What Gets Worn

 

I needed a suit. I was twenty-four and didn’t have one. All my male friends had suits, even the slobs. It was time to get one.

My father’d died. But I hadn’t been thinking about him being dead. We’d been terrible to one another when I was a kid, but over the past six or seven years, we’d come to be friends. Real friends. I was looking for a gift for a friend, and passed a men’s store. It’s funny the way something can happen so close to another important thing. In that store window a tall faceless mannequin with no hands stood arms akimbo in a light brown wool suit.

Everyone needs a suit. Every man needs a suit, at least, I don’t know if a suit is mandatory for a woman—I don’t think it is. For the most part it seems like anyone can get away with wearing anything at any function these days, but a man needs a suit for funerals. Interviews, birthdays, weddings, Thanksgivings – these occasions can all be manipulated fashion-wise, but for a funeral, I think a man needs a suit. I would need a suit.

Thirty minutes later, a small wood-resin statue of Buddha wrapped in bubble-paper and gift wrap under my arm, I ducked into the door just left of that mannequin. The name of the place had a word like bank, or bones, in the name. A December air was coming in cold, and the streets smelled like rain and old snow. The air inside smelled good, hot and safe like a thick slice of bread. Soft track lighting floated above vertical racks of long, shiny leather belts, and slippery silk ties, straight socks hung down. Stacks of shirts on smooth white shelves were strategically placed by their appropriate and matching colored suits and sport jackets. I looked down and the floor glowed up at me.

Paul approached. We exchanged greetings and pleasantries. Paul didn’t look too much like he was coming in for the kill, and if he was, I was convinced it was more euthanasia than aggression. He asked what I needed. I needed a suit, I said, one that’s versatile, from wedding to wake. Do you have shoes? he asked.

A man needs a good pair of shoes. I was twenty-four and didn’t have one. I was a cook in a nice restaurant, and no one in the restaurant kitchen business has good shoes, it’s like a rule. Paul then told me that what I really needed, it sounded like to him, was a full set-up: shoes, suit, shirt, tie, socks, belt, the whole get-up. I felt unsure; it sounded like a lot of money, not that I wanted to be cheap, but I get nervous in stores. I never think I’ll have enough money to buy whatever it is I’m there to buy, it’s terrible in the supermarket, I just wander from aisle to aisle chewing my lip. So I said, Well, let’s start with shoes and a suit, and see where we are. Paul directed me toward the rear of the store, and the dull street traffic shirring by in the light rain outside drifted back and back and back.

I wanted a suit made of something not cheap. I couldn’t afford the most expensive materials, wool and camel hair and Belgian Linen with Bemberg Lining. Hand-linked Herringbone. I would be forced into the sea of blends and dyes, a problem which increased the options—and my anxiety—tenfold. I was lost in the folds of my mind when Paul broke the silence: What brought you in today?

Hmm? Why are you here? I mean, I know you want a suit, but why today? he said.

I’m not sure. Actually it was a chance thing, I was buying a gift for a friend and just sort of stopped in. Why? I thought it was a strange question.

It’s just that if I knew exactly why you wanted a suit, maybe I could help you zero in on a few choices.

When I was eight my parents sent me off to summer camp, a few hundred acres on the Chesapeake in Northern Maryland across from Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Sometimes bomb shells out over the water would shake the ground like Seneca Guns. I broke my first toe there; I learned to water ski and shoot a small rifle. I shot bows and arrows. I smoked monkey bars, thin driftwood sticks gone hollow we’d light in campfires, and puff on in the dark and choke and choke.

It was my first real experience away from home, and I didn’t know how to act. The camp was a long one, seven weeks, and while I loved every second of it, I also happened to spend almost each and every one of those seconds in a green, Speedo bathing suit. The plum-smuggling kind. To this day I don’t know why. The camp was a liberal place, sure, and people wore bathing suits all the time—it was summer. But I guess I loved something easy and smart about that bathing suit, and was young enough not to know or care what people thought about me. Who knows, kids are weird; maybe I’d figured since I went swimming daily in the bay that all that salt kept it clean. So for almost eight weeks straight I wore a bathing suit. Everyone called it The Living Suit. I wore T-shirts with it too. A lightning blue mesh tee with the numbers ‘88′ etched across the front. A yellow cotton that read in blue ‘No Nukes.’

