By Rob Robison
Eli bent forward as he walked. His pace and posture made him ever appear to be walking into a strong headwind, but it was doubled today as he fought the raw New York City winter bluster. Steam rose from the many manholes and grates, gently at first then racing as the wind picked it up. One manhole spilled steam over a group of bunched coats and knitted caps standing at a bus queue as Eli walked by. He looked from the steam to the huddled mass transit customers and stopped.
“Ah, the warm air feels good, eh?” he asked, his bushy eyebrows rising upward, taking his polyester fedora with genuine naugahyde lining with them. “You know where the steam comes from?”
A few of those gathered turned their bodies just enough to see the source of the voice but not enough to expose the sensitive skin of their necks to the wind. Only their eyes were visible over the collars and scarves, and under the hats, do if an answer came from any of the group it was muffled by the layers they wore.
“It’s from the shit and piss in the sewers! You’re standing in the afflatus rising from the tunnels of waste under the city.” He spoke loudly as a habit but added volume in order to be heard through the wind and clothing.
Receiving no visible reaction he pulled his gloved hands from his coat pockets and held them out. “You want to breathe in my shit? Come to my house. Clean my toilet. God knows I don’t do it.” He dismissed the silent crowd with a flip of his wrists and stuffed his hands back into their warm cubbies, and with a shake of his head headed back into the wind. He trudged two more blocks until he finally reached the doors of Alfred Brendel’s Fine Men’s Clothing and Tailoring and entered.
Mr. Brendel’s smile at hearing the bell above the door tinkle disappeared when he saw Eli Ferbiessiner’s dour expression. Eli had been an acquaintance and occasional customer of Mr. Brendel’s for thirty-five years. “Mr. Ferbiessiner. Why are you out on a horrible day like this?”
“Ach,” said Eli with a wave of his hand. “Today, yesterday, next week. It’s no more or less horrible than any other day. So it’s cold. And windy. You want beautiful, move to Miami. And pray that a hurricane doesn’t blow you to out into the ocean to a terrible death. I should want to be eaten by a shark? What’s wrong with you, Brendel?””
“You’re right, Mr. Ferbiessiner, you’re right. Now, what can I do for you? I know you didn’t walk all this way just to wish me a good day.”
“Walk? How do you know that I didn’t ride a taxi to your front door? Don’t be smug,. Brendel. I used to be a merchant myself, you know. In the eighties I was a partner with my nephew, Nicholas. We owned the Laser Disk Depot, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. A beautiful place, right on Northern Boulevard in Queens. The good part of Queens, not where the trash lives. “
Mr. Brendel had heard this story before. “I wasn’t suggesting anything…”
“Hand over fist,” Eli continued, while he hunched over and acted out pulling in an invisible rope, proving his body language to be as loud as his voice. “Making money hand over fist, we were. Then that unholy cow of a wife of his, may she rot in hell. She had a boyfriend, that one. That I know!” His index finger whipped through the air like a saber. “Together they drained all of the cash from that store and whizzzzert,” he clapped his hands and waved. “Gone! Ruined! I tell you, if I still had that store, you’d be walking to me, Mr. Brendel,” and he thumped his chest for emphasis.
“I’m sure I would, Mr. Ferbiessiner. Laser disks are so beautiful, why, uh….” he said, shrugging his shoulders’ and letting the sentence die a peaceful death. “Now, as I was saying, what can I do for you? Perhaps a new hat, mnph? Don’t get me wrong, yours has a certain retro kitsch to it, but I see it is cracking in some places. A nice felt fedora would look wonderful on you, Mr. Ferbiessiner, and feel so good on a cold day like this. Perhaps something more sporting, hmmm? Something in a hound’s tooth design?”
Smiling ruefully Eli answered, “There is no warmer hat available today than this, Brendel. If there were, don’t you think I would buy it?” He shook his index finger to the sky. “I’m not here to potchky around. Today I am here for a new suit! I must attend the funeral of my nephew’s wife, God bless her.”
“The unholy cow?”
“Gottenyu! That was his first wife, the lusty one. The funeral is for Ilene Ferbiessiner, his second wife to die, poor man” Eli said as he leaned forward conspiratorially, his right eyebrow arching like a crawling caterpillar. “His first wife died after eating poison mushrooms on a camping trip. Tell me, who goes around eating things in the woods they don’t know from nothing? These people…and this one, the clumsy girl, fell down the stairs, died of a broken neck, God have mercy!”
