Michael is 25 years old today, and for 30 minutes, he stands in front of the open wardrobe in a trance. The indistinct voices in the living room are a distant rhythm in the background. The sharp sound of a shattering glass outside the room jolts his mind into the present. His tailored black suit feels alien, his Armani tie like a noose, and he’s forgotten about the package in the red paper bag hanging from his right hand. The smell of cigarette embedded in the room’s walls and fabric make him feel like having a smoke. He half-heartedly pats his pockets for a packet but the wardrobe’s contents keep pulling his attention.
Inside the wardrobe, the hanging clothes are sorted by type and then colour: light to dark. T-Shirts on the left, followed by shirts, trousers, with jackets on the right. The order makes sense because that’s how one dresses: t-shirt, shirt, trousers, jacket. Socks and underwear have their own drawers. Two ties and three belts hang on the inside of one door; a full-length mirror on the other. Everything ordered and organised; just like in the military. Everything in that wardrobe was bought for a purpose; no junk, excess or extraneous ‘stuff’. Did clothes make the man or did man define them? Michael wasn’t sure anymore, but staring at them now stirred something within—something was missing. This wardrobe wasn’t a simple container for clothes. A wardrobe – as his father used to say – was the container of one’s stories.
“What are you talking about?” Michael jeered.
Pressing the jarrah panel’s edge firm against the perpendicular edge of another, Thomas understood his son’s aversion to meaningful conversation. But Thomas also knew that like him and his own father long ago, something, someday, might stick. “Hold it there.” Thomas picked a few more screws from his pocket and proceeded to strengthen the two panels with the cordless drill.
“Haven’t you noticed,” Thomas said, “everything is so cheap and disposable these days that it’s got no meaning; disposable stuff for disposable lives,” Thomas smiled. “In my day…”
“Here we go,” Michael rolled his eyes so his father would notice.
“In my day,” Thomas continued, “clothes were made and bought to last. A suit would last a lifetime. Shoes too. We’d have them resoled, polished, looked after. Our clothes had stories.”
“Yeah, like that t-shirt of yours. Isn’t that your favourite?” Thomas drilled a few more screws in and ran a finger over their heads to ensure they weren’t sticking out. “You seem to wear it a lot.”
“Yeah, I like it. So?”
“Why do you like it?” Thomas said concentrating on his work.
“Don’t know. It’s comfortable,” Michael said as he pulled the t-shirt fabric forward admiring it. “I make it look good,” he said nodding like a proud artist.
“No one could make that look good,” Thomas smiled at his son while throwing a screw at his chest. “My point is–princess–you also like it because you have memories with it; like when you’re with your mates, playing your drums, or just lazying around eating my food,” Thomas stood up from crouching and bent backwards for a stretch. “It’s faded and torn, but you keep wearing it,” Thomas looked at his son. “It’s got history, right?”
“I guess,” Michael teased again. “Like your overalls.”
“Yep, like these overalls,” Thomas put the drill down. He reached into his side pocket and pulled a packet of cigarettes. His rough hands were thick and strong, bronzed from years of carpentry and accentuated by the golden wedding band resting on a patch of untanned skin: the result of always wrapping a band-aid around the ring to protect the surface from damage. He lit the cigarette, placed the packet and lighter back in his pocket and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“These overalls were a gift from your mother 16 years ago. These overalls have been there as I’ve earned money to support us, been there when mates told me their troubles over a beer, and now, they’re here while I teach you to repair a wardrobe,” Thomas dragged on his cigarette and looked at his wife’s empty chair in the corner of the room. Next to it, hung the oil painting of their home his wife had painted after their wedding. That’s where she liked to sew: it was quiet, private and peaceful. “Every time I tore the fabric somewhere, she would sit in that chair before bed with a cup of tea and patch them back up.” Michael looked over at the chair and pictured his mum sitting in it. “These overalls were also present at your birth.”
“Really?” Michael was sincerely surprised. He was discovering history that was always in plain sight.
“See this here?” Thomas pointed to a small brown mark on his left pant leg. “This is your birth day. Your uncle and I were having a couple of cigars to celebrate, and I dropped the bloody thing on my leg. Your uncle thought it was a good omen, so he stuck his cigar in the same spot for good measure,” Thomas chuckled. “Here’s to the pain of fatherhood, he said.”
Michael leant back against the wall, put his hands in his denim pockets and looked at his father’s overalls. For the first time, he didn’t just see a pair of old, navy blue, tacky pair of overalls. He noticed history in the faded colour and industrial stains accumulated over years of use. But the reinforced knees and stitched repairs are what stood out like neon lights. His mother had sewn those. Short and long ones, straight and jagged ones, patches, it was all there; his mother was infused with the fabric.
