/ Fiction /
Nielson suspects that his client is a hybrid in the early stages of his development, but he’s not about to bring it up. Easton Hodding is a proud man, after all, key decision-maker for—and heir apparent to—a shipbuilding empire with its name tattooed on vessels all along the Gulf Coast and up the Mississippi. He boasts a vast network of friends and associates throughout southeast Louisiana, some of whom are also Nielson’s clients. Nielson’s job is to clothe them so that they look and feel like the movers and shakers of the world, whether they are or not.
Seventeen years as personal tailor to these masters of the universe has brought Nielson in contact with powerful men of all shapes and sizes, and egos he would never try to measure. These men confront great challenges with aplomb and yet have difficulty acknowledging any change in their waist size, so Nielson’s mantra is: trust the tape. He remeasures each client on every visit and records it in each file, filling in boxes around a diagram of a figure in a suit.
So it was with Easton two months ago, when he ordered an eggshell-white dinner jacket in anticipation of the Maritime Workers’ Summer Gala. Nielson updated his numbers then; now, at the first fitting, this same midsection has ballooned to twice its size, the neck has melted into the shoulders, and the entire upper carriage stoops forward as if trying to break the tape of an imaginary finish line.
If Easton has suspicions, he does not show it. He approaches with one arm extended, eager to wrap himself in the pristine alabaster garment, but at the last minute, Nielson withdraws it and pulls his measuring tape from his pocket.
Easton shrugs and stands at ease while Nielsen circles him, stretching the tape across the new terrain, moving to the next measurement only when he’s gotten the same number three times.
“My gym membership expired in April and I never renewed it,” Easton admits. “You must see a lot of this in men my age. Younger, even.”
“I’m thinking we tackle this again,” Nielson says. He brings the shoulders of the coat gently over the rounded wooden wings of the hanger and pulls the lapels taut, as if restoring its dignity before slipping it back into its travel bag. “This afternoon I will speak with the factory, and by tonight I will have a clear road ahead. Seven weeks is more than enough time.”
Easton nods and gives his charming wink, although this time Nielson swears the lids take slightly longer to cover the eyeball.
* * *
Over the course of their eight-year acquaintance, Nielson has made for Easton upwards of a hundred suits, sport coats, and formal wear ensembles, visiting him with each turning of the season, remeasuring him and displaying for his perusal a portfolio of the finest Scottish wool and American cotton. To Nielson, Easton’s commitment to his wardrobe is a miracle of dedication. It is also an annual intake of thousands of dollars in commission, and, as with any account, Nielson knows that it could disappear at any moment.
Nielson sits on the edge of Easton’s assistant’s desk and leans forward. “How quickly is he changing?”
“I warned you on the phone,” Jacques says, a tragic expression in his eyes.
“You told me he’d gained a few pounds.”
Jacques puts his hand over his mouth and shakes his head. “I’m so worried. He’s not the type to make a big deal about it.”
Nielson recognizes the weight of the secret. “No one else has mentioned it?”
“The way things are around here, you don’t really question a man’s body, you know what I mean? Maybe you should talk to Ken.
“This happened to one of my cousin’s friends’ uncles,” Jacques continues. “He was a Grand Isle fisherman recluse. And the rumor was he spent too much time in the water and not enough in the company of his own kind…”
Nielson lifts himself from the desk and starts down the narrow hallway of the Hodding Marine offices. The walls are cluttered with crooked pictures of sunburned men displaying enormous marlin, trawlers and tugs making passage down lonely stretches of river, and stoic captains shaking hands with various celebrities and politicians. At the end of the hall Nielson turns left, goes around another corner and finds himself outside the office of Ken Gautreaux, CFO.
Ken’s laid back in his chair, speaking on the phone in a soft voice. When he sees Nielson, he straightens up and injects some rasp into his tone before saying goodbye and hanging up. Nielson once measured him for a pair of pants, and since then the man has developed something of a confessional nature toward him, despite not buying any more custom clothing.
“You’ve seen our boy,” Ken guesses. He motions for Nielson to close the door.
“I’ve spent the last few weeks running scenarios through my mind,” Ken says. “Corporate restructuring, difficult board meetings, awkward public announcements. None of them are as sad as the thought of Easton not fitting into his tailored suit.”
“Dinner jacket,” Nielson says. “Can you pinpoint when it began?”
“Sometime after Memorial Day,” Ken says. “I noticed it after I got back from the beach.”
“Has he seen a specialist? Who all knows? What’s the timeline?”
Ken holds up his hands in a cautionary gesture. “All good questions.”
“What’s the next step?” Nielson asks.
