From the bedroom window, Henry can see the place where his father died, the sudden parting on the front lawn where he collapsed while raking leaves. Half the yard is demarcated in neatly gathered rows of leaves, the other half covered in a brittle canopy six inches deep.
A visible timeline: life before his father’s heart attack, and life after.
Henry stands next to his father’s bed, in front of the full-length mirror, in the only suit the man ever owned. A practical but handsome three-piece ensemble, Italian-made worsted wool in soft black, etched in a delicate herringbone pattern. Smoothly woven, made-to-measure, carefully constructed to drape elegantly along the length of his father’s stalwart figure.
His father had worn this suit to every formal occasion for the last thirty-five years. Weddings and funerals and graduations and baptisms. He ushered life in and out wearing this suit, marking hopeful beginnings and mournful endings, a celebratory cigar or a consolatory whiskey in his right hand.
This morning, Henry wore the suit to his father’s own funeral, despite the fact that it didn’t fit him the way a well-tailored suit should. Though they were of a similar height, Henry was slim and lean, all sharp edges and gangly limbs, where his father had been compact, muscular and dense. The owner and sole employee of a landscaping business, his father spent his livelihood digging trenches and building patios and erecting fences every spring and summer, flushing out gutters and winterizing gardens and mulching acres of leaves in the fall. In the winter, he battled a palpable restlessness, driving around in his snowplow for hire, coming home in the late afternoon twilight with nothing to do but light a fire in the wood stove and drink until he fell asleep.
I married your mother in this suit and when I die, you can bury me in it.
For the last three days, Henry has heard his father’s voice inside his head, asking to be buried in the same three-piece suit he had been fastidiously grooming since he was twenty-eight years old. How many times had Henry watched his father’s massive, calloused hands deftly weave a needle and thread through loose hemlines and buttonholes? How many times had his father trimmed stray fibers with tiny fingernail scissors, pressed out a perfectly symmetrical pant crease, dabbed at a stain with a club soda-soaked napkin?
His father loved this suit, pledged to it an unwavering loyalty, as if wearing any other would have been an act of infidelity. As a child, Henry would watch his father put the suit on, piece by piece, in front of the bedroom mirror. A slow, deliberate dressing, ritualistic in nature: first the trousers, pulled up over his jockey shorts and fastened with a black leather belt; then the satin-lined waistcoat, wrapped and buttoned around his stout midsection; and finally the jacket, eased gracefully over his broad back and shoulders. He made efficient and meticulous adjustments to the suit from memory; straightening out the trouser legs, shifting the shoulder pads and creasing the notch lapel. Each piece of the suit layered on with a measured, steady hand until it fell into its proper place.
Take care of your things and they’ll last you a lifetime. I’ll never need another suit.
Now his father was dead, and the immaculate suit had outlived him. Yesterday Henry had every intention of bringing the suit to the funeral home director so his father’s body could be prepared for the wake. He opened his father’s closet and found it hanging there expectantly, like an empty shell, the cast-off exoskeleton of a creature who no longer needed it. He laid the clear garment bag on the bed and stared at it, willing himself to bring it out to the car and drive it to the funeral home.
Instead, he removed the suit from the bag, turning the jacket over in his hands, absorbing the weight of it. He wondered where his father had worn it last. A rummage through the pockets turned up nothing, not even a business card or handful of loose change. The earthy scent of fermented cigar tobacco clung to the jacket, co-mingling with the smell of antiseptic soap, the caustic kind good for scrubbing dirt from underneath fingernails. His father’s hands were always filthy from his work, the skin on his knuckles cracked and peeling.
A heady feeling swept over Henry, the indelible grip of nostalgia. He knew right then he wouldn’t bury his father in the suit. It was magnetic in his hands, the woolen fibers electrified. He wouldn’t let it go down into the ground to rot, on the body of the man who had cultivated it for three decades like a long-enduring houseplant.
So he kept it. Laid it out across the bed, giving the fabric a chance to breathe. Henry brought the funeral director a simple tweed blazer and pair of dress pants from the back of his father’s closet. When he returned to the house this morning, he did what he had watched his father do for years: he stood in front of the bedroom mirror and put on the suit, piece by piece, making adjustments along the way as best he could. The jacket sagged on his narrow shoulders, swallowing up his slight frame. The wide waistcoat bunched clumsily around his torso and the trousers fell an inch too short on his long legs. His father had commissioned the suit for his wedding; it was meant to fit him alone.
