On Formal Occasions, Hummingbirds

by Stevan Allred

Your younger brother, the one your older brother chose to be best man instead of you, sends you to Hong Kong Tailors for a suit.  Hong Kong Tailors turns out to be Mr. Wu, a small man with a feathery comb over who holds the measuring tape sometimes in his lips.  The quick way he moves around you, measuring your back and neck, stretching the tape down your inseam and sleeve and around your wrist, scribbling numbers on a pad, reminds you of the flock of goldfinches you saw that morning in the hawthorne tree. 

There is a black and white photograph on the wall of an older Chinese man standing stiff and stone faced next to a younger Mr. Wu.  His father, you think, and the tape in Mr. Wu’s lips hangs as it has a thousand times before, and always with his father’s voice in his head.  You can hear that voice telling him in fat chopped chinese syllables:  Work fast, no mistakes, your customer is your bowl of rice.  The voice comes to Mr. Wu from an oblique angle, from above and behind, where the walls meet the ceiling.

Mr. Wu holds up three fingers.  “Suit ready,” he says, “three days.”

You take a handful of peppermint candies from a bowl on the counter.  You are buying this suit, in a creamy linen that you are sure you will spill mint ice cream or marinara sauce on, because the clothes you once wore to formal occasions like weddings and funerals hang off your body like an awning.  You are buying this suit because, best man or not, there is no way your wife or your mother will let you stay home.  You are tired of thinking of yourself in the second person but you can’t stop, it’s the only way you can keep yourself separate.  Your wife, if you spoke to her about this, which you don’t, would tell you that you are avoiding taking responsibility for your own life.

“Don’t sleep in,” she says.  You are between employments.  The gap in your resume is growing wider.  They don’t seem to be hiring second person folk nearly as much these days.  You manage to get out of bed and get dressed before your wife leaves for work.

“Tie your shoes,” she says.  You’re wearing your Air Jordan XIII’s, $335 from a website that specializes in vintage Air Jordans.  You told your wife they were $99, and you are stealing money from the grocery account to cover the credit card bill.  You wear them unlaced, humiliating your 14 year old son, who informs you that wearing your Air Jordan’s unlaced is beyond old school, it’s before school, and he won’t walk within twenty feet of you at the mall.  Your 16 year old daughter cannot be bothered to tell you how beneath her contempt you are, except by the way she takes her twenty dollars of allowance money from your hand with only the tips of her glued-on-at-the-beauty-salon nails.

You are planning to wear the unlaced Air Jordans with the creamy linen suit to your brother’s wedding.

You put a peppermint candy to your lips and then you realize it still has the cellophane on.  The cellophane crinkles so loudly as you unwrap it that it drowns out all other sounds.  You fold the wrapper into a square, and then a smaller square, and a smaller one, and when you drop it on the floor of Hong Kong Tailors it sits there, unmoving, which today is a relief, you still have to buy a tie.  The cellophane square is not quite origami, but it is an ordered shape nonetheless.

Tomorrow you will try the shoes on with the laces tied.

The thought comes to you in your own voice:  How to disappear completely.  Wool blankets are a start.  A fat duvet is better, but there is still the problem of the lump of your body.  No duvet is fat enough to hide that lump completely.  Practice pulling your limbs in.  Yes, closer to the body is good, but to disappear completely you work on pulling the flesh along each bone in tighter.  Shrinkage, you think, and your muscles begin to shake.

There are closets to hide in all over the house.  Wear white and stand skinny in the broom closet.  Practice practice practice, and one day your wife reaches in for a broom and grabs your arm instead.  You haven’t touched each other in months.  A squeak escapes her lips and you squeak back, but these are not the squeaks of love.  Your feet could be dustpans.  Your hair could clean cobwebs from the corners where the walls meet the ceiling.  You imagine clothing made of sticky tape, a coverall like mechanics or painters wear, only this is for rolling across the carpet picking up lint.  Your wife will be pleased, one less room to vacuum, and you remember a piece of advice your mother once gave you.

