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Oct/Nov 2005 Fiction

The Caketopper

by Ali Fahmy


1

Bryan, a rock star, is being fitted for his white suit. His tailor, who is short though not a legal midget, is pulling Bryan's jacket sleeves and thinking maybe he can just stretch them out and not have to do any seam ripping or sewing. The tailor, to his chagrin, is too protective of his reputation to make compromises. He knows he can't pull any more. Bryan is going to have to wait in the waiting room, without his white jacket, for alterations done by machines.

Bryan knows that the tailor will not make compromises. Bryan understands. He has gained weight since the last tour. He's getting older. So he sits in the waiting room, reading the newspaper, getting the latest on Nixon's resignation.

Though he's English, Bryan is fascinated with American politics. Through the open door that separates the waiting room from the alteration room, Bryan and the tailor debate the likelihood that Nixon will be pardoned by Ford. Bryan understands fallibility—as a teenager, he had done time at a juvenile detention center for shoplifting. The tailor doesn't forgive, much less pardon. They agree to disagree. Bryan switches to the sports section.

After fifteen minutes the tailor, whose name is Reginald, signals that the work is done. The two convene in the mirror room, and the tailor is beaming as he sees that it's a perfect fit. But Bryan is sad. He knows that it's a perfect fit, but something is wrong. He believes he looks clownish and scraggly. Reginald doesn't recognize this. Being so short, though not a legal midget, he envies anyone taller than five feet, and Bryan clears six, easily.

"You look fine."

"No, I'm too old for white."

"You're not thinking of switching?"

"To black? Yes, I am."

"Black suits are a dime a dozen, Bryan, a dime a dozen! Now a white suit—a white suit is special."

"I look like a fucking caketopper!"

"There's no reasoning with you, is there? Hey, I can't complain. The more suits you have, the more money I make. But black? Why not a sharp gray? Or a light blue?"

"Light blue? Fuck, Reggie, why not put me in pink?"

"Fine, let's go to Jed's."

Jed's is where Bryan buys his suits. A taxi transports the two men downtown. When Jed sees Bryan and the diminutive tailor walking toward his front door, he rubs his soft hands in anticipation. Deep-pocketed rock stars have paid for Jed's summer home.

"Bryan, it's been a while. Reginald, how are you?"

"Not good, J. The Englishman wants black."

"Black is good. Black is timeless."

"J, you have so sense of aesthetics. But what do I know? I'm just a tailor."

With more consultation from Reginald than from Jed, Bryan buys a shiny black suit that's almost a perfect fit.

"I can finish it in an hour."

"Reggie, it's no rush. I'm in town 'till tomorrow night. You've done enough work for one day."

"Nah, it's my job. Besides, I've got plans tomorrow."

"Okay."

"I'll drop it off at the hotel. The Chelsea?"

"Always the Chelsea."

"The Chelsea, where they all wear black. Bryan, I wanted you to stand out!"

"I'm too old for anything but black. It's time to silence my clothes. It's time to let the songs speak for themselves."

"Suit yourself."

 

2

At the Chelsea Hotel Bryan tips the bellman for being there—his bags have been in the room for days and there's nothing waiting for Bryan—no packages, no messages, no young fans with album sleeves and fail-safe promises, nothing for the bellman to do, really.

In his room Bryan pulls out a blank notebook from his snakeskin valise. The valise was a gift from his rich ex-wife, the last love of his first tour. The notebook was purchased at a gift shop in the Milan Airport a year ago. Bryan was on holiday alone. He had traipsed around his native continent, mining for musical inspiration and adventure. What he found instead were spent discos and women with fallen hair in spilled-upon fringe dresses (it was the Year of the Fringe). Bryan wrote nothing, and he thought his artistic career was over, all but the living off the fruits of the past. Since returning from his European holiday, Bryan has wavered on this conclusion. Nights spent playing the old hits to adoring, well-off fans have revitalized him and made him feel younger and more like a sprite. Days spent fitting into white suits from years past and staring at that damn blank notebook have had the opposite effect. Tonight, at the Chelsea, with a new suit in process, a presumably sober night in a vibrant city ahead of him, and an unused hotel pen, he sets out to write something impossibly beautiful.

Pen to paper, he thinks back to the first time he was in New York. Here at the Chelsea, always the Chelsea, Bryan tripped over his own thoughts, writing half of his band's second album in one drug-fueled weekend, a weekend of unspeakable acts, of women and girls, of dancing in decadent clothes. All that and his first trip to Jed's. That was a time, he thinks to himself, and although he can't go back to the drugs—"I'm a father Ronnie, leave it alone," he told a musician friend he ran into on the flight over from London the other day—he can go drinking. He drops the notebook on the floor, places the unused pen on the bureau, and puts on his shabbiest clothes that on a lesser man might seem his finest.

Minutes later he asks a weather-beaten cabbie for "a rock and roll club but not Max's Kansas City, something fresher." He emphasizes the word "roll."

