The Barber in Port William
I never put up a barber pole or a sign or even gave my shop a name. I didn't have to. The building was already called "the barbershop." That was its name because that had been its name for nobody knew how long. Port William had little written history. Its history was its living memory of itself, which passed over the years like a moving beam of light. It had a beginning that it had forgotten, and would have an end that it did not yet know. It seemed to have been there forever. After I had been there a while, the shop began to be called Jayber Crow's, or just Jayber's. "Well, I'm going down to Jayber's," people would say, as if it had been clearly marked on some map, though it was so only in their minds. I never had a telephone, so I was not even in the book.
From 1937 until 1969, I was "the barber" in Port William. The shop was at the bottom of the swag in the midst of the town. The road came up the river from Hargrave; about a mile from Port William it climbed the hill onto the upland, made a couple of dips and turns, passed the graveyard and the houses opposite, passed the church and the bank and the handful of business places, went by my shop and the garage down in the swag, and then rose up again, going by more houses; at the top of the rise it passed the school, and then it hurried on. Except for the law, and the local habit of stopping in vehicles to talk in the middle of the road, car drivers from elsewhere have never seen much reason to slow down when they go through Port William. I still am the Port William barber, the only one it has gotthough since 1969 I have not been in town.
When I came there and set up shop in January of 1937, the place was maybe better off than I have seen it since. Thirty-seven was a Depression year, and I don't ask you to believe that the place was flourishing. But it was at least thrifty. People didn't waste anything they knew how to save; they couldn't afford much new stuff, and so they hung on to what they had. There were a lot of patched clothes in those days. But all the commercial places in town were still occupied and doing business. The people of the town still belonged to it economically as well as in other ways. And we still had a doctor, "old" Dr. Markman, who was not then as old as he was going to be.
Except for Saturdays, when I would sometimes be at it from breakfast until midnight or after, the haircutting trade in Port William was, as you might say, intermittent. When I had no customer, I would climb into the chair myself and talk to whoever was loafing, or if the place was empty I would read or take a nap. A barber chair is an excellent place to read or sleep. It tilts back and has a footrest and a headrest. Or (since you can't loaf or read or nap all the time) I would keep an eye on the town. If the weather was bad, I would stand at the window and look; if it was good, I would carry a chair out and sit under the sugar tree at the edge of the road.
I always tried to keep faith with my customersto keep faith, that is, with the random possibility that at almost any moment one or another of them might take a notion to come in for a haircut or a shave, or would need a place to sit. And to tell the truth, I generally had need of the coins that wandered about in Port William pants pockets, and yearned to add them to my collection in the cigar box on the backbar.
I kept faith, but I confess that I kept it somewhat irregularly. Sometimes, when my clients were absent, I would be moved to stray about. My predecessor had left me a little cardboard sign with a clock face and drooping metal hands that declared invariably: BACK AT 6:30. When I left, it would always be a good while before six-thirty, and so I had plenty of time. If I got back before the promised minute, I counted it much to my credit. I might walk up to see who would be loafing along the street or in the stores. From there I might stroll out the road and into the woods on the bluffs above the river. Or I might just cross the road to Mr. Milo Settle's garage, a place of often interesting work and sometimes ferocious political debates instigated by Mr. Settle's chief assistant, Portly Jones, who had opinions he was willing to die for. If I wanted no company, I walked in the other direction, up the rise, past the schoolhouse, and out into the country that way. Sometimes I might take off a whole day to go fishing with Burley Coulter or one of the Rowanberrysalways taking care to get back before six-third. Of course, if I didn't leave until after six-thirty in the evening, I had all night to get back. And since nobody was apt to want a haircut at six-thirty in the morning, I could stay away until the next evening. My clock said I would be back at six-thirty, but it didn't say what day. And sooner or later, until the last time, I always got back.
Port William repaid watching. I was always on the lookout for what would be revealed. Sometimes nothing would be, but sometimes I beheld astonishing sights.
One hot summer afternoon, for instance, I saw Grover Gibbs passing along in front of Mr. Settle's garage with a plumber's helper over his shoulder. He saw, sticking out from beneath an automobile, Portly Jones's sweat-shiny big bald head, to the top of which, with a smooth and forceful underhanded thrust, he affixed the suction cup. Portly then enacted a sort of seizure in which, with his feet and left hand, he tried to hurry out from under the car, while with his right hand he tried unsuccessfully to detach the plumber's helper. It appeared that he was trying to drag himself out by the head. He didn't get out very fast. Meanwhile his assailant walked on up the street a ways and then turned and walked casually back to see the results of his inspiration. He walked with his hands innocently folded behind the bib of his overalls, a disinterested look in his eyes, his face rather tensely drawn around a small hole between his lips, through which he was whistling a tune. He allowed himself to be confronted by Portly, looking perhaps like a unicorn with a red face.
