A story by James Alan McPherson
There is John Butler, a barber, looking out his shop window on a slow Monday morning. Impeccable, as usual, in his starched white jacket, he stands and surveys the procession of colors blending into the avenue, a living advertisement of his profession. The colors are blurred; the windowneeds a cleaning; the red lettering has been allowed to fade, almost to a mere outline. Some of the passing faces he cannot recognize. But some recognize him behind the window and wave as they hurry past. Others, wanting to avoid all contact with the shop, pretend that he is not there. They ease out of view without acknowledging his nodding head. Still, he stands in his usual place between the edge of the window and the door; and when a familiar face moves by the window without glancing toward the shop, he shares the embarrassment and turns his own eyes away. In his mind he forgives the workers; but the shiftless, the workless, the timeless strollers up and down the avenue he does not spare.
“They still tryin’ to starve us out,” he says, turning to the members of his shop. Today it consists of Ray Powell, the second barber; Mickey Norris, who has again played hooky from school in order to earn a few dollars shining shoes; and two loafers, who have come in for a game of checkers and a chance to enjoy it. All wince to hear him start again.
“Maybe I’ll go on down the block a minute,” Mickey says, moving toward the door.
“Maybe you better go on to school,” Butler tells him. “There ain’t go’n be no work in here today.”
Mickey, a sly boy, does not stray far from the green metal chair.
Butler gives him a severe look. “Not tomorrow either,” he adds.
Mickey slinks back to the chair and sits, his hands going into his pockets for coins to toss.
Ray, a fat brown man who likes to give the impression of habitual efficiency, runs the edge of a hand towel between the teeth of his own black comb and puckers his lips in an exaggeration of effort. “It’s just the first of the week. Reverend,” he says. “’Things are bound to pick up.”
One of the loafers, Norm Tyson from the Projects, knows better: he allows his opponent an advantage on the board and, before the man can incorporate it, says: “Looks like it’s yours.”
And then the two of them leave.
Just after noon, when Ray has gone across the street for lunch and Mickey has wandered off until evening, a young man looks in the door. A massive black tiara of hair encircles his head; his matching light green shirt and bell-bottom trousers advertise his wealth. Butler flashes his most hospitable smile and rises from his chair.
“How much for a quick one?” the young man asks from the door.
“For all that, two-fifty, maybe three dollars,” Butler says.
The young man snorts and throws back his arms in playful amazement. “Just for a trim? You wouldn’t wanna mess up my vibrations, would you?”
Butler loosens the smile and lowers his voice. “No,” he says. “Better go somewheres else. I got me some heavy hands.”
The young man laughs. “A heavy hand make a rusty register in your business, don’t it?” And backs out the door before the barber can form an answer.
At the end of the day some regulars do come in; but they are losing more hairs than Butler clips. Still, they lower their heads, more from respect than necessity, and allow him limited operations around the edges. These balding faithfuls-John Gilmore or Dick Kendricks or Willie Russell-the backbone of his Sunday congregation, fold their hands beneath the white sheet square and abide, in their turn, his wandering frustrations. “These whites have bullshitted our young men,” he says. “Now, me, I’m as proud as the next man. But our boys didn’t stop gettin’ haircuts until these white boys started that mess. That’s a fact. Wasn’t no more than a couple years ago, they’d be lined up against that wall on a Saturday night laughin’ at the white boys. But soon as they see these white kids runnm’ round wild, all at once they hair ain’t long enough no more.”
John Gilmore keeps his head lowered, his lips tight, his eyes watching his hands work beneath the sheet.
Ray, sitting in his own chair, looks up from the paper he has been reading and says; “Hey, I see where they arrested a big shot for tax evasion. First of the year they bound to hamstring one for example.” But no one picks it up. Ray rattles and folds the paper, and eases back into his reading.
“They know what they doin’,” Butler continues. “Why, they tell me Miss Dawson’s boy can’t git into the university on that new free program because those folk up there think he’s a Tom. As smart as that boy is, he can’t git in. But you see old Buggsy Brooks goin’ up there. They took him out of jail,” he says, bending close to Gilmore’s ear for emphasis. “You ought to see him struttin’ around, hair on his head big as a basketball. Never read a book through in his life.”
