by John Gorman
Mitch needed to dump Iggy pronto. It was the only decent thing to do, but, if he canned the kid, he’d have all those bottles of olive oil to stack by himself, not to mention the mountain of cardboard boxes in the back in desperate need of breaking down. Besides all the chores, there was the inescapable matter of biology to consider. How would he have the chance to take a whizz without having a fresh set of eyes to mind the shop? So Mitch sweat it out, watching Iggy toss pennies into the cash register. Scalp to neck, he shined Tuscan dawn. An empty shop before twelve wasn’t a calamity, but it made Mitch grumpy. Only knuckleheads tossed away plum banking gigs. Sinatra had a song for his stupidity. On the bright side, nobody was breathing down his neck except his nagging conscience, the ascot-wearing twit. He wanted to throw him under a crate.
Issue #112 soundtrack: Wildfires "Sad Wolverine"
The late morning sun spilled through the blinds. Its gleam off the bottles gave the olive oil lapidarian luminance: platinum, palladium, white gold. Some had a chem lab sheen. Time melted into eagle butter, but that didn’t bring anybody into the shop. He loped outside, crouched on the crusty sidewalk, and changed the daily quote. At least he got a few hellos. He took his sweet time cleaning the chalk smudge, scoured his brain for something pithy, if not witty, to write. Only thing crossed his mind was a pet phrase of Oscar Wilde he often liked to spout after he’d slugged too much bourbon, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
One of those phrases stone-etched in his noggin, it never looked right scratched out. He wanted to rub it off, but somebody had already grinned. If he couldn’t drum up business, at least, he could spread the bitter truth.
He’d only had a moment to duck back into the shop, hadn’t fully had the chance to adjust his eyes to the indoor lighting when somebody rang the doorbell. At last, a customer! He rubbed his hands, the praying mantis in red flannel that he was, waiting on his big morsel. The customer kept ringing the doorbell. Mitch waved for the man to enter but he didn’t budge, so Mitch had no other choice and dashed to the front. The tinny noise bugged him so much it was as if somebody was ramming a knitting needle through his eardrum. He’d meant to remove the nuisance but hadn’t gotten around to it. The door was usually left ajar, yet half a dozen nitwits managed to ring.
Mitch greeted his guest, a foppish man in a crisp, bandless-collared shirt and a navy v-neck, clutching a weathered black valise. The man snapped to attention when Mitch set his eyes on him. He was a svelte owner of an oblong torso and runty legs and didn’t appear to have much muscle, though it was hard to tell in his roomy threads. His forehead and cheeks were smooth, well-lotioned, and just by his overall je ne sais quoi it was doubtful he ever put in a hard day’s labor. He wore his peppery hair gelled in a high part above his widow’s peak. He might’ve been pushing 40. His waxed brows knocked off a few years. Generally speaking, his tan didn’t hurt either.
Mitch, by way of splendid contrast, wore an unruly mop of hair and a red flannel shirt over his stonewashed jeans. You’d never take him for a fusspot in his getup, but he was a ticking time bomb. Things needed to be done just so. A simple kink in the arrangement of things left him gobbledygook. His brilliant idea of asking his patrons whether or not they needed a bag with their purchases conveyed concern for their needs and the environment, too. After all, he did run an eco-minded shop. For the most part, the olive oil he sold was organically or bio-dynamically farmed, and his customers tended to be the canvas-bag-toting types who scoffed at plastic. But there was a catch. There was always a catch. Chatty Iggy sometimes got off his mental track, made wrong change, and even forgot to hand receipts or sometimes even the goodies. He had the same shit-eating grin you either loved or loathed.
Mitch bowed his head to the foppish man, expecting perhaps, fingers-crossed, a big order. He launched into a brief spiel, canned succinctly for every poor schnook who schlepped into the shop. He wasn’t even the least bit aware of the measuring tape that the fop removed from his scruffy valise.
“Paolo’s the name. I’m here to measure you.”
“Well, then,” Mitch chimed, “I hope we can measure up.”
“Your suit, naturally,” Paolo said.
“There must be some mistake.”
“You are Mr. Cranepool, yes?”
Paolo waltzed forward as if whisking into a cloud of perfume. His pant legs had impeccable creases and his wingtips were spit-shined to perfection. He sneered at a drippy watercolor of dimpled lemons, loafing in a wooden bowl. Maybe he had a qualm with the tortoise-shell frame. He finally parted with his valise, resting it on the country table, and Mitch felt flabbergasted by the handle’s gaudy gleam. The valise itself seemed to have been through a war, but the handle smelled new and shined of beeswax as if to protect against sweaty palms and superstition. Paolo unzipped his precious bag and removed a weathered tape measure and a nip of white chalk.