“My sympathies,” nodded Mr. Brendel. From what he had heard of Eli’s nephew, Nicky, Mr. Brendel guessed that the second wife refused to eat the mushrooms.
“Well, Mr. Ferbiessiner, please look around. You’ll find that I stock only the finest materials and fabrics, and of course, suits on the rack designed by the best names. And my tailors have been with me for years.” Mr. Brendel waved his arm expansively around the store, taking in customers looking through the rows of suits while others were fitted for their selection.
“Yes, yes. I have two hundred dollars so show me a variety in that range.” He pointed a gnarled finger at Mr. Brendel and added, “And as I am such an old customer of yours I do not expect to be charged sales tax.”
Mr. Brendel sputtered, “Two…two hundred dollars? Why, I could barely find a hat I earlier mentioned for that price! Mr. Ferbiessiner, please! This is not a grimy shop full of slave laborers. I run a fine haberdashery providing a quality experience for the discriminating consumer. When was the last time you purchased a new suit?”
“Don’t change the subject on me, my friend. I know your tricks! And you should get your eyeglasses checked, because if you think you see a goyisha kup standing here you are seeing things!” Eli had waved his arms throughout his response and he was beginning to attract the attention of the other customers. He saw a woman and child watching him and yelled, “Hurry! Get the police! Tell them there’s a man in here armed with chalk and tailor’s tape robbing people!”
“Mr. Ferbiessiner, please, lower your voice.” Mr. Brendel said as the mother grabbed he young son and hurried for the exit. He knew throwing the old man out would only cause a bigger scene, so he placated him to buy time. “I’m sure we can find something for you. Please come with me. Howie, watch the register,” he directed to a young man who had been watching the performance from a safe distance.
The two men walked toward the rear where there was an available stand before a three sided mirror. An employee had seen them coming and was walking quickly in the opposite direction.
“Larry! Larry, could you come here, please?” Mr. Brendel called after the man.
Larry stopped and abruptly dropped his head before turning around and trudging back at a pallbearer’s pace. Larry was a long time employee of Mr. Brendel’s and had tried to help Eli select a tie once several years ago. Mr. Brendel had been absent that time so Larry had greeted Eli with a smile when he entered. Forty-five minutes of chaos had followed which included Eli claiming to be a Korean War POW for seven years and singing the Star-Spangled banner twice as proof. And yet, much to his disbelief, people tried to rob him when he wanted to buy a tie. At one point he set fire to a tie while trying to prove it was made out of polyester, not silk. Larry had finally given him a tie of his choice at no charge just to get him to leave and had never mentioned it to Mr. Brendel.
“Larry, would you get Mr. Ferbiessiner’s measurements, please?” Mr. Brendel asked when Larry finally arrived. As Larry stooped and bowed with a measuring tape Mr. Brendel calmly broached the issue of cost. “Larry is one of our finest tailors, Mr. Ferbiessiner. He has been with me for…how long, Larry?” he asked.
“Eighteen years,” Larry muttered. The great mop of a comb-over he wore over his thoroughly hairless scalp came undone as he alternately squatted and stood while measuring Eli. Under his breath he added, “Eighteen years and you still have me measuring asses.”
“Eighteen years of experience and performance, Mr. Ferbiessiner, “said Mr. Brendel, smiling and gesturing with his hands in a supplicating manner. He was warming to the subject if not the object before him. “You know you will be receiving the best.”
“Humph,” Eli answered and looked down his nose. “If you’re softening me up just so you can put the screws to me later with an outrageous bill, don’t waste your time. “
“You couldn’t soften that dried-out heart if you boiled it in aloe vera,” Larry murmured down by Eli’s ankles. His comb over was completely lopsided now, touching his right shoulder and leaving his shiny pate exposed.
“Mr. Ferbiessiner, please!” Mr. Brendel faked shock and hurt so convincingly he felt shock and hurt when he wasn’t believed. “Be Reasonable.”
“Reasonable, you want? You get trucks full of suits for pennies and charge thousands of dollars for them and you want me to be reasonable!” Eli was getting that wild look in his eye again.
“Sounds like things are a little tight ‘round the back side,” Larry murmured sotto voce as he held his tape across the back of Eli’s hips. He brushed the hair off of his shoulder and over his head.
Mr. Brendel looked at his tailor and said, “Thank you, Larry,” while his eyes were yelling, “Keep your mouth shut, for God’s sake!”
“I know what these pieced together rags from Taiwan you call suits are worth, and I will not pay more than $150 for one!” Eli was waving his finger in Mr. Brendel’s face.
