The Hundred Thousand Dollar Suit
By Linda Boroff
“I wish the Asteroid would just put us out of our misery already,” David said, raising his arms to beckon the night sky outside my door. “Come, come.” Because he had failed chemistry again, David was willing to curse into smithereens our entire collective four point five billion years of arduous evolution.
I scanned the dome above for any chance blazing Armageddons, but the stars hung reassuringly in place. Beacons winking, a plane was homing in on San Francisco International Airport. I imagined the dark, cozy cabin stirring with anticipation; travelers bringing their seats to upright, straightening their clothes.
And they, suspended illogically in thin air, were gazing down as giants would, on the fragile Bay Area with its seething, threadlike freeways and lacework bridges. Did the cosmos really care about our torrid little intrigues and gnawing ambitions?
David dreamed of becoming a plastic surgeon, but at age thirty-four, time was not on his side. His stale bachelor’s degree was in U.S. history, and he had yet to pass basic chemistry. He had taken the accursed class at junior and state colleges, even at pricey private colleges, but the outcome was always the same: A couple of weeks in, he would falter. The coursework instantly stampeded over him. He missed one lab, then all of them.
But come next year, there he was, backpack bulging with textbooks, cram sheets, tutor lists; a calculator with the power to guide him to Mars—as if the sheer mass of preparation could propel him through. But for David, chemistry was a skipping record, Ground Hog Day, a Rod Serling script.
When he wasn’t battling chemistry, David worked at his father’s store, Tile Style, in Redwood City. Three blocks away, Home Depot bulged with ruthlessly underpriced tile; down the road was Color Tile. Across the street was yet another shop that David called Bile Tile. The owner was a former employee whom David’s father had denied a small raise, who had then quit and started his own tile store. Bile Tile grew like a beanstalk, sprouting ingenious new promotions every week. Pretty girls greeted the customers.
After work, David would often drive into Palo Alto to visit the Stanford Bookstore on University Avenue. He made a show of perusing books like Lambda Calculus for Dummies, before ascending to the second floor, where the texts and supplies for the medical school sat on their shelves like religious sacraments.
A female mannequin graced the room, a medical madonna modeling the emblematic white coat, for sale to the anointed. A stethoscope rested on her pink bakelite bosom; more stethoscopes coiled like whips in a nearby glass case. But all the stethoscopes in the world could not lash David through Chemistry.
He moved reverently among the books, where the trademark nose jobs of the big surgeons were set forth. No tortuous cartilage or bony spur could defeat the cunning scalpels of the Nose Lions.
David fantasized a morning of facelifts and liposuctions lined up like monetary jumbo jets on the airstrip. Sixty thousand dollars later, he would usher his trio of svelte receptionists to late lunch at El Becor. A mussel dripping at the end of his tiny fork, he recounted his days in medical school beneath their rapt, immature gazes. Sometimes for fun on a slow afternoon, he enhanced their lips or breasts for them.
David and I had met two years ago at a singles mixer in Palo Alto. David’s pale face and dark, curly hair had floated on the periphery of the crowd, following me like an unhappy moon seeking an orbit. And what had attracted him? My unfocused hazel eyes, defiantly frizzy hair, gangly legs—and nose job, of course. I invited him over to watch Quest for Fire, and he confided his dream. As a copywriter who had been planning a first novel for ten years, I understood. When I let him mark up my face and breasts with a felt pen, he fell in love.
I have always thought it an odd coincidence that the day after David summoned the Asteroid, his father’s distant cousin Joe arrived from some undivulged parsec. Joe had ruined himself with gambling and cocaine, but for some reason, the family buffered him against the consequences, which probably belonged in a Martin Scorsese film. They simply passed Joe along, year after year, to whoever currently occupied the lowest status in the family. Due to Bile Tile, this was now David’s father, Sam, whose brothers never tired of reminding him that a raise of pennies per hour would have prevented the employee from starting his own tile shop. Sam, dour and thrice-divorced, had to sit and take it. And now he had to take Joe.
