There’s a new advertisement at the train station, pinned to the board next to the ticket booth. It’s been stuck up with care and precision and one long straight pin per corner, and it reads
M. Fulton’s ready-to wear suits
Retain their shape because they’re built on a sure foundation!
Bargarran thinks this has all the makings of a pretty good joke. Nothing here retains its shape, and that includes the people.
It used to surprise him, waking up to a town of strangers he didn’t recognize. His own home transformed into an endless parade of oddities, the old falling back through time towards youth, the tall sawed off at the knees. A former beauty melted and pocked like yesterday’s snow. These unaccountable, unnatural changes used to make him feel irritable, sharp and suspicious. Now he counts it as a blessing. Faces are masks, made for dumb show and concealing the truth. What does it matter how quickly they‘re replaced?
Sure foundations. He wonders if the tailor is capable of irony.
More likely that this is a desperate bid for relevancy from a store that should have disappeared a lifetime ago. Back when they were forced to stop prefacing “business” with “family” because the old man had died, the wife went missing, and the son was left to shoulder responsibilities he had no hope of managing correctly in a town that didn’t much care if he stayed or went.
This is neither here nor there anymore. You grow into these things, or else you hack them off at the cuffs, tack in a few shoddy stitches and force them to fit. And Gallow Green is dying anyway, the same slow death as a coal miner, one long rattling croak that never quite reaches its end.
Bargarran tears the paper down. It seems obscene to leave it hanging there where no one will see it.
There are no bells above the doors of the shops in this town. The streets are so quiet that you can hear a hinge swing at a hundred paces; a scream would carry the length of the town. Bargarran does not find this chilling. It’s his honest assessment.
“Mr. Bargarran,” the tailor says. “What can I do for you?” In spite of the warning he must have had, he still looks surprised to see the taxidermist in his shop. In fact his expression verges on rabbity. He’s short today, and skinny, which doesn’t help either. His hair is a flyaway mess of half frizzled-out curls that he’s tried to tame by pulling them back into kind of a knot at the back of his neck, and Bargarran doesn’t think it suits him at all.
But he can’t blame the tailor for his confusion. Bargarran hasn’t commissioned so much as an undershirt from the man in years. No need, when all his clothes can be bought so cheaply from the back of a catalogue. They fit him well enough, and the animals don’t object when his sleeves grow grubby and stained.
The tailor looks as if he might like to, but he holds out a hand regardless. This is a decent enough facsimile of a friendly greeting, if you ignore the fact that it’s tissue-paper thin and twice as ready to tear away. When Bargarran doesn’t immediately return the gesture, his shopkeeper’s smile falters.
“Something you need repaired?” he suggests with the air of a man desperately trying to return to a script that gets little enough use as is.
Bargarran doesn’t know why he’s here anyway. It hardly seems right to say that Fulton’s new advertisement practically screamed desperation between the lines. Or that his eyes have something of the glassy quality of corpses Bargarran pulls out of his game traps, and that’s worrisome.
Is it pity, now? Maybe.
He picks up the fumbled cue as best he can, catches the man’s elbow in a grip a bit too harsh to use on a live thing, forgetting that ‘shake’ and ‘shaken’ shouldn’t necessarily be one and the same. “Just being neighborly,” he says, listens to the words ring tinny but has nothing to fill them up with.
“You and I have never been neighborly.”
It’s true, and there’s a reason for that. The same reason he’s never gotten close to anyone else in this town… never had a sweetheart, always turned down offers to have a round with the boys from the rail-yards. Never so much as stuck up a conversation with the woman behind the sweets counter.
But then again, one could say the same of Mr. Fulton.
“You haven’t given me the chance.”
This isn’t how he would have put things before this moment, but it feels right all the same. A bit accusatory perhaps, but that’s only appropriate when someone’s glaring daggers are your front.
“Neither have you,” says the tailor, a point that can’t be argued. Bargarran’s ready to shrug and call that the end of things.
Then Fulton throws back his head and laughs.
Mirth makes him look younger and older both at once, his mouth more carefree but the corners of his eyes crinkled like crows-feet. It makes Bargarran feel alarmingly close to knowing the man, past and future, in ways that he feels certain he should not, given the givens of this place. Also makes him want to punch his teeth out, but that’s almost a comfort at the moment, with the tailor acting so strange.
“At least we have that in common,” Mr. Fulton continues, almost as if he’s agreeing with Bargarran’s thoughts. “We are both bad neighbors, my friend.”
Bargarran’s knuckles still itch. He jams them deep into his pockets at the ugly word, friend. “Not much of a starting point.”
“No,” the tailor agrees. “But you offered, so I guess I’ll take it.”
Offerings are funny things, and not always intentional. The problem, as Bargarran’s always seen it, is that his neighbor changes faces every night. How can he trust a man like that?
Then again, whatever the tailor thinks he’s just been handed, it surely wasn’t trust.
Fulton is an aspiring teetotaler. This comes as something of a surprise, given it was his idea to invite Bargarran over for a drink and a talk. It compounds the strangeness of the evening, though nothing can overshadow the primary oddity of the situation— the parlor they’re seated in is of the funereal kind.
At least Mr. Fulton relaxes with a cup of tea in his hands. He hunkers down in his chair (too tall for it right now) the same way most men would over a pint. If that’s the trade-off in being offered boiled leaves in place of whiskey or beer, Bargarran can make do with his flask.
