The Tale of the Costume Maker
by Steve Carr
Format: Short Story | Genre: Fantasy & Magical Realism
His fingers are long and slender, pale as chalk dust, and thin as icicles, hanging from the bare branches of a dying bush. They move with certainty and speed as if they possess a life of their own, making stitch after stitch, sewing on endless numbers of sequins, threading through buttonholes, hemming, fastening, designing. When he sews, he is proud of his hands, of their strength, shape, and dexterity.
He sits in the attic. It has been turned into a sewing room and reeks of dampness from minute leaks in the shingles. It also smells of stored clothes and old books, yellowed newspapers from World War II, old issues of Variety and Vanity Fair, rotting dolls, and stuffed animals, dirty and dusty from years of abandonment among the clutter. A bulb on a single wire hangs from the ceiling, dangling just above his head. He can feel the heat of it on his scalp. A small square window that overlooks the alley is the only source of light. When he enters the attic, he turns the light switch on at the bottom of the attic stairs.
The chair on which he sits is very old – an antique. It is made of dark wood, with carvings on the legs of vines and grapes, hares, and foxes. The back of the chair is solid, not upholstered or padded, with the last remains of a painting: a Disneyland-like castle atop a hill and horses parading on an open field. The painting is slowly fading, disappearing, being rubbed away by the slight movement of his back as he sews.
Each item he sews hangs on a hook – and on the attic beams there are many hooks, each one strained with the weight of his creations: satin dresses, silk blouses, cotton shirts, scarves, tunics, skirts, jackets, capes, and hats. There are boas made of ostrich feathers, arm-length gloves encrusted with fallalery, and embroidered masks of stiff linens. On some hooks, there are ties made of dyed cloth from India, cummerbunds of red, black and green, and vests with fringes and beads.
Boxes of cloth are stacked on top of old trunks and Tupperware bowls filled with differently colored rhinestones are neatly arranged on wooden shelves. Bolts of cloth preserved in plastic are lined up along the railing at the top of the stairs. Feathers, zippers, decorative pins, medallions, and belt buckles are spread out on a table, each in piles of their own. Beside his chair is the sewing basket. It is a small wicker basket, originally white, but turned gray with dust and age.
Beside the chair is the sewing machine, covered and not used since the winter of 2004. On a small table, next to the chair where he sits, is the pincushion, a large stuffed felt tomato with needles of many sizes sticking from it. His threads are arranged in rows in a steamer trunk behind the chair. There are thousands of spools of threads of many colors, hues, and thicknesses.
He only sews by hand. He is a maker of costumes and does nothing else.
Luis has been in the downstairs parlor waiting for the costume maker. He looks at himself in the full-length mirror and temporarily sees what he wants to see: a handsome young man of twenty-four with night-black hair, even teeth with the whiteness of moonlight, and skin as smooth as a calm pond’s surface. But the image in the mirror fades before his eyes. There he is, nearing seventy, hair of china white, plastic-yellow teeth, and skin wrinkled with lines from too many excesses: sun, alcohol, smoking, drugs, emotions.
Luis can only look at himself for a few seconds, then he turns away, disheartened and disgusted. He looks about the room and traces each object with his eyes, recalling that he has seen the faces of the porcelain figurines that fill the room. They are everywhere: on tabletops and shelves and in glass cases and peeking from their perches on windowsills between pulled-back thick floral drapes. They are dead movie stars. Bela Lugosi, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power. Rudolph Valentino. Clara Bow. Lillian Gish. Mary Pickford. Theda Bara. Luis does not like them at first. The figurines have painted eyes, and each set of eyes stares at him, watching him as he waits. They give him the creeps, reminding him of a cemetery, adding to his discomfort.
When Mr. Shertzer comes into the room, Luis nearly jumps from the chair.
Mr. Shertzer is older than Luis – much older – but his age is hard to determine. His liquid eyes are penetrating and they look at Luis with an intensity that discomforts Luis even more. Mr. Shertzer is carrying a small tea set; a round porcelain tray decorated with small blue flowers and a matching teapot with two cups on saucers. He moves about preparing the tea on the small tray, pouring the tea into the cups, then sits opposite Luis in one of the red-velvet overstuffed armchairs. All this he does without taking his eyes from Luis, asking in rapid succession, “Sugar, milk, honey, a scone, butter?”
“When will he come down?” Luis sighs, accepting a scone.
“My son is very busy,” Mr. Shertzer comments.
Luis nods in understanding. He knows of the costume maker’s skill and the demand for his costumes. He bites into the scone and wishes he had asked for butter, but is too intimidated to do so. The scone draws the moisture from his mouth and he half-chokes as he swallows a piece of it. He quickly sips some tea and can feel the redness of his cheeks.