It was a balmy Saturday afternoon in Silicon Valley, summer 1999, and you could feel the stock market spiking like a tropical fever. We sat torpid and oblivious in hazy, sunny Mountain View, sipping iced lattes at a sidewalk cafe.
“Here he comes,” David said, and added, annoyingly, “Who knows, you might go for him.” Because I was three years older than he, David had a habit of verbally unloading me on older men. Whenever he saw a Cadillac with a duffer in doubleknit at the wheel, he would invariably remark, “There’s a nice guy for you.” He protested that he was only looking out for my long-term happiness.
Joe was about fifty, but his short stature and plumpness gave him an air of juvenility. Tight, glossy, azure blue pants and a cream-colored shirt of what David called “nipple silk” added to the impression that Joe had been dressed by some tasteless, Edwardian mama. A gold chain lurked in the graying hairmat of his chest. I smiled into his hangdog gaze (quickly averted), and his hand slithered through my grasp like a minnow. His lips were rubbery and moist, as if primed for pleading.
He seemed to be wearing a wig, but looking closer, I spotted hot pink scalp through the black curls.
He clambered onto a chair and mumbled into an iced latte: He had a vengeful ex-wife in Queens, an estranged adult son, many creditors, lost decades. He was not a well man.
We gave Joe a tour of Palo Alto, I pointing out the wonders of Silicon Valley ascendant: the House That Sold for A Million Over Asking Price; the startup garages and coffee shops that launched a thousand global enterprises. The Valley was a petri dish for growing wealth, I explained.
I was what the rising tide had lifted—a disorganized scribbler who had missed every boat. But I felt a goofy, proprietary pride anyway: these were MY entrepreneurs. I breathed the same air as they, walked the same streets, ate the same Vindaloo.
David had made an art of what I called startup-spotting At one intersection, a nondescript, balding man in khaki shorts crossed the street in front of us, holding hands with a small child.
“Oh my God,” David cried, pressing his nose against the windshield. “That’s Kenneth Lickmoss. He’s worth three hundred and fifty million.” Sometimes he didn’t even know peoples’ names: “Ten million last month,” he said, jabbing his finger at a man in blue jeans walking a Chihuahua in Menlo Park.
In the rear view, I saw Joe studying his fingernails, occasionally swooping down on them like a skua. Probably replaying some fateful craps toss, I imagined, or reflecting on his blown life. He must feel terribly inconsequential amid all this florid success, hurling his penury at him. I was feeling indulgent as I maneuvered around white stretch limousines clogging the narrow streets.
“Computers, I don‘t get ‘em,” Joe mumbled, shaking his head.
“What do you ‘get’, Joe?” I asked gently.
“Suits. Everyone understands a good suit.” Except you, I thought.
“Believe it or not, he still has some great connections,” David said after we dropped Joe at one of the few cheap motels in the area. “Europe. He wants to start a business importing suits. Only the best. Armani, Versace, Canali, Pal Zileri.”
“Who wears Italian suits around here?”
“Are you kidding? They’ll sell like hotcakes. Men are reaching out for elegance.”
“And their idea of elegance is Banana Republic.”
“So we’ll educate them. This is the perfect time for European style.”
“Somehow I can’t envision Ken Lickmoss drinking his spirulina smoothie in a Pal Zileri suit.”
“You just revealed your paucity of imagination. And that’s why you’ll never get rich.”
“How much Joe is hitting up your father for?” David flinched.
“If you’re smart, you’ll invest too,“ he said.
“I can’t. I’m broke.“
“And whose fault is that? Remember I told you to buy Inktomi? Do you know what Inktomi is selling at now?”
“The good thing about being broke is that it keeps away parasitical shirttail relatives.”
“And you’ll always be a renter. With no stock options, no savings.”
“You ought to care.“ The implication, of course, was that I was not getting any younger. But in fact, time was running out on one of us, and it wasn’t me: poor, aging, single, female writers are everywhere, while old medical students are rarer than the White Sumatra Rhinoceros.
But suddenly, I understood. For David and his father, Joe’s suits were an escape route from their respective hells of Chemistry and Tile Style. If David became an entrepreneur, he could have the income of a plastic surgeon without working another equation, memorizing Gray’s Anatomy, or removing impactions from the indigent.
