J.C. Elkin's nonfiction piece "Alterations" appears in Issue No. 57: Mend
My fingers are slow to wake up today. I lick the thread and poke at the needle four times before I find the eye. My first project is a trouser hem, using the ugly crisscross stitch Mr. Nagy insists on. His wealthy clients prefer its security to the slip stitch my mother taught me. The inside of a garment should be as attractive as the outside, she insisted. The fabric feels oddly bulky this morning, like cotton batting instead of polished wool. I fumble a pin, prick my finger, and quickly suck on it to stanch the blood; but it’s nothing compared to last week’s sewing machine needle through a nail, a bull’s-eye bruise that’s still healing. It’s a sort of out-of-body experience to look at my hands in that moment, as if the digits are sewn on Frankenstein-style. I go and run cold water over them to shock them awake. I hate cold hands. Something I rarely have to deal with since moving to Miami. I crack my knuckles, do some dexterity exercises, and get back to work.
Today’s pile of alterations so far includes four hems, two waists to let out, six pocket replacements, and three bell-bottoms to transform into skinny jeans. Olivia Newton John’s new image in Grease has certainly been good for business, but tapering those legs is a job-and-a-half. One of my regulars, a sorority princess, was so excited to discover this wardrobe makeover that she promised to bring in six more pairs at twelve bucks a pop. Oh, goody. I’m grateful for the work, but I can’t fathom her. She’s beyond adorable with the wardrobe she already has. Doesn’t she have anything better to do with her money?
I own one pair of jeans, purchased on clearance at Woolworth’s when I was fourteen. That was the best sixty-nine cents I ever spent, even though the pants didn’t fit until senior year. But boy, did they then! The first day I wore them to school, prom royalty asked where I got them. Of course, I was evasive.
Money. Everything comes down to money. I’ll be lucky to earn enough tuition this fall to start sophomore year in January at Florida State, even at residential rates.
The door pings open and Mr. Nagy enters, clutching a bakery box in his chubby hands. His white Guayabera shirt bears a faint stain on the tummy where grease leached through the cardboard. He sets a cream-cheese Danish next to my machine and smiles magnanimously. “Sweetsies for the sweetie,” he says in his thick Hungarian accent.
Mr. Nagy and his wife both speak a heartfelt and direct English I appreciate. I am intrigued by their sentence structure, how they mold the language, coining new words like sweetsies. But I regret having told him that Danishes are my favorite. It’s becoming a tradition. “Thanks, but no thanks,” I tell him. “I’m on a diet.”
“On the diet,” he scoffs. “You beautiful girl. Lotsa boy chase you just like that.” He stretches a hairy arm out to me as if I’m the Venus de Milo.
I remind him that I have a boyfriend.
“Yes,” he says cautiously. “You are a modern girl.”
I ask what he means by that.
“You know. Old-fashioned girl live at home with Mama and Papa. Modern girl live with boyfriend.”
I snip and rethread the needle for the second pant leg. If that’s the definition of modern, I am the most old-fashioned modern girl I know. He wouldn’t get the distinction, though, even if I tried to explain. I’m here because I found life with Mama and Papa intolerable, and my boyfriend’s family took me in. Fortunately, I have this one marketable skill.
It all started in kindergarten when I wore a hole in my sock walking home for lunch. My mother taught me to darn, and I skipped back to school with a bunchy patch in the toe of my shoe, but I didn’t care because sewing was power and possibility.
I was her apprentice for years. The fabric store was my favorite shop—a color wheel in kaleidoscope with the smell of factory-fresh promise. It was the starchy savor of slick magazine stock on damp fingers as I paged through the trinity of McCall’s, Simplicity, and Butterick. It was the feel of the cloth in suggestible hands: velvets and furs, prairie suedes and homespuns, sequins and lace. Snakeskin! It was that sound of worshipful concentration as patrons pored over patterns, draping the fabric just so, the seductive murmur of persuasion, the hiss of scissors cutting, cloth ripping, and a cash register ringing. It was the smiling faces of ladies, always ladies, embarking on journeys of the imagination. It was heaven at half-a-buck-a-yard, when stitching was cheaper than shopping. It was a marriage of artistry and economy at a time when many mothers still taught their daughters that marriage was what life was all about.
