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Plainsong (Kent Haruf)


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  Ike and Bobby.


Saturdays they collected. They rose early and delivered the papers and came back home and went out to the barn where they fed the horses and afterward the mewling moiling cats and the dog and then returned to the house and washed up at the kitchen sink and ate breakfast with their father and then went out again. They made their collections together. It was better that way. They carried a book with tear-off tabs dated for the months and weeks and a canvas bag with a drawstring for the money.

They began on Main Street, collecting at the places of business before they became busy and crowded with the Saturday trade, before the townspeople would come downtown and the farm and ranch people would drive in from the country, buying things for the week and passing the time, neighborly. They started at Nexey's Lumberyard beside the railroad tracks and collected from Don Nexey himself, who was kind to them and had a bald head which shone like sculpted marble under the low tin-shaded lights above the front counter. Then they went next door to Schmidt's Barber Shop and stood their bikes against the brick storefront under the spiraling red and white barber pole.

When they entered the shop Harvey Schmidt was employing scissors on the hair of a man seated in the chair with a thin striped cloth pinned about his neck. There were black curls caught in the folds of the cloth like scraps of sewing. Sitting along the wall were another man and a boy, reading magazines and waiting. They looked up together when the two boys came in. The boys closed the door and stood just inside the room.

What do you two want? Harvey Schmidt said. He said this or something like it every Saturday.

Collecting for the paper, Ike said.

Collecting for the paper, he said. I don't think I'm even going to pay you. It's nothing, only bad news. What do you think of that?

They didn't say anything. The boy sitting against the wall was watching them from behind his magazine. He was an older boy from the grade school.

Pay them, Harvey, the man in the barber's chair said. You can afford to stop for a minute.

I'm considering, Harvey said, whether I'm even going to. He combed out the hair above the man's ear, drawing it away from his head, and cut it cleanly with the scissors and then combed it flat again. He looked at the two boys. Who cuts you boys' hair now?

What?

I said, Who cuts your hair?

Mother.

I thought your mother moved out. I heard she moved into that little house over on Chicago Street.

They didn't answer. They were not surprised that he knew. But they didn't want him talking about it in his barbershop on Main Street on Saturday morning.

Isn't that what I heard? he said.

They looked at him and then quickly at the boy sitting against the wall. He was still watching. They kept quiet and stared at the floor, at the clippings of men's hair under the raised leather-backed chair.

Leave them alone, Harvey.

I'm not bothering them. I'm asking them a question.

Leave them alone.

No, Harvey said to the boys again. Think about it. I buy your papers and you get your haircut from me. That's how it works. He pointed at them with the scissors. I buy from you and you buy from me. It's called commerce.

It's two dollars and fifty cents, Ike said.

The barber looked at him steadily for a moment and then turned back to the man's hair. They stayed at the door watching him. When he had finished with the scissors he folded a scrap of tissue paper over the man's collar, over the striped cloth at back, and dabbed rich soap on the man's neck, then he took the razor and shaved the back of his neck, scraping down exactly from the hairline, wiping the lather and hair on the back of his own hand each time, and finished that and removed the scrap of paper and wiped the razor on it and threw the dirty paper scrap away and cleaned his hand, then he wiped the man's neck and head all over with a towel. He shook out pink fragrant oil onto his palm and rubbed his hands together and massaged the oil into the man's scalp, then with a thin comb he parted the man's hair scrupulously on the side and formed a stiff wave of hair between his fingers over the man's high forehead. The man frowned at himself in the mirror and reached up out of the cloth and flattened the fussy wave with his hand.

I'm trying to give you some sex appeal, Harvey said.

I can't use any more, the man said. I've got too much already.

He stood up out of the chair and the barber unpinned the cloth and shook it out onto the tile floor and snapped the cloth, making it pop. The man paid and left a tip on the marble counter below the mirror. Pay these boys, Harvey, he said. They're waiting.

I reckon I'll have to. If I don't, they'll stand there all day. From the cash register he took out three one-dollar bills and held them forward. Well? he said.