Larry had stepped back and was surveying Eli carefully and rubbing his chin with his hand. “I’m thinking a style that doesn’t feature deep pockets,” Larry said to himself but loud enough to be heard by Mr. Brendel and Eli. Mr. Brendel paused as his gaze burned into Larry and turned back to Eli.
“Mr. Ferbiessiner, you know how much we value your business. Why, we consider you one of our family,” Mr. Brendel said through a pasted smile. It was Larry’s turn to close his eyes and shake his head over the ridiculous remarks he heard. “However, am I correct in assuming it has been a few years since you’ve purchased a new suit?”
Eli looked at Mr. Brendel suspiciously, fearful that an incorrect answer would cost him money. “Don’t talk down to me, Brendel! I’ve bought suits made by the finest tailors in from Harold’s of London. I know quality, I know money, and I know I am not paying more than $100 for a suit! You think that because you’ve been lucky with your rag shop that you are so much smarter than me. Let me tell you, I was running a business while you were trying to suck dinner from your mother’s teat”
“Running it into the ground, perhaps,” Larry said to Eli’s back. He was no longer even measuring, just stretching the tape at odd angles behind Eli, enjoying his role as color commentator. He suddenly stopped and cocked his head and wondered, ‘Did he say ‘teat?’’
“And this one,” Eli said in a raised voice, throwing his thumb over his shoulder, pointing at Larry. “With the muttering and mumbling. You say he is a great tailor? I say he is an blabbering idiot.”
Larry had finished pretending to measure Eli and stood with his hands clasp behind him and staring at the ceiling in apparent concentration. Mr. Brendel meanwhile had come to the sudden conclusion that he could neither convince this cheap, foul-mouthed, bitter old fool in front of him of his concern with his customer’s satisfaction nor calm him down enough to be able to politely ask him to vacate the premises without causing a scene. The mental image of him grabbing Eli by the collar and belt and giving him the bum’s rush was spreading a sincere smile across his face when Larry spoke up, this time clearly addressing them both.
“Mr. Brendel, what about the suit we prepared for Mr. Michaels. I’m sure you remember. The charcoal striped blue serge two-piece with shell buttons,” he said, looking to Eli while he spoke and raising his eye brows as he baited the hook. “A very smart ensemble, indeed, that Mr. Michaels paid on yet was unable to appreciate due to his, ahem, untimely departure from our midst.” Larry sadly lowered his head and his comb-over slipped from his crown and fell to his chest.
Eli’s ears perked at the possible deal. “What’s that? He paid for his suit and died before he could pick it up? A shame, a terrible thing, oh, the poor man. So you’ll be throwing it out, then?”
Mr. Brendel was already shaking his head and holding up his soft, chubby palms. “Mr. Ferbiessiner, there’s more to it than just that. While Mr. Michaels bought the suit, he hadn’t paid for the alterations. The major alterations. You see, Mr. Michaels was…” He was rolling his hands in circles, searching for the right word or expression and looked to Larry for assistance.
“…a man of unique proportions,” Larry responded, and with closed eyes and pursed lips he nodded his head several times.
“Yes, Larry, a man of unique proportions,” Mr. Brendel repeated and looked upon Larry with newfound respect. He was impressed by the decorum exhibited by his employee. He would make fine manager material but there was no way Mr. Brendel would have a man with such a cockamamie comb-over for a hairstyle choice. He had once asked Larry why he combed his hair like that and his answer was that his head was globe shaped and it wouldn’t look good bald. Mr. Brendel agreed that Larry’s head was globe shaped, but thought that Larry was trying to cover the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with North America and it wasn’t working. Even God couldn’t pull that one off.
“Now the idiot thinks he’s Noah Webster with “unique proportions,” Eli groused, now directing his wrath toward Larry. “Or Roger’s Thorax. Either way, why don’t you make yourself useful by taking your tape measure and measuring how far I’m going to stick my foot up your ass if you don’t bring me that suit?”