But no one, not even Gilmore who knows the true state of affairs, can muster the hardness of heart to take him on.
Once, there had been violent betting and spitinfested verbal battles and crowded-round checker games and hot clothes and numbers passing through; once, Butler would hum radio spirituals as he went about his work, or else trade righteous homilies with Ray, busy in the other chair. The men who remember those days-Gilmore, Kendricks, and the otherswould like to have them back; but there is an unspoken fear of being too possessive about the past and a determination not to allow the present to slip out of focus. They recognize another world outside the shop door, and find it much easier to pay up and walk away when Butler is done with his work.
“If it wasn’t for you belonging to his church,” John Gilmore tells his wife after each visit, “I wouldn’t go in there.”
“Now don’t you be no trouble to him,” Marie Gilmore reminds her husband. “He ain’t got much longer to go.”
On Sundays Butler now converts his sermons. The themes still resemble something familiar to his congregation, but lately the images have been doing different work. The relative few who still come into the church to hear it are growing bored. Some have already visited Reverend Tarwell and his more magical thumpings over on 138th. They like what they hear. There is talk that Tarwell plans to have himself crucified next month at Easter Sunrise Service and preach the entire sermon from the cross. Such resurrected remnants of the South appeal to them; the oldest have ever been homesick. Besides, Butler seems to have an obsession with a single theme:
“I was walkin’ down here this mornin’, brothers and sisters,” he begins, his rising voice mellowing into a comfortable chant, “thinkin’ about the rift there is these days between father and son; thinkin’ about the breach there is between son and son and daughter and daughter. I’m thinkin’ this mornin’ about old bloody Cain and his guiltless brother; about old man Abraham castin’ his son out into the wilderness; about that old rascal, Saul, lettin’ his wine turn him against young David. I see little Joseph tossed in the dark pit, strip naked of his garment by his brothers. And hungry Esau, just a-droolin’ at the mouth, sellin’ his birthright for a mess of pottage. There’s old slick Jacob now, a-crawlin’ in to blind Isaac’s bedside underneath the fleece of a wild and woolly animal; and Esau standin’ outside the door, just a-weepin’ away. Next to him is old rebellious Absalom, up in an oak tree, swingin’ by his hair with Joab ridin’ down on him. Just look at that boy cuss. I want to cut him down, Church, but I ain’t got the strength. My arm is raised up to him, but my razor’s kind of rusty. So can I git an a-men over here . . . ?”
Some of the people on his left say a weak “a-men.”
“Can I hear an a-men over there . . . ?”
Some few on the right say “a-men.”
“My razor growin’ sharper by the second . . .”
“You better lay off that stuff,” Ella, his wife, tells him at Sunday dinner. “The church done got tired of that one record you keep playin’.” They have not been invited out for Sunday dinner in over five months.
“They ain’t got no cause to complain,” Butler tells her. “I give them a good service. Besides, most of them don’t even listen to nothin’ but the names.”
“Just the same, you better lay off it for a while. It ain’t their fault you goin’ out of business.”
Butler looks over at her. She is chewing with a deliberation calculated to enrage him into an argument. “Whose fault you reckon it is?” he demands.
She continues chewing, looking wise.
Butler looks at his own food. “All right,” he says. “It’s my fault.”
“It ain’t that you have to do Afros. Ray could do that and you could do your old customers. There ain’t nothin’ wrong with dividin’ up the work thataway.”
“Ray ain’t go’n do fancy cuts in my place. First thing you know, these young fellows come hangin’ round there and drive the old customers away.”
She chews for a while, sips her coffee, and watches him. She takes her time in swallowing, smacks her lips, and then says; “Then you won’t have a place for much longer.”
He scrapes at his own plate, trying to avoid her eyes.
“And the way you goin’,” she adds, “you won’t be preachin’ much longer either.”
This thought he takes to bed with him while she lingers in the kitchen and sips, with irritating emphasis, another cup of coffee.
