Little Boy Cut
ALTHOUGH SHE WOULD HAVE LOVED TO BE A FLY on the wall and listen to what men talked about when they had the world to themselves, Karen Johnson knew she was an intruder in the barber shop. Besides, she had errands to run. Patterson’s had a sale going on sundresses—14.99, down from 19.99—and Karen wanted first shot at them. So she patted Jigger’s shoulder and gave him a little push toward an empty chair, then turned to Billy Dale, the barber, pantomimed a clipping motion at the back of her head with the index and middle fingers of her right hand, and said, “Little boy cut.”
Billy nodded as if he’d expected as much—and of course he had expected as much
—and said, “Yes, ma’am.”
By then Karen was already on her way out the door, and the barbershop was free of women again.
Jigger sat down next to the little table with the stack of magazines and comic books on it, on the other side of which sat Milton Rhoads. The good news was that on top of the stack was an issue of G.I. Joe that was only a few months old. (Mr. Dale’s comics were mostly older than Jigger.) The bad news was that on top of the G. I. Joe was Milton Rhoads’ hand. He didn’t have it there protectively or possessively but in that absent-minded way of old men that was even more troubling because the hand might be there for another ten minutes or twenty or for the entire interminable waste of time Jigger had to sit there before his turn in the barber’s chair came.
As if he felt Jigger’s eyes on him, Milton stirred in his chair, but then settled back like a dog settling in for a nap or, alarmingly, a man preparing himself to speak at length.
“Now, you remember the Whistlestop Café,” Milton began in a voice that by its timber and volume indicated it was meant for everyone in the shop even though Milton himself would have said he was talking to Billy Dale alone, Billy being within a generation at least of Milton’s age and a vet on top of it, and the others not worth his time.
It was Russ Forte who answered, though. “Sure I do,” he said. But he didn’t, not really. Oh sure, he’d heard of The Whistlestop Café, or thought he had. And he had a vague idea he might have walked past it a time or two. But the Whistklestop had closed in the early or mid-60’s, and Russ would have just been a kid then. He was only forty-three, which aggravated him. He liked to sit around with the boys at the Phillips 66 and Lucky’s Tavern and the barbershop—his three favorite hangouts—and he felt his pronouncements on politics, race, gender, religion, and everything else that came into his ken would have more weight if he were a little older. “Out on Blue Hill Road.”
“No, corner of North and Main, a block down from the depot,” Milton said in a tone that clearly implied, “Shut up. Don’t speak when your elders have the floor.”
It was laid in linoleum squares, originally a checkerboard pattern of brown and pale beige, but over the years worn, scuffed, scraped, waxed, and scrubbed, not to mention cigarette butts stubbed out on it, soft drinks spilled, Benny Knox dropping a bottle of Hiram Walker on it and then down on his hands and knees trying to lick up the spill as Billy swept at the broken glass and slapped him with the broom, saying, “Get up off the floor, Benny. You’re a man, not a dog,” but somehow Benny never so much as cutting his little finger, you know how lucky drunks are.
“Sorry,” he said as Vincent Kline winced under the razor that’d just nicked the soft flesh joining ear to head. With his pinkie finger Billy rubbed a bit of soap collected in Vincent’s sideburn over onto the tiny bead of blood and, maybe to distract Vincent, said, “Yep, I was in the Whistlestop once or twice, but I didn’t frequent it. It was too rough a place for me.”
nodded and closed one eye like a wise old owl. “It was not an
establishment for the faint of heart,” Milton agreed, “although they had
some interesting characters in there. You remember that darkie they had
in there that bussed the tables and cleaned out the spittoons and such?”
“That was Don President,” Billy said. “He died a few years ago.”
Milton Rhoads frowned and shook his head. “Don President, you say? No, I don’t think that’s it. No no. ‘Horse,’ they called him. I don’t recollect his last name.”
Billy paused. He’d taken up scissors and comb again and held them poised, as if in benediction, over Vincent Kline’s head.
“Oh, you mean Horse, uh, Gill I think it was. He was a Gill, I think. I remember hearing about him.”
“Gill, that’s it. I knew it wasn’t this President guy.”
“Don President worked here, for me, in the barbershop. That’s who Russ was talking about.”
Milton looked over at Russ in surprise bordering on outrage.
