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Adjustments and Alterations

The old tailor wore a chocolate-colored suit with the jacket missing. Under his chocolate vest he wore a wrinkled beige shirt, sleeves folded and pushed up his forearms. Around his neck he wore a strip of yellow tape measure.

“My condolences,” he said.

He spoke through clenched teeth that held a line of pins in place, sharp points sticking inside his mouth. What he said came out, “Nycun-oll-esses,” but no other translation made sense to me.

My condolences, I thought, only I had never told him that I needed a new suit for a funeral.

“Thanks,” I said. “How did you know?”

The old man never stopped moving and he never looked up. It was as if his only concern was to make sure that my slacks hung perfectly from every profile. The tailor squatted and knelt and crawled around me with the agility of a boy.

He tugged, adjusted, marked and pinned fabric with pinches and tugs and presses. When he needed it, he slid the tape measure from his neck, mumbled some number to himself, then draped it back across one shoulder or the other.

He worked quickly, almost frantically, as if his tasks were timed with a stopwatch, or as if he had other customers waiting. He and I were the only ones in the store, and it was at least two hours before the closing time listed on the front door sign.

One by one, the tailor pulled the pins from between his teeth and pushed them into pinches of folded fabric along and around my left leg. Only when the final pin was transferred from mouth to fingertips did the old man answer my question.

“How did I know? People come to me for three reasons: marriages, funerals, and new jobs.”

“But, I never told you which reason brought me here. Yet, you offered me your condolences”.

“I know.” He waddled over to the right side of my slacks and prepared to repeat his measuring and pinning exercise.

“You don’t need to do the other leg,” I said. “Just match the measurements from the first leg. It’s more efficient that way. Greater efficiency means you can take care of more customers and make more sales.”

The old man looked at up me then scanned his empty store. With a fresh mouthful of pins he went to work, again at a frantic pace. I was still for a few more minutes, then the old man stood up.

“Take off the slacks please. We’re done.”

I slipped off the new dress shoes, then dropped the slacks, careful to avoid flesh-to-pin contact. I handed the pants to the tailor, and as I did, I noticed the misaligned legs.

“Wait a minute.” I held the pants so that the legs fell free. “These legs don’t match. Look how uneven they are. You made the left leg much shorter than the right.”

“They are not of equal length,” he said, “but they match your pair of uneven legs. The suit will fit you perfectly once I’ve made the proper adjustments.”

“This can’t be right. I can’t be that —” I slid my hands down both legs of fabric and compared the hem lines. “I can’t be that uneven, that unbalanced, that, that broken.”

“Ever been to a chiropractor with uneven steps at the exit?”

“Years ago I went twice a week. I haven’t been in a long time. But uneven steps? I don’t understand.”

“The office had uneven steps, but only at the exit.”

“What? Only at the exit? The chiropractor’s office had only one door. I entered and exited on the same set of steps.”

“Do you ever remember tripping as you entered?”

“No. But, I think you’ve tripped me up with this conversation.”

“After your visits, did you ever trip, or almost trip, on your way out?”

I replayed my visits in my head. “Now that you mention it, I may have stumbled once or twice. Apparently, you’ve been to the same office.”

“Never. You only stumbled once or twice?”

“Probably more often. Actually, maybe most of the times. Maybe even every time. Wait, now that you bring it up, I remember wondering why they didn’t get those steps fixed. It was a law suit waiting to happen.”

The old man carefully placed my slacks on a hanger, and slid the suit jacket over the same hanger. He ran his hands down the front of the jacket, almost petting it.

“But that is not a law suit waiting to happen,” I laughed, nodding toward my new suit. He didn’t laugh or even look around.

“Get it? Law suit? Law suit. My new suit is not a law suit waiting to happen. It’s just a suit waiting to happen.”

Not even a chuckle.

“Because, it’s not a law suit.”

Not even a grin.

“See what I did there? The uneven steps in front of a chiropractor’s office is a law suit waiting to happen, because at any moment, someone could trip and fall, and be injured. And sue. That would be a literal law suit.”

