He wasn’t sure what caught his eye, but something made Ira look again at the label on his newest flannel pants. Technically they were pajamas — men’s sport sleep pants, according to the tag — but as he was never warm enough and as the pants were so comfortable, he’d returned to the department store and purchased six more pairs. Now he wore the flannel pants exclusively. He was past the age of caring what people thought, past the age of caring about sidelong glances at the market or the library — if people cared to glance at all. Age was amazing that way: you slowly started to become invisible.
The label on the newest pair (a jaunty orange-and-blue plaid well out of his normal palette, but the stock was dwindling) was missing a letter. BERKSHIRE SPOR, it said. He checked the others, including the pair he was wearing. They all said BERKSHIRE SPORT, just as they should.
“Hah!” he said aloud, and thumped the label with the backs of his fingers. “Spor!”
For the rest of the day he was greatly amused. “Spor,” he said from time to time, and laughed at the sheer luck of the thing.
Ira placed the aberrant pair of pants on top of the others in the dresser drawer. Every now and again he returned to the bedroom, half-dreading the sting of disappointment that would accompany the discovery he’d been mistaken. It wouldn’t be the first time his eyes had played tricks on him. But the “T” remained missing. It was such an improbable thing, such a one-in-a-million chance. It was the most he’d laughed in months.
He drifted off for his afternoon nap thinking about the pants, how he, of all the people in the world, had ended up with a garment unlike any other. The more he considered it, the more this seemed an occasion beyond luck. It seemed meant to be, perhaps even a very minor miracle.
An hour later Ira woke suddenly, in a sweat. What if the edge of the label were merely turned over, obscuring the final letter?
He rushed to the dresser and jerked the pants from the drawer. He scratched at the label’s edges with his fingernail, picked at the tiny gold threads securing it to the waistband. But it was exactly the same.
Over the next hour he checked and re-checked the label. He ran his finger over the slightly raised letters, stitched in the same gold thread. Everything was all right after all; he was indeed the owner of a pair of pants unlike any other on earth.
Then over his four o’clock tea he had a terrible thought, and for the second time that day he despised himself for being so foolish.
It took three different salespeople and much patient explaining to find a clerk who would accommodate his request. He was on hold for nine minutes, during which time his anxiety steadily gathered force. By the time the looped recording announcing a Veteran’s Day sale ceased, Ira was trembling.
“No sir,” said the clerk. “I don’t see any more with a label missing the ‘T’.”
“You’re sure?” he said. “Berkshire Sport men’s sleep pants. Flannel. Plaid.”
“Yes sir, you told me. I checked and they all say ‘sport.’”
“All of them? You went through all the sizes, even extra-extra-large?”
The clerk sighed. “There aren’t that many left, and I checked the entire stock. Listen sir, if you bring them in we can exchange your pants for a pair that’s not damaged.”
“Do you still have the receipt?”
He hung up.
He hurried back to the pants. The “T” was still missing. He still owned the only pair of Berkshire Spor pants in existence. There had to be some meaning behind this, some sort of sign or message he was supposed to apprehend.
He got pen and paper and puzzled over the letters. He attempted anagrams but couldn’t come up with a single one that made sense. On the hunch that a hidden message would reveal itself audibly, he spoke the words “Berkshire Spor” at a range of volumes, with different pronunciations, and with emphasis on various syllables. His soliloquy produced nothing. He assigned each letter a number according to its placement in the alphabet, and put the totals from “Berkshire” and “Spor” through every bit of arithmetic he could think of. Pages of figures accumulated, but no meaning or message surfaced, not even a hint.
But nothing worth doing was ever easy.
He was back to trying his hand at anagrams when the nightly ruckus from downstairs began. The newlyweds were home from work. Every night was a party for them, first with the clattering of pots and pans and then laughing and carrying on over two-hour dinners, and then more often than not, scandalizing the whole building with their noisy marital relations. People no longer had any shame. He and Helen would’ve never made such a commotion, not if they were the last people on earth. Helen was a lady. Refined. But even the Hazletts upstairs, a couple in their sixties, were indiscreet from time to time. There was neither sense nor dignity in it.
At any rate he was glad for the break from the fruitless search for anagrams and all the figuring, and startled to find that it was nearly eight o’clock and he was very hungry. He ate fish sticks with ketchup and three slices of white-wheat bread with spreadable butter and a cup of butterscotch pudding, and smiled throughout the meal. He was the recipient of something exceptional and precious. He was, in a way he did not yet comprehend, chosen. His understanding of what he’d been chosen for was even dimmer, but he’d never lacked tenacity, and he sensed in himself a new receptivity, as if he were now tuned in to a radio station transmitting subsonic signals.
The pants were too special to wear, so he turned them inside out and clothes-pinned them to a hanger, label in front. Not wanting to leave them unattended, he made arrangements to have his few necessities delivered, which turned out to be surprisingly simple if you had the money to tip generously. The doorman ordered things for him on the computer and left his groceries and medications in the corridor. Ira was now free to study the pants and meditate upon their meaning without interruption. He took them along as he moved from room to room in the apartment — they hung on a hook on the back of the bathroom door, on the window latch in the kitchen, or on the wall-mounted coat rack in the living room. He considered taking the pants to bed, tucking them under his chin like a child with a blanket, but was reluctant to subject them to wear and tear. Soon he realized the window latch was not a suitable place, as the sun would cruelly leach the pants of color. He hammered a nail into the slim cabinetry partition between the refrigerator and cabinets. The pants looked benevolently on as he toasted his English muffins or heated his soup. He was careful to use only the burner farthest away.
