I want to give you a suit, my grandfather said to me one morning in his house in Tulsa. Come into the closet over here. I was visiting from Vermont during the winter. He was nearly eighty and still handsome, dark-haired with only specks or threads of gray. He was saying I needed a suit because he was sure I wouldn’t take the time to buy one. We were the same height and build, though he had thirty pounds on me.
I know what kind of a suit—he paused to make a joke—suits you. Something from Brooks Brothers. We walked into the closet together. There were about two dozen suits hanging neatly on the rod, and he began sliding his hand across the shoulders of each one and moving them up and down the rack. Blue, he says. You could use a blue one.
He invited me to touch them and to pull down any of the blue ones that I was interested in. I ran my hands over the fabric of each one. Each suit had a kind of simplicity against the feel of my hands that implied a sophistication that I didn’t understand. It was as if each suit—whether worsted or wool or silk—possessed its own brand of inner peace, a capacity to receive and be thankful, and a mystery too beneath their surfaces to shine with some sublime honor. They were tailored, and that gave them each a magnificent elegance. Remembering it now—I think of these four lines from George Herbert:
O what a sight were Man, if his attires
Did alter with his mind;
And like a dolphin’s skin, his clothes combined
With his desires!
Usually I wore blue jeans and a t-shirt with a suit vest and a threadbare sport coat, and I affected a nonchalance about clothes. But I had an inkling that the purpose of dressing well was to make a statement. I knew that elegance came when you forgot what you were wearing. And I could feel how touching his suits was like touching different textures of modesty. I think my grandfather—though he wouldn’t have put it this way—thought a good suit provided a kind of sex appeal. It made you look snappy. If not that then it was a sign of good manners, even power. He was a “clothes make the man” kind of man.
The closet was small and we kept bumping into each other. Lined up on the floor were dress shoes and loafers. On a high shelf next to a stack of boxes was a baseball I knew to be signed by Joe DiMaggio. There was a shoehorn propped up in the corner and, next to it, my great-grandfather’s walking cane that I understood my grandfather would use when the time came. Golf tees were scattered on a countertop. He was telling me a complicated story about a time after the Second World War in the late 1940s when he and my grandmother were having breakfast at a deli on one of their trips to New York. At the deli there was a young fellow who kept looking at him from across the restaurant. And finally, he says, this young fellow walks over to me and says, Are you a Borg? Well turns out the fellow is from Cherno Ostrov, too, he says. That’s right, he says, and the fellow tells me some cousins of mine are still there. They’d left during the war but came back.
One of the things I was trying to do in those days when I was living in Vermont and first starting to write was to think about what motivated people to say the things they said. I was wondering if the memory of that New York City encounter in the deli was like a hum in his brain, building and building over the years, mounting and then descending again. I might have asked him about it, but he keeps talking about the deli. He’s full of details about the deli. He talks about the steamy display cabinets and all the shouting like someone’s about to die. He describes the trays of pickled herrings and dried fish and salted meats. The pastrami and cream cheese and bagels. The little gherkins and onions and lox and the aroma of coffee. There’s no white bread in there, he says. That’s right, who gets pastrami on white bread? And Alan Dugan in “Closing Time at the Second Avenue Deli” goes—
This is the time of night at the delicatessen
when the manager is balancing
a nearly empty ketchup bottle
upside-down on a nearly full ketchup bottle
and spreading his hands slowly away
from the perfect balance…
Except for a few stories about his days boxing when he was young or playing baseball, my grandfather liked most to tell the story of his coming to America with his mother and brother and meeting his father in Iowa. Sparse details were his genius. There was the escape in the night and sneaking onto the boxcar. There were the clothes on our back and stealing a piece of bread. He loved presenting everyone as an interesting character, and they each got a nickname like something out of Chekhov: the Cossack, the Bootlegger, the Grocer, the Mohel. Hearing him talk about these events was always fun. There was nothing in his telling that was too burdensome or self-conscious—we snuck out at night, we carried a featherbed and two silver candlesticks, we left Cherno Ostrov, we arrived in Lviv, after New York we took a train to Iowa. His language was simple. His technique was direct. The materials of his stories had an elegance on the inside and the outside. Serendipity was the grease for the plot. There was malice in the world, his stories told you, but there was good timing too. There was the shake of luck and the beneficence of God. His stories externalized their events for the purpose of the story alone. Details remained obscure except for the most decisive components. But thoughts and feelings were left out, and his stories never told you anything about a landscape or geography. They took place in his voice more than in a landscape—the train took days, we walked for an hour. He saw no need to describe a street or a tree. You’ve seen one tree, you seen them all, he was fond of saying. It was as if he understood that the authentic must begin in the voice. And through the texture of the voice—its moral and psychological claims—sensory details emerge with absolute authority. His interest seemed simply to tell an effective version of his life, to bring only pertinent parts into relief and leave the others unexpressed. The result was that his stories left you with questions. You were left looking for the necessary interpretation, and simply preoccupied with the meaning of the sequence.
In the closet we kept touching the suits, and I was reluctant to choose one. My grandfather held up one of the suits at last. I looked at it like a blind man. This one is for you, he says. I stepped out of the closet for a minute, and when I came back in I had the suit on. He walked over to me and buttoned the jacket and told me to turn up the cuffs at my ankles. He led me to a long mirror in the bedroom. I was standing straight with my hips flat and my shoulders sloped forward, and squeezing the muscles at the base of my back. The collar fit under my hair and my body seemed smoothed out like a bedspread in a hotel. You could do with a trim, he says, touching my hair where it fell over my ears.
In moments like that, putting on the suit, I can now see the spiral arms of one experience moving outward and away at a great speed, while elsewhere the spirals of a remembered experience are moving inward to the interior of being. On the one hand, there is a movement toward the formal, while on the other hand there is an immersion into the intuitive where, as in a garden, grieving is nurtured. That year Halley’s Comet could be seen, and I was curious about this bubble falling through space and the way it comes again and again regardless of what we did or didn’t do in history or even in our lives. And I want to believe that all of that—the memory as much as the imagination of it—is no different from the light and darkness of my own body.
He had spun me around to face him now and was raising and lowering my arms and then adjusted the jacket over my shoulders. I was gazing directly into his eyes as if we were in a crowded train and we’re passing through the little towns and there’s a taste of salt in the air and a bony balance in the trees and beyond that the expanse of time. I focused on the crinkles around his eyes like tracks in the snow. His eyes withheld their mysteries, as if he’d traveled into and out of some forest. Turn around again, he says, let me see the back. I did as he asked and could feel him standing behind me now, close, as if about to whisper into my ear, as if he’s going to say something about cocking my fists, about starting with the back and shoulders and then where to put my feet, the front of his knees almost pressed against the backs of my knees as he’s whispering again. He runs his hands over my shoulders again and says quietly, more to himself than to me, It’s a good suit.
“The Suit” is the concluding piece of a sequence of autobiographical portraits published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my beginnings as a writer.