Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Haberdasher

Part One The Haberdasher

On the edge of town, in an older section known as The Village, there were several shops that had lasted the test of time. Stores of a by gone era; a real Five and Dime with metal tiled ceiling, an old fashioned ice cream parlor next door to a picture frame shop and each had saved a portion of history, a longing to remain unsullied by the present. Mortimer Hershiser’s Haberdashery was one of the lesser known clothing stores in Houston. He had never once advertised in the Yellow Pages; perhaps because his shop had never had a telephone.

Mortimer’s shop was nearly invisible as it had no store front display windows, only a narrow door with his numerical address stenciled apologetically on the glass. The layers of paint and caulking that held the glass in place had become brittle and cracked over the years, as bark around a very old tree trunk. It would be safe to say that it looked more like the back door to one of the other businesses than a front door to his own. Mortimer, even his name seemed lost in the past. It was an accident, possibly a miracle that Frank Collier found himself standing in the small alcove directly in front of the Haberdashery; holding his broken umbrella in an attempt to stave off the wind and rain.

Frank Collier was starting his career as second assistant manager in charge of inventory with Wilson’s Big and Tall, a national chain store for men’s clothing. In actuality, Frank was a sales clerk who’s duties included restocking the shelves and closing up three nights a week. It wasn’t as if he was complaining; it was however, difficult to see much of a career ahead. One of the reasons that Frank had taken the job was because the company had a flexible transfer system whereby he could pack up and move to any number of other cities across the country and continue in the same capacity.

“Won’t you step inside, please Sir?” Frank looked behind him as the door was pulled into the darkness of the shop. Aside from being mildly startled, Frank managed to see the advantage of waiting out the gale inside the sanctuary of the shop rather than standing with the lower half of his trousers being pelted with rain.

“Thank you, the rain seems to be getting much worse.”, holding the remains of what used to be his umbrella at arms length.

“If its getting worse it’s a sure sign it’s almost over.” Mortimer replied, almost as if it were a tune. “Let me take that”, relieving Frank of the twisted shaft that was dripping on the floor, “It would seem that it has seen better days.” Frank released his grip and watched as it was tossed into a trash barrel at the edge of a counter where a huge bronze colored cash register presented itself for view.

“I know that line, from My Fair Lady, am I right?” Mortimer was a good six or seven inches shorter than Frank as he smiled up and nodded affirmatively. “I thought so.” Frank was about to continue his thoughts regarding the weather; or rather, the musical’s line when he realized that he was in some kind of clothing store. It was not like any he had ever been in; all the same, it had similarities to make him feel that he was on common ground with the stranger.

“Mortimer Hershiser,” reaching out his hand, “owner and operator of the Haberdashery.” Frank extended his hand reflexively while studying the diminutive features of the man before him. Mortimer stood about five foot seven inches tall and might weigh all of a hundred and thirty pounds soaking wet. His bony hand grasped coldly yet quite forcefully around Frank’s, causing him; no, forcing him to share a short exchange. The idea that came across Frank’s mind was somewhat morbid while at the same time funny; “If this man were taller, quite a bit taller as a grin crept onto his own face, he could pass as twin for that fellow Caradine, the one who used to play the mortician in all of those old Westerns.” Mortimer wore a dark wool suit, not cut the way modern clothiers design them, instead its proportions tended to run long, as if made for the early 1900’s.

“Frank, Frank Collier.”, returning the singularly abrupt motion, a placement of the hands too rigid to be considered a warm greeting.

“I have no appointment for anyone by that name.”, never letting go as his scrawny fingers touched the cuff of Frank’s shirt. “Who sent you?”

“Nobody sent me. I was standing there to get out of the rain is all.”, his voice automatically became defensive. It made no sense; why would a shop keeper coldly antagonize a prospective customer? It violated everything he had been taught. Had he accidentally stumbled into some kind of illegal operation? Frank noticed that the man was examining his clothing, inspecting each fold of cloth. “Hey, what give’s old man?” Frank wished he had kept his mouth closed as the words vaulted out and attacked the stranger’s ears.

“Excuse me, sonny. I must have mistaken you for someone with manners”, withdrawing the offered hand. Mortimer glared coldly back.

“I’m sorry, Mr.”, stumbling for his name, “Mr.?”