One day there was a knock at the door and Ira jerked in his recliner, startled from meditating on the message the label was struggling to transmit. He wasn’t expecting a delivery, and somehow the intruder had got past the doorman without being buzzed up. Quickly he made a survey of the room, and was chagrined to discover it wasn’t at all up to company standards. He couldn’t recall when things had grown so disordered.
But in the larger scheme of things, what did a little untidiness matter? There were tasks far more important than housework.
He gave the pants a reassuring pat and opened the door three inches.
“Well look who’s home!” the Reverend Spanner said, as if Ira were the last person he expected. “Good to see you, old friend.”
Ira stifled a sigh and opened the door. “Afternoon, Reverend. Please come in.”
He was relieved when the Reverend declined his offer of tea; he would’ve had to take the pants with him to the kitchen and then back to the living room, and though technically Spanner was a man trained in the business of miracles, Ira didn’t sense in him an accommodating audience. They settled on opposite sides of the living room, the pants behind Spanner and in clear view on their customary peg of the coat rack.
“Thanks for having me in, Ira,” said the Reverend. “I just wanted to come by personally and check on you, see if you’re all right.”
Spanner always had been a bother. “Never better,” Ira said.
“I’m glad to hear it. It’s just that nobody’s seen you in weeks and weeks, and you haven’t returned any phone calls, so we — everybody at church — were getting concerned.”
He eyed the pants and put on his best smile. “Concerned?”
“Well sure, Ira. It’s like you dropped off the planet.”
He smiled more widely and shrugged. “As you can see, I’m right here on terra firma.”
Reverend Spanner returned the grin and Ira summoned a cheek-aching smile. How long could he sustain this polite little dance of fraudulent pleasantries?
“Ira, if it’s a problem of transportation — if you’re getting a little uncomfortable behind the wheel or even with taking a cab — we can arrange to have someone give you rides to and from church.”
“Oh no, Reverend. I may look ancient but I’m still fully capable of getting around.”
They laughed together, doh-si-doh, but the Reverend quickly sobered. “Sundays and for Bingo.”
“I appreciate the offer, but it’s nothing to do with transportation,” Ira said. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t much thought about church lately. It just sort of — slipped my mind.”
Reverend Spanner nodded rapidly. “Ira, when’s the last time you’ve seen your doctor? You’ve lost weight, and after what you went through with Helen . . . well maybe your doctor could recommend someone you could talk to.”
“You’re referring to counseling?”
“There’s no shame in getting help, Ira. In fact, Sheila and I, once when we were going through a rough spot — “
Ira held up his hand. There was that distasteful habit of the younger generations — they had no hesitation in airing their dirty laundry.
“I appreciate your concern Reverend, but I assure you I’m feeling quite well.”
Spanner didn’t bother hiding a look of disbelief. Ira saw that it was going to take something more to get the Reverend off his back.
“Reverend, believe it or not, I have found a whole new purpose in life — something to get up for.”
“Really,” Spanner said, the word a flat stone. “And what would that be?”
“Well…” He laughed a little, suddenly self-conscious. “I’m not sure you’d understand. Or — I’m not so sure I could explain it sufficiently….”
Reverend Spanner clapped his thick, callused hands together once, as if a conundrum had been unraveled. Before he’d become a minister — his was a mid-career conversion — he’d worked in construction. The man’s blue-collar burliness had always intimidated him, but Ira was delighted to discover the feeling had vanished.
“I’ll be honest, Ira,” Spanner said. “I’m worried about you. You look like half the man you were, this place is — well we could see about getting a cleaning service in here. No one’s blaming you, of course. No one gets over losing his wife of sixty-odd years this fast, especially not after taking care of her for so long, and with such a — well, with such a difficult death like Helen’s. Hell, Ira, we just buried her four months ago.”
Ira’s eyes sought out the pants. Now he noticed they were hanging slightly askew, nudged out of place by the Reverend’s jacket.
“I’m sorry Reverend, but I must thank you for your visit — I do appreciate it — and see you out. I have things to do.”
Spanner didn’t move. “I’m going to call someone, Ira. Why don’t you give me the name of your doctor and I’ll call right now and set something up for you. I’ll even take you there myself.”
He stood. “No, thank you very much for your concern, but it’s not necessary.”
“Reverend, I am asking you politely to respect my wishes and leave.”
Spanner gave another single clap and stood. “Fine. I’ll let you get to your ‘things to do’ for now, but I’ll be back tomorrow, first thing. You need help, Ira.”
“Reverend, I need nothing of the sort!”
Spanner stared at him, his jaw set and his nostrils trembling. Ira couldn’t tell if Spanner was hurt or angry. He glanced at the heavy, callused fists. If it came down to some sort of physical confrontation he’d never stand a chance.
Suddenly Spanner turned without speaking and headed for the door. He snatched at his jacket, upsetting the pants. They slipped to the floor.
“No!” Ira shouted. “Don’t touch them!”
Spanner looked down. “What, these?” He picked up the pants, still clothes-pinned to their hanger, and hung them back on their peg. “No harm done, Ira. Good as new.”
But no. They were not. Since they’d come into his possession no one else had touched them. No one else was meant to.
He hurried across the room and lovingly removed the pants from the hanger. He held them to his face and breathed in their scent. If he was not mistaken, the pants seemed to press back gently, a subtle, private caress. It would probably take months or even years to figure out why they’d chosen him and what they wanted to say, but what else did he have but time? He knew now that he’d passed some sort of test. The pants would help him figure out everything, everything that needed figuring out. He wound the garment around his neck like a scarf and dipped his chin to speak into the folds of cloth. “I’m here,” he whispered.
“Oh Ira,” Spanner said.
The Reverend Spanner reached for him, but now nimble as an acrobat, Ira turned and slipped away.