IN 1925 I finished a short course in fortune telling and that summer started to work for my tall Uncle Karem, who had been a general in the war and who afterwards became one of the town’s leading merchants in the drygoods business. He was tall and not very fat and very bald. He used to say that the reason he was bald was because during the war he would run across a field with his helmet on, and the vibration rubbed his hair off. Everybody in the family was bald at forty, but that didn’t change his story.
The fortune-telling school was a correspondence affair. We lived across the street from it, on Green Street, and all I should have had to do was go over and take my lessons. But the president, Mr. Paul, said that a correspondence school it was, and a correspondence school he wanted to keep it, so that I had to walk to the post office to mail my lessons.
Sometimes I would be coming home from mailing them when I would see the mailman taking them into the school across the street. But it was a good course and I learned a great deal, though when I started in to work for my Uncle Karem I had to keep what I had been doing a secret. He was against such things. He was very practical.
I got $4.83 a week. And the eighty-three cents I had to give back to my uncle. He was building a pigeon coop in the rear of the store and needed the money for material. He said he had a lot of buddies scattered all over America, and instead of writing them letters he would send them notes via pigeon. ’It’s more personal. And poetic,’ he’d say.
Pigeons kept flying in and out of the store waiting for their coop to be built. It was a beautiful sight.
After I had been there two months, my Uncle Karem raised my salary to $6.00. This gave him a dollar and eighty-three cents for the pigeon coop.
His customers were few. But I always had plenty of work to do and never had a chance to practise my fortune telling. My uncle sometimes went out of the store for hours at a time, sneaking in without my knowing it and hiding behind a counter, where he watched me make sales. He never told me he did this, but I used to see him. He was trying me out so that when it came time to bequeath the store to someone he could bequeath it to me, provided I did the right things and was honest in all my dealings. My Uncle Karem hated dishonesty.
Customers came in, looked around, went out. My uncle would scratch his head and frown. ‘I can’t understand it,’ he would say. ‘I have everything here.’ He made a sweeping gesture with his long, poetic hand, pointing to wheelbarrows, to kegs of nails, to boxes of soap, to gingham and outing flannel, to Turkish towels and spools of thread, to candy canes for the children and to some winesap apples he had in a bushel basket in the centre of the floor. ‘ What haven’t I got? ‘
I looked around. ‘Everything,’ I said.
A pigeon carrying a make-believe note flew past me. I guess they were getting impatient waiting for the coop to be finished. They were carrying bits of paper around and delivering them to my uncle. Nothing was written on the bits of paper, but my uncle was very pleased. ‘They’re practising up,’ he said.
Sometimes a whole day went by without a customer.
Then one day a man came into the store. It was raining outside and it was raining very hard, and the man wanted to buy an umbrella. He was dripping wet and had his collar pulled up around his neck. Before he had a chance to look around and walk out I locked the door.
‘I want to see something in an umbrella,’ said the man. ‘It is rainbg outside.’
I knew we didn’t carry umbrellas. That was one thing my Uncle Karem always said we didn’t need. ‘Either they have an umbrella or they don’t go out in the rain,’ was what he always said. In fact, I was about ready to tell the man this very thing when my uncle came running from the back room.
‘Umbrellas?’ my uncle said. ‘Did I hear the gentleman say he wanted an umbrella?’
‘That’s right,’ said the man.
My uncle cleared his throat, pushed me aside, and, taking my place behind the counter, smiled at the man. ‘Just how much did you wish to pay for one?’ he said, rubbing his hands together as merchants who are eager to make a sale sometimes do.
‘Well,’ said the man, ‘that depends upon the size, color, and shape of the thing. Primarily I want anything of a serviceable nature, to keep the rain off my new hat.’
My Uncle Karem looked at the man’s hat. ‘I have some fine hats here,’ he said.
‘It’s an umbrella I want,’said the man, ’not a hat!'
‘Very well,’said my uncle, and ran out of the store into the back room.
