for The Scheherazade Project's latest theme. You know, that thing I do where everyone's supposed to write stories? Yeah, that thing. Criticism and comments welcome. I'd really like this thing to shine when I'm finished.
The dress. See, I bought the dress because it looked just like I always thought the dress in that old urban legend would look. I guess I have a different take on that legend than most. I guess I always saw it differently. Because it never made sense to me that a woman would be placed in her coffin in a club dress. A dancing dress. Never made sense to me. And why would a hot young thing buy a dress that looked like it could have participated in a funeral to dance herself to death in? See the two just don’t line up. Unless it’s the kind of dress that wasn’t really appropriate to either activity and the two women in question were stretching the suitable boundaries of the dress. The two women are stretchy like that. They’d have to be. Because unless they both have stretchiness then all they’ve got in common is an inappropriate dress and some toxic fluids. And that's just not enough to have in common to justify sharing a fate. It's just not enough to justify. But the stretchiness is big enough. I have faith that it's big enough.
So there it was, the dress. In the Good Will. $10. A bit expensive for the Good Will. Well, a bit more than I like to pay at the Good Will. I specialize in the things that everyone else puts back on the shelf. Over and over and over rejected because of stains, rips, bleach spots, worn spots. I like to rescue those clothes. Patch them, love them, marry them together in strange combinations – the (perfectly good) arms of this sweater sewn to the (perfectly good) body of that jacket or that blouse. But damn. It was a damn fine dress. And I decided to buy it for the full $10 even though when I picked it up I could smell something musky and metallic woven in with the 70% rayon and 30% silk fibers. It was not the smell I objected to. The smell was perfect. My overcome qualm was that I paid for the dress knowing, knowing that if I waited a few more weeks it would get tossed to the floor again and again, discarded, maybe taken home for a few days and then re-donated, until in a few weeks I could have picked up the smelly, unwanted dress for fifty cents or a dollar.
But I didn’t want to wait a few weeks for this dress. It would have killed me, to have this little bit of fate fall into my hands and put it back on the shelf so I could get it on a bargain. Especially since the dress makes those few dollars irrelevant anyway. So I didn’t. And now it’s sitting here. Hanging on the wall, really. I’ll walk into my kitchen-slash-dining-slash-living room in the half-light cast by my 40 watt bulbs and I’ll think (every time) that someone’s come to visit. That someone’s standing there in the dingy darkness waiting for tea. It feels nice. I put the tea in a pot and get out the sugar and cream bowls. I put it all on a tray and wish I had scones to impress my dress-visitor. And we sit down and have tea together. Well, I have tea. She doesn’t have any. She’s on a diet.
Ok. Now I sound crazy. I’m not. I’m not crazy. I know I’m not really having tea with a dress. But I kind of am having tea with a dress. Just me and the dress and the smell and the tea tray and no scones. I never seem to have any scones. Probably because I don’t think of them until I see the dress. That’s the kind of dress it is. It appreciates a good scone. It’s a scone kind of dress.
It’s the kind of dress that some housewife would have worn in the 60’s to run her errands, do her shopping in. A housewife who had been raised by rather strict parents and who still wasn’t entirely comfortable with the thought of wearing pants out in public. In fact, the only pants she owned were a tasteful pair of silk wide-legged slacks, so wide they might be thought a skirt. Something she could wear if she were having an evening-casual party in her home one dark winter night. But no grubby pants, no fitted pants, not even for cleaning, because you never knew when someone might drop by and you wouldn’t want them to catch you wearing something so unfeminine as a pair of pants even to clean out the refrigerator. Wearing pants would be seen as a sign of weakness – an admission that your home occasionally got too dirty to clean in a house dress. Lord knows, a good housewife should never have to scrub. The house should never get dirty enough in the first place to need a scrubbing.