“Hershiser, Mortimer Hershiser. I own this store.” Frank’s demeanor was that of a schoolboy who had been sent to the principle’s office. “Maybe it’s a good thing you happened in today; could be just what you needed.” Mortimer stepped back a full step and continued to examine the packaged man before him. “I might be able to help you.”

Mortimer led Frank to where he was standing on an oval piece of worn out linoleum tile. The rest of the floor was covered with some kind of industrial carpet that was so dark as to defy dirt. Originally it must have been a deep maroon with some darker pattern of black diamonds. There against the wall was a familiar full length tri-fold mirror. Above his head a pair of spot lights focused on the oval upon which he stood. Off to his side, where Mortimer was continuing his examination, stood a chest of sorts. On top of the chest was an old fashioned pin cushion shaped like an apple. There was an assortment of cloth chalk in various colors in a small tray that also was full of straight pins and a couple of cloth tape measures.

“Stand up straight for me.” A simple instruction and yet Frank had a terrible slouch of a posture, something that reflected his self esteem or lack of discipline. “Come on now, shoulders back, square them, that’s a little better.” Mortimer shook his head slightly as he wondered what had happened to the world that would allow a young man to stand in such a manner; had he never been taught deportment? It would be difficult to fit him for a success unless Frank learned to wear it properly.

“I didn’t come here to buy a suit. I was just getting in out of the rain.
Don’t misunderstand; I appreciate your letting me stand inside until it quits.”
Awkward as he sounded, Frank was saying thank you.

“Be quiet and turn to the side.”, measuring the outer seam line down to Frank’s shoe tops. “You call these shoes?”, his Yiddish accent creeping in, “Oiy!”

“What’s wrong with my shoes? They’re the latest style and I paid right at a hundred for them.” Frank lifted his trousers slightly and looked down to make sure he was talking about the same feet.

“Head straight, back straight if you don’t mind?” It was a mild chastisement for having bent down. “How am I going to get you headed for success if you keep twitching?”

“Look, I know you mean well; but, I haven’t any money to buy a suit from you. Besides, I work at a clothing store; if I wanted to buy a suit, that’s where I would go.” Frank had the good sense to stand still while he went on to explain about his employee discount and how it might appear disloyal if he showed up for work in clothing purchased elsewhere. Mortimer continued to measure and take notes.

“The suits I make are customized and complete. The one I make for you today costs you nothing. Does that “suit” you?” Mortimer could have smiled at having made a clothing pun; but he didn’t. I never charge for the first suit and I have been in this business long enough to know what I’m doing.”

“Let me get this right; you’re making me a suit right now and it won’t cost me a thing?” There was a touch of larceny in his words, something for nothing, naw; even that was too much to swallow. “What’s the hitch?”

“I assure you, there is no hitch, as you say. This suit is free. I will have it for you, what’s today? Tuesday, it will be ready Thursday. You come by here Thursday around lunch time and I will complete the fitting.”

“I don’t have any say so, color or style? You’ve got to be insane to think I would. . .”, Mortimer cut him off before he could continue.

“As I said, if it doesn’t suit you then leave it and walk away. Either way you will owe me nothing.”

“I suppose, since you put it that way, I would be a fool to pass up a deal like this.” He lifted his head slightly and tilted his chin as he looked into the mirrors.

“That, sir, you already are. It is my intent to improve on that.”

Part Two It Suits You

Thursday afternoon came around quickly enough. The cold front that brought rain on Tuesday had cleared out the skies. It was a rare day indeed when the air above Houston was crystal clear, deep blue and cloudless with no trace of the smog. There were only a few days a year when the afternoon temperature peaked in the mid fifties, this was an infrequent treat. Frank often would kid folks visiting from out of town by telling them, “Winter was the first Monday in January, but only if the sun didn’t come out.”

Oh, Houston had its share of cold weather; in fact just last year he remembered that it got to the freeze mark or below, eleven times to set a record. His uncle from New York would chide him about living in the tropics. He’d start going on about having to walk his dogs through Central Park in blowing snow with gale force winds; kind of like his father having to walk six miles to school in a blizzard when he was a kid and there weren’t any side walks.

It was two in the afternoon as Frank went to the back of the store, picked his time card from the slot and shoved it into the time clock for his break. Kathunka! His time was his own and he needed to drive from Greenspoint to the Village, try on and have his suit fitted and then get back; all within a one hour time frame. He wondered what his boss would think, having gotten a new suit at some place other than Wilson’s Big & Tall; no matter, he would cross that bridge when he came to it.

