Tuxedo Bob is the story of a musically talented young man with a unique sense of humor, and an extraordinarily optimistic view of life. As he travels beyond the horizon of his hometown to seek employment as a songwriter, his instinctive ability to make decisions based on what is right instead of what is convenient astounds the most hardened skeptic. His unpretentious honesty bewilders the agents, bigots, producers, mobsters, and pessimists who come into his life; the kindness of his heart inspires his friends. While his demeanor makes him seem na�ve, his special way of dealing with the obstacles and situations he encounters on his twenty-three year journey from New York to Las Vegas and Hollywood will make you laugh, and it will warm your heart. You will never forget Tuxedo Bob.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.43(d)|
I am wearing my last clean tuxedo. My other five "After Six" ensembles are packed inside the road worn Samsonite suitcase that is also providing additional service as a chair. Sitting atop my dependable traveling companion I only need to perform an occasional adjustment to the placement of my feet to prevent myself from tipping over. The bouncing motions of the train might make my journey less comfortable than most traditional means of transportation - even the slightest bump gets emphatically announced within the walls of this baggage car - but I'm forever happy.
Part of my happiness comes from remembering, "Any situation in life is better when experienced in formal attire." My father (God rest his soul, and pass the potatoes) used to say that. He was a tuxedo dealer, and he used to say a lot of things. Many years ago, at the funeral of my piano teacher, he told me that if I remembered something about a person who had passed away, then that person would always be alive inside me. As I ride the rails in the direction of Schulberg, North Dakota, a number of hearts are beating among the musical notes in my mind.
Schulberg is the town where I was born, and where my twenty-three year career in the music business started. I know I have a modest bank account waiting there, but since I have no hard currency on my person - other than a quarter that I'll never spend - traveling in a boxcar is a necessity. Had it not been for a guitar player named Deke (God rest his soul, and may I have another napkin, please?) I wouldn't have known of this economical conveyance, and instead I'd be walking or hitchhiking my way across the northwestern states of America. Neither option is black-patent-leather-shoes-friendly.
While I bounce on my possessions a concerto for flute and violins begins to play in the part of my mind that composes music. The percussive quality of a properly tongued flute is a pleasant accompaniment to the rhythm of the rails. A soaring swell of strings adds lightness and breath to my cramped accommodations. For a moment a baggage car filled with crates and boxes and me becomes a symphony hall. It is in this moment that I notice the wooden coffin directly to my left, and my mental music yields to thoughts of my mother (God rest her soul, and can I get you another canap�?)
My mother was a mortician, and she taught me a lot about coffins. This one looks to be on the higher end of the pine family, and some of those can be quite plush on the inside. I don't know who's in there, but I'm certain he or she is much more comfortable than I presently am.
My mother's career choice was the reverse of her initial desire to be a doctor, but as my father used to say, "Someone has to take care of the dead." It was indeed her calling. I once remarked to her that she seemed to love her job so passionately that, had she actually become a doctor, she probably would have killed her patients for the sheer joy of preparing them for burial. Much to my surprise she found this observation profoundly unfunny, and out of respect I never repeated the remark. My father, however, used variations of the line on several occasions in mixed company. "Margaret's spending so much time with Mr. Norton, I'm beginning to wonder if he's really dead," was one of my favorites. Her usual response to his teasing was a curt but loving, "That'll be just about enough now, Orville!" Everyone knew when Margaret said, "just about enough," she meant, "far more than necessary."
During their first year of marriage, Margaret developed an allergy to precious metals. This made her sad because she could no longer wear her gold wedding band. She wrapped it in the piece of paper Orville had given her as a first anniversary present, and put it away with her keepsakes. After that, my father made sure his gifts were both useful and hypoallergenic. A cotton dress was presented the second year, followed by a leather coat, and then a dozen yellow roses. He broke away from standard tradition the fifth year; I was in my twenties before I learned that the correct order of anniversary gifts for the first five years of marriage was not: Paper, Cotton, Leather, Flowers, Funeral Home.
Orville spent seven months constructing a red and brown brick building adjacent to the house, and invited the whole town to witness the surprise presentation of his gift to Margaret. I was born in 1946 - between anniversaries nine and ten - so I missed the pageantry of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, but I know his gift of "Margaret Fledsper's Funeral Home" was appreciated.
Appreciated, but certainly not much of a surprise. My mother was the inquisitive type, and I'm sure she was aware of the abundance of sawing and hammering. I can't imagine her accepting, "Nothing, honey, go back to your knitting," as a sufficient answer to her inquiry, "What are you doing out there, Orville?"
