Susan A. J. Lyttek, wife of Gary since 1983 and homeschool mother of two boys, Erik and Karl, writes in the early morning hours near our nation’s capital. An award-winning writer, she has published stories, articles, curriculum, interviews, a column, plays, poems, devotions, and cards. She’s also authored five books of dramatic monologs. Susan has several books at market including Dinosaur Window, her adventure/fantasy series for boys 8-14, and Fill Your World, a nonfiction tool for women longing for a deeper connection with God. Since 2002, she has coached middle school and high school students online through Write At Home.
“It’s no use, Jacob,” my psychologist said. “I can’t work with you to overcome your habits if you don’t at least try to reform.”
He’d said this before. Usually, it worked. Sufficiently shamed, I would redouble my efforts.
And I’d quit.
At least for a while. Long enough to live a clean life and get the next job under my contract. It was a tedious and arduous process. Why couldn’t I have been born in the nineteenth century when the majority of my vices were fashionable?
Instead of accepting the truth, I berated him. “Then what do I pay you for? You know my contract is coming due. I’ve got to stop smoking, at the very least, or I’ll forfeit the renewal clause.”
He set down his quillstick. “I can’t do it anymore, Jake. The problem is that you love your bad habits. They are your treasures. Your little step outside the bounds of what’s legal, moral, and conventional. I can’t help a man get rid of something he loves.”
I knew he was right. But I also knew I had to clean up my act. At least for a while.
“Come on, Martin.” I called him by his first name only when I pleaded. “There has to be something. I’ve got until next week to get clean. And I have to be clean. You know they’ll run a check after last time.”
Under the new order, job contracts were guaranteed for five years. Each person on a contract was guaranteed renewal as long as they didn’t smoke, drink, curse, or chew their toenails. On and off, I was a chain-smoker, an alcoholic, foul mouthed, and a nail-biter. If I wasn’t supposed to do it, I did it.
The last time I was up for a contract, I was squeaky clean. I hadn’t had a drink in months, I hadn’t smoked in weeks, and I was married to a wonderful woman who made sure I stayed respectable. My contract sailed through without a hitch. Then, a week later, my wife decided she’d done her job and left me for a man whose only bad habit was complimenting her too frequently. Well, every habit I had came back in full force, plus I acquired a strange twitch from rubbing my eyebrows whenever I got nervous. My employer du jour called up the contract board and reprimanded them for their incompetence. My contract was reevaluated, and I was put on a probationary assignment. One of the clauses under the revised contract introduced me to Martin.
Martin looked at me with pity. I was pretty pitiful. He seemed to be wrestling with something. Finally, he spoke. “There is a woman who might be able to help you.”
“Who is she? Where is she? What does she do?” Did I sound desperate or what?
Martin pulled a card from his desk. “I can’t promise anything. I’ve heard only rumors about her.” His entire body seemed to turn gray.
I blinked. The card read, ZOE ADAMS, CUSTOM TAILOR. I rubbed my chin. “A tailor, Martin? What’s a new suit of clothes going to do but cost me more money that I soon won’t have?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Supposedly, she has access to an alien cloth. This special fabric has been said to cure people. How? I have no idea. But you are desperate. And I can no longer help you.”
What was I to do? I looked into his increasingly gray face, took the card, and left.
On the way down in the elevator, I resolved not to see this tailor. I would quit smoking. I had done it before. And the drinking? I would confine that to my room, alone, between seven and nine p.m. I would wear gloves and socks all the time to keep my nails intact. And to avoid swearing, I just wouldn’t speak. It could work and I would do it.
It might have. But I lit up before I got to the teleshuttle. So instead of going home, I plugged in Zoe’s address.
Her storefront looked like that of any normal downtown small business. The old bricks that made up its walls were chipping. Scratched circles were evident on the windowsills where bars used to protect the store against thieves. This building had been around since before the Great Reform. In the large display window, a suit of clothing hung on a mobile manikin. It looked like a normal, overpriced little shop that catered to the upper class. I checked my cashchip and went in. Hopefully, I still had enough to clear whatever this magical cure would cost me.
There appeared to be no one in the store. “Hello!” I called. Then, somewhat rudely, “Does anyone work here?” (I guess rudeness is a bad habit of mine, too.)
A beautiful woman in a one-piece shimmer suit slid out from between the rows of clothing. “I work here,” she said quietly.
“I’m looking for Zoe Adams.” I waved the card in her face. “My psychologist sent me here.”
Her entire body melted into a submissive pose. Her head dropped, her eyes lidded, her shoulders slumped. I expected anything but the words that came out of her mouth. “You have found her.”
My jaw dropped. I could have sworn I felt it hit the floor. She had the cure Martin sent me for? “Um, yes.” I wasn’t sure how to reply to her soft words. “I need help. He said you might be able to . . .”
“You have habits? Bad habits?”
“Yes. You might say that.”
“You have need of the cloth.” It was a statement. A blunt, self-assured statement.