Traffic into town was light and he was able to reach the Village in less than half an hour. It took him a few minutes to find a place to park that was close to the Haberdashery. He was about to go around the block a second time when he noticed a car’s tail lights flash, then the back up lights came on from a car only a half block up.

A large black Cadillac maneuvered its way from the curb and into traffic. Frank took advantage of the opportunity and slid right in; noting that there was still half an hour left on the meter. “Must be my lucky day.”, talking to himself as he let natural gravity slam the door shut. The Haberdashery looked even less like a real store in the sun than it had the other day in the rain. Frank paused briefly, a smirk half crossed his right cheek as if to exclaim his disbelief. He peered into the dark window that pretended to be a store front. The front door opened and Mortimer Hershiser presented himself at the entrance.

“Your suit is ready, please come in for the final fitting.” There was a chill in the air, more so than had been brought by the Canadian front. Frank had begun to lift his arm prior to what he assumed would be perfunctory hand shake except that Mortimer was already stepping back into the shadows of his shop.

“Now, to make sure one last time; the suit is mine at no charge? Frank leaned a bit, hesitating prior to passing the entry way.

“A deal’s a deal. You don’t like the suit, you leave no charge. You like the suit you leave no charge.” Mortimer pointed to the curtain that separated the dressing area from the fitting area. “You going to stand there all day or what?”, impatiently prodding the young man to get on with life.

“Just making sure, that’s all. It still sounds too good to be true.” Frank pushed the curtain back and glimpsed the Navy Blue suit that was hanging on the hook. Having a little knowledge about clothing in his limited time with Wilson’s Big & Tall, he could tell that the workmanship was as good; no, better than anything he’d ever seen. The material was a light weight wool blend that spoke of elegance. He had been to one of the better men’s stores while on a training session and seen suits made for upper echelon corporate executives. This was the kind of suit they would have purchased. He calculated how much a suit, such as he was slipping his leg into at the moment, might cost; six or seven hundred dollars maybe a thousand or more? He was glad that he had put on a new pair of thin dress socks as his foot made it through and out the open cuff. He was about to slip his shoes back on when he heard Mortimer clearing his throat.

“Uh ah, leave the shoes, leave the shoes please.”, as if there had been no curtain at all between them. The cuffs did appear to be cut to the proper length as he also noticed that the waist band fit perfectly. There were no belt loops, only a set of buttons on the inner band. Sure enough, on the hanger was a set of suspenders. These were a soft Italian leather similar to the ones that had come with a tuxedo he had rented for a friend’s wedding. It took him a few moments to figure out how to attach them, not being accustomed to them as a daily function; all the same, they did make the line of the trousers appear much more streamline. The jacket was a work of art; the silk lining was a pale Robin’s egg blue with fluted piping at the inner pocket’s lips. The letters M and H appeared as a mosaic pattern, a part of the fabric; similar to a watermark on bond paper, not especially loud and yet noticeable even in the dimly lighted confines of the changing room. Frank carefully pushed his arm in, first his left arm and then his right.

“Feels nice, doesn’t it?” Mortimer confidently remarked. “Okay, you’ve had enough time in there. Have I got all day?” The little man’s timer was on the move. “Put these shoes on and let me have a look at you.” As if by some magic trick Frank’s posture was no longer slouched; instead he was standing, as if born into royalty and making ready for that evening’s courtly business. Frank was not aware that he would have a new pair of shoes to go along with the new suit. Again, shoes such as he was putting his feet into where not to be found at the local shopping mall. These had to be the most comfortable pair of dress shoes he had ever the pleasure to enjoy. As he looked inside the soft leather he noticed the familiar M and H pattern on the soft leather heal pad.

“Are these hand made too?” Frank quietly blurted out.

“You think these came from Tom McCann’s? Oiy!” Mortimer laughed and sighed while shaking his head in disbelief on such a stupid remark. “Stand up straight for me, let the suit wear you properly.” The words sounded strange, “…let the suit wear you?”

“Mr. Hershiser, I know you went to a lot of work, too much.” Franks finger tips glided down the lapels admiring the perfection. “Are you sure you want to…” He was cut off in mid sentence.

