Jamil Klinger sat at the bottom of the stairs listening to his parents’ conversation muffled by the closed kitchen door.
“He’s eighteen! They can’t send my boy to fight a war! He’s just a kid!” His mother wailed.
“I know, honey. He’s only just graduated high school,” said his father.
Jamil unfolded the crumpled draft notice an re-read it for the umpteenth time.
“You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, and to report at…”
There followed an address stamped on the form, and a time and date, two weeks from now.
Jamil’s hands shook as he re-folded the paper and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. Memories of Uncle Jake’s funeral filled his mind: the sombre music, relatives comforting each other in hushed tones, pressing his pudgy three-year-old’s hands against the cold, smooth, varnished wood of the coffin and asking,
“Uncle Jake? Please come out and play with me now?”
Uncle Jake, his father’s kid brother, had been eighteen too when he died. He’d never made it to Korea: an accident—a mix-up with the live and blank rounds during basic training—had cut short his life.
“We could send him to my nephew, Max. He can help,” Jamil’s father was saying.
“Max? You mean the one who married that Korean woman? Amos, no-one in the family has spoken to him in years,” his mother said.
“I never did feel right about that,” said his father, “perhaps it’s time to put things right.”
“Didn’t he move away after… you know? And what could he do to help anyway?”
“He lives in Missouri now. And he’s got some family heirlooms that may just be Jamil’s ticket to a 4F.”
What could Max have that might help? Jamil wondered. He barely knew his cousin Max. He’d been drafted around the same time as Jamil’s Uncle Jake, when Jamil was very young. And when he’d returned to Toledo with a Korean wife, he hadn’t been welcome much at family gatherings, and had been the subject of vicious gossip. Jamil was ashamed to recall that the few times Max and his wife, Soon…something?—He couldn’t recall her full name—had visited his home, he had slipped out to the garden or upstairs to his bedroom, where he’d waited until the stranger he’d learned to fear and hate via snatches of overheard conversation (“A traitor…”; “….No son of mine…”; “…What will the children look like…?”; “…and he dares to call himself Lebanese!”) had left.
The kitchen door opened and Jamil’s father emerged. He squeezed Jamil’s shoulder and said,
“Don’t worry, son. We’ll get this sorted out,” then he picked up the telephone receiver and dialled.
“Hello? Operator? I need to place a call to River Bend, Missouri.”
Two days later, weary from travel as dusk settled on the village of River Bend, Jamil bounced nervously on the balls of his feet while he worked up the nerve to ring the bell at his cousin’s front door. Before he could muster his courage, the door swung open and a short man, with a dark complexion and jet black hair, a five o’clock shadow and wide grin on his face, and a toddler clinging to his trouser leg, welcomed him.
“Hi, Jamil! Come in. Here, let me take your bag. Would you like some coffee?”
Jamil said a quiet “hello” and “yes please” to the offer of coffee; it was hard to get a word in edgeways. He followed Max into the house.
“How was the flight? You’re not too tired? How are your parents?” Max asked as he showed Jamil into the living room.
“It was fine—they’re fine, thank you.” Jamil perched on the sofa.
“Soon-Lee’s not here right now. She works as a cleaner in the evenings,” Max explained, “This is our son, Cy Young. Cy Young, go and say hello to your Uncle Jamil,” he coaxed the child. Cy Young shook his head and darted behind an armchair. “You’ll have to excuse him. It takes him a while to warm up to new people.” Max poured coffee from a cafetière and handed Jamil a cup.
“I won’t take it personally,” said Jamil.
Max took a seat opposite Jamil and sipped his coffee. “So, you want to see the Klinger Collection?”
“Um, Dad said you had something that might help with the draft board?”
Jamil’s father had been vague on the details of how his cousin could help, exactly, and had packed him off to Missouri with the assurance that if anyone could help, Max could.
“He didn’t tell you about our family tradition, did he?” The broad grin had returned to Max’s face and his eyes twinkled.
“What tradition?” Asked Jamil, warily. Tired from his journey, and still unsure as to why he was here at all, Jamil hoped Max would be straight with him as to what this was all about so that he could collect whatever it was he’d come for, go home, and spend what little time he had between now and his draft interview brooding over his fate in peace.
“The Klinger clan has a unique solution when it comes to avoiding military service.”
“Insanity!” Said Max with a flourish of his hand.
Cy Young crept cautiously out from behind the armchair and, giggling, echoed his father:
Max lifted the child onto his lap. “In-san-i-ty,” he corrected. “Say it with me: in-san-i-ty.”
“In-san-sy?” Cy Young tried.
“That’s close enough!” Max clapped his hands, delighted.
“I… uh…” Jamil faltered. This really had been a wasted trip.
Max clocked Jamil’s discomfort. “Oh, it’s a fool-proof technique. Guaranteed to work.”
“Didn’t you serve in Korea?” Asked Jamil.
“Yeah… Sometimes it fails,” Max admitted. “But I was this close to getting my section 8 discharge.”
“Okay…” Jamil said. He’d come this far. He may as well find out what this was all about now he was here.
“The genius of it is that we don’t just tell them we’re insane, we show them too!” Said Max.
“You convince them you’re a transvestite.”
“A what?” Jamil wondered when the last bus out of River Bend departed.
“It’s not enough to just put on a dress and heels. No!” Max exclaimed, clearly in his element. “You have to convince them that in here—” He tapped his chest “—in your heart—you’re a woman.”
“But I’m not—”
Max cut his cousin off. “It doesn’t matter if you are or not. What matters is that you give a convincing performance. That means you’ve gotta dress the part, act the part, know the part. A comprehensive knowledge of ladies’ fashion is essential.”