“We have the gala coming up, as you well know. Shareholders will be there, as will potential clients, folks from all over the industry. Easton’s giving the keynote address. It’s an important time for us.”
“Aren’t you worried that by then he may be in a state unsuited to public appearances?”
“We’re hoping you can help with that. Make him look dapper, make him look in charge. Give him presence. I can see that you have a blank check from Accounting. Whatever it takes.”
“Ken, his body must be changing by the day.”
“Control the controllables.”
Nielson seats himself without invitation in one of Ken’s old-fashioned armchairs. He feels the smooth leather under his wrists and the brass knobs beneath his fingertips, and he has the sensation of being within the calm eye of a storm.
Ken watches him for a moment and says, “It’s an awful shock. I’ve spent half my career with the man. But the foolish thing to do–the last thing Easton would want us to do–is to let this thing take control and wreck the company. You’re in the image business. Companies have images too, and I worry about ours. I don’t want to send a message that we’re not in control. It’s seen as weakness.”
“Couldn’t he take some time for personal reasons? There’s a hybrid treatment center in Leland.”
“No time,” Ken says. “We’re finalizing a deal with the Coast Guard for three icebreakers. Two hundred million in projected revenue this year, with contract potential for an additional hundred. That’s not nothing.” His voice is steady, but a flicker of panic dances in his eyes. “We’ve all got to do our part on this one.”
Ken’s phone rings, and their time is up. Nielson excuses himself and walks back down the hallway of marlin and memories and out to his car. He drives back to the city in silence, reminding himself that he is in the business of clothing men, and a man’s problems, no matter how outlandish, are his own.
* * *
Nielson sits up late in his office after his partners have gone home. Through the open window he can hear motorcycles screaming down the freeway toward downtown. Easton’s notes and measurements are spread all over the desk, along with a half-eaten chicken sandwich cradled in its greasy wrapper. Half a dozen tabs are open on his computer screen, each one linked to a different medical journal article discussing human-anuran hybrids, and he cycles between them, pausing to make calculations and sketch diagrams. He senses a creeping delirium around the edges of his thoughts.
Men’s bodies fluctuate with the changing seasons of their lives. For most men, these changes are routine: the stresses of their jobs, the midlife crises, the weight gain and the health kicks, the marriages and kids and divorces, all of it absorbed and manifested into the physical shapes that Nielson records in his files.
Hybrids, of course, buck the system in every way. The extent to which a hybrid evolves depends upon a range of factors, known and unknown, making each case unique and unpredictable. Some hybrids begin changing as kids, while others don’t show signs until much later in life. Some stop evolving at a certain point, having developed small abnormalities that are easy to hide, while others transform until they reach that rarified state, that unholy mezzanine: a 50-50 anuran-human hybridization.
Nielson can only guess how Easton will change in the coming weeks. He draws x and y axes depicting his proportions across the last two months, plotting the revised measurements, following the lines as they vault and dive in precipitous curves. He extends them along what he imagines is a consistent pattern through September 2nd, the day of the gala. It seems futile to guess at one of countless possible outcomes, but he feels the urgency of time and expectation pressing on his judgment.
He builds extra space into each new measurement, enters it into Easton’s profile, and studies the body shape models it yields. He shortens the skirt of the jacket and lengthens the lapels to create vertical lines; he tightens the point-to-point across the shoulders; he will add a pocket square or a boutonniere to draw the eye upward. Around midnight he makes his final estimates and submits the order.
* * *
Nielson is once again waiting in the nautical opulence of the Hodding Marine conference room. Three weeks have passed since he was here, and his anxiety has bloomed into a sort of harnessed mania. He drums on the edge of the table, brushes imaginary lint from the second iteration of Easton’s dinner jacket, and makes laps around the large mahogany table. He inspects the milky bust on the pedestal at the far end of the room and is surprised to find that it is not some long-dead poet or philosopher, as he has assumed all along, but patriarch Leonard Hodding.
As if on cue, the door opens and a short figure in a gray pinstripe suit enters. He is slightly stooped but boasts a full head of tousled white hair, and he walks with purpose to the wet bar in the corner and pours a glass of water, which he brings over to Nielson. The men shake hands and Nielson senses that in this instant of contact, Leonard Hodding has found out about him everything he needs to know.
The old man points at the garment bag lying on the table and says, “I was a customer in the early days of your company, when it was little more than a broom closet on Washington Street. I was called on by a spirited Scotsman, Malcolm was his name. Is he still there?”
“He is, and I will give him your regards.”
