Monday, January 5, 2009

In The Barber Shop

by Jim Parks

In the Metropolitan that Tuesday morning, all was brilliant refracted sunlight from the prism edges of the mirrors and the dull shine of polished dark-stained wood. The tiny hexagonal floor tiles gleamed from a fresh scrubbing and the air was redolent with shaving soap, liniment and tonic.

The old man came in, nodded to everyone and pulled a newspaper out of the side pocket of his coat after he hung up his hat on a mahogany tree at the door.

His hands shook too badly to do it himself, so he got a shave on Saturday nights, took "Little Bitty Grandma" to church on Sunday, then made the obligatory visit with her to some friends' place before dinner, and spent a lazy afternoon snoozing in his chair.

But there was hell and Jesus in his house now. He could get no rest.

The Klan came into the church on Sunday morning in their robes and one of them made a speech about protecting the flag and southern womanhood.

Little Bitty Grandma could not be consoled. They had committed that one unpardonable sin against southern womanhood. They had scared her.

"Bill, I don't go to church for that kind of trash to come in and talk to me - not that way. I wouldn't listen to them anywhere, much less in my church. I want something done about it."

She had said it over and over - each time the same way. She meant business, had stomped out of the church on the heels of her high button shoes and handed herself into the enormous touring car, then slammed the door with her nose in the air.

He asked what she expected him to do about it.

"I'm sure you will think of something if you know what's good for you, Bill ______."

He made so bold as to ask "Or else what?" It was the kind of thing that came as close to fight as they ever had.

"I will go back out to the place and live with Rebecca."

The "place" was their cotton farm fifteen miles out in the country. Rebecca was her oldest daughter who lived in a home in the compound of five houses they had built over the years so their kids could take care of the enormous place.

He found bedding - quilts, pillows and sheets - on the horsehair sofa in the living room downstairs. Nothing was said.

He could hear her crying upstairs. He went to their room and knocked on the door softly.

"Go away."

"Sarah, I..."

"Go away, Bill. I don't want to hear it." He felt despair as he stood in the wide hallway of the old house, staring at pictures of his children.

He did not sleep well that night. He did not fit the sofa.

That settled it. He would take action, personal and direct, though he was almost eighty, diabetic, and often found himself standing in one place or the other in his home or his yard wondering what it was he had intended to do next.

He waited for Tuesday.

They had found a white woman murdered, strangled and stabbed, her baby trying to nurse at her breast, in a house down along the railroad tracks just outisde the town.

The posse found a negro camped under a low trestle not too far away, dragged him to the jail, and the rest would enter the oral history of the town for the next century to come.

They chained him on a load of hay soaked with kerosene and touched it off. People said he screamed for awhile, then began to turn into a smaller and smaller sizzling piece of stinking, reduced and blackened burned tissue, sizzling smaller and smaller around the skeletal structure. Finally, his skull had exploded with a diminutive pop.

The old man had visited the domino parlor and the fire station. He knew who was responsible, had waited - he called it "laying around the lick log" - until he saw them enter the barber shop that morning, then followed them inside.

Suddenly, he laid his newspaper aside and said, to no one in particular, "Y'all gonna mind me."

No one paid much attention. They just kept on chatting and laughing at one joke or another.

"I said y'all gonna mind me. You will mind me, you hear? Y'all don't mind me, you'll wonder how come you didn't."

One of the barbers stopped in mid-sentence and said, "Are you talking to me, Bill?"

"That's Mister Bill to you, boy."

"Mister Bill, what in the world is wrong?"

"What's right with the world? You tell me, fella."

He stood up and pulled off his coat, throwing it down on the bench next to him. No one missed the big .45 caliber revolver hanging down from the shoulder holster almost to his left hip. The dark brown leather rig held it snugly to what once had been a massive chest and huge shoulders.

His moustaches jumped up and down as he talked. His eyes flashed fire.

"Y'all burned that air niggah t'other day? I can't he'p that. Then you come to my wife's church and talked about it uninvited. That scared her. Y'all ought not scare her - any other women in this town, you hear?

"Here's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna promise you that if you try to burn anyone else, niggah or white, Meskin or Injun, I'm gonna come for you. You won't like that..."

