A Friend

by Robert Clanton

Blue leaned on his cane. He mayst well tell Jess everthing. Jess had helped him before. Jess’ old model Chevrolet pickup rounded the corner, came down the street and stopped. Blue got in.

Sorry to bother you like this.

No problem at all.

Starter quit.

Yeah? Jess pulled out, shifted to second.

Been grindin. I ought to a done fixed it but you know how things are.

I do.

Starter’ll be fifty dollars I reckon.

Tom might do it cheaper. Put you a rebuilt on. He’ll come over to your house. I’ll let you have whatever you need, Blue.

You’re a real friend Jess.

Well, what’re friends for?

Jess stopped at the light. In the treetops, sunlight blazed.

I’ll pay you Saturday night when we settle up.

All right. Spread it out if you want. You got other bills, too.

They cut the power off yesterday.

Jess looked at him.

Come in, no lights.

Lord.

Women. Aint no way, Jess.

Aint it the truth.

Well. Will a hundred get you by?

Surely.

The light changed. Jess pulled ahead, shifting. Church. Bank. Dairy Queen. Texaco. Jess touched the brakes, stuck a tattooed arm out the window. The tattoo was a naked woman with over-sized breasts. The woman stood on tippy-toes in high heels. Coy look on her face. Blue had studied it a thousand times. Jess drove across the oncoming lane and into the station. Tom come from under the grease rack. He wiped his hands in a rag.

Blue’s got a starter problem.

Been grindin, Blue said. Wouldn’t do nothin this morning.

Brushes, sounds like. I’ll run over there in a minute and see.

Whatever, just fix it.

You got it.

About mid-morning Blue finished Wilbur Ray. Wilbur Ray got out of the chair. He opened his billfold and took out two dollars and handed the bills to Blue. Dont worry about the change, Blue.

Thanks, Wilbur Ray.

Tell Eloise and them kids hello for me.

I will, Wilbur Ray.

Blue didn’t tell Wilbur Ray about Eloise and the kids.

Wilbur Ray looked in the mirror, touched his flatop, brushed hair from his right ear, went out the door.

Blue whisked the chair. Nobody was waiting. Jess was trimming Doc Goss. They were talking about coon dogs. Old man Goss raised blueticks and redbones and Walkers. Old man Goss looked like a coon dog. I’m going next door, Jess. Need anything?

Jess peered over scissors and comb. Not a thing. How bout you, Doc?

Nope.

Blue got his cane and went out and across the lot to Dewey’s. He put a dime in the coke machine. Rumble. No coke. Blue slapped the side of the machine. Nothing. Bumped it with his cane. Nothing. Felt in his pocket, pennies. Blue went inside. Helen was at the register.

Hey Blue.

Your machine’s robbed me again.

How much?

My last dime.

Helen looked at him.

I aint kiddin.

Helen opened the register and took out a dime. She went out the door and came back with a king-size coke. She took a tissue from the box by the register, wrapped it around the coke and handed the coke to Blue.

Aint you nice.

Thats me.

Give me two packs a them BC’s.

She lifted the packages from the box and handed them to him. Blue tore the ends off and emptied the contents under his tongue. Turned the coke up.
You gone kill yourself takin so many a them things.

Blue shrugged, belched.

Leg hurtin?

Little bit.

You ought a get you a wheel chair, Blue. Get off at peg.

Yeah, I might do that.

Blue drained the coke and sat the empty on the counter. Stay cool, Helen.

I will. She aint back?

What makes you think I’d let her?

Folks has their troubles.

She needs a good butt kicking.

Helen cut her eyes at the wooden leg.

Bite it, Helen.

What’d I do?

Blue limped across the lot. The pain had climbed into his groin and would be there the rest of the day. The shop was empty. Jess must be in the back. Probably taking a dump. Blue leaned his cane in the corner. He wished he could take a dump. Hadn’t had a dump in three days. Maybe at lunch him and Jess would drive over to the Country Kitchen and have a mess of greens. Blue sat in his barber chair and stretched it back. That eased the pain some.

A late model Cadillac drove up. The driver came in. Hey Jess, hey Blue.

Hey Desmer. Blue got out of the chair, winced.

Need a shave from one a you fellows.

Jess ticked his chin to Blue.

All right, Blue said. Climb aboard. Blue popped the cloth, put it around Desmer’s neck, pumped the chair twice and laid Desmer back.

Doin alright, Blue?

Pretty good. You?

Me and the wife’s goin over to Lusco’s tonight. Gone have us a big ole steak. They cook some show nuff steaks over there, Blue. You ever had one?

No, cant say as I have.

You aint been to Lusco’s? Them big old steaks just hang off the plate. Hell, them steaks is two inches thick, I bet. Man them things is good. I try to eat there bout twice a week. They aint good for your heart or nothin but they show are good. And hell, a man’s gotta eat aint he?

He does. Blue ran hot water on a towel. Steam curled above the basin.

Then me and the wife’s goin dancin. We goin out to the Pines. You dance Blue?

Used to. Blue wrung the hot towel.

Used to? You better git with it, Blue.

Yep.

Desmer wore ostrich boots. Blue could see them little things the feathers come out of. Desmer probably paid five hundred for them boots.

Yeah, I was supposed to go see about some a me and daddy’s cows but its just too hot to be stompin around in a pasture. I’m telling you air conditioning will ruin a man wont it?

