The Piece Titled “The Crooked Man”

There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile,

He found a crooked six-pence upon a crooked stile.

He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse.

And they all lived together in a crooked little house

Desmond had never had a suit fitted before.  There had never been a need.  He had attended many formal affairs, but he had long since become comfortable with the scoffs and cross-eyed glares that being inappropriately attired brought him.   In fact, he had grown to enjoy the solitude of denim amongst silk and polyester blends.  But, for this particular funeral, he felt the three-piece, charcoal-grey, two button that he had bought for twenty dollars off a rack on the corner of Orchard and Rivington was more germane.

He had been painting when he received the call.  A commissioned work that, to this day, remains unfinished. It hangs in the entrance of his small, one bedroom on the Upper East Side of New York. It’s his second favorite part of the sublet. Never being one to waste time finding overly clever, pretentious titles for his art, he named it, “The Day My Grandmother Died.”  His father rambled on about the importance of family and how much she had meant to everyone.  Desmond didn’t need to be reminded.  He knew. He fell back onto his large, black couch.  The brush he had been holding fell to the ground and made a large blue smudge on the wood floors, a smudge that also remains.  In fact, he photographed it and sold the print, titled “Smudge From When I Dropped My Brush,” for two months rent.  Time slowed down as he hung up the phone.  His father had booked him a flight that departed two days later, and Desmond knew he had to pack, but even standing seemed a daunting task.  He had never been religious or in any way spiritual as most of his family is.  He looked up as though to pray but felt false doing so.  So, he simply sat for a while and allowed time to retake its normal pace.

It was warm for November.  Desmond wished he hadn’t worn his coat as headed to the tailor’s shop at the end of his block that he had walked past every day for nearly three years.  It was small and dingy.  He always imagined it smelling like his grandmother’s basement, which was a labyrinth composed of boxes, racks of clothes that should be lining the walls of the nations best vintage shops, books, old furniture, tools, and exercise equipment that all the grandchildren loved to injure themselves on.   Desmond and his cousins (well, those closest in age) would play hide and seek throughout the unorganized mass of history, would dress up in their parents old school uniforms, would turn furniture into pirate ships and deserted isles, would dig through old year books finding embarrassing shots of their aunts and uncles, and would avoid, at all cost, the backroom that was dimly lit and believed to house a monster of inexplicable evil.

The shop did not smell of her basement.  In fact, it smelled quite lovely.  Desmond entered slowly, holding the faux-Gucci suit that had most likely “fallen off a truck” somewhere outside of Paramus.  The shop was cozy and warm.   The walls were lined with pictures of who Desmond imagined to be Governors, mob bosses, business moguls, and old-World nobles that had refused to have a suit fitted anywhere else.  The aged, brown carpet was flat and worn down.  The furniture had dents and bruises where children had damaged it during their parent’s fittings.  The ceiling fan was covered with cobwebs and, if it still worked, had not been turned on in decades.  Desmond fell in love with the sepia toned space.  It was so soft and delicate.  So rife with history and so overwhelmingly unique.

He approached the counter expecting to find an old man garbed in brown pants, a white shirt, suspenders, and, without a doubt, draped with three or four different measuring tapes that would hang from his neck like the Queen’s pearls.  He pictured him with a large, almost comical mustache that covered too much of his lips, bushy eyebrows, and a set of eye-glasses long since past their prime, but he refused to replace them because they were his lucky glasses.  He would wear perfectly polished shoes, and the cuff of his pants would break exactly one eight of an inch above the glossy, black leather.  Desmond’s imagination ran amuck.  He was so excited to meet him, he bordered on nervous.  He took one more lingering glance around the room to take in the imperfections in the picture frames on the wall, the stain in the wood around the door that must’ve been forty years old, the crack in the ceiling, the bit of bare brick that had become exposed in such a perfect way, the section of the counter that had recently been replaced, and the trifold mirror that half surrounded the fitting stand that had held the Upper East Side’s best dressed.

She wasn’t at all what Desmond had expected.  For one, she was a she.  She was not draped with measuring tape, nor garbed in perfectly polished shoes.  She was small and frail, holding a handkerchief to her mouth with her right hand, shaking slightly, hunched over a portrait of a man that nearly fits the image of Desmond’s imaginary tailor, whimpering an unintelligible prayer, and, in her left hand, which rest atop the portrait, clutched as though her life depended on it, a Rosary.  The sight of her alone broke Desmond’s heart.  She looked up at him as he laid the suit atop the counter and struggled to find any words.  She stared into Desmond, her eyes watering, her mouth slightly shaking, and her spirit absolutely broken. Today is the one-year anniversary of my husband’s death.  Desmond gripped his suit and contemplated retreat.  The prefect image of the tailor had been shattered in his mind, and he didn’t know how to handle this situation.  But, before he could move, the old woman stood and kissed the portrait, laid it on the counter, and asked Desmond what he needed.  I… ahhh…. I, uh…. Just, um…. Got this suit, and… I, uh….  She nodded and smiled and told him to go try it on.