“We were talking about the darkie in the Whistlestop,” he said, owl eyes blinking hugely in baffled consternation. His left hand at the same time lifted into the air and crept toward his throat, exposing the G. I. Joe comic book. Jigger Johnson, on the alert, snatched at it, but the hand that had been ascending toward Milton’s throat suddenly reversed course and fell back to the table, pinning both the G.I. Joe and Jigger’s right hand.
“M-m-m-m-m!” Jigger whined not quite noticeably in the upper back of his throat. Mama! Mama! But no, he didn’t say it. He was ten, too old for that.
Milton, still trying to assimilate Russ Forte’s brazen digression from his reminiscences vis a vis the Whistlestop Café, sat oblivious to the bit of flesh and bone trapped under the moist, slightly palsied slab of meat that was his left hand.
Vincent Kline tried to look away but couldn’t. To hold the boy’s hand, to hold his hand, no more than that, please God, to hold the boy’s hand . . .
Billy began to snip at Vincent’s hair again. Snip snip snip. Yellow-gray hair so preternaturally fine that when released from its anchorage in Vincent’s scalp threatened to rise lighter than air in a yellow-gray nimbus before falling back onto his head, neck, shoulders, some truncated filaments sliding through the overhead-fan-stirred air of the barbershop and eventually joining the growing collection around Billy’s feet on the linoleum floor, originally a checkerboard pattern of chocolate brown and pale beige squares but now worn to a monotonous monochrome by time, feet, cleaning solvents, and Benny Knox’s spilled Hiram Walker.
“Why did they call him ‘Horse,’ Mr. Rhoads?” Billy said, loudly enough that Milton, a little startled, jerked spastically, and Jigger Johnson retrieved his trapped hand, which Vincent Kline would have been grateful to have held, just held for a moment, dear God, only that.
Milton stared at Billy as if unsure who or what he was. Then his long broad coal-shovel-shaped face settled into recognition, plus smirk. Milton lifted his hands, palms together, as if in prayer, then slowly moved them apart until they bracketed a space approximately twelve inches wide.
“That’s why they called him ‘Horse,’“ he said.
Russ whooped and spun himself in a full circle in the barber’s chair, dragging the toe of his shoe lightly across the linoleum until the sole caught the upturned edge of a loosened square and brought him to a halt, the square coming up like the hinged cover of a book. Billy squinted down at the gummy black surface beneath the square like he was trying to read it.
Russ slapped the arm of the chair. “How long did you say it was, Milton?”
Milton ignored the insubordinate use of his first name and spread his hands again. “Twelve inches if an inch,” he said. “He’d put on a show in the back room with that darkie gal that worked in there. Late at night in the front room, too, sometimes”
“Easy, Mr. Rhoads, easy,” Billy said, nodding significantly toward Jigger.
“Twelve inches!” Russ marveled, then turned to Vincent Kline. “What would you do with a twelve-inch dong, Vincent?”
“Easy, Russ, easy. We’ve got a young’n here,” Billy said, nodding again toward Jigger.
Vincent blushed so furiously the scalp under his yellow-gray hair had turned bright red. Billy, marveling, resisted an urge to lay his palm on it to see if it was as hot as it looked.
Russ was about to repeat, What would you do with a twelve-inch dong, Vincent because he thought Vincent just might spontaneously combust in embarrassment, but Orin Davis spoke up first.
“Well well, Jigger Johnson, Jigger Johnson, if it isn’t Mr. Jigger Johnson himself,” he said as if just now realizing Jigger was in the shop.
Orin was a big friendly Teddy-bear of a man who’d in general rather talk than breathe, but he’d been sitting silently between the old-fashioned wooden coat rack and the yard-tall blow-up of the Joe Rosenthal photo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima ever since the conversation had turned to the Whistlestop Café. He’d actually been in the Whistlestop a few times as a young man. They’d served a fine open-face roast-beef sandwich, and he enjoyed the photos of the baseball greats lining the walls—Hubble and Dickey and the Deans, Gehrig, and of course best of all the Bambino himself, whom Orin had always favored because, well, he thought they sort of shared the same body type. But then one night he stopped off late for a piece of coconut pie and witnessed a type of spectacle that he, essentially an innocent let loose on the world, had not known existed. That was his last time in the Whistlestop, and this unexpected resurrection of a memory he’d just as soon leave buried disconcerted him. And a boy here, too. No one loved children more than Orin. So, to change the subject, he’d bellowed out in that good-hearted way of his that just irritated the hell out of Russ, “Well well, Jigger Johnson, Jigger Johnson, if it isn’t Mr. Jigger Johnson himself!”
