By Thomas Clark
Every merchant agreed that my father practiced frugality with a fervor that eclipsed his passionate Baptist beliefs. He approached any prospective purchase as a brutally competitive event. Negotiation was a non-existent term in his vocabulary; the very mention of meeting a merchant halfway was abhorrent to him. He approached commerce the way a general waged warfare: devise a strategy, execute it with precision, and subjugate your foe unconditionally.
A Worcester salesperson cursed the day when they heard my father’s footfalls beneath their transom. Outside the business community, however, most individuals called my father the most kind, generous and compassionate man they had ever met.
Mind you, these later attributes were only realized in a private setting. In public, the Worcester community treated him like a pariah. In fact, when walking about town, knots of townsfolk would cross to the other side of the street to avoid a conversation with him.
Anything beyond a simple greeting invited wild rumors and enquiries about the failing health of a person in one’s immediate family. The speculation would run wide and deep, extending outward from children to second and third cousins, particularly if older family members had already passed.
While growing up, I slowly began to understand the townsfolk’s perceptions of my dad. The stigma of being associated with him reached me when I was bullied by schoolmates. You see, my father was the Worcester’s most respected mortician.
The remembrances of his livelihood and frugality came back to me late one autumn afternoon, decades after my father had passed away. The catalyst was the chance discovery of an unused postcard.
* * *
In 1948, I found myself hunched in the confines of my attic, alone, hoping to find a photograph taken some twenty-odd years earlier. The image I sought was of my daughter, Lauren, at a grade-school event. I thought the photo would be apropos, considering her wedding date was just a few weeks away.
As I searched under the dim yellowish illumination of a forty-watt bulb, I came upon my father’s Encyclopedia Britannica – Eleventh Edition set, which formed the substantial portion of my inheritance. I randomly thumbed through several of the twenty-plus volumes and amused myself for over an hour with places and subjects I knew I would never visit or fully comprehend. From the leather covers, I also thought I could smell very faint traces of formaldehyde.
However, it was in the seventeenth volume (Switzerland-Tanzania) that I made the discovery. The book opened to page 78 because of a bookmark of sorts: an unused postcard, reverse side up, with the red-printed words “Place Stamp Here-Domestic One Cent-Foreign Two Cents.” I presumed my father wanted to return to the William Howard Taft entry for some reason.
But my curiosity was piqued when I turned the card over and recognized a photo of Main Street, Worcester. The image revealed a confusing street scene—several trolleys running down the middle, flanked by a procession of several roofless vehicles. Lining the sidewalk were spectators dressed in dark clothing, their heads covered. On the building across from City Hall, large American flags were suspended from the upper floors, suggesting an important occasion.
But what immediately caught my attention was something far more subtle, which required me to retreat to the downstairs study. There, I hovered over the card with a strong magnifying glass.
At first, I could barely make out the sign: white letters on a black background and the words “CBLbee.” But that didn’t seem right. I tilted the postcard to reduce the glare, and things suddenly came into focus: “C.B. Albee, Men’s Wear and Custom Tailoring.” At that exact moment, I was transported back in time to a particular Saturday I’d spent with my father.
* * *
In my father’s line of work, he believed he needed to sacrifice his personality to be successful. I’m not sure what his true being would have been otherwise, so the point is probably moot, but I believe he would have been fun-loving, optimistic, and clearly more gregarious.
However, the father I knew dealt with the face of death, quite literally, almost daily. He prepared the deceased to appear to be something they rarely were when alive. His wanted his “subject” to convey a sense of serenity and confidence that they had finally reached their reward.
Dad told me the secret when I was a teen. You stuffed some cotton discreetly in the deceased’s jowl so it would drop the lower lip and raise the cheeks in a “perpetual smile” (as he called it), though others characterized it as a kind of smirk. But my father said it was difficult to do, especially with casualties from the Great War. He said you had to be careful not to exaggerate facial features, which would reveal the heavy hand of the mortician. Instead, you went for something so subtle that it was akin to any portrait in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
For his own face, Dad had few wrinkles, except for the deep furrowed frown that was etched around his mouth. He eschewed facial hair, saying that it hid a man’s true nature; either it was a cover-up for guilt, or a denial that all life ends in death. Professionally, he found it difficult to properly shave a corpse.
And because of his profession, my father had to be in character all the time. There were no allowances for humor, the repeating of a colorful joke, anything that could be construed as making light of the finality of death. Because of this, he never shared his own successes and failures. He hid his innermost feelings from others, including his family. Instead, he worked to perfect his listening skills and learn about the emotional needs of others.
* * *
But on the particular Saturday I recalled from my childhood, the focus fell entirely on him. I was forced to accompany him downtown, where he wished to purchase another three-piece suit. Curiously, he had several other fine suits hanging in a large chestnut armoire, but he always wanted to have a fresh look for his clientele.
I later learned that my father’s proclivity for acquiring a new wardrobe was not a secret. Not only was he feared by every merchant in Worcester, but they shared his dimensions on index cards they jealously guarded:
Back Width: 18.0
Back of Neck to Waist: 16.0
Arm Length (Unbent): 20.5
Out seam: (Unhemmed): 47
In seam: (Unhemmed): 36
Fabric to Let Out: 1.5
Comments – Build: Slight, Shoulders: Rounded modest bump protruding on right shoulder. Left leg shorter than right by 1/4 inch. (Make no mention to client—very sensitive matter). Ensure accommodation is made in vest pocket for wide gold pocket watch, chain extends 14 inches. Trouser Cuffs: Always 1 ⅛.” Vest must have no fewer than nine buttons.
