Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 9. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novella is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together.
Last time, we met tailor’s assistant Finley as he was starting a relationship with newly promoted county official Tycho. In the excerpt from this chapter, Finley’s boss Jackson picks up the story, and an old character from Chapter 5 returns.
If everything had worked out as planned, we would have retired two years ago, and June and I would be traveling the world, but there seems to be little point to that now. I’m not going to meet anyone new at my age, and traveling alone has no appeal. This house has also become a hollow and constant reminder of her absence. Yet I still can’t bring myself to disassemble her scrapbooking and crafts room.
To this day, I still sleep with her favorite red quilted satin robe and matching slippers laid out on her side of the bed. The only comfort I have here is Shay, the dog I adopted after June passed, mostly so that I wouldn’t come home to an empty house. She’s seven now, and the perfect rescue mutt. About thirty pounds, an interesting mix of breeds (Terrier, chow, Akita, and German Shepherd) and she resembles a black fox or coyote — long snout, erect and pointy ears, a white “sword” on her chest, and white “spats” on her feet.
Since travel is out of the picture, I throw myself into work, and I find it comforting, actually. I do feel sorry for my chief cutter and seamstress, Arlene, though. She was the one I was going to recommend take over when I retired, but my dream canceled is going to be her dream deferred, I suppose. Of course, assuming that running a government-contracted tailor shop was her dream in the first place. I could easily see her looking to go into her own business and specialize in wedding and funeral wear.
It had become quite standard, among a certain class of people, to never rent anything for a wedding, because they saw it as tacky. Everything had to be custom made and designed. In the industry, we had started to use the British term, “bespoke,” a few years ago because it just sounded posher and allowed us to charge more. Surprisingly, they started doing the same thing for funerals, and a lot of places were doing a brisk business in bespoke morning (and mourning) dress and formal wear.
Thank god they don’t make top hats out of actual beaver felt anymore, but I don’t think I’ve seen this many being produced since I can remember, and I was born not long after the end of the era in which no businessman would even think of appearing on the street not wearing a hat. All right, not a topper, but a fedora or Homberg or bowler. Maybe a pork pie if they were… oh, what was the word? “Hep.”
There’s a funny thing about this business. If you describe yourself as a tailor, nobody assumes anything. But as soon as you veer away from that definition and say that you design clothing, or you work in fashion or the garment industry — and especially if you say that you design and create women’s dresses — a lot of people of my generation will just assume that you’re gay.
Not that it ever bothered me, but it is a really interesting distinction, and it doesn’t quite make sense. I mean, wouldn’t a gay man be more interested in dressing up other men and making them look good? Not to mention that measuring someone for a suit involves a lot of justified touchy-feely, and you do get to ask them directly which way their junk swings, although very coyly. “Do you dress left or right?” Although we stopped with “dress” and just stuck to the directions a long time ago, because people around my age and younger had no idea what it meant.
On the flip side, it seems like a straight man would be a better judge of how to make clothes that make a woman look sexy. Of course, given the usual materials used, the frequent difficulty of getting into and out of them, and the absolute lack of pockets or any kind of insulation, maybe the real secret is that a lot of dress designers actually hate women, regardless of their own sexuality.
I like to do my designs a little differently, and the major bespoke project I’m working on now — for the mayor’s daughter’s wedding party coming up in about five months — is going to follow the guidelines I’ve always used.
Season-appropriate material, lined and insulated if necessary.
Deep and wide pockets that are easily hidden within the lines without creating bumps or bulges.
The woman commissioning it gets to decide whether it buttons left or right, and I try to limit it to the same number of buttons as a man’s shirt, which is six to eight. None of this ridiculous 12 or 15 or more buttons, especially all down the back. Buttons are utilitarian, not decorative.
Speaking of which, I also prefer to put the zipper in front and hide it, so that a woman doesn’t need an assistant to get it on. None of this step into it like bunny suit in a clean-room at JPL. Pull it on like coat, zip it yourself, smooth down the Velcro pleat disguising the zipper seam, done.
I also lean toward very Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, and Belle Epoque designs, depending on the woman’s figure. I’m not against mid-century modern for wedding dresses, although fashion of the era, unlike the architecture and furniture, is a bit boring. I refuse to design for anyone gauche enough to think that any fashion design movement from the 1960s through 1990s should get anywhere near a wedding.