“I did enjoy hearing him talk. Probably how he sold me so many suits. I believed then, as I still do, that wearing a fine suit and acting like you belong in it brings you good fortune. I’ve tried to impart that wisdom to Easton.”
“I’d say you succeeded, sir.”
“Pride in your appearance is one of the first steps to success,” Leonard continues. “With that comes an essential dose of self-confidence.”
“I couldn’t agree more, sir,” Nielson says, trying to match the gleam in Leonard’s eye.
“In fact, when a man’s appearance begins to slip, it’s an indication of his own self-worth in decline. Did you know that?”
Nielson nods slowly.
“I always respected the mission of your company,” Leonard says, reaching out to grasp Nielson’s hand. “Your clothes are not cheap, but their effect is priceless. To my view, anyway. But life turns like a river, and fashions change, and men lose sight of what makes them who they are.”
The old man’s palm feels brittle and light, but it paralyzes every muscle in Nielson’s body.
“I want you to remind Easton who he is,” Leonard says. “God knows I’ve tried. Nothing less than the Hodding name hangs in the balance. Now it’s late, and my shadow is receding. You have his attention. Work with him. Make him look in the mirror. Urge him to exercise, to focus on himself and his family and his business. What you see now is not my boy. That’s not my Easton.”
It seems to Nielson that the old man has aged several years since entering the room; the eyes have lost their luminosity and the face is drawn and sad, a mask drained of life.
“Are you a father?” Leonard asks.
Nielson shakes his head.
“A father is faced with countless micro-decisions that give shape to his child’s existence. Is it possible that he sent a mixed signal somewhere along the line? Did he, in some moment of weakness, compromise a part of himself?” Leonard seems to pose his questions to ghosts seated around the conference table. “Was he careless when the occasion called for a sympathetic ear? Did he withhold love?”
The room hums with weighted silence. A smile flashes across Leonard’s face and is gone. He gestures around the room. “All this is nothing. Children are our true legacy. You bust your ass making them into men and women and then you turn around and they’re not even that anymore. Only later does the path reveal itself. After the die is cast, as they say.”
Nielson feels so out of his depth that any word that comes to mind seems inappropriate. But Leonard looks at him as he might an old friend, and he regains confidence.
“Sir,” he says, “I like to believe the die is never cast.”
Leonard smiles again and wags a finger at Nielson. “A true-blue salesman,” he says.
The door swings open and Easton walks in. Nielson stands, feeling fresh anxiety. Even at a distance, he can tell Easton is wearing a bargain suit from some big and tall men’s store. As if he can’t bear the sight of it, Leonard stands and excuses himself with a bow and a wave.
Easton removes his enormous jacket. His midsection and chest have bloated to cartoonish proportions. His legs have lengthened, pulling the bottoms of his pants above his socks to reveal an inch of pale, luminescent skin. His expression, despite his transformation, is unperturbed.
Nielson lifts the dinner jacket out of its bag as if it is an exotic animal about to be sacrificed. Easton pushes one arm into a sleeve and waits for Nielson to bring the other one around. Nielson does so, and before he can step back, the seams split along the shoulders with a heartbreaking ripping sound.
Nielson turns away and takes a deep breath. He recites aloud: “This is a business of mistakes and alterations, of second and third and fourth chances that often culminate in masterpieces.” He turns around, helps Easton remove the raggedy jacket, and tosses it onto the conference table.
Easton picks up his own cheap jacket like he’s grabbing a kitten by the scruff of its neck. It makes Nielson sad to see. He notices extensive webbing between Easton’s fingers as they stretch over the fabric. The men stand in silence, each waiting for the other to propose a solution. It seems impossible that Easton is unaware of what’s happening, but if Nielson has gained any insight through this business, it is into the absolute power of denial.
“I must insist on a timeline for this masterpiece,” Easton says, and Nielson, despite his anger, is grateful for another chance.
* * *
After submitting his final set of measurements to the factory, Nielson attempts to forget about Easton’s jacket. In the following weeks, he resumes his life in the company of normal men. He rides elevators with them, banters and bullshits with them, stands in mile-high sunlit offices and pitches them, closes them, measures them and asks for their money. Their vanities and insecurities suggest that they want to become something more than they are, but the change they seek, in which he is complicit, seems meaningless.
He catches himself looking for telltale stretching in the limbs, drifting behind the eyes, deepening of the voice, but none of them show any signs of real transformation. He relishes their fleeting moments of vulnerability: the admissions of weakness and lapses in judgment that led to a certain amount of weight gain; the displays of emotion and veiled pleas for his guidance; the look of the lost child in the eyes of powerful men; these things drive him from appointment to appointment with optimism that they might one day defy expectation.