Russ, who rarely took notice of a child until he reached the age to play ball for Centralia High, had ignored Jigger until this moment, but now he perked up.
“What’s your name, boy? ‘Jigger’? Did I hear right? ‘Jigger’?”
Jigger had been about to snatch the G.I. Joe, but now he was forced to turn to Mr. Forte. He squirmed in his chair, stared at the floor, and grinned uneasily.
Russ was still turned toward Billy and Vincent in the barber’s chair, his toe caught under the flap of linoleum tiling. In order to talk to Jigger, he had to twist his body and look back over his right shoulder. This lent him something of the air of an Oriental potentate reclining insolently on his throne and looking back at a nubile servant who had just dropped a goblet, for which transgression he might be rewarded with a caress of his young buttocks or the sultan’s gold dagger in his thrashing heart.
“Mind the tile there, Russ,” Billy said in an oddly dreamy voice, which Russ ignored.
“‘Jigger’!” Russ said with contempt and wonder. “Imagine hanging a nigger name on a white boy.”
“Easy, there, Russ . . .”
“Nigger Johnson. What the hell kind of name is that?”
Jigger felt tears stinging to his eyes.
“It’s Jigger,” he declared, holding tight to the chrome double tubes that formed the arms of his chair. At one time there’d been plastic arm-pads on top of the tubes, but those were long gone, only two rusted screw-holes in each arm indicating where they’d been.
Yes, Billy had let thing go in the shop. Once, he’d taken such pride, but since Joyce had died it was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other, keep on marching.
“I know your name’s ‘Jigger,’ boy, but what’s a Jigger? A Jigger’s a jig, and a jig is a nigger. So basically you’re walking around with a nigger name.”
“Leave the boy alone, Forte.”
Russ remained frozen in that Oriental potentate posture for a moment, but no longer insolent now because you can’t be insolent—which requires a certain loose-jointed languidness—and go as rigid as Russ had gone. It was the “Forte” that had done it. A casual acquaintance doesn’t use a man’s last name in just that way unless things have all of a sudden arrived in the vicinity of serious.
Russ dearly wanted to remain sprawled across the chair, but he couldn’t stop himself from straightening up a tad, his toe releasing the square of linoleum, which settled almost fully back down, like a blossom closing at nightfall. Then he turned the chair slowly around until he was facing the source of “Forte,” a surprise to none more than to the source himself: Orin Davis. Orin was about as even-tempered a guy as there was in Centralia, yet there he sat, puffed up like an adder, red face and watery eyes and breathing hard through his nose so you could hear him whistling clear across the room. Russ looked Orin up and down like he was measuring him for his coffin, but this survey brought him little assurance. True, Orin was probably ten years older than Russ, but he was a big ol’ boy with huge feet and hands and broad hips and shoulders like a fifty-pound sack of dog pellets. Russ badly wanted to be big, but the truth was he was only five-eight in his boots and he did such a good job of dodging work down at the farm supply that his hands were soft and his forearms slack as a woman’s.
“No, that darkie’s name was Horse . . .”
Everyone turned and looked at Milton Rhoads, who was looking up at the ceiling fan speculatively, as if the thread of the conversation he was having trouble keeping a grasp on might be found dangling there.
“. . . not Jigger. Horse Gill was the name. There used to be quite a few Gills around here, but I do believe they’re mostly gone now. That Horse, though . . .”
Milton turned to Jigger and tapped him on the knees with the knuckles of his left hand.
“He could hold eight silver dollars on his peeter at one time.”
Russ, extremely happy at this turn in the conversation since he’d just about reached the point in his face-down with Orin Davis that he felt compelled to beat feet out the door, gasped, “Eight silver dollars?”
Milton waved a stubby index finger in Jigger’s face, as if it’d been Jigger who’d dared ask for confirmation, and repeated, “Eight silver dollars.”
