Table of Contents
The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber,
of the Port William Membership,
as Written by Himself
Other Books About the Port William Membership
The Memory of Old Jack
A Place on Earth
That Distant Land
A World Lost
Requiescat in pace
A publisher's job is to provide a writer with encouragement, correction, amusement, and (of course) publication. For all of these things, and for kindness and friendship, I thank the people at Counterpoint Press: Heather McLeod, Trish Hoard, John McLeod, and Jack Shoemaker.
For typing my manuscript in various drafts, I thank Tanya and David Charlton and Tanya Berry. For reading the book and giving indispensable advice, I am indebted to the aforementioned two Tanyas, Ross Feld, Maurice Telleen, Don Wallis, and Donald Hall. Carole McCurdy copyedited the manuscript; I am grateful for her vigilance and her gift for marginal conversation.
Persons attempting to find a “text” in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a “subtext” in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR
Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing ...
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 gotâthough 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 customersâto 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 Rowanberrysâalways taking care to get back before six-thirty. Of course, if I didn't leave until
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
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 townâ“three-thirds drunk,” as he would sayâowing 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 roadâbefore I
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.