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Charlie is a skittish, skinny man, so full of the wind that drives him coast to coast that his pants bag out. This ticks off Stella, who says it clashes with the green of his steeply climbing paychecks. "No more hip-hop look," she announces, and they drive in for a clothing adjustment. "You don't have enough hair," she adds.
The salesman at Ari - the only men's store in the Hub - goes beyond ebullient. The Milano wool Stella picks for Charlie is luscious. Its fine-combed pattern is set in either dark bluish gray or dark grayish blue, depending on whether you hail from above or below the Mason-Dixon line.
To Charlie, who calls on the Coca Cola folks in Atlanta, this is no trifling matter. You don't walk in to see a cracker at Coke wearing navy, as though you were William Tecumseh Sherman. Not even if all you're there for is to peddle eyeballs in the blogosphere.
"Nino will be right up," the salesman chirps. "All you do is stand on the little stool, and he'll make this fit like your skin." He palpates a piece of subtle lapel cloth as though it were a sex organ. "Beautiful hand to it, wouldn't you say?"
"Now something I don't like is pressure," Charlie declares, beholding his long tallness in the mirror. "There are two places. One is..."
Nino sweeps in, a small man with a Naples face and a tape measure.
"...There. Where you've got your hand."
Nino has Charlie by the crotch-fabric, which droops off his bony haunches like the sail of a boat at anchor.
Stella speaks right up. This is what they had driven in for.
"Come on, Nino. Do your thing."
Nino reaches between Charlie's cheeks and yanks the material higher.
"That's a wedgie you've got going there," Charlie whines. "I feel like a popsicle on a stick."
"Pin it," declares Stella. "No more clown pants."
A week later the suit is ready, and Stella proposes making a day of it. She tells Bronwyn to mind the shop. Coke wants Charlie down first thing Monday, and he's wild. Wild in a way Stella's never seen. His eyes don't just bulge, they burn.
"We'll go to Ari," she says, "then we'll do lunch at Yudofu. You can even wear the suit to lunch, how's that?"
Charlie raves about Coke's biggest buy yet. Monday will cinch the deal. He wants to wear the suit. She tells him there's spittle on his chin.
They get a good spot at a meter near Ari's, but it's one of those high Boston curbs. Even with his beanpole legs, Charlie has a near plumber's-butt moment stepping onto the sidewalk.
Inside the store, Stella watches Charlie do his cock-of-the-walk thing, parading up and down the carpet.
"He's like that Zegna boy," Nino says, "only longer."
"Adrian Brody? If you say so."
She whips out her purse and plunges into the last signing at the cash register. Charlie, meanwhile, continues aping a male runway model - but on crack, legs pumping triple-time, sashaying haywire towards the front door.
The very instant she snaps her purse shut, Stella sees something happen to the trouser bottoms of the new suit. Implosion. They sag and bunch at the heels of Charlie's shoes. Same as they did in the old suits.
"Stop," she cries, just as his fingers curl around the door handle.
Charlie bounces back like a yo-yo on jet fuel. She directs him to a couch on one side of the room, and pulls Nino over to the other.
"Unacceptable," Stella declares. "They're swimming on him. They're always swimming on him."
Nino stares beyond Stella's shoulder at Charlie on the couch, not uttering a word, his face a timeless study in failure - the eyes so pained Stella fears he'll garrote himself with the tape measure.
But there's a limit to what she can endure too - on this day of all days, when the purse that holds the just-paid suit invoice also contains other documents - a small blizzard of them, bad news in every line - all of which popped into Stella's mailbox over the last forty eight hours.
One comes from the state institution where her former husband resides, informing her of his imminent release. Just watching Nino's twisted face revives the night her own was spouse-slammed into the refrigerator door. Stella remembers thrusting her forehead out like a bumper to try and save her nose. She feels a wrecking ball in her chest, swinging like a pendulum, crashing left and right.
But Charlie's revving himself up for the Coke pitch, his voice keening and careening like a bird's screech as they peel out from Ari's. That voice of his bounces off the walls in the cavernous parking garage, where they find the express elevator that soars to the penthouse, and Stella swallows her thoughts, bites her tongue and carves a smile on her face. They emerge and see their reflections in a black pool of serenity, then a hand slips out of a curtain, and they follow it into the smooth-rocked realm of Yudofu, hippest of the hip in this city.
In Japan, Yudofu is an entire cuisine based on tofu. Appetizers, soup, salad, entrée, dessert. Tofu fried, boiled, broiled, braised, steamed. Tofu spiced, soured, sauced, sweetened. All of it the rarest and most pristine tofu imaginable, sometimes so fanatically procured that only the curd that's been caressed by water spilling across a certain reef in the Sea of Japan is acceptable.
In Boston, Yudofu is the foodie temple, the restaurant beyond restaurants, and the menu's holy of holies is the purest of slabs bathed before you - while you sit in a lotus position - in a boiling cauldron just inches from your unshod feet.
But jumpy Charlie is too Coked up on his spiel, too wild grooving on the pitch he will make to ever sit still and cross-legged, and he jerks to his feet. As he does the pants of his new suit desert him, and he trips on the cuffs, twisting like a top. All over the restaurant eyes turn coldly, and Charlie turns too, turns so fast and gyroscopic he stops only when centrifugal force and gravity bring him crashing to the ground, one cheek of his ass wedged in the scalding pot.
The place rocks with laughter, the help runs over, the half-trousered victim is escorted behind the curtain. Lengthy backroom ministrations ensue. At last Charlie returns to the lotus mat, swathed in a kimono. He raises his chopsticks and even manages a smirk.
He takes one bite of the ethereal spongy whiteness, gives Stella a smirking stare, points the chopsticks at her face and says, "You've got a bat in your cave."
She's genuinely puzzled. "A what in a what?"
"There's a booger in your nose. Want me to pull it out with these?"
Something in his face, something in the way he says it takes her by surprise. In that instant - and an instant is all it lasts - the carved smile softens and becomes real. For the first time in all her life, Stella feels overcome by Zen. She realizes why she's sitting where she's sitting, and why all is as right as a being could ever ask it to be. She sees she can enter tomorrow in just twenty four hours. But yesterday? Not in twenty four million years.
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