Desmond squeezed into the mouse-size fitting room.  He could hardly move enough to get the coat on, but he managed.  And, as he walked out of the small closet, he realized the down side to buying a suit off a rack on the corner of the street is that there is no opportunity to try it on.  He felt like he was seven years old again, trying on his grandfather’s old suits in the basement of his father’s childhood home.  The aged seamstress smiled slightly and simply stated that she had seen worse.  Desmond doubted this, but he appreciated her confidence.  Dragging the bottoms of his pant legs inches behind him, he made his way to the fitting stand.  The three part mirror pointed out more how incredibly oversized the suit was.  The tiny woman reached up to his neck and folded back the collar of the coat.  She cut the fake Gucci label off that had falsely read 42R.  Now, the suit is not a liar; easier to work on a suit that’s not a liar.  Desmond would’ve laughed, but he could feel her sorrow engulfing the room.  He really didn’t know what to say as she dropped to her knees to start working on the bottoms of the pants.

She rocked back and forth and whispered ever so quietly the words to a nursery rhyme Desmond’s grandmother used to say when he was young.   The rhyme became almost a chant for the old woman as she worked, and Desmond’s mind flooded with memories of family dinners, piano lessons, Christmas mornings, and picnics along the water. He couldn’t handle the surge of feeling the memories carried.  How long had you and your husband been married?  He had to do something to stop the repetitive rhyme.  She smiled and told him they had been together for forty-seven years.  How did he die? Desmond knew as soon as he asked it that he had gone too far.  He could feel her running through answers in her head but not wanting to reveal any of them.  He wished he hadn’t asked, that he could take it back. He tried to think of something to say to change the subject, but before he could, she found an answer that she could voice.  He lived a long, good life. In the mirror, Desmond could see a tear forming in her eye.

He felt horrible.  He stared at himself in the mirror.  It had been a long time since he had seen himself as so young.  There he stood, twenty fours years old, swimming in a suit he was about to wear to his grandmother’s funeral, covered in chalk marks, towering over this frail old woman who now runs her husband’s business.  And he had just made her cry.  My grandmother just died. He didn’t know what else to say.  The seamstress looked up at him and, with the tear still in her eye, kissed his hand.  Desmond’s heart, had it not already done so, would’ve broken with that kiss. She started whispering the rhyme once again as she placed one last pin in Desmond’s oversized pants.  It’ll be ready in four days.  Desmond nodded and thanked her.  He decided not to mention that he was leaving in two for the funeral.  He changed his clothes in the tiny nook of a changing room.  He breathed in the perfect shop one more time before leaving, he whispered the nursery rhyme to himself, and he left to go buy a new suit he could wear to the funeral.

He picked up his suit when he got back to the city.  It was perfectly fitted.  He had (and still has) never worn anything so absolutely suited for his shape.  While standing on the fitting stand, wearing that suit, he had never seen himself as so mature, so his age, so real a man.  The old woman, whose sorrow over her husband had subsided, told him how handsome he looked and that he reminded her of her husband when they first met.  Desmond smiled and thanked her graciously.  He promised he would be back if he ever needed something fitted again.  She smiled.  She knew he would never be back, but she appreciated the compliment.

That suit now hangs in Desmond’s apartment.  It has never been worn after that fitting.  While most of his clothes hang in the closet, that suit, as it is a work of art in his eyes, hangs directly to the right of the unfinished painting from the day he received the phone call that his grandmother had passed.  He named it “The Suit I’ve Never Worn” and considers it to be his favorite work of art and his favorite part of the apartment.  As mentioned, Desmond normally doesn’t subscribe to clever titles for his work, yet after walking past the tailor shop six months after the fitting and seeing that it had closed, he felt something was wrong.  He wondered if the old woman had simply been bought out or had retired or if something greater had occurred.  Had she gone to meet her husband at last?

Desmond stood in the empty window for hours, staring and wondering, questioning and imagining every possible reason for the seamstress to have closed her husbands shop. And all the while, whispering quietly, There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile, he found a crooked six-pence upon a crooked stile. He bought a crooked cat who caught a crooked mouse. And they all live together in a crooked little house. He couldn’t stop saying it.  He repeated it over and over and over again.  He caught glimpse of himself in the window, wearing his usual uniform of paint covered jeans, a t-shirt that had worn around the collar, and a stocking cap, and suddenly, he saw himself, once again wearing that suit, standing tall, proud, the man he is.  And, in that moment, he knew, for the first time in his career, he had to change a title.

4 responses to “The Piece Titled “The Crooked Man”

  1. This is a beautiful expansion of a scene in “Cleveland” that you wrote.
    I am sitting here with tears heavy on my eyes. Really wonderful.

  2. I love the the line where he drops the brush and it made a smudge. “In fact, he photographed it and sold the print, titled “Smudge From When I Dropped My Brush,” for two months rent.”
    This is my favorite so far.

    • That was my favorite line too… made me laugh but at the same time there’s a depressing feel too it. Love it!

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