And the store behind C.B. Albee’s sign on the postcard was where my father would start his haggling odyssey.
Mr. Albee’s shop was a third-floor walkup. When we entered, Mr. Albee extended a meaty hand to my father and gave me a dismissive nod. Dad got right down to business. He wanted a dark gray suit, herringbone pattern, and conservative buttons on the vest and jacket for a suit that spoke of polished solemnity. Mr. Albee ushered us over to a particular rack, pushed aside a few suits, and presented something he thought would satisfy my father. But before Mr. Albee could discuss his choice of suits, my father would blurt:
“First, let me describe the material and fine…”
“How much?” my father pressed.
“Well, that depends on the alterations and …”
“I can have it tailored anywhere. I will ask one last time. How much?”
“Because you are a valued customer, I can give you the family and friends discount of 25% off. That would come to $26.50.”
“Outrageous…for this? I can do better anywhere on Main Street and pay far less. And that’s including your so-called family discount.”
What made this exchange remarkable between the two men was that my father had barely looked at the suit. In fact, he was a good four feet away from the rack when he shouted down poor Mr. Albee.
And so my dad badgered Mr. Albee for the next twenty minutes over the price, mentioning the fine work he had done in arranging Mr. Albee’s deceased family members in the years before, adding that “they never looked better.” My father then said that he always charged a fair price, never extorted a family or took advantage of the situation.
The reference to Mr. Albee’s dead kin was the trigger to the termination of any further discussion. Mr. Albee politely dismissed my father and wished him the best of luck in pursuing the “ultimate bargain” (his words) on Main Street.
Dad brusquely grabbed me by the right arm, and whisked me out the door, and on to the next clothier on his Saturday list.
This process happened over and over through the seasons. In this elaborate play, my father served as playwright, producer, director and lead actor. The scenes repeated themselves up and down Main Street. The only difference was the set change and a substitute for the Albee character.
Finally, by late afternoon, my father would return to Mr. Albee with the prices of his competitors in his pocket. Mr. Albee would pretend to examine the quotes and finally capitulate on price. The final sales price: $19.85, a reduction of a whopping one-third. My father would beam at his victory and wink in my direction, which meant that my Saturday travails were finally coming to an end.
In retrospect, I believe Charles Baxter Albee was the true victor. He had probably priced his initial offer just high enough to torment my father and make him waste several hours traipsing up and down Main Street.
It seems that my father never figured out that the merchants in town were co-conspirators, manipulating their prices to drive him back to number 472 Main Street, Mr. Albee’s shop, by day’s end. The Worcester merchants rigged this elaborate ruse—including Mr. Albee—as a kind of entertainment to offset their otherwise quotidian lives measuring, fitting and altering clothing day in, day out.
* * *
But my singular focus on C.B. Albee’s shop in the image had overlooked the most important aspect of the postcard. In the upper left corner was written in light pencil the word “You.” Beneath it was added “April 3, 1910.” From those words and numbers, a thin arrow extended down into the bystanders, where a diminutive figure dressed in white was standing alone in the back of the crowd. It appeared to be a young boy, perhaps seven or eight.
“Me?” I thought.
If it was me, how did I come to be found on an obscure hand-colored postcard?
The following day, I went to the main library and showed the postcard to a matronly researcher who sat erect behind a cluttered desk. She examined the postcard carefully and smiled.
“Of course I can confirm the date and its significance. It was a proud day for Worcester. Note the flags draped from the buildings, the procession of vehicles, the crowd that gathered. Does that remind you of anything?”
“Not really. I was only just a boy at the time.”
“Well, it should have. April 3, 1910, was the day President Taft came to town to speak at Mechanics Hall on Main Street. I was there myself when he arrived. I was in my mid-twenties at the time. If I recall correctly, the President was riding in the third vehicle. If you look closely you might be able to make him out. He was quite … how shall I put it? … portly. The first two vehicles carried the police and the Secret Service. Don’t you recall any of that?”
I lied and said that I vaguely did, but I was embarrassed to think it had made no impression on me, now or then. The only thing I could recall was wearing a tailored suit at the time, something my father always insisted we do when out in public.
While walking home from the library, I thought more and more about the postcard. It saddened me that my dad had never shared the postcard nor the circumstances with me. It was left to me to discover a notable event from my childhood resting in a musty multi-volume encyclopedia in a dusty attic. But then, I thought, perhaps that was why my father willed the set to me. Perhaps he wanted me to discover things about me that he could never talk with me directly.
* * *
When I got home, I returned to the attic where I finally found the photograph I had been searching for. There, on the gymnasium floor, were a dozen men dancing with their finely dressed daughters. It was easy to find Lauren in the crowd, her face beaming, facing outward, the only girl aware of the photographer’s presence. I was facing her, so the photo only captured the back of my head. Somehow I felt the photo could be important to both of us.
I took the photo back to my study and searched for a black pen. I then wrote the following words:
I then drew two distinct arrows to our respective images, and slipped the photo into a plastic sleeve within a larger envelope. I mailed it off, purposely not adding a return address.