“A deal’s a deal! Turn to the left, now right. Very nice, yes it suits you very well.” Mortimer grasped his own chin while letting his brow arch slightly, approvingly. “It suits you. Now go and knock ‘em dead.” Frank was about to reach inside the curtain of the dressing area for his clothing when he felt a bony hand restrain his own. “Leave them. You’ll never need them again.”

“I still need my wallet; you know, driver’s license and . . .”

“You afraid I’m going to take your seventeen dollars and pretend to be you when I go to the movies?” Mortimer picked up the pair of trousers that had been hastily draped over the chair in the changing room. He then reached into the pocket and pulled out Frank’s wallet, “This, no, this will never do.”, he placed the wallet in Frank’s hand. “Hold this for a moment and promise that you will not attempt to place it inside this.”, gently tugging the edge of the exquisitely tailored jacket. Mortimer waited for the proper response.

“Oh, ah, no sir.” Frank looked at the billfold and thought what could be wrong with it. Mortimer slid open a drawer and sifted until he found exactly what he wanted.

“Here, this is what you will use from now on..” He handed him a long thin piece of fine grained leather about the size of a check book cover. “This is what a gentlemen wears; something that won’t ruin the lines of such a fine garment.” Frank emptied the seventeen dollars from his wallet, his driver’s license, insurance card and his two credit cards.

“Hey, how’d you know I only had seventeen dollars?” Frank counted the money twice to be sure, looking up to see the reaction from Mr. Hershiser.

“Is that important? I should think you would be more interested in why the suit fits you so well.” Mortimer never did answer the question directly. “No slouching, stand up straight, that’s better. Now square those shoulders and remember how this feels. It’s a lot like learning how to swing a golf club properly. Once the basics are learned the rest follows naturally.”

“Yes Sir.” Frank’s jaw hung a little lower, not sure how to proceed.

“Ah, right on time.” Mortimer looked out the window as a limousine stopped in front of the Haberdashery. “Remember, let the suit wear you properly and it will take you anywhere.” The front door to the shop opened and a well dressed middle aged man wearing a chauffeur’s cap entered.

“I’m to pick up a gentlemen; a Mister Franklin Collier.”, taking off his cap and looking at the two men.

“I’m Frank Collier.”, looking at the chauffeur, at Mortimer and back again.

“Then you’ll be coming with me. The mayor is expecting you for lunch in half an hour.”, holding the door to the shop open as a gesture towards the awaiting limousine.

“I have you down for your next fitting Tuesday, a week from now, Mister Collier. That is correct, is it not?” Mortimer’s steely eyes reached out and grabbed Frank in such a way as to halt his bewildered mind. It was as if Mortimer was reassuring Frank that all was as it was supposed to be and to go with the flow; his eyebrows flickered one time.

“Oh, ah, that’s fine, next Tuesday it is.”


Part Three A Little Taste

“Franklin, Thank you for coming on such short notice.” The mayor rose from his chair at the Houstonian Club, all six feet three inches, and held out his hand. “Franklin sounds so formal; what do your friends call you?”

“Frank is fine, please, call me Frank, Sir.” He leaned over the table and took the mayor’s hand. The short drive had given him at least a few moments to contemplate the unanticipated meeting. He had not forgotten that he was due back from his break and working at Wilson’s Big & Tall. There had been a phone inside the limousine which he had used to explain an “unexpected emergency”, leaving it at that for the moment. His boss would never have believed the truth. Mayor Crawford had a firm grip, developed from years of political events and vote gathering. Frank wondered how long such a handshake was intended to last and waited for what seemed an interminable amount of time to be released.

“Frank it is then. I want you to meet some of my advisors, Ms’ Appleton is my personal secretary, Ms’ Higgins my Police Department Liaison, Ed Hoak my Fire Department Liaison and Bill Rumsey my Transportation Liaison. I’ve called them all here to meet the newest member of our team.” Frank took a moment to acknowledge each as the mutual admiration society took turns around the table. It had not occurred to Frank that he was the new member, waiting to find out who the new member was.

“Pleased to meet all of you.” Frank waited until the mayor took his seat, the others followed in order. He could not but admire the strong features and the stunning red hair that brought his gaze back for a second look at Ms’ Higgins. There was a confidence that came from her eyes as she looked back at him. It gave her power, something about the way she accepted his being taken by her as if it happened all the time without appearing to be snobbish. It were as if she had said thank you for noticing.