Mr. Shertzer silently gums his scone, the pieces rolling about on his tongue like pebbles. Luis watches, a little fascinated, a little sickened. He turns his eyes again to the figurines. They are still watching him. Johnny Weissmuller. Ethel Barrymore. Norma Shearer. Rita Hayworth. Ruby Keeler. Luis scans the room, the figurines. He is looking for something, someone.
“So, you’re going to a fancy ball?” Mr. Shertzer asks.
“Yes,” Luis answers. “A costume ball.”
Mr. Shertzer nods. He covers the same ground as before. “My son is very busy.”
“Yes, I understand,” Luis replies. “I’m hoping he can fit me in. I’ve come well in advance.”
“Yes, I saw your letter. You have come well in advance,” Mr. Shertzer agrees. “We’ll see what my son can do for you.”
“Thank you,” Luis says as he again looks at the figurines and they look at him.
The window is but a small square, no bigger than a cereal box, offering a view onto the brick alleyway beside the house. On the other side of the alley is a tall fence, and beyond that a yard that is not easy to see because of the trees along the fence. The house in that yard is hidden by tree trunks and branches, except in winter.
The costume maker stands at the window and watches as a cat moves across the alley. He watches the tiny white paws treading stealthily on sun-heated red bricks. The cat seems to be in search of something, or stalking something – a bug, a string in the breeze, a sound from behind the fence. The cat goes around the fence and out of sight.
Holding the cloth in his hands, not looking at it, he continues to sew. Watching the alley, watching a piece of plastic garbage bag float down the bricks, his hands move deftly, surely along the seam he is mending. The cat appears again, attacks the plastic and holds it to the ground with his two front paws, then looks to see if there are any challengers to this kill. When the cat sees he is the lone victor, he tires of the quarry and lets it go. Still watching the cat, the costume maker accidentally pricks his finger with the needle. He looks down at his right forefinger with surprise that there is a little drop of blood forming at its tip. The blood rises like a bubble and sits there forming a miniature red dome. The prick has him concerned. He has not done this for some time. He cannot remember the last time he pricked his finger. He looks out the window again and follows with half interest as both bag and cat disappear from viewing range.
He leaves the window, returns, and unknowingly rubs against the back of the chair. He wipes off the last of a horse’s mane, a wisp of brownish paint, forever erasing another horse from the pasture scene. The costume maker sits in the chair and watches as blood drips slowly from his finger onto the floor littered with scraps of material.
Placing the piece of cloth he was sewing beneath the chair, he then leans back and looks up at the bulb dangling above him. It is only inches away from his face, but not bright enough to hurt his eyes as he reads the fine print on its convex bottom: General Electric, 40W. He has not slept for several days, and now the weariness of wakefulness begins to overcome him. He closes his eyes and there, at the rim of his eyes, is the pain that has mostly been a simple ache. He reaches up with his right hand to rub his eyes, then remembers the pinprick, and lets his left hand do the rubbing.
Up through the floor, up from the ceiling beneath the floor, the three thuds of a broomstick vibrate through his feet, up his legs, his upper body, and into his eyes. He opens his eyes and they return to the previous aching. He rises from the chair and goes to the stairs and descends.
“My son will be right down,” Mr. Shertzer says to Luis as he puts the broom back in the corner.
Luis looks up and sees the marks in the ceiling, red broom-handle paint particles, scratches in the ceiling paint, hairline cracks in the plaster. With unease Luis smiles at Mr. Shertzer, takes a sip of tea, and waits.
The door leading to the attic opens and Mr. Shertzer’s son emerges.
In the normal light of day, in this room with light streaming through the window, the costume maker is exceedingly handsome. His pale face is as clear as an unpainted porcelain figurine. He resembles Montgomery Clift or Paul Newman or Louis Jordan or none of them, or all of them all at once. His eyes react slowly to the light, as if he is waking from a dream – a dream of lazy, ethereal lovemaking.
Luis rises, the teacup in hand, and smiles warmly.
“This is my son,” Mr. Shertzer announces.
Luis puts the teacup down on the tray, steps forward to shake the costume maker’s hand, and grasps the offered right hand, looking at the handsome face, then staring at the hand he is holding. A small spot of blood transfers from the costume maker’s finger to Luis’s palm. Luis pulls away and stares at the spot of blood. It is shaped like a heart, a crimson-bordered heart with no center.
“I’m sorry,” the costume maker states.
“It’s no problem,” Luis replies as he reluctantly wipes his hand on his expensive pants and removes the heart. In his hand is the remaining sensation of having shaken the costume maker’s hand: a strong, cold, thin hand, but strongly pulsing with life.
“You wanted a costume?”
Luis looks into the eyes of the costume maker and sees the strain, the weariness of a sheltered animal.
“If this is not a good time I can come back,” Luis says hesitantly, immediately regretting the offer.
