Sunday, April 1,
An unshaded bulb in a ceiling fixture sent grotesque
shadows dancing around the six men in the basement of Otto
Klein's small house on East Fifth Street. The mood in the
room was ugly as the weather. One man, a squat, balding
farmer in striped overalls, muttered a curse as a gust of wind
slapped rain against a window. He rubbed his hands together,
stamped his feet. "Christ a'mighty, Otto, it's cold as my
wife's heart down here. Why the hell can't we sit upstairs
Below his sloped forehead and receding crew-cut hair,
Klein's dark eyes smoldered. "God A'mighty, Rafe, sometimes I
think you ain't got sense enough to pound sand down a rat
hole. We can't have my wife or my daughter hearing any
of this, okay? You know how women do. One gabby word at the
beauty shop, and next minute, it's all over town. If it's too
goddamn cold for you, go on back home, sit in front of your
fire, and toast a marshmallow."
A couple of men laughed. Rafe bit his lip.
Klein looked toward a rangy man with bright blue eyes and
a haystack spilling over his forehead. "Think anybody else's
Jerry Barton plucked a toothpick from his mouth. "Not as
I know. Whyn't we get started?"
Klein nodded. "Yeah, I guess. Time was, we had a
meeting, we could count on ten times what we got here."
"Times change," said Barton. "And it ain't just here.
Klan membership's down everyplace. It ain't enough that
niggers got their freedom, now people just stand around and
pick their nose while the government gives the whole stinkin'
country to the colored." He coughed. "God damn Franklin
Delano Rosenfeld. When the son of a bitch died, I figured we
were gonna be okay again, Harry being a good old Missoura boy
and all that."
Derisive laughter filled the room. "Wouldn't be
surprised if Harry goes on Saturdays and sits in Rosenfeld's
pew in the Jew-church," drawled Johnny Farnsworth, a short,
rawboned man with two days' worth of stubble on his face.
"I knew we was in trouble when he integrated the Army,"
said Rafe Anderson. "Next thing you know, it's gonna be okay
for a colored man to marry a white woman, and before you can
say Jackie Robinson, we'll be a country of half-breeds, don't
care about nothin' but gettin' laid and stealin' chickens.
Might as well just hand over the White House keys to the
Russkies and be done with it."
Klein held up a hand. "Okay, then. But that's exactly
why me and Jerry got you boys here tonight. Somebody's got to
take a stand, and I say why not us? Show this country that
decent white men ain't gonna let America go to hell in a black
handbasket." He waggled a finger in the direction of a small,
bald man still in his Sunday-go-to-church suit and tie,
sitting on a stained, battered couch, rubbing his hands
together. "Luther, what happened at the meeting today? This
ceremony really is gonna go down, is it?"
"'Fraid so." Luther Cartwright spoke in a prissy
countertenor. "I told them they ought to give a whole lot of
thought about what just might happen if things get outa hand.
Said I wasn't real happy about the idea of my drugstore
getting damaged, say, in a riot or a fire. But Charlie
Bancroft called me a lily-liver. He thinks the publicity'll
be good for the town, and besides, accordin' to him, 'It's the
right thing to do.'"
"Charlie always did like his chocolate," Barton said.
"If that hoity-toity wife of his don't have at least a couple
drops outa of the tar bucket, I'll eat my hat." The laughter
in the room encouraged him on. "People don't get a sun tan at
Christmas like she's got. Well, don't worry none about your
drugstore, Luther. Push comes to shove, it's far enough away
from Charlie's grocery, you'll be okay."
"Wait a minute, now," Klein shouted. "Just hold on one
minute. There ain't gonna be any fire, and no riot, either.
Luther, you didn't let on about nothing, did you?"
Cartwright humphed. "Come on, Otto. How dumb you think
"Dumb enough to say you were even thinking about a fire
or a riot."
Cartwright got halfway to his feet, but Barton pushed him
back onto the couch. "Relax, Luther. You too, Otto. Last
thing we need is for us to get on each other. Luther, you
were supposed to go to the meeting and just listen, not talk.
Best if everybody in this town stays nice and calm, nobody
thinking about riots, fires, or anything else. If we're gonna
blow up a high school, we don't need the whole damn town
pointing fingers in our direction. Now, what about Herb
Studer? What's the mayor thinking?"
Cartwright's face darkened. "He told that kike who's the
head of the Mens' Choral Club - "
"Yeah. Fancy-pants little Jew. Herb told him he'd be
glad to give a speech at the ceremony. He thinks it'd be good
to show people how Sedalia's moving ahead with good race
A sound like swarming bees swirled through the little
group. "Oh, he did, huh?" Otto Klein was furious. "Don't
that just top all. Guess he wants to see niggers eating in
restaurants, right at the next table to him, and sitting with
him in the movie theaters. What the hell's the matter with
Studer? Them colored breed like rabbits, and one fine day
they're gonna be tellin' us what we can do and what we
can't. I wouldn't never have believed in a million years I'd
live to hear the mayor of Sedalia say it's just fine and dandy
to have white and colored go up on a stage together. An' in
the colored high school to boot."
"Well, that's the way I heard it," said Cartwright.
"But there's even more. Some old white guy's coming in from
California, wants to play piano at the ceremony. He says he
was here fifty year ago, and took piano lessons from Scott
"He comes here and does that, he's gonna be a dead white
piano player." That from Clay Clayton, an angular man with an
uncombed thatch of gray hair cut short above his ears.
"They're gonna find pieces of him, come down to earth as far
away as Kans'City."
Rafe Anderson, the man who'd
complained of the cold, patted Clayton on the shoulder. "Damn
Klein turned to Farnsworth. "Johnny, you're sure you can
handle this, huh? Once we get started, be hard to back out."
