January 23, 2013

Literary LEO 2013

Short Fiction — Third

Alterations

BY ROBERT SACHS

Mrs. Michaels walked past the tailor shop almost every day: On the way to having her nails done, on the way to the coffee shop, the grocery, or just out for a walk. On this day she noticed a hand-written sign taped to the window of the shop. “Under New Management,” it said. “R.K. Darzee.” At the coffee shop she ordered her usual — latte with extra whipped cream. She had gained some weight since she married Mr. Michaels eight years ago, but she didn’t consider herself fat. Her husband, if he noticed the extra pounds, never mentioned it. A little whipped cream never hurt anyone.

“Someone new on the block,” she said to the girl after placing her order. She nodded in the direction of the tailor shop, trying to sound light and carefree, despite the way she felt. Morning was always the most difficult time of day for Mrs. Michaels. Her husband liked to be at the office before seven and for the first few years of their marriage she got up with him, set out his juice and a roll. They would talk a bit and after he left, she would get ready for work. Now, more often than not, she was still asleep when he left. When he was promoted into middle management, he asked her to stop working. She did as he asked, but had trouble replacing her work with anything as stimulating. For years after her stint in college, she sold cosmetics in a department store. That’s how they met. One day, Mr. Michaels asked her about a certain perfume. She sprayed a bit on the inside of her wrist and held it up for him to smell. He declined the perfume, but asked her out for lunch. He was well groomed, with a suit and tie. Handsome, but clearly older. They made small talk at her counter. She found him interesting and self-assured, and she accepted the invitation. After their third date, he asked her to marry him and she said yes. Now she feels out of sync in a narrowing world. Her apartment, her husband, the coffee shop…

“The Indian tailor? Skinny,” the girl replied handing the change to Mrs. Michaels. “Why are they all so skinny, and their women so plump?”

Mrs. Michaels knew that wasn’t true, but decided against challenging the girl’s remark. It was racist, in a way, but if she got into an argument with this young barista, she would end up having to find another place to have coffee. This was her rationalization after she sat down at one of the small tables, her back to the window. But in truth she feared confrontation. She didn’t want to make enemies and she worried too that people would best her in an argument, fighting her feeling of justice or compassion with a slew of data she could neither address nor dismiss. So she developed a wane smile that fell short of both agreement and challenge. On the way home she stopped at the drug store and purchased the kind of toothpaste that promised to whiten her teeth, and two chocolate candy bars. As she passed the tailor shop, she peeked in the window in time to see a tall, thin man with tousled, blue-black hair disappear through the flowered curtain separating the front of the store from the back.

At home, Mrs. Michaels made up the bed, ate one of the candy bars and emptied the dishwasher. She walked around the apartment, looking out the window at cars going by, people walking. “I’ll take a long walk today,” she decided. She took the second candy bar from her coat pocket and ate it before going out.

The sky was cloudless. The air smelled fresh and invigorating. She went into the park, where signs of spring were everywhere. Buds on the water maples. Tulips and daffodils poking their noses through the decayed remains of autumn leaves. Such an optimistic time, she thought. On occasion, when she seemed listless, Mr. Michaels would suggest that the library could always use volunteers. “It would do you good to spend a day or two, a few hours here and there, helping the children,” he’d say. And now as she meandered from the bronze statue of a long-forgotten city father to the edge of the park, she thought, “Why not?”

She bought an ice cream bar from a pushcart vendor on her way out of the park. Back home, she looked at herself in the mirror, adjusting her posture. Several things needed alteration, she thought. Silly to let them hang in the closet from season to season, unused. She picked out a gray gabardine pair of slacks and a red cotton dress. If both could be let out just a touch, they’d be quite serviceable.

She brought them to the tailor shop. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” she said with a smile to the man with the chocolate-colored skin and the thick inky hair. The man thanked her, with only the slightest of British accents. He glanced down at the clothes she had put on the counter.

“You do alter women’s clothes?” she asked, suddenly worried by his look that he might restrict his business to men.

“Of course,” he said. “The dressing room is over there.” He pointed to a flowered curtain on her right, similar to the one leading to the back of the store. “We can start with the slacks.” He held them up for her. Mrs. Michaels could feel her heart pounding in her ears. Her palms were moist.

“Silly,” she said to herself behind the curtain. “I’m an adult woman having clothes altered.” She looked in the mirror, fluffed her hair, took a deep breath, and refused to allow herself a smile.

Mr. Darzee ran a yellow measuring tape around her waist and hips. He unbuttoned the closure on her left side and made a mark with a thin piece of chalk. As he did, the back of his hand touched Mrs. Michaels’ hip. It was momentary and, she was sure, quite innocent, but she bit her lip.

“There,” he said.

For the dress, Mr. Darzee was obliged to measure her bust. He circled her with the tape, holding the ends under her arm. It took only a second. “Okay,” he said, writing on a small sheet of light blue paper. He told her how much the alterations would cost and that her clothes would be ready in a week. He asked for her name and telephone number — she gave him her cell phone number — which he recorded on the same piece of paper.

Mrs. Michaels walked quickly back to her apartment, concerned she might not have enough time to prepare dinner for her husband. Housework didn’t appeal to her and, in any case, she had help twice a week — on Mondays and Thursdays. She slept late most days, often lying in bed until ten, looking at the ceiling and thinking about how she would keep herself busy until the late afternoon when she’d begin dinner preparation. But today she was busier than usual, what with the walk in the park and the visit to the tailor.

Mr. Michaels arrived home as usual at six forty-five. As was their habit, they sat in the living room, sharing stories of the day, sipping wine. Mr. Michaels talked about the surprise announcement that his manager was leaving the company. His successor was not mentioned, which led to speculation that he, Mr. Michaels, could be in line for the job. “It would mean more money,” he said, “more travel as well.” Mrs. Michaels said she was happy for him.