“I think I should…” Jamil tried to rise from his seat, desperately racking his brain for an excuse to leave that wouldn’t offend his cousin. This was bringing back unpleasant memories of the time he and his childhood friend Fatima had played dress-up and Fatima’s dad had caught them. The next day on the school playground, Fatima had told Jamil she wasn’t allowed to play with him anymore.
“I’m being serious. It worked for our Uncle Gus!” Said Max.
“Oh?” Jamil sat back down again, intrigued, despite his reservations.
“Sure. He avoided World War II by convincing the draft office he was a young lady named “Gussie” and his call-up had all been a terrible mistake.”
“That might have worked once, but—”
“And Uncle Zak? Have you heard of him?”
Jamil shook his head.
“He got out of World War I by wearing a wedding dress. It used to be centrepiece of the Klinger Collection, you know. But I gave it to a friend who needed it more.” Max smiled wistfully at the memory. “Will you at least let me show you?”
Jamil made a noncommittal hum in the back of his throat. He didn’t want to get sucked into this... what ever this was—the men at his dad’s bird bath company would have a field day if they heard about it; the only thing that stopped them calling him “sissy” to his face when he showed up to work on the weekends was the fact that he was the boss’ son—but he still hadn’t come up with an acceptable excuse to leave Max’s home and anyway, he was pretty sure the bus he’d arrived on was the last bus that would pass through the village that day.
“Wedding dress not your style huh?” Said Max, cheerily. “We can go for something more subtle. Uncle Bob managed to get kicked out the Navy with just a pair of stockings. Mind you, the less of a costume you wear, the more you have to act the part.”
“Alright, show me this ‘collection’,” Jamil said.
Max sprung up from his seat, bounded over and grabbed Jamil’s hand, pulling him up.
“You’re going love it!” He exclaimed.
Cy Young trailed them up the stairs to the bedroom, where Max opened the double doors on a built-in wardrobe to reveal a rail loaded with dresses, and shelves with neatly ordered pairs of shoes, handbags, scarves and other accessories. Jamil stared.
“Behold! The Klinger Collection!” Max declared. “Now, what time does your notice say you have to report?”
“Nothing floor-length…” Max muttered to himself, pushing several evening gowns aside. “Do you play any sport?”
“Uh, I played baseball in school?” Jamil shrugged.
“Great! You’ll have the legs for this, then.” Max pulled out a coral pink sleeveless dress with ruffles adorning the neckline and hem. Jamil cringed. “Too bright? How about something floral?” He returned the dress to the rail and rummaged again.
“Hi honey. We’re upstairs,” Max called in response to the sound of the front door opening a few hours later.
Soon-Lee hung up her coat and toed off her shoes.
“Did your cousin get here okay?” She called back.
“He did. Come on up and meet him.”
Soon-Lee smiled to herself as she climbed the stairs. She hoped the kid was taking it in his stride. She knew from experience that her husband could be rather intense when it came to his dress collection. It was… not an obsession, no. That wasn’t the right word. She didn’t know if there was even a word for it in English or Korean… Something he invested time, money and energy into because it was a source of pride, but it also helped ground him. She knew whenever Max was stressed he’d retreat to the bedroom for hours on end and when Soon-Lee came to check on him, she’d find him trimming a hat, running up a skirt on his treadle sewing machine, or just laying out his dresses on the bed in groups of the same colour, with an air of calm concentration and focus that helped lift her mood too. Soon-Lee had never asked to try on anything from Max’s collection, and he’d never offered. She didn’t mind. She understood these clothes served a special purpose, and she was grateful for Max’s expertise whenever it came to pick out something from her wardrobe to wear to a social engagement: Max always made sure Soon-Lee looked, and felt, like a million dollars whenever they went to a party.
Max emerged from the bedroom as Soon-Lee reached the top of the staircase. He greeted her with a kiss to her cheek.
“Are you ready to meet my cousin Jamil, or should that be… Jameela?” He asked.
“Yes,” Soon-Lee clasped her hands together and stood waiting expectantly.
“Come on out, dear,” Max called. “Heel-toe, remember.”
Jamil took one last look at himself in the mirror. The black velvet cocktail dress hugged his figure: the corset his cousin had zipped him into cinching in his waist and the padding on his hips gave him an hourglass figure. The heels he’d only just learned to walk in were the same off-white as the pearl necklace and earrings, which also matched the tiny pearls on the fascinator Max had pinned to his hair. Max had worked wonders with his face too: the pimples along his jaw were hidden under a layer of carefully-blended foundation, and Max had worked some contouring magic to give Jamil’s cheekbones definition where none had been before. Winged eyeliner and dark eyeshadow gave his already-intense dark eyes and thick lashes a smoky, sultry look. Somehow, Max had managed to make his nose look even larger. (“A Klinger,” he’d explained, “should be proud of his proboscis.” Jamil had disagreed, but, he reasoned, you can’t win them all.) In the right light and with the right attitude, Jamil thought he might well pass for Jameela, and not just as a draft dodge, but for real. The thought gave him a funny feeling in his chest. Perhaps… What was this? Did he, perhaps, like the idea? What did this mean? Perhaps, if he did manage to avoid military service, then…?
Jamil pushed the thought aside and snapped his mind back to the task at hand: walking though the bedroom door in heels without turning his ankle. If he couldn’t do this, then there wasn’t much point in worrying about all the rest. Jamil took a deep breath, held it, and gave himself one last look up-and-down in the mirror, then Jameela slowly let the breath out, turned, and sashayed out to the landing, one hand on her hip, walking heel-toe the way her cousin had taught her, and feeling as light as air.