The cabbie takes him to a place on Waverly without a name on the door, without a door really, just a beaded curtain, and Bryan thinks to himself "No! No hippies please" but gives it a shot because at least the cabbie didn't take him to fucking Max's.

The club is mostly empty, but Bryan figures it's early, barely 10, and after a few drinks he'll give it another assessment. He orders a Rob Roy from a puzzled grizzled bartender who knows the drink but that's not the point.

The jukebox is playing "Angie" by the Rolling Stones. Bryan thinks "Damn, I could've written this, and I wouldn't have pretended to be a goddamn American blues singer." But he doesn't just think this thought—he speaks it.

"Don't you Brits say 'bloody,' not 'goddamn?'" says a voice behind him, a female, New York voice.

Bryan turns to face the stranger—is she a stranger? Yes, she is. "I get out of England quite a bit. I pick up a lot of words in my travels." Bryan may be conflicted about his art, but with women in bars he's always spot-on.

"My name's Audrey."

"I'm Bry..."

"I know who you are," she interrupts. "I caught you on the last tour—the one with..."

"Yeah, them. Don't even say their name. Can I buy you a drink, Audrey?"

"No, I'm fine, thank you," she says as she fingers a full short dark iced drink. This doesn't sound like a New Yorker to Bryan's mind.

"Have a seat."

"Thank you. I will."

Bryan takes a final sip of his drink. The veteran bartender appears. "Another Rob Roy?"

"Rob Roy?" says the woman. "Where do you think you are, Glasgow?"

"It's an honest drink, a square drink, and yes, I'll have another."

Two Rob Roys and three whatever-she's-havings later, Bryan and Audrey retreat to a booth, but not before Audrey selects a medley at the jukebox and takes a short trip to the ladies' room. She returns as her first song, Steely Dan's "Do It Again," nears its end. Audrey is apologetic. "They didn't have any of your songs."

"That's bloody okay. I hear my songs enough. I like this song."

"The Dan, yes."

"I've been suffering a bit of the writer's block lately, so hearing any of my old stuff just gets me down."

"Doesn't it inspire you?"

"No. This, the world, the drinks, the city, this inspires me. My children inspire me."

"Evelyn and Chloe."

"You know too much."

"I just read it in Crawdaddy. I think it's sweet—a loving father, two daughters. And now the Rob Roy."

"Again with the Rob Roy. It's a square drink."

"I'm just teasing."

"So have you been to the Chelsea?"

"Do It Again" ends and "Maggie May" begins, and she lies and says, "No I've never been to the Chelsea." Bryan's eyes widen, as if to indicate a controlled rage.

"Bloody Rod Stewart. It's bad enough some writer called me Stewart's doppelganger, but bloody—I write all my songs, not one or two an album."

"You don't look anything like him."

"Not physically. A musical doppelganger."

"Anyway, I like this song. The mandolin. And what a voice!"

Bryan repeats his Chelsea question, less enthusiastically this go-round. She repeats her lie, also less enthusiastically. Hours later they fall asleep on the made bed before their clothes ever come off. Bryan wakes up with the sun and pens the lyrics of seven songs, five of them brilliant by his standards. With Audrey still sleeping, he writes her a note and leaves the hotel, taking with him his now inky Italian notebook and his acoustic guitar that he has removed from its black leather case, a case adorned with stickers of bands he likes, bands he's toured with but doesn't like, and the Beatles.

Still in his shabbiest clothes, he asks a cabbie to take him to Central Park, where he will sit with his guitar and notebook on a paint-peeled park bench and write seven melodies, five of them—the same five!—brilliant.

On the drive over, the cabbie asks Bryan what he thinks of Nixon.

"Nixon's a shit, but none of us are perfect. I'm sure the next guy—Ford—will be just as much of a shit."

"I came from Egypt three years ago. Nasser would never lie to us."

"Well Nasser was a good one. But the best politicians never let you know they're lying. Nixon's problem is that he's too transparent."

"Transparent?"

"You take one look at him—you know he's lying. Now Nasser, he was a good one. You can't tell with the good ones."

"He would not lie. Nasser was an honest man."

"The south end of the park's good. What I'm saying, my friend, is it doesn't matter if Nasser was lying. With him you'd never know."

"Are you English?"

"Yes, but my family never voted for colonialism."

And here's the park and a sunny day. Bryan tips the man well, and the Egyptian drives away, registering in his mind the question of Nasser's duplicity, his transparency. Bryan never noticed the dashboard photo of Gimel Abdel Nasser, smiling but not really, in a beaded frame, with "Made in China" written in Arabic on the back.

 

3

Back from the park, melodies committed to airtight (now that he's off the drugs) memory, Bryan finds Audrey still sleeping but facing the window now. He orders some room service coffee and breakfast. It's barely ten.

"Wake up, little Susie."

"It's Audrey," she says, barely audible in her morning grog.

"It's a beautiful Manhattan morning."

"It's fucking hot is what it is."