“This is the only time,” Mr. Shertzer states. “My son is very busy.”
The costume maker moves about the room, his pale hands gliding over the figurines, touching their faces, lifting them, admiring them, setting them down with infinite gentleness. He holds them up to the light for Luis to see: Bette Davis as Jezebel. Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro. Mae West as Diamond Lil. Harpo Marx.
Luis does not really see the figurines; he only sees the costume maker.
“Do you see one you like?” Mr. Shertzer asks.
Luis shakes his head as Mr. Shertzer’s son lifts more figurines, one after another. Lovingly he holds them up: Greta Garbo as Camille, Charles Laughton as Quasimodo, Humphrey Bogart as Rick, Carmen Miranda …
“That’s it,” Luis laughs. “I’d like a costume like that one.”
“That’s a difficult and costly one to make,” Mr. Shertzer says. “Wouldn’t you like this one instead?” He holds up a Laurence Olivier as Hamlet.
“No, I like that one.” Luis points to the figurine being held by the costume maker. “It would be so much fun, don’t you think?”
The costume maker smiles and nods his head. “I will handmake every piece of fruit to go on the headdress.”
“You must go upstairs for a fitting,” says Mr. Shertzer. “My son will take you to the attic where he works.”
In the heat of the afternoon, the attic’s aromas are intensified and Luis feels himself becoming intoxicated by the myriad of scents. He stands in front of a mirror while the costume maker retrieves his tape measure, pad, and pencil. Luis looks into the mirror and there again, the young Luis looks back at him, smiling broadly.
“Here it is,” the costume maker announces, returning to Luis, and unrolls the cloth measuring tape. He begins measuring Luis: shoulder to floor, wrist to wrist, waist to floor, outside legs, ankles to hips. “I’ll need you to take off your shirt and pants in order to measure your chest and inseams correctly.”
Luis looks into the mirror and the young Luis returns a pleased glance. He removes his shoes, pants, and shirt, and stands in front of the mirror, admiring his youthful physique, the definition of his muscles, the smoothness of his skin. He raises his arms and allows the tape measure to be put around his narrow waist, then around his muscled chest. As if it was expected of him, he impulsively turns and puts his arms around the costume maker, pulls him in, and kisses him hard and passionately.
There is no yielding by the costume maker, but neither is there resistance. He stands and accepts Luis’s kisses, Luis’s touch, without responding to or denying Luis’s increasingly hungry searching with his own mouth and hands. He looks over Luis’s shoulder, out the small window, and watches as a squirrel runs across the bricks in the alley, being chased by the cat.
In the attic, naked among articles of clothing that fell from the hooks, Luis’s sweat mixes with the odors of decayed wood and yellow-paged magazines. He envelops and devours Mr. Shertzer’s son, making love to him, tracing every accessible inch of him with his hands and lips, wondering that any body of any man, young or old, should be so perfect in its smoothness. When he ejaculates, he collapses alongside the still costume maker and cries.
The costume maker stands in the window and watches the cat step carefully as it makes its way across the top of the fence. The cat does not waver or hesitate, but looks forward, moving slowly. He watches the cat while he sews another sequin on a small strawberry made for Carmen’s fruit-salad headdress.
About the attic, Carmen’s costume pieces – dress, cape, bananas, pineapple, turban, sashes, shoes – hang from different hooks. He has worked steadily for many days and nights on the costume without resting, without sleep. As he looks out the window, he sees Luis walking up the alley. He knows that Luis will quietly enter through the back door and come up to the attic without disturbing Mr. Shertzer. Luis will want to make love, as he always does, and will collapse on the floor afterward, and cry.
The cat jumps from the fence onto the bricks and runs up to Luis. Luis picks up the cat and holds it close against his chest, rubbing its ears, stroking its sleek body.
The costume maker turns away from the window, away from the simple act of gentleness between Luis and the cat. He walks across the attic, thinking about Luis’s wrinkled face, and accidentally bumps against a steamer trunk. At his feet, a chip of porcelain falls from his under his pants leg. He bends down, picks it up, and holds it in his hand, examining it. There is no blood. He opens up a small wooden box and takes out a small bottle of glue, rolls up his pants leg, and glues the porcelain chip back onto his leg. He rolls down his pants leg as Luis walks up the attic stairs.
Luis walks the stairs slowly and tries to remember a time when climbing stairs didn’t cause his chest to hurt, his legs to ache, and his breathing to change to a pattern of half-breaths and quarter-breaths. He is conscious of the fact he is walking, stepping upward, as if his body can no longer perform the stair climbing without his mind reminding him what to do next. He enters the dim light of the attic and stops to rest, his eyes adjusting, searching for the costume maker. He half expects to hear voices of actors and actresses, all passed on from this life, but not passed on at all. There are the voices of Olivia de Havilland and William Holden. And the voices of Jean Arthur and Lionel Barrymore.