Orville and Margaret's relationship began during the depression. He was an enthusiastic soda pop salesman with a tuxedo rental business on the side; she was a levelheaded college student. To hear them tell it, one glance was all it took. They courted, and after she graduated as a licensed mortician, they got married and bought a house in Schulberg. Margaret became the town's undertaker; Orville left the soft drink trade, and developed his side business into the most popular formal wear rental company in seventeen counties. During their sixth year of marriage, Orville suggested they kill two birds with one stone and perform their respective occupations together in the anniversary structure. "Fledsper's Funeral Home and Tuxedo Shop" flourished, and its one-stop shopping convenience was most appreciated by the customers requiring both services.
Margaret became an accomplished artist who used the dearly departed as her canvas. Many times I overheard the relatives of a deceased loved one say to her, "You made her look so loving," or "He never looked so good," or my personal favorite, "He seems perfectly happy now." I wasn't sure if love, good, or happy, entered into the experience of the departed, but I knew they were the best ways to live.
I used to love watching my mother tinker with a corpse. I could view the proceedings from various locations in her workroom, but my position of choice was to prop myself up among the waves of puffy-soft vanilla-cream satin that lined the shiny brass Blessed Victory - Model 1000. This was the cr�me-de-la-cr�me of coffins, and while most women would choose a lower priced model as the final destination for their husbands, my mother sold quite a few of these Cadillacs to Schulberg's indecisive widowers. "I'm sure your wife will thank you for all eternity interred in this one," was all she had to say and another Blessed Victory - Model 1000 would be hidden under the finely manicured lawn of Faraway Meadows Cemetery.
Mother's workroom was always marble-cool, and the Blessed Victory - Model 1000 was exceptionally comfortable. However, nothing ever created by mankind is more comfortable than a standard weight, black "After Six" tuxedo ensemble. Lying in that casket while wearing an "After Six" was heaven on earth to me. I would lie in the grandeur of that elegant coffin - eyes closed, hands folded over my heart - for hours on end, waiting for the opportunity to watch my mother perform her magic. She thought that my pretending to be dead was precocious.
"You'll never amount to anything lazing about like that," she would say.
I wasn't certain what she meant, but I did know it was an important thing for a parent to say to a child. However, as long as she didn't say that she'd "had just about enough," I wouldn't respond. Playing dead meant no talking.
I apologize to my mother's memory for the times my playful tamperings were in opposition to the respect she and others had for her handiwork. One time I added a curl to the hairdo of a deceased eighty-year-old woman to make her appear younger. I put an Oreo cookie into the palm of one of my father's friends because he used to see me eating them, and would always say, "I'll have to try one of those one of these days." Another time I wasn't caught making a change to my mother's finished product occurred in the winter of 1955 when the Fledsper home became a haven of refuge for eighty-nine of our neighbors.
Schulberg's winter season of 1955 was abnormally brutal. Warnings of an approaching major storm system had circulated among the town's residents. A weather forecast predicting fifteen feet of snow falling within a two day period had the town divided between the skeptics and the believers. Some, fearing the apocalypse, decided that the milder climate of the south would be more suitable, so they moved to South Dakota. Others, like Margaret and Orville, bought up every available non-perishable food item they could find within fifty miles.
"It's a lot of bull-hooey!" shouted Jake Simpler. An impromptu town meeting was being held in Carper's General Store where my parents and I had gone to purchase two more hearse-loads of canned goods. Jake was modestly intelligent, and the most vocal member of the contingent who didn't believe a storm carrying fifteen feet of snow was fast approaching. He wasn't aware that my mother considered the use of the term "bull-hooey" to be swearing.
"Watch your language, Mr. Simpler! There's a child in the room!" She added one of her searing parental glares to the admonishment.
"Oh, I didn't mean nothin' by it." His manner was like that of a slapped dog, and his apology was accepted.
"That's all right, Mr. Simpler," I said. "You were just stating your opinion that the probability of fifteen feet of snow falling on our town is highly unlikely."
He thanked me for my insight with an affirmative, "Yeah, that's what I meant."
It was the last time I ever saw him. The storm arrived, and twenty-seven feet of snow covered most of the town and all of Mr. Simpler. Since the Fledsper house was atop a forty-foot hill at the northern end of town, elevation and strong westerly winds prevented it from becoming part of the Schulberg snow bank. Looking south, across our new virgin-white lawn, the only visible reminder of the town was the steeple of the First Baptist Church; it's jagged gothic spire stuck out of the snow like the point of a dagger. Even as a nine-year-old, I could appreciate symbolism.
Our hearses of food were kept in the garage, and though they seemed odd storage containers, there was simply no room for all of that food in the house. There was no room because the house, and its adjacent anniversary structure, had become the shelters-of-choice for eighty-nine of my parent's closest friends. Given the fact that there were only three bathrooms on the property the word "closest" was defined most literally.