“I guess so. What can this suit do that the years of counseling couldn’t?”
She shook her head. “What I do with the cloth will have no effect. It is the cloth itself. The Arzolian traders who gave it to me couldn’t wait to get rid of it. They called it ‘The Eyes of God.’”
Now, I’m no man of faith. But the way she said that gave me the chills. I ignored the sensation. “Oh, those traders. They’ll say anything to make a quick sale.”
She shook her head again. It seemed the sole motion her body knew. “I don’t think you heard me, sir . . .”
“Jacob,” I interrupted.
I gave up on trying to mellow her out.
“They gave it to me. All of it. For absolutely nothing. They said their wise men told them to.”
“And so now you make a profit.”
The head again. “No, sir. I charge only enough to live on.”
I didn’t believe her. “Whatever. How do we work on my habits?”
“You tell me what they are, I sew the cloth. It does the rest.”
I shrugged. It seemed weird. But my options were limited. “You name it and it’s probably been my bad habit at some point.”
She pulled out a bolt of cloth and looked at it like she was reading a crystal ball.
“You are one of the habit makers.”
It was my turn to shake my head. “I’m afraid I don’t understand you.”
“Most people have habits from the way they were raised, from an inborn tendency to be nervous or angry, or to avoid being frightened. You are a habit maker. You choose and develop habits just because.”
How did she know that? I began to wonder about the wisdom of wearing cloth that could show a man’s soul. But I wasn’t going to let her in on my fear. “So what do we do about it?”
She bowed her head in my direction as if I were nobility. “I sew the suit, you wear it.”
“Don’t you need to take measurements or anything?”
Once again, her head moved side to side. “The cloth will know.” And with that, she backed between the rows of neatly hung suits. “Return this time tomorrow.”
That night I tried quitting. I tried quitting one habit at a time. I tried quitting all of them cold turkey. But then I started sucking my thumb. I finally gave up, had a drink, and went to bed. If the suit worked, it would be worth it.
The next day, I returned to the store, as instructed. Fifteen minutes late, but I was there. Zoe said nothing about my tardiness. She merely handed me the bill with one hand and the suit with the other. I glanced at the bottom line. To my surprise, it was nothing more than what I’d pay for a regular suit. I stuffed the bill into my pocket and handed her my cashchip.
“Where can I try this thing on?”
“It will fit.”
“I know, but still . . .”
She shook her head slowly, then pointed to a hanging curtain near the back. “Through there.”
I made my way to the back of the store. It looked like a normal suit. I wasn’t certain what I expected. I shrugged out of my old clothes and put it on.
It fit. In fact, it fit better than anything I had ever worn. I sized up myself in the mirror. It almost made me feel like celebrating. As soon as I got home, I’d—
In mid-thought, my opinion of the suit changed. As I started thinking about a drink, the suit got as crumpled as if I had slept in the street. My clear eyes bleared and I began to stagger. “What the . . .!” I shouted. Or tried to. My words came out slurred. So much for a drink.
As soon as I gave up the idea of a drink, I looked my normal self again. Except my hands were shaking. This suit. This lousy suit.
Now I understood the cure. Never again would my habits be private little sins. If it was on my mind, it would show on the suit.
I couldn’t handle that. I immediately tried to take the thing off. But it was stuck. The suit appeared bonded to my skin.
“Zoe!” A rude, crass monster looked at me in the mirror. I didn’t care. “How do I get this filthy thing off?”
Calmly, as if she’d done this a thousand times before, she came and opened the curtain. If my appearance frightened her, she gave no sign.
“You cannot, Jacob, sir. It is your new habit. Habit for life. How else could it cure you?”
In fury, I rushed out of there and headed to Martin’s. How could anyone do this to me? I must have been a sight on the teleshuttle, but no one said anything.
I sped past Martin’s secretary. She looked up, an expression of horror crossed her face, then vanished. But she did not stop me.
When I saw Martin, I stopped. In the quiet of his empty office, he was pulling at a hangnail. However, the innocent habit changed his entire appearance. Blood ran from every pore to mimic the damage he inflicted on his finger. It was ghastly.
Then he saw me. Martin took a deep breath, and his calm, tailored appearance returned.
“Yes, Jacob, I wear the suit.”
Suddenly, I understood his reluctance to give me the card. I understood why he turned gray when he didn’t quite tell me the truth. He wore it. I sought reassurance from one who’d lived with this.
“And it will cure me?”
He laughed. It was a wry, sorrowing laugh. “More than you know, Jacob.” He paused, evidently choosing the right words. “With your profile, you might find it easier than I do.”
“Easier?” I could feel the rude monster surfacing.
“Yes. You’ve always made your habits. Just consider righteous behavior to be habit-forming and you’ve got it made.”
As things turned out, I got the new contract. No clauses. No hitches. And I have to admit, there’s a certain satisfaction in my new goodness. You could even say, I’m proud . . .
Uh-oh. I appear to be a peacock.
Here we go again.