Luis sighs, and with the sigh regains the steadiness of normal breathing. “Are you up here?” His own voice is tentative, whispery.
“I’m over here,” the costume maker answers. “I’m sewing your costume.”
Luis walks toward the voice, around the wicker baskets full of cloth pieces, by the stacks of books on dressmaking and costume design, past a photograph of Edith Head tacked onto a column holding up a portion of the roof. On an old vanity dresser are stacks of photographs of film stars that he walks past, although the top one of a very young Joan Crawford momentarily catches his eye. He goes to the costume maker, who is sitting in the rocker, and kneels in front of him and places his head on the costume maker’s knees.
“Your costume is almost finished,” the costume maker states.
Luis turns his head and sees his own reflection in a large tin used for holding buttons. In the reflection he is young, and his wavy hair is being stroked by the competent, caring hands of Mr. Shertzer’s son.
“Go to the ball with me,” Luis says. “We will be the most handsome, the most fun of them all, you and I.” He looks up at the costume maker who is busily sewing. “I’m in love with you, so madly in love,” Luis says.
Mr. Shertzer is angry, so very angry that he walks back and forth across the room and can barely talk. He raises his very old hands and clasps them in front of him, above him, heavenward, and shakes his fists.
“My son is very happy making costumes,” he yells. “He doesn’t need to go to balls and parties. He has no need for all that frivolity.”
“It will be good for him,” Luis says calmly. “Besides, shouldn’t this be your son’s decision?”
Mr. Shertzer groans, a low guttural animal groan, and turns away, his hands now waving about in near rage, his right hand accidentally sweeping a figurine from a tabletop. Judy Garland, Dorothy, falls to the floor and shatters into little pieces. Dorothy’s hand-painted head rolls beneath the sofa.
“I’m sorry,” Luis says, bending down to pick up the destroyed object. He finds it hard to move in the Carmen Miranda costume. Sequined bananas and apple-sized strawberries are hanging in front of his eyes.
“Get up!” Mr. Shertzer shouts.
Luis stands as the attic door opens. The costume maker is dressed as Steve Reeves’s Hercules, a simple piece of cloth wound around his waist and thrown back over one shoulder. He is wearing leather sandals with straps that crisscross around his legs, up to his knees. Around his head is a circle of laurel leaves made of gold leaf and wire.
“Perfect,” Luis says, gleefully clapping. “You’ll be the most beautiful man at the costume ball, and your costume is so simple.”
“We don’t match,” the costume maker says. “There is no connection between Carmen Miranda and Hercules.”
“I don’t care,” Luis says. “We don’t have to match.”
Mr. Shertzer wrings his hands and sits on the sofa, holding a piece of Judy Garland. “Why are you doing this?” he says to his son. “Why go out now? You have so much work to do. So much is left undone.”
His son looks back up the attic steps as if hearing something, or remembering something in a fleeting moment of recall. “I need to be out in the world just this once.”
“My car is out front,” Luis says. “We shouldn’t hesitate any longer or we’ll be late.”
Luis turns and sees his aged face staring back at him from a mirror with a golden frame decorated with carved putti and swans. He turns away and notices the figurines, all of them, watching him, or seem to be.
Mr. Shertzer says nothing as his son and Luis leave the house, but sits in the overstuffed chair, rolling Judy’s head around in the palm of his hand.
“I’m sorry, so very sorry,” Luis cries as he lays another porcelain fragment on the rug at Mr. Shertzer’s feet. “He was so beautiful, so very beautiful.”
Mr. Shertzer bends over and picks up a piece, his son’s right shoulder. “How could you let this happen?” He puts his son’s shoulder to his lips and gently, lovingly kisses it.
“I didn’t know he was so fragile,” Luis sobs. “I was up on the stage accepting the winning costume trophy. I looked down at the dance floor and your son was surrounded, being smothered by beautiful men, but none as beautiful as he was.”
“This is your fault,” Mr. Shertzer snaps angrily. “If you would have left him alone, he would still be upstairs sewing.”
Luis puts the costume maker’s hands on the floor at Mr. Shertzer’s feet. “I was able to save these.”
“Where is his head? His torso? His genitals?” Mr. Shirtzer whispers in grief, staring at the lifeless hands.
“They broke him up and took him, the rest of him. I jumped from the stage, tearing my beautiful costume, and by the time I got to him, these parts – shoulder, hands – were all that was left.”
“Sweet Jesus!” Mr. Shertzer covers his eyes and weeps.
Luis sees a drop of blood on the carpet at Mr. Shertzer’s feet, beside the right hand of the costume maker. It is a simple drop of blood, heart-shaped with a crimson border around a bright red center.