The Birthday Suit
by Toni Franceschini
Jimmy Barbucci slept peacefully through the continuing devastation of the Asian markets. He always awoke famished, unperturbed by the streak of bad news from Europe. Whether the markets were up or down, money could be made both ways with a little foresight. His bets were covered – or so he thought. As he left for work one bright summer morning, Jimmy Barbucci faced something he didn’t foresee. A tarot card was nailed to the door of his apartment: a young man clad in princely attire dangled upside down from a cross beam.
Later that same day, while Wall Street and the TSX were in the midst of another debacle, a storm of hanged men fluttered down upon him from a high window as he walked along Saint-Catherine Street. It occurred to Jimmy Barbucci that this might be the day his father had warned him about – the day life would call his bluff.
“Il Principe dell’Alta Finanza,” his father would tease. “The Sultan of Swaps.” Jimmy loved fever pitch dealing in currency swaps and exotic options. He could hear his father’s ominous baritone: You’re going to get burned playing with those derivatives. It was the typically pessimistic outlook born of a hard fought battle to provide for a family while engaging in the antiquated and increasingly rare activity of actually producing things.
Stefano Barbucci was a tailor by trade, but he also dabbled in mechanics, plumbing, carpentry and landscaping. He could raise a house from basement to attic practically with his bare hands. He could give you a stylish haircut. As one of the “manually endowed” who, according to his son, was destined to a life of poverty under the new economic dispensation, Stefano Barbucci couldn’t help but find it absurd, almost criminal, that fancy pants traders could conjure obscene profits by just moving money around. Jimmy the whiz kid trader could hardly repair a flat tire, but he knew how to make money appear, accumulate, and sometimes opportunely vanish into thin air. In his office overlooking the city, Jimmy Barbucci moved other people’s money according to the arcane science of hunches. To his misfortune, a considerable amount of that money had once belonged to Danny Simon, who wasn’t quite the happily retired Westmount blueblood Jimmy imagined him to be.
“You see derivatives have a large notional value,” said Jimmy as calmly as possible after ushering a rabid Danny Simon within the silent confines of his office, away from the prying glances of his colleagues. “Of course derivatives greatly facilitate the buying and selling of risk. However,” he went on, with failing voice, “the strategy could result in losses investors cannot always compensate for.” Danny Simon grabbed the lapels of Jimmy’s plush chenille jacket.
“You want to talk compensation? Let’s talk compensation.” At which point Danny Simon made Jimmy Barbucci understand in no uncertain terms that there would necessarily be compensation, either monetary, or of a nature more detrimental to Jimmy’s personal well being. Danny Simon regained his composure, and with an ice cold smile laid upon Jimmy’s massive oak desk his calling card: the hanged man.
Jimmy Barbucci vacated his luxury condo overlooking the river and now hid out in his father’s abandoned tailor shop. His father had been gone for more than a year, but no one had the heart to clear out the old shop on Notre-Dame Street. Too many fond memories lingered there. On the cutting desk were the paper patterns of ghostly garments. On the wall, beside the framed portraits of his family, Stefano Barbucci had pinned a collage of dreamscapes: the medieval battlements of Verona and Siena, vistas of Venice, Rome, Florence, and his home town, Silvi Marina. Jimmy Barbucci gazed at his father’s dream city of pink sandstone palazzos gleaming under torch lights, temples and island villas rising over blue lagoons, ancient piazzas where loomed sculptures of legendary heroes, campaniles and towers poised against the azure sea. The images seemed to have become etched more vividly by time, the colours more richly saturated, ethereal.
Jackets, suits left unclaimed, unfinished garments never to be worn hung loosely in the dark midst, the mysterious implements of his trade: rulers, straight-edge and measuring tape, pins, chalk, scissors. His dad was good at divining the figuration of a man. Jimmy caught a glimpse of his double in a mirror.
"Jimmy, let me make you a suit for your twenty-fifth birthday.” Jimmy didn’t want to hurt his dad’s feelings, but he much preferred dropping a grand for a Ferré or Armani – something more stylish than his father’s lowbrow couture.
“You can't buy pomp and pageantry off the rack!" his father would say. “I’m talking a one-of-a-kind suit. Classic three-button styling – button holes, silk lining, lapels all hand-stitched. You want a velvet cape, Mr. Principe dell’Alta Finanza? I’ve got velvet capes. I’ve got sceptres and insignia. I've got plumed hats and riding britches."
"Dad, isn't it a little wide at the shoulders?"
"Stand like a man!" His father straightened him out, almost sent him in traction correcting his posture, then stepped back and contemplated his work. He shook his head in admiration, his face a grimace, as he experienced the exquisite pain of aesthetic transport.
