Craig O’Hara is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Arizona. His short stories have appeared in literary journals such as Confrontation, Dos Passos Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and december magazine. His work has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In addition, his flash fiction piece “The Temple” won the 2009 Sonora Review Short Short Story Contest, judged by Aimee Bender. He also received one of the 2005 Greer Fellowships for Creative Writing. He currently teaches writing at Ball State University.
At the vital center of every city, every town and every village, is always the tailor shop. Here, the local tailor—a tall silent man with eyes like blue crystal lenses and a shock of white hair—works day and night, diligently, surrounded by bolts of wool and silk, cotton and fine thin material made from local pineapple fiber—a cloth nearly transparent yet wild and shimmering like precious metal spun out in thin threads.
Every infant is visited by the tailor on the ninth day after his or her birth. The tailor appears just before dawn wearing a white linen suit, a brightly colored silk shirt, and ornately tooled leather sandals. The parents provide tea and traditional sweet cakes as the tailor begins his work. He opens a worn leather satchel and removes scales and measuring tapes; dusty journals, glass slides and specimen bottles; an assortment of obscure measurement devices—compasses, plumb-bobs, micrometers, and astrolabes. He weighs the baby. He takes precise measurements of the baby’s length, the size of hands and feet. The tailor marks down the ratio of head circumference to interoptic distance. He takes samples of the baby’s urine and feces. Sweat and bile. He takes careful note of exact eye color and hair texture.
He records all of this in his journal and then takes leave of the family, bowing deeply and disappearing into the humid morning fog. The next few days are spent immersed in precise calculations based on ancient formulae passed down along the generations, maternal uncle to nephew. The tailor works late into the night in his rooftop quarters, figuring and refiguring a vast matrix of data. He drinks traditional rice wine from a tiny clay cup and on warm nights, the sweat pours from him and drips onto the pages, causing the ink to run and smudge. On rainy nights, the wind rips through his opened windows and ruffles the stacked papers and notes into wild random orders no one could possibly foresee.
The results of these intense calculations reveal to the tailor a skeletal outline of the infant’s entire life. An algebraic sketch of the baby’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. A framework of his old age and death. From these notes the tailor begins to stitch together all of the clothes the baby will need throughout his life. The work is done quickly and quietly in the tailor’s shop downstairs at street level. As the tailor works, the child’s life becomes clear. The vague rough details come into precise focus as the tailor stitches together the shoes for the child’s first day of school—small boxy loafers of stiff brown leather that the child will wear when his mother drops him, tears of dread still dried to his face, at the school gate. The shoes he will stare at as the teacher calls his name from the roll for the first time.
The tailor squints through bifocal glasses as he crafts the child’s football uniform. Team colors for the jersey and short pants the boy will wear as he boots the winning goal far wide and must sulk past teammates and coaches, shame burning hot on his face. The tailor sees in the weave of the shimmering green and gold cloth the sharp pain as coaches and teammates slap the boy hard on the back and tell him it’s part of the game, to keep his chin up. He knows this is the boy’s last attempt at any sport. The boy at home burying the uniform deep in a dresser drawer where it will grow dusty and over the years become lost as if it somehow magically ceased to exist.
The boy’s school clothes come quick and easy for the old tailor, as does the graduation gown the boy will wear giving his first public speech as valedictorian. The gown that his parents will see when they revisit, years later, snapshots taken as he throws his cap into the air with the other graduates. The gown that the boy, later, at home, carefully folds away as his classmates gather for large festive parties. The boy staring from the window of his room as the dusky clouds roll in and the rainy season begins, pelting his windows with drops the size of golf balls. It all becomes real and concrete as the tailor completes the last few stitches and pauses, listening to the birds for sale in the market just down the alley in the breezy morning.
The tailor works through a long sweltering day over a treadle-powered machine on the young man’s first suit. A beige, two-button all season wool suit that he will wear to his first job interview. A white cotton shirt that will be soaked through with sweat as the young man answers questions about his schooling, his ambitions, his shortcomings. The tailor alone sees him deciding to accept the job offer and begins chalking out patterns for the clothes the young man will need for meetings and trips abroad on behalf of his employer—a large corporation with a vast array of products and services the young man will work his way into middle age selling.
The tuxedo the man will wear for his wedding is dark maroon with matching satin cummerbund. The tailor stitches this together on a bright sunny afternoon. He finishes just before his siesta. In the evening, after a dinner of spicy chicken entrails and rice, the tailor starts work on the blue suit the man will wear before the judge on the day his divorce becomes final. He weaves into the cloth the hollow pain the man feels driving home from the provincial courthouse through a hometown that seems to be cast only in half-tones of gray. Clouds hanging low in the sky.
The tailor knows that his job is nearly complete as he finishes the loose pajamas the man will wear during his last days in a cold hospital room coughing up blood all alone. They are striped, peach colored, made of cotton. The tailor fashions sad felt slippers for the old man to shuffle in, to and from the bathroom down the hall with the hospital smell of illness and disinfectant ringing sickly in his head.
It is late at night when the tailor completes the suit the man will be buried in. Blue jacket and trousers with a white starched shirt. The tie is dark gray silk. The suit is made of heavy stiff wool to keep the old man warm while the few people in attendance trickle past his drafty open coffin. A rapidly aging ex-wife who wondered whether to come. A daughter who feels the man in the blue suit before her is nothing more than a cold, still stranger. A few associates from his days in business, a nephew.
The tailor is at the funeral as well—still silent with eyes like burning blue crystal lenses and a shock of white hair. He has stopped for just a few moments out of respect, having work still unfinished waiting for him in his shop.