“I’ve been given your name as the next Youth Affairs Liaison, Frank. You come highly recommended, I might add.”, the mayor placed his napkin in his lap and glanced around the table to make sure that each of his team members gave Frank a proper smile of recognition. Each one in turn responded with a nod or a smile as the ritual of introduction continued. “You will find the offer not only challenging; but, quite gratifying.”, the mayor held his hand out as he rubbed his fingers together and grinned knowingly. “The rewards of public service, especially to those in just the right places, are very lucrative.”

Frank could not help notice that the fellow sitting directly to his right, Ed Hoak, had a suit with a hauntingly similar silk lining. Only a small portion of the jacket was exposed and yet, there, at the edge where the front panel came in contact with the inner lining; the mosaic pattern of M’s and H’s could clearly be seen. Frank wondered if they had all been to the Haberdashery or was it merely a coincidence. Frank did not believe in long odds or coincidence and his mind began to review pieces that were floating randomly in his head.

The waiter placed a plate of arranged leaves, some kind of fancy salad. There were ribbons of carrot placed on top of deep greenish purple spinach; maybe it was spinach, he wasn’t too sure. As soon as the others began to enjoy it he followed, not wishing to be the first. Between bites he looked around to take in the surroundings. The Houstonian had a reputation as one of the more exclusive clubs in town, having the honor of being President Bush’s favorite stopping off place while in town; Bush 41 that is; Bush 43 preferred the ranch just outside of Waco.

The dinning area looked much like any other private club, not that Frank had an extensive knowledge in that area. Each table had fine linen cloth, heavy weighted silver service, and there was no mistaking the Lennox pattern on the bottom of each plate. He’d been to a fancy dinner one time at the home of some well to do folks. It had been a pot luck dinner; Frank remembered flipping a dinner plate end over end on his finger tips to pass the time as he’d gotten bored waiting to be served. The Lennox emblem registered as it flashed before his eyes; the plate cost more than he made in a week. He casually refrained from any more twirling of the plate. He happened to look around and noticed the look of relief and gratitude on the hostess’ face, complimenting him on his regaining his senses. She never said a word about it; quite remarkable self control.

It didn’t take long to clean off the salad plate, not much to work with even if it was attractive to look at. The wait staff hovered all around making sure that the water glasses were topped off, bread crumbs were whisked off and empty plates removed quietly. The main entrĂ©e was brought out; a choice cut of steak that hardly needed a knife to cut into it. The flavors were an olfactory delight, causing his eyes to gently close and savor each consumed morsel. Fresh green beans that had been steamed only slightly, leaving them slightly crisp yet soft enough to distinguish them from raw. The flavor of each slender green bean, mixed with warm butter sauce that had been copiously added, was a perfect compliment to the steak. There were new potatoes with their thin red skins to round out the plate. Frank could not remember having treated his taste buds so well in one sitting. He tore a small piece of bread, dipped it in the natural juices left from the steak and drew it across a puddle of melted butter and popped it in his mouth to complete the gesture.

“I know it might take some getting used to Frank.” Mayor Crawford remarked with a tone of sarcasm as he looked across the table through his “no-line” bifocal glasses.

The mayor was cognizant of each facet of his outward appearance to include his eyewear. The little lines that separate the varied focal lenses in a standard pair of corrective lenses made him look several years older and so he had opted for the variable lenses to appear more progressive, as the manufacturer had promised in their literature. Mayor Crawford also wore a pair of “in the canal” state of the art digital hearing aids. They were almost invisible compared to the bulky units that he had avoided. Those young voters might make the difference in a close race; no need to alienate them by appearing to be an old goat, too old to relate to.

“I see what you mean.” Frank looked at his plate which now totally cleaned off. He had planned to grab a burger on the way back to Wilson’s; that was before … How long, he thought, before the limousine turned back into a pumpkin?

“I have some appointments.”, pushing himself away from the table Mayor Crawford touched his napkin to his chin and placed it on the table. “…y’all stay seated.”

Ms’ Appleton quietly stood and whispered to him and he nodded with his eyes as the words reached his ears. She might as well have been wearing curtain fabric as she blended into the background without effort.

“Frank, if you would find a way to be at my office, say around three fifteen or there about this afternoon, I would be privileged to explain your responsibilities.