Ike advanced and took the money and made change and gave Harvey Schmidt a tab from the collection book.

You're sure that's right, the barber said.

Yes.

What do you say then?

What?

What do you say when a man pays his bill?

Thank you, Ike said.

They went outside. From the sidewalk the two boys looked back into the barbershop through the wide plate glass window. Beyond the gold lettering arced over the window the man with the fresh haircut was putting his jacket on and the boy who had been waiting was climbing into the chair now.

Son of a bitch, Bobby said. Turdhead. But it didn't help. Ike didn't say anything.

They swung onto their bikes and pedaled south half a block to Duckwall's and entered and went back past the display of girls' underwear and folded brassieres without even speculating about them this time and walked past the combs and bobby pins and mirrors and plastic dishes and on past the pillows and curtains and bathtub hoses and knocked on the manager's door. He let them in and paid them quickly, indifferently, without fuss, and they went back outside and rode across Second and collected at Schulte's Department Store on the corner and went on to Bradbury's Bakery and stopped in front of the wedding cakes in the big window.

Ike said, You want to go in here first or upstairs first?

Upstairs, Bobby said. I want to get her over with.

They parked their bikes and opened a door that was set back into the building, and then entered into a small dark foyer. There were black mailboxes attached to the pasteboard inside the door and a brown pair of men's shoes stood on the floor.

They passed through and mounted the stairs and turned at the top down the long dim corridor which led back toward a fire escape above the alley. Behind one of the doors a dog was barking. They stopped at the last door where the morning's Denver News still lay on the mat. Ike picked it up and knocked and they stood before the door with their heads bowed, looking at the floorboards, listening. He knocked again. They could hear her now, coming.

Who is it? Her voice sounded as if she hadn't spoken in days. She was coughing.

We want to collect for the paper.

Who?

Paperboy.

She opened the door and peered at them.

You boys come in here.

It's two-fifty, Mrs. Stearns.

Come in here.

She shuffled back and they entered the apartment. The room was too hot. The heat was suffocating and the room crowded with all manner of things. Cardboard boxes. Papers. Piles of clothes. Yellowed stacks of newspaper. Flower pots. An oscillating fan. A box fan. A hat rack. A collection of Sears catalogs. An ironing board opened against one wall with a row of loaded grocery sacks spread across it. In the middle of the room was a television set built into a wood cabinet with another smaller portable television positioned atop the first like a head. Across from the television was a stuffed chair with hand towels laid over the worn arms, and off to the side a faded davenport shoved against the window.

Don't touch anything, she said. Sit over there.

They sat down together on the davenport and watched her limp with two metal canes across the room. There was a pathway between the boxes and the leaning stacks of paper and she followed that to the stuffed chair, then lowered herself painfully and stood the two silver canes between her knees.

She was an old woman in a thin flowered housedress with a long apron covering it. She was humpbacked and required a hearing aid, and her hair was yellow and pulled back into a knot, and her bare arms were spotted and freckled and the skin hung in folds above the elbows. On the back of one of her hands was a jagged purple bruise like a birthmark. When she was seated she took up a cigarette that was already lit and sucked on it and expelled smoke toward the ceiling in a gray stream. She was watching the two boys from behind her glasses. Her mouth was vivid red.

Well, she said. I'm waiting.

They looked at her.

Start talking, she said.

It's two dollars and fifty cents, Mrs. Stearns, Ike said. For the paper.

That's not talk. That's only business. What's the matter with you? What's the weather like?

They turned and looked through the gauzy curtain draped over the window behind them; the curtain smelled heavy of dust. The view was of the back alley. It's sunny, Bobby said.

The wind isn't blowing today, Ike said.

But the leaves are falling.

That's not weather, Ike said.

Bobby turned his head to look at his brother. It has something to do with it.

It isn't it, though.

Never mind, Mrs. Stearns said. She stetched a wrinkled arm along the wide armrest of the chair and tapped her cigarette. What are you doing at school? You go to school, don't you?

Yes.

Well.

They were silent.

You, she said. The oldest one. What's your name?

Ike.

What grade are you in?

Fifth.