“I’m trying to picture this, Milton,” Russ said. “Now, was it eight silver dollars stacked one on top of the other? On the end of his John Thomas, like?”
Milton gave him a disgusted look and shook his head, then turned back to Jigger, prodded his knee to make sure he had his attention, then with the edge of his hand made a series of chopping motions along the chrome double-tubing that comprised the arm of the chair.
“One two three four five six seven eight. On top of his peeter, edge to edge, one right after another, eight of ‘em. Jake Starns owned the Whistlestop, you know, and he’d bet you a dollar that darkie of his could do it. I saw it plenty of times. And that darkie woman who worked in there—I don’t recollect her name—she could pick a quarter up off the table without using her hands. Now, how do you figure she did that?”
Jigger looked quickly up at Milton, hoping that he’d turned his attention to someone else, but no such luck. The little round eyes were still peering down at him from the upper reaches of his absurdly long, broad face.
Jigger frowned miserably and shrugged. “I dunno . . . Used her teeth?”
Russ and Milton laughed like a Greek chorus howling at the folly of mankind while
Orin Davis raised his hand as if wanting to be recognized by the teacher, but he didn’t wait to be called on. “Mr. Rhoads, I think the boy’s a little young for that kind of talk.”
Perceiving that he now had an ally, Russ spoke up: “Hell, Davis, what better place for a kid to learn about sex than a barbershop? Hell, I bet little Jig here’s already been smelling where the little girls pee, ain’t you boy?”
“Lay off the boy, Forte.”
There was that last name again. Russ looked over to Milton for support, but the old bastard was staring off into space, listening to the sound of his arteries hardening, probably. Russ turned to Billy. “That’s what barbershops are for, ain’t it Billy? A little sex?”
He’d meant to say a little sex talk, but the slip was fine with him because it got a smile from Billy—strange sort of wistful smile, though, and Billy didn’t seem to really be listening but instead was staring at the floor behind the chair Russ was sitting in. Vincent Kline fidgeted in the chair under Billy’s suspended scissors. You could forgive him for being nervous in the presence of Russ, who many years back with the help of a group of teenagers dragged Vincent into the alley behind the pool hall and pulled his pants down and pushed a Coke bottle as far up his ass as Russ, putting his whole weight behind it, was capable of. And Vincent was too shy to go to the clinic to get the tear in his rectum tended to. He just let it heal however it would. And they laughed at him when, for weeks afterward, he walked funny.
As if he’d had a sudden thought—although at this point it was difficult to tell if the thought was horrible or merely staggering—Milton Rhoads brought his left hand up and clamped it to his forehead.
“Darkies!” he exclaimed.
“Yes sir, you said it there,” Russ agreed.
Jigger snatched up the exposed G.I. Joe.
On the cover, Sergeant Slaughter was smashing through a vine-infested jungle, M-16 clutched like a six-shooter in one hand and grenade in the other. His lips were pulled back from his teeth in a ferocious snarl. Jigger liked the G. I. Joe comics a lot, but he wished it was a different war. Jigger didn’t like to think about Vietnam—but he did like to think about war. It was probably his favorite thing to think about, in fact. He played war with his BB gun in the back yard, and he had pitched battles on the living room carpet with his G. I. Joe figures, and he read a lot about war—comic books and sometimes magazines and even whole books, because he had an eighth-grade reading level even though he was just going into the fourth grade. He dreamed about being a great hero, which he thought came natural to him, considering his family heritage. His father had been in the army and his two uncles in the navy. His grandfather had been in the army in World War II and had won a Purple Heart, although when Jigger told this to his friends he was compelled to change a detail or two because the circumstances of his grandfather’s wounding didn’t strike him as sufficiently heroic. (He’d been a mechanic, down underneath a truck working on a U-joint, whatever that was, when a artillery shell landed close by, causing him to bounce like a rubber ball and ram the screwdriver right through the palm of his left hand.) One of the details Jigger changed was the army to the Marine Corp. He was baffled by the men folk in his family—his own father included—going in to the army or navy when Jigger’s great-grandfather had been a U. S. Marine and had fought at Beleau Wood in 1918 in World War I. Jigger had never known his great-grandfather, but his granddad had told him the story often enough: how they came up out of the trenches and walked (no running!) six feet apart (no bunching up!) across that open field, the men cussing and the bullets flying by “like a bunch of stirred-up hornets,” his granddad would quote his great-granddad as saying. They walked right into the woods where the Jerries were dug in, went at ‘em with bayonets and by God sent ‘em on the run. That was a war, that was bravery!
