Short story that I wrote many years ago
Theobald Crown McFurlong had always been proud of his name and reputation. He was eighty-two years old and as spry as chit-chat. He was a member in good standing with several community organizations, although, sadly, by now, many of them were no longer operative. He belonged to the chamber of commerce, the Knights of Pythias, and a dwindling grange. He was a staunch Republican, and a churchgoer. He sang tenor for the choir every Wednesday, and twice on Sundays, and he bowled Tuesdays and Thursdays. He resurrected, commemorated, constituted, every year, the old-timers’ Prune Festival, cultivating in his back yard half-a-dozen Italian prune trees; displaying seasonally all his yellowing Prunarian memorabilia in a showcase in his storefront just off Main Street; sporting a dusty straw bowler and lapel pins, handing out tracts and free fruit in the little park downtown, in lieu of the long discontinued annual parade.
Theobald was devoted to the groups he joined—he loved the rules, and regulations; and the rules and regulations seemed made for him. He owned his own business outright, had done so since he was a teenager. He handed round the puddings, or the bingo cards, alternate Mondays at a nursing home; supervised the renting of the grange hall for weddings and reunions; deployed signs and banners for his favorites, at election time. He kept his voice in tune with the disciplined imbibing of a (non-alcoholic) tonic of his own concoction. Once per Festival, his sister inserted herself into formal regalia, accepted his homemade corsage of prune leaves and miniature roses, and insisted on dining with him at the Chicken-Fried Steak-House, thereby reprising her one-time role as Princess of Prunarians.
Theo was a lifelong bachelor, and his sister, Audrey, never married either. They lived together in the big turn-of-the-century house downtown that they’d been born into. Both were virgins, and frankly, never had considered being otherwise. They adhered fondly to the strictures of their denomination. Only once did Theo flirt with rebellion. When he was in his forties an assistant pastor took to sermonizing against card-games and bowling alleys. Theo made one or two surreptitious visits to the Lutheran services uptown, before his own pastor moved on to other vices. Playing cards and gambling held no allure for Theo, but he did enjoy maintaining his handicap at ten-pins.
Tonight was Thursday, free-game night, for those who made their average. And Theobald hardly ever didn’t. Tonight would be no different. If he hurried he would only be a little late. The boys would let him double-turn until he caught his frames up. He slammed the trunk shut on the Lincoln, lifted his bowling bag into the back door, driver’s side. He locked the alley entrance to his barber shop, and set off for the Thunder Lanes.
He was tired, though. He’d had a long afternoon of it, today, only three customers. Well, four, counting the one after Audrey’d gone home. That had been the tough one. He should have closed the shop up early when he realized who it was. Maybe he was just too old for that kind of job, anymore. If he sold the storefront, and just worked for free out of the house, to accommodate his regulars, maybe the tips would cover his few expenses. He didn’t really need the money. Already he had curtailed his hours, never putting in a morning shift, these days. And ever since Audrey had retired from her nursing, and insisted on “helping out” down at the shop, business had been falling off anyway--but he didn’t have the heart to try to dissuade her.
He wondered how many of his clients he’d be keeping, if he made the move. All of his afternoon “heads” had happened to be regulars, until the last. And that one would not require his services again, ever, that’s for sure. But Ottawa Trothsky, who’d been first up, waiting for them when they got there, would insist on his weekly trim until his dying day, whether or not he needed it, and would brag without fatigue over his wartime exploits, while Theo made convincing clipping noises overhead. Today’s story had been the one in which Otto claimed he’d knocked Omar Bradley’s tooth out, during a boxing match at military college. Theo had heard it all before, though, and so he gritted his own teeth, and tuned Otto out, quietly humming several of his favorite hymns instead. Theo had been called up too, to serve, during the Second War, for all he was older than the other men. Audrey sat on the draft board, at the time, though, and effectively quashed his aspirations. He’d had a mild scoliosis all his life. It never had troubled him, but apparently it looked impressive on the doctors’ charts.
Head number two might possibly be counted on, to follow Theo loyally into his retirement. Though he was younger than Theo by a generation, Principal Mallard had long ago retired, himself. Now that had been an interesting case—one for the medical books—in Theo’s estimation. Mr. Mallard had been in charge of a grade school that was flattened by a tornado—while the children and the staff were there in full attendance. It was a freakish incident. They almost never had windstorms of that nature in these parts. Even more astounding was the fact they had sustained absolutely no fatalities. But in the succeeding weeks the growth that had adorned the principal (who’d been a healthy and a natural brunet, Theo was certain--not a trace of salt and pepper, even)—the hair that Theo’d had the privilege of trimming for almost all of the younger man’s life had rapidly turned as white as chalk. Theo had been assured, since then, by various authorities, that such phenomena were purely mythical, and he wished a thousand times, if he wished it once, he’d had the presence of mind when it happened to save his floor sweepings for evidence.
He wasn’t sure if his third customer would be back again, in any case, whether or not he changed locales. Molly Ricky had brought her Jordan in, for his twice-yearly crew. It was the first time she’d been there with Audrey on the premises, and Molly seemed more than usually timid, in her presence. She hovered near the showcase, politely interested in the McFurlongs’ trophies. She kept shifting her weight, crossing her ankles or pointing her toes inward as though ill at ease. Finally Audrey asked her if she needed to use the restroom.
