On Suits and Other Habits (Corporate Executives)
Todd, Tamsin, Queen's Quarterly
TAMSIN TODD has published short stories in several literary journals and contributes book reviews to The Washington Post Book World. She is currently working on a novel about musicians.
My father is an executive. He works for a multinational corporation, the kind with so many divisions and subdivisions and franchises and contracting units that if you marked them on a gigantic map of the world they would spread in pox-like clusters across all five continents. My father believes in his work. I have never heard him complain about it. He has worked for the same corporation for thirty years, passing from division to division like a man walking through an interminable train, never certain what kind of carriage lies beyond the next door. Thirty years: the span of a generation, the measure of youth.
YOU have seen my father, or men like him. On city sidewalks: at dawn, at noon, at dusk. On movie screens, among freeway traffic or in airport terminals, moving steadily along the conveyor belt, while the heroes and heroines, people with bright, dazzling faces, push past, knocking him flat with their long, grasping hands. He's the man with the thin, receding hair, cut short and combed flat against his scalp. It's mostly grey -- like lead, not silver -- and interspersed with a few stubbornly lingering strands of black. He wears wire-framed glasses with thick bifocal lenses, and he carries a sharp-cornered brown leather briefcase. His suits, made from hound's-tooth or pinstripe-patterned wool, look neither new nor old; they are unfrayed and unfashionable. He wears quiet ties and faintly spicy aftershave, brisk-smelling. His face rarely wrenches itself into expression.
There are other things I could tell you about my father, more interesting things. I could tell you about his pale-eyed family, the restless generations of outlaws and artists and priests. I could tell you about his sense of humour, which pops and sputters like a fire-cracker lit in a bed of dried-out leaves. I could tell you about his lawn, which he hates, but tends to anyway with a penitential diligence, his eyes wet and swollen as he shudders across it on his tractor, cutting circles that spiral dizzily inwards. But I understand these things. I understand them as I understand most things about my father: instinctively. You are like your father, my mother is always telling me, you have the same personality, reticent. It is true: we are alike. We have the same light green eyes with dark circles underneath, giving our faces a hollow, tired look. We are reserved. We hate to ask shop-clerks for assistance, to complain when a restaurant's meat is overcooked or the wine overaged and turned to vinegar. We don't like to create scenes, rupture forms.
MY father's weekdays begin privately. He rises alone in the pre-dawn gloom, after the stars have set and before the sky has lightened. Outside, a quilt of suburban land-plots spreads north and south, east and west, smooth and very still. Now and then comes the thin, slicey sound of a distant jet rising, or the mournful groan of a train horn. Newsy voices chirp from the bedside radio while in the bathroom the shower softly spits.
His suit waits on the suit-press, where he hung it before going to bed the previous evening. The press is waist-high, with an orange button that lights up when the press is hot. My father's pants are always immaculately creased in the front and back; his jacket-flaps are never wrinkled. On a short shelf on top of the press are keys, a wallet, and a pile of loose change. He removed these items from his pockets when he took off yesterday's suit. As soon as he is dressed, he will repocket them. I don't recall him ever losing his keys.
On the floor in front of the press are his shoes, black lace-ups with wooden shoe-trees inside. Nearby, on his dresser, is a pair of cuff-links, gold-inlaid onyx, which will cinch the cuffs of the pale, hand-stitched French and Italian shirts my mother buys. …