“Oh my god, nice fedora.”
It was four o’clock before Emily could finally visit Michael to talk about Lucas Budd showing up at her house. After the bike ride with her father, there had been the monthly tradition of making brunch with her family for Mercer Mansion’s the small staff. After that, her grandmother took Emily and Belinda for a “Sunday drive” that consisted of staking out more properties for her new real estate hobby.
Because of this, Emily had only been able to talk to Michael by text message and in 45-second phone calls. However, when she was finally free and Mr. Karlinoff was at Underhill doing the end-of-the-week accounting, she realized there wasn’t really that much left to say: Lucas Budd had tapped on her window, and it was scary. So instead Michael sat in a chair and watched as she performed an act of intimacy unthinkable even a week before: she started digging through his closet.
“Leave that alone.” Michael was flipping through the creased and folded New Yorker that had been sticking out of Emily’s purse. His legs were crossed loosely at the knee, and when he spoke he casually dropped the magazine forward with his wrist for a moment. He had a way of looking at her as though he were peering over reading glasses. “Please.”
But Emily ignored him and stood up on tiptoes to get the hat from the top shelf. Her feet came up out of her mules, and in the corner of her eye she saw the magazine droop down briefly before coming back up. Was Michael looking at her legs?
She got the hat down from the shelf. “Do you have a black duster and a Leatherman to go with it? Oh boy, I bet the other guys in the marching band are so jealous. No, wait: drama club.”
“It was a gift,” Michael said curtly. “From a friend of my dad’s.”
Fedoras, and all hats really, were a sore subject with the male population of Beaumonde. On one hand, they were a symbol of the sort of elegance and grace that they aspired to. Indeed, many of the boys felt their outfits were incomplete, in the most Proper sense, without an appropriate hat to top it off. However, the embrace of the fedora by a certain demographic over the course of the last twenty years had rendered the hat all but unwearable, at least without the expectation that the wearer carried a butterfly knife and would start quoting Douglas Adams without provocation.
So, in a rite of passage, almost every boy in school bought a fedora, certain that they could break the curse and restore the hat to its rightful place in the sartorial world. And, after being mocked mercilessly the few times they attempted to wear it in public, they eventually placed the fedoras on the top shelf of their closets, their hearts full of regret and defeat.
Emily looked inside the hat. She recognized the label from a few of her grandmother’s Easter hats; it was from the last milliner left in New Orleans. Stitched on a small tag tucked inside the band was M. Karlinoff. Inevitably, powerless to stop herself, she placed the hat on her head, then turned to smile at him. “Your head is big.”
Michael looked up from the magazine and chuckled. Emily was Mod that afternoon, with small white shorts covered by a loose tunic top. Her hair was pulled back in a polka-dotted scarf, and the addition of the fedora seemed extra ridiculous because of it, even though he couldn’t imagine what she’d be wearing to make the hat look appropriate.
“So is yours…on Lillian, the hat covers her ears.”
Emily frowned at him and took the hat off. “My head isn’t big,” she mumbled as she put the hat back in the closet. She went back to looking through his clothes, thumbing slowly past his suits, then his blazers, followed by his trousers and his shirts.
And what sort of clothes did she find? I hope I haven’t given the impression that The Gang is a group of rich kids who spend thousands on clothes they wear once before flinging them out the windows of their limos at the homeless. Michael’s closet is a little different, as you’ll see in a minute, but by and large one would be much more likely to find clothes from nicer department stores, vintage boutiques, and even Target in The Gang’s closets long before you’d find clothes from any of the larger luxury labels.
When buying clothes, The Gang’s most important concerns were fit and style…if it looked good on them and matched their own personal style, it didn’t matter if it came from Goodwill, it was a keeper. Of course, there were a million rules for determining if something fit right, which Alexander had drilled into their heads through repetition and mockery. And there were things that could be cheaply tailored, like cuffs and hems. (And things that couldn’t, like the way jackets fit in the shoulder.)
Certainly, there were purchases that rewarded spending extra money—it was better to buy a pair of expensive shoes once than a cheap pair over and over, and bespoke clothing was almost always worth the expense—but they’d never spend money on a logo. This was almost a cardinal sin when it came to dressing Proper.
To be sure, The Gang and the rest of Beaumonde were a group of rich kids who had more money to spend on clothes than most of us, but money wasn’t the only reason they looked so good. Mostly, it was because they thought about it. They spent time thinking about how they looked and they focused a lot of their lives on their appearance. They had narrowed down their style and the look they were going for, and they had learned how to identify well-made clothes and a proper fit.
I suppose this is becoming a bit of a polemic, but I would hate for anyone to have read this far into the book and still think that they’ll never be as exquisite and as well-dressed as The Gang because they’re not wealthy students attending an elite private school. That’s simply not true: learning the tenets of Proper and finding out what looked good on you is much more important than being rich. Giving something your passion and energy is always better than just giving it your money. Well, it’s just as good, anyway.
Emily had reached Michael’s dress shirts, and one caught her eye. It was a vivid light blue with French cuffs and mother-of-pearl buttons. “This is nice…have I seen you in this?”
Michael looked up. “Ugh, that’s a disaster. Put it back.”
