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the bee, the barber (and the heavenly banquet)

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john palmer

the bee, the barber (and the heavenly banquet)  Reply with quote  

This is a short story that I wrote. Comments are most welcome.

John Palmer




I had never found Sunday School to be a very satisfying source of information on the great questions of life, and I had accumulated quite a list:
Was there a God in heaven? Was there any justice to be had in this world, or did one have to wait patiently to receive it directly at His hand in the next? What was man's place in creation, and what was that of his fellow creatures, even unto the lowliest and most miserable? what of them?
These questions we have always asked, and always will ask; they are the stuff of religion and philosophy, legend and speculation; the subjects of learned discussions, wishful thinking, pool hall oaths, and children's prayers.
Answers? I received many, if not most, of mine, not on a Sunday, but one Saturday morning in the local barber shop when I was ten years old.
And on that day, even before my great epiphany, I felt, if not quite a man, at least a good deal further advanced along the road to full adulthood than I had before. My father had decided that I was of an age when I might safely be entrusted with the task of taking myself to the neighbourhood barbershop for a haircut...and he might otherwise occupy himself.
And so it came to pass.
I had mixed feelings about the barbershop. Something about it was almost more hypnotic than I could bear: the rhythm of the scissors, the ritual of the smock, the embrace of the chair. The barber himself, however, I had some concerns about, but they were hard to define for my young mind, and they were easily overlooked amid the manifold splendours of his establishment.
The barbershop chair was part recliner, part auto garage hoist, and I loved it. I sank into it, revelled in the padded splendour of it, the rich barbershop odour to it of talcum and aftershave, and, especially, the rich, somnolent sense of otherness that seemed to slip softly over my head as the barber performed the liturgy of the great shearing upon my touselled locks.
But, somehow, on that great day, the barber was not quite the same man that I remembered him to be when I had come to see him with my father on Saturday mornings past. Whereas, formerly, he had seemed to be doing everything he could to make me feel comfortable (although solely, I suspect, for my father's notice), now he essentially ignored me, only speaking to me as it suited his purpose, which appeared to be one of playing to his late Saturday morning barbershop audience.
And so, having sat me down, he snipped his scissors in mock menace, with wickedly glinting eyes, saying, "Okay, what'll it be, son: a little off the ears?"
Oh, Lord.
Even so, once he settled into his work, I quickly succumbed to the spell of the scissors, the barbershop odours, and, most of all, the chair, as I always did, although occasionally jarred back to consciousness by the barber's sporadic wisecracks, which were then quickly forgotten as I resubmerged in my pleasure.
And then, having received only a shadow of the usual talcum and brush "amen" to my trim, I made my way awkwardly over to the coat rack to retrieve my jacket.
And there, one of God's more lowly, which is not to say utterly defenceless, creatures had found, if not his place, at least a place in the great scheme of things: lodged in the sleeve of my jacket: a bee? a hornet? a wasp? I could never keep them straight. Something that stung.
And so, I yelled and danced like a drunken ballerina, ripping off my jacket as I pirouetted crazily across the barbershop's checkerboard floor. The barber, of course, laughed like a satyr, further inspiring the rest of the shop in its merriment beyond what my own efforts had produced.
Then, whether attracted by the noise, or in response to some higher power, the little winged, stinging creature made -- forgive me, please -- a bee line for the barber.
Righteously stung, the barber bellowed like another one of God's creatures, something like a wounded bull water buffalo, I imagine, causing the barber's entire clientele to erupt in laughter, some of them until they cried.
It was not until years later, one afternoon in the chapel at the seminary, while sitting in one of its narrow, dark, oaken pews, that I realised that it was that Saturday morning in my neighbourhood barbershop, that, for me, creation itself turned a little on its great axis, and my faith was born.
It was St. Thomas Aquinas, I believe, who wrote, "I have only made but one prayer of God, a very little one: 'Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.' And He always granted it." That Saturday morning, perhaps, the Lord answered my prayer before even the thought, let alone the words, had been properly formulated in my young mind.
And Jesus told us that our Father in Heaven knew what we needed before we even asked Him for it.
Yes, He must.

[optional continuation]

It's funny what a person will remember, and at the oddest of times: a bee from the distant past, as I sit myself down on this old wooden chair. A cushion would be nice, I suppose, not that it matters much now...
This chair creaks miserably as it receives me...not the creak of barbershop leather, though. And it seems an impossibly small chair for their purpose. I have nowhere to put my feet up...
Funny that I'm not more afraid.
...they pull the straps tight around my ankles, then my wrists, and then they continue to work their way upwards -- they've obviously done this many times before -- supervised in monosyllables by a dour soldier I do not recognise who hovers just outside my reach...if my hands were free to reach...and if I had the inclination -- I don't.
My head has already been shaved. They didn't say why they were doing it, but I knew.
I have also been given my time with the priest. I mouthed the words of the last rites along with him. I have spoken them more times than he has, I am sure: he is a much younger priest than I am. He was certainly more nervous than I was...they all are...they don't usually execute priests down here: it is a Catholic country, more or less, but there are dangers involved in ministering to the opposition in South American countries with unstable governments, I now know, profound dangers that had not occurred to this middle-aging man of the cloth from Cleveland, not that the chain of coincidence and duplicity that led me to sit in this chair is now of any great importance.
"A little off the ears?" I imagine my executioner saying. Funny the things you remember...
For some reason known only to God and myself, I smile at him. He is taken aback, perhaps even shaken a little? He sets the corners of his mouth a little tighter.
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," occurs to me as being a wonderfully suitable thought for a priest to have at such a time as this, but I have trouble embracing the sentiment whole-heartedly -- I am not a saint -- and they certainly appear to know what they are doing.
The electrodes are attached to my naked scalp.
Funny thing about electricity: just a little, and the miracle of life is sustained: heart, mind, reflex, and all the rest. Perhaps a little spark of it even passed from the finger of God to the hand of Adam. More, on the other hand, produces what? a clap of thunder? a Frankenstein's monster? a dead priest...
"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies," I recite inwardly, as the black hood is pulled over my head, the draw string secured, "and anointest my head with oil," long my favourite psalm.
"And the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and a little child shall lead them," I remember from the book of Revelation. "What about the bee and the barber?" I wonder.
"Oh, death, where is thy sting..." That's almost funny, now, isn't it? And where did St. Paul go for a trim? "...Oh grave, where is thy victory?" Indeed.
These and other pieces of scripture flood my thoughts.
"And we shall all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye..."

It won't be long chair at the heavenly banquet will have a cushion, I know...or maybe it will be padded...
The room is growing still. Finally, footsteps leaving...all speech has all movement. A door in the far corner is shut.
The room is very still indeed.
Jesus said that God sees even the tiny sparrow fall. I know that He does.

A jolt...
...I float...
"...and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."


Post Thu May 27, 2004 7:06 am   
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