That’s a fact. Blue wrapped the hot towel on Desmer’s face. Desmer’s nose stuck through the circle of the towel. Blue ran hot water in a mug and beat a fine lather. The radio was on low. Jess sat in his chair smoking his pipe and reading the Daily Star. Blue unwound the towel. Brushed on lather.

After the eatin and dancin and drinkin, me and the wife goin home. Have a little fun.

Oh?

Kids is spendin the night over at grandmama’s, know what I mean?

Sure do, Desmer.

Yep. Steaks, couple a three Old Charters, dance awhile, lay up in the air condition with momma awhile. Make a new man out a you, Blue. Know what I mean?

I do. Blue wiped lather from Desmer’s lips.

I tell you one thing though, Blue.

What’s that?

Gas shore is gettin high.

Yeah. Blue set the mug on the stand and studied the straight razors. He had three laid out in a perfect line, two bone-handled Scalpmasters and a chrome Bartmann. He picked the Bartmann.

I hope gas gets higher, Blue.

Yeah?

You know why?

No. Blue stropped the razor. Finest hollow-ground German stainless steel. Plop, plop, plop, plop, plop.

So it’ll get all these pore folks in these old rattletraps offn the road. I get so damned tired a pore folks cloggin up the road in these broke down old cars and trucks.

Blue tested the razor on his arm. Well. He grimaced. Well. Blood rose in his face. His hand trembled. He lifted the razor. You sorry —

Whoa, Blue. Whoa, now. It was Jess.

The room pulsed. Chairs, walls, linoleum. Desmer’s face and eyes and mouth, motionless.

Jess edged into sidevision. Blue’s breath quivered. The razor quivered. Everthing’s gone be alright now. Jess opened his Zippo, lit his pipe. Desmer?

No movement.

Desmer?

Yessir.

Go on out there and check on them cows. Take your time. There aint no hurry.

Nothing moved. The razor remained aloft, poised.

Desmer? You hear me?

An ostrich-booted foot shifted. Then the other.

Go on now.

The razor, aloft, quivered. Blue’s face hard. Eyes narrow.

Desmer eased out of the chair. Gaze fixed. He pulled the cloth from his neck. The pin rattled on linoleum, the cloth dropped.

Everthings alright now. Go on out there and see about them cows. We’ll catch you little later.

Desmer’s chest rose and fell. He eyed Blue. Blue stared back.

I’ll do it.

Hush, Jess said. Go on, Desmer. Go on now.

Desmer slung lather and went out. He jerked the door of the Cadillac open, got in, slammed the door, cranked, backed around and hit the gas. Rocks pinged on the plate glass.

Jess filled his cheeks. Released. He picked up the cloth. Blue shook his head and folded the razor. Jess handed the cloth to Blue. Blue took the cloth and lay it over the arm of the chair. He went to the stand. He stared at the line of razors for a long time. He opened the Bartmann and wiped it carefully and refolded it and lay it in its place. He stood very still. He looked down at the tools of his trade: scissors, combs, razors, clippers, each in their place on the little plywood stand. He picked up a brush and looked in the mirror and brushed his hair. Studied the finished product, sucked at an incisor, returned the brush to its place.

Jess went to the door and turned the sign over. Cmon, Blue. Lets me and you go get something to eat.

All right. Blue dusted hair off his smock with the whisk. Turned the tap on, washed his hands.

Jess watched him.

Blue dried his hands in a towel and folded it. What’s today?

Beef tips, I think. Thursday aint it?

I guess.

You guess? What you mean you guess?

I dont know.

I dont neither. But I do know one thing.

What’s that?

That Desmer is a lucky fellow.

Blue shook his head. One corner of his mouth lifted.

Cmon, Jess said.

Blue went to the corner and got his cane. Greens, he said. I need a mess a greens.

Jess smiled. I’d say if ever a man needed a mess a greens, you do. But you know something?

Whats at?

I dont think I’m gone have greens. I dont think I’m gone need greens for several days.

Blue closed his eyes.

C’mon my friend. And we’ll go see Tom about that starter. And we’ll go up to the square and see about that power.

And the power.

The two men went out the shop door and climbed in Jess’s old Chevrolet. Jess pushed the starter to the floor and held it. The engine ground a few times, then cranked. Jess lit his pipe. The engine trembled with a slight miss. Jess shifted into reverse and eased out on the clutch. Over at Dewey’s the boy was filling the drink machine. Thomas Nell went by pulling his crappie rig, cane poles and slip corks protruded beyond the transom. Thomas Nell bumped the horn, waved. Jess and Blue waved back. Jess looked both ways and pulled out onto No. 8. Yeah, he said, this is Thursday. Beef tips. Beef tips sounds pretty good.

Robert Clanton lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with his wife Karen. He is a ninth generation Mississippian and a forester and appraiser who appraises rural land, farms and timber. His short fiction has appeared in The Long Story, a literary press out of Lawrence, Massachusetts; as one of nine stories selected from an international competition in 2009; and in Country Roads magazine, as a winner of their 2011 short story contest.

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4 COMMENTS
  • Ancient Mariner / May 10, 2014

    Enjoyed your story

  • Ancient Mariner / May 13, 2014

    Engaging. Good character voices.

  • Kemp san / October 27, 2014

    A southern Mississippi boy living in South Japan for most of a decade

    • Kemp san / October 27, 2014

      I didn’t finish my comment before it was sent.
      Clanton’s story reminded me of home and the people I know there.

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