Petty bickering, jealousy, a shoving match over bathroom privileges, an affair, and various disagreements about the best way to disguise canned meat products all contributed to the disharmony that altered the lives of the remaining residents of our once peaceful community. There was no place on earth, with the possible exception of Hollywood, California, where the saying "familiarity breeds contempt" became more evident than at my house.
The Conners family, consisting of two adults and six children, staked a claim at the east end of the living room immediately upon their arrival. I believe they did this because of the location of the television set. Though gruff and disagreeable, Mr. Conners had a surprising fondness for the comedic talents of Milton Berle. "I'll be damned if I miss a show," was how he put it. I accepted his connection between eternal damnation and television, but I doubted the punishment fit the crime.
Mr. Conners had served his country as a master sergeant in W.W.II, and enjoyed his recognition in the community as a decorated war hero. Because he had medals for killing a large number of Japanese people, there was no resistance to his appropriation of the entertainment capital of the Fledsper home.
The attic became the home of the Eberly, Moore, Bartlett, Harrison, Anderson, and Hogan families. They had started a marathon Yahtzee tournament, so the top floor became a communal Siberian outpost into which no other resident of the house would dare venture. Their twenty-three children also made the upstairs bathroom a place to avoid.
By the grace and sense of humor of God, my hometown was now wholly contained within my house. It had become mini-Schulberg, and the community focused on one dream, one vision, one truth; snow eventually melts. Forty-five days is a long time to wait for the temperature to rise above thirty-two degrees, especially in the company of eighty-nine people trying to watch "The Honeymooners." I kept myself entertained by listening to my roommates argue over programming choices, or complain about their lack of privacy, or bemoan their limited wardrobe options. "Thank you for letting me stay in your home," was the phrase forgotten.
Obviously, father's tuxedo rental business had taken a dizzying downward spiral during those days of despair. There were no special occasions planned that required the participants to arrive in formal attire, so as Thanksgiving approached I tried my best to convince the men of the house to rent a tuxedo to celebrate the holiday. I thought it would be nice, but given the circumstances, no one felt like dressing up.
Thanksgiving's tradition of fine-china place settings with roast turkey and all the trimmings was replaced by a cold buffet on paper plates. Our dining room table was covered with Tupperware bowls of canned tuna mixed with mayonnaise, little bites of marshmallows suspended in fruit flavored Jell-O, miniature hot dogs from Vienna, and bottles of grape pop. Everyone ate, and even though they were thankful for the hearse-held food supplies, no one called it Thanksgiving. A vote was taken during dinner, and an overwhelming majority officially canceled the holiday. The political climate was ripe for an annulment of the entire Christmas season.
The Fledsper generator provided ample electricity, but it would have been imprudent to use any of its power on our annual holiday displays. There would be no rooftop display of eight reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh this year. We wouldn't be stringing yards of twinkling colored lights around the branches of the oak tree, and there was no need to unfold and set up the cardboard nativity scene in the front yard. In spite of the loss of these traditional and festive accoutrements I believed Christmas had a chance of surviving a close vote. Someone would certainly mention that with so many of Schulberg's children in one place Santa's job couldn't be easier. Besides, Christmas was four weeks away. A lot can happen in four weeks.
Hushed-toned conversations among the adults concerning Mrs. Bartlett's secret affair with Mr. Anderson occupied the first three weeks of December. No one could figure out how it had been consummated in the sardine environment of Hotel Fledsper, but its discovery caused Mrs. Bartlett to take her three children and move in with the four families who occupied the funeral home/tuxedo shop. Mrs. Anderson said she was so humiliated by her husband's dalliance that she refused to continue as his partner in the Yahtzee tournament. I still don't understand the link between Yahtzee and sex, but even at nine years of age I could see there were hurt feelings. Years later, a New York actress showed me the link between hurt feelings and sex.
On the Thursday before Christmas, Mr. Conners was electrocuted by our television set. Although Mr. Eberly said that anyone who punches the screen of a defenseless piece of electronic equipment should anticipate something in return, the look on Mr. Conners' face seemed to indicate unexpected shock. Mrs. Hogan defined the event as poetic justice. She said Mr. Conners' demise was the direct result of his decision to control the pleasure center of Hotel Fledsper. The general consensus was that death was nearly instantaneous, and only briefly painful.
Just prior to his fatal encounter with the power of electricity, Mr. Conners had taken offense to someone singing the song "Sh-Boom" on the popular show, "Your Hit Parade."
"What does it mean? Life could be a dream, sh-boom?" Mr. Conners asked no one in particular.
