The Mysterious Guest
by Andreas Economakis
The invitation came as a surprise, not so much because I hadn’t heard from my dad’s friend in years, but because the words “Black Tie” were written at the bottom of the card. Promising a cruise around the San Francisco Bay in celebration of his daughter’s wedding, Leon’s invitation both excited and troubled me. I mean, how often do quasi (wannabe)-rebel airport shuttle-driving-black-sheep-of-the-family penniless filmmakers get to go on a fully funded cruise around the bay, around Alcatraz, with an open oyster bar? I love oysters! But Black Tie… Why, for the love of god, would anyone want to party in a hangman’s noose? I didn’t even own a tie, let alone a black one. Buying one, along with a suit, would be a problem with only $233 in my bank account. That was my complete fortune, the by-product of a sluggish ‘80’s economy and a belief adopted in college that this was a world of “us and them,” and I was the “us” on the dark side of the tracks (or maybe the “them,” depending on how you looked at it…) And to cap everything off, I couldn’t even rent a suit. The rental fascists would probably want a credit card…
I ran my dilemma by my girlfriend Marisa. She, possessing the perfect dress, a sense of purpose in this life (she was in grad school), and a desire rivaling mine to be on that boat, did not find my dilemma to be troublesome at all. “Why don’t you go buy a cheap suit at one of those cheap malls?” she asked me. The word “cheap”, offered up twice without a trace of hesitation, seemed an indictment of my ways. Nonetheless, I clung onto that word like a shipwrecked sailor clutches onto a buoy. It was actually a brilliant idea! We calculated that the suit and tie would cost around $50, max. I had an old white button-down shirt from high school (a little small and touch yellow around the collar, but otherwise presentable) and my Doc Martens just needed a shine and a little Super Glue, so… this could work!
I decided to give fuel to my intentions, setting off right away for the mall. Wearing my best pair of shorts and flip-flops (it was summer), I rode my bicycle down the hill, across the train tracks (literally) and into the dilapidated side of town. Here people surely knew the value of the buck. Prices were posted clearly, as if for the blind. (Ever notice how in really expensive stores the price tags are oh so small? Quite the opposite here). I could simply float by and let my eyes do the shopping.
I guess you could call the building I selected for my consumerist outing a “mall.” It was a large, square, brownish building, circa late ‘60’s, when architects must have been so wasted or corrupt that aesthetics were tossed into the wastebasket. I charged into the building, convinced that I would find my suit here. I hate shopping and I was not going to take no for an answer, in this, my first (and hopefully last) shopping foray of the year. Besides, I am a certified agoraphobic. I had to get this experience over with as fast as possible. Swallowing deeply, smacking my cottonmouth lips and hiding behind my slick $5.99 shades, I plunged inward, the image of free oysters in the bay a powerful elixir.
I quickly realized that the problem was of Kafkaesque proportions. There were vendors in every store, lots of them. Perched like vultures, claws at the ready, they waited for fresh meat to stroll on in. I glided by these stores looking at the big banner prices nervously, a trickle of salty sweat gliding down my face, my eyes stinging, heart pounding. Does a bunny rabbit hop into a circle of hungry wolves for a carrot? I think not. Sweaty hands crumpling, kneading, clutching the $73 in cash that I had in my pocket (a fortune!), I started losing hope.
At long last, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Turning the last corner of the mall, a depleted, post-apocalyptic clothing store appeared before me like the cave in Nazareth. Inside the cave, a bored, sleepy vendor swayed at the counter. I paced back and forth in front of the store, pretending to be on route elsewhere, eyes forward. I was casing the joint peripherally, not wanting to betray the slightest interest to the dazed vendor inside. If she even peeped my way I would have left running, my flip-flops flip-flopping down into the distance down the mall’s imitation marble floors. Nothing. The woman was a certified narcoleptic. I took a deep breath and staggered in, feigning apathy. I headed straight to the suit-rack. The woman looked up, nodded and returned to her magazine or whatever she had behind the counter. This woman was the best sales person I have ever come across.
The rack, a bit thin but totally in my price range, offered Italian cut styles in the $50 to $70 range. Excited, I pulled a black suit off the rack and ran my fingers along the fabric. A sharp crease cut like a Rhodesian Ridgeback’s raised hair down the front of the trousers. “Not bad,” I thought to myself, opening the jacket to see the make and quality of this fine garment. Pepe. That’s all it said. Pepe. Cool, I thought. Minimalist. I pictured a fancy Italian designer, girls dripping off his arms, playing blackjack in my suit in Monte Carlo. Pepe. It had a certain flair. I glanced at the sleepy vendor and she pointed to the dressing room. I stepped inside the dimly lit fluorescent white room and dropped my shorts. Before long I was all dolled up. Trousers, tee-shirt, jacket, flip-flops. David Bowie would be jealous. The flip-flops would have to go, but otherwise, not bad!
