Originally published in Fiction365
copyright (c) 2012 by Anjoli Roy
Franchesko, a man without siblings and with two parents in the grave, had worked at the Laundromat for 18 years before he bought the tailor space next door. He was a whiz with a hem, a slick, strong hand with a stuck zipper, and he pressed crisp pleats into slacks that lasted for weeks, the neighborhood wives said. He married the week before his fortieth birthday.
Suzette had been a girl he’d known for years. Her slight frame disguised the tomboyish-ness that tore her dresses when she snuck out to climb trees to see the dark night sky, and a perpetual cough announced her travel between her parents’ home and the grocery store. She was a jokester, someone always telling stories that made those who crossed her path laugh, and shy Franchesko saw something beautifully reckless in her, something a bit too out of his reach to approach.
Fortunate for Franchesko, Suzette began frequenting his shop on her own as she entered the twilight years of her 20s, complaining of her clumsiness as she produced another ripped hem, a hole in another elbow of her best jacket, a frayed neckline in her favorite dress, even as her knees began to ache, her cough became more pronounced, and her days of climbing met an abrupt end.
When one night she lingered with him until after his closing hour, Franchesko lulled himself in the sound of her husky voice as she confided that she wanted to write adventure stories, but that she didn’t know how to read. He stopped short of promising to teach her.
He didn’t approach her, really, until the $2,000 he’d saved rested comfortably in his bank account like so many plump, warm olives. He brought knish to her family’s house on Isham and Cooper streets when he was invited for brunch one Sunday morning, closed the shop for a full three hours—unheard of in his business, which was always open long before most people woke up and long after many went to bed.
Suzette wore a light pink dress that brushed her knees. Franchesko recognized it as the one she’d brought to him the week before for a new hem. His heart sped at the thought of his hands having worked there, where fabric now touched skin.
When Suzette’s father, a man red in the cheeks from a constant drip of Irish whiskey, asked Franchesko straight out what his intentions were with his daughter, saying that he and his wife thought her a bit old to marry at the age of 29 and that they would just as soon she, their only child, remain unwed and take care of them in their old age, Franchesko locked eyes with him and said he was very much in love with her, that the two of them would take better care of her parents than just Suzette alone, and then, braving a look at fair Suzette, who he saw was now blushing deeply, he chucked back his shoulders and announced the sum he’d tucked into the bank. As far as he was concerned, the money was hers to do with as she pleased. He wanted her to learn to read and write, and classes at the local school were well within their means.
The wedding was small and sincere, attended by Franchesko’s few friends in the neighborhood and Suzette’s little family brood. The Rabbi’s words were spoken clear and true, the glass smashed carefully beneath Franchesko’s foot in a muted crush that made him think, nervously, of the hole he’d likely ripped in the linen wrapping it. When they lay chastely in bed that night, Franchesko confided in Suzette about this tailor’s worry. She laughed, told him he wasn’t working, that rips began new beginnings, didn’t they? And then she braved his nervous body for him.
They lived together happily for twelve years. Suzette never took her writing classes, though Franchesko taught her what he knew: enough to decipher the morning paper, work the register, and keep records at the shop. She preferred to help save money for a rainy day—or a baby, she one day added.
Franchesko felt overwhelmingly blessed. Suzette brought laughter and joy in ways that, as an only child to two sullen parents, he had never known before, but he worried about that ever-present cough that no doctor seemed to know how to cure; as of late, the time between her fits became shorter and shorter, the ocean of relief between coughing now thinning to a faint trickle that revealed dangerously parched land.
When Suzette grew bored of working the register, she tried to learn Franchesko’s trade but was frustrated that she did a better job tearing seams than sewing them, puncturing holes than stitching or patching them up. Franchesko told her the customers came back just to laugh and visit with her. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t a tailor. He needed her just as she was. Could she see that?
And so the days passed, happily but without event until, like a sudden storm, both of Suzette’s parents passed, one after the other, like trees toppled in the forest, their roots never expected to be shallow or tired until a strong gust revealed them: stubby, bleaching in the sun. Dear Suzette was heartbroken, inconsolable, her body soon turning in on herself and away from Franchesko, her aloneness amplified by their quiet home, their baby-cry-less nights, the grating regularity of coming and going to the shop, until one day Franchesko caught her weeping into a family quilt that a neighbor had dropped off for repair for her new baby girl.
Franchesko did what he could to revive Suzette, but she was resigned to loss, to her inability to bear, the final punctuation of each period mocking their increasingly desperate attempts. She resigned herself to caring for their home, away from lives lived too boldly, too fully, in the clothes that Franchesko repaired.
When one night Franchesko hurried home to see his dear Suzette, he found her once again in the kitchen crying, sobs broken up now only by her ever-increasing coughs. Perhaps she was only good for tearing? she asked. Perhaps she couldn’t build or sew or make as he did? Perhaps she was only scraps herself, unable to be made into something new or whole?
He wrapped her night-gowned body in a warm shawl against the fall night, led her to a small incline at the base of the park whose trees she once climbed, and showed her the bright, full face of the moon, which hung, shockingly, amid the dark forest of buildings. He told her she was like that. That she brought light to his darkness. That she was whole and made him whole.
Suzette wrapped her arms around Franchesko, smiled up at him, and traced the smile lines bracketing his mouth with a look that showed she knew she’d put them there. Franchesko was happy, knowing they had turned a corner, that they would be happy again. She would return to the shop the next morning.
When Suzette died that night, Franchesko knew he would never recover. The pattern of his life became regular and severe, as devastatingly ordered as his free-hand stitches that continued to right hems and sleeves even as his vision began to blur, pressed crisp creases into slacks even as his hands began to shake, until finally, after he began spending more time at the shop than in his impossibly quiet home, his hunched spine curved into a sharp question mark that refused to straighten, a demand to the world the question of when life would ever, could ever, visit him again without his dear Suzette.
The answer brimmed in his cataract vision: he would find her spirit in death. And that answer was what he held onto ‘til the end.
Acknowledgments: Thank you so much to my family, friends, and to Salon Esse for their encouraging reception of this story! For their substantive edits, thank you to Bianca Baquerizo, Leo “L’Royski” Gorski, Christina Low, Dotti Roy, Joya Roy, and Lizzy Shramko. Thank you to Aisha Scherr-Williams for her encouragement and expertise. Thank you also to Fiction365 for publishing my work again—it’s an honor! Finally, warmest thanks to Vasken, the curved-back tailor who I walked by and wondered about every day for close to a year on my way to the train when I moved back to the small uptown neighborhood of Inwood, New York. Vasken is not Franchesko, but he inspired the character. The week this story was accepted for publication, he closed his shop for good. Thank you for your warm presence in the neighborhood, Vasken! Though I didn’t know you, I watched the countless well wishers stop by your shop, hug you close, and thank you for your many years of meticulous, skilled service. The neighborhood has had a grandfather in you!