Always Ask 'Why': Chapter 1: A Favor
After months of back and forth, long hours at the school, long hours in the shop, I could not push the image or the sound of this mans voice from my head. I thought I was going crazy; I would try to drown my thoughts with loud music from my record player and with images from the nightly news but it always came back. The deep raspy voice which may have been from too much smoking and the flashing red hair which was rare around here. He was easy to pick out on the streets, even in crowds. His demeanor made him stand out the most, even as he tried to hide himself from the world.
He was the only tailor I ever went to. He may not be very good and there were about forty others I could go to around the city without even searching. He wasnt even the closest to me. I had to take the subway for six stations and then walk a few blocks to reach him. So why was I still going? I was a loyal customer and he intrigued me. I was witness to his mistakes more than once and to his boss admonishing him but never did I say a word. He took it in silence, a thin grimace across his face whenever he was criticized. I learned quickly that he was uncomfortable working with women's clothing so luckily for him, most of the pieces I brought werent even mine. My students were poor and their parents never seemed to care about their ragged appearances. I had them bring some items every so often and then I made the trip to see Kovacs. I stayed and read a book as he worked, rarely exchanging a word with the man as I looked up to watch his fingers move deftly under the sewing machines and grabbing pins, a yellow tape measure always around his neck that he would whip off and back on in a snap.
Today I came with another trash bag full of jeans that should really be tossed because for the amount of money I spent at the tailors, I could buy the kids a whole new wardrobe. Some of their parents knew what I was doing and appreciated my efforts. Others never said a word but I didnt care. This is the least I could do.
Hi, Walter, I greeted him with a heavy sigh. He wouldnt say hello, but I was naturally a decently polite person so I didnt really care that he wasn't responsive. It was five pm and I already knew I would be here until he closed at nine, half finished with the job.
He nodded and took the bag from my hands as I entered. I pulled off my gloves and stuffed them in a jacket pocket. It was freezing out and had begun to snow an hour ago. I stood for a moment as he went to the back of the shop and a thought popped into my head.
Would you like me to buy you some coffee?
He looked back at me, realizing that I had spoken to him. Theres a pot back here.
His eyes flashed over to the dirty coffee pot that was indeed completely empty and then back to me.
I smiled and left without slipping my gloves back on. Ten minutes later, I returned with two tall black coffees and sugar in my coat pocket. I placed one cup down on the table that held the coffeepot and other assorted appliances, tossing the little packets down as well. He practically lives here, I thought. He didnt thank me upon my return but I asked if he took anything in the coffee.
Black is fine. Pause. A stare for me to sit back down.
I nodded and returned to sit in the chair by the front door, facing the peeling poster of prices and shop hours. The draft at my side was chilling and I wondered if I could do anything to plug it. Unfortunately, the entire building probably had to be demolished and reconstructed. It was decades old and the track lighting flickered every once in a while. I pulled out a book from my bag, a new Phillip K. Dick which with I was almost halfway through, and sat in silence for the next two hours. I heard him sip his coffee close to closing. The coffee must have been cold by now but he didnt seem to care. Finally he sat back in the metal folding chair to witness his completion. He wasnt admiring what he had done; there was no sense of pride in his features.
The lighting traced the shadows on his already deeply drawn and tired face. He scratched at his stubble before sighing and looked over at me.
I placed down the book and cup, standing and then asked if he finished everything I had brought today.
A nod. He stood to fold them all up, but I swiftly went over with a light hand to his arm.
You dont have to. I will. Take a break.
Its my job.
And Im not going to tell on you if you dont do something. I hoped that my small smiles and reassuring tone would have an effect. He looked at me and I was finally able to really see into his eyes; there was something back there which peaked my curiosity. Something still, like a vague stationary shape in the middle of a dense fog. The next moment he brushed past me and found cleaning fluids to wipe the windows down before he closed.
I folded everything to place back in the bag. They would get shuffled up anyway so I wasnt too meticulous, but I admired his patchwork and seams. He was getting better. As I finished packing, he stood behind the front counter to close out the register. I shuffled through my pocket to pull out my wallet. I had to pay with bills; I had run out of checks earlier that day.
Can I treat you to dinner? My sudden inquiry surprised us both. If you dont want to-
Okay. I just wish there was a way for me to repay you with more than just handing over cash. I come here so much with the same things; you must get tired of it. All of it. Not just what I bring you, but what everyone brings you. Maybe next time youll change your mind.
I doubt it. He ripped me a receipt and came around the counter to shut the door tight as I left. I looked back once, bag between my arms, to see his shadowed form retreat to the back of the shop.