"Grover," he said, "who done this? If it was you, I'll kill you."
Grover said nothing, but solemnly, still whistling, tried to help Portly remove his horn, which they were able to do only by boring a hole in the cup to relieve the suction.
"It completely ruined my plunger," Grover told me later, "but of course I couldn't've claimed it anyhow."
And on an early morning, when I was almost the only one awake, I saw Fielding Berlew in the middle of the road, dancing to "The Ballad of Rose McInnis," which he sang with deep feeling and tears in his eyes. He had spent the night in a lonely vigil in town"three-thirds drunk," as he would sayowing to his failure to see eye to eye with his wife. He danced with his arms held out like wings, in slow steps round and round, as gracefully as it could be done by a drunk man in a pair of gum boots. All of a sudden a trailer truck popped over the rise. It began to shudder and buck and weave; there was a great howling and hissing of brakes and the tires shrieked on the blacktop. Only when the front bumper was virtually touching Fee's thigh did the driver manage to bring the truck to a standstill and then collapse with relief and thanksgiving. Fee, who had taken no notice of the late commotion, continued to dance and sing. The driver then reconcentrated his forces and blew the horn, a long exasperated bleat that disparaged Port William and all it stood for. Fee thereupon took notice. He stopped dancing, and then as an afterthought he stopped singing. He regarded the driver. He regarded the truck. He looked down upon it, insofar as a small man can look down upon a thing towering many feet above his head. He looked back at the driver. He said, "Get that sonvabitch out of the roadbefore I kick it out of the road."
Another morning, a fine Saturday in the late fall, I got a little break between customers and went up to Lathrop's for the makings of a quick lunch. Some of the boys had started a baseball game in the empty lot next to the church. Shorty Sowers, the banker's son, was on his way to the church to take his violin lesson from Mrs. Alexander, the preacher's wife. As he was going by, a batter struck out. Shorty seized his fiddle by the neck and stepped up to the rock they were using as home plate. He told the pitcher, "Show me what you got!"
I came out of Lathrop's just in time to hear that, to see the pitch, and then Shorty's little pop fly to third base.
"After that," he said, "I knew her by the crack."
Yet another sight I used to seeone that was more or less regular during the year or two that he lived after I came to Port Williamwas Uncle Ab Rowanberry shuffling by, carrying a rifle, a lantern, and a sack containing a chamber pot, a cowbell, a corn knife, and a long leather purse tied with a rag string. He would be on his way between daughters. He had five daughters all living in the neighborhood, and he stayed a while with each in turn, leaving each before he wore out his welcome. "Company is like snow," he said. "The longer it stays, the worse it looks." Since one of the daughters and her family now occupied the home place, Uncle Ab carried with him all his worldly possessions, the terms of his independence and self-respect: the rifle with which he provided a little meat for the table and with which he could defend himself if attacked, the corn knife in case he needed it, the lantern and chamber pot to preserve his dignity when he had to get up at night, the cowbell to ring if he fell down and couldn't get up, and his own hands with which he worked at whatever small tasks he was still able to do. He was something of the old life of the place. I observed him carefully and have remembered him always.
Other things too were revealed to me that were not so quickly ended. Poor old ramshackledy Fee Berlew, of all people and in his later years, was the only man I ever had to (so to speak) throw out of my shop. His nephew, visiting at Christmas, had slipped him a pint of whiskey, a dangerous item to have lying about in Mrs. Berlew's house. Fee undertook to preserve it from all harm in the shortest possible time, with the result that shortly after supper he found himself unable to see eye to eye with Mrs. Berlew. He came, of course, to my shop for such shelter and comfort as I could give. But his condition by then was just awful. He was completely sodden, bewildered, half-crazy, and full of the foulest kind of indignation. I could neither quiet him down nor, finally, put up with him. And so I helped him out the door, not being all that happy to do so on a cold night.