“Why,” he begins eventually, when he thinks they might both be sufficiently warmed in their own ways, “Do you keep burying my bones?”
Fulton looks surprised to be asked. As if he didn’t know how obvious he’d been, wandering around the old churchyard like a man aspiring to ghosthood. His response is a trade in kind, an acknowledgement and not an answer. “Why do you keep digging them up again?”
Two can play at evasion. “I need them for my work.” Cagey, and perhaps disingenuous, but a man can have more than one profession. This tailor, who spends his nights playing undertaker and his life counterfeiting a man of the cloth, should know that better than anyone.
“Your work is against god,” Fulton says, post-scripting Bargarran’s thoughts again, and too predictable really, though he’s as mild as skimmed milk about it.
Bargarran could choose to be offended by a statement like that. Instead he closes his teeth in a snapping grin, the kind he hopes will leave the tailor uncomfortable. “That seems fairly judgmental, coming from a man who spends his life in service to the greatest cover-up the human race has ever attempted to pull off.”
Now Mr. Fulton looks properly annoyed, fingers twitching as if he’d like to shove his neighbor off the corner of his desk where he’s perched like an ungainly bird of ill omen.
Bargarran, who has seen more than a few wolves in his time, lets the curl of his lip imitate theirs. “Adam and Eve. The eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons? I went to Sunday school the same as you did,” he adds when Fulton goggles at him. “We were probably in the same class.”
The tailor goes gratifyingly red and snappish. He’s paler today, that helps with the general effect. “That's not a cover-up, it’s… corrective. Innocent sins should still be atoned for.”
Bargarran waves a hand, indicating his disinterest in what seems to him a very blurry line. “We’d all prefer to bury our sins. Except for you; you bury mine.”
“Maybe,” the tailor allows. His lips have begun to curve again, as if he finds the taxidermist’s godless ways amusing instead of dangerous. Bargarran wonders if all this smiling is some new form of defense he’s come up with, and how it’s supposed to work. “So why don’t you let them stay that way?”
Bargarran is careful to give his flask a shake in Fulton’s direction. “Perhaps I like being a sinner.”
“And maybe I think I can save you.”
This is so funny Bargarran almost chokes on it. “I doubt that.”
“So do I,” says Fulton. “But maybe it’s worth another try.”
The tailor’s hair is dark today, close-cropped, the way Bargarran prefers it to be because it looks properly churchy. He no longer bothers to look up when his neighbor slouches into his shop. Oh, the tailor still knows he’s coming, of that Bargarran is certain. It’s his reaction that has shifted to account for some new understanding between them. Something Bargarran isn’t sure he likes the taste of.
“Mr. Bargarran,” he says, as he always does now, “what can I do for you?”
Bargarran sticks out his arm to display the issue at, or slightly above, hand. “I tore my coat sleeve.”
Now Fulton looks up. His eyes are black too. Are they gaining something of the sharpness Bargarran feels in himself, or was that always there? “I thought I fixed that yesterday.”
This is true, and there’s no point in denying it. “I tore it again.”
Fulton comes out from behind his bench, drawn to the work in spite of himself, maybe. Still too easy to manipulate even when he thinks he’s being smart.
“You know,” he says, and makes it sound like a conversation even though Bargarran is still standing there with his arm stuck out like a tree branch. “You don’t have to make up excuses to keep talking to me.”
Bargarran spits laughter like other men might rip off a hangnail, shoots it to the wind. “Talking to you isn't the important part.”
If the tailor’s bothered by the sound, he doesn’t show it. Fulton’s hands are at work, pulling at the tear until the two sides of Bargarran’s coat align. His voice is level. “Then what is?”
“Seeing you.” Difficult to prevaricate with a man plucking at your sleeve like that.
The tailor isn’t bent over his arm anymore. He’s looking up at Bargarran with a queer kind of intensity. Funny thing, when you suddenly realize you’ve been having two entirely distinct conversations, both at the same time.
“Do you want to see me?” Fulton asks. Bargarran doesn’t know the answer, and for the first time, he’s afraid to find out.
He rocks back a step, perturbed, and shoves the tailor away with such force that the kickback seems to propel him out of the shop, into the street, back to the safety and silence of the rotting town.
This is the real problem, as it turns out: his neighbor doesn’t change at all once you bother to keep half an eye on him. Easy to read, one might say if one were feeling less than charitable, and Bargarran often is. He’s hesitant, but optimistic. Quiet, but sincere. Judgemental, but… well, no, there are no buts about that. The man could do with a little more tolerance in him.
Fulton actually likes tending his shop, not restless and wandering like Bargarran, who can rearrange his tools ten times a day but they never feel right. Fulton is a tailor at heart; more than at home with his needles and pins. His hands always speak to his chosen profession— too deft for their own good, quick to tie a knot or snap a tangled thread. But he’s more likely to be found at his desk, thumbing through the Bible. That’s the problem with faith.
And his eyes… dark or fair or watery or sharp, they always remind Bargarran of a trap that’s closed to keep something back. Right up to the moment he smiles, and the latch springs free with startling abandon.
Fulton retains his shape.
It is almost more annoying than if he didn’t.
But Bargarran doesn’t intend to be taken in again.