“Be careful who you marry,” she said, “because this is the person you are going to end up discussing laundry detergent with.”

You ignored this advice of course.  How a woman looked in lingerie seemed so much more important at the time.

You wanted children, but not these children.  They think you’re an idiot because you don’t know who 50 Cent is.  “That’s a ‘what’, not a ‘who’,” you say, thinking they will laugh, but instead they walleye you and lean back, as if your aura of ignorance, of unhipness, of complete absence of the ‘phat’ or the ‘tight’ or the ‘kickin’, might be contagious.

The car sits in the driveway.  It’s time to go to your brother’s wedding.  Your shoelaces are all the way down there where your feet are, too far away to bend over and tie them.  Your wife is wearing the Boucheron perfume that once made you slide your hand up the slit in that long black silk skirt.

She says she’ll drive.  She says she’ll tie your shoes for you, if that’s what it takes.  She says it doesn’t matter about the shoe laces, what about seeing a doctor?  Your brother is a doctor, she says, he could write you a scrip after he cuts the wedding cake.

“I don’t know,” you say, “I feel pretty normal.”

“You’re not,” she says.  There’s a hummingbird out the kitchen window, darting around the tall flox.

You want to point out the hummingbird to your wife, but your hand moves too slow.

The wedding is at an expensive hotel with valet parking.  It’s the kind of hotel that puts a large crystal bowl of perfect green apples on a table in the lobby.  There are no flies anywhere and the women all have nylons on.  Your brother, not the one getting married but the other one, the best-man-instead-of-you one, he’s sitting in a chair in the lobby.  He once played Falstaff in one of those Henry plays, and this is how you see him, always.  Even though he’s wearing an acre and a half of summer-weight black wool cut into a tuxedo jacket and pants with a shiny stripe of black satin down the outside seam, you see him with an enormous wide belt and a square brass buckle, you see him in boots with soft leather tops that fold down, you see him laughing with his mouth wide open and a tankard of ale in his hand.

“Apple juice,” he told you after the play, backstage, his snowy white beard hanging off half his face and streaks of sweat running through his make-up.  Here, in the hotel lobby, he sees you and he stands.  You take an apple from the bowl and put it in the side pocket of the creamy linen suit, where it makes a round bulge that will never disappear completely.  You walk over to him, drawn by the white carnation boutonniere on his lapel.

“You look terrible,” he says, shaking your hand, “Can’t you tie your shoes?”

The shoelaces, you want to explain to him, are carefully arranged.  Untied shoes are part of a look that includes the three day’s growth on your face.  You are old school, you want to tell him, not before school.  Creamy white linen, you want to say, Hong Kong Tailor you want to say, but when you open your mouth a hummingbird flies out and hovers in front of your brother’s white carnation boutonniere.

A thought flies in at you:  It’s always hummingbirds at this kind of hotel.  Not one of your own thoughts, you think, these are the thoughts that come from an oblique angle, from the corners where the walls meet the ceiling.  The voice is familiar, but it’s not your voice, anymore than it’s the voice that speaks in fat chopped chinese syllables to Mr. Wu.  It is a voice with a lot of authority.  It’s the voice that says “Meds?  Just say no.”

Good advice, you think, it worked for Nancy and Betty and lots of other people including many family members but not, unfortunately, for Ron, poor president Ron, he was never the bright one, now was he.  This thought comes to you in your own separate voice.  The woman who wears your wife’s clothing looks across the lobby at you, not for the first time, and she waves her fingers and points at the doors to the room where the wedding will be.  She’s talking to your mother, laundry detergent you think, they’re talking about laundry detergent.  “Shout,” they are saying, “Dash” they are saying, “Tide”.  Your brother takes you by the elbow and together you move toward the door.  Everyone has something black on, a belt, shoes, black buttons down the back of a red floral print dress, and you realize you have no black on anywhere.  Your Air Jordans are Carolina blue, and they have a hologram of a basketball that morphs into the number 23 which morphs into what you always thought was his Air-ness leaping, but which you are now  pretty sure is actually a hummingbird.