In the days following, she found herself thinking about the Indian tailor. She often found herself thinking about men, and made no attempt to drive away those thoughts. On the contrary, she told herself it wasn’t a crime to fantasize. It could add some excitement to her life. What’s the harm in that? Last year, it was a young workman who had come to check on a faulty gas range. Earlier this year, it was the new doorman.

Now she imagined herself returning to the tailor shop. She would wear makeup and heels. And her fancy underwear. When he asked if she would like to try on the altered clothes, she would say yes. He’d run his hand down the back of her dress, not stopping at her waist. “This lies very well,” he’d say.

Or perhaps she’d speak first. “You have very delicate hands, Mr. Darzee,” she might say. “Like an artist, a sculptor.” She would take his hand and place it on her breast. He would respond by gently pushing back her hair and kissing her ear. There were endless variations to this fantasy. But each one ended in the back of the store, with sighs and moans amid clothes scattered about the floor.

Mrs. Michaels could hardly wait until the following Wednesday when the clothes were to be ready. She had her hair done on Tuesday, telling the stylist to add subtle red highlights. On Wednesday morning, she had a manicure and pedicure at a shop on the other side of the park. At three, she pinched her cheeks, and in her best posture, entered the tailor shop.

A pimply teenaged boy greeted her. “Help you?” he asked in a disinterested, nasal voice.

“Mr. Darzee?” she said. The boy told her the tailor had left to run an errand and would probably not return before closing.

“I see.” She decided not to ask for her clothes, hoping the boy would not be at the shop all the time. “I’ll come back,” she said.

On the way home she stopped at the grocery to purchase dishwashing detergent; she added a package with two Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. She ate the first one as soon as she closed the door of her apartment. She stood in her living room looking out the window and seeing nothing for several minutes. There were vague glimpses of her earlier life: her father, now surely dead, her two brothers, the boy she slept with in college. As a young girl in Madison, she had little opportunity for leisure. After her father left, her mother had to work full time in the bursar’s office of the university, and she, the oldest child, had to take care of her brothers. It was only much later, when she was grown and on her own, when she saw children playing in the park, that her long commitment to her siblings and to her mother developed into an acrimony she can still taste.

The ringing phone startled her. It was the housekeeper telling her she was sick and would miss Thursday. Mrs. Michaels finished the second peanut butter cup an hour before her husband arrived.

That evening, Mr. Michaels reported he’d been given the promotion. They celebrated by going out to dinner and a movie. It was a romantic movie, putting both of them in a lustful mood. Mrs. Michaels tried, but failed, during their lovemaking to call up her fantasy coupling with Mr. Darzee. At every turn the image of that pimply teenage boy intruded. Her husband was a competent lover, but it would have been so much more satisfying, she thought, if she could have kept her focus on the dark tailor.

 

On Thursday, while Mrs. Michaels was having her latte at the coffee shop, her cell phone vibrated. It was Mr. Darzee.

“The alterations are ready,” he said. “Come by any time.”

She looked down at her walking shoes. “Nuns shoes,” she thought. And her underwear wasn’t much better. She headed for home and, once primped with her sexiest underwear and in red high heels, she went to see Mr. Darzee.

“Mrs. Michaels,” he said. “Nice to see you. I think you’ll like how your clothes came out.” This was the first time she’d seen him smile. His teeth were even and bright white. She wondered if he noticed her staring at his mouth. He handed her the two pieces, which she took into the dressing room. Checking the garments, she smiled. The new stitching perfectly matched the old. It was impossible to tell which parts had been let out. But when she tried them on, she found the gabardine slacks a bit too roomy, and the dress even more so.

When confronted, Mr. Darzee looked puzzled. “Perhaps you’ve lost weight, Mrs. Michaels?” He walked around her. “Yes, that must be it.” Mrs. Michaels didn’t think she had lost weight, but she supposed it was possible. He again took her measurements, pausing, she thought, a bit too long at the bust. “I will take care of this,” he said in a business-like tone. “Not to worry. They’ll be ready by tomorrow afternoon.”

When she returned to her apartment, Mrs. Michaels mulled this over in her mind. He was an expert tailor — she had no doubt about that. And if she had lost weight, it couldn’t have been enough to make so large a difference in the fit. So what was Mr. Darzee up to? She decided he found her as attractive as she found him, and wanted to prolong the contact with her until he could muster the courage to say something. “Poor man,” she said aloud with a girlish giggle.

Mr. Michaels arrived home that evening in a dark mood. The new position was stressful. The vice president was making unreasonable demands. He would have to spend most of the following week at the Indianapolis facility. He nibbled at dinner and went to bed early, leaving his wife to think the most outrageous carnal thoughts about chalk marks and tape measures.

Unable to wait longer, she was at the shop at nine. Mr. Darzee came out from the back when he heard the door. The tape measure was around his neck and there was a pincushion attached to his wrist. “Ah, Mrs. Michaels,” he said. “You came earlier than I anticipated. I am not quite finished. But this is good.” He moved the curtain aside and motioned for her to join him in the back. “We can make sure the fit is perfect.”

 

There were regular visits to the tailor shop after that. Mrs. Michaels would rummage through her closet to find this or that dress, blouse, coat, slacks, anything that might need altering. Eventually, she began purchasing clothes a size too large, and bringing them in for alterations. Her urge for candy subsided and then disappeared. She retained a personal trainer, a muscular woman who visited her on Wednesday mornings.

Mr. Darzee noticed the difference. “You are looking younger every day, Laura. The things I let out a few months ago, I’ll have to take in.”

She reddened and smiled, and later completely forgot to stop at the coffee shop.