When Nelda Aldridge's husband Jesse died after 48 years of marriage she took to reading books on the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, a Confederate woman married to the President of the Union. In 1861 Mrs. Lincoln consoled herself over the death of her young son by buying 3,237 gloves on five different trips to Manhattan.
Only in his death could Nelda begin to comprehend what a cruel, miserly man Jesse was. For years she had never protested his assertion that her twelve dour dresses were an extravagance. "Why would any woman need 12 dresses when there are only seven days in a week?" She discovered bonds, savings accounts, CDs and more and more assets he had never revealed to her, and she wondered how a modest carpenter managed to squirrel away such a fortune.
But if mystery is the spice of life, the Aldridges lived in the pot of the steamiest masala in all of Durham. Even before his body was lowered into the ground, Nelda began her channeling of Mrs. Lincoln, ordering gloves through catalogs, buying them at Talbots or the Surrey House on Oxford Lane. The month of October was consumed by shoes. Shoes of every size. Children's shoes for the grandchildren her two daughters would never produce. The winter months were devoted to every possible dress, gowns by trendy Japanese designers just in case the day came when she could fit into a size two again. Then she started gathering a selection of scarves. She covered her face in a scarf and then would don each frock in the front window, well aware that the neighbors might be spying her. So what if they jabbered. Sometimes she spotted the Carvington girls sitting on her front stoop, smoking a joint and talking about g-spots and iPods and who was the most popular boy in school, occasionally glancing up at the window but far more interested in the trivial details of high school life than the rapid unraveling of Nelda Aldridge who was unleashing nearly 72 years of restraint, denial and long, silent meals with Jesse at that Formica table.
When the two guest rooms had no more space for her purchases, Nelda hired a carpenter to put up rods in the three car garage -- always over sized for their modest bungalow -- and she quickly began filling it with her increasingly stylish couture.
While she had taken to ordering most of her meals through take out, Nelda ventured out only for shopping tours. There was always one more frock that she felt might sweep away the years of starving denial. Once, while rushing to through the mall to the ballgown department on the fourth floor of Regstrom's, she dashed by B. Dalton's and saw an image of Mary Todd Lincoln on the cover of The New Republic, a magazine she never read. "The Mother of American Consumerism?" the cover headline read. But Nelda was in too much of a hurry to read it, though the term "The New Republic" stuck with her. When she returned home in her 22-year-old Buick Skylark, Nelda spread her purchases on her bed and said, "I have created a New Republic. A republic of elegance and beauty. I shall never experience deprivation again." Just as she said it, she felt faint and retired to the back sitting room, aware that she had not eaten in 32 hours but was too frenzied by her fashion to be bothered by it. She staggered to the kitchen and drank two Ensures, immediately gaining the strength to put on her veil and parade in front of the window, not sure nor interested if anyone might see her. As she twirled in the window, she heard a voice, perhaps that of Mary Todd Lincoln. "It's not out there." Her frenzy prevented her from asking that voice just what was not out there. The answer, the solution to hunger or it? Just the it of it all that had bugged through all those years with Jesse? She knew there was no it to be found with Jesse, but it still wasn't coming through with all her shopping.
"It's not out there." The voice grew louder, just as the Nordstrom catalog and her Mastercard bill were pushed through the mail slot. "It's not out there, Nedra. It's not out there." She ignored the voice and twirled and twirled in front of the window until she fell on the floor. Her two nieces from Rexton found her on the floor 48 hours later and began the process of getting the house and her affairs in order. The garage sale of all the gowns barely paid what insurance would not cover for her wheelchair. All mail was now closely monitored. Catalogs were shredded upon arrival. Twelve simple dresses were in her closet, each in varying shades of green, the same shade of green of Jesse's ever watchful, envious eyes.