"Aw, Mister _____, one of the Klansmen said, trying to reason with him.

"No, sir, you listen here to me, boy. Y'all gonna mind me. Y'all think someone done some killin'? Something like that? You turn him over to the Sheriff. Let the District Attorney get him indicted, then let a jury convict him unanimously. Then you turn him over to the Governor to make sure his sentence is carried out. It's that simple. Y'all try to do anything else - especially scare my wife or any other woman - and you'll answer to me."

He put on his hat and folded his coat over his arm, then stalked out of the barber shop, leaving the cloying mixture of odors - lilac and powder, shaving soap and liniment, bootblack, and the light machine oil they used on the clippers and scissors.

Outside, he felt better than he had at any time in at least twenty years. There was a bite to the early Spring air. He sprung along in his boots, then swung up into his touring car with its polished brass and dark-painted fenders and doors, its odor of rubber and gasoline, leather and dust.

He went home to a lunch of cold biscuits and ham, warmed- over coffee and an apple.

He said, "Little Darlin', I talked to them..."

"Do tell," she said, flouncing out of the kitchen as if she was eighteen again. She snorted as she went up the stairs to their room. "Go on and talk to them, old man. Just you be sure and talk to them, now. I'll bet they will be real impressed."

He burned for her, became fully involved in her rage. It was now a matter of survival. Little old men cannot make it by themselves. He knew this so well.

It was another little old man who telephoned him as he dozed in his chair in the middle of one of his famous afternoon naps.

"Bill, they're fixing to burn another damn niggah down here on the square. You'd better get on down here, old man."

"Don't you go nowhere. I'll be by to get you in just a minute."

He stuck his feet in his boots, hitched up his suspenders and shouldered into his holster. Jamming his hat on his head, he thanked himself for having an electric starter put on his touring car.

When they got there, the crowd had just started their war dance. Ugly hatred marched across every face in the crowd. The old man shuddered as he watched neighbors and business acquaintances lust for the blood of this unfortunate black man who was in a wild dither as he begged them to spare his life.

"Lawd, no, hell, no. Don't y'all burn po' me. I didn't do nothin' to nobody. Hell, no," he screamed, trying to break the chains as they laughed at him and made faces.

The old man drove up in the middle of the crowd, making them move out of the way of the big car with its big steel fenders and the incredibly long hood topped by the chromed swan taking flight. He hoisted himself out and stood on the running board, struggling to conceal how he had lost his breath.
He drew the old pistol, fired it in the air.

That startled the crowd, especially when they saw who had done it. It was well known that he had come into the country from Virginia, had made a lot of money and was very influential in business affairs.

"Put the niggah in the jail. Do it and do it now. Y'all gonna mind me, or you'll wonder why you didn't." He shouted it. His voice came from somewhere deep, down near his navel.

The same smart mouth who had tried to talk back to him in the barber shop spoke up.

"Now, Mister ______, you're liable to get yourself hurt."

The old man fired just over his head, his wobbly hand holding the pistol as steady as he could as the broken plate glass from a store front behind the "reserve" deputy crashed inside the window.

"I said you are going to mind me, and I don't mean maybe. So get busy."

The crowd melted away very quickly after that. Two deputies unchained the man and helped him down from the wagon.

"And y'all clean that kerosene off that boy, you hear me?" He was breathing harder than ever, close to a heart attack or a stroke. "I don't want my jail a'burnin' down. Y'all might think that's yo' jail, but it's not. It's my jail."

He watched bleakly until they had gotten the man down from the wagon and gone down the block to the jail, then he climbed back into the driver's seat and reversed out of the parking place and drove on home.

When he had dropped his friend off and wheeled into the old barn behind the house, she was waiting on the back porch to take his hat.

"I've been listening to the party line, Bill. They are all saying you done the right thing."

She looked up at him with pride, taking his elbow and pressing her breast to his side.

She felt the gun hanging from the holster pressed between them.

"And take that thing off. Don't you dare try to wear that into my house. Is it loaded?"

"Wouldn't be much good if it wasn't, would it, now?"

She laughed in spite of herself.

"You hungry, old man?"

"You know I am, Little Darlin'."

They laughed at each other again as they passed under the shotgun hanging on pegs over the door between the kitchen and the mud room.

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