Not that there was anything wrong with World War II. Jigger had in fact probably read more about World War II than any other war. He knew that Joe Rosenthal took the famous photo of the Marines raising the Stars and Stripes over Mt. Suribachi. He bet the man sitting next to the photo was a Marine. He was brave, that was for sure. He’d spoken up and saved Jigger from that Mr. Forte, hadn’t he?
He was called “Jigger” because a jig was a dance, and when he was a baby he used to stand up in his crib and hold on to the bars and jump up and down like he was doing a jig. He wasn’t named after a black person, that was for sure.
“Darkies!” Milton Rhoads exclaimed once more, his left hand still clasped to his forehead as if that were all that was keeping his head from flying completely off at the astounding notion.
Other than adding some speed to C. H. S.’s athletic squads, Russ was damned if he could see what purpose niggers served in Centralia. What were they doing there, anyway? Why on earth had they come there in the first place? Why did they stay? He couldn’t figure it out. “You say that Horse fella was a Gill?” Russ said. “I know there used to be some Gills around, but I don’t recollect running into any for awhile. Maybe I just been lucky. Are there still any Gills in Centralia?”
Milton Rhoads thought about this a minute, then slapped his hand down on the table.
“No, by God, I don’t believe there are.”
Wrong. One left. Name of Christian (Horse) Gill, who lived in what had once been a two-room house but was now a two-room shack in a little collection of similar shacks in the narrow flood plain between Blue Hill Road and the Tim’s River just beyond the north city limits of Centralia, a settlement that carried no official name but bore the name everyone in Centralia including the blacks knew it by: Niggertown. He was born in the same house (shack) that he still lived in eighty-odd years later, the only break being a stint in the army where for the first time in his life Red (his nickname in the family, derived from Red Man chewing tobacco, his Aunt Honey’s favorite brand, which Red had gotten sick as a dog on when he was a boy) had worked side by side with whites on something like an equal footing. There was even one tall skinny kid Red got kind of friendly with nicknamed Jaybird, but before Red could find out the reason for the nickname or what his real name was, an 88 round landed nearby while Jaybird was working under a truck, bouncing him like a rubber ball and causing him to ram a screwdriver through the palm of his hand, chipping a bone and tearing ligaments and sending that lucky son of a bitch home early. Red never saw Jaybird again, at least not that he could swear to. He saw a fellow around Centralia a couple of times who looked an awful lot like Jaybird, but in those days everybody looked like somebody he’d known in the army. Red would have liked to look at the fellow’s hand to see if it looked like a hand that’d been run through with a screwdriver, but at that time in Centralia a black man didn’t get close enough to a white man to see his scars unless he had a hell of a good reason. Besides, Red was more concerned with finding a job.
He had assumed without really thinking about it that when he got back to Centralia he’d be able to use his mechanic’s skills to make a decent living, but all the garages in town were owned by whites who refused even to talk to him about a job. He inquired all over town anywhere he thought there was even the slightest possibility of work where he could use his hands to good effect—”I’m good with my hands. I can fix things,” he’d say before the door closed in his face—and had only the one offer, by the owner of the Whistlestop Café, Jake Starns, who said, “If you can get that balky damn coal-oil stove going, I’ll hire you to wash dishes and do odd jobs.” He didn’t know what kind of place the Whistlestop was until he saw the black waitress, Rosie Easter, pick up a quarter off the table without using her hands. Then, after Mr. Starns saw him taking a leak out behind the café (he wasn’t allowed to use the white folks’ john, of course) Red became part of the act. Became “Horse.”
Christian (Red, Horse) Gill never married. He lived with his aunts until they died (Aunt Honey in 1971 and Aunt Ruth in that awful summer of 1980), and after that he lived alone. He has no friends. His Social Security checks are enough to meet his few needs. He spends his days watching the 13-inch color TV (he’s hooked on Days of Our Lives and General Hospital), or, more and more now, staring off into space. On hot summer days he’ll sit naked in front of the fan. Sometimes he’ll look down at his flaccid penis, like a flap of useless material left over from the mysterious, purblind process that produced him. He’ll have trouble, sometimes, remembering what he’d done with the thing; often, though, he’ll think of the time when those silly-assed white men paid money to see him cover it with silver. And then Horse Gill will laugh.
