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An essay by Charles S. Brooks

After-Dinner Pleasantries

Title:     After-Dinner Pleasantries
Author: Charles S. Brooks [More Titles by Brooks]

There is a shop below Fourteenth Street, somewhat remote from fashion, that sells nothing but tricks for amateur and parlor use. It is a region of cobblers, tailors and small grocers. Upstairs, locksmiths and buttonhole cutters look through dusty windows on the L, which, under some dim influence of the moon, tosses past the buildings here its human tide, up and down, night and morning. The Trick Shop flatters itself on its signboard that it carries the largest line of its peculiar trickery on the western hemisphere--hinting modestly that Baluchistan, perhaps, or Mesopotamia (where magic might be supposed to flourish) may have an equal stock. The shop does not proclaim its greatness to the casual glance. Its enormity of fraud offers no hint to the unsuspecting curb. There must be caverns and cellars at the rear--a wealth of baffling sham un-rumored to the street, shelves sagging with agreeable deception, huge bales of sleight-of-hand and musty barrels of old magic.

But to the street the shop reveals no more than a small show-window, of a kind in which licorice-sticks and all-day-suckers might feel at home. It is a window at which children might stop on their way from school and meditate their choice, fumbling in their pockets for their wealth.

I have stood at this window for ten minutes together. There are cards for fortune tellers and manuals of astrology, decks with five aces and marked backs, and trick hats and boxes with false bottoms. There are iron cigars to be offered to a friend, and bleeding fingers, and a device that makes a noise like blowing the nose, "only much louder." Books of magic are displayed, and conjurers' outfits--shell games and disappearing rabbits. There is a line of dribble-glasses--a humorous contrivance with little holes under the brim for spilling water down the front of an unwary guest. This, it is asserted, breaks the social ice and makes a timid stranger feel at home. And there are puzzle pictures, beards for villains and comic masks--Satan himself, and other painted faces for Hallowe'en.

Some persons, of course, can perform their parlor tricks without this machinery and appliance. I know a gifted fellow who can put on the expression of an idiot. Or he wrinkles his face into the semblance of eighty years, shakes with palsy and asks his tired wife if she will love him when he's old. Again he puts a coffee cup under the shoulder of his coat and plays the humpback. On a special occasion he mounts a table--or two kitchen chairs become his stage--and recites Richard and the winter of his discontent. He needs only a pillow to smother Desdemona. And then he opens an imaginary bottle--the popping of the cork, the fizzing, the gurgle when it pours. Sometimes he is a squealing pig caught under a fence, and sometimes two steamboats signaling with their whistles in a fog.

I know a young woman--of the newer sort--who appears to swallow a lighted cigarette, with smoke coming from her ears. This was once a man's trick, but the progress of the weaker sex has shifted it. On request, she is a nervous lady with a fear of monkeys, taking five children to the circus. She is Camille on her deathbed. I know a man, too, who can give the Rebel yell and stick a needle, full length, into his leg. The pulpy part above his knee seems to make an excellent pincushion. And then there is the old locomotive starting on a slippery grade (for beginners in entertainment), the hand-organ man and his infested monkey (a duet), the chicken that is chased around the barnyard, Hamlet with the broken pallet (this is side-splitting in any company) and Moriarty on the telephone. I suppose our best vaudeville performers were once amateurs themselves around the parlor lamp.

And there is Jones, too, who plays the piano. Jones, when he is asked, sits at the keyboard and fingers little runs and chords. He seems to be thinking which of a hundred pieces he will play. "What will you have?" he asks. And a fat man wants "William Tell," and a lady with a powdered nose asks for "Bubbles." But Jones ignores both and says, "Here's a little thing of Schumann. It's a charming bit." On the other hand, when Brown is asked to sing, it is generally too soon after dinner. Brown, evidently, takes his food through his windpipe, and it is, so to speak, a one-way street. He can hardly permit the ascending "Siegfried" to squeeze past the cheese and crackers that still block the crowded passage.

There is not a college dinner without the mockery of an eccentric professor. A wag will catch the pointing of his finger, his favorite phrase. Is there a lawyers' dinner without its imitation of Harry Lauder? Isn't there always someone who wants to sing "It's Nice to Get Up in the Mornin'," and trot up and down with twinkling legs? Plumbers on their lodge nights, I am told, have their very own Charlie Chaplin. And I suppose that the soda clerks' union--the dear creatures with their gum--has its local Mary Pickford, ready with a scene from Pollyanna. What jolly dinners dentists must have, telling one another in dialect how old Mrs. Finnigan had her molars out! Forceps and burrs are their unwearied jest across the years. When they are together and the doors are closed, how they must frolic with our weakness!

And undertakers! Even they, I am informed, throw off their solemn countenance when they gather in convention. Their carnation and mournful smile are gone--that sober gesture that waves the chilly relations to the sitting-room. But I wonder whether their dismal shop doesn't cling always just a bit to their mirth and songs. That poor duffer in the poem who asked to be laid low, wrapped in his tarpaulin jacket--surely, undertakers never sing of him. They must look at him with disfavor for his cheap proposal. He should have roused for a moment at the end, with a request for black broadcloth and silver handles.