"Look," he whispered.
"Look in the mirror!" He was lost in a mystic trance. "Look at the way it drapes! It will fit you like a second skin if you give it a chance."
Stefano Barbucci was an artist who only happened to be a tailor. Suits were merely his medium of expression. Inevitably, there were philistines who could not understand why a made-to-measure suit needed alterations.
“You expect me to compromise my artistic vision just because you’re fat?” he would howl at some misguided client who let slip an unfortunate comment. “You need to get yourself in shape before you have the privilege to wear my creations!” Thus, Stefano Barbucci’s garments, fashioned according to impossible paradigms of perfection, had a frustrating tendency not to fit perfectly.
Yet, 'Una creazione Barbucci’, were words spoken with a mixture of reverence and fear. His oeuvre contained legendary suits, celebrated garments. A folklore of suit stories was transmitted orally from one generation to the next. It was rumoured that no man blessed in matrimony wearing a Barbucci suit had ever known divorce. There circulated various stories of a winning lottery ticket found in the pocket of a Barbucci suit bought in a church rummage sale by a man down on his luck. It was recounted with typically Latin understatement how Fulvio Mara, diagnosed and condemned by three different doctors, ordered his burial suit from Stefano Barbucci, came for a fitting, and was later found to be completely cured. The team of doctors examining Fulvio were just as astonished by his elegance and style in a natty gabardine number as by his inexplicable good health.
Jimmy peered at the mannequins shadowed against the streetlight flooding in through the shop window. His double beckoned. He slowly approached and recognized the subtle luxurious sheen. Yes, it was undoubtedly the suit his father had made him for his twenty-fifth birthday: the gleaming sharkskin finish, the super 110’s wool woven in Italy. Jimmy put on the suit. He was not surprised to notice that the suit did not fit perfectly, but conceded with humility that it was he who did not measure up to his father’s exalted sartorial ideal. He felt as though some part of him had vanished within the shimmering blue sharkskin suit. No doubt about it, his father was good at divining the figuration of a man. His father clad his clients in an armour of purpose to defend against the cruel transience of human affairs. He fitted them with a new skin, a second life, a truer vision of themselves. Jimmy Barbucci suddenly felt like a fool. What in the world was he doing in here, hiding, cowering in the dark?
Mrs. Barbucci would rise at dawn, make coffee, turn on the giant-screen, flat panel, high definition television for the news, and cast a casual glance at the weather outside the front window. On this morning, she sensed something odd ruining the perfect symmetry of the statuary out on the marble terrace. She peered and noticed a strange ghostly figure standing among the cherubs, Venuses, and Winged Victories. Immediately she opened the door and let in her son.
“Mom, it’s me, Jimmy.”
“What happened? You scared me.” She ushered him into the kitchen. Jimmy was quiet while his mom set the espresso machine to combustion. He remembered the night he went to see his dad at Santa Cabrini Hospital. He entered the hospital room and found his father asleep. Jimmy Barbucci saw the bed sheet outline his father’s emaciated body. He stood there looking down at his sleeping father, searching for words, finding none. Rather than wake his father and offer a simple greeting, he decided to let him rest. He walked out of the hospital room never to speak to his father again.
“I know what it is to run out of time.”
“He used to spend his days waiting for you,” his mom said.
“I’m such a jerk.”
“What’s the matter – you scare the wits out of me at six o’clock in the morning to tell me that? I’m you’re mom – I know you already.”
Soon the whole household was awake. His sister Laura, her husband Carlo, their daughter Lucia, all staring at the morning apparition in their kitchen.
“Jimmy, have you been eating well?”
“He looks thin,” said Mrs. Barbucci.
“So what do you say Jimmy, any hot tips?” asked Carlo.
“The hot tip I’ve got for today is that dad had it right all along: work hard, earn every penny and you’ll sleep well at night.” Laura noticed a deep sheen, like a blue halo surrounding Jimmy. Her brother appeared in a new guise. She was facing a new person, compared to whom the negligible form of Jimmy Barbucci had been a mere sketch.
Later that day, after hesitating for long hours in front of her door, Jimmy finally got the courage to call on Claudia. Claudia lived in a clapboard bungalow, near the flaming torches, holding tanks and pipe work labyrinth of the east-end oil refineries. She opened the door and looked long and hard at him, recognizing him yet sensing something different, a strangeness hovering over him.
“Hi Claudia. Care to go for a walk?”
“Just came to say goodbye.” As much as she wanted to avoid looking him in the face, Claudia couldn’t help peer in closer and notice how different he appeared. It was as though he came proffering embarrassed excuses for that imposter she had fallen for.
