Excerpt from Childsong
The shears moved like a stork’s bill through his father’s hair.
Clip. Clip. Clip.
The barber’s hands moved like two small red crabs across his father’s scalp.
The boy had grown weary of the comic book, and he threw it aside with a tiny grunt of exasperation. He crossed his arms and watched the activity in front of him. His father’s eyes were closed; a cigarette dangled loosely from the side of his mouth. The boy began to fidget, and reaching beneath him, he pulled wads of old chewing gum from the bottom of his chair and began to roll them into balls. The barber looked up from his father’s hair and shook his head. The shears stopped chattering, and his father opened his eyes.
“What did I tell you about the monkey business, huh?” And as an afterthought: “I’ll be finished in a few minutes, and then we can go get an ice cream, OK?” His father leaned back against the barber’s chair again, and the cigarette glowed. He closed his eyes.
The boy sat perfectly still for a moment, then he reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out a pack of gum. He liked the uniformity of gum, the mass-produced sameness of each individually wrapped stick. When he had little else to do, he would sometimes pull out the gum just to look at it, to admire its bright colors and foil trim. He held a stick in both hands for a long time before he finally unpeeled it and stuffed it into his mouth. He then turned his attention to his surroundings.
The boy had been to the barbershop so often that he was sure he could find his way around the place in the dark. It was old, the street and the other shops nearby were old, and the barber was old. On one side was a line of chairs with a long cracked mirror over it in which the customers could keep an eye on what the barber was doing to their hair. There were two other barber chairs but only one barber. Scattered throughout the shop were outdated magazines and newspapers. Behind the barber were rows of bottled oils and tonics, some of which probably hadn’t been used for years. On the floor were hairclumps of many different shapes, colors, and sizes. It was pleasant sitting in the shop, but it grew wearisome after the first fifteen minutes or so. He had read all the comic books, and the barber was too old to be very interesting.
Today his father was going to sea.
“I thought you get free haircuts in the navy,” the boy said to the man in the chair. “How come you always come in here before you go on board?”
The cigarette glowed, and an ash fell to the floor. His father’s eyes remained closed.
“Pipe down, will you?” The voice was tolerant. “I’ll be through in a minute.”
The boy frowned and drew a foot up beside him in the chair to play with the shoelaces. The shears snapped and chattered.
“Crappy weather, John,” said the barber. “I’d sure hate to have to ship out in this.”
“I’ve left in worse.” The sailor opened one eye and closed it again. “Crappy weather where we’re going, too. Norway – six hours of daylight and drizzle. That’s if you’re topside long enough to enjoy it.”
“Sometimes I wish I’d stayed in the navy a little longer. Other times I’m glad I didn’t, like today.” He stabbed his comb toward the window. “Rough seas, dimwits for shipmates, no women, and a goddamned c.p.o. breathing down your neck all the time.” He sighed. “It has its ups and downs, that’s for sure.”
“Yeah, that’s for sure.” The sailor opened his eyes and studied his reflection in the cracked mirror. “It’s a living at least. It puts food in the boy’s mouth here.” He nodded at the boy, who looked up from his feet for a moment and then continued to lace and relace his shoes. “It keeps the old lady in curlers.”
“Yeah. It does that.” The barber’s hands stopped moving, and he looked down at the sailor’s head as if he was reading a roadmap. The chattering sounded again, and he looked at the boy. “It puts me in mind of a painting I saw at a bazaar the other day. The old lady dragged me down there, and I wasn’t too interested, really, until I caught sight of this old painting.”
He put his hand to a lather dispenser and dabbed lather behind the sailor’s ears. “It was from the whaling days, I guess. It showed this young lady in a long dress on one of those widows’ walks they used to build on top of the older houses. Of course the wind was blowing like crazy, and she was looking out to sea, you know, waiting for her husband to come back to port and worrying about him drowning and such.” A straight-edged razor slapped against leather.
“What was so peculiar about this painting – and something that would’ve slipped by me if I hadn’t been standing there so long waiting for the wife – was a young man in a tophat standing at the door of the lady’s house. You could barely see him. He was in the very corner of the painting and real small, but he was there just the same. It got me to thinking back to my own days in the navy.” The razor jerked and flicked behind the sailor’s ear. The boy sat up in his chair and looked on with renewed interest.