Excited, I burst out of the dressing room. I found a stiletto thin mod black tie, the kind favored by the Madness crowd and slick gigolos. I stepped up to the counter. Wanting to show a certain sense of class and style, I inquired about the care of the suit and what material it was made of. The woman looked at me like a deer in headlights. “Huh?” is all she said. I inquired again, slowing my speech a touch. She grabbed the suit roughly and found the tag. 100% Polyester. “Plastic. No wrinkle,” she added, sensing my confusion. We both nodded our heads in appreciation. Excellent, I thought. She tallied up the bill. Just under $70. I was on my way!
The day before the celebrated cruise, Marisa and I were invited to our friend Katlin’s house in Marin. Her parents were out of town and Katlin was throwing a wild party, one at which I would probably pass out, most likely in the jacuzzi. Marisa suggested we bring our cruise outfits with us, knowing my predisposition to crash at parties and my paranoia of road-trolling police. Proud of the fact that my Italian suit was wrinkle free I jammed it into a small bag, scoffing at Marisa who thought I was nuts. Unlike me, she went to great lengths to fold and prep her dress, a gift from her rich grandmother. All packed up, we headed over to Katlin’s in our beat-up old Volkswagen, the windows rolled down so as to not asphyxiate from the exhaust leaking in through the vents.
Katlin’s party was a total blast and before long I found myself all dazed and relaxed in the jacuzzi. I vaguely remember gazing hazily at the twinkling bay through the eucalyptus trees, day-dreaming of the cruise and all those oysters. It was late and most of the guests soon left the party, spending hours trying to back down the suicide dead-end road. The rest of us curled up like cats with the spins on some couch or plush carpet in the house. Marisa dragged me out of the jacuzzi and within seconds I was passed out in the guest bedroom, evidently snoring up a storm (so a pissed Marisa bellowed the next early afternoon).
We spent the next day swimming, barbecuing and generally working off the nasty hangover that pounded the inside of our skulls like a jackhammer. Marisa informed me that we had to start getting ready and I sprung to action. I yanked my suit out of the tiny plastic bag and my heart sank. Big problem! My wrinkle-free suit was terribly wrinkled. So wrinkled that a giggling Marisa dragged Katlin into the room and they rolled around the floor laughing, tears streaming down their faces. I was pissed. Worse yet, I was at a loss. How could I go to the cruise like this? I would be the laughing stock of the boat. My dad, an impeccable dresser, would hear the news from Leon and I would be exiled even further from the family, a black sheep with a mangy coat. I pleaded with the laughing twins for assistance. Wiping her eyes, Katlin said she’d help.
She re-appeared with an ironing board and iron, which she handed to me inquiring if I could handle the task. “Hah,” I said haughtily. “Of course I can iron!” Any moron can iron. I grabbed the weird contraptions and spent the next 5 minutes trying to unfold the damn ironing board. Marisa was in the shower, so I was on my own. A naked Marisa found me ironing in my underwear, the very image of genteel manliness. I had already finished with the pants and was now battling the jacket. The wrinkles on the lapel were stubborn. I decided to turn up the heat on the iron and really zap the hell out of those wrinkles. We were running terribly late.
The smell of burning rubber should have been my first clue. By the time I realized what had happened, it was too late. I had burned an exact replica of the iron into the left lapel, the burn mark spilling over onto the main part of the jacket. Pepe’s subtle fabric had melted under my barbaric hand, emitting malodorous fumes and a nasty sizzling sound. I yanked the iron off just in time, that is, just before a hole formed. I crashed down on the chair, clutching my head in despair. My $68 suit was ruined! Sensing my despair and a threat to our carefree cruise around the bay, Marisa came to the rescue. She smoothed the burn mark with her pig’s hairbrush and a wet cloth, pronouncing the problem gone, or at least, subdued. “Everyone’s gonna be drunk and it will be dark anyway,“ she added to console me. Indeed, when she held up the garment you could barely notice the burn mark. Only when she spun the jacket a bit and it caught the light just so could you see my handiwork. I slipped the suit over my too small shirt, leaving the top button of the shirt unbuttoned so as to not strangle myself. I raised the knot of the tie up to my throat, put on my ancient Doc Martens and admired myself in the full-length mirror. From afar, with the lights dimmed, I looked pretty good. I decided that my tactic for the night would be to stay at a good distance from the other guests, quietly slurping oysters in the semi-dark. Mysterious. Yeah, the mysterious guest was my modus operandi for the night.
At the boat entrance Leon and his family welcomed the guests aboard. Marisa and I approached cautiously, my body language turned so as to minimize the impact of the iron tattoo. I couldn’t fool anyone. Leon’s eyes went directly to the burn mark, then drifted up and down Pepe’s creation. “You dressed up!” he said, giving me a kiss on either cheek. Marisa and I clambered on board. Everyone in our age group had dressed casually. Only the fogies were in suits. I ripped my coat off, loosened my tie and sucked down a half dozen oysters. Alcatraz sure looked beautiful that night.
This piece is part of a collection of stories on blindness entitled: The Blindness of Life.
Copyright © 2010, Andreas Economakis. All rights reserved.
For more stories by Andreas Economakis click on the author’s name below.