A bell jingled as we pushed open Blount’s glass door, and a smartly dressed little man appeared from a doorway at the back of the shop. He wore a double-breasted blue pinstripe suit with a wide red polka dot tie, and a white carnation in his lapel. His fine dark hair was parted down the middle, and he wore an equally dark mustache above his thin lips, nicely waxed to narrow points on either side of his long, narrow nose. His eyes were closely set narrow ovals that reminded me of black olives.
“Bonjour, gentlemen, welcome to Blount’s. Victor Blount at your humble service. How may I assist you today?” His voice was singsongish, his accent clearly French, and he waved his hands about with a flourish as he spoke.
I leaned my umbrella in a corner next to the door. “I’m Mr. Barrington and this is Mr. Keyes. We’re just in from Milwaukee for the weekend and in need of a tuxedo.”
“A pleasure to meet you both. You’ve come to the right place, monsieurs. I can fit you with a fine quality garment, alter it, and have it ready to wear within twenty-four hours, tops. I specialize in the design of handmade-bespoke as well as made-to-measure garments and high quality off-the-rack items for gentlemen.”
“That’s perfect, Mr. Blount. The tuxedo is for Mr. Keyes.”
Blount walked closer to Alan and looked him up and down. “Mais oui, mais oui. Splendid, a forty-two long, easy. But we’d better make sure.” He produced a tape measure from his pocket. “Take off your coat and hat, please.”
Alan handed them to me as Mr. Blount wrapped the tape around Alan’s waist.
“Thirty-three—hmm.” He dropped to one knee and measured the inseam, Alan looking rather uncomfortable. “Thirty-five inches exactly, nice long legs.” He got back to his feet, a rather queer smile on his face. “Arms out now. Thirty-four-inch sleeve, hmm. Now the neck. Just as I thought, sixteen inches.” He walked to a rack off to the side. “This would look smashing on you, as you Americans say. Classic tailoring, Italian from before the war. Très elegant. Look at the turn back,” he said, turning up the collar. “And notice the lapel roll, the cloth. For an off-the-rack tuxedo, this one is exceptional.”
“How much?” Alan asked, looking unimpressed.
“Can one put a price on fashion, Mr. Keyes?”
Mr. Blount looked somewhat indignant. “Forty-five dollars. And that’s an absolute steal, monsieur.”
“Ouch. What do you have for less?” I asked.
The little man sighed, rolled his eyes, and returned the Italian suit to the rack. “I suppose you could make do with this.” He pulled out another tux that looked awfully similar to the first one. “It’s made in New York, wool. Basic but functional, thirty dollars.”
“Let’s try that one,” I said.
“Thirty dollars is still an awful lot, Heath.”
“I can swing it. Where is the fitting room?”
“Through that curtain there, on the left. Put just the pants on first, then come out.”
“Right.” Alan handed me his Brownie, took the tux from Blount, and made his way into the office and fitting room while I waited up front.
“You may put those things on the counter, monsieur, while you wait for your friend.”
“Your friend is a photographer?”
“Just a tourist, Mr. Blount.”
“Ah, the amateur. I do portraits, sittings, professional photography.”
“Oh? Besides your men’s store?”
“Oui. One must diversify, yes? In addition to the clothing, I do some portrait sitting in the back room of my store here, by appointment. Very private, discreet.”
“How interesting,” I replied, wondering why portrait sitting needed to be private and discreet. “Well, neither of us need our portraits done at the moment, Mr. Blount. Just a tuxedo.”
“Très bien, that is good, too.”
“Oui, monsieur. I came to the United States eleven years ago. The handwriting was, as they say, on the wall for me, but sadly for others they did not see, they were blind. The Nazis were rising to power, and I knew I could not stay any longer. I sold my tailoring business and came here, ending up in Chicago. I opened this store nine years ago.”
“What about your family?”
“I have no family, monsieur, not anymore. They were fools who stayed behind, as were my friends. I am alone. I have no time for fools. I have my work, and I have done well, no?” He waved his arms about, indicating his shop.
“Yes, apparently so, Mr. Blount. It’s a very lovely store. I would imagine rent in a place like this must be rather high.”
“Oui, but it is a good location, and I diversify, as I said, so life is good.” He went behind the counter then to fiddle with something or other and get his chalk and pins. I wandered over to a display of ties, realizing I had to pick one up for my dad for Father’s Day.