Each outfit brought sleepless anticipation followed by the afterglow of attention. But as my mother became busier with work and college, she lost her tenuous grasp on preteen fashion. She was studying to be a home-ec teacher, and I was becoming that kid whose mom dresses her funny.
At twelve, I started sewing for myself and tasted command. It was a creative journey of personal growth, of finding my own style and a measure of independence. Excursions to the fabric store became as difficult as matching plaids. Where I saw style, Mom saw indecency. The hemline was too high or the neckline too low, the fabric too sheer or the panty line too visible. She was as unforgiving as a bias cut on a belly, so I learned to install lining in everything. She taught me advanced techniques: French seams, blind hems, overcast buttonholes, stitch-in-the-ditch. We took field trips to Boston’s finer stores to admire the hand-picked zippers, boning, and buckram insets.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when I set out to make my first formal, we disagreed on the very notion of what a prom gown should look like. It was 1974, and Gunne Sax’s unstructured muslins were all the rage, but Mom hadn’t gotten the memo. She still thought formal meant strapless satins and chiffons sculpted to the body. When I seized on a pink calico and white waffle-weave cotton, she was baffled. “For a prom?” she asked. “We haven’t even looked at patterns yet.”
“No need,” I said unequivocally. “This is it. You’ll see, it will be beautiful.”
She inched toward the silks. “Wouldn’t you like a special fabric for a special occasion?”
“No one will be wearing that,” I said dismissively, holding out the brushed cotton latticework for her to feel. I’d never been so sure of anything.
“Seems a little thin,” she said, tentatively, holding it up to my bust.
“So I’ll interface it,” I said, hustling to the pattern books as she eyed the tulles wistfully.
The cover page of the formals section featured a high-waisted apron style with shoulder ruffles and contrasting bib. She looked from it to my fabric, and her face suffused with admiration. “I like it,” she mused, surprised. “I trust your judgment.”
It was the first time she said that. In this one realm of life at least, I’d earned her respect as an equal. We were out of the store in twenty minutes. It was the easiest disagreement we ever had and my toughest project to date.
Eight weeks later, it was more than a hit. It was a sensation—and the validation I would need when I became sick of my parents still treating me like a child and left home four years later, for good. Landing here.
The September sun is beating through the mirrored-glass window as the minute hand on the parrot-fish clock creeps toward the pectoral fin. Not even quarter to nine and my cheeks are prickly, hairstyle wilting.
“Today gonna be scorchy,” Mr. Nagy says, mopping his brow and bumping up the AC. “Good day to close early. Go swimming. You like swimming?”
I nod noncommittedly, dreading what is coming next.
“I have a big pool where I live. Very nice. You come swimming. Bring bikini, yes?”
It’s the third time this month he’s brought that up, even though I told him there’s a pool where I live. I don’t bother telling him I don’t own a bikini. I say I’m babysitting later, a lie boring enough that he won’t press for details.
“Other time then,” he says. “Next week. Thursday, for lunch,” he decides.
I tell him I have to work early at the theater that day. And besides, I wouldn’t want to impose on Mrs. Nagy like that. I don’t mention her telling me that she’d be away visiting the grandchildren. Poor woman, putting up with him for forty years.
“You working too much all the time,” he says. “You young. You relax. Take a sun tan.”
I take a bite of Danish, and he gives the palm-up gesture for more. “Eat. It’s good for you.”
Customers bustle in with their laundry. This one lost a button. That one broke a zipper. A matronly lady wants a dress taken out three inches at the waist, a brand-new silk pin-dot she just bought for the weekend. Too bad there’s only an inch and a half of seam allowance.