And wasn’t this Sam’s chance to have the last laugh on his overbearing brothers with their paid-off houses in Great Neck and kids in the Ivies? And was David’s ambition any less pathetic than my own secret fantasies of winning the National Book Award or optioning my screenplay to Bruckheimer?
“Joe’s got factory contacts—designer suits will cost us a measly seven fifty or so apiece; we wholesale them for fifteen hundred, and the retailer sells them for whatever the traffic will bear. It’s all gravy and we take our cut right off the top. All we need now is a name.” He looked at me expectantly.
“David, I can’t just pull a name out of a hat.” But in fact I was doing just that for myriad companies. It was a great era for naming. In the past week alone, I had named eight technology startups. I also named a new commercial development near Half Moon Bay: Paradigm Park—a secluded enclave of luxury suites where dot com executive teams could incubate their forward visions.
So I named the new suit company Zalnizza, a play on their surname, Zalnick. I presented it the next day at the Mountain View café.
“Zalnizza sounds too much like pizza,” said David. How about Zalnello.” I felt a stab of anger.
“Sounds like Jello. Sounds like marshmallow.”
“Sounds like anemia.“
“You’re just bitter,” said David. “That somebody else can do what you do.”
“Zal Amore. Zalnucopia,” said Sam, with an Italian hand swipe.
“I’ve got it,” said David. “Zalnezzia Menswear! I‘m a genius.”
Face flushed, I offered up my aggressive tag line: “Go ahead, ask me.”
“Ask me what?” said Sam, wrinkling up his big nose.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “There’s no what. Don’t be so literal, so concrete.”
“It means ask me out,” said David.
“It does not,” I said.
“But ask me what?” Sam.
“Where this suit came from!” David.
“But that’s the one thing they shouldn’t ask,” wailed Sam.
“It means ask me how much this suit cost,” said Joe. “I dare you.”
“Right,“ said David, sticking out his jaw. Sam nodded slowly. I felt a sudden rush of gratitude toward Joe. Maybe he wasn’t such a loser after all.
We celebrated that night with sushi; at the next table sat Twenty Million, a pierced and tattooed couple whose baby screamed through the entire meal.
Tile Style occupied a storefront in a nondescript, medium-sized building owned by Sam. Because his three divorces had produced an exponential number of heirs, most not even related to him, Sam’s will diced the building into more pieces than a Martha Stewart Gazpacho. Now, Sam took out a second mortgage to capitalize Zalnezzia. This cash went to Joe, who departed immediately for Europe, to make the purchases from his Sources, who would deal only with him.
The next time I dropped by Tile Style, I noticed paper-wrapped bundles the size of elephant calves piled along the back of the building. The inventory of tile had been shuffled off to a remote corner of the lot.
“See?” David pointed triumphantly “And you didn’t believe Joe.” I said nothing. They’re fine suits,”
said David. strutting past the bundles and slapping them with the flat of his hand.
Within the building’s fenced yard lived a number of transients who bathed in the building‘s restrooms and worked for Sam as handymen and informal watchmen. Whenever a truck pulled up bearing suits, they swarmed out from their bushes and camper shells to unload it. They worked fast to open the packages, sort the suits by size, and ready them for delivery.
David and Joe traveled the Bay Area together, visiting men’s stores and wholesaling for all they were worth. I had never seen the usually laconic and cynical David so energized. He told me the suits were practically jumping off the trucks; so many orders were pouring in that Joe soon had to fly back east to set up a New York branch. This was run by the estranged son, who had managed to resolve his issues with his father.
David compared himself to Levi Strauss, outfitting the Forty-Niners rather than seeking gold himself. Meanwhile, his obsession with plastic surgery seemed to go into remission; the chemistry textbooks lay in a zipped backpack on the floor of my closet.
It only went to show, David claimed with a knowing smile, that in this business climate, a little initiative, a little risk-taking, went a long way.
“So where are your profits?” I asked one day, “if the business is doing so well?”