The jacket returns from the factory three days before the gala. Nielson removes it from its bag for inspection, but he finds little perspective within its massive folds. Whether it fits doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
* * *
Easton still lives in the town he grew up in. To reach it Nielson follows a system of waterways, driving the river road that edges along the Mississippi out of the city, breaking away with the Lucille Canal south through the sugar cane fields until he picks up the Carron Canal and then the Gauche, none of them more than a foot above sea level but always there, running low and sinister along the road, until he pulls into Chalice, population 750.
Easton’s house is not palatial, as might be expected; the impression of true wealth comes from the land that stretches for untold acres away from its foundation. The view from any window reveals distances of untouched bayou country, marbled with channels of obsidian water and stubbled with bald cypress. Nielson has been here a few times over the years, usually for final fittings, when Easton wants to impress his wife, although this evening Sarah Hodding is nowhere in sight.
Easton leads him into the parlor where a large mirror hangs on the wall. The jacket glides onto his body with ease and falls naturally over his hulking form. It’s more of an approximation of a dinner jacket, custom-made only by the loosest definition, but it does not pull or stretch anywhere. Easton takes a moment to examine himself in the mirror, and then reaches out and grips Nielson’s hand in a gesture of approval. Nielson feels very little of the relief he has hoped for.
“Be my guest tomorrow night,” Easton says in a gravelly baritone. “It’ll be worth your while. There will be money walking around everywhere.”
“What about Sarah?” Nielson asks.
“She won’t be accompanying me,” Easton says, his face darkening.
Nielson doesn’t care to spend any more time next to this particular garment, but he feels a tremor in Easton’s confidence, and it unnerves him, moves him. He accepts the invitation and shows himself out.
As he walks the winding brick path out to his car in the driveway, he hears a sound behind him and turns to see Sarah Hodding standing like an apparition near an azalea bush. He approaches her, sensing that she wants him to be discreet. For some reason he expects her face to resemble her husband’s, but as he draws near he sees it is as human as ever, and full of anguish.
“Do you feel as crazy as I do?” she asks.
“I have wonderful memories of Easton strutting in front of us in his new clothes, my big dumb proud husband, preening like a peacock. But what are we doing now?” The tension in her voice snaps and she lowers her face. “What exactly are we doing to my poor husband?”
“I am doing the only thing I know to do,” Nielson says, “which is to make a man feel like a man, whether he–” Sarah holds up her hand.
“This is exactly what I mean,” she says. “We’re all trying to make him feel like a man. It must be etched in stone that this is the most desirable feeling in the world, because it’s all anyone says. Even in this godforsaken, in-between state, Easton feels fine, so I’d argue that being a man has nothing to do with it.”
“I want him to feel like himself,” Nielson says, feeling his own spasm of emotion. “I’m just not sure what that is.”
Sarah nods, and Nielson realizes they are searching for the same thing, although the scale of his loss to Sarah’s is negligible. The soft noises of the night step into the quiet between them and seem to deepen the mystery. Sarah makes a funny sound, and he sees she is laughing behind her hand, like a little girl afraid to make a face.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m thinking of how long I worked to stay in shape for him, and now he’s become this thing that barely has a shape. It doesn’t bother him, though. He has this inner calm that carries him through. It’s one of my favorite things about him.” She pauses and looks toward the house. “In fact, all my favorite things are still there. It’s how they’re presented that confuses me.”
“We both know it’s still Easton,” Nielson says.
“For the moment,” she says. “But what happens tomorrow? I can’t stand not knowing. The treatment center tells me it’s a natural course for some people. I pushed him to go, and we argued about it. I told him he can go to his worthless party and then I’m taking him in.
“I used to believe I’d be his caretaker through life,” she continues, her eyes glassing over with tears.
“He may need you more than ever,” Nielson says, but he sees they are not conspiring anymore; she has disappeared somewhere inside herself.
“Did he ask you to be there tomorrow?” she asks in a faraway voice.
“Will you bring him home to me?”
Nielson hears himself agree to this too. As he drives home through the tar-black bayou night he can feel the water all around, not rushing but still, silent, waiting.
* * *
It is a clear, warm evening. Stars glimmer on the water’s surface near the pavilion, which is strung with its own constellation of spherical orange bulbs. Couples twirl on the dance floor to the sound of the brass band, and the revelry spills out across the great lawn as an indigo dusk settles into the trees.
They have arrived together in Easton’s large black BMW, driven by a private driver whose eyes dart constantly between the mirror and the road. They park and sit for a moment as Easton breathes in steady, rasping ventilations.