Most of the kids at camp were from New York, Maryland and D.C. We lived in tents propped from high wooden poles cast into concrete slabs about 10′ x 20′. It was the first of three years I went to that camp. It was the year I met Kevin Lucky.

I’m not even going to tell you that everyone called him Lucky Kevin because you know they did, but what I will tell you is that Kevin was overtly feminine, with a thick southern accent, and got teased a lot for it. I got teased for living in The Living Suit. As a result, Kevin and I found ourselves as teammates in every sack/three-legged race, and usual buddies at all the open swims in the bay. We all swam in a roped off area with lifeguards on piers at both ends. Every half hour they had a buddy check. When they called the number assigned to you and your buddy, you had to hold up interlocked hands and yell, “Buddies!” Kevin’s voice just begged to be drowned. I guess I got in the way a lot of the time. One day, being on what I saw as the wrong side of the fence got to be too much. I wanted out of the social clothes in which I’d been sewn.

So one afternoon when the open swim session ends, and Kevin and I are back at the tents, changing (his tent was directly across from mine), and I’ve got a lump on my neck from where someone tried to hit him with a rock or a shell at the towel stand, I see again the long, braided scar that runs down the back of Kevin’s right thigh. It’s deep—I remember imagining at eight how stretched and wilted it would be when Kevin was older, old. Rumor was that Kevin got the scar that last Christmas in a car accident with his parents, his father had died, and Kevin was living with grandparents because his mother was in a hospital somewhere and wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. It didn’t matter whether any of the rumors were true or not, the one thing I knew I’d overheard one counselor tell another was that life for Kevin was “fucked.” And as I’m thinking this, Kevin turns around and catches me eyeing his deformity and says in that odd, contralto voice I’ll never forget: That stupid bathing suit—you just wear it all the time ‘cause you’ve got a little dick, and don’t want anyone to see you in the shower.

But I had one better on him. Well at least my dad isn’t dead and my life all fucked up, I stated matter-of-factly. Kevin Lucky looked back at me. You’re right about that, he said.

I brushed up against something nice—thin but warm, sea foam green, with a Breton Stripe.

Paul asked me, Every man needs a suit? Why do you think that?

You know—social occasions, functions, business stuff. I mean, aren’t there some things you just need to wear a suit to?

That’s not exactly the case, Paul started. Paul was tall, had short blond hair, and wore a thin, blue tweed jacket over a sweater. He said, There’re a lot of choices these days when it comes to menswear—jackets and pullovers—here, come take a look at these.

We wound our way through a few turnstiles of khaki pants, wool slacks, Johnny Collar Polos and Italian Linen button-down shirts, stopping before a mannequin, faceless, with no hands, dressed in an attractive deep grey cashmere V-neck sweater, blue tie, and white slacks. These cashmeres, Paul explained, are really dynamic. With the tie it’s perfect for the office any season, no tie and you go casual.

Even for a funeral? One of Paul’s eyebrows went up, and there we were. Paul coughed. His voice became a little softer. Yes, these are okay for funerals—perhaps not for a passed acquaintance, or something more formal, but for a close family member, yes. I think this sweater with a tie combination would look fine.

Does this take special care? Can I wash it myself?

You have to hand wash it, really. You can machine wash it delicate, but that will shorten the real life of the garment. If you can’t hand wash it, there are certain cleaners you should use, gentle cleaners like Woolite. Even if you do hand wash it, Woolite is the best thing for it.

It wasn’t me. I like sweaters, but that formal-sweater-look just reminds me too much of my seventh grade science teacher, Mr. Baird. Mr. Baird stood five-seven at best, but was barrel chested, and cut like David. His eyes were fierce. I remember one day during a lecture on cell walls, someone on the other side of class asked him if he ever wore suits. It was the first time in those first few months of class that someone had said anything not related to science. After a short pause Mr. Baird simply went back to turgor pressure in Oak leaves. How could I walk around looking like that?