“Stick to your Victorian novels,“ David chuckled indulgently. “You don’t know the first thing about running a business. You have to pay your suppliers before you take your profit, silly.”
“I thought Joe pays them up front. So everything you make from the retailers here ought to be pure gravy, right?” David rolled his eyes.
“Joe is reinvesting it. We have to keep up our inventories.” He patted my hand. “I know this is a bit convoluted, but trust me, our ROI is running way out in front of projections. And don’t worry yourself about Joe. He actually knows what he’s doing. He also knows this is his last chance to make good. With the family and with….others.” I instantly envisaged a horde of Atlantic City enforcers bearing down on Joe with crowbars, ropes, and gasoline. Somehow, it was not an unpleasant scenario.
“At the rate these suits are selling, we’ll be in positive cash flow in no time.” About a week later, I encountered David dining in downtown Mountain View with a miniskirted Russian girl. The girl, who couldn’t have been more than nineteen, was twined around her chair like some mercenary flowering vine. David waved, smiled weakly, and said something to the girl, who instantly glared me into the Gulag.
He knew better than to call after that, so when my phone rang at seven a.m. a couple of weeks later, I picked it right up, my collection agency sad story at the ready.
David’s voice held an edge of panic, muffled, as if he had his hand over the mouthpiece. “I’m in Redwood City,“ he said. “Can you please come and get me? Now?”
“The Feds are here,” he said.
“The suits,” David said, “are counterfeit.” He paused. “Who knew?”
“Are you under arrest?”
“Not yet. Will you please get out here?”
“Where’s your car?”
“Joe’s got it. Look, he probably didn’t know they were counterfeit either.”
“Of course he didn’t. Why don’t you call your little Svetlana to pick you up?”
“I’m going to walk out by the slough,” David said. “Please, please come get me.”
“Where is Joe?”
“He’s out of the country.”
“With your car?”
“Eleanor, I don’t know where the car is. I don’t know where anything or anybody is. Except me.”
I turned off El Camino Real and followed Seaport Boulevard past cement and fertilizer companies until the road dwindled into an untrafficked path beside a small, serene inlet of San Francisco Bay. A few ratty-looking boats swayed on the flat, luminous water, bobbing gently in the wake of a single jetskiier. A sandwich sign outside a moribund seafood restaurant invited local rummies to Happy Hour. Farther on, the parking lot of a nondescript two-story office building reached to the water’s edge. There, David stood on the asphalt like the last man on earth, looking out toward his diminished horizon. I pulled up beside him and got out. Down the road a go-cart track buzzed like a nest of faraway hornets. The jetskiier swooped and veered; a small spray of droplets speckled us on a light breeze.
“Asshole,” David muttered at him. He didn’t turn around right away. “Thanks,“ he finally said and climbed into my car. I followed the shore of the slough until the road petered out in a dirt mound. Fishermen cast their lines into the water. Shorebirds jeered.
“He was pocketing everything he made from selling the suits,” David said. “The Feds think he probably never paid the suppliers either. He told them they would get theirs from what the retailers paid him.”
“I’m actually impressed. I didn’t think he was capable of cleaning up like that. Sam’s money, plus the free suits—even if they were counterfeit—plus cash from the retailers.” David didn’t answer. “So where did the all the money go?” My mind was working very fast now. “He must have something stashed away somewhere.”
David sighed. “What didn’t go up his nose and his son’s nose, he left in Vegas.” I shook my head. David’s cell phone rang. He flipped it open and listened for a long time as I drove. I am not, I thought, going to chauffeur him around while he mends fences with a Russian teenager. This I cannot do.
“But they said the suits were counterfeit.” David said. He put his hand over the phone. “Joe says it’s all a misunderstanding. I’m just giving him a chance to explain.” I threw on the brakes in the middle of the road. David lurched forward but kept the phone to his ear.
“I can only put together about eight hundred,” I heard him say.
David flapped his hand at me to shut up. “If we can get you fifteen hundred, can you get us one more shipment? You can? Well, that would help.” David covered the phone again. “He says he can turn them around inside of a day and get us ten thousand dollars.” I stared. “Well it’s better than nothing.“ I felt a kind of awe and almost, oddly, respect. David shifted to one side and groped his wallet out of his pants. “Can you take a credit card?”