On another slow Monday morning. Ray, shaping his own moustache at the mirror, says: “You know, Reverend, I been thinking. Maybe we ought to go into processes. Nobody can say now that’s imitating the white man. And there’s guys on the block still wearing them.”
Butler turns from the window, his face twitching. Images of winos and hustlers flash through his mind. “That’s what you been thinkin’, huh?” he says to Ray.
“Yeah, Reverend,” Ray says, laughing to himself in the mirror. “Since the white folks always imitating us, maybe we could even process some of them.”
“I don’t process,” Butler answers.
“It’s work,” Ray says, dropping the laugh and looking serious.
“It’s devil’s work,” Butler says.
“Right now, I’d say we ain’t got much of a choice.”
Butler stands behind him. They exchange looks in the mirror. Ray works the scissors in his right hand, shaking off the hairs. Then he begins to clip his moustache again, drawing in his chin. Butler watches. After a while he says: “Ray, I know you think I’m a fool. I can’t help that. But when you get to be my age change is just hard. You can shape a boy’s life by what you do to his hair,” he says, looking over at Mickey tossing coins against the wall. “Now everybody can’t do that, but I’m proud to say I done it more than once in my lifetime. And I want to do it some more. But scrapin’ a few loose hairs off every Tom, Dick, and Harry that come in here, just to get the money, why anybody can do that. You understand what I’m sayin’?”
Ray lowers the scissors but does not answer.
“You, Mickey? You understand?”
Mickey thinks it over, tossing another coin to the wall. After a while he says, “Naw, suh,” and nods his head.
Butler walks back to the window. “That’s what I figured,” he finally says, looking out.
A little after one o’clock John Gilmore comes in for a quick shave during his lunch hour. Lying almost parallel in the chair, his rust-brown lips and eyelids showing through the lather, he makes careful conversation while Butler exercises the repressed magic in his hands. “Times being what they is in religion and all,” he says, “I been wonderin’ what you been plannin’ to do.”
“About what?” Butler says, not pausing in his work.
“Well,” Gilmore begins, “Marie say Second Calvary ain’t drawin’ no stronger membership. In fact, a lot of folks thinkin’ about plain quiltin’.”
“That’s their business,” he answers, holding back Gilmore’s ear. “They git what they pay tor.”
Gilmore waits until his ear is allowed to fall back into place. Then he says: ”I hear Reverend Tarwell thinkin’ ‘bout you for assistant pastor of his place. Times bein’ good for the colored like they is, he thinkin’ ‘bout goin’ into politics in a few wars. When he step down, there sure go’n be a crowd over at his place for somebody.”
Butler paused to wipe the razor. “Ain’t most of his people from South Carolina?” he asks.
“Well, most of mine from Alabama. There’s two different styles.”
Gilmore licks some lather off his lip with a delicate flicker of his tongue. He moistens both lips in the process. “That don’t make a difference no more.” he says. “People thinkin’ ‘bout unity these days. All of us in the same boat no matter where we from.”
“Guess so,” Butler says lightly. But after cleaning his razor again he says: “Where you from?”
“Then why you worryin’ about Tarwell’s church? Why don’t he bring his people over to mine?”
Gilmore tightens his lips.
“He’s the one plannin’ to leave the community, not me.”
“I’ll tell him that,” Gilmore says, closing his eyes tight and easing into a resolved silence.
Late on Thursday afternoon, Ray, his eyes averted, says he has to go. “It was a good shop, Reverend,” he says, “but I got me a family to support.”
“Where you goin’ to?” Butler asks.
“This new parlor over on 145th.”
“It’s all set up, huh?”
Ray says, “Yeah.”
“Well,” Butler says, forcing a smile, “maybe my luck will change some now with you gone.”
