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"A DARKLY COMIC TALE."
"THE STORY UNFOLDS AT COMIC WARP SPEED. . . . This is burlesque, as campy and crude as a night at a stag party.
But it is also a love story, scored for belly laughs."
--New York Daily News
"ZANY HUMOR . . . Shames mixes sun and fun, wise guys and dumb guys, smart gals and bad gals with such wit and style it makes you want to head straight to Key West and join the party."
--The Orlando Sentinel
"Why we gotta drive?" said Katy Sansone, who was twenty-nine years old and Big Al Marracotta's girlfriend.
She was bustling around the pink apartment that Big Al kept for her in Murray Hill. It was not a great apartment, but Katy, though she had her good points, was not that great a girlfriend. She complained a lot. She went right to the edge of seeming ungrateful. She had opinions and didn't seem to understand that if she refreshed her lipstick more, and answered back less, she might have had the one-bedroom with the courtyard view rather than the noisy, streetside studio with the munchkin-sized appliances. Now she was packing, roughly, showing a certain disrespect for the tiny bathing suits and thong panties and G-strings and underwire bras that Big Al had bought her for the trip.
"We have to drive," he said, "because the style in which I travel, airports have signs calling it an act of terrorism."
"Always with the guns," she pouted. "Even on vacation?"
"Several," said Big Al. "A small one for the glove compartment. A big one under the driver's seat. A fuckin' bazooka inna trunk." He smiled. "Oh, yeah—and don't forget the big knifeinna sock." He was almost cute when he smiled. He had a small gap between his two front teeth, and the waxy crinkles at the corners of his eyes suggested a boyish zest. When he smiled his forehead shifted and moved the short salt-and-pepper hair that other times looked painted on. Big Al was five foot two and weighed one hundred sixteen pounds. "Besides," he added, "I wanna bring the dog."
"The daw-awg!" moaned Katy.
Big Al raised a warning finger, but even before he did so, Katy understood that she should go no further. Certain things were sacred, and she could not complain about the dog. Its name was Ripper. It was a champion rottweiler and a total coward. It had coy brown eyebrows and a brown blaze on its square black head, and it dribbled constantly through the flubbery pink lips that imperfectly covered its mock-ferocious teeth. A stub of amputated tail stuck out above its brown-splashed butt, and its testicles, the right one always lower than the left, hung down and bounced as though they were on bungees. It was those showy and ridiculous nuts, she secretly believed, that made Al dote so on the dog.
She kept packing. High-heeled sandals. Open-toed pumps. Making chitchat, trying to sound neutral, she said, "So the dog's already in the car?"
Big Al nodded. "Guarding it." Again he smiled. Say this for him: he knew what gave him pleasure. He had a huge dog gnawing on a huge bone in the backseat of his huge gray Lincoln. He had a young girlfriend packing slinky things for a weeklong Florida vacation—a week of sun, sweat, sex, and lack of aggravation. For the moment he was a happy guy.
Katy snapped her suitcase closed and straightened out her back. She was five foot eleven, and Al had told her never to insult him by wearing flats. Standing there in heels and peg-leg pants, she looked a little like a missile taking off. Long lean shanks and narrow hips provided thrust that seemed to lift the dual-coned payload of chest, which tapered in turn to a pretty though small-featured face capped by a pouf of raven hair.
For a moment she just stood there by her suitcase, waiting to see if Al would pick it up. Then she picked it up herself and they headed for the door.
His face was on her bosom the whole elevator ride down to the garage. Vacation had begun.
Across the river in suburban Jersey, on the vast and cluttered selling floor of Kleiman Brothers Furniture on Route 22 in Springfield, a ceremony was in progress.
Moe Kleiman, the last survivor of the founding brothers, had taken off his shoes and was standing, somewhat shakily, on an ottoman. He stroked his pencil mustache, fiddled with the opal tie tack that, every day for many years, he'd painstakingly poked through the selfsame holes in the selfsame ties, and gestured for quiet. Benignly, he looked out across the group that he proudly referred to as the finest sales staff in the Tri-State area. For a moment he gazed beyond them to the store he loved: lamps with orange price tags hanging from their covered shades; ghostly conversation nooks in which a rocker seemed to be conferring with a La-Z-Boy; ranks of mattresses close-packed as cots in a battlefield hospital.
Then he said, "Friends, we are gathered today to announce the winner of the semi-annual bonus giveaway for top sales in dinettes."
He gestured for quiet as though there'd been applause. But the fact was that, for all of Moe Kleiman's attempts to bring some pomp to the moment, there was no suspense. Everybody knew who'd won. Who won was who almost always won. It was a regular routine already.
Nevertheless, Moe Kleiman soldiered on. "The prize this time around is the best ever. It better be. We got a fancy new travel agent and we're paying through the nose."
At this, people could not help flicking their eyes toward Alan Tuschman, the guy who always won. Twenty years before, he'd been a big-deal high school athlete—split end on the Cranford football team, power forward on a hoops squad that made it to the state semis—and, in a circumscribed, suburban way, he'd been winning ever since, sort of. Got a scholarship to Rutgers. Married a cheerleader with blond hair and amazing calves, cut and sculpted from years of leaping. The marriage didn't last; the scholarship evaporated when the coaches realized that Al Tuschman's talents wouldn't carry him beyond JV. Still, a few semesters of college and matrimony felt right while they endured, lived on in memory like bonus chapters appended to the high school yearbook.