“Three fifteen is fine with me, Sir.” It would be exceedingly wise to have a slim knowledge of his expected duties and his rate of pay, assuming there would be some form of remuneration other than the title.

“Only one Mulligan per hole, Sir.” There was a slight hesitation between the words “hole” and Sir, followed by a clearing of the throat and a muffled laugh. Bill Rumsey had played golf with Mayor Crawford enough to know how to bend the rules after a particularly bad hook was followed by an equally poor bunker exit. Bill stood even with the mayor and a good thirty pounds lighter. His thin features given to a lifetime of keeping in top form; he’d placed in the top five one year in the Iron Man competition. The two laughed; but only mildly as it was not prudent to remind the mayor of his inability to keep a proper score card, at least not with so many listening.

“Mind you; keep those traffic lights timed so I get to my meetings in a timely manner, ‘ ya follow?” The chastisement was equally mild, the smile on Mayor Crawford’s face would keep the best poker player guessing. Bill Rumsey nodded and looked to see how many had heard exactly what had been said.

“Enjoy your game. It’s a rare day this time of year.” Ms’ Higgins drew in a deep breath, wishing she were out in the open spaces with a chill breeze to dance with. The mayor was already out of ear shot, waving behind his back and on the way out the door.

“I wish my husband had taught me the game of golf. I’d enjoy something like that on a day like this.” She eyed the window, the grand view of the golf course, with a sigh of remorse for having to be inside.

“Make sure to be a few minutes early, just a thought.” Ed Hoak smiled and took a sip of coffee, the others parting and going off in different directions.

Part Four City Hall

Frank was sitting in the outer office at ten after three, looking at his watch and comparing it with the large grandfather’s clock directly across the room from him. Having never been in the Mayor’s office, or anteroom, it never would have occurred to him that it would be furnished after the manner of an old English pub or possibly the local Steak and Ale restaurant. About the only thing missing was the salad bar as he looked around. The greeting secretary’s desk was crafted to look like something out of a Dicken’s book. She dipped a quill pen into an antique ink well as she entered, calligraphy style, each character neatly and painstakingly into the daily calendar log sheet. Regardless of how inefficient the use of time, there could be nothing but admiration for the artistic touch that such an artist produced.

“The Mayor will see you now.”, pointing to a solid oak door.

“Thank you, and your lettering”, not sure how to give a proper compliment, “uh, very nice.” The young woman smiled and accepted the awkward flattery that she had become accustomed to. Frank noticed that the secretary had pushed one of the buttons that was built into the desk as he walked toward the door, whereupon the door automatically swung open. He supposed, correctly, that there would be other buttons to lock it shut by way of a strong magnet and to alert security in the event of trouble.

“Have a seat Frank.”, Mayor Crawford barely looked up as he motioned to a Victorian style arm chair with a floral print, a course fabric that was had a deep blue background with touches of green twisting vines adorned by maroon flowers that spoke of Autumn. There were two identical chairs next to each other, separated by a free standing floor lamp made of dark mahogany. About a third of the way from the floor was a small oval table built onto the candlestick base of the lamp, even with the arm rests of the chairs. Before sitting Frank acknowledge Ms’ Appleton, sitting in the chair with the lamp to her left, affording her a comfortable well lighted position where she could take shorthand.

Thank you, Sir.”, watching as Mayor Crawford finished going over a form that was then placed into a manila folder and handed to Ms’ Appleton.

“I think we can skip to the middle and get you started without any needless delay.”, looking at Ms’ Appleton and then at Frank. “I need more data, a flow of information back and forth, between your generation and city hall. The way I see it, there’s a whole generation of folks out there, your age give or take a couple of years, who think that they have no say in how things get done around here.”, the mayor tapped his index finger on the center of his desk for effect. “Your job will be to open up that line of communication, tap into that vast block of voters.” The two looked at each other, the mayor tilted his head down one time and back up as Frank nodded that he understood.

“There are no set hours, no time clocks to punch every day. I’ll start you out at four thousand a month, plus expenses.” Frank never was very quick with figures, all the same he knew that four thousand a month; well, Wilson’s Big & Tall would have to find a new Second Assistant Sales Manager. A boyish smile found its way onto Frank’s face. “The city provides you with a car from the pool; something sporty perhaps, all gas and maintenance.” Frank had always associated city rides in generic terms; white four door sedans with half moon wheel covers. Was it possible that the “something sporty” might include the letters “BMW”? “Ms’ Appleton has a list of your appointments along with a few simple guidelines to keep us out of trouble, and the rest is up to your imagination.”