“These things used to be fun, but they’ve become a bit of a bore,” he says.
The place is packed, and Nielson wonders how many have come to glimpse Easton. The weight of the attention they are about to receive punches at his heart, and he speaks up in order to calm his nerves: “Is there anything you’d like me to help with?”
“Help me exit this car,” Easton says, and Nielson goes around and opens the door and guides Easton out by the arm, which feels slender and insubstantial in connection with the ponderous body.
“I’ll introduce you to some folks,” Easton says, but they approach no one on their way across the lawn and into the pavilion, and no one approaches them. They head toward the stage through a crowd that parts yards in advance of them, Easton moving in short hops, pausing in between for Nielson to catch up. Nielson feels eyes from every direction and senses that they are igniting a hundred conversations, but Easton, as usual, does not seem disturbed. Behind the stage there is a small tent set up for the speakers, and inside it several people greet Easton before quickly excusing themselves. When they are alone, Easton gets down on all fours, his sides expanding and contracting, his exhalations stretching the fabric of the jacket to its limit.
Ken Gautreaux enters the tent with a glass in his hand. “Almost showtime,” he says, reaching down and punching Easton in the arm before going to the table and filling his glass with bourbon. “Taking a breather?”
Easton says nothing, nor does he move from his position. Ken drinks and watches him for a moment.
“You’re cutting it close with all that white, Labor Day being Monday and all.”
Easton nods, but it doesn’t seem to be in response.
“You feel prepared?” Ken asks.
Easton’s eyes roll around the walls of the tent, lingering first on Ken and then Nielson before pulling back around to the front with an eerie lack of recognition.
Ken glances at Nielson as if he suspects he’s wandered into some private joke. “How’re we doing this, E? Are we going to have to prop you up against the podium?”
Before Nielson can conjure this visual, Easton vaults from the tent, leaving the exploded canvas flaps to fall back into place.
Ken sets his glass on the table and runs after him. Nielson follows, afraid he might see Easton flattened against a tree, but they find him at the edge of the lake, gazing out toward a strip of land barely visible in the dimming light. An egg yolk moon has taken command of the night sky, and echoes of the celebration bounce back to them, enhancing the solitude of the moment.
Ken hovers on the balls of his feet. “Talk to me, bud. What do you need?”
“I’m thinking I’d be more comfortable in there,” Easton says, nodding at the surface of the water.
“That’s horseshit,” Ken says. “The hell you want to go in there for?”
“I’m not sure,” Easton says.
“E, I have nothing but respect for your journey, but frankly, I wish you’d choose one side or the other. Everyone’s a bit uncomfortable with this middle ground. We need you. Hodding Marine needs you. I understand that you’re confused about what you are, but I know for damn sure what you are is a leader. I’m asking you to do what comes natural.”
Easton steps down into the water and sinks a few inches into the mud. A yell pierces the air, and Nielson turns to see Leonard approaching, his small, wiry body enlivened with purpose.
“I’d like to speak to my only son,” he says. “Is my son in there?”
Easton turns to face his father.
“Get out of the muck, Easton.”
Easton remains where he is, but it seems less an act of resistance than an inability to move. Leonard walks past Ken to the water’s edge. “You have your road and I have mine, but please remember how we are connected. The Hodding name does not carry us.”
“We carry it,” Easton recites.
“Where are you planning on taking it?”
For a moment Easton seems poised to spring headlong into the lake, sold on the idea of a new existence, but his feet do not lift from the mud. He doesn’t look at his father but stands sideways as if listening for whichever world might make the stronger case for his membership.
“Come and take your place up on the stage where you belong,” Leonard says, taking another step toward his son, his hand outstretched. “You owe it to yourself to be the man we all expect you to be.”
Ken and Leonard, in a choreographed effort, extract Easton from the lake and lead him back onto firm ground. His pant legs are soaked and muddy, and the skirt of his jacket drips around his feet. He walks gingerly, obviously restraining himself from the short hops he has become accustomed to, the two men at his sides providing a kind of corridor from which he can’t diverge, their hands gripping his shoulders and elbows as they lead him in a controlled stroll toward the steps that mount to the stage.
Nielson watches until he can no longer see them over the side of the stage, and then he moves out in front where the edge of the crowd is pushing forward to get a look at Easton. Ken and Leonard position him behind the podium, standing by him until they decide he is capable of remaining there on his own. They step back and find their seats in the row of chairs at the back of the stage and watch with desperate eyes.
“At least he has his people,” a young woman behind Nielson murmurs in a pitying tone. “God knows how trapped he must feel.”