“Ha!” Russ barked out. “Ha ha! Damn! Look at what that kid’s reading!”
Jigger looked up from the G. I. Joe comic and saw Russ pointing at him. The others were looking at him now and grinning, yes, even the man beside the Marine photograph was grinning at him.
Jigger stared at the G. I. Joe comic in perplexity. What was so funny? Then he turned it over. In his haste to snatch up the G. I. Joe, Jigger had also picked up another magazine. The back of the G. I. Joe seemed to be stuck to the front of the other magazine, in fact, so that Jigger couldn’t see the name of it. But he could see the grainy black and white photo on the back: dull-eyed woman sitting on a bed, her right leg bent at the knee and left leg stretched out straight so that the toes of her left foot were lopped off by the photo frame. The woman had no clothes on. Between her legs was a thick black bush of hair, and she was cupping huge, dark-nippled breasts in her hands, offering them toward the viewer.
Russ turned to Orin and laughed with triumphant deliberation: “Ha! Ha! Ha! What do you think about that, Davis?” Then he turned back to Jigger. “How do you like them titties, boy, ain’t she got a set of ‘em? Bet you’d like to plant a lip-lock on one of them, huh?”
Jigger wanted to throw the magazine as far as it would fly, but he held on to it like a live wire he couldn’t let go of. He felt his eyes brim. Through his tears he saw the big man sitting beside the Iwo Jima photo rise from his chair.
“You shut up, now, Forte. You shut up.”
Russ leaned even further back in his barber’s chair, not insolently but with the evident desire of putting a few more inches between himself and Orin.
“Hey hey hey, Davis,” Russ protested, holding his palms up. “What put the bee up your ass? I saw you over there grinning, too, so don’t go getting all holier than thou on me.”
“I told you to shut up and I mean for you to shut up right now.”
Rapidly, Russ calculated his odds against Orin—weighing youth against age, quickness against heft, etc.—and concluded they looked to be about fifty-fifty. That wasn’t near good enough for Russ. In one surprisingly graceful motion he spun away from Orin and came up out of the barber’s chair. At the door, which he managed to reach quickly without ever quite running, he turned and said to Billy Dale, “I can’t sit around here jawing all goddamn day. I got to get back to work. Jesus, Billy, you’ve been farting around there with Vincent for a goddamn hour.”
Then he slammed the door and was gone.
Orin stood a moment longer, then rather clumsily and self-consciously, as if he’d forgotten exactly how it was done, sat down.
If he had indeed vanquished Russ Forte, he didn’t look at all exalted by his victory. Orin didn’t like confrontations, physical or otherwise. He hadn’t been in a true fight, in fact, since the fourth grade. It’d started in art class. They were supposed to be making Valentines for their moms, but, obeying an urge that was unexpected in its vehemence but hardly sudden—he’d worshipped the cute little girl from afar ever since he saw her the first day of first grade sitting there like an angel, a flesh and blood angel with a band-aide on her right knee that for some reason then six-year-old Orin longed to bend and kiss—Orin wrote
TO ANN PIERCE
in violet crayon on the outside construction-paper heart of the two-heart card, and then on the inside heart wrote in red crayon,
BE MY VALENTINE
Under mysterious circumstances, though, his Valentine somehow disappeared, only to reappear on the playground in the hands of Bobby Graybill, who was having a fine time with it. Bobby was ranked number three in the unofficial but pretty reliable ranking of fourth-grade fighters, and Orin not ranked at all since he didn’t fight, so Orin didn’t have an easy go of it. But eventually he overpowered the much smaller Bobby, knocked him down and pinned him to the ground. That’s usually the point when fourth-grade fights ended, but not this time. This time Orin kept hitting, bashing Bobby again and again until the other boys, not a teacher (none apparently being handy), broke it up, six or seven of them piling onto Orin and holding him by the arms, legs, neck and head until he finally went limp as an empty sack. Bobby Graybill soon recovered from the fight, but Orin never did. He was terrified by the rage that had flared up so unexpectedly and savagely, and he never again hit another human being. His remorse—expressed in choking sobs and then snuffles which lasted the rest of the day—had been instantaneous, both because of the damage he’d done to Bobby and the embarrassment he’d caused Ann Pierce, who’d stamped and declared—in a way that was in fact inexpressibly cute—”I’m mortified, I’m just totally mortified.” But she wasn’t mortified, not at all. She was pleased because Orin had not just made her a Valentine and fought for her but because he’d cried for her, too, her, Ann (later Nan) Pierce who even then at age ten had a distressing suspicion she was going to be heavy, just like her mom, and her teeth were crooked and she was knock-kneed, and no one would ever think she was pretty except her daddy and Orin Davis. So, although she refused to speak to Orin the rest of that school year and didn’t speak to him much for years after that, she married him on a bright warm May day and carried a bouquet of white carnations and pink bachelors buttons and never for a moment regretted it. Not one moment.