“Oh—er—oh!” Molly stammered. She blushed profusely, hesitated for a moment, and then turned and scurried in the direction indicated. Theo was inclined to think the woman hadn’t, in fact, required such aid, but had been too embarrassed by the confrontation to refuse it. Theo and Audrey both knew Molly—but only slightly—from way back. She was Molly Eunander before she married, and all the Eunander children had at one time attended the same church as the McFurlongs.
Theo could remember cutting Molly’s older brother’s hair, when he was younger than the nephew Jordan was right now. He used to tease Albert, whenever he came in for a trim, because invariably, Theo would discover markings on his scalp, over the left ear, where the boy had kept his pencil, or a pen, while studying. And although he knew it wasn’t true, Theo always would accuse him of having a tattoo already, at his young age, just to see him blush. Theo had liked the boy, had enjoyed seeing him growing up so fine and strong—as he had enjoyed others, before and since, whose progress into manhood he had witnessed. For awhile, as Albert went unmarried, Theo thought he could detect in him some similarity of character that had marked his own career, and he felt a rush of pride with each new proof of Albert’s resistance to the pull of matrimony. But that was before he found out Albert had taken up with Eric Beauchamp, and Eric was well known by then for his proclivities.
When Molly returned from the facility Audrey immediately addressed her: “You’re Molly Ricky aren’t you?”
Molly admitted as much, but reluctantly, Theo thought. Her eyes were casting desperately about her for some distraction, but Audrey was relentless. “And I suppose this must be your little boy--what was his name, dear?”
“Jordan,” Molly murmured, adding, “Yes, I remember now. You used to work in Dr. Carlson’s office, and I brought Jordan there for all his baby shots.”
“I surely did,” Audrey answered. “My goodness, he certainly seems to have thrived under your care.” Her tone implied she found that not only a surprising outcome, but an unpleasant one, as well.
Jordan was oblivious to tone, but, as an almost-ten-year-old, objected altogether to the topic of his infancy. He deftly changed the subject. “Are we almost done yet?” he asked, bluntly, and he hitched his shoulders irritably. His unswept neck above the nylon cape was beginning to prickle. He started kicking idly against the footboards of the barber chair, and picking at a fraying patch of vinyl repair tape on the armrest. Theo hurried.
When they were gone, Audrey rose with decision from her chosen prominence at his antique scrolltop. “Baby shots, my eye,” she stated flatly. “Dr. Carlson only saw the baby once, for an emergency. If I remember correctly, Dr. Henna, at the Women’s Clinic, was their regular physician.” The old woman accomplished a series of sniffs, which ended in a sort-of bark—an interlude that passed for laughter in her meager repertoire of humor. “She brought the child in all in a dither one afternoon. The poor baby’s penis was swollen and discolored. Turned out one of her own long hairs had somehow wrapped itself around the base of it—cut off the circulation, I guess, like a rubber-band around a cat’s tail.”
Theobald’s mouth dropped open, and then he swallowed nervously. “Oh, there was no permanent damage done, fortunately,” Audrey soothed him. But she didn’t sound overly glad of it, and she left herself, soon afterwards, to squeeze in some extra practice on the Wurlitzer at church.
Theo dusted the display case, swept, and got the mop out. He pulled the café shutters closed, and latched them. He was starting for the doorway to lock up, when his final client stepped inside. “You got time to take just a little off the top for me, before you close?” the young man asked him, grinning.
And so Theo seated him, cranking the chair down, tying the neck-cord snugly to secure the gown. His hands were trembling, and he began to sing as he worked, barely audible, at first, but louder with each passing stanza: “Must I be carried to the skies On flow’ry beds of ease, While others fought to win the prize, And sailed thro’ bloody seas? Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood? Is this vile world a friend to grace, To help me on to God?”
The singing calmed him. “Almost done here, son,” he volunteered. He reached quickly down into the cabinet behind him. “Just let me grab my little hand-vac, and I’ll have you cleaned up in no time.” Theo’s grip was sure and his bowler’s arm was steady. With one clean stroke of sixteen pounds of slate-gray graphite Theobald Crown McFurlong smote and delivered his enemy, out of the strangling bonds of sin. Gently, then, he monitored the young man’s pulse until it stopped, then lifted the barber’s cape, wrapped it cleanly up around Eric Beauchamp’s bloodsoaked head, carried him back to the storage room, so he could tuck him quickly into the trunk of the Lincoln, when he’d finished with the mopping. Later on, after sundown, he would drive out to the lake bridge, and dispose of him. As he swabbed at the worn linoleum, he sang once more: “God send us men of steadfast will, Patient, courageous, strong and true; With vision clear and mind equipped, His will to learn, His work to do. God send us men alert and quick His lofty precepts to translate, Until the laws of Right become The laws and habits of the State.”
But as he polished his bowling ball, the three fingerholes put him forcibly in mind again of Eric. Eric with his staring eyes, and mouth, that last instant, in the mirror. Eric and the others, too, in recent years, who’d happened in all unaware that he’d been watching them, waiting for them, doing the best that he could with them, all on his own. And he was tired, so tired, and old, now, and there was no one to take his place.
Disclaimer: No, in all reality I don't think this poorly of virgins, republicans, bingo players, or what have you. I mostly wanted to pick on the crappy hymnal lyrics that abound so, such that most people don't even really notice how crappy they are.