Ray looks sad. His fat jaws break out in sweat. He wipes it away, turning up the edge of his moustache. Lately he has taken to wearing his hair long about his ears: a steady warning, but of unsuspected proportions. “It ain’t nothing to do with luck, Reverend,” he sighs. “God-damn! Everybody done switched over but us. Even the barber schools don’t teach them old down-home cuts no more. You just plain stubborn!” Now he pauses, checking a great part of what has been building up in him. “Look, you want to get in on the money? It’s easy as pie. There ain’t no work involve in it. All you have to do is trim. Trim!” He sighs, smoothing down his ruffled moustache while stroking his face again. “You getting to be an old man, Reverend. You should be looking ahead. That’s what I’m doing. That’s all I’m doing.”
“I’ll take over your regulars.”
“What regulars?” Ray says. “There ain’t no regulars to divide. I cut your hair, you cut mine. Sometime Willie Russell or Jack Gilmore come in here out of guilt and let you burn their ears. What’s gonna happen when they get tired? Who you go’n cut then, yourself?”
“You can take your stuff with you,” Butler tells him, oblivious of Ray’s exasperation. “But mind you don’t take the goodwill over there to 145th.”
Ray, locking his mouth against more hot words, sprawls into his own chair, penitent and brooding. Mickey, smoking a cigarette arid listening in the john, blows a stream of smoke into the air and thinks his own thoughts.
“Now old Isaac,” he tells his people on another Sunday morning, “he’s a-layin’ down to die. He done followed out God’s directions and now ain’t worried about but one thing: makin’ his dyin’ bed comfortable. He done married to Rebekah, accordin’ to his father’s will; he done planted, in his old age, the seed of a great nation in her wombs. But now he’s tired, Church, his eyesight is a-failin’ and he’s hungry for red meat. He’s just about ready to lay his blessin’ on anybody, just as long as he can get a taste of venison steak. But God, Glory Glory, is a-workin’ against him, as he always works against the unwise. He can’t run the risk of that blessin’ failin’ on Esau, who is all covered with hair. So he has to make Rebekah his instrument, one more time, to see that his work git’s done. I want you to picture old Isaac now, just layin’ in his darkness pantin’ for meat. And Jacob, God’s beloved, sneakin’ in to blind Isaac’s bedside, a goatskin on his head, a service tray in his hand. But look here, Church: yonder, over there, runnin’ up from the woods with his hair holdin’ him down, here come old Esau just a-hustlin’ home. It’s gonna be a close one. Church; both these boys is movin’ fast. Now who go’n put money down on Esau? I say who go’n bet on Jacob? Both these boys is hustlin’ on in. Who go’n lay somethin’ on Esau this mornin’ now . . . ?”
No one responds.
. . Well, then, who go’n bet on Jacob . . . ?”
Most of them are confused. But some of the oldest, and most faithful, lay uninspired “a-mens”on Jacob,
. . The race is gettin’ closer by the minute . . .”
Marie Gilmore, dressed in her best white usher’s uniform, gets up and leaves the room.
There is John Butler, the barber, on another Monday morning; again loitering by the window, again considering the rhythm of the street. He has not housed a complete checker game for almost a month.
“How do you do one of these Afros?” he asks Mickey, turning from the window.
“Nothin’ to it, Rev,” says Mickey, a careful boy who bears the jokings of his buddies concerning his own close-cut hair in order to keep some steadywork. “Nothin’ to it,”he repeats, anticipation in his wise eyes. “You just let it grow, put some stuff on it, and keep it even all the time.”
“What kind of stuff? Sound like a process to me.”
“Naw, Rev,” Mickey says.
“What is this stuff?”
“It’s just to keep dandruff out.”
“You think I could do one?”
“Hell, Rev, anybody can do it.”
Butler thinks a bit. “Mickey, what does it do for these kids?”
Mickey looks up at him, his face suggesting the fire of deeply held knowledge. “What don’t it do for you?” is his answer.
Butler considers this.
Just before closing time that same day John Gilmore comes in. He does not need a shave or even a trim. Nor does he offer much conversation. Butler waits. Finally Gilmore musters sufficient courage.
“Marie says she ain’t comin’ back to Second Calvary no more.”
“Gone over to Tarwell, I bet.”
Gilmore nods. His large hands dangle between his legs as he sits on the green metal chair across from Butler.
“She was a fine usher,” Butler says. “Now Tarwell done beat me out of somethin’ fine.”