"Yes, it's a bit warm. Looks like the maid won't have to make the bed."

"We stayed up talking. You're quite a talker for an Englishman."

"Well, we did invent modern human discourse. How do you like your eggs?"

"Scrambled."

"Perfect. I'll have the poached. It should be up here in a flash."

"Breakfast? And I didn't even have to."

"No you didn't. No one has to do anything really."

"So where'd you go?"

"To Central Park, where I composed melodies to seven songs, the lyrics of which I wrote while seated on this chair, as the sun rose, as you slept through sirens and your own snoring."

"All right, Bryan! No more writer's block! But I don't snore."

"Oh yes, yes you do."

"Are the songs brilliant?"

"Well, five of them are."

"So pick up your guitar and sing!"

And over breakfast and brown coffee in an un-air-conditioned August Chelsea Hotel room, with "Do Not Disturb"—words that often, especially at the Chelsea, indicate dirty dastardly acts—announced proudly on their doorknob, Bryan plays Audrey seven new songs.

A knock on the door, and Reginald the tailor delivers a shiny black suit. Bryan steps into the bathroom to try it on.

"Hi, I'm Reginald."

"Audrey. Bryan says you're a magician with his suits."

"Yeah, them rockers think it's all magic. It's work, that's all. Toil and work."

"Is that an accent I hear? Are you an Englishman, too?"

"Nah, I'm Irish. Big difference."

"I'm from Staten Island."

"So don't you think Bryan should wear white?"

"White? I don't know. Black is timeless."

"Everybody wears black. Nobody wears white."

"Rod Stewart wears white. I saw it just yesterday in Rolling Stone."

"Stewart? That motherfucker." Reginald is apoplectic that Rod Stewart, who uses that no-good uptown glorified seamstress Bryce Caldwell, is wearing white. He raises his voice. "Did you hear that Bryan? Stewart's wearing white. Rod fucking Stewart beat you to it."

Bryan steps out of the bathroom. "Well then, we're lucky you didn't put me in white! I would have looked like a bloody fool."

The suit is perfect. Reginald is a magician.

Audrey coos, "Oh my."

Reginald walks over to Bryan, adjusts the shoulder, and sits back down.

"You are a magician, Reginald."

"Just toil and work."

"Toil and work and magic, Reggie. I told you black would still work."

"So you'd rather be the thousandth guy wearing black than the second guy wearing white?"

A knock on the door. Pizza. Before Reggie's arrival, Bryan had ordered pizza from a place that today's bellman—an actual legal midget—recommended with an auctioneer's zeal—"You'll love it. Best pizza in town!"

"Would you like some pizza, Reggie?"

"Nah, I better get going. I got some diplomats from Egypt coming to the shop at six."

"More diplomats? You're the tailor to the United Nations. You know how to keep the Egyptians happy, right?"

"How's that?"

"Tell 'em Nasser was a great man. Works every time."

"Got it. Bye, Bryan. Nice to meet you, Audrey." Reginald slips away. On his way out the lobby doors, he tips his hat and a dollar to the little bellman. God, he loves being taller for a change.

 

4

"Do you, Bryan Hillock, take Audrey Abruzzi to be your lawfully wedded wife?"

"I do."

"Do you, Audrey Abruzzi, take Bryan Hillock to be your lawfully wedded husband?"

"I do."

The band plays "Unchained Melody." Bryan and Audrey, dressed one hundred percent in white, dance for the teeming crowd at Staten Island's Apodaca Social Club. Before the ceremony, in the supply closet that doubled as a men's dressing parlor, Reginald, the best man, dressed impeccably in a powder blue that had the ladies asking him questions, suggested that the newlyweds first dance to one of Bryan's songs. But Bryan would have none of that.

"It's 'Unchained Melody' or nothing at all."

"I don't like the rhyme, Bry."

"What rhyme?"

"I need your love / Godspeed your love."

"Yeah, it's weak, but it's Audrey's favorite song."

"Whatever you want, friend."

The song ends, and the cutting of the wedding cake is announced. The first pieces go to Audrey and Bryan, the next to Evelyn and Chloe. The cake, a three layer job entailing coconut, chocolate, and the whitest of cream, is topped by two kissing, towheaded figurines of children. The girl, hatted, precocious yet reticent, appears to be a maiden in waiting. The cherubic boy looks like he will be nothing but a chimney sweep, no more, no less. These figurines date back to the wedding of Bryan's parents, a railroad man and a farmer's daughter. Thunder cracks as Dad hands Bryan his first Rob Roy of the night and asks, "Whaddaya think of that prick Nixon?"

"Dad, not around the kids."

"He's a criminal."

"His mistake was being transparent. He needed to hide his duplicity."

"Like Churchill."

"Like Nasser."

"Like Rod Stewart," says Reginald, holding his own Rob Roy.

"Ha," they all say in unison, the three men, two of them short and old, one of them tall and young and on top of the world. They slap each other five with the hands not holding drinks.

 

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