The front door bell jingled again, and a lovely young woman entered, dressed in a red pleated dress, white shoes, and a wide-brimmed gray felt hat, beneath which flowed shoulder-length wavy blond hair. She walked briskly to the counter, carrying a garment bag in her left hand, clearly not even noticing me. Blount turned to her and smiled thinly. “Good afternoon, Miss Eye.”
“What’s good about it? This is the third order of shirts this month. Walter will never wear them, and I can’t afford much more of this.”
Blount glanced over at me and nodded. The woman followed his gaze and I tipped my hat.
She looked annoyed. “Excuse me. I thought you were alone.”
“One should never assume, Miss Eye. This gentleman and his friend in the back are shopping for a new tuxedo.”
“I see. I beg your pardon.” Her tone was cold.
I nodded and turned back to the tie rack.
“Now then, mademoiselle, I have Mr. Gillingham’s shirts right here, folded and pressed. Will there be anything else today?”
“Yes. I need my dress steamed and pressed for tomorrow night. How much is that going to cost me?”
“A simple steam and press, mademoiselle, for you, just fifty cents.”
“I’ll pick it up tomorrow afternoon before the show.”
“Walter told me to tell you you’d better reconsider your pricing, Mr. Blount. And Walter is not someone you want to make angry, if you know what I mean.”
Mr. Blount laughed. “Monsieur Gillingham is a big gorilla. He pounds his chest, he bares his teeth, but he does not scare me. I think instead I scare him, and I scare you.”
“Then you think wrong.”
“We shall see, mademoiselle.”
“Yes, we shall. And so shall you. You’ve taken this too far, Mr. Blount.”
“But, Miss Eye, our business relationship is so cordial.”
“For you, maybe. Walter said to tell you he’s had enough of your fancy shirts and expensive ties.”
“Your fiancé, Miss Eye, is an idiot.”
“Walter is notan idiot. He’s just a little slow.”
“Being engaged to you is proof enough of his idiocy, mademoiselle.”
“How dare you.”
“I don’t dare. I merely state the facts, Miss Eye.” He took the garment bag from her hand and hung it behind the counter.
In a small mirror next to the tie display, I could see Blount smile again, baring his teeth as he took her money and counted it out.
“I’m sure you will find my prices most reasonable, considering, Miss Eye,” I heard Blount say. “Talk it over with your fiancé. Au revoir.”
“I will. But as I said before, you don’t want to make Walter angry.” She grabbed the package of shirts off the counter and turned on her heel. I tipped my hat once more as she nodded in my direction. “Try Wieboldt’s on State, much better pricing,” she snapped, then made her way quickly out the door, the bell jingling once more.
When she had gone, Mr. Blount laughed nervously and gave me a weak smile. “That was Mademoiselle Gloria Eye, one of my regular customers. She buys clothes for her fiancé, Walter Gillingham.”
“It sounds like she buys quite a bit.”
“Miss Eye is an actress and a singer. Her band is playing the Sky Star Ballroom again this weekend.”
“I’m sure we’ll see her there, then, Mr. Blount. We plan on going to the Sky Star tomorrow night, which is why we need the tuxedo.”
“Très bien. Miss Eye sings for the Storm Clouds, funny name, no?”
“I’ve heard stranger names for bands.”
“I suppose so. She is Gloria Eye, so she bills herself as the Eye of the Storm.”
“Oui. She has some talent, and she is quite lovely. And she has good taste, of course. She feels her fiancé Monsieur Gillingham must present a certain image as a member of the band. He plays lead trumpet. Certainly my clothes are only the finest, most stylish.”
“Of course. Are those two from Chicago?”
“Oui, yes. A local band, but I understand they are going to tour this fall. Perhaps the start of something big.”
Alan emerged from the back room then, holding the tux pants up with his hand. “They’re a little loose,” he said.
Blount smiled again. “A minor adjustment is all that is needed. Please step over to the mirror.” I watched as Blount pinned and chalked the pants. “The waist and seat will have to be taken in. As for the legs, no cuff, I say. Much more timeless, don’t you agree?”
Alan nodded. “Sure, sounds good. Exactly what I was thinking.”