When he was dressed, Henry drove to St. Augustine’s Church and sat alone in the wooden pew for the funeral service, wearing the suit like protective armor against the acrid smell of burnt incense, the sympathetic handshakes of the mourning crowd, the bone-rattling chords of the hymnal organ. When he arrived at the cemetery after the service, the stale taste of communion wafer still lingering on his tongue, Henry watched the undertakers lower his father’s casket down into an open grave beside his mother’s headstone. He was orphaned now, in adulthood, a realization that left him feeling unmoored, as if nothing was keeping him from simply floating up into the cold blue sky.
He can barely remember his mother, who died when he was seven, and what he does remember feels fragmented and unimportant, a smattering of photographs spilled out onto the floor of his memory. The texture of her hair, coarse and springy, and the small, oval mole on her collarbone. Her dress shoes, for date nights with his father, their sharp heels clicking across the ceramic kitchen tiles. Her toes tickling his bare legs underneath the bedcovers when she was sick, blue veins shining through her paper white skin, a sweetly sour odor escaping her mouth when she whispered against his ear. Bony fingers clutching at the sheets, grasping for his father’s hand, disappearing into the flesh of his enormous palms.
All of it impermanent, only fleeting glimpses, frustratingly out of reach. But not the suit: the suit was tangible and real, a literal touchstone for his father’s memory. Henry has none of his mother’s belongings, but he can lay his hands on his father’s suit and remember him vividly, completely.
Standing in his father’s bedroom, Henry stares at his shabby, unkempt reflection in the mirror. He sees a shadow of his father in his own straight-backed posture, the sweep of his wiry black hair, the wide bridge of his nose. But mainly he sees an imposter, a boy drowning in dress-up clothes.
I married your mother in this suit and when I die, you can bury me in it.
Henry’s stomach lurches suddenly with remorse. In spite of his father’s wishes, he has taken this suit for himself. He is wearing it like a salve on invisible wounds, soothing a selfish grief. His inability to follow through on his father’s only request seems callous and rash, driven by sentimentality. Maybe he should have buried his father in the suit after all; maybe he will carry around a small flame of regret for his choice until the day he dies. Or maybe he will be filled with relief every time he sees it hanging in his own closet, preserved in plastic like a butterfly specimen housed under glass: safely encased, still immaculate.
Either way, the three-piece suit belongs to him now.
Carefully, he smooths out a wrinkle in his trouser leg, brushing down the wool with the back of his hand. He passes his fingers over each one of the black, pearlescent buttons on the jacket and plucks a strand of hair off the lapel, letting it float to the floor.
He looks out the window at the lawn. There is a flattened six-foot patch of grass along the dividing edge of fallen leaves. Henry can imagine his father lying there face down, overcome with pain, inhaling yellowed grass and sour dirt in his last labored breaths.
His chest tightens for an agonizingly long moment. The abandoned yard work agitates him, ignites a nagging itch deep in his stomach.
Never start anything you don’t intend to finish.
The autumn sun is beginning its early descent, hovering above a neighbor’s slanted roof like a glowing pendulum. Henry walks the length of the hallway to the front door, stepping out onto the lawn. His father’s rake lies waiting on the thick swath of dry leaves.
He picks it up and begins to sweep the leaves into the rows his father created, blurring the invisible line that has haunted him for three days. He rakes quickly and purposefully for nearly an hour. By the time he is finished, the automated porch light has clicked on and his hands are numb from the cold. The leaves, thinned and crumbling, curling at the tips, stand collected in three parallel rows across the front lawn like sentries keeping watch.
Inside the house, Henry lights a fire in the wood stove and pours one of his father’s single malt scotches into an elongated tumbler. He sips it tentatively. It burns the back of his throat, sending a slow wave of heat from his neck down to his toes, returning the feeling to his fingers. Sitting down in a kitchen chair, he lets the warmth from the stove fire open the door to his exhaustion, a long-ignored fatigue seeping out from his bones.
He slumps down in his seat, sinking into the oversized suit. He begins to fall asleep, tucked up deep inside the wool and canvas of the single-breasted jacket, wrapped in herringbone and satin, smelling of leathery tobacco and the sweet smokiness of malt whiskey.