“These were also…at your mother’s passing,” Thomas rubbed some imaginary fluff off his thigh and then through his greying hair.
Six months was all it took from the diagnosis to her passing; a week before his birthday. That was just over a year ago. Michael remembers the pain of his mother’s demise as cancer sucked the life out of her. The finer details of anything else throughout that time, including his father, were not vivid in his memory. During her decline and even up to the funeral, Michael was in unconscious denial. He didn’t really believe she would die. That happened on TV and to other people, not to his mum.
“Your mother—my wife—is with me throughout the day in these overalls,” Thomas looked up at Michael. “You understand son?”
Michael nodded. The loss of his mother was still a surreal experience numbed by jokes, fights, beer and pot. Michael had focused so much on escaping the pain that he overlooked his tough old man. His father was hurting and he could see that now.
“I don’t have anything like that,” Michael lamented. “Clothes are, you know, to look good.”
“I know, I thought the same at your age. But your mother…she made the small stuff special.”
“I’m sorry dad. I didn’t know about…” Michael could feel the pressure building in his eyes and chest as if any moment the stitching on his father’s overalls would ironically tear him open. His father noticed.
“Nothing to be sorry about. Maybe one day, you’ll have your own overalls.”
Thomas stood up and picked a small bolt and nut from his toolbox. He then slid the bolt through his uppermost buttonhole and fastened it with the nut from the other side of the fabric.
“What’s that for?”
“This is for today,” Thomas said with a proud nod. “You and me, son, with your mother.” Michael could see his father was holding back emotion just as he was, but being a military man, meant getting on with it.
“Mike?” the voice sounded distant. “Mike, you okay?” Sarah entered the room and rubbed her right hand on Michael’s left shoulder. “Baby, you’ve been standing here forever. The others are asking about you. What’s going on?”
Michael turned his head to look at his wife. Her auburn hair contrasted against the black dress: beautiful, compassionate and all class; just like his mother had been. “What’s in the bag?” she asked as a distraction.
“Umm, I don’t know. My uncle gave it to me,” he said looking at the bag. “I can open it later I suppose.”
“How about we take five minutes, they can wait,” she said. “It’s in your hand, may as well open it now.”
“All right,” Michael pulled the plain cardboard gift box from the bag and placed it on the edge of the bed. His fingers held and lifted the lid. As the contents became apparent, a familiar overpowering pressure in his chest and eyes throbbed with an intensity that made him groan. Hot tears blurred his vision as he raised a hand to suppress an audible sob.
“What is it?” Sarah asked as she leant towards the box. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “Isn’t that your father’s overalls?”
Michael nodded a sigh, reached down picking them up with care and studied them as if for the first time. His mind relished in the remnants of his father’s familiar scent; the sweat, cologne and countless other industrial memories. “Sweetheart,” he said, “give me a few minutes.”
“Okay,” she kissed and hugged him from behind. “Call me if you need me, I’m right outside.”
After a few moments, he unfolded them onto the bed. He sat next to them, reached for the half-empty packet of cigarettes on the side table and lit one up. Taking a long drag, he traced his birth-burn mark and his mother’s stitching on his father’s overalls. As the smoke left his pursed lips, he brushed some non-existent fluff off his leg and ran his fingers through his hair. He contemplated his past choices. Although he’d bought designer clothes that could last, his honest intentions had been driven by vanity. The clothes he wore were status symbols first, to look attractive second, and utility a distant third. They were useful until something better came along. Disposable things, for a disposable life. Few things were worthy of permanence, but his wife was one of them. Michael stood up, took off his jacket, tie, shirt and trousers, picked up the overalls and slid his legs into them. They felt soft from wear but rough in certain parts; just like the old man, he thought. He started to button the front up to the chest and then felt the bolt that his father had fastened to remember that day. Sliding his hands into the pockets, he felt something metallic; another small bolt. He pulled it out and twirled the nut up and down on the bolt’s thread, contemplating its existence: was it there by coincidence or on purpose? Michael grinned; this was no coincidence.
Michael butted the cigarette in the ashtray, slipped the bolt into the zippered breast pocket, folded his clothes and hung his jacket over his mother’s chair. Before closing the wardrobe doors, he straightened himself up in the mirror and looked at himself with pride: the father lives on in the son, he thought. He was ready to go out now. Ready to face everyone awaiting his presence to commemorate this moment–Thomas’ wake in his parent’s living room. As he opened the door and met Sarah’s eyes, they smiled. Michael looked forward to the day he would teach their son about the virtue of wardrobes.
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