I smiled, knowing that thought hadn’t even crossed his mind. As Blount worked, I couldn’t help but notice his wristwatch, which looked quite expensive.
“That’s quite a watch you have there, Mr. Blount.”
He glanced at his wrist, smiled, and took a pin out of his mouth so he could reply.
“Merci, monsieur. It is a Longines, of course. It keeps perfect time, to the second.”
I nodded. “Of course. I use a pocket watch, myself.”
“So old-fashioned, monsieur. A wristwatch is much more functional and highly accurate.”
“Maybe so, but I like this one. It belonged to my maternal grandfather, Earl.”
“Ah, sentimental, no? I am not a sentimental man.”
“Yes, I rather got that impression.”
“Sentiments do not pay the bills, monsieur, or keep you warm at night.” He looked up at Alan. “All finished with the trousers, monsieur. Now, let’s slip on the coat.”
“Oh, I left it in the dressing room,” Alan exclaimed.
Mr. Blount shook his head and then looked up at me. “Ah, Mr. Barrington, would you be so kind?”
“Sure, happy to oblige,” I said. I went through the curtain and glanced about, as I’ve always been naturally curious. Nosy, some might say. The back room was smaller than I had expected, a basic narrow rectangle but not running the full width of the storefront, which seemed odd. To the far left was his photography equipment, set up in front of a platform covered in a plush black cloth. Red velvet drapes hung behind it, presumably as a backdrop. I wondered what kind of portraits Mr. Blount specialized in.
Immediately to the left of the doorway was a file cabinet and a desk with a telephone, ledgers, pens and pencils atop it, and just past that, a work table with scissors, pins, tape measures, bolts of cloth, and other tools of the trade. Behind the work table stood a large, free-standing wooden rack holding every color spool of thread I could imagine on dowels, and I chuckled as I read the names on the tops of the spools: Green Linen, Green Tint, Apple Green, Turtle, Oriental Blue, Orange Sun, Mango Gold, Orange Poppy, and more. I had to wonder whose job it was to name thread.
Next to the work table was a well-worn old pedal sewing machine. A metal door that must have led to the alley was behind it on the back wall, a small peephole in the center. Next to the rack of thread spools stood a headless dressing form, just a naked torso on a pole. The fitting room was on the right side of the room, behind a louvered door, and to each side of it were racks of clothes with shelves above them piled high with bolts of cloth.
I pulled open the louvered door of the dressing room, startled to find someone staring back at me. I quickly realized it was a full-length mirror mounted to the back wall, and I was staring at myself. The fitting room was surprisingly large, big enough for a client and the tailor, I supposed, and well-lit with an overhead light as well as side-mounted lights, all reflected in the mirror, which was somewhat dizzying. I grabbed the tuxedo jacket, closed the louvered door, and returned to the shop through the curtain.
Blount was running his hands a little too attentively up and down the pants Alan was wearing, smoothing out invisible creases.
“Here,” I said. Alan slipped it on.
Blount’s eyes lit up. “Ooh, it’s almost a perfect fit, Mr. Keyes. You have such broad shoulders.” He squealed delightedly. “The sleeves need to be taken down a bit, but other than that, a nearly perfect fit.” He made some marks with his chalk inside the sleeves, checked the shoulders once more, and stepped back, smiling. “Beautiful, just beautiful. Très bien.” I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the tux or Alan, or both.
“You may go ahead and take it off again and get dressed.”
“Sure, glad to,” Alan said, padding off through the curtain once more as Mr. Blount turned to me.
“How will you be paying for this, Mr. Barrington?”
“A check. I have a letter of credit.”
“Excellent. By the way, your friend will need a formal shirt and tie, too, no?”
I frowned. I had forgotten about that. “Ah, yes, I suppose so. How much?”
He smiled that thin weasel smile again. “Oh monsieur, I have a fine quality formal shirt for just four ninety-eight, and a silk black bow tie for a mere dollar forty-nine.”
“What about a medium quality formal shirt?”
“Oh, monsieur, you joke, no? Surely you want your friend to look his best.”
I sighed. “Of course I do. I assume you have a shirt on hand that will fit him?”
He shrugged his bony shoulders. “We could do a custom-made shirt, but that would take some time, which we do not have, apparently. So we can make do with one off the rack, still good quality, and the fit should be most excellent.”
“All right, add them to the bill.”