So this dress, this weekly-grocery-shopping, post-office-stopping, PTA meeting dress, Ladies'- Auxilliary-Club-vice-presidenting dress. Belted, just longer than the knee. Buttons down the front and an open collar like a man’s shirt once he’s gotten somewhere private and opened his tie. A little risqué, those buttons. So easy to imagine them popping open or off. Right now it’s chaste, matronly. But open a few buttons at the top, open a few buttons at the bottom, and there’s the woman beneath the wife. The dress gaping above and below a belt so easily pulled off. And that’s why it fits the legend for me. Because the dress morphs. It shifts like that. There the dress is. It’s all buttoned up and respectable. It drives through the bank’s drive-thru. It goes shopping. It uses coupons. It buys hamburger and tomato sauce and bread and eggs and milk. It stops at the library and turns in some books. It fills the car up with gas (this is not the source of the smell, however). It goes home. It puts the groceries away. It makes little notations in the book that holds the household accounts. It makes a few calls for the Ladies' Auxilliary Club. It moves the laundry from the washer to the drier and from the drier to folded little stacks sprigged with lavender and placed carefully in closets and cupboards and dressers. It dusts with a little brown feather duster. It vacuums. It pays the paper boy. It moves the sprinklers from one space on the grass to another. It starts dinner. It puts the hamburger and eggs and breadcrumbs and shredded carrots and spices and mustard in a bowl and mixes the cold stuff around and around until the arms that fill its sleeves are warm and damp. Then it plops the mush into a pan and pours tomato sauce on it and puts it in the oven.
And then maybe it's the motion of the arms. Maybe it's the rhythm of the squelching of the meat. Maybe it's the fact that this is the sweatiest that the body in the dress has ever gotten all by herself. But then suddenly the dress starts moving faster than it has all day. And it leaves the meatloaf in the oven to burn or (less likely) for someone else to finish and serve and clean up. And the dress leaves the house and gets into the big boat of car and shifts over the thighs that fill its skirt, strains tight until a button works itself free and there’s more room and light where light shouldn’t be. And the dress drives until it stops at a bar. And another couple buttons give on each end and the dress slides onto a torn vinyl stool and the new slit-like opening frames the dark space betwen two no-longer-so matronly thighs.
This is an old, old story. This is the story of my mother. This is the story she would have told herself. The story she would have told me if I had been interested in her stories. The story of her liberation. There are no surprises here. It’s a comforting story. How a woman and a dress free themselves from suburban domesticity. How the woman and the dress have a secret. The dress wasn’t bought at a department store, but at a consignment store to save money. How the woman is tired of counting every penny distributed from her husband’s wallet and every pump distributed between her thighs at night (some nights it only takes seven, some nights twenty or more). How the dress is tired of the endless repetition of days and meatloaves. How after slugging a few drinks down the woman and the dress move again, to a juke joint or what they would have called a juke joint in the late 60’s. How this place is hopping. How this place is alive. How this place is free of meatloaves and no one minds if the dress was bought on consignment. Because the only people who are in a position to notice just want the dress emptied and tossed away. And who cares if it lands near the thumping mattress, or if it lands in blue toilet water, so long as it's no longer sheathing?
All anyone cares about is how many buttons can be undone, how the thigh looks the way it’s pushed through the boundary of the dress beneath an ever-reducing number of buttoned buttons. How in the heat and the press and the music and the alcohol and the dancing the dress is getting soaked in sweat and clinging to the body beneath. And (here’s how the legend comes in) how in the heat and the press and the music and the alcohol and the dancing the metallic musk scent that the woman had mostly eradicated through lavender sprigs and cedar balls has begun rising again. Rising with her heavy breathing and sinking down inside her. How the thing that caused the musky metallic smell is creeping in through the dilated pores and infiltrating her blood stream. How in the heat and the press and the music and the alcohol and the dancing the woman drops, her unbuttoned dress flared out around her, and dies happy and flushed.
Well, I added that last part. That’s probably not how it happened. The woman and the dress were probably sent to a holding tank or some other dingy, tawdry place to sleep it off and the person who was faced with an empty house and a burned meatloaf probably forgave her and took her back and they did this little scenario again and again, year after year, like Christmas or Thanksgiving. And the woman probably threw the dress aside finally because of the smell and bought another consignment dress, and maybe even a pair of pants and if she was going to go so far as to buy a pair of pants, she might even have made that pair a pair of petal pushers and show some skin. And the dress is sent off to good will or another consignment shop. And another. And another. Until it’s sitting here in my house, inviting me to run errands and run away.
It’s perfect for what I plan to do in it. And afterwards they can send it back to the Good Will.