Letdown

Patrick sent this story to me on 27 May 2015

John the barber clicked off the clippers, winked at Skeets in the mirror, and grinned between the two bare-breasted broads on the King Koal calendars from way back when: 1951 and 1952.

“Here comes Wick. Might be some fun.”

“Who’s Wick?”

“You don’t know Wick? Eddie Wickline, Viola’s brother? He left Letdown some time ago, maybe before your time. Been back a couple of years now.” John pulled away the tissue paper collar and dusted his neck with a talcum brush. Then he pumped the chair down. “Wick claims he worked on a spaceship the last years. He’s been away.” Away was pronounced with a certain tone of voice.

He stuffed the ten-dollar bill Skeets handed him into the register. “Why don’t you have a seat, Skeets. I’ll duck in to advise the boys in the pool hall, in case they want to sit in.”

Outside past the striped pole and the word Barber spelled backwards, you could see a tall thin man striding toward the shop, cutting diagonally across the concrete street. He wore a gray suit with purple pin stripes and a gray fedora.

“Spaceship?”

John nodded, smiled, and winked in the mirror again.

“Maybe I will stick around a bit” Skeets said. “The feature don’t start for near onto an hour.”

John was just taking off his apron when Wick opened the door, holding his hat and a Malacca can topped with bone in his free hand. His hair was thin, sharply widow-peaked, but raked into perfect furrows by a wide-tooth comb.

“Come on in, Wick. I ´ll be back in a jiffy. Got to get me a seegar.”

“Good afternoon, John. No hurry. I’ll just be wanting a shave.” His voice had only a vestigial remnant of the local twang.

“That’s fine, Wick. This is Skeets Corker here. His daddy built the high school back in the thirties.”

“Is that right”” They nodded to each other. “He was lucky to have work in those days. If it hadn’t been for FDR, many of us would ´ve starved.”

He hung has hat on the antler rack and stood his cane beside the dry spittoon. “Nobody much chews anymore. But still plenty of these things around. Be collector’s items pretty soon now.”

“Reckon so. Only one I know still chaws is Ches Legg, and his wife don’t like it much, at that.”

“So I hear. He’s my brother-in-law.” He sat in the barber’s chair to wait for John. “Those institutional buildings from the Depression have stood up pretty well. They don’t build like that any more. Too costly now to build with brick.” He made himself comfortable and lifted his pant leg to ease the crease.

His socks were gray silk with a ribbing of red stars up over the ankle.

“Where have you been?”

“Beg pardon?”

They spoke to their mirror images. Maybe that’s why men gab so much in barber shops. Words once removed are easier to utter.

“I mean you don’t look like you have been living the whole time in Letdown. You traveled a bit?”

“Well, now. The war took a lot of us here and there. I saw a little bit around and about America and then overseas.”

“I thought so. When people haven’t been any farther than Bickley, you can see it in their faces.”

John strolled casually back into the shop, puffing on a panatella.

“I been on my feet all day. Must’ve cut the hair of every kid in school. You don’t mind I rest a minute?”

“Don’t mind at all. Since retirement I learned to take it easy, got all the time in the world. How’s the family?”

“Mindy’s fine. Everybody’s just fine. Well, the grandkid’s got the croup, and Mamie complains of backache. But Junior’ll be all right, and Mamie’s got to admit ain’t none of us getting any younger.”

“Speaking of younger, tomorrow I’ll be sixty-seven,” Wick announced.

”You sure as heck don’t look it. You taken real good care of yourself up to now.”

He twirled the cigar to shape it, then sent a blue circle of smoke across the room to ring the neck of the Tiger Hair Tonic flask. “And your retirement don’t seem to hurt you none.”

A couple of the old boys from the pool hall next door sauntered in and settled into the chrome and plastic chairs lining the back wall.

“Hello Jake, Ellsworth. Wick here’s first, you don’t mind.”

Jake grunted amiably and folded out the three-day-old Sunday funnies of the Charleston Gazette. Skeets was flipping through a ragged comic of Sheena the Jungle Queen.

John carefully knocked the ash of his cigar onto the floor with the hair clippings and balanced the butt on top of the sterilizing case.

“You had oughta remove your jacket – here, I’ll hang it up for you.”

He whipped a striped cloth over wick’s shirt and loosened his collar and tie and tucked the apron in.

“You remember to bring them pictures, Wick?” He began to raising lather in the shaving mug.

“You have to come over to the house if you want to see them. You got to have a special projector.”