Fortunately, Valentina, the mayor’s daughter, is totally up for a very Erté style, which is right in the heart of art deco. I was already envisioning a streamlined sheath dresses with a swallow-tail train, armless but with a cuff and drop-sleeve on the left arm, maybe even a beaded turban and choker or, if she were up for it, a semi-circular, Aztec inspired headdress on top of a structured velvet skull cap.
Of course, that was going ultra-high art deco. I was already researching fabrics. From the waist up, probably forest green damask — her favorite color — worked in with rhinestone beaded tulle in seafoam green. For the lower part of the dress, I was thinking of layering in feather lace in a darker green to line sequin-embroidered mesh in emerald. Emerald jewelry — earrings, dark green choker with an emerald inset, and so on, and of course shoes inlaid with emerald sequins — the negative image of Dorothy’s ruby slippers — would finish it off. Tiara, turban, or headdress would come up later, but it would also be a dazzler in various shades of green.
The bridesmaids would get a simpler version of the bride’s get-up, probably rhinestone embroidered tulle or sequin embroidered mesh, emerald over Kelly green, without the swallowtail or drop-sleeve. Of course, the mesh would be lined with feather lace in a lighter green.
As for the men, well, we all know that men’s clothes are boring as anything, and why they haven’t evolved much, I have no idea. Since the wedding was going to be in Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral at 10 a.m. on a Sunday, it meant that protocol demanded morning dress for the men. I briefly considered giving them emerald green tailcoats with forest green velvet lapels, short toppers to match, and Kelly and seafoam pinstriped pants, along with white vests, seafoam shirts, emerald green ascots, and emerald cufflinks and tiepin. At least these outfits wouldn’t need a cummerbund.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while the women would be able to wear their dresses anywhere and forever, I’d be limiting the men to only ever dragging these things out again on St. Patrick’s Day, so took a different tack.
Gray tailcoat, pinstripe gray pants, white vest, pale green shirt, with paisley ascot in forest and seafoam green, five emerald buttons on the vest, and matching emerald cufflinks. The groom would get a gray stovepipe top hat and the groomsmen would get a short-crowned version of the same. I was debating whether or not to give the men walking sticks with gray bases and large green crystal orbs on top, but that might be a bit much.
However, I was definitely going to give the men boutonnieres and the women wrist-corsages of green carnations to match. This was basically my tribute to my assistant, Finley, who is just a darling young gay boy and very talented. He once told me that in Oscar Wilde’s day, a green carnation was what gay men wore to tell each other, “Hey there!”
He’s met someone, by the way, in the wake of the recent earthquake I’m really trying not to think about. But I’m really happy for him. It’s so cute that he doesn’t want to tell me who it is, even though we both know that I figured it out immediately. Okay, I totally get that he feels weird about admitting that he’s going out with a newly appointed director of a county department who is also the youngest one ever and who has been all over the media, but I know the rules. Since Finley does not work directly for this guy at all and isn’t in any subservient position to him (well, at work; his private life is private), then it’s anything goes. I wish them all the luck.
And I wish myself all the luck after I get a text from… not Valentina, but her mother, Alejandra, aka Mayor Pérez. “Like the direction you’re going, need to see fabric samples. When? Thx.”
Well, I guess that depends on how racked up the garment district still I is, since the big one was only just over a week ago. I text my contact down on Santee Alley. “Fumiko, is your shop up and running now?”
She replies in five minutes. “Yes, but messy. What u need?”
“Samples, art deco, VIP. ASAP.” I reply.
“U come down.”
I reply to her with a thumbs up, then reply to Alejandra. “Going to get them now, but it’s late in the day. Are you free tomorrow?”
“Yes, if you can bring them up to Getty House.”
Well, I’m not sure about that, because while the Mayor’s House is only just under four and a half miles as the crow flies, as the car drives, it’s a rather convoluted route from downtown to there, at 6th and Irving. It shouldn’t be but it is because of the weird way that every street in L.A. tilts to the northeast as soon as it crosses Hoover. This is why even natives lose any sense of direction once they get into DTLA, because the simple East/West orientation of the numbered streets just goes away.