“You beat yourself,” Gilmore says. “She didn’t no more want to go over there than I want to stop comin’ in here.”
Butler looks into him. Gilmore looks down at his hands.
“So that’s how it is?”
Gilmore nods again.
“And you call yourself a Alabama boy.”
“That’s been over a long time ago. Things change.”
“I suppose you fixin’ to grow yourself an Afro too, with that bald spot on your head.”
Gilmore grows irritated. He gets up and moves toward the door. “I ain’t fixin’ to do nothin’, ” he says. “But if l was you I’d be fixin’ to close up shop for a while so’s I could reread my Bible for a spell.”
“I know the Good Book,” Butler says. “Thank you kindly.”
Gilmore turns at the door, his long right hand holding it open. “Or maybe give up the Good Book and go back down home where you can cut the kind of hair you want.”
“Maybe all of us ought to go back,” Butler calls after him. But John Gilmore has already closed the door.
Through the ebb of the afternoon he slumps in his chair, taking inventory of his situation. He is not a poor man: the title to the shop is clear; the upper floor of his duplex is rented out to a schoolteacher; and there is, besides, a little money in the bank. But there is Mickey to consider if he should close up shop; his salary comes to three-fifty a week, regardless. He would not like to see Mickey leave too. He would not like to see Mickey over on 145th, picking up ideas which have always been alien to his shop. He thinks some more about Mickey. Then he thinks about the South. Closing time comes, and goes. Mickey, passing down the street, sees him there and comes in. Butler sends him for coffee and then leans back again and closes his eyes. He thinks about going home, but again he thinks about the South. His feet braced against the footrest, the chair swinging round on its own, he recalls the red dirt roads of Alabama.
“Gimmie a ‘fro.”
Having lost all sense of direction, he has to raise himself before the sound can be connected.
“Gimmie a ‘fro, please?”
A boy is standing next to his chair. He is Tommy Gilmore, youngest son of his former customer. Butler once baptized him during the heat of a summer revival. Tommy’s hair is gray-black and tightly curled, his mouth is open, his dungarees faded and torn at the knee; a dollar bill is held up to Butler in the edge of his fist.
“What you want?”
“It’s after closing time,” Butler tells him. Then he sees the dollar. “And anyway, it’s gonna cost you one-fifty. You got that much?”
The boy hands up the dollar.
“That ain’t enough,” Butler says, handing it back. “What else you got in your pocket? How much Marie give you?”
“Ain’t got no more,” the boy mumbles.
Greed lifts its thumb, but charity quickly waves it away. “You sure that’s all you got?”
Butler moves over to the hot-water heater and takes the board from behind it. He lays it across the armrests of his chair, takes a fresh cloth from the drawer and gives it a decisive snap. “Sit down, Mister,” he tells the boy. “I’m gonna give you the nicest schoolboy you ever seen.”
Tommy does not move. His fist tightens around the dollar. Part of it disappears into the vise. His eyes narrow cynically. “A schoolboy ain’t no ‘fro,” he states.
“Git up on the board, son.”
“You go’n gimme one?”
“I’m a barber, ain’t I?”
The boy mounts.
Butler secures him, and then ties the cloth.
Mickey comes in with the coffee, surveys the room, and then sets the steaming cup on the counter below the mirror.
Butler fastens the safety pin in the knot behind the boy’s neck. “Now look here, Mickey, and you’ll learn something,”he says as Mickey stands back to inspect the boy in the chair.
Mickey’s eyes flicker over the scene, the curiosity in him slowly changing to doubt. “How you go’n do it, Rev? You ain’t got no comb, you ain’t got no stuff, and it ain’t even long enough yet.”
The boy begins to wiggle in the chair. The board shifts under him. “It is too long enough,” he says.
“Naw it ain’t,” says Mickey, malice in his eyes, his eyes on the younger boy’s face, his head solemnly swaggering. “You got to go four, five months before you get enough. And you ain’t got but one or two yet.”
“Shut your trap, Mickey,” Butler orders. He straightens the board with one hand and places the other on the struggling boy’s shoulder. “I’m going to work on it now,” he says, pressing down.