“Is this a funeral?” you say.  But your brother doesn’t hear you, he’s talking to another guest, something about garage door openers, or maybe it was tires, you can’t break the code.  High above you hummingbirds buzz the lights on the chandeliers.  If you close one eye you can slow them down and see their tiny tongues reach out and drink the electric light.  Their red throats shine brighter with each sip. 

Your wife leans her head against your shoulder, she loves weddings, she loves you in your new suit.  The disagreement over footwear is the only fly buzzing in your marriage, but you worry that her hair will stick to the creamy linen, so that when you stand up her head will be stuck to you at an oblique angle and she will have to follow you everywhere.  You reach into the pocket of your creamy white linen coat for the apple but find instead a white dove folded from a small piece of paper.  You set it free thinking it will fly up to join the hummingbirds, but it just lays there in your hand.  Your wife smiles at the dove, happy that her hair does not stick to your creamy white linen suit, and she blows gently, the wings shift from side to side, but then she is not your wife.  It’s maybe your wife’s sister, you’ve always had a hard time telling them apart at formal occasions, or it could be your niece, the one who joined the Peace Corps and went to a country you never heard of, Bettystan or Nancystan or Medistan.  The folded paper dove pecks at you once before it settles down.

The only way the bride could hide is if she found a bridal shop and stepped into the window.  Her dress, which stretches out behind her where it is harnassed to two little girls wearing floral tiaras, is a creamy white that matches your new Hong Kong suit.  What a couple we would make, you think, creamy white and creamy white, satin and linen, and she is marrying entirely the wrong man, your older brother the doctor, a man annoyed by any mention of laundry detergent.  You want to follow the bride up the aisle and whisper in her ear.  “Ivory,” you would say, “Cheer,” you would say, “White King.”  She would lean back, the stiff netting of her veil scratchy against your warm cheek, and you would say this to win her heart:  I can produce a beautiful hummingbird from my mouth at any moment.

The girls harnassed to the trailing end of the bride’s gown are walking some six and one quarter inches above the floor.  The minister is a woman in a charcoal gray pin stripped suit.  The black Air Jordan XI’s, the hightop ones with the three tuck and roll padded bulges under the ankles and the red flame trim on the outer edge of the soles, they would look terrific with that suit.

Your children are sitting in the back, on the bride’s side, and they are whispering to each other, but not about laundry detergent.  You’re seated halfway up on the groom’s side, and your mother’s bald spot is directly in front of you.  The bald spot is not an actual bald spot, but an extreme thining of her bluish white hair, and you wonder how many of those missing hairs were lost to birds who needed them for their nests.  What doesn’t disappear down the shower drain ends up in bird nests, you’ve heard this, scientists are studying the use of your mother’s hair in bird nests at this very moment.  The bride passes by your row and you want to follow her but the bird in your hand needs a nest.

The wedding service is spoken in a bastardized version of English that allows ‘commit’ to be both a verb and a form of punctuation.  It’s all code, and the minister herself is festooned with loose syllables that hover around her face, poking out their long slender tongues, drinking in the light reflected off her too white teeth.  At thirty paces you can see what only raptors see, every eyelash, the glint of a tear not yet fallen, the looped strings of tiny pearls in her iris.

From deep below, in a sub-sub-sub-basement, you hear the machinery start up.  This whole room, this entire hotel on its one city block, is about to tilt up thirty degrees from front to back.  Your brother, the groom, will grab the minister, who will grab the altar, and they will stay where they are while the bride slides down the length of the aisle, drawn to the dove in your hand, whose wings are fluffed and ready to fly.  You will wait in the aisle to receive her in your arms.  Your unlaced Air Jordan’s will hold you fast to the floor no matter what the angle of the tilt.

“Bold,” she will say to you, “Surf,” she will say, “Gain.”

The white dove eyes your mother’s bald spot.  It plucks a stray hair and flies up to the chandelier. 

You will say to her, “All.”

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