“I enlisted right after high school. I didn’t even give myself time to think of doing anything else – it just seemed like the natural thing to do at the time. I’d also gotten married for one reason or another. I was young, and I figured I could do anything I set my mind to, with plenty of time to do it in. So I went to sea with my wife three months pregnant.” The barber’s voice was old, made old with the telling of his sea story.
“It worked for a few years – I mean, I thought it worked, but I know now that it really didn’t. I was home three months out of twelve to see the wife and kid. I never heard a peep out of her, so you can imagine how surprised I was when I came home one night to an empty house. Not even a note. I still don’t know where she is.” The razor squirmed.
“I was lost for a while, drinking a lot and doing some thinking. I took an extended furlough to straighten things out as best I could. The idea hit me one night in a gutter somewhere – I figured the best thing I could do was to quit the navy, find another woman, a good woman, and settle down once and for all. And that’s exactly what I did – met a little woman at that church around the corner and went to barber school. Best decision I ever made.” He wiped behind the ears with a damp towel. “I’m not saying I’m the happiest man in the world, not by a longshot. It’s just that I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice, if you know what I mean.”
The boy thought that his father had fallen asleep. The smoke had continued to curl from the tip of his cigarette, and his hands and feet lay completely still in the chair. The barber leaned poised over his head, waiting.
The seaman opened his eyes again and inhaled the rest of the cigarette down to the filter. He looked at the barber in the mirror, looked at the boy at his feet, and looked at the mist blowing across the street outside.
“How much for the haircut, Harold?”
Gray weather always made the boy think of the sea. As they walked toward the wharf, he thought about wind throwing coats of ice on huddled men, of sailors blowing warm air through closed red fists and looking out at the blurred line between sky and sea with tired gray eyes. In the winter, when the sleet would batter against his window and the cold would creep into his room through the leaking seams, he would lie awake in the small room and think of his father. Curled in a tight fetal knot, he would watch his breath float out into the bare room and think: This is how we have it. With his money we live. Somewhere now he’s living too, filling up space just as I fill up this narrow bed, room, and house with my own life, with my brothers and sisters who are his too. Is he in a cold bed now thinking of us, or is he warm and laughing in some strange city?
When his father came home, he never asked and was never told. When he was away, his mother never spoke of the man who had lain beside her in the narrow room next to his own.
But the sea pulled at him. After school, he would often walk down to the docks to watch the ships being loaded and unloaded. He would watch the men in the loading cranes maneuver bulky crates into countless holds and listen to men with faces thick with stubble shout at each other with thick-tongued voices in strange languages. He was sitting on a mooring beside a docked ship one day when a large burly sailor suddenly appeared at the top of the ship’s gangway and flew in huge leaping strides down to the dock beside him. Behind them, a group of sailors had gathered at the edge of the ship and were waving their arms in the air and shouting at the burly man standing beside the boy. The sailor laughed and gestured crudely at his shipmates. A large duffel bag flew and landed in a pool of oil at his feet. He stepped forward and snatched it from the ground, growling and cursing at the row of faces laughing and craning out over the water. The sailor turned and saw the boy. A broad toothless grin split his mouth as he walked over and squatted beside him next to the mooring. He nodded at the schoolbooks in his hands and spoke:
“You schoolboy, uh? You go school, uh?”
The boy surveyed the figure beside him. The sailor’s face was tanned and unblemished. A single loop of gold dangled from his ear – it glinted dully in the twilight as he talked. He wore blue dungarees and a thin nondescript jacket open at the collar. Narrow pointed boots squeezed out onto the oily pavement beneath him. Above them, the boy could feel the row of faces peering down at them. The sailor babbled:
“Yah, you schoolboy, pretty little schoolboy….”
The boy felt a sickening dread rising within him. He rose to walk away. The sailor seized his hand. Above them, the boy could feel the faces, the hungry eyes.
“Nah, nah, pretty boy. You come with me. You come with sailor man.”
The faces, the dark hungry eyes….
In the mist they walked through rows of serried warehouses and shanties. Here and there old men with backs bent to the rain plodded from eave to eave. Water ran in nets across the boy’s face, tasting slightly of salt.
“Pull your hood up.”
“I can’t get any wetter.”
“Pull your hood up.”