On top of all this, I’m not sure which streets are still impassable. Before I answer her, I text my assistant, Fin. “What is the fastest travel time by street vehicle from here to Getty House tomorrow morning?” I ask.
It’s less than two minutes before he replies. “A couple of streets still blocked, so best estimate is an hour and fifteen minutes.”
I tell him thanks, then reply to Alejandra. “What time?”
“11 a.m.” she replies. I give her thumbs up, then text Fumiko, “On my way,” and text Finley. “Errand. Meet me in the garage in five minutes.”
At least Santee was a short commute, and the only reason we took a car and I had Finley come along was because I’d be hauling samples back. And if you ever want to go to a part of L.A. that will most remind you of the Blade Runner films, this is it. Ironic that one of them was set a decade ago while the other is still twenty years in the future.
But, anyway, Santee is sort of the L.A. smuggler’s row. You can buy anything here, although most of it will be a knock-off or off-brand. Clothes, jewelry, electronics, toys, musical instruments, contact lenses, prescription medications (ill-advised), and various pets of the turtle, rabbit, and rat variety. You can also pretty much buy a bootleg copy of any major film that went premiered streaming the night before with a small fee and a phone bump with a sidewalk dealer who always has one eye out for the cops.
I guess that’s an improvement over fifteen years ago, when it was DVDs recorded in the theater to give people a really low-quality version of the latest film.
Now, Fumiko’s shop wasn’t in this den of thieves, but on the edge, in the respectable part of the garment district. It was a corner store with generous sliding glass doors to the street and tons of bolts of fabric lined up in cardboard boxes with price per yard labels prominent.
Finley and I went in and Fumiko spotted and greeted us right away. I quickly explained the who and what of the project, and handed her my fabric request list. She read it and smiled.
“Well, this is going to take care of both of us for a year or two,” she said. Then she called out, “Haru!” After a few seconds, her assistant came running and she handed him the list. “Please cut a yard of each of these for our very esteemed client.” Haru took the list, gave a slight head nod, and trotted off. Fumiko smiled at both of us.
“While we’re waiting, would you like some tea?”
The one thing I knew from experience. Never say no when a Japanese or British American offers you tea. “But of course,” I say. I notice Finley’s confused look, but he’s too good of an assistant to make any complaint.
Fumiko leads us to an area near the middle of the store and makes us tea as we sit at the square black-lacquer table that I’m pretty sure came from IKEA. I’ve worked with her for years, and she’s been one of my three main suppliers of fabric, even long before I landed the city and county job.
She almost immediately tunes in on Fin, gives him a smile, and says, “You’re in love, aren’t you?”
“Why do people keep saying that?” he replies and she just laughs.
“Because it shows,” she tells him. “And that’s a good thing.”
“Oh, yes, really.”
The conversation turns to my plans for the mayor’s daughter’s wedding, and she seems very excited by the idea that there’s going to be so much green in this wedding.
“It’s a favorable color in Japan,” she explains. “It’s the color of tea. But also of youth, eternity, vitality and energy. All good signs for a wedding.”
As I agree, a woman walks in from outside and calls out. “Hello? Anyone here?”
Fumiko stands and crosses to greet her. I look over and suddenly realize that she is, well, not identical to June, but of a type. Around my age, blonde hair and simple black dress. Kind of an Earth-mother vibe, and with a very raspy but sexy voice.
“I’m looking for green-screen material,” she explains. “It’s for a video shoot.”
“Of course,” Fumiko replies. “We have that exact color. How much do you need?”
“Well, how wide are your bolts? Because I need twenty-three feet wide by seventeen feet tall.”
“Double-bolts are twelve feet high,” Fumiko says. “Singles are six. It’s probably more economical to go for three by twenty-three off of a six bolt, rather than two by twenty-three off of a twelve bolt.”
“Great,” she says. “So how much?”
“Our chromo green is $6.99 a yard, so…” she did some calculations on her phone, “So seven and two-thirds yards wide, times three plus tax… We’re looking at $177.25, but I’ll make it an even $175.”
“Perfect,” the woman says. “And can you deliver?”
