J U N E 1 9 9 9
THE DRESSby C. K. Williams
An Audible Anthology
In those days, those days which exist for me only as the
most elusive memory now,
when often the first sound you'd hear in the morning
would be a storm of birdsong,
then the soft clop of the hooves of the horse hauling a
milk wagon down your block,
and the last sound at night as likely as not would be
your father pulling up in his car,
having worked late again, always late, and going
heavily down to the cellar, to the furnace,
to shake out the ashes and damp the draft before he
came upstairs to fall into bed --
in those long-ago days, women, my mother, my
friends' mothers, our neighbors,
all the women I knew, wore, often much of the day,
what were called housedresses,
cheap, printed, pulpy, seemingly purposefully shapeless
light cotton shifts,
that you wore over your nightgown and, when you had
to go to look for a child,
hang wash on the line, or run down to the grocery store
on the corner, under a coat,
the twisted hem of the nightgown, always lank and
yellowed, dangling beneath.
More than the curlers some of the women seemed
constantly to have in their hair,
in preparation for a great event -- a ball, one would
think -- that never came to pass;
more than the way most women's faces not only were
never made up during the day,
but seemed scraped, bleached, and, with their plucked
eyebrows, scarily masklike;
more than all that it was those dresses that made
women so unknowable and forbidding,
adepts of enigmas to which men could have no access,
and boys no conception.
Only later would I see the dresses also as a
proclamation: that in your dim kitchen,
your cellar, your bleak concrete yard, what you
revealed of yourself was a fabulation;
your real sensual nature, veiled in those sexless
vestments, was utterly your dominion.
In those days, one hid much else as well: grown men
didn't embrace one another,
unless someone had died, and not always then; you
shook hands or, at a ball game,
thumped your friendıs back and exchanged blows meant
to be codes for affection;
once out of childhood you'd never again know the shock
of your father's whiskers
on your cheek, not until mores at last had evolved, and
you could hug another man,
then hold on for a moment, then even kiss (your father's
bristles white and stiff now).
What release finally, the embrace: though we were wary
-- it seemed so audacious --
how much unspoken joy there was in that affirmation
of equality and communion,
no matter how much misunderstanding and pain had
passed between you by then.
We knew so little in those days, as little as now, I
suppose, about healing those hurts:
even the women, in their best dresses, with beads
and sequins sewn on the bodice,
even in lipstick and mascara, their hair aflow, could
only stand wringing their hands,
begging for peace, while father and son, like thugs,
like thieves, like Romans,
simmered and hissed and hated, inflicting sorrows
that endured, the worst anyway,
through the kiss and embrace, bleeding from brother
to brother into the generations.
In those days there was still countryside close to the
city, farms, cornfields, cows;
even not far from our building with its blurred brick and
long shadowy hallway
you could find tracts with hills and trees you could
pretend were mountains and forests.
Or you could go out by yourself even to a half-block-
long empty lot, into the bushes:
like a creature of leaves you'd lurk, crouched, crawling,
simplified, savage, alone;
already there was wanting to be simpler, wanting, when
they called you, never to go back.
C. K. Williams teaches in the writing program at Princeton University. A new book of his poems, Repair, will be published this month.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; The Dress; Volume 283, No. 6; pages 96 - 97.