The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A New Dress For Amanda

By Robert G. Back © 1988

Issue: May, 1988

Every Saturday afternoon, Peddler Pete parked his clattering, banged-up truck in a small clearing just west of the school house in Dwarf, Kentucky. The truck's bed had been removed and Peddler Pete had replaced it with a wooden room on wheels. Out of the back of his truck, he sold just about everything miners and their families needed. Cooking utensils, washtubs, material for making shirts and dresses, work shoes, overalls, buttons, needles, shoestrings, razors, scissors, hand-operated hair cutting clippers, belts, suspenders, rifles, shotguns, ammunition, red-headed kitchen matches, ink pens, pencils, parts for treadle sewing machines, dinner pails, hard candy, and fresh produce when in season - Peddler Pete had those items and more.

Peddler Pete didn't have to advertise. Everyone in the coal camp knew exactly when he'd show up and small gatherings of women, lots of kids, and a few men were always waiting for him. He'd throw open the back doors to his small store on wheels, and announce, "Look around, take ya time, whatcha can't see, Peddler Pete can find."

Peddler Pete was as skinny as a flagpole but stood almost six and a half feet tall. He wore a bushy, black beard and a thick mop of hair that reached beyond his shoulders. He had no teeth, hummed the "Under The Double Eagle March" when he wasn't talking, and carried a pearl-handled pistol in the back pocket of his overalls. He laughed a lot, called all the women "ma'am", and gave away more hard candy than he sold to dirty-faced kids.

One chilly afternoon in late October, an extremely thin ten-year-old girl with long, blonde hair and very large blue eyes waited until the crowd had drifted away and walked shyly up to the peddler.

"What can ole Peddler Pete do fer ye, chile?" the bearded man asked, grinning down at her.

"I love that blue material with the daisies on it," the little girl said.

"Tis mighty purty, ain't it?"

"How much would enough of it to make me a dress cost?"

"Well, since ya ain't much bigger 'an a washin' of soap, I figger a buck four bits orta do it," Peddler Pete said.

"Willya hold back 'at much for me an' let me pay ya a quarter a week 'til it's paid fer?" the little girl asked, looking up at the tall man out of wide, pleading eyes.

"Watcha name, sweetheart?"

"Amanda Reed."

"Tellya what, Amanda...I'll do'er. I never could say no to a purty lady," Peddler Pete smiled his toothless grin.

"Thank ya," Amanda said, reached a quarter toward him. "I'll be back nex' Saturday with another quarter." She then turned and walked slowly away.

True to her promise, little Amanda was there the next Saturday with another quarter for Peddler Pete. She followed the same routine the following two Saturdays.

After paying the fourth quarter, Peddler Pete's curiosity got the best of him. "Why is a dress made from 'at blue an' daisy cloth so important to ya, Amanda?" he asked.

"I'll be needin' it fer somethin' really special, an' I wanta look my very best," she answered softly.

"The governor gonna pay ya a visit or somethin'?" Peddler Pete teased.

"Oh, someone a lot more important than him," Amanda said, her blue eyes growing wide and a tiny smile tugging at her lips.

"Well, little lady, ya git 'at dress made, an' ya're gonna be 'bout the purtiest thang 'tween hyar an' Heaven."

"I hope so," the little girl said, looking down at the coal-blackened ground.

"An' inna couple of weeks, the material is gonna be all yourn'."

"Why does 'at seem like such a long time, Peddler Pete?" she asked.

"Cause ya're a youngin'. Time always moves too slow fer the young an' too danged fast fer the old. Doncha worry, darlin', two weeks'll pass 'fore ya know it," Peddler Pete said, patting her thin shoulder.

When Amanda showed up the next Saturday with her fifth quarter, Peddler Pete noticed for the first time how thin and pale she was.

"I declare, little gal, if you ain't gittin' as skinny as a rail. Ain't ya mama feedin' ya anythin' to put some meat on ya bones?' he asked, as she walked toward him.

"My mama is dead. There's jus' me an' my daddy at home. I cook fer us, but I don't eat much. I'm never hungry anymore," Amanda said, extending a quarter to him.

"Ya know somethin', Amanda? I'se jus' thankin' las' night that I made a mistake 'bout that material ya been wantin'. I realized 'at fifty cents is more'an 'nough fer the amount of material it'll take to make your dress. So I reckon I owe ya fifty cents and 'nough material to make ya the purtiest dress inna whole world," Peddler Pete said.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out two quarters and handed them to the little girl. He then rolled off enough material from a huge roll to make at least two dresses. He folded it neatly and handed it to her. The little girl was smiling and tears swam in her eyes. She tried to speak but nothing came out.

"Now ya jus' dry them purty eyes, Amanda, an' go on an' git started on ya dress. Jus' promise ya'll come by and let me see how purty ya look in it when ya finish," Peddler Pete said, feeling elated inside.

"I promise," Amanda said in a choked voice just above a whisper.

"Three weeks later, as Peddler Pete was closing the back door to his store on wheels to mark the end of another day of selling, a husky, blonde man dressed in clean overalls and blue work shirt came up behind him.

"Would I be right in callin' ya Peddler Pete?" the man asked.

Caught off guard, Peddler Pete spun around to face the man who had slipped up behind him on cat's feet. "Ya'd be right. I'm Peddler Pete. Can I do somethin' fer ya?"

"Name's Kelsey Reed. I'm Amanda's daddy."

"Ah,' how's she doin'? Ain't seed her inna spell. She git that dress finished? She promised she'd come by an' show it off fer me atter she got it made," Peddler Pete said.

"Yeah, she finished the dress, but she won't be able to keep her promise to show it to ya. Amanda died las' night," the husky man said, his voice breaking and tears welling up in his eyes.

"What!! Why, that can't be!" Peddler Pete said, taking a step backward and leaning against the side of the truck for support. "She's jus' a little, biddy girl!"

"Doctor said she had Hodgkin's disease," Kelsey Reed said, wiping his eyes on a huge red handkerchief.

Peddler Pete felt numb all over and his hands and knees shook.

"She tol' me all ya done fer her, an' made me promise to bury her in the dress she'd made outta the material she got from ya," Reed added. "I'd consider it an honor if ya'd come to the wake tonight and see how purty she looks in her new dress. I live the sixth house after ya cross the bridge jus' north of hyar."

"I'll be there," Peddler Pete mumbled, turning his head away so the other man wouldn't see the pain in his own face.

Peddler Pete attended the wake that night and suffered more pain than he'd ever felt in his entire life. Looking down at the calm, lovely face of the little girl dressed in the blue dress with bright daisies was more than he was able to bear. He stood in front of the small coffin and wept loudly and unashamedly. Sobs shook his entire upper body, and huge tears rolled down his craggy cheeks and disappeared inside his dense beard. "Why...why...why?" he moaned over and over.

Before leaving, he pressed two ten dollar bills into Kelsey Reed's hand, and said, "Buy the biggest an' purtiest bunch of daisies 'at money will buy and cover her grave with'em. Willya do 'at fer me?"

Kelsey Reed nodded but didn't look up.

Peddler Pete then turned back to face the coffin. "Rest in peace, little one, an' I know He's pleased with your new dress," he said. He then turned and walked out the door.

Peddler Pete drove his truck away from Dwarf that night and never returned. The painful memories of a little girl named Amanda wouldn't allow it.