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A quarterly international literary journal

Empty Dresses

/ Third Place, 2023 Plentitudes Prize in Fiction /

On his way through the city back to the old man, Ivan noticed the pattern of grapeshot bored into the limestone walls resembled a living and erect phallus. Twine holding together a packet of his daughter’s laundry dug into the folds of his fingers and the paper bag in his other hand had begun its disintegration into pulp. He did not know if it was the sweat on his skin or if it was the tepid potage the old man loved so dearly which caused the bag to break as he entered the threshold of the small, grey apartment. The lights were dark and the countless fans which had been tasked with fending off the formidable Illyrian summers were still. Boxsprings creaked from the other room. The old man was forever finding loud and new ways to assert his restlessness. After setting the laundry down on his own bed, Ivan brought the bowl of potage and some brown bread to the fragile lump of a man propped up in his bed stubbornly clinging to life.

The old man’s room was a bastion of Yugo-nostalgia. Tito’s last state portrait hung oblong on the wall adjacent to his bed. His medals were fitted in magnified cases so he could see them without his glasses. His federation uniform, which alluded to an impressive and bygone silhouette, was wrapped in plastic. Old socialist pamphlets were tacked to walls with straight pins. Every surface was yellowed by smoke and sun. Ivan dropped the bowl of potage on the side table wrapped the old man’s rheumatic fingers around a spoon. It would only be so long before he couldn’t feed himself, Ivan thought.

Mikhail, a tooth fell out last night, the old man said. He flicked his eyes over to the night table, to where a stained molar sat in the center of a water-ring on the wood. He often called Ivan by his son’s name and criticized him. They were the same age, but his Mikhail had found work in Cetinje and sent money back to Kotor biweekly for his father’s care, the job for which Ivan had been hired. Ivan had only met him twice.

You should drink your milk, Ivan said. The old man shook his head and laid back on the pillow. He spat out his son’s name and coughed himself into breathlessness as Ivan left him for the evening. In Mikhail’s absence, Ivan had taken the son’s room, which was less expensive than anything in the city, and afforded him the privacy he deemed necessary. It was such privacy that allowed him to take the laundry out of the twine and canvas wrapping and lay it out on the floor to examine in detail. He covered all the floorboards in his daughter’s clothes. He arranged dresses and composed entire ensembles from wall to wall. All the clothes he remembered buying for his daughter had been replaced by now. More and more often he would find pieces he remembered from the wife’s wardrobe in the daughter’s laundry, the wife who wasn’t his wife but was now someone else’s. He walked in between the garments and decided which one he would lay with that night before he would have to return them all tomorrow.

The old man soon fulfilled Ivan’s prediction when a second stroke rendered him unable to exercise the simple independence of lifting a spoon to his thin and withered lips. Mikhail sent back money to take him to a specialist but Ivan took him to a cheap Serbian doctor, pocketing the difference for himself. The doctor recommended fresh air, which was a vaguely medical way of saying “this man will die soon and nothing can be done about it.” Nevertheless, Ivan dragged him out onto the small balcony and sat with him, periodically putting a cigarette between his lips so the old man could smoke like he always had.

Why don’t you stay with me? The old man mumbled to Ivan, again thinking he was his son. They both sat behind the low, wrought-iron bars feeling the sun on their faces. White cataracts clouded his eyes and had rendered him blind. He reached out to touch Ivan, but he drew away so the old man was left grasping at the summer air. He asked the question again.

I have a family, Ivan said.

From the railing, he saw the wife all of six times and his daughter all of none. He had fleeting pangs of spousal irredentism when he saw that the wife was never alone. Each time she meandered down on the streets of Kotor below, Ivan craned to see the face of the husband who was not him and felt the aching twitch of regret.

After spending three weeks caring for the old man, he resumed his nightly ritual. While examining his daughter’s clothes he saw presaging burgundy stains on the back of one of her dresses and in between the legs of her nylon stockings. Underneath the floral aroma of soap and the harsh scent of bleach, he recognized the smell of blood. Ivan decided he would spend less time with the old man. He wondered if she looked more like the wife now, and though he wanted to see her, the time they spent apart had formed an ever-widening canyon between his memory and reality. It was Ivan’s worry that upon seeing the daughter, he would either find her unattractive or too much the opposite. He took the money he saved on the doctor and bought stencils, printing ink, and drafting paper to set about making his own laundry tickets. Gone were the days of uncertainty, of waiting at the shop and slipping the delivery boy some cash before he made his route. He copied the wife’s signature from an old letter and made sheets of tickets with blank spaces for the dates. I’m picking up for the wife, Ivan would say to the laundress. Upon presenting the reasonably similar ticket, she would hand him the freshly washed clothes, which had gradually, though not imperceptibly, shaped to hug the figure in certain places and become more accommodating in others.