No, I said, that’s not really my look. Okay, c’mon over here—I think you’ll really like this. Paul brought us around two more turnstiles to a stack of shelves next to a thin rack under soft lights. These are chambray cotton shirts, very strong, good color, and very classy. These, Paul said, pulling down a beautiful camel hair jacket from the rack, in combination with one of these jackets gives you a lot of variety. With a few shirts and a couple of pairs of slacks, you can put together a few outfits with less money.

That sounded good; the jackets were gorgeous. But the price tag reflected that fact, and I just wasn’t convinced I had to spend that much for one article of clothing. I put on my best smile and pulled the one Ace I had: Do you have anything like this in a blend?

Sure. Paul smiled, reached back behind the camel hair rack and pulled out a nice black blazer, but something in his demeanor had just slightly changed—I don’t know, it’s hard to describe, it was as if he’d had a very, very, very, very small stroke, and one side of his face had slipped down ever so faintly. But that blazer made me smile, and he smiled back, and that was enough for both of us. The jacket was a wool/Lycra blend. I tried it on. It was warm, and dark, but held some light and did not look dismal, or gloomy. A small crepe card inside the left pocket read: With a touch of stretch, this classic three-button blazer sheds wrinkles naturally. Excellent for traveling. That sounded perfect. I now also had some cash for shoes and a few nice ties. I felt like my collection of khakis and slacks at home would fit in fine.

Paul and I moved around the store picking out my few last items—I still have the shoes, a pair of suede Balmorals. I paid for my things, collected the garment bag with my blazer, and went out into the thin cold rain. I had a suit, finally—but not really. At the car, my key bent against the lock, and nearly snapped. I finally slumped into the driver’s seat when it hit me: Not only had I left my friend’s gift back in the menswear store, but I would never wear this suit.

My father hated funerals, didn’t even go to his mother’s own funeral. As I started the engine and began to drive away, I saw the garment bag laid out like a body in the back seat, and it struck me suddenly that my father would be cremated, turned to ash. I could not for the life of me imagine any single thought he may have had. At home, in my bedroom, I slipped off the garment bag and slid the new coat into my bedroom closet. The next day, in Florida, my mother and I made a few trips together around town: the bank, Salvation Army, the police department. After a few more things got straightened out, I left. I had to be back at work. It was bad.

At home, in Virginia, just a few hours after the plane ride back from Florida, an old postage stamp fell out of my suitcase. I thought about the crap my mom and I had to throw away—my dad kept everything. Receipts from paid electric bills dating years back; pay stubs and tax notes decades old, ancient postcards with nothing written on them; full sheets of those stamps—I swear he had a fortune in stamps, not really valuable ones, just so many, page upon page of one cent, three cent, ten cent. Why had he kept so many stamps? I raise my arms to hang up the blazer in my closet. I grab a hanger and sling one shoulder over each tong. I’m reaching back into the closet when something dark moves against me—it’s a blacker, looser outfit I don’t yet suit. It smells like Lilac Vegetal, and something weak with wings falls dead from beneath the collar—in the deep closet of my blood I am rubbing those wings between my fingers like fine thread, memories for me, memories against me.

Jesse Waters

Jesse Waters a winner of the 2001 River Styx International Poetry Contest, runner-up for the Iowa Review Fiction Prize and Finalist in both the DIAGRAM Innovativ.0e Fiction Prize and the 2014 Paul Bowles Fiction Award, Jesse Waters is a recipient of a 2003 NC Artist’s Grant to attend the Vermont Studio Center, and is currently Director of the Bowers Writers House at Elizabethtown College. Jesse’s fiction, poetry and non-fiction work has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes, and has appeared in such journals as 88: A Journal of Contemporary PoetryThe Adirondack ReviewCoal Hill ReviewThe Cortland ReviewCimarron ReviewConcrete WolfIowa ReviewPlainsongsMagmaRiver StyxSlideStory Quarterly, Southeast ReviewSycamore Review and others. His first book of poems, Human Resources, was released by Inkbrush Press in February of 2011.