Those temporary victories had helped to keep alive in Al the mysterious habit of winning, and he still got pumped and rallied at almost anything that could be called a game. Sales contests, for starters. Already this year he'd won the giant television set, for bedding; the trip by train to Montreal, for living rooms. His colleagues, of course, were sick of him winning, but they couldn't really find it in their hearts to resent him. He was a nice guy. Friendly. Fair. He didn't hog the floor, he didn't show off, and he didn't try too hard. People just liked to buy from him.
"The prize this time," Moe Kleiman went on, "is nothing short of Paradise.... Paradise—that's the name of the hotel. In Key West, Florida. Seven days, six nights. Airfare included. And the winner is—"
The old ham paused, of course. And in the pause, Alan Tuschman's fellow salesmen tried to figure out, for the thousandth time, the key to his success. Some people thought it was his height, pure and simple. At six-three and change, he was by far the tallest guy on the floor, and people felt good dealing with a tall guy. Others thought it was his looks. Not that he was model material. His cheeks were slightly pitted, his lips thick and loose; but his eyes were big and dark, the features widely spaced: it was a face that gave you room to breathe. Then there was the way he dressed—a strange amalgam of old-time collegiate jock and working-man suburban slick. Cotton cardigans over open-collared patterned shirts; pegged and shiny pants leading down to desert boots; a pinky ring that clattered up against a chunky school memento, class of '77. In its careless inconsistency, Al's style gave almost everyone something to hang on to.
"And the winner is," Moe Kleiman said again, "Alan Tuschman."
Amid thin and brief applause that was swallowed up by mattresses and chair backs, someone said, "Surprise!"
"Alan Tuschman," Moe went on, "who in the past six months, in dinettes alone, wrote a hundred twenty-eight thousand dollars' worth of business. Ladies and gentleman, that is selling! ... Al, have a well-earned rest in Paradise!"
The boss shook Al Tuschman's hand, discreetly used the clasp as an aid in stepping off the ottoman.
A couple of colleagues slapped Al's back, and then the group dispersed, spread out through the beds and the imaginary living rooms to the four corners of the premises. It was 9:55 and the store opened at ten. Every day. No matter what.
By a quarter of eleven, thinking of vacation, Al had sold a French provincial love seat and a wall unit made to look like rosewood. But then he grew troubled, and stepped around the low wall of frosted glass that separated the sales floor from the offices. He poked his head into Moe Kleiman's tidy cubicle. "Mr. Kleiman," he said, "I have a problem with this prize."
The boss lifted his head and raised an eyebrow. When he did that he looked a great deal like the old guy from Monopoly.
"If it's all the same to you," said Al, "I'm not gonna use the plane ticket."
"All of a sudden you don't fly?" Moe Kleiman said.
Al Tuschman looked a little bit sheepish. "Truth is, it's the dog."
"Remember last year, I won that package to New Orleans?"
"I remember, I remember."
"The dog was, like, traumatic. Put her in the carrier, she looked at me like I was sending her to the gas chamber. Then the tranquilizers made her sick. Woke up shaking. Laid down on my shoe so I wouldn't go anywhere. Two days I stayed in the hotel, looking out the window with this shell-shocked dog on my foot. I couldn't put her through that again. I'll drive. That okay with you?"
"Sure, Al. Sure. Only, the reservation starts tomorrow."
"You don't mind, I could leave today."
Moe Kleiman stood up, took a token glance out toward the selling floor. A Tuesday in the first half of November. Very quiet. He said, "No problem, Al. If it makes things easier for the dog."
"Thanks," said Tuschman. "Thanks for everything. You'll see, I'll come back tan and sell my ass off."
He turned to go. He was not yet forty, but these days, when he pivoted, he felt old tackles in his knees; the small bones in his ankles remembered rebounds when he didn't land quite right.
He was just rounding the wall of frosted glass when he heard Moe Kleiman chuckle. "The dog. Hey, Al, ya know something?"
The salesman took a step back toward his boss.
The boss lowered his voice. "The other guys, it drives them nuts, they constantly wonder why you're always top banana. But I know. I could give it to you in a word."
Al Tuschman did not ask what the word was. He didn't want to know. Like everybody else, he had his superstitious side. Something worked, you didn't jinx it.
Moe Kleiman told him anyway. "Relief."
"Relief. People see you, Al—big shoulders, chest hair up to the Adam's apple—they figure, Oy, I'm dealing with a tough guy. Their guard goes up. But it soon comes down, and then you've got 'em. Why does it come down? I'll tell you: because they're relieved to see you really are a softie."
Pleased with his analysis, Moe Kleiman smiled.
Al Tuschman tried to, but it didn't work. His mouth slid to one side of his face; he looked down at a swatch book, shuffled his feet. A softie. Softie as in pushover? As in coward? Was it really that obvious? Did everybody know? He briefly met his boss's gaze, made another bent attempt at smiling, and steered his aching legs toward the partition.
Moe Kleiman watched his best salesman edge around the frosted glass, and understood too late that he'd barged in on a secret, that he should have kept his mouth shut. A note of pleading in his voice, he said, "Al, hey, I meant it as a compliment."
Excerpted from Welcome to Paradise by Laurence Shames Copyright © 2000 by Laurence Shames. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 24, 2000
This book, which takes place in Key West, makes you forget for a while the numbing cold on the East Coast. Some of the lines were so funny I was laughing out loud. The book, like all his others, is both entertaining and funny. Who could ask for more?
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