Wick glanced over the faces in the mirror. “I’m not supposed to bruit around that I have them.”

John winked into the mirror. “Oh yeah, I forgot You said they’re three dimensional pictures. But you don’t have to worry. Ain’t none of us friends with the FBI.”

“That’s right. Holograms, they are called. But it’s not the FBI I’m worried aout. The Rules of the League are quite specific.”

Skeets snorted into the funnies and turned the page to Flash Gordon. Jake, looking over his shoulder, pointed to the blonde Amazon straddling an anti-gravity sled.

The lather was peaking like whipped cream, and John finally began applying it to Wick’s upside down face, his lips clamped, eyes closed. “I can’t stand to look at a feller who is not rightside up to me,” Wick said. “Reminds me of being in no-gravity.”

When the lather resembled a thick white beard, John put the mug and brush down and smothered the lower half of Wick’s face with a hot damp towel, meanwhile sliding the blade of a straight razor back and forth on the strop.

“Sure wish I had one of them electronic razors you told me about. Save a lot of elbow grease, and that’s a fact.”

Wick mumbled under the towel.

“Wick says he seen this gadget shaves you clean as a baby’s bottom. Never needs honing. Cutting edge ain’t metal – some kind of sound wave in front of the blade that mows down your whiskers. Ain’t that right, Wick?

“Mmm-hmm.” He didn’t so much as blink, enjoying the soaking hot towel.

“Where was that? I heard about lifetime razors, but I never seen one. Is that what you talking about?”

“Wick used to work for a international sales outfit.” He gave a critical look at the razor and cut a hair held between his thumb and forefinger.

Mumbling again from under the towel. John folded the razor and removed the towel, wiping away the lather, preparing to smear some fresh on his cheeks and chin.

“Interplanetary, not international,” Wick stated matter-of-factly.

Skeets snickered and the customer who hung around allowed himself a thin grin. Under the headrest, John wiggled his fingers at them to keep quiet.

“I do remember that’s what you old me.” He held up Wick’s sideburn with his thumb and cut a swath through the whiskers underneath, wiping the flat of the blade on his palm. “I don’t think you ever told me exactly what it was you was selling out there,” turning his head to scrape a clearing under the other ear.

“Well, I dealt in just about anything you could name over the years, but my line at the end was furniture.”

“Furniture? Ain’t furniture a bit bulky to ship around between the stars?”

It was quiet while the razor pulled at the stiff whiskers of the upper lip. You could hear the blade nicking them off. When John let go the end of his nose he answered.

“Not the kind of furniture I sold.” Remaining lather was scattered over his face like odd patches of old snow.

“You mean collapsible chairs and the like?”

“Nothing like that. This was the best product I ran across in my travels. These were seeds. You plant them in pots and got chairs, or tables, or beds, depending on where you put them and what you want.”

John blinked and held his razor in the air. After a moment’s thought, he chuckled appreciatively.

“That sure sounds like a number Burpee would like to package all right. I hope you brought home some samples?”

“That’s plumb against the rules. Whole towns here would be wiped out – in North Carolina, there are some where the entire population lives off pine furnishings.”

John cranked the chair upright and dabbed astringent on Wick’s chin and cheeks.

“John, I know you and the boys like to get a laugh off me now and then. I know that, and it don’t bother me one little bit. . I didn’t want to end my days amongst aliens. That’s why I came home They expected I would retire in one of their colonies, but although there’s lots of us humans out there, we were kind of scattered about. I swore I would keep my trap shut when I got back, but since you boys won’t believe a word I say, I figure it’s all right.”

Now he winked at John and the others in the mirror. Nobody made a sound. It sounded like maybe he was just getting wound up. He glanced up at the tin squares decorating the ceiling. John lit his cigar again and hoisted himself up into the other chair, waiting for Wick to go on.

“I guess the product was developed from a type of mushroom, so it wasn’t really seeds – oversized spores, more like. A kind of intelligent, congenial fungus, you might say. When they first come up, they don’t have any definite form. You do a quick freeze, put them on hold, like.”

John closed the barber shop on Saturday a little late. The morning was full of kids with their mothers. After lunch at Harry Hotdog’s lunch counter, he took care of the older boys getting ready to pick up their girl friends for the double feature next door at the King Theater. Some of them were already shaving, but did that on their own at home. Every time a gaggle of girls passed in front of the plate glass window, the boys waiting their turn whispered comments to each other and elbowed each other in the ribs. He was glad his daughter Mary Kay usually went to the Oak Hill theater up on main street. He would hate to hear these boys making remarks about her. He knew that at fourteen she was at the age when she would start attracting attention. But knowing men and boys as he did, he dreaded to see it happening.

