming toward her left eye. Henrietta’s eyes were empty sockets and her skin covered with blisters and sagging. She hissed at Camila, “I told you to leave him alone.”
Dad visited Camila daily in the hospital and, later, in the rehabilitation center that was helping her adjust to life as a blind woman. Despite his devotion, the romance faltered, and Winston was once again single. He did not believe Henrietta caused Camila’s blindness or the other incidents, and they argued over it. His Henrietta was incapable of such cruelty, but my sister and I were not so sure. The dead coming to visit the living wasn’t so unusual in our family. Dead relatives often visited Henrietta while she was alive, so why couldn’t she return? We also remembered her promise.
My father, lonely and aching for his dead wife, searched for love again and again and again and again. Each girlfriend had a troubled past and went blind right around the time of their third month anniversary. I sometimes wondered if my father selected those women because it was his own way of remaining faithful to Henrietta. My mother would always outshine them. They could never really replace her.
Each girlfriend swore to seeing Henrietta wearing that red dress before everything turned to black. Some said Henrietta had no eyes, and her skin sagged. Some said that the red dress was torn and tattered, and her voice had a low-growl as she ordered them to leave her husband alone.
Seven years after Henrietta’s death, Winston met a 65-year-old widow, Bernadette Mortis. They dated for six months before marrying. We all thought Mama had given up and let go of her husband, that she had found peace in the afterlife. But then, my father died in his sleep on the night of his honeymoon. Henrietta knew what we did not. Winston’s heart was weak, and he would not survive the honeymoon. She was by his side as he took his last breath. And they made their last journey up yonder together.
And that red dress reappeared, once again hanging outside our parents’ bedroom closet door.