“Here’s your day planner, the directory in the back has been updated to accommodate your itinerary.” Frank glanced at the neatly highlighted entries for lunches, dinner and other social meetings with various local leaders. He observed that he was to have several luncheons at the University of Houston, Rice and the Houston Community College staffers. While he was glancing at the schedule before him, Ms’ Appleton continued, “Your membership card to the Houstonian, the Rotary Club and the Lions Club.” These had been placed in the front portion of the day planner along with a Master Card with the city seal boldly taking center stage, an American Express card and a Shell Oil Company card. “Tuesday and Thursday evenings at North Harris Community College you are enrolled in Public Speaking 101. If anyone asks; you are working toward your Masters and leave it at that.” The mayor nodded and smiled while listening; the information all aimed at grooming a particular image of the mayor’s staff members.

“This shows that I’m to attend a basketball game this evening at the new Toyota Center; is that correct?” Frank was never much of a basketball fan, all the same it would give him an opportunity to visit the brand new state of the art facility.

“You will be the guest of “Mattress Mac” and sit in his luxury box. Mac has a lot of influence with the younger generation, sports and young people, you know.” It did make sense, in a general sort of way. It might even open the door to meet with some young female voters. “No need in reading all this to you at once. You go down to the motor pool and pick out something. You can go over this,” pointing to the list, “when you get home.” Frank thought large for a moment, “What, no mid town townhouse with a hot tub?”

Nothing would have surprised him with all that had fallen into his lap over the past couple of days. He had been living in a rented house on the near north side, sharing the rent and utilities with two roommates. Working forty hours a week with occasional overtime provided barely enough income to cover his regularly occurring debt. After adding up the rent, car payment, car insurance, one third of the electric, water and sewer along with a very modest food allowance; there wasn’t much left over. He thought it an extravagance to have cable television; non of the HBO or Cinemax packages, only basic cable. His roommates, Brandon and Chris, thought he had gone to work; much like any other day and here he was sitting in the mayor’s office. He could hardly wait to share his good fortune with them, not that they would believe any of it.

“Thank you, Sir. I’ll work hard.” Mayor Crawford reached over and patted Frank on the shoulder.

“I know you will Frank.” The mayor paused and then struck a pose, as if he had forgotten something essential. “What am I thinking?”, passing a sheet of paper, some kind of form letter to Ms’ Appleton. “Have him sign the highlighted areas.”

“Yes, Mr. Mayor.” Ms’ Appleton glanced at the form and placed it before Frank, pointing to the three lines that had been spotted with a florescent yellow marker.

“This puts you on the City’s payroll and outlines all of the deductions for medical coverage, legal and…”, his voice tapering off almost imperceptibly, “…clothing allotment.” Frank hardly noticed as he signed off on the three paragraphs, that he had promised a full third of his current salary, to include present and all future entitlements, to an agency in charge of taking care of such benefits; Deposited Entitlements Valued Initiative Load. “Its kind of an inside joke around here. You look down at your take home pay and ask, “Where in the Devil did all that money go?”

There was a muffled laugh from Ms’ Appleton. Frank wondered why she had looked up toward the ceiling; a missed prayer drifted in the air. She reflected on the comment; a quiet acceptance that indicated a fair amount of disappointment as her countenance lost a portion of the sparkle from the moment before.

The mayor broke in, “Don’t forget that you have another fitting at the Haberdashery on Tuesday. Part of that deduction covers the suits you will be required to wear.” Mayor Crawford cocked an eyebrow and Ms’ Appleton was reminded with the same force as would slam doors shut.

“That has been penciled in…”, flipping the page ahead, “…there.” Ms’ Appleton pointed. Her facial expression returned as it had been; her momentary remorse dissolved into a smile. “If I am not mistaken you will have a choice between a Jeep Cherokee or a Ford Focus.”, looking at the mayor apologetically for her miscue seconds before.

“Either one will be fine with me.” Thinking to himself that an SUV might be a little more macho.


