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Bessie
by
J. C. Adamson

1950s. Colfax Avenue was the longest main street in America. It began in the foothills west of Denver, where U. S. Highway 40 settled out of the Rocky Mountains onto the plains. It pointed arrow-straight to the middle of town, and wound around a park, a testament to the ego and vision of an earlier Denver mayor. Straight-arrow again, the avenue pierced East Denver, past the Capitol, then shops and taverns, offices and apartments, and bustling, successful motels. On and on it blazed, to the suburb of Aurora, with more shops and motels, and Fitzsimmons Army Hospital, where Dwight Eisenhower once recovered from a presidential heart attack. It narrowed then, to a ribbon of highway that crossed the plains going forever eastward.

Near the downtown middle of that long throughway, just five blocks from Mayor Speer's Greek-styled Civic Center Park, was a small but classy dress shop, nearly hidden next to a shoe-repair shop, and across the street from a dime-store and a bar called The Colony Grill. Already in the fifties, the clothing store was an anachronism, its name, a vestige of its past.

Bessie McGaughey had owned The Hollywood Shoppe for years, since before the Depression. She was its buyer, manager, accountant, boss, and official worrier. Her red-dyed hair attempted to keep her in bygone days, just as the three dated mannequins in the store window anchored the shop to its beginnings. She stocked the store with stylish goods, though—dresses, costume jewelry, accessories. And she maintained a small rental library of mystery novels just inside the front door.

Bessie wouldn't vote for a Republican, not even for Eisenhower. She feared another Depression, and vowed she wouldn't operate a business through hard times again.

She had only two employees: Mrs. Schatz, a pleasant and attractive lady from a Nebraska small town; and Ruby, with a subtle, part-Texas-part-Florida drawl, the twang softened by a modest education, and years of association with classy people. Mrs. Schatz and Ruby both sold clothes, and Ruby did alterations. Ruby went well beyond setting hems, though—she could rebuild a dress when necessary, turning it into something its designer never dreamed it could be.

Probably Ruby's talents were as much an asset to The Hollywood Shoppe as was the inventory. When customers needed something that Bessie just didn't have—or when the dress was right, but the size was wrong—or when a customer's body was shaped unlike any ready-made garment—Ruby went to work, and created a new thing.

Bessie understood. She knew she needed that talent, and she rewarded Ruby. Savings and Loan Associations in those days offered merchandise premiums in lieu of higher interest rates. Once, when Bessie's savings bank was giving place settings of silver-plate flatware, she made large deposits in the S&L for months, and passed the silverware on to Ruby, until Ruby had a full set.

Bessie loved Ruby's son. She chased the small child through the store, giggling with him, as she hid behind dressing room drapes, or in the back room among boxes. She gave him gifts—special gifts—books—an anthology of poems for his eleventh birthday—The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe for his fifteenth. She inscribed the books with messages extolling the virtues of literature.

Bessie was married to a man who had been one of Denver's early members of Alcoholics Anonymous. By the fifties he had been sober for years. He only went to AA once a year, taking a cake to the meeting on the anniversary of his sobriety. He was called Mac, by virtue of his Irish last name. Mac worked for a major commercial real estate company, and made good money.

Bessie and Mac lived in a large house, a few miles east of downtown, and Bessie collected antiques—the real things. She owned a set of dishes that had once belonged to Napoleon's wife. She tended the home's beautiful gardens, and Mac picked cherries from trees in the back.

Bessie had two daughters, but one had died as a teenager. Perhaps as a memorial, perhaps in denial, Bessie kept the child's bedroom unchanged, years after the daughter was gone—years after the other daughter was grown, married, and had given Bessie a grandson, the same age as Ruby's son. Bessie doted on her daughter, Marie, and on Billy, the grandson. She bought them gifts, and took them on trips. She frolicked with her grandson just as she played with Ruby's son, but chased Billy through the huge house instead of through the small shop.

The years stole the sight from one of Bessie's eyes, and her red hair thinned almost to nothing. But her laughter stayed rich. She operated the little shop long after it ceased to make much money, and long after she had any need of its profits. Probably she kept it open in part because of her employees. Probably she did it in part because it helped a little to hold off the deterioration of America's longest main street. Probably she just felt like she belonged there.

Later, in retirement, Bessie thrived as the matriarch of her small family. She and Mac shared their days well into their eighties. They died within six weeks of each other.

© J. C. Adamson, 2001

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