In a few minutes he returned with a very old umbrella. It was one that my Uncle Karem’s Aunt Freda had given to him on his twenty-first birthday twenty-five years ago.
‘Here is something that is bound to keep you dry,’said my uncle. He approached the man and gave him the umbrella to examine. ‘Fine,’said the man. ‘How much for it?’ ‘How much?’ said my uncle. ‘Now let’s see.’ He thought a long time, adding figures on a piece of paper.
‘Hurry,’ said the man.
‘Eleven dollars,’said my uncle, who wanted to make up for the sales he never got.
‘Eleven dollars?’ yelled the man. He started to go for the door.
‘Wait a minute,’my uncle said. ‘Eight.’ ‘Eight dollars?’ yelled the man. ‘I could buy eight umbrellas for that.'
‘Make it a dollar and a half,’ said my uncle, perspiring.
‘That’s more to the point,’said the man, preparing to open it for close examination.
‘Don’t open it!’ screamed my uncle. ‘It is bad luck to open an umbrella inside a house. It’s bad to open one.'
‘All right,’ said the man. ‘I’ll take it for a dollar and a half.’
‘That’s the way to act,’ said my uncle. Then he turned to me. ‘Wrap it up for the gentleman,’ he said.
‘But you don’t have to do that,’said the man. ‘I am going to use it. Leave it as it is.’ My uncle raised his hand for silence. ‘Wrapping parcels is a policy of this store. Go ahead and wrap it, Gilbert.'
‘But the man doesn’t want it wrapped,'
I said. ‘He is going to use it.’
My uncle became furious. ‘ Do as I say,’ he said. ‘Our business is founded on rules and regulations and honesty-is-the-best-policy, and we stick to all the rules.’
I wrapped the umbrella in brown paper, went to the door and unlocked it, and the man went out. It had almost stopped raining. The sun was coming out.
‘Lock the door,’my uncle said, ‘or he will want to have a refund!’
I locked the door.
Hardly had the man left the store when my Uncle Karem sat down on a box of perfumed soap and began to feel ashamed of himself.
’I shouldn’t have sold him the umbrella,’he said. ‘It was old and filled with moth and no good to anybody.’ He put his head in his hands and was very downcast.
I knew how he felt. He was not a dishonest man.
The pigeons stopped carrying fake messages and everything was quiet in the store. We were thinking.
Finally I remembered a part of my fortunetelling course.
’Leave everything to me,’ I shouted, ‘and do exactly as I tell you. Put on your hat and coat and walk outside to the edge of the town. There is a woods close by.’
‘Yes,’ said my uncle, still ashamed.
‘ Go to the biggest tree in the woods, and when you find it,’ I said, ‘walk around it twelve times and say, “Honesty is the best policy” as fast as you can in the time it takes you to walk around the tree.’
‘You are the craziest kid I ever heard tell of,’ he said, ‘but I shall do it.’
So he put on his hat and coat and went out in a hurry. I went to the door and watched him running toward the edge of town.
It had started to rain again. Dark clouds hung over everything.
In half an hour the man who had purchased the old umbrella came in.
‘I think there has been a big mistake,’ he said. ‘Where is the manager?’ He looked everywhere for him.
‘The manager,’I said, ‘is outside walking.’ Must the same,’the man said, ‘I want my money back. The umbrella is a strainer.’ He threw it on the counter.
I rang up a ‘no sale’ on the cash register. The man took the money and went out. Presently my uncle came in. He was very wet, and I showed him the umbrella.
He threw his bauds into the air and shouted.
‘You are a fine one,’ he cried. ‘I am still an honest man.’ He put his poetic hands on my shoulders and was very happy.
The pigeons continued to fly about in the room, and nobody came in the rest of the day; but my uncle took the old umbrella into the back room, and when he came out he said, ‘I am going to give you another raise in salary.
I am going to give you ten dollars a week.’ This allowed him a great deal more to spend on the material for the pigeon coop, which was a long way from being finished.
GEORGE H. FREITAG