The old man stopped petting my jacket, and turned around and stared at me. he stared for an uncomfortably long time.

“This,” I pointed again at my suit. “This is not a law suit. It’s a literal suit… a suit waiting to happen… Never mind.”

“You work in a theoretical or technical field.” he said. “I’m guessing engineering?”

“Yes, but again, how did you — how do you keep doing that?“

“Doing what?”

“Knowing stuff without being told stuff.”

The tailor held up his hand in front of me as a gesture to hush. “So many unanswered questions. First, you asked how I knew to offer my condolences, and not my congratulations?”

“Yes. I —”

He lifted his hand higher, and closer to my face.

“I knew because you never mentioned a wedding or a new job. Everybody shares good news with me. No one ever talks about the funeral they are attending. They keep it inside. You said nothing about your reason for needing a new suit; therefore, my condolences.”

“Makes sense,” I said. Again he raised his hand, and again, I stopped talking.

“Second, how do I know your profession? Because, you think efficiency is defined as measuring one leg, then applying the same measurements to the other leg.”

“But —”

The old man pointed at me and gave me a mean look. I hushed.

“Engineers always speak, never listen. Always question, never answer. Always explain, never learn.”

I raised both hands in surrender.

“The problem is, we don’t live theoretical lives,” he said. “We live real ones. Our paths are uneven, no matter which path we choose.”

I tried to listen, to learn, or at least to hush.

He continued. “Living a theoretical life means always having one leg of your pants shorter than the other in the real world.”

I waited to make sure it was done, then I finally spoke.


That was all that would come out. I tried to add to my one-word response, but all that came out were maybe two more wows.

“Finally,” he concluded, “the chiropractor’s office steps are level. They would be sued if they were not up to code. They would be forced to wear a law suit.”

“That’s what I’m talking about! See how funny that is!”

“The steps,” he said loudly enough to drown out my laughter, “the steps are even coming in and going out. Between going in and coming out, you are what is uneven. Between visits, you adapt to the non-theoretical world by walking funny, leaning to one side or the other to keep both feet on the ground.”

“So,” I said, “I compensate so I can continue living.”

“Until you no longer do,” he said. “Only when your legs are made to be of equal length, only then do you trip.”

“But that much?” I looked at the difference in the hems.

“Your suit will be ready in the morning. Your work is done here. Now mine must begin.”

“That’s what I call efficiency,” I said, but I didn’t leave. I stood there on the platform in my underwear, looking at myselves in the three-sided mirror. I altered my posture so that I reflected a perfectly aligned back and level waistline. My right foot was balanced on the carpeted platform, but I felt nothing but air underneath my left foot.

“This practical life takes its toll, doesn’t it?”

“Yes it does,” the old man said.

“I think I prefer the predictability of a theoretical one.”

“Then you prefer an illusion. Living a theoretical life is like not living one at all.”

“Of course you’re right.” I dropped my left foot to the platform with a thud.

“My condolences,” he said.

“Thank you.”

I stepped off of the platform and shoved my feet into my old sneakers and reached for the door, twisting to pop my lower back.

“Watch your step as you exit.”

“Got it.”

“And pay attention to every detail. No wasted motion.”

“Ah, I see you may have learned something from an engineer today.” I winked, as I opened the door and stepped out onto the busy sidewalk. Behind me, the old man cleared his throat loudly enough to force me to turn around, just as the heavy glass door closed.

I stood in the storefront trying to look through the glass. I cupped my hands around the sides of my face, and saw him motioning me to come back inside with the same frantic arm gestures he had used earlier. I re-entered his store.

“Sorry,” I said. “I forgot to pay for the suit and the alternations. How much?” I reached for my wallet but didn’t find it. I didn’t find much of anything where I reached. Just the look and feel of cotton. The fabric of our lives.

The tailor didn’t say a word to me. He just stood there with my jeans draped across his outstretched arm, wallet sticking out of the back pocket.

“I thought I felt a breeze.”

“Law suit waiting to happen,” the old man said.

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