I once sat with an undertaker at a tragedy. He was of a lively sympathy in the earlier parts and seemed hopeful that the hero would come through alive. But in the fifth act, when the clanking army was defeated in the wings and Brutus had fallen on his sword, then, unmistakably his thoughts turned to the peculiar viewpoint of his profession. In fancy he sat already in the back parlor with the grieving Mrs. Brutus, arranging for the music.

To undertakers, Cæsar is always dead and turned to clay. Falstaff is just a fat old gentleman who drank too much sack, a' babbled of green fields and then needed professional attention. Perhaps at the very pitch of their meetings when the merry glasses have been three times filled, they pledge one another in what they are pleased to call the embalmers' fluid. This jest grows rosier with the years. For these many centuries at their banquets they have sung that it was a cough that carried him off, that it was a coffin--Now then, gentlemen! All together for the chorus!--that it was a coffin they carried him off in.

I dined lately with a man who could look like a weasel. When this was applauded, he made a face like the Dude of Palmer Cox's Brownies. Even Susan, the waitress, who knows her place and takes a jest soberly, broke down at the pantry door. We could hear her dishes rattling in convulsions in the sink. And then our host played the insect with his fingers on the tablecloth, smelling a spot of careless gravy from the roast with his long thin middle finger. He caught the habit that insects have of waving their forward legs.

I still recall an uncle who could wiggle his ears. He did it every Christmas and Thanksgiving Day. It was as much a part of the regular program as the turkey and the cranberries. It was a feature of his engaging foolery to pretend that the wiggle was produced by rubbing the stomach, and a circle of us youngsters sat around him, rubbing our expectant stomachs, waiting for the miracle. A cousin brought a guitar and played the "Spanish Fandango" while we sat around the fire, sleepy after dinner. And there was a maiden aunt with thin blue fingers, who played waltzes while we danced, and she nodded and slept to the drowsy sound of her own music.

Of my own after-dinner pleasantries I am modest. I have only one trick. Two. I can recite the fur-bearing animals of North America--the bison, the bear, the wolf, the seal, and sixteen others--and I can go downstairs behind the couch for the cider. This last requires little skill. As the books of magic say, it is an easy and baffling trick. With every step you crook your legs a little more, until finally you are on your knees, hunched together, and your head has disappeared from view. You reverse the business coming up, with tray and glasses.

But these are my only tricks. There is a Brahms waltz that I once had hopes of, but it has a hard run on the second page. I can never get my thumb under in time to make connections. My best voice, too, covers only five notes. You cannot do much for the neighbors with that cramped kind of range. "A Tailor There Sat on His Window Ledge" is one of the few tunes that fall inside my poverty. He calls to his wife, you may remember, to bring him his old cross-bow, and there is a great Zum! Zum! up and down in the bass until ready, before the chorus starts. On a foggy morning I have quite a formidable voice for those Zums. But after-dinner pleasantries are only good at night and then my bass is thin. "A Sailor's Life, Yo, Ho!" is a very good tune but it goes up to D, and I can sing it only when I am reckless of circumstance, or when I am taking ashes from the furnace. I know a lady who sings only at her sewing-machine. She finds a stirring accompaniment in the whirling of the wheel. Others sing best in tiled bathrooms. Sitting in warm and soapy water their voices swell to Caruso's. Laundresses, I have noticed, are in lustiest voice at their tubs, where their arms keep a vigorous rhythm on the scrubbing-board. But I choose ashes. I am little short of a Valkyr, despite my sex, when I rattle the furnace grate.

With hymns I can make quite a showing in church if the bass part keeps to a couple of notes. I pound along melodiously on some convenient low note and slide up now and then, by a happy instinct, when the tune seems to require it. The dear little lady, who sits in front of me, turns what I am pleased to think is an appreciative ear, and now and then, for my support, she throws in a pretty treble. But I have no tolerance with a bass part that undertakes a flourish and climbs up behind the tenor. This is mere egotism and a desire to shine. "Art thou there, true-penny? You hear this fellow in the cellarage?" That is the proper bass.

Dear me! Now that I recall it, we have guests--guests tonight for dinner. Will I be asked to sing? Am I in voice? I tum-a-lum a little, up and down, for experiment. The roar of the subway drowns this from my neighbors, but by holding my hand over my mouth I can hear it. Is my low F in order? No--undeniably, it is not. Thin. And squeaky. The Zums would never do. And that fast run in Brahms? Can I slip through it? Or will my thumb, as usual, catch and stall? Have my guests seen me go down--stairs behind the couch for the cider? Have they heard the fur-bearing animals--the bison, the bear, the wolf, the seal, the beaver, the otter, the fox and raccoon?

Perhaps--perhaps it will be better to stop at the Trick Shop and buy a dribble-glass and a long black beard to amuse my guests.

[The end]
Charles S. Brooks's essay: After-Dinner Pleasantries