Larry wasn’t insulted by the loud, boorish man simply because he knew that it wasn’t personal. The old quack would be saying the same thing to any tailor at the store who had the misfortune to wander within his malignant glare. He could almost feel sorry for the fetid old gasbag, were it not for the nose hair sticking out of his gnarled schnozz. And these weren’t just errant strays that were missed during his morning hygiene routine. To Larry, looking at Mr. Ferbiessiner’s nose hair was like looking at kudzu on a Mississippi delta. It appeared he had taken two old Rastafarians and stuffed one feet-first up each nostril. It was an unforgiveable breach of etiquette to Larry, so without rancor or compassion, he spun on his heels, causing a tuft of his comb over to whip out and give a soft “pop,”and strode to the back of the store
“Finally,” Mr. Ferbiessiner exhaled and slumped down, feigning exhaustion. “Seriously, Brendel, you might want to cooperate with your customers a little more. I look around the store, I don’t see the hustle and the bustle and the happy, smiling people coming in to look at your line. Far be it from me to tell you how to run your business, but still…” He let the silence build his case as he casually turned his gaze to look out over the store.
Mr. Brendel stared at the side of his customer’s head and wondered what kind of noise hitting it with a baseball bat would make. As the first sincere smile of the day slowly formed on his face Eli’s voice snapped him back to reality.
“Finally! The round-headed boychik with the fancy hair-do has decided…” and Mr. Ferbiessiner stopped short. Even from thirty feet away he could tell that Larry was carrying a garment made of such exquisite material, and whose color and cut was so subtly powerful, that its wearer would be instantly recognized as a man of class and distinction. From his perspective it seemed that Larry approached him in slow motion, his comb-over slowly rising and falling with each step.
Eli pointed and rasped, “I want that suit.” Uttering such an unguarded remark in front of salesmen startled him back to reality and he quickly looked around, and added roughly, “…for $100.00 and not one cent more.”
Mr. Brendel raised a hand and opened his mouth to speak, but the old man had already moved stiffly yet quickly past him and was trying to snatch the suit from Larry’s hands.
Larry held firmly, but with a smile, as he told him, “I just wanted to remind you, sir…”
“I know, I know, I remember,” gruffed Mr. Ferbiessiner, ‘enuch portions.’ The old man yanked the suit free and scurried off towards the dressing rooms, giving a little laugh that sounded more like an engine running without oil.
Larry wore a satisfied smirk and patted his hair back in place as he watched Eli turn the corner. Then Mr. Brendel was at his side, shaking his head and wearing a decidedly unhappy look.
“Larry, Larry, I don’t know how I let you talk me into this,” he said, still shaking. “Sure, the old man is the biggest headache on the East Side, and I want to see him get his, but as soon as he puts the suit on he’ll see how ridiculous it looks, he’ll kibosh the sale, and he’ll cause twice the hell he already has.”
“Mr. Brendel, please,” Larry comforted him, and squeezed his shoulder. “It was you who taught me how to recognize these schmucks. You watch. He’ll walk out of that dressing room not only wearing the suit, he’ll be talking himself into buying it. All I’ll have to do is agree with him, maybe make a few small suggestions, and tell him what a gorgeous suit he is purchasing. Trust me, sir.” He held fast to Mr. Brendel’s shoulder, and his boss couldn’t help but get a little misty at the confidence and smarts that his soon-to-be assistant manager was displaying.
“I guess I’ll have to get used to that cockamamie hair,” he sighed to himself.
After several minutes Eli shuffled out of the dressing area, wearing the beautiful fabric that had been cut into an almost inhuman form. The left pant cuff was a good two inches above his ankle while the right pant leg was hemmed so long, he stepped on it when he walked. Similarly, the left jacket cuff was two inches from his wrist and the right cuff almost covered his fingers. He had to bunch the amply cut waistline of the pants in his left hand so that they didn’t fall around his ankles. Still, his face bore a countenance hinting at enthusiasm, unable to completely form the expression because the necessary muscles had long ago atrophied.
“You know, I think I can make this work,” he said as he limped toward the huddled pair.
At that they both beamed and rushed forward, adjusting the suit here and there and showering him with complimentary sounding phrases.
“Mr. Ferbiessiner!” Mr. Brendel exclaimed. “Just look at that suit!
“Did I tell you?” Larry chimed in. “Did I tell you the suit would look like that?
“You, in that suit, I tell you!”
Eli rubbed down the soft cloth of the jacket breast as he accepted the praise.
”Sir, that suit really does something for you, I must say.”
“And the fabric, oh, that is one-of-a-kind fabric. Beautiful!”
“Why, look at it. Just look at it,” Larry said as he herded Eli, hobbling like a gargoyle, over to the three-way mirror.
“I have to agree with you, it is a beautiful suit. I can feel the superiority of the fabric irradiating through my bones,” Eli said as he admired himself in the mirror. As the exposed ankle and wrist caught his eye he felt a twinge of disappointment in his belly, afraid that the good deal would be negated by the severe dimensions of the suit. “Though I must now agree, uh…young man, this gentleman certainly did have…how did you put it?”