Mitch still wore a wriggly, slightly crooked expression of great bewilderment. Paolo carried on as a consummate professional, marking the waistline, inseams, and wingspan of his muse with soft-dusted lines of chalk. For his part, Mitch snaked and rustled as if suffering through electroshock therapy. Iggy chimpishly grinned, amused by the whole saucy affair. And then, just as Mitch thought it was the end of the gory ordeal, Paolo dug into his valise and returned with a book of fabric. The fop had sadistically-trimmed fingernails and scratched his chin with the pinkish flesh of his index finger.
“Yes, charcoal gray will do,” Paolo said, letting his fingers flutter in the fortuitous prance of an accordion exercise.
“Great. Let me know how that goes for you.”
Paolo motioned to the far window. “We need a splash more light.”
“I don’t know who put you up to this, but I’ve got a million things to do and I haven’t had my second cup of coffee.”
“Neither have I. I take mine French press. Black.”
“You’re a real crackup. Listen, pal. This is not happening today. Capeesh?”
Mitch made a futile attempt to escort the fop to the front door. He looked Iggy’s way for some extra oomph, but the kid had already slipped into the back.
“Mrs. Cranepool expects you to be dressed by 7:30, which doesn’t leave much time.”
“This is nuts. My wife would never arrange something so ridiculous.”
Paolo removed a work order from his vest pocket. Mitch strained his eyes at the cryptic pen scratch and then shook his head when he’d stitched it all together. Bunny Cranepool, self-ordained, borough-wide Coco Chanel, spackle wizard, and closet linoleum freak had one great fantasy yet to materialize before she finally became eligible to collect social security in roughly two years, and that was to see her only son move into a doorman building off Sutton Place.
Mitch dreaded this inevitable dinner date with the Countess of Manners, hadn’t figured out how he’d duck out of it, but wasn’t about to go through this embarrassing ordeal of getting fitted by this fop.
“Look, nothing against you,” Mitch began. “Just go ahead, hop to your next engagement, and I promise not to breathe a word.”
“That’s out of the question. A deal’s a deal.”
“Sure, keep your deal. Just forget my suit.”
Paolo cleared his throat.
“Madame promised to pay upon completion.”
“You’ve got to be joking.”
Paolo produced the work order again. Mitch spent another eight seconds appraising it. Sure enough, the sum of 403 dollars appeared on the bottom of the ticket.
Mitch let loose a short, gruff sigh. He sided with the haberdasher’s indignant plight. Being a small potato businessman himself, he knew the rub. He’d ingratiated himself time and again to dimmer wits’ whims only to eke out what passed for a living. His mother, Bunny Cranepool, was a mountain lion in these matters. He pitied Paolo, imagining their chance encounter and whatever the terms must’ve been to win the order. Mitch swallowed his pride as if delivering a few bottles of olive oil to another trust fund dunce.
How he’d make a go at the day hadn’t quite crystallized. But he felt somehow embroiled in this haberdasher’s plight.
Mitch excused himself, went outside for a breath of air, and Paolo tagged along. He trailed a few paces behind like a well-coiffed gypsy. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, even after Mitch pinkie swore he’d show up at the haberdasher’s shop for a full fitting. The slick-haired fop, holding the horrid leather valise would’ve lulled by his side indefinitely, and this gave Mitch a sharp pain in his gut, the very same feeling he’d had as a kid when he was forced to play with his bed-wetting cousin Tucker.
You had to walk down a crumbly set of steps to make it into Paolo’s shop. It was one of those basement jobs dangled before cloud-kissers, “retail gambles” made by desperate landlords. There should’ve been twice the turnover of street-level shops, save for the fact that it took a certain kind to hole up in these conditions. Exhibit A: Paolo Barbera, a once-promising designer who now took whatever crummy order came his way just to make ends meet.
Paolo‘s shop looked more like a dry cleaner’s. Racks upon racks crammed with wire hangers of shirts, slacks, and suits stretched every which way. Papery tags, green, brown, and yellow curled off the hangers. The place reeked of steam iron and starch. Paolo directed Mitch to the back of the shop where a clunky sewing machine sat on a fold-out table. A small fan spun stale air in dusty ribbons. Paolo led Mitch to a floor marker where Mitch stood on two strips of masking tape as Paolo went to work. The haberdasher unrolled bolts of cloth from a thick spool. He pressed his fingers lovingly through the fabric and cut with great precision.