He continued talking in a manner that suggested his thoughts were running into each other and he could only speak in sentence fragments, but I remember hearing the words "jungle-music gibberish" and "communist plot." His view on the evils of the world seemed a bit extreme, and under normal circumstances I would have left the room, but the veins on his forehead fascinated me. They looked like the big night crawlers my father used for fishing.
"Mr. Conners, sh-boom is slang for 'what do you think'," I said with a hint of playfulness so he wouldn't get offended. "Life could be a dream, sh-boom." I perceived he was forming a thoughtful response. "What do you think, Mr. Conners?" I was cautiously polite, but not overly deferential. "In your opinion, is life, or is life not, a dream?"
"What do I think?" He looked down at me, and hissed his rhetorical question again through clenched teeth. "What do I think?"
No one would ever know because he put his fist through the front of a high voltage, top-of-the-line Philco black-and-white console television set. I perceived the incident as divine intervention. Since the town's usual holiday functions had been obliterated by the storm, and there were no weddings on the immediate horizon, a funeral was the only occasion that could provide both of my parents with a source of income. Merry Christmas, Orville and Margaret Fledsper.
Mr. Conners had died in the living room, and since it had been his home for twenty-nine days, it seemed appropriate to my mother to give his widow the family discount rate on the funeral expenses. Mrs. Conners looked over my mother's casket inventory, and chose a slightly scratched floor model for her husband's remains.
"I'll take this one," she stated while wiping away a tear.
Mr. Conners would be buried in a Pleasant Dreams - Model 55N2P. The N2P is code for "number two pine" which means it's cheaper than N1P. Mrs. Conners' logic behind her selection was evident when she paid my mother, and said, "No one's gonna see it after it's in the ground, anyway."
It was now my father's turn to take Mrs. Conners by the hand, and offer his condolences and services. After showing her how much money she had saved on the coffin purchase, he sold her a top-of-the-line gray morning coat ensemble. Mr. Conners looked very dashing dressed in the expensive going-away gift from his devoted wife.
In honor of the Conners family, public viewing was held in their east-end encampment. Since no one had foreseen the need to pack a suit when the snowstorm began, and everyone wanted to be respectful of their departed housemate, forty-eight of the remaining eighty-eight residents wore tuxedos rented from Orville Fledsper.
The funeral service was brief, and no one noticed the word "sh-boom" on the middle finger of Mr. Conners' left hand that had been written with one of my mother's eyebrow pencils. When the lid of the Pleasant Dreams - Model 55N2P was closed, Mr. Conners and my playful tampering were locked away for all eternity.
The food portion of the funeral was much like the "it's not really Thanksgiving" buffet. The quantity of canned goods my parents had obtained from Carper's General Store was massive, but the assortment was limited. Once again there was tuna on crackers, the little hot dogs with ketchup, pork and beans, and marshmallow infused Jell-O. However, there was one delightful culinary addition to our menu; Mrs. Culver's mashed canned potatoes. Mrs. Culver, a sweet old spinster who was living comfortably and quietly in the linen closet, mixed some canned Irish potatoes with dry milk and water, and whipped them to a fluffy consistency. They were delicious. If Mr. Conners received a star in Heaven, he shares it with Mrs. Culver's mashed canned potatoes.
Instead of the usual solemn occasion, this funeral turned into a party; the first and only party we had for the entire forty-five days. There was respect for the dead, but interspersed among the "He's got his wings" statements, I heard "Please pass the potatoes." Paired with the obligatory, "I'm sorry for your loss, Mrs. Conners" was the seemingly inappropriate question, "Can I have another canap�?" Even I followed my "God rest his soul" statement with "May I have another napkin, please?"
There is no food service in a baggage car, and I'm at least five hours from my destination. "May God rest your soul, whoever you are, and I'd sure like some of mother's tuna salad right about now." The words I speak at the stranger's coffin go unheard and unheeded.
I'm sitting on my packed suitcase. The stranger is packed in a suitcase. The metaphor momentarily presents itself as a lyric for a song yet to be written, but the idea will have to rest among the other unfinished symphonies. My thoughts are focused elsewhere.
I'm sure it's the coffin, and the faint medicinal smell of formaldehyde that's stirring my memories. For some it's the smell of bay laurel in a simmering stew that activates a longing for mom's home cooking. For others it's the fragrance of a certain fabric softener that brings a memory of their mother hanging laundry. For me it's formaldehyde. When it drifts into my nostrils it reminds me of lavender toilet water and yellow roses, peppermints and boxes of chocolates. It always makes me think of my mother.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A great story with great characters. The "first person" narrative grabbed me from page one to the ending, and i didn't want it to end. My favorite section of the book is when he is in Las Vegas with his band. There is even suprise extras in the book. Song lyrics that read like poetry and another story that is written in the form of a musical. Very entertaining read.