“Unique proportions, sir” Larry answered down his nose with a smile and a detached air. It was important during this point of the sale of a suit that the tailor behaves more like a gentleman’s gentleman, and the customer revel in the sight of himself in a new suit.
“Unique proportions! That’s exactly right, unique proportions. But I think I can make this work don’t you?” and he looked at Larry expectantly.
“Oh, certainly, sir. This is no worse than many other suits that our satisfied customers have worn out of here,” he lied. “We just use a few old ‘tailor’s tricks’ that we keep up our sleeve,” and widened his eyes at the pun. Receiving no sign of appreciation from the old man’s face he continued. “First, the easy part: we’ll take your old belt and tighten it up to hold your trousers in place.” Larry threaded it through the many loops, folding back what fabric he could as he went along. After the belt was cinched and tucked in, the pants held in place, but the legs ballooned out beneath the waist so much that Eli looked like one of MC Hammer’s dancers.
“Ah, much better,” Eli sighed as he let go of the pants. But what about the lengths?”
“What we do in these type situations,” Larry grunted as he pulled down the left waist of the pants, “is adjust the pants just so.” He looked down and saw that the pants just touched the top of Eli’s shoe. “Now, it’s very important not to bend your left leg when you walk, or the hem will show to be too short. But like that, it’s gorgeous. Now…” Larry trailed off as he cradled his chin with his right hand for a moment.
Eli looked over to Mr. Brendel. “Don’t bend my left leg. Simple. That’s not hard,” he said with a shrug.
Mr. Brendel answered, “Who bends their knees when they walk anymore?” and shrugged as well.
“O.K., for the right leg, reach down as far as you can with your right hand, grab the pants leg, and pull up. That’s right,” he said as he watched Eli follow his instructions. “See, that lengthens your right arm so that the cuff is correct, while pulling the pants up to their proper height.”
“So you’re getting two birds here with this move. I see, I see,” Eli grunted with the stretch. “Hey, Brendel, this is some genius kid you got here.”
“I told you, Mr. Ferbiessiner,” Mr. Brendel said as he winked over at Larry. “Only the best here, sir.”
“Now, the jacket is just a bit trickier, but not much,” Larry said as he stood behind the old man. “You’ve already accounted for your right sleeve. Now, hunch your left shoulder high in the air, that’s right. See, your left wrist is now even with your left cuff,” he said as he pointed in the mirror. “Remember, same here. Don’t bend your elbow. As a matter of fact, try not to move your left arm at all, and you’ll look great. Like a million bucks, sir.”
Eli looked at the figure in the mirror, resplendent in an expensive, custom suit. Underneath he was twisted, uncomfortable and sweating, but the image before him was of a classy, respectable gentleman. “I’ll take it,” he shouted, careful not to move the left side of his body.
The wind had blown itself out, but the cold remained, and the street was busier than when he had arrived at Mr. Brendel’s shop. Slowly, like a man afflicted by a terrible disease, Eli hobbled past New Yorkers who pretended to have seen it all and wouldn’t deign to scrutinize an old man with an unusual gait. Yet it was more than a mere unusual gait. While trying to simultaneously pull up his right pants leg and fully stretch his right arm, he would give a couple of short hops with his right leg. When he judged that he had gained enough ground, he would straighten up and stiffly swing the left side of his body around like a gate, and plant his left foot ahead of his right, and repeat the process. He grunted with each movement, sweat beaded on his forehead and cheeks, and his lips were peeled back from his teeth in an attempt to smile that resulted in a maniacal grimace.
After a half hour of struggle he saw two sisters who shared an apartment in his building walking towards him on his side of the street. “Well, well, if it isn’t the two old yentas from upstairs. Always so smug and superior in their ways,” he growled under his breath. “Wait ‘til they get a load of me in this suit!”
He only had to perform a few more hops and swings before he encountered his neighbors. “Hello, ladies,” he gasped between clenched teeth, his lips pulled back even tighter.
“Mr. Ferbiessiner,” they said in unison, nodding slightly in his direction and continuing on their way. They had taken a few more steps when they looked at each other then stopped and looked back at Eli and watched as he continued his elaborate dance homeward.
Miriam, the younger sister, said, “What in the world is wrong with him?”
Her sister Margie answered, “I have no idea. But didn’t that suit fit him nicely?”