Mitch couldn’t help but think of what must’ve been happening in his own shop: the phone ringing off the hook, deliveries coming in, a rush of bio-dynamic olive oil fanatics and Iggy there to goof it all up. Okay, this was clearly the bastard child of Mitch’s overactive imagination. If anything, nothing was going on in the shop, and it made him kind of queasy thinking of all this nothing.
“Could you hold still for two seconds?” Paolo said. “You’re a slippery eel.”
“Whoa. I’m doing you a favor. Let’s get that straight.”
“Hold your gut in,” Paolo said.
He could work no other way than to sew, bit by bit, sleeve, tail, pant leg onto a live, ungrateful model. Mitch couldn’t take the warm breath on his cheek, behind his ear, by the small of his back, even though his undershirt covered his skin. The constant swirl of breath seemed too great an invasion of privacy. At least Paolo didn’t smell badly, he gave off a whiff of spearmint.
After a long sewing stretch, Mitch had a chance to try on the jacket. The shoulders felt snug yet roomy, almost silky. Though he was curious to know the mystery fabric, he tucked his curiosity. How great to wear something so snazzy without having the fierce urge to scratch. Mirrorless, he settled for a sidelong glance. The arms fell a hair below his wrists, and his pockets slightly caped over his hips, giving Mitch a smart, stately appearance, a sharp counterpoint to his usual pullover sweater and cargo pants ethos that had become his de facto ensemble. He had no idea when he’d wear this suit, but he had the juicy urge to treat himself to its elegance for the rest of the day.
Just as he thought Paolo was putting the finishing touches on the lapels, the haberdasher gaped at his craftsmanship. He tapped his wingtip on the bald floorboard, waiting for some kind of epiphany. He bit his thumbnail and stared. When he couldn’t seem to take it any longer, he plucked a thread from the elbow of the suit and let out a horrid yawp. Mitch was frightened for the poor, flustered man, frightened for himself to be stuck in this gruesome scene. He didn’t have it in him to console. He had no clue what was the matter, what egregious flub Paolo had made. No pat on the back was going to cheer him up.
Paolo rose from the table and approached Mitch like a man possessed. He snatched the suit jacket right off Mitch’s shoulders, then tossed the garment onto the table, letting the arms flop over the side like a man rolling off a cliff.
Mitch let the haberdasher pour himself into his genius. He tapped his feet, something of a cross between a paso doble and a nervous tick, insinuating rhythm and this tap-tap of his added a schoolboy’s buoyancy to his work. Paolo chose a new material, a bluer-dyed, worsted wool. He sketched something, then hunched into his routine. The more meticulous the haberdasher became, the more Mitch doubted he deserved all the effort. His mother certainly didn’t need to spring for such luxury. He would’ve settled for a two-pound bag of parboiled brown rice.
He wanted, almost more than anything, Paolo to break out of his tormented expression. Mitch peered around the space, could only see passing shoes since they were sunken below street level. After a while, the haberdasher didn’t look so hot; his face blanched and his veiny cheeks made him appear dusty blue. He seemed on the verge of fainting. He got up and staggered to the back and when he returned he brought a tinfoil lump; he quickly peeled it open and dug into his paltry lunch, a plain sandwich on whole wheat bread, cut into triangles. There couldn’t have been more than two paper-thin slices of turkey or ham; it was hard to tell from Mitch’s angle. There was no lettuce or tomato or pickle to speak of, and Mitch had the funny feeling there probably wasn’t any mustard or mayo.
The haberdasher stole little pecks here and there as he slumped over his sewing machine. Strange bird that he was, he slaved away in his own self-made sweatshop, carried on as if shackled to his sewing machine, pining for thankless perfection. Mitch lusted for the suit, slinking off the edge of the table. He’d almost convinced himself with that snazzy suit he’d sail through the daily grind. Preposterous as that seemed, since he spent a good chunk of his day with rolled-up sleeves, dusting bottles, petting dogs, or else sweating profusely as Iggy made petty change for customers. Not to mention the fact he often got onto his knees to reach for stuff at the base of the counter and from the shop’s many bottom shelves. When Mitch reached for the jacket sleeve the haberdasher snapped from his pose.
“Get away, get away,” he said.
“I like it,” Mitch said. “Let me put it on.”
