Under the dim ceiling lamp of the chilly dressing room, Zach replayed Angeline’s warning in his mind.
You cannot wear that suit, she’d said, regarding the stage clothes that Mr. Todd was about to bring.
Zach stamped his feet to keep warm and stuck his bruised hands under his armpits.
How odd for her to say that, especially since she’d seen him standing like this, without any proper outerwear. How odd that she’d known he was here at all. He hadn’t told her that he’d be at the Luminary tonight. They rarely spoke of his career anymore. Zach had always assumed that bringing up the topic of his musical passions hurt them both too much because of his failure, and because of how it had influenced their relationship by making it impossible for him to propose to her.
But Angeline hadn’t looked sad the usual way. She’d been tense and worried, but not sad because of something impossible to predict (such as the future trajectory of his career). In fact, she had given the distinct impression of knowing exactly what was happening and what to do about it. She just hadn’t wanted to tell him the details.
The door through which she’d left still stood open. The only way in which Zach could guarantee not wearing the stage clothes was to walk out that door and leave the building. But in underwear? He’d get arrested. Or get clubbed by God-fearing people who believed in propriety.
Then, the alternatives were:
One, leave this room and hide somewhere in the Luminary, hoping that he can find spare clothes.
Two, pretend to have fainted right here, right now. Then Mr. Todd wasn’t going to force the clothes on Zach, no?
Three, wait for Mr. Todd to finally get here and offer the new clothes, but refuse to wear them by making up some excuse.
One and two meant that Zach couldn’t play tonight. Three, however, meant that maybe Mr. Todd would understand Zach’s situation. Mr. Todd believed in superstitions a lot, for such a large man and a self-proclaimed Christian. Payback after death. Karma. Ghosts coming after you. Such ideas were as real to Mr. Todd as gravity.
Zach could make up a story about his lady friend visiting a fortuneteller earlier today. That gypsy had led her to believe that if Zach wore the suit, he’d die. Something along those lines that’d scare and touch Mr. Todd at the same time, because no matter what nonsense your lover believes in, it’s adorable for you to support his or her belief, particularly if it’s about trivial matters. And someone like Mr. Todd, who never got any support from Mrs. Todd and pitied himself for it, might find Zach’s attitude extra-admirable. (Mrs. Todd had even more secrets than Mr. Todd and hated her husband for forcing her to have secrets. She knew that her husband drank, but kept that habit secret. She also kept it secret that she knew, though everyone knew about her knowing, just like they knew about him drinking.)
At that moment, the unsteady footsteps of Mr. Todd sounded from the hallway just outside the dressing room. Soon, Mr. Todd emerged at the door. The crown of his head brushed against the top of the frame as he stared at Zach with bleary eyes. Between his shivering thumb and index finger, sort of as if he didn’t trust himself with something so valuable, he held a set of clothes: a black shirt, and the jacket and pants of a suit in the color of deep purple.
Despite Angeline’s warning, Zach took in a deep breath and held it for a moment. Even from a fleeting look, he could tell: that suit was exquisite.
First of all, it was made of cashmere, that uniquely soft and comfortable fabric. Luxurious and warm. Lightweight. Rare, too, given that the fibers had to be combed from goats on some faraway continent.
Then the fit. Just with a glance, Zach could tell that the suit wasn’t just any suit; it had been tailored for him.
Mr. Todd nodded as if he’d read Zach’s mind. “Yes,” said Mr. Todd in his hoarse voice. “It’ll fit you perfectly.”
“I didn’t think you knew my measurements.”
“You’ve been playing here for years, son. Of course I know them. And you deserve a gift. A full house, at the Luminary. Can you believe it?”
Zach had to consciously decide against raising his brows and revealing just how surprised and impressed he was. He had underestimated Mr. Todd. Owning and running a theater, no matter how shabby, was no easy task after all, so Zach should have known better. In-between secretly drinking, secretly falling asleep while drinking, and waking up to be more secretly drunk, Mr. Todd had paid attention. That was how he’d kept the Luminary standing over the years. That was how he’d managed to never get caught in the moment of drinking.
Zach nodded at Mr. Todd with newfound respect.
“Thank you,” said Zach.
“You’re very welcome.”
While Zach took the suit and examined it with wonder, Mr. Todd fidgeted, wiping his hands on his clothes, glancing around, and sniffing. Zach barely noticed him, however.
Decadent. Charming. This suit was the epitome of all that Zach had yearned for. Glamor, glitz, and gold, lots of gold, and fame, lots of fame. Zach felt like he was twenty-two again.
How wonderful it would have been to wear something like this and play under numerous lights, for numerous people, in New York City. How silly it would be to give up the opportunity to do something similar in Carningsby only because his lover had given him a mysterious warning that she didn’t care to elaborate on.
“Was someone here?” said Mr. Todd.
“Pardon me?” said Zach, surfacing from his dreamy musings.
“I smell something different. Like cigars. Leathery stuff.”
The fact that Mr. Todd could smell anything at all beyond his own reek of whiskey surprised Zach more than the fact that Mr. Todd’s description of Angeline’s smell was accurate.
“No,” said Zach. “No one came here. I was the only one here.”
Angeline hadn’t wanted anyone to know that she’d been here. She’d told Zach not to tell anyone. That part of her request, he could honor.
But this suit; the full house waiting for him up there; the act of playing music in front of others, which gave Zach so much joy, otherwise he wouldn’t have left the familiar warmth of his distant home—all that pulled Zach away from honoring the other part of Angeline’s request.
He had to wear this and get on stage now.
“Huh,” said Mr. Todd. He sniffed a few more times, then said, “Hurry up. People are waiting for you. I’ll be backstage. Good luck.”
“No time. Sorry. And sorry we couldn’t get you a proper tuxedo. But isn’t the suit great?”
“There should be shoes there somewhere too.”
Mr. Todd pointed somewhere behind the dressing table. Indeed, there was a hidden box.
“Thank you, Mr. Todd,” Zach said.
Mr. Todd nodded, muttered something unintelligible, and shuffled outside. Zach gazed down at the suit for a long time, until he couldn’t hear Mr. Todd anymore. Once again, he was alone in the basement of the Luminary. Angeline’s warning swirled in his head and the suit felt soft and warm in his hand.
Then a chill blew into the room from the hallway. Zach shivered.
Really, if Angeline had wanted him to stay away from this wonderful suit, she should have brought a different set of clothing so that he didn’t have to go on stage half-naked. But she hadn’t. And presently, his bruised hands felt numb from the cold. They ached from the injury but also ached to play.
So long as Zach did something, wasn’t his life well-lived? He hadn’t cried at the injustice of being called tardy and irresponsible. He hadn’t complained when he hadn’t been given a second chance at numerous venues in the City. All, because he thought that in one way or another, he was still doing. Playing the piano. Wherever, whenever possible.
Even though he was far from accomplishing the dreams he’d once allowed himself to dream, didn’t the act of doing earn him the right to hear the applause from a hundred people, for the first time in his life? The opportunity had presented itself just as mysteriously and magically as it had slipped from his fingers in the early days of his New York life.
He had to play. He simply had to.
And he just couldn’t imagine how Angeline, his darling love, wouldn’t eventually understand why he’d had to make this decision.
So Zach placed the deep purple jacket and pants on the dressing table and put on the black shirt first.
© 2022 Ithaka O.
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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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