Who's your teacher in school?

Miss Keene.

A big tall woman? With a long jaw?

I guess so, Ike said.

Is she a good teacher?



She lets us do seatwork at our own speed. She lets us do work at the board and do writing. Then she copies it and sends it to the other grades in school to look at. So she is a good teacher, Mrs. Stearns said. But she told a girl to shut up one time. Did she? What for? She didn't want to sit next to somebody. Who didn't she want to sit next to? Richard Peterson. She didn't like the way he was smelling. Well, yes, Mrs. Stearns said. His people have a dairy. Don't they.

He smells like their cow parlor.

So would you if you lived on a dairy and you had to work on
it, Mrs. Stearns said.

We have horses, Ike said.

Iva Stearns studied him for a moment. She appeared to be considering this remark. Then she drew on her cigarette and put it out. She turned to Bobby. What about you? she said.

Who's your teacher?

Miss Carpenter, Bobby said.

Who?

Miss Carpenter.

I don't know her.

She's got long hair and . . .

And what? Mrs. Stearns said.

She always wears sweaters.

Does she.

Mostly, he said.

What do you know about sweaters?

I don't know, Bobby said. I like them, I guess.

Huh, she said. You're too young to be thinking about women in sweaters. She seemed to laugh a little. It was a strange sound, awkward and tentative, as if she didn't know how. Then suddenly she began to cough. She knew how to do that. Her head was thrown back and her face darkened while her sunken chest shook beneath the apron and housedress. The boys watched her out of the corners of their eyes, fascinated and afraid. She wrapped her hand over her mouth and shut her eyes and coughed. Thin tears squeezed out of her eyes. But at last she stopped, and then she took her glasses off and removed a clot of Kleenex from the pocket of her apron and dabbed her eyes and blew her nose. She put her glasses on once more and looked at the two brothers sitting on the sofa watching her. Don't you boys ever smoke, she said. Her voice was a rasping whisper now.

But you do, Bobby said.

What?

You smoke.

Why do you think I'm telling you? You want to end up like me? An old woman left all by herself staying in rooms that don't even belong to her. Living upstairs over a dirty back alley?

No.

Then don't, she said.

The boys looked at her and then around the room. But don't you have any family, Mrs. Stearns? Ike said. Somebody for you to live with?

No, she said. Not anymore.

What happened to them?

Speak up. I can't hear you.

What happened to your family? Ike said.

They're all gone, she said. Or they're all dead.

They stared at her, waiting for what else she would say. They could not think what she should do, how she might correct the way her life had turned out. But she said no more about it. Instead, she appeared to be looking past them toward the curtained window overlooking the alley. Behind her glasses her eyes were the pale blue of the finest paper and the whites too appeared bluish, with the finest squills of red. It was very quiet in the room. The vivid lipstick was smeared onto her chin from when she had covered her mouth, trying to stifle her cough. They watched her and waited. But she didn't speak.

At last Bobby said, Our mother moved out of the house.

The old woman's eyes turned slowly back now from where they'd been looking. What did you say?

She moved out a few weeks ago, Bobby said. He was speaking softly. She doesn't live with us anymore.

Doesn't she?

No.

Where does she live?

Shut up, Bobby, Ike said. That's nobody's business.

It's all right, Mrs. Stearns said. I'm not going to tell anyone. Who would I tell anyway?

She studied Bobby and then his brother for a long while. They sat on the davenport waiting for her to speak again.

I'm very sorry, she said finally. I'm very sorry to hear about your mother. Here I was, talking about myself. You must be lonely.

They didn't know how to say anything about that.

Well then, she said. You come and see me if you want to. Will you?

They watched her doubtfully, sitting on the sofa, the room silent and the air about them smelling of dust and her cigarette smoke.

Will you? she said again.

At last they nodded.

Very well, she said. Hand me my pocketbook so I can pay you. In there in the other room on the table. One of you can get it and bring it to me. Will you do that for me, please? I won't torment you any longer. Afterward you can go on if you want to.

 
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Excerpted from Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Copyright © 1999 by Kent Haruf. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.