The haberdasher clenched his jaw and Mitch knew he’d only salted the wound. The haberdasher stopped altogether and Mitch had to leave. Yes, he felt slighted, but quitting that steam trap brought great relief. How comforting the pavement felt. Fresh air wisped the back of his neck, his own shop summoning his brisk return. If he didn’t have customers, at least the dog walkers would be waiting for water and biscuits. He got there just in time to give a pug a swig. He gave himself chores, divvied them into short bursts to keep busy. Dusting bottles made him feel good. When he got tired of that he stamped bags. He put his whole body into the press, pushed off the Birchwood picnic table with gruesome Olympic oomph, a slow burn, sizzling in his triceps and trapezius, and when he stared down at the fiery red ink tattooed on the thick paper, a fuzzy bliss filled his whole being. His elbows crackled and his knuckles, too, and it couldn’t possibly get any hunky-dorier.
Michael Stipe’s “Stand” chimed in from the speakers, and there was no way to thumbs up the already thumbs up. Bottle it up. Bottle it up, he thought aloud, alone. Bottle it up. There was no formula. No vitamin. No exegesis. No swami. One deep whiff of the vast centripetal smooth rejiggered his chakras. Did he even know where they’d been cooped up?
Before he had the chance to break from the unsullied moment, the haberdasher charged inside the shop, a dusting of Sweetgum leaves and pigeon feathers whisked behind his wingtips. This time there was no weather-beaten valise, only stubble-mottled cheeks and a vague chimera sway to his step. The finished suit, wrapped in clear plastic, tucked in his arms, had a certain pent-up giddiness of a hermetically-sealed debutante about to be thrown into shark water. Paolo Barbera, the wizard of yarn, placed the suit on the Birchwood picnic table like the Bride of Mazzini.
Mitch almost didn’t want to look. He feared for his own unimpeachable countenance. What if he didn’t show the right face? What if he didn’t crack a smile when Paolo unveiled his masterpiece? The jilted haberdasher might throw a tantrum or slit his throat. Mitch wasn’t about to mop up any blood. He appraised the shelves of bottled olives, oils, and such. It made him sad and a little bit ashamed not to have pushed himself further to have found his creative pulse. He made nothing. He was merely a purveyor of bottled dreams.
When Paolo revealed the suit, Mitch stared incredulously. Stunning. In a flash, he slipped into it. Didn’t even care he’d stripped down to his boxers, giving the busybodies by the window the half monty. The cool wool was a butterfly kiss to his skin. Nothing bunched up, not a tug. Not a single, sinewy sense. The whole garment had impeccable fluidity, seamless stitching. Standing seemed more like dancing. His liquid calm swilled. He opened a spigot to pure sincerity and watched in near horror Paolo staring at him. It all made too great a burden. He had the distinct impression Paolo didn’t want to part with the suit, and oddly enough this seemed fine by him even if it was a gift from Bunny. He’d square it one way or another. Surely he’d get the silent treatment from Bunny, a good week’s worth anyway, plus he’d be forced to cat-sit Sheeba.
Mitch couldn’t take it any longer, peeled off the jacket, handed it to Paolo, mumbling an apology. The dumbfounded haberdasher stood there and Mitch dug into the register and then into his wallet to give the man his due.
“It’s too nice. Take it,” Mitch said.
“What? It doesn’t even fit me,” Paolo said.
The haberdasher only grabbed a few bills and split in a huff. Mitch waited until he curled around the corner then put the suit on the back of his chair. It cast a smart shadow.
Tomorrow Mitch would skip the jeans and flannel and throw on instead a pair of cords and a turtleneck.
John Gorman has appeared in Squawk Back, New Pop Lit, Tulane Review, and Gravel. He is the author of the novels Shades of Luz and Disposable Heroes. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. For more, visit him online at jgpapercut.blogspot.com.
Nicole Daddona is an award-winning doodler, art director, designer, and puppet builder living in Los Angeles. Her work has been featured in publications including the Los Angeles Times, BUST Magazine, BuzzFeed and Narratively. Her puppets have been featured in numerous Los Angeles Puppet Slams as well as the Los Angeles-based, critically acclaimed kids' stage show "The Breakfast Show." She is an author for the popular women's entertainment and lifestyle website HelloGiggles.com, where she writes a weekly illustrated interview feature called Mail Order Interviews. Follow her on Instagram, Vine, and Twitter, and visit her online at nicoledaddonastudio.blogspot.com.
Wildfires is an unsigned band from Austin, TX. Their music fills the air between spacey and fuzzy indie pop with a bit of an Americana undercurrent--shimmery, yet nostalgic. They released Aguas Frescas (Part I) in March 2015.For more, listen on Bandcamp and follow them on Facebook.