She probably would have been proud of his stand against Russ Forte in the barbershop, too, although Orin felt more than a little foolish now, still trembling and damp-eyed with emotion. To cover his embarrassment, he spoke a little petulantly—as unusual for Orin as rage—to Billy Dale, “Billy, I’m surprised you’d have a filthy magazine like that in here, what with little kids coming in. Sometimes their moms, too.”
Billy looked at Orin dreamily a moment and said, “What?” Then he once again peered down at the floor behind the extra barber’s chair where the tile pried up by Russ had not settled back down quite all the way, which, curiously, seemed to please Billy no end.
Just about this time of year, it’d been. 1955. He knew the year for a fact. He’d gotten out of the Marines in 1952 and then just drifted for a year, hooking up with a gang of boys who picked tomatoes in Arkansas and baled hay in Missouri and worked the wheat harvest in Kansas. He hired on with Mopac working out of Sedalia for damn good money, but it didn’t feel right. Something was waiting for him, something momentous, and if he didn’t know what it was he sure as hell knew it wasn’t picking Warren pink tomatoes or digging out rotting railroad ties for the rest of his life. So he went back to Centralia late in ‘53, and the first time he laid eyes on Joyce Hill, he knew she was the momentous thing he’d been waiting for. Not for a single instant thereafter did he doubt that initial assessment, certainly not when they were married on June 30th, 1954, not when she died on March 17th, 1989, and not in the decade since during which she was still the most momentous thing in his life, momentous by her absence.
He’d never dreamed of barbering. It wasn’t until after he’d already decided to marry Joyce (although he hadn’t yet informed her of that) and was casting about for a way to earn a living that he shared his problem with Tommy Lee Holden over a beer at the VFW hall. To his surprise, Tommy Lee said, “Come work for me at the barbershop. I’ll teach you to cut hair, then in a few years, if you like it, you can buy the place from me.” And that’s what Billy did. He figured it’d be probably ten years before he’d be able to buy the shop, but he’d been at it less that a year before Tommy Lee decided he liked fishing a whole lot better than barbering, and he had almost forced the shop on Billy, a real sweetheart deal, no money down, a hundred dollars a month until the place was paid off.
As soon as he had the shop to himself, Billy took a good look at the place and decided it was a pretty shabby affair, even for a small town barber shop. It took some courage to sit on the rickety catch-as-catch-can chairs, the wallpaper was dirty and torn, the ceiling stained from the leaky roof, the linoleum cracked and in some places worn down to the gummy black undersurface so that in hot weather the soles of your shoes stuck to it and came away with a sucking sound.
If he did the work himself, Billy could fix up the place without going into bankruptcy. Joyce would help, of course.
If you asked Billy Dale the best day of his life, he’d say it was that Monday he and Joyce laid in the tile. (What was the date, though? He knew for sure it was a May. It was a Monday, he was positive, because they knew it was a two-day job and given one day would be Sunday when the shop was closed, the other day would have been Monday because Saturday was their busiest day, and they decided to do it after school was out for the year because kids didn’t get their hair cut as often when they weren’t in school. So a Monday, late May.)