He locked the door and went past the ticket booth of the King and stepped into the pool hall on the other side. He could do with a couple of beers before heading home for supper. He and his cronies had a few laughs about poor Wick and his quick frozen furniture and then he got into his ’49 Ford and drove out to Pea Ridge.

His wife Mabel had supper going. He took a quick shower to get rid of whatever hair particles had stuck to him and tossed his clothes into the hamper.

When he was dressed, ready to go out to the nine o’clock movie, Mabel was putting steaming ears of corn on their plates.

“It’s State Fair tonight, with Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews.”

“Where’s Mary Kay? Ain’t she coming with us?” He smeared butter on the corn and sprinkled salt over it, rolling the corn till all the kernels were covered.

“She’s out to Wick’s again, Said she wouldn’t be hungry. I reckon he feeds her something or other.”

John felt blood swell his ears. “Are you crazy, letting her go out to his place?” He crunched right through a row clear across the ear of corn, moving it like a typewriter platen, fingers on both ends. He rolled it ready for the next row. “You know he is a complete looney.”

When they got home from seeing the movie State Fair, Mary Kay was not in the house.

“I’ll tell you what, let’s just drop out and see what’s what, bring her on home?”
“Aw John, it ain’t but ten o’clock. She’ll be here any minute.”
“You heard me. We’re driving over to his place.”

Mr. Wickline’s house sat on a ridge just above the state highway, with a winding dirt driveway coming up from the back. The front of the house looked out over the cutaway in the rocks down toward the mining camp.

“Looks like they don’t have no lights on in the whole house,” John said. “But that’s her bike by the porch, ain’t it?”

“Don’t go jumping to no conclusions,” Mabel told him, but even before he pulled on the hand brake she was out of the car.

Cement steps led up to the front porch. A swing hung unmoving on the right. On the left were tworocking chairs, unoccupied. John pulled the screen door open and stepped into the dark living room. At the end of the hall a blue light showed under a closed door. John flipped a switch and strode in that direction.

He flung open the door, startling Mary Kay where she sat in a straight back chair.

“Daddy! What’s going on?”

“That’s what I want to know. Wick, What the hell…?”

Mr. Wickline was in his shirt sleeves, his suit jacket draped over the back of his chair. Next to him was a box emitting a thin beam of light which spread into a field of moving figures in the middle of the room. Dancers in filmy costumes flitted among trees like lace in a landscape of rainbow vegetation. Unearthly music occupied the space immediately around them, only faintly heard in the room.

Mr. Wickline stroked the air above the box erasing the scene.

“Welcome, John. I reckon you wanted to see my pictures?” He made room for another couple of chairs.

“Maybe another time, Wick. Right now Mary Kay has to get home.”

Mabel stood with her mouth open, astonished by the glimpse of another world.

“Mary Kay, pick up your things and get out to the car. Mabel, hop to it. Out!”

“Daddy…”

“Not a word. I’ll talk to you later.”

When they were alone, John squared up to Mr. Wickline, who was pulling on his suit jacket.

“I don’t know what you are playing at, but I do know those folks were as good as nekkid. It is not fitting for you to expose my daughter to such dirt. My advice to you is to un-retire right quick and get back into the furniture business.”

From her room, Mary Kay heard her father on the phone. He made several calls and went out the front door. They were going to teach Wick a lesson.

She tried the door. She had to call him. Warn him.

The door was locked.

She rushed to the window, threw up the sash, and looked with despair down at the rose bushes thirty feet below. No way she could survive the jump.

She looked out over the hills.

From her dormer window, she could see flashing lights heading down the highway, and she knew the police were on the way to Mr. Wickline’s house.

“Do it now. Do it now!” she prayed to herself. He had meant to wait till she was of an age when she could go away on her own, when he could take her with him. At least for a while. She wouldn’t want to be away forever.

Now the sirens wailed along the ridge over there where Wick’s house sat on its knoll. The sky was filled with summer stars. One of them grew in size and seemed to fall from the heavens even as the sheriff’s men threw open their doors.

The star hovered several minutes before a yellow beam descended to the earth and hauled a figure up into its luminescence. Then her dreams lifted with the diminishing disk of light till it was just one more point in the heavens.

Wick was on his way home.

All that remained was one thin beam illuminating a young girl at her window.

A promise was a promise. And he had promised.

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