But he didn't go away. He pecked on the front window, put his face close to the glass, and reviled me. He called me a "clabber-headed stray," an "orphan three days shy of a bastard," a "damned low-down hair barber"and meaner names. This delighted the several big boys who were passing the time with me that evening, but it did not put more joy into my life.
And then the next morning here came Fee the first thing, easing his head in through the door as though expecting me to cut it off with my razor. He had overnight achieved that state of sobriety in which, racked by pain and sorrow, he wished to be unconscious or perhaps dead. When he finally looked up at me his little red eyes filled with tears.
"Jayber," he said, "Could you forgive an old son of a bitch?"
"I could," I said. "Yes, I can. I do."
Maybe because I had been a good while in school myself, and had liked it and not liked it, and had finally failed out of it, the Port William School was a place I observed with a kind of fascination. The school had eight grades. If it had taught the grades all the way through high school, maybe it wouldn't have interested me so much. The future presses hard upon a high school, and somehow qualifies and diminishes it. The students in a high school begin courtships; the next generation begins to assert its claims; people begin to think of what they will do when they get out. But the Port William School, grades one through eight, seemed to house the community's almost pure potential, little reduced by any intention on the part of the students themselves. They were there in varying degrees by interest or endurance, but not by purpose. And always, interested or not, they were there somewhat under protest. The children in the lower grades, I believe, thought that school would go on more or less forever, interrupted at dependable intervals by recess and lunch, Christmas and summer. By the time they got to grades seven and eight, they knew that it would end and they would leave, but they thought they would leave only to go to the high school down at Hargrave, and their heads were full of innocent illusions about what they would do there.
I liked best the school as it was when I first knew it, when it served only the town and the immediate neighborhood, when the students got there on foot. Then the neighborhood seemed more freestanding and self-enclosed than it ever did again after consolidation. The town contained the school, and the school, for a while at least, contained the children.
To walk up past the school while it was in session was like coming near a sleeping large animal. You could hear the enclosed murmurs and rustlings of an intense inward life, belonging, it seemed, to another world, whose absence from the town made it seem otherworldly While the children were in school, the town seemed abnormally quiet. The quiet, by midafternoon, would sometimes seem almost entranced.
And so I loved especially the time of day when school let out. What the will of the neighborhood had managed to pen up all day in something like order would all of a sudden burst loose and stream out both ways along the road. A rout of children would pour from the schoolhouse down into the quiet towna cataract of motions and sounds: voices calling, shouting, singing, laughing, teasing, arguing; boys running, dancing about, hitting each other, sometimes fighting in earnest; girls switching their dresstails and hair in mock disdain and condemnation of the behavior of the boys. And often you would hear a boy's voice chanting above the rest: "School's out! School's out! Teacher wore my britchies out!" Or something on the order of "Hey, booger-nose!"
At such a moment, to the best of my memory, I first took actual notice of Mattie Chathamor Mattie Keith, as she was then.
It was a spring afternoon, warm. I was standing in the open door of the shop, leaning against the jamb, watching. Mattie was walking arm-in-arm with two other girls, Thelma Settle and Althie Gibbs. I suppose Mattie was to spend that night at Thelma's or Althie's house, for ordinarily she would have gone in the other direction; her home was down in the river bottom, a mile and a half from town by the children's shortcut over the bluff.
They had crossed the road to be out of the crowd, and they were telling each other things and giggling. They were "older girls" by then, feeling themselves so, and yet unable to maintain the dignity that they felt their status required. This failure made whatever they were giggling about even funnier. They were being silly, each one tugging in a different direction, so that they had trouble even staying on the walk. They were not aware of me until they were almost even with my door, and then they looked up and saw mea tall, lean, baldish man, almost twice their age, smiling down upon them from the threshold. This sight, so incongruent with all they had on their minds, increased their merriment. They looked up at me, raised the pitch and volume of their laughter, and ran past. But I saw Mattie Keith then, and after that I would be aware of her. Seeing her as she was then, I might have seen (had I thought to look) the woman she was to be. Or is it because I knew the woman that I see her now so clearly as a child?
She was a pretty girl, and I was moved by her prettiness. Her hair was brown at the verge of red, and curly. Her face was still a little freckled. But it was her eyes that most impressed me. They were nearly black and had a liquid luster. The brief, laughing look that she had given me made me feel extraordinarily seen, as if after that I might be visible in the dark.
Excerpted from JAYBER CROW by Wendell Berry. Copyright © 2000 by Wendell Berry. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 2000 Wendell Berry.
All rights reserved.