I lunged for the phone, and David lost his grip. As we grappled under the seat, my foot slipped off the brake, and the car began to idle toward the shoreline. I wondered how steeply it dropped off, and how our deaths would be reported, and just then I got a grip on the slippery little pod and hurled it out the window into the slough and threw the car into reverse.
“Now you‘ve gone and done it.” David looked at me shamefacedly, wallet in hand.
“Tell me you weren’t about to give that little bastard your credit card.”
“I don’t know,” said David. “It might have been an honest misunderstanding.” We drove in silence around the loop. One of the fisherman had caught a little fish that flopped on the asphalt.
“That’s you,” I said.
“I guess I owe you,” David said. “Do you want to see her picture?”
I could tell from the confident, teasing way the girl wooed the camera that she considered herself irresistible and unattainable.
“I see a great future here for her in lap dancing.”
“Why so mean?”
“If I were really mean, I would have let you give that goniff your last dime.”
“I’ve lost it all,” said David, “My money and you. Not in that order of course.”
Is it not now accepted that certain universal tenets govern outcomes, and no matter how they are flouted, eventually reestablish the conditions most compatible with them?
It is an immutable law that I am to be broke. The fact that at some point my income passed six figures was more disconcerting to the Universe than all the cyclotron revving and nucleus snooping of all nuclear scientists combined.
Such an irrational state could not endure, and entropy was triggered. The economy of Silicon Valley instantly deflated, whipped back through time as if on an H.G. Wells contraption.
A month or so later, I declared bankruptcy; by then, everybody I knew was out of work, restaurants and businesses shutting down so fast that the sidewalks were blocked with their furniture. Once, I sat next to a former Inktomi Board member at a sushi bar. He asked me if I knew of any jobs in marketing.
David finally called again, from New York. He was in law school, and although he was floundering in torts, he had hope. His father too had moved back to New York. The disaster with Joe had made Sam’s brothers remorseful, and they put him in with a cousin, brokering dried fruits and nuts to the Near East.
“If not for being swindled,” David told me, “I would never have thought of going to law school. So Joe served his purpose. And by the way,” he said, “your bankruptcy isn’t the end of the world. It’s really just a financial management strategy. I’m learning all about it.” I said nothing. After a while David said, “I’m going out tonight. I’m wearing my hundred thousand dollar suit.”
“After the Feds left, we discovered four suits they had overlooked. I figure my father lost four hundred thousand dollars on Zalnezzia Menswear. So that works out to a hundred thousand per suit.”
“Is it wearable?”
“Of course it is,” said David. “It’s a ‘Versace’.”
“Did you ever hear any more from Joe?”
“I thought I saw him once in San Francisco. I was walking on Union Street, and I looked between two buildings, and there he was. I’m pretty sure it was him, because he ran.”
“Did you chase him?
“Of course, but he finally ducked down an alley and disappeared. If I ever catch him,” David said, “I will kill him.”
About the Author:
Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English. She currently lives in Silicon Valley. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Guardian, Hollywood Dementia, Drunk Monkeys, In Posse Review, Word Riot, Hobart, Ducts Magazine, Blunderbuss, Storyglossia, Able Muse, The Furious Gazelle, Eyeshot, JONAH Magazine, The Boiler, Epoch, Bound Off (podcast), Fiction Attic Press, Gawker, Black Denim Lit, Cimarron Review, The Linnet’s Wings, Stirring, Thoughful Dog, and others.
She was nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize for fiction and won first prize in The Writers Place short story competition. She wrote the feature film, Murder in Fashion, reviewed in the New York Times, LA Times, Village Voice and others. Her short story “Light Fingers” was optioned by Sony and director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) for development as a TV series. She wrote the script for the upcoming biopic of film noir actress Barbara Payton, Fast Fade, currently casting with producer Don Murphy (Transformers). Her novella, A Season of Turbulence appeared in The Conium Review.