He pulled his hood up. Water fled in parallel torrents on either side of them. The boy watched a dead rat roll end over end in the angry water, rushing toward the sea. Its small pink feet closed on empty air.
“I’ve got about twenty minutes. You still want that ice cream?”
He did not want ice cream. They went into a small shop, and while the boy stood near the door, the sailor went up to the counter to order.
“Give me a chocolate double-dip cone with nuts… for the kid here.”
As he stood waiting, his father reached into his coat pocket and drew out a pack of cigarettes. He palmed one for a moment and jammed it into his mouth. He patted the seat of his pants with both hands and leaned over the counter.
“Hey, give me some matches with that cone, will you?”
Raw hands moved quickly inside a cardboard cylinder behind the glass. The sailor shuffled his feet and threw sidelong glances at the people beside him. The boy stood patiently by the door and watched his father’s russet-colored hands clench and unclench, thinking: Of all of us, why does he always pick me to see him off? He sees himself in me – that’s why. His blood runs in all of us, but the others are not like him. They share his home but not his unrest. He will try to stop me.
The street continued to sink toward the harbor. Thin streams of brown dripped to the asphalt as the boy walked beside his father, occasionally running his tongue across the pulpy mess in his hand. The skyline presented a broken surface of gray slate roofs and towers. Through fractured houses the boy could now see ships rocking at anchor and, farther beyond, the sea itself rooted deeply between the two arms of the harbor. The drizzle had stopped, and the sun oozed like an ugly open wound on the horizon, bleeding on the water. Gulls screamed.
“Your mother says you’re doing fine in school. I like to hear things like that.”
“Thanks.” Water filled his shoe as he walked through a puddle. He thought of the rat.
“That’s the only way you’re going to get out of this hellhole, you know, is through school. There are lots of people around just dying to give money away to some bright poor kid like you. You’ll go far with your brains. Just keep it up.”
Limpid light fell on the sea city.
“Your mother says you got into a little scrape after school the other day. Something about a fight?”
“Yeah.” The smell of brine filled his lungs as they came within full view of the harbor.
“Good.” The sailor tossed his cigarette butt to the ground and crushed it. “Your mother’s a little skittish about stuff like that, but I think a boy should be able to take care of himself. Good.”
The boy said nothing. The damp pavement gave off a faint smell of oil and fish, and a sea-breeze filled his hood. From the ship came sounds of men working.
He pushed the hood from his head and spoke boldly to the sailor, his father:
“Why didn’t she come with us?”
The ship reared from the ocean like an angry sea-god.
“She wasn’t feeling well today. You know that.” A pause followed, and then he heard his father’s voice again, softly. “She’s sick, you know.”
The boy gazed far out over the water to the mouth of the harbor gaping like a large tongueless maw in the bleeding wash of the sun. Boats dotted the face of the bay, and a sail tacked off the distant coastline. Waves lifted and fell, capped with froth. The boy imagined facing windward and blinking at the sun resting on a landless horizon. He imagined the fellowship of the cabin, the lean whiskered faces bent over ragged cards, the decks scrubbed and sparkling in the waking sunlight, the scud flying across the surface of a blue-gray sea, and stars suspended in the jet solitude of the nightwatch, guides to familiar ports. A simple joy filled his spirit and ebbed as he turned – his father was gone.
In the solitude of his parents’ bedroom that night, he stood concealed safely in the shadows. Earlier thoughts passed through his mind in random procession, overshadowed by thoughts of his family. He saw the faces of his brothers and sisters projected and infinitely multiplied over a boundless broken field of slate gray. In dumb phalanxes they stood, facing a faceless man wearing a sailor’s uniform. In unison, the children, plastic, expressionless, lifted their arms in a gesture of supplication. With their arms still raised, the uniformed man’s head began to shrivel as the children’s arms fell slowly to their sides, their eyes rolling languidly in their sockets as they slumped and crumpled one by one into the embracing grayness of the field. Seawater rushed over their bodies and covered their listless faces with the color of jade and seaweed.
The boy pushed aside the sliding door of his father’s closet and caressed the rough fabric of his father’s uniform. He remembered the sailor’s words before boarding ship, but when he drew the sleeve to his nose and once again felt the sting of salt-water on his cheeks, he forgot entirely, turning his thoughts to the offing.