New Skin (for an Old Boy)

Wayne Cresser
I acquired a straw hat, a sporty little chapeau that featured at the top, a patch of artificial turf with a plastic golf ball nestled right in the middle, like a little bird in a nest.

The spring suits from my late uncle sure came in handy. Auntie couldn't have been kinder. Imagine the old gal handing me a closet full of finely tailored clothes just for crossing a few t's and dotting a few i's on Henry's homemade will.

"Just look this over, will you dear?" she had said. "You know your Uncle Henry."

I knew my uncle very well. I liked him and knew he was a man who preferred to do most things for himself.

"What's hard already?" he'd ask me when I'd stop by his workshop to borrow a tool or make sure he wasn't trying to defy death in a thousand different ways.

"It's just an engine block," he might say of something large, metal, and complicated hanging on a hoist over the open chest of a car.

"Hold it steady while I tighten…No look, you have to get underneath…" Then he'd put a hand on it, freeze it in mid-spin. "See? Like that, steady."

Maybe it was because his life as an insurance man was so buttoned-down that he pushed the limits of human strength when he wasn't calculating other people's risk or examining actuary tables. He was thorough too, so I hadn't worried about his paperwork.

But Auntie was nervous about it. What could I say to her but, "Of course? I'll take a look."

"Just between you and me," she had added in a whisper. "Hush, hush."

"Sure, sure," I said.

At first, wearing his neat pinstripes, seersuckers, and shark skins, all crisp and pleated, got me noticed. Tastemakers down at the firm applauded all around. You know, nothing makes a suit stand up and take notice like another suit. So it was probably unwise to mention to Stevens, or anyone else at the office, that the clothes had been made for another man.

My admission, if one could call it that, just slipped out. Water cooler talk. Just a couple of boys killing time. I don't know why really, but I was feeling full of myself, hearty, robust. I was wearing an ice blue sharkskin suit, no vest, circa 1966, when Stevens said he liked the jacket.

"That's a nice cut, Ralph," he said. "A little retro, but right."

"Thank you," I said, easing into the conversation. "You know, it's remarkable, Sam."

"What's that?" he said.

And then I let it slip. I wasn't thinking about anything but the phenomenon of coincidence.

"Why, the notion that one man's clothes, that is, clothes specifically designed to fit another man, could fit me so well. What do you think? That's Kismet, right?"

Kismet to me, but not to Sam Stevens, apparently, who turned frosty.

"I see," he huffed, and walked away.

Then I made a remark. It started as a pulse really. I felt it undulate from the knot end of my tie to my vocal chords.

"Don't go away mad," I said after him.

"What was that?" he said.

"I say don't go away mad, Sam. You can figure out the rest."

I probably don't have to tell you that he kept right on walking, to his office.

In the time it takes to power up and fire off an e-mail, what had been viewed by the partners as a stab at refinement, a touch of class, and good old American "go for it" spirit, was now being reviewed as recycling. And while that may be considered politically correct in some circles, it did not sit well with the movers and shakers at Upton, Frank, and Stern.

So I traded them away. That's right, I gave them up to various gristle-faced and needy persons I met on the street. One by one, I swapped my things for theirs. Then I began to wear the things I got in exchange to work. Why not? If they could stand a washing, I could stand to wear them.

Well, upon seeing me in polyester jackets and ripped denims, my colleagues thought I must be doing detective work for one of my clients. You know, undercover stuff.

Stevens, now the boldest among them, took me aside one day and said, "Look here, I don't mean to tell you your business."

"Then tell me what you mean to tell me," I parried.

He blinked once and started up again.

"As I started to say, I don't mean to tell you your business, but you ought to get a P.I. for whatever it is you're on. You're embarrassing the firm."

In one of my street transactions, I acquired a straw hat, a sporty little chapeau that featured at the top, a patch of artificial turf with a plastic golf ball nestled right in the middle, like a little bird in a nest. Beautiful. The whole business, the hat, the coffee-stained and grease-blotted leisure suits, the white belts and motley tennis shoes, earned me the kind of recognition I never could have imagined.

Instead of corporations, I went to work for the guy who sold me my newspapers and the other people I saw every day. It felt good. It was like being handed a map of the human heart. The map was a puzzle that held some secret that everybody needed to hear, but I was the one with the three-day head start. I was the one tumbling to the clues. Everybody trusted me. They bought me coffee and donuts.

Eventually I quit the firm, started my own practice, and signed a television contract for a free legal advice call-in show. And it kept feeling good. All of it, like being reborn. You know, like an old boy putting on a brand new skin.

Wayne Cresser's fiction has been nominated for awards at New Letters, the Tennessee Writer's Alliance and the Newport Review, and published in the print anthologies Motif 1: Writing by Ear (Motes Books), Motif 2: Come What May (Motes Books) and Motif 3: All the Livelong Day (Motes Books), online at Wandering Army and Shaking, and in journals such as the Ocean State Review and QuixArt Quarterly.