“But it ain’t go’n do no good!”
“Shut up or go on home!” Butler says.
Mickey struts over to his own green chair at the end of the row, his face beaming the aloofness of a protected bettor on a fixed poker game. He sits, watching with animal intensity. The boy sees him and begins to squirm again.
“Quiet down, now,” the barber says, this time pressing down on the boy’s head. “I know what I’m doin’.”
The boy obeys, whimpering some. Butler begins to use his shears. The hair is hard and thick, tightly curled and matted; but, deep inside it, near the scalp, he sees red dust rising. He is furious in his work, a starved man: turning and clipping and holding and brushing and shaping and holding and looking and seeing, beyond it all, the red dust rising. In ten minutes it is done. He stands back for a final look, then opens the pin, undoes the knot. Again he shapes the white sheet-square; again he brushes. The boy steps down, still whimpering softly. The board goes back behind the hot-water tank. And Butler lifts him up to the long mirror. The last whiffs of steam curl out from the cooling coffee. Mickey tightens his mouth and reaches into his pocket for a coin to toss against the wall. The boy looks into the mirror.
There is the barber: under the single bulb which sends light out through the windows of his shop. Gesturing, mouthing, making swift movements with his hands in the face of the shouting John Gilmore, who stands between him and the window. The boy is clinging to the man, crying softly. There is Mickey, still in his green chair against the wall, his own eyes, his own mind deciding.
“If you didn’t call yourself a minister of God, I’d kick your ass!” the tight-fisted John Gilmore is saying. His bottom lip is pushed far out from his face.
“Didn’t you ever have a schoolboy when you was his age? Just answer me that.”
“I went to a different school. But my son ain’t no plantation Negro.”
“He didn’t have nothin’ but a dollar anyhow.”
“Then you should of send him somewheres else!”
Tommy’s mouth is open. He is crying without sound.
“Look at him! You can’t tell me he don’t look better now.”
“We go’n close you down, old man. You hear what I’m say in’? We go’n dose this joint down and your church too!”
“You go’n close us all down.”
“We go’n run all you Toms from the community . . .”
Mickey slides his hand into his pocket, rattling the coins.
* * *
On still another Sunday morning he stands, tired now, old, facing the last few strays of a scattered flock. It is almost Easter. Word is going around that Tarwell has already nailed the cross together in the basement of his church. Some say they have seen it. Others, some of those who are sitting here, are still reserving judgment. Marie Gilmore is back; but she has not come for the sermon. She sits at the back of the room in a purple dress, her eyes cast down. Butler, looking fierce and defensive, stares at the six or so faces peering up at him. Some look sheepish; some impatient; some look numb as always, waiting to be moved. He stands before them, his two hands gripping the edges of the pulpit. They wait. Several plump ladies fan themselves, waiting. One, Betty Jessup, sitting on the front pew, leans forward and whispers; “You fixin’ to preach, or what?”
He does not answer.
Now the people begin to murmur among themselves; “What’s wrong with him?” “When’s he gonna start?”
“We are a stiff-necked people,” he begins, his voice unusually steady, the music gone. “Our heads turn thisaway and thataway, but only in one direction at a time.” He pauses. “We’ll be judged for it.”
“Who go’n judge us?” Marie Gilmore suddenly fires from the back of the room. They all turn, their mouths hanging loose. Marie Gilmore rises. “Who’s to say what’s to be judged and what ain’t?” she says through trembling lips. “Who’s left to say for certain he knows the rules or can show us where they written down?” she says.
The people are amazed. Several of them wave their hands and nod their heads to quiet her. Marie Gilmore does not notice. Her eyes are fixed on Butler.
He stands behind the pulpit and does not say anything.
At Sunday dinner Ella says: “Well, what you go’n do now?”
“Send that truant officer after Mickey,” he says quietly.
He shifts his eyes about the room, looking for something.
Ella sighs and strikes her chest. “Lord, why I had to marry a man with a hard head?”
Butler looks her in the face. “Because you couldn’t do no better,” he tells her. □