“We did the goodbyes.”
“This is a different goodbye.”
“Can we at least try to have a marginally rational conversation?”
They had once held hands and kissed walking these same streets, past the bus depot, barber shop and bank, the news stand and its lunch counter where they had often stopped for coffee, the Renaissance Restaurant and Banquet Hall in all its working class glory of plaster statuary and colonnades, the park near the river.
“How was I to know he was that Danny Simon?”
“But all that money. What are you going to do now?”
“What threw me off was his cardigan. I mean, a man like that wearing a cardigan. Will you take me back?”
“It might be a newsflash to you but we broke up.”
“I’ve been learning what it is to run out of time. I’m in a desperate situation.” He tweaked the lapels of his blue suit. “Things couldn’t be better.”
Jimmy Barbucci called on old friends, on some who had once been friends, and others who let him know they were no longer friends. He persisted until a group of twenty had gathered at Café Novecento, their old haunt, among them Anna the travel agent, Patricia the real estate agent, Vince the bank manager, Frank the accountant, Rick the photographer, Mario the wedding singer, Nick who worked in a hardware store, Tony who spent his days dreaming.
“Mind if I ask what the occasion is?” asked Mario.
“My twenty-fifth birthday.”
“Jimmy, aren’t you, like, twenty-six pushing, like, twenty-seven?”
“Maybe. But you see, this is the suit that my father made for my twenty-fifth birthday, and I never got to celebrate that.” They were speechless. Some looked away to avoid Jimmy’s eyes; others let his gaze look right through them.
“And I know what it is to run out of time. How much time do we have left together?” Jimmy’s words worried Anna the travel agent. Patricia the real estate agent cast a sidelong glance at the others.
“Cent’anni,” said Mario the singer, and everyone raised their glasses.
“I’d like to propose a toast to our parents,” said Jimmy. “I ridiculed my folks for being so old-fashioned traditionalists, for being conformists.
Now, I feel privileged that they were. They had enough character to conform to something they believed in, something greater than themselves, in order to be something, to build something, to hand down something to an ungrateful egotist like me.”
He spoke of days gone by, of the family and friends now departed, of a place they all had once known but now seemed so distant. As he spoke, Anna the world traveller caught a glimpse of the elusive place she had been searching for; Patricia the real estate agent imagined a listing for a home no amount of money could buy; Mario the wedding singer seemed to hear the lyrics of an old forgotten song.
They laughed, argued, bickered and cursed. As the wine flowed, Jimmy swore allegiance to childhood friends, pontificated on the sacredness of their traditions. In one moment of silence amid the hilarity, he noticed that Claudia had suddenly materialized among them. They held each other’s gaze and Jimmy Barbucci grew quiet.
In the early hours of the morning the friends embraced each other and drifted apart into the darkness. Claudia was waiting for him in her car. Jimmy Barbucci walked out into the cool night. In a sliver of time, a brief moment of eternity, all became clear and bright, and he experienced an overwhelming, fearless lucidity. A dark brown car drifted slowly towards him, and he thought of the hanged man, and considered that these moments spent with people he loved might be a settling, a farewell, an intimation of long absence. The dark brown car approached him. The car’s window came down. Jimmy Barbucci lifted the collar of his blue sharkskin suit against the biting wind.
On the day Jimmy Barbucci wed Claudia Valenti, guests did not fail to notice two small round holes, one near the breast pocket, the other just below the right shoulder of his dark blue sharkskin suit of Super 110’s wool woven in Italy. But there were no unkind remarks. After all, this was a Barbucci suit.
While Jimmy was in his shirtsleeves and on his knees trying to remove with his teeth the red garter from around Claudia’s thigh, Mario the wedding singer and Tony the dreamer, Anna, Patricia, and the others examined the round holes in the blue sharkskin suit. They pondered the improbable trajectory of the projectile that had miraculously left Jimmy Barbucci without the slightest scratch. Down the years they retold to their children the same story Jimmy and Claudia’s children never tired of hearing – a story about a truly exceptional artist who only happened to be a tailor, about the power of art, the sacredness of friendship, the nobility of work, and the miracle of love.
“The Birthday Suit” won Third Prize in the third annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest and was read at the Accenti Magazine Awards during the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in May 2008.
Tony Franceschini lives in Montreal with his wife and three children. He is a graduate of Concordia University, where he majored in Communication Studies. His fiction has recently appeared in The Puritan, Plumb, an Arts Journal, In Other Words-New English Writing from Quebec, and forthcoming in Dappled Things.
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