“Mais oui. Does Mr. Keyes have a stud set?”
I sighed. “Add those too,” I said resignedly as Alan returned from the back and put on his coat, hat and camera, which were still sitting on the counter.
“Are we all ready?”
“Not quite. I forgot you’re going to need a formal shirt and a tie, and a stud set with cuff links.”
“Jeepers, Heath, this is getting expensive.”
“Think of it as an investment, Alan.”
“A very wise thought, monsieur.” Mr. Blount opened a display case and took out a black velvet tray. “I have a wonderful mother-of-pearl set with gold inlay here that would look most excellent with Mr. Keyes’s tuxedo. Or this fourteen karat gold set. Quite striking, no?”
“We’ll take the gold inlay with mother-of-pearl.”
“It’s all right, Alan, this is something you’ll have a long time. Consider it a late birthday present. Wrap it all up, Mr. Blount.”
“With pleasure.” He glanced down at Alan’s feet. “Hmm. Size twelve?”
Alan glanced down at his feet, too. “Yes, that’s right.”
“Goodness, such big feet. But I have a pair of patent leather shoes in back that would look fetching with your new tux.”
“Thanks, Mr. Blount, but these will do for now.”
Mr. Blount tsk’d and rolled his eyes. “At least they are black and freshly shined. What about new socks and underwear?”
“I don’t think anyone will be seeing my socks and underwear.” Alan winked at me and I laughed.
“I think we’ve spent enough, Mr. Blount,” I said firmly.
He shrugged resignedly. “As you wish. Please step over to the counter. That will be $50.30 with the alterations and tax. Half now, half when you pick it up.”
Alan whistled, which I ignored. “How soon?” I asked.
Blount consulted his expensive wristwatch. “Why don’t we say one o’clock tomorrow?”
“Fine. We’re planning on wearing our dark suits tonight and the tuxes tomorrow, so that will work out well.” I wrote out a check for half.
“Perfect, perfect. Here is a claim check, though I certainly won’t forget you two fine gentlemen. Have you plans while you’re in town?”
I shrugged, putting the claim check in my wallet. “Just some sightseeing, dining out, some of the clubs, the usual.”
“Two handsome gentlemen on the town.”
“Yeah, something like that, I guess,” I said.
Blount turned to Alan. “You are lucky to have such a generous friend, monsieur. Perhaps you can do something special for him this weekend.”
Alan looked quizzical. “Such as? I’ve never been to Chicago before.”
“No? Oh, monsieur, you can have a very good time here, a very good time. If you are interested, I have certain connections for an evening’s entertainment. Very beautiful women, very discreet. You both could enjoy yourselves immensely, unlike anything back home in your little town.”
“What kind of entertainment?” I asked, curious.
“Oh, monsieur, the French have a saying, vive la difference.”
“More French,” Alan sighed.
Blount chuckled. “It just means to embrace the differences, monsieur. Try something new, oui? For a small fee, I could set you gentlemen up for the night with an experience you would not forget. Beautiful women, handsome men, all very discreet. Dark, secluded, private rendezvous in dark, secluded rooms. Music, drink, dancing, song. Together or separate. Enticing, yes?”
I glanced sideways at Keyes before answering. “Enticing, but we’ll pass. We can find our own entertainment.”
He shrugged his bony little shoulders again. “If you change your mind, I am always here, ten a.m. to seven p.m. except Sundays and Mondays.”
“We’ll keep that in mind. Oh, and Mr. Blount, wrap up that blue and white striped tie over there on the rack for me, too, a gift for my father.”
“Oui, those are the finest quality silk, of course. I will box and wrap it and add it your bill.”
“Fine. We’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”
“It’s been a pleasure, gentlemen. Au revoir.”
I nodded. “Ah, yeah, thanks.”
Date Published: Sept. 1, 2018
About the Author
David S. Pederson lives in Wisconsin with his husband Alan, and two friendly cats, Kona and Hilo.
He enjoys studying classic ocean liners, floor plans, and historic homes.
A film noir and mystery enthusiast, David is the author of Death Comes Darkly, Death Goes Overboard (selected by GLBT Round Table of the American Library Association for the 2018 Over the Rainbow book list), Death Checks In (A Lambda Literary Award Finalist for 2019), and Death Overdue, coming in July of 2020.