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
He leaned forward and took the hanger from her. Turning the shirt over, he pointed at the back near the shoulders. “First of all, the grain of the fabric doesn’t match up at all. But mostly…” Michael turned the shirt over and buttoned it up to the top. “Here, pull a little on the bottom, like it’s tucked into a pair of pants. See?”
With his free hand, Michael pointed at the collar, which was now slightly warped and off-center from the Emily’s tugging. “The collar wasn’t proportioned right before it was attached, and it wasn’t centered on the body of the shirt.” He shrugged, and handed the shirt back to her. “Collars are hard, and take forever to learn. This was one of my first efforts.”
Emily looked over the shirt, front and back. “You made this shirt?”
“Yeah. I make most of my shirts.” He tried to say it so it didn’t come out shitty and matter-of-fact, like: Duh! He wasn’t sure if he was successful or not.
“But…but it looks like a real shirt!”
Michael laughed. “Well, not to Sam or my dad it doesn’t, but thank you. That’s sorta the point.”
Emily was pulling out dress shirts one by one and looking them over with a new eye. “Did you make this one? What about this one?”
“Yes to the first one, and I made the cuffs too big. The second one is from the store, I think it was a floor sample. If it has a tag in the back, I didn’t make it.”
“Do you make your own pants? Do you make your suits?”
“I make a lot of my pants, but Sam or one of the trouser guys at the store usually has to give me a hand. I haven’t made a suit yet, because the material is too expensive to let me screw up. Even the nicest shirt costs my dad like six bucks, but if I mess up a jacket it could be hundreds.”
Emily stepped back and looked at the entire closet, from the clothes to the neckties and the pocket squares. She turned towards him and smiled, wide-eyed. “Oh my god, Michael…you make your own clothes!”
Michael felt embarrassed. “Yeah.”
She sat on the end of his bed and squeezed his hand. “That’s so awesome, you’re just like Molly Ringwald! Wait a minute…does that make me your Duckie?”
“Forget it.” Emily looked over her shoulder at Michael’s wardrobe, then turned back to him with a small smile. “You know, this is something I’ve been thinking about since our, you know, talk on Thursday night, but I think it’s just now really hit me. You’re not really like Alexander at all.”
“Not really. I always thought the two of you had the same kind of fit, because you both always look great in your clothes, but that’s not true. Alexander has the perfect body for his clothes. It’s not that he’s in some amazing shape or anything—I don’t think he even knows how to sweat—but I guess he must be the exact same size as the forms they use to make the clothes, you know? He’s mannequin-shaped.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed. He’s a perfect Medium.”
“But you’re not like that: you’ve made your clothes to fit you exactly. I guess what I’m saying is that Alexander looks good in his clothes, but you make your clothes look good on you.” Emily leaned over and squeezed his hand again. “And that is, like, so cool.”
“It’s too bad the way…you know, the way everything turned out. Because everyone else I know is trying so hard to stand apart and be, I don’t know, unique and interesting, but what you are is already so awesome but now you can’t tell anyone.” Emily shook her head quickly and waved her hand between them. “But whatever. What should I do about Mr. Budd?”
Michael, who had been looking at the floor, met her eye. “I don’t know what we should do. How did he seem? Normal? Drug-crazed?”
“Neither, really.” Emily slipped off her shoes and crossed her legs on the bed. Michael, probably without even noticing what he was doing, uncrossed his legs and, using one of his feet, slid her shoes together so they were side-by-side. “You know what Robert was saying that night, about how Mr. Budd is so distant with us?”
“Yeah, totally. He’ll ask me about school or whatever, but it’s like someone’s fed him the question. Like it’s a job interview instead of a conversation.”
“Exactly. But then we’re always hearing that he delivered some incredible speech at city council or confronted the mayor on live TV or brokered some sort of truce among a bunch of different factions at the last minute. Well…I feel like, underneath the hair and the beard and the clothes, I was finally meeting that guy. The other Lucas Budd. Not necessarily the real one, but a different one than you and I are used to.”
Michael leaned forward in his chair. “Well, I guess we have a couple of options. We can just ignore it, and see what happens. Maybe he’ll come back tonight-”
“-or maybe he’ll visit me or someone else in The Gang. Or maybe he’ll just give up. It didn’t sound like this morning was a huge success for him.” He rubbed his cheek. “The other option is to tell your parents what happened.”
“I should have done that this morning, as soon as my dad walked in. I don’t know why I didn’t.” Emily sighed. “But I didn’t, and I feel like it’s too late to do it now. I know it’s not, not really, but that’s how I feel.”
“So,” Michael said, “if those two are out…there’s really only one thing we can do.”
“Yeah.” Emily frowned at him, then said the words: “Go see what he needed.”
“Right. I’m with you no matter what you choose. I’ll even go over there by myself if you ask me to. Or I’ll go talk to your dad about what happened. Or I’ll, I don’t know, sleep curled up in front of your door tonight in case he comes back. Just say the word.”
Emily laughed but didn’t say anything. Outside, there was a growling coming ever closer, and finally a small plane flew over, dangerously low, spilling smoke out of both wings. It was a pesticide plane, spraying for mosquitoes. It was that time of year.