Frank Kelly ~ My Sister’s Prom Dress

I find it at our family home in the attic
Folded over a hanger in a plastic bag
Inside a heavy brown paper envelope.
For months it hangs in my closet
In Manhattan
But when my sister is to take a trip to Europe
I think the money I can get for it
Will make a nice surprise.
I’ll take a photo around
To vintage clothing stores in the Village
To see if anybody’s interested.
It’s pink, of some shiny material
(Satin? Sateen?)
The fabric layered out from the waist
Drawn up by little bows into scallops at the bottom;
There’s a petticoat too
With slots sewn round it
For lengths of wired tape to make hoops,
The tapes labeled I through VI
Smallest to largest, top to bottom;
It takes some time to feed them through the slots —
They snag,
The fabric bunches up.
I take a dressmaker’s dummy — rescued from the street —
Mount it on an old microphone stand to get some height
Slip the petticoat over the dummy’s head
Zip it up on the side;
It fits snugly on the hips,
Hangs freely below;
The dress is a little dirty along the bottom
But it is sturdily made;
Once passed over the dummy’s head and zipped up
It lies evenly on the petticoat.
I put the dummy in a far corner of the bedroom
So I can shoot it from the hallway
To get the whole gown in the frame.
Four pictures:
Two full-length
Two close-up on the fancy work along the top and bottom.

Looking at the dress and the petticoat hanging
Out of the cats’ way,
I decide to put them on,
Photograph myself in them.
It takes some time —
I just get the petticoat over my head and torso
When I realize that I want to do something —
Go into my narrow little bathroom,
Bend down to pick up an extra pack of film –
The hoops will not accommodate;
Any movement sends out enormous ripples
Fore and aft
Side to side
I feel like the clapper of a bell.
A shoulder strap separated from the bodice
Is fixed with a safety pin.
The dress, very tight,
Won’t zip up in the back,
But it’s bouncy
With the petticoat and all —
It feels good to turn and feel the slight lag
Before the material swirls in response.

Although there’s plenty of film
I have only two flashes left;
All the lights on in the kitchen
Folding my hands in front of me
One on top of the other
On the layers of fabric,
I smile.
Good focus in the first dark photo
But too close to the camera
Only the top of the dress shows;
I prop up the back of the Polaroid
To direct the aim down a bit,
Adjust the focus
Step further back
Show more of the dress,
Now visible to just below the waist.
Next, a new position
Still further back
At the sink.
The pose of the fourth
Identical to the third
But a flash
Seizes the sheen of the material,
Coarsens my skin.
I have one flash left.
Composure in the first pictures has to give way
To something more expansive:
Ethel Merman —
There’s No Business Like Show Business!
Arms down!
Palms out!
Here I am!

When I’m trying to off the dress
I panic for a moment —
Bent over
Tugging at the unresponsive fabric
Overcome by an urge to tear it
Anything to get out of it.
Then I see myself:
Bent over
Acres of fabric around my head.
I laugh and stop struggling.
Gently I work the petticoat up past my arms
Over my head.

The photos show a man in pink


Frank Kelly taught English at Farmingdale State College in New York for 33 years. His poems have appeared in Danse Macabre, Sketchbook, Breadcrumb Scabs, The Bicycle Review, and the anthology Voice of the Bards. In 2012, he published Growing Up Me: A Memoir in Poems. He has collaborated on three stage musicals, The Texas Chainsaw Musical, Xmas! The Xpose! and Pageant. The last was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Best Musical Revival of the 2014-2015 Season. Since 1985, Pageant has played off-off- and off-Broadway (twice), and in London’s West End, Australia, Japan and throughout the United States.

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