THE SHADY SIDE • by John Palen

I drove the Hudson downtown early to check on the store, as I did every Sunday since the robberies started — Kansas City thugs breaking into small town stores at night and cleaning them out. At first everything seemed to be just as I’d left it when I locked up. Muslin sheets over the tables, nothing out of place. No sign of a break-in. The heavy oak and glass doors on the six big display cases along the wall were closed, as I’d left them. But when I looked closer I saw the cases were empty. Suits and overcoats, wool, cashmere, all expensive name-brand goods, all gone.

My hands were shaking when I opened the safe where I kept the day’s take. It was empty. A hundred six dollars and change, gone, a good Saturday’s gross. I remembered the stranger I’d opened the store for the previous week, a snazzy dresser who said he was passing through and needed a shirt. He saw me open the safe to make change for his tenner. I’d been careless, letting him stand so close while I twirled the lock. Trusting people. You learn to do that in a town like this.

I looked around. Less expensive goods were untouched, work clothes, underwear, socks. But the dress shirt drawers were empty, and all the sweaters were gone. So were leather and wool luxury items, fancy lap robes and flask kits. The more I looked, the more I found missing. I’d been expertly picked clean — half the value of my inventory trucked away and fenced to a fly-by-night operation before I’d even had breakfast.

I couldn’t call the police. Mary’s father would know within the hour.

By 10 o’clock I was on the Interurban to Kansas City to see Harry Truman. Everything I know about men’s clothing I learned at the Truman & Jacobson haberdashery. I ran errands, dusted shelves, swept floors, and soaked up all I could about running a store. During the Christmas rush, Harry and Eddy even let me wait on customers. I learned about failure, too. They had been good to me, and I worked for free that last desperate month, trying to help save the little store on 12th Avenue. I was there the day they closed the doors.

When I got to Kansas City, I rang Harry up. It had been a few years, and he was presiding county judge now, in the Pendergast machine. But he valued loyalty above everything else, and all I had to say was, “Harry, I’m in trouble. I don’t know what to do.” An hour later I was sitting in a deep leather chair in the lobby of the Muehlebach Hotel, trying to find Truman’s eyes behind those bottle-bottom glasses.

I told him the whole story. How I’d clerked in a couple of other stores. How Mary and I fell in love, and I got Mary pregnant. How her banker father raised hell at first, but finally set me up with a loan to start the store. Business had been good for a while, and both the baby and Mary were fine. Then I hit a rough patch, several bad crop years hurting everybody’s pocketbook, and I took out a second loan. I had to cut expenses, and one expense I cut was insurance.

“I can’t tell Mary’s dad any of this,” I told Harry. “He’d have a fit if he knew I’d let myself go naked.”

Harry listened quietly, shifting his head every minute or so to a slightly different angle, like an owl in a tree. When I was done, he asked questions. The man who had cased the store, what did he look like? Was his voice high or low? What kind of car was he driving? What exactly was taken, including brand names, weaves and styles?

“I think I can help with this,” he said, in that high nasal voice that could fool you into thinking you were dealing with a wimp. “There’s been a lot of this dastardly stuff going on recently. Not that I know anything about it directly.”

Did he wink when he said that? I’m not sure.

“I can talk to some of the fellows,” he went on, “find out who did this to you. If I do, the sonofabitch will need some beef steak for his eye, and maybe a supporter, too.”

Harry loved to talk tough. If I’d heard it once, I’d heard it a hundred times.

“You go on home and sit tight,” he said. “Keep your father-in-law out of the store for a day or two. And from now on, alternate the direction of the hangers you keep the suits on, so a crook in a hurry can’t just grab them by the armload. Make the sonofabitch work for his money.”

When I went down to open up on Monday, two men in flat caps and leather vests were sitting in a truck in the alley. I don’t know how long they’d been there, but the cigarette butts under the windows said at least an hour.

“Delivery from Kansas City,” the driver said.

“What is it?” I asked. “Who’s it from?”

“Delivery from Kansas City,” he repeated, shrugging, and he and the other man began to unload. As far as I could tell, nothing was missing. A hundred six dollars and change was tucked in one of the pockets.

I wrote Harry a thank you letter, said I owed him. I’m nervous about it, but he hasn’t written me back. At least not yet.

John Palen’s collection of short fiction, Small Economies, was published in January by Mayapple Press. He lives and writes in Central Illinois.

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  • The 1950s voice is very good – I even Googled Hudson cars to get a better idea of the era.

    My problem is that as I reader I have no idea how the narrator solved his problem (or how the problem got solved).

  • Marisa Samuels

    I loved the story. I grew up in the Roosevelt/Truman era and I know exactly how the problem got solved. Harry “knew some people” and they fixed it. Remember, this was the time of the Pendergast machine, and, like. say, the Gambino family and others, they could make stuff happen.

  • joannab.

    strong beginning to this story. the presentation of how it feels to be robbed and the description of the goods stolen were both excellent. i felt genuine sympathy for the MC in his plight.

    when the MC boarded the train to kansas city to see harry truman, that’s where, for me, the story went “off the rails.”

    why harry truman? were we supposed to see him as a good guy or a bad guy? what was fact and what was fiction in this presentation of truman?

    but also, and I think more important, when a MC solves a big problem — one that is partly based on his own lack of common sense and good judgment — so easily, it tends to trivialize the problem.

    and i didn’t get what the last paragraph was stating/implying.

  • Marisa Samuels

    Maybe my last comment didn’t make it through. Perhaps you have to be almost 77 to get the story. Truman was in the haberdashery business and in minor politics connected with the Pendergast machine and so could call on them for help and favors. He made his contacts and told them the story and the word went out to get the stuff back. Sometimes when you were involved with any machine (or mob) you were helped out, but then you might owe them a little something — what, the protagonist did not know, and he was worried about what might be asked of him for the favor he was granted. So far, in the story, apparently he was in the clear.

  • JoanD

    I was a young adult during that era and knew the president’s background, so I “got” it. Sounds just like “Give ’em hell, Harry!” Clever story. #4’s explanation is very clear.

  • Marisa Samuels

    Thanks, JoanD. I guess you are one of the few readers who remember Truman’s background before he became the vp nominee (replacing Henry Wallace) under Roosevelt and then was thrust into the presidency after Roosevelt’s death. I remember his reluctance and worry about taking office. I also remember his threats to some reviewer who didn’t care for his daughter Margaret’s musical career.

  • Fascinating – I didn’t know any of that although I recognised Harry Truman’s name so I guessed it was there for a reason. I still got the tale though.

  • Joanne

    I enjoyed the narrator’s voice and the guest appearance by Truman. Entertaining.


    Great story. Took me way back in time to a place I didn’t know but would love to have visited.

  • Marisa Samuels

    Well, Bud, you might not have enjoyed your visit all that much — the era of the atomic bomb and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the McCarthy HUAC hearings, etc. Still, I could roam the Hollywood Hills at age eight, collecting interesting stones and watching frogs without the slightest worry about pedophiles or being picked up by the cops for accidentally wandering into someone’s estate. Good and bad, I guess. If you want to learn more about the era, hit Google and see what books you can find. Oh and there was great science fiction, too.

  • Sarah

    Ah, this makes a lot more sense now I’ve read the comments and had a little history lesson! Actually I missed that it was supposed to be a historical setting — though I guess the ~100 dollar daily turnover for a high-end clothing store should have given it away.

    Nice story but maybe a bit obscure for those less familiar with American history.