“Oh,” Fumiko’s face drops. “No, it’s what we call cash and carry here. Or credit or ePay.”
“Oh.” The woman also seems disappointed. “I came here on the Metro, and this is going to be kind of big and heavy, isn’t it?”
“Most likely,” Fumiko replies. “This is thick material.”
I see my opening and I take it.
“Hi,” I say. We drove here and have plenty of extra room if you’d like a ride back. Where are you going to?”
“Really?” she says, seeming genuinely touched. “Sure. I’m at a place in Korea Town, just off Wilshire.”
“Oh, perfect,” I tell her. “We’re running this stuff off down Sixth and so just north of there.” Technically not a lie. I just neglect to tell her we’re not doing that until tomorrow. I add, “Not a problem.”
Finley shoots me a look. Well, two looks. The first is “WTF?” but the second, as he gets it, is “Oh, you sly fucking dog.”
“What kind of video project is this for?” I ask.
“It’s for a theater company. Well, a theater, art collective, whatever. We do acting and improv and dance and music and so on and so on, but the woman who runs it decided that we should make a movie.”
“It sounds amazing,” I tell her. “And do you perform with them?”
“Oh god no,” she laughs. “I couldn’t act my way out of a box of Kleenex. But the kids we work with are… amazing.”
There’s a moment of sudden connection — pause, eye contact, and shared smile, and then her eyes dart away and look down.
“What do you do?” she asks.
“Make clothes,” I say. “I’m a tailor but contracted to the city and county.”
“Ah,” she beams. “So that’s why you’re here.”
“Yep,” I say. “Picking up samples for a wedding party.”
“Oh,” she says, and I can see her doing the “Fuck, he’s gay dance” in her head.
“Hey, I’ve got nothing better to do since my wife died,” I toss in, and I see her immediately brighten up.
“Yeah. Cancer. Sudden. I’m still dealing with it.”
“Oh, you poor thing. I know what it’s like to lose someone suddenly.”
“Oh my god. I am so sorry.”
“You want to know the ironic part? You know what killed him?”
“Earthquake,” she said. “And obviously not here, because we’re a lot better at them than where he died.”
“Wh…” I started to ask but cut myself off, but she didn’t seem to care.
“Nepal,” she answered calmly. “Wow. Fourteen years ago. I’d just turned 50 when it happened, too.”
I do the math in my head, and realize, oh wow, definitely age appropriate.
“So, yeah, any fabric hauling or ride-sharing you need, it’s really not a problem. In fact, it’d be a pleasure.”
“You’re sure?” she asks.
“Oh, yes,” I reply, and then Fumiko returns carrying my samples over her arm, Haru following, struggling to haul the green screen cloth on a cart while keeping it steady.
“This is pretty heavy,” she says. “You probably couldn’t take it by yourself.”
“That’s okay,” the woman explains. “I’ve found a couple of white knights.”
Fumiko gives me a look that I clearly recognize because I’ve known her for so long: You go, you old dog.
“So… you said… wedding?” the woman asks.
“Yeah, for the mayor’s daughter. Very art deco, upmarket stuff.”
“Really?” she says, flipping through the samples. “Well, I’ve got to say, you have really good taste in fabric, at least.”
“And your green screen would actually fit the bride’s theme. Shall we?”
She nods, hands her credit card to Fumiko, and in three minutes Haru and Finley are wheeling the carts up to the parking lot, where they heft the fabric into the back of the car, the green screen stuff on top. I sit in the back with the woman, and Finley drives us out to Koreatown first.
I’m kind of surprised to find out that she’s living in a theater, but she gives me the whole backstory as Finley and I lug the fabric into the lobby. Like she told me, she’s not a performer, but loves the arts, and takes care of the pet collective here. She also explains that they’re still and always doing shows, and that there’s an improv tonight, if I want to come back.
“I’d love to,” I tell her. “I mean, if you’re going to see the show with me.”
“Of course,” she replies, and I feel the tingle of a connection. On the drive back with the wedding fabric, Finley says nothing, but just has this shit-eating grin. I say nothing until we’re pulling into the parking structure.
“Okay, what?” I demand.
“How soon is your wedding, and do I get to design it?”
“Oh, shut up,” I tell him, teasingly, and he just laughs…