Ivan had failed to notice the deterioration of the old man which was significantly more abrupt than his daughter’s foray into womanhood. The only reason he even saw that the old man was slipping further from his surroundings was when he stopped speaking. Only his milky eyes were a window into his mind, or what was left of it. At the end of July, the old man’s son came up to Kotor and found his father alone in a state of decrepitude. He also found the dresses Ivan had been saving in his former bedroom. When Ivan returned to the apartment, Mikhail insinuated that his services would no longer be welcome by way of a swung corkscrew to Ivan’s left cheek.

If I see you again I will cut out your eyes and throw them into the sewers, Mikhail said.

The landlady never changed the locks allowing Ivan to retain his lodgings, while the wrinkled Albanian nurse sent to replace him appeared as though she could use some of her own services and was thus easy to manage and eventually send away altogether. It was around this time that the limp crinoline and gabardine of his daughter’s clothes began to feel like only what they were. The deflated dresses with which he had become so familiar no longer offered Ivan the same elation, the same feeling of ebullience upon which he had come to depend. He first put them in the oven and made them warm, so it would feel like she had just taken them off and he could imagine she was in the next room, soft and young, asleep for the night. Ivan couldn’t reconcile the memory of the fair-haired child he remembered with the developing body that occupied the clothes. With this, he took a scaling knife to the cushions and to the old man’s mattress. He stuffed the dresses, the bras, and the slips, sculpting them until, in dim lighting, they resembled the body of a young woman.

Ivan sold the old man’s medals to buy silk and lace lingerie from upscale boutiques he had heard about in Podgorica. The shopgirls, who looked about the daughter’s age, wore American-style makeup and laughed a little too loud. They showed him the latest imports from France and Slovenia. One of the girls took out a sheer black negligee from the window and persuaded him to buy it. He imagined it against her bare skin and her new body. After the girl had finished wrapping it she asked who it was for.

I hope my daughter will like it, Ivan said.

The old man was now barely himself. Ivan could see his stubborn grasp on life grow tepid from week to week. Jaundice replaced his ruddy complexion with a sallow pallor. His arthritis and strokes had left him with little command of his limbs leaving his muscles to atrophy to the point of uselessness. The heat caused the old man to shiver with sweat revealing the extent of the wasting in his frail, diseased body. He had finally become unmoored from the rest of the world, only existing in the liminal space between life and the unknown. Ivan improvised catheters and collection units to give the old man some semblance of autonomy over his functions. Eventually, Ivan was compelled to go to the other side of the city to fetch topical ointment for his bedsores. It was one of these trips to the pharmacy where Ivan stumbled upon the outline of a burgundy stain on the back of a familiar dress, on the back of the girl whose broad hips and budding chest made clear her identity. Under moths soaking their wings beneath the streetlamp, in the dim and dwindling dusk, Ivan felt the collapse of his delicate fiction and with it, the hope from which it was born.

Back at the apartment, Ivan tore through a packet of clothes he picked up that evening before the laundries had closed. He held the starched collars and ragged hems to his body, running them over his lips and eyelids. With practiced skill, he began to stuff one of the dresses with the polyester entrails of the couch. However, the more Ivan preened at the perfect likeness of the figure, the more he was left with the indignant realization of its inanimateness. There was no feeling of “her” beneath the linens or the pleats, no warmth or resistance. Ivan took the dress with him to the old man’s room. The redolence of necrosis overpowered him while he bandaged and treated the ulcers. The old man’s lucidity was far from him, but he was still warm and against all reason, alive.

He wrung the dress in his hands and lifted the old man’s bony arms. He shifted him from one side of the bed to the other and pushed his neck through the hole until the collar rested at the wells of his clavicles. Ivan arranged the frayed hem to drop past his knees. He ran his hands down the bodice feeling the heat and tension, the pain and fragility. Beneath the fabric, he felt life. Ivan sat looking at him, certain of his imminent demise but unsure of its proximity, and he hoped, he desperately hoped, the old man wouldn’t die in his daughter’s dress.


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