It’d been a hellacious two days. Hot, oh man, the hottest May on record, and just that one ceiling fan. They’d about killed themselves on Sunday, removing the chairs and tables and unbolting and removing the barber’s chairs, then ripping out the linoleum and scraping and cleaning the gummy residue underneath. They’d worked long after dark and then got up early Monday and went at it again because they had to get that new linoleum laid so they’d could open up for business on Tuesday.
It was late afternoon. Billy was working on the last row of tiles beneath the window on the east wall, and Joyce was going over the new linoleum to clean off paste that sometimes seeped up between the tiles. Hot! In the morning they’d tacked up an old bed sheet over the plate-glass window to keep out the sun, and now the sheet seemed to glow with heat, trap it in the stifling room. He turned to see Joyce, cleaning cloth cast aside, sitting, or rather leaning back at an angle, her weight supported on her arms slanted back behind her, palms flat on the floor, legs spread in a V before her.
“I’m plum tuckered out,” she said.
Billy realized several things at that moment. That it was the first time he’d been truly and completely and profoundly free from cold since the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir, the 1st Marine Division “attacking in another direction” bullshit, just trying to go any direction they could to get shut of the Chinese and their bugles. But Billy was warm now, and he understood it wasn’t because of the hottest May on record or the bed sheet that radiated heat into the stifling room but because of Joyce, because she warmed his heart. He realized that he was a happy man, that he’d never been happier, that this moment was the happiest moment of his life, and if he never had a better one, so be it. This one would do just fine. Billy’s last realization was that if Joyce kept her legs spread like that, something was going to happen. The soles of her feet were black with dirt, the bottoms of her toes ten black circles. Those ten black circles were incredible, simply incredible. A bead of sweat broke on her right knee and ran down the shallow valley between her knee joint and calf muscle. For shorts she was wearing an old cut-off pair of his army fatigues, bunched at the too-big waist and held with a piece of clothesline tied in a bow, gaping at the leg so that he could see all of her wondrously white left thigh all the way up to her hip and the edge of her white panties.
Yes, Joyce was going to have to close her legs soon or they were going to be in trouble. But, although he stared at her long enough and intently enough to count the ten black circles on the ten cutest toes in the world, to follow the bead of sweat, to follow that white thigh to hip and white panty, Joyce did not close her legs. Not even when Billy let drop the square of tile he’d been just about to set in place, nor when he rubbed his hands with slow distraction on his sweat-soaked T-shirt and then jeans in a failed attempt to clean them, nor when he began to crawl across the floor toward her, nor when he raised her right leg and solemnly kissed the the black bottoms of her five so very cute toes, and then the left, and then pressed his lips to the shallow sweat-streaked valley between knee and calf, nor when he ran his right hand up her left thigh until he could insert the tip of his middle finger into the legband of her white panties. When he pulled the ends of her clothesline belt, though, releasing the bow, she closed her legs so he could remove her shorts and panties.
Then opened again.
They made love in the heat, laughing and moaning and sliding around on the freshly laid linoleum squares, and where their sweat puddled—in that area just behind where the extra barber’s chair sat—the moisture must have gotten into the paste, because the tiles kept popping up over the years, which pleased Billy no end.
What’d been the date, though? He could remember the date of their wedding and the date Joyce died. Shouldn’t he remember the date of the happiest day of his life? It was just about this time of year, he could swear.
“Date,” he said, half coming out of his reverie.
“Date? Today’s date, you mean?” Vincent asked, stirring painfully under the barber’s cloth, his rear end numb from sitting so long. “May 22nd.”
Jigger could have told him. He’d been counting the days to May 22nd for weeks and weeks and weeks. The first day of summer vacation! And here he was spending hours and hours and hours in an old barber shop.
He put his hand into his pocket. Yes, still there, the ten dollar bill his parents had given him as a reward for the great report card. After he got his hair cut—if he ever got it cut—his mom was going to take him next door to Woolworth’s and let him pick out a toy. There was a model Stealth bomber that he’d had his eye on for a long time. Or maybe he’d buy the Nerf turbo-football. He needed a new football. But what he really wanted was the plastic M-16. It looked just like the real thing! His mom wouldn’t want him to buy it, though. She didn’t like him to play with guns. But after what he’d had to put up with today in that barber shop, oh, he resolved right then and there to whine and whine and whine until his mom let him have exactly what he wanted.