A brash, skinny girl comes in with two pairs of polyester gabardine slacks to take in, seeming like she’s on uppers. I have her slip them on in the dressing room, only to discover later that the crotches are crusty. I hold my breath and race through the work, tag the pants for cleaning, and scrub my hands extra hard.
A girl my age comes in with her mother and a pile of back-to-school clothes just my style, modest but chic. We eye each other like potential friends on the first day of class. But I’m just the seamstress, someone she won’t see again, so we don’t talk. She needs the shoulder straps taken in on some cami-dresses, a five-minute job. It amazes me that people pay for this.
She and her mother have a camaraderie I miss from the old days before my mother became so micromanaging, grooming me to be her idea of a doctor’s wife? Or an airline attendant? I was never sure. The last time we went shopping together, the summer I shed my high-school uniform, we scoured clearance racks for all-season slacks, skirts, and blouses—everything but those horrible, horrible blue jeans, as she called them. She insisted on replacing my green leather slouch sack with a gold-trimmed clutch that Corporate Barbie would envy, wearing me down with her I don’t ask for much and I’m paying for your education, after all—to the tune of her entire teaching salary, all because she refused to fill out the financial-aid forms. It’s none of their business what we earn. So much misplaced pride after so much penny-pinching.
The style at college, I would discover, was: backpacks, jeans, Fair Isles sweaters, down jackets. Once again, I was the kid who dressed funny. I was thrilled to find a shrunken Faire Isles at a thrift shop over winter break. I wore it to tatters.
The alterations are stacking up when an older man, trim and suave with Mediterranean good looks, saunters in, and Mr. Nagy comes out from behind the counter to embrace him, proclaiming that his good friend Marcello is at long last back from Italy.
Marcello asks who the lovely young lady is sitting in old Marguerite’s chair out back, and Mr. Nagy explains that Marguerite has retired but now he has Jeannie.
“Jane,” I correct him. He knows full well I prefer my real name, but he never uses it.
“I Dream of Jeannie,” he says with a wink.
“Yes,” Marcello croons. “I can see why.” They utter sotto voce comments I pretend not to hear. Soft laughter drifts back to my work station with whispered words like young and fresh—words you see on a package of chicken.
I feel myself tense as they stroll my way. In my peripheral vision, Marcello’s linen trousers break perfectly with every step, precisely at his shiny loafers. He is tall and groomed, less a real man than the crafted image of an ideal.
Marcello wants to meet me, Mr. Nagy says. I utter hello and focus on my zipper repair. Marcello smells like the cologne counter at Jordan Marsh as he looks over my shoulder at the tiny stitches. Mr. Nagy, in turn, peers over his shoulder and grins proudly.
“Beautiful,” Marcello purrs, placing one manicured hand on my right shoulder and brushing the left side of my exposed neck with his lips.
My whole body quickens and I sidle out of reach, red-faced. I retreat to the bathroom, lock the door, and splash myself with ice water. Their soft laughter seeps under the door and around my feet. When it subsides, I put my ear to the crack and listen for Marcello’s departure.
Two days later, I accept a job offer from one of Mr. Nagy’s competitors, an old lady with a dry-cleaning establishment across town. I tell Mr. Nagy I have to leave soon for school, a half-truth.
“Two-week notice be standard,” he says, a note of wistfulness infecting his authority.
I don’t actually leave for another three months, but in that moment, I can tell by how he looks at his scuffed oxfords that he knows the real reason. I am not his concept of the “modern” girl.
J.C. Elkin’s prose and poetry, like her incessant humming, issue from a need to channel thought into sounds as persistent as the lapping waves where she lives. A graduate of Bennington Writing Seminars, she is currently working on a mother/daughter memoir in handwriting analysis. Her chapbook, World Class: Poems from the ESL Classroom, was featured on Delmarva Public Radio. Other works appear in such markets as Angle, Ducts.org, and The Old Farmer’s Almanac. A native New Englander, she now lives on the Chesapeake Bay with her husband of thirty-eight years and a cat of considerably fewer. To learn more, visit www.jcelkin.net.
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