Part Five The Cost of Doing Business

“Frank, it’s nearly time to lock up; will you get the front door?” Jake Farmers pushed a canvas walled trash container full of empty cardboard boxes ready to be tossed into the dumpster towards the main entrance to the store. Jake was completing his senior year, getting credit for working as one of the second assistant store managers at Wilson’s Big & Tall; part of the young business achievement program. “Frank…will you get the front door?”

“Sorry, Jake; I was thinking back about something from a long time ago and wasn’t paying attention.” It had been twenty years to the day when Frank had walked away from his “opportunity of a lifetime” at City Hall. He reached down for a key ring attached to his belt while walking from the cash register toward the front door.

“That’s okay, Boss; no big deal.” Jake paused for a moment before completing his thought, “Did you ever want to be more than just a store manager, something; I don’t know, something more important?” Jake felt a bit uneasy as the words left his lips; acknowledging how it must have sounded. He’d not intended for his question to come off as disrespectful; but felt sorry for the man he worked for, his never advancing very far in the business world.

“Tell you what, when you get through with putting that away; come back to my office. There’s something I want to show you, something I take out every year to remind myself of how lucky I am to be working as the store manager here at Wilson’s.” Frank smiled thoughtfully and took in a deep breath of air, a satisfying reflection of his life.

Frank’s office wasn’t much to look at, not much bigger than a modest walk in closet that had been expanded enough for a desk and computer. There were a few picture frames placed strategically on the edges of the deck next to the computer monitor; Frank and his wife Lulu, a family group shot of their children and grandchildren taken on Thanksgiving Day and a picture of the Houston Temple where he was an ordinance worker each Wednesday evening.

“What’d you want to show me, Boss?” Jake glanced around and didn’t notice anything in particular was different; his having used the computer in Frank’s office many times while performing his duties. Frank reached into his wallet and carefully lifted the leather section where he kept his driver’s license exposing the edge of a key. Pulling it carefully from its hiding place, Frank handed it to Jake.

“I want you to open that small closet and share a moment with me, might be important you hear what I have to say.” Frank wasn’t used to being mysterious; but his tone of voice set the mode for a serious exchange. The door to the closet, if it could truly be called a closet, being only six inches wide with only a file cabinet styled lock to keep it shut, was nearly invisible as it blended with the rest of the wall.

“Sure thing, Boss.” There was a slight hesitation as the key changed hands and entered the keyhole. Jake looked over his shoulder and found Frank smiling, almost laughing; but without a sound and much more serious.

“Now, take the garment bag from off the hook and open it, carefully, mind you.”

“Wow! This is some kind of piece of work!” Jake felt the material of the exquisite suit and observed the craftsmanship required. “…This yours?”

“Yes, Sir. The one and only time I wore it was twenty years ago to the day.” Frank stood silent while he put his thoughts together. “I wanted it so bad I could taste it.”

“Wanted what, Boss?” Jake didn’t have a clue because Frank had never mentioned anything to anyone about what had happened or what might have been.

“I could have had a closet full of suits just like that one; but the catch was I’d have to sell my soul to the Devil himself. I realized, just in time, that working here at Wilson’s was where I was supposed to be; not some fancy pants political “gofer” with an expense account and take home car.”

“What, you used to be in politics?”

“I guess you could say that; hum…for about half a day I was sitting on at the table with the big boys.” Frank explained all about the suit, the visit with the mayor; right up to the part where he was going to sign for a fancy fully equipped Jeep Grand Cherokee at the motor pool.

“So what happened to make you walk away from all that?”

“The cost of doing business was more than I was willing to pay; pure and simple, it was more than anyone should have to pay. I walked back up those steps, my feet felt like they had hundred pound weights dragging behind me with each step. I tore up my contract and tossed it in the trash, the mayor’s secretary sitting at her desk in disbelief.”

“That’s it; you walked away, that’s it?”

“Look at it this way; I found a wonderful lady who loves and puts up with me. I have three children who are all grown up and on their own, a couple of grand children and life if good; what else is there? I get to work at the temple every Wednesday and feel the Spirit of the Lord; compare that with selling your soul to the Devil and which would you chose?” Frank put the suit back into the garment bag, carefully zipping it shut and placed it back on the hook before locking the door.

“Thanks for showing me that, uh, suit, Boss.” Jake paused before leaving the office as he turned back, “…You think anyone would mind if I showed up at your church to find out what makes folks like you so happy just being plain and simple working folks?”

“Be there, Sunday, 8:30; I’ll save you a place.”