The little man rubbed at his bristly chin, then grinned.
"Work with dynamite, y' don't get to be near as old as me if
y'ain't good and goddamn sure what you can handle. Don't you
worry none, Otto. If a pussy mayor don't have it in him to
tell them people what their place is, I do."
"Good." Barton raised a clenched fist. "Guess we're
ready to give them Hubbard-High pickaninnies something else to
think about besides their ABCs. And send a message to
Mr. Mayor Herb Studer."
The bee-swarm sound told Barton he had a unanimous vote
of confidence. "Okay, then," he said. "Everybody up."
The six men formed a circle under the unshaded light
bulb, each extending a hand toward the center to grasp the
hands of the others. They lowered their heads. "Oh, Lord who
set the black man on earth to serve the white," Barton
intoned. "We ask your blessing on us as we set out upon our
holy mission, to make manifest your design for your children,
through the ministry of your beloved son, Jesus Christ. May
all evildoers perish, and those who truly honor you thrive.
A chorus of amens, then the petitioners raised their
heads. "Man alive, Jerry." Clay Clayton grinned. "You pray
as good as any preacher I ever heard."
Barton coughed. "My old man was a preacher. Grow
up with him, you learn to pray in a hurry. When I was a kid,
I used to pray the whole day long he didn't catch me smoking
back of the barn, or just get himself in a bad enough mood
he'd give me a licking for the hell of it and tell me it was
payment in advance."
Klein broke the heavy silence. "Well, okay, that's it.
Ceremony's on the seventeenth, so we got two and a half
weeks. Let's do some thinking, and then get together next
Sunday night, see where we are."
"What say we meet by Jerry's place," said Rafe Anderson.
"Ain't nobody else lives out there to hear us, so it'll be all
that much more private. Besides, we could sit in his
upstairs, and not freeze our ass off."
"Fine with me," Barton said. "I'll get us a keg."
"I ain't gonna argue with that," said Klein. "See y'all
in a week, then. If Herb Studer or anybody else thinks white
people who got any self-respect are gonna just sit back while
they put on some kind of fancy ceremony for an old-time nigger
whorehouse piano player, they got another think coming."
Monday, April 2
The old man banged the final notes of "Maple Leaf Rag"
out of the piano, then jumped to his feet and spun around as
he heard applause from a single pair of hands. The hands
belonged to a young man with shining black eyes, ears off a
loving cup, and a grin all over his face. "Jesus H. Christ,
Cal, you scared the living crap outa me. I never even heard
you comin' in."
Cal laughed. "Well, how would you hear me, the
way you were beating the life out of that poor old piano? Who
the hell keeps a piano in a barber shop, anyway?"
"A man whose wife don't approve of ragtime and won't let
him play it in his own house," Brun muttered.
Cal tried to hide his embarrassment for the old barber.
"Come on, Brun. You wouldn't have heard me if I'd set off a
grenade. I said hello twice, but Scott Joplin had your ears,
didn't he? Bet he was telling you not to play his music too
fast, that it's never right to play ragtime fast. Right?"
Brun glanced at the sepiatone photograph on the wall
above the piano, a dark-skinned Negro man and a white boy,
side by side on a piano bench, looking over their shoulders at
the photographer. "Don't mock, Cal."
The young man struggled to hear the whispered words,
then walked across the room, and plopped into the barber
chair. "Hey, Brun, I'd be pretty dumb to mock you right
before you pick up your razor and scissors. Come on, let's
get it over with."
Brun sighed. They never quit joshing him about how bad a
barber he was, and he had to admit, there was something to
what they said. He'd never wanted to be a barber, but a guy
had to make a living, and forty years ago, he'd let his pop
talk him into giving it a shot. Campbell and Son, Barbers.
Just temporary, Brun had told himself, but as things worked
out, it became temporary in the same way a man's life is
temporary. He shook his head, then reached to the shelf
behind the chair, pulled a strip of tissue from the box,
wrapped it around Cal's neck, snapped the striped apron clean,
and fastened it over the tissue.
Cal gave him a theatrical fish eye. "Still that same old
clipper, huh? Jeez, Brun, go down and sell it to Molly
Stearns in the antique store. It's so damn old, I'll bet
you'd get more for it than you'd pay for a new one."
Brun pushed the button, ran the clipper up the back of
Cal's neck. "Shut up, kid," he growled. "I got a fondness
for antiques. I'm one myself."
"Ow-ow!" Cal jerked forward, grabbed at his
neck. "Would you two antiques mind leaving just a little skin
Brun swallowed whatever he was going to say. For a
couple of minutes, the only sound in the room was the whir of
the clipper and the snipping of scissors, but Brun Campbell
never could manage long periods of silence. "Betcha don't
know what yesterday was."
Cal started to turn, thought better of it. "Sunday."
"I don't mean what day of the week. I mean what's
important about yesterday?"
Cal narrowed his eyes. "Today's April second...okay. If
you're gonna tell me they gave you the Barber of the Year
Award yesterday, I'll tell you yesterday was April Fool's Day
- ow, my ear. Jesus Christ, Brun! You cut my ear."
"Sorry," the old man mumbled. "You got me all worked
up. Yeah, yesterday was April Fool's, all right, but it was
also the day Scott Joplin died. April first, 1917.
Thirty-four years ago. Died in that New York crazy house
where he ended up after nobody would publish his opera.
What he died of was syphilis, Cal thought, but the young
man wasn't about to argue the point, not while the barber was
trimming furiously above his right eye.
"Nothing in any of the papers yesterday," Brun shouted.
"Not a word on the radio. It's like Scott Joplin never
lived. Greatest American composer ever. I was working on a
book, gonna call it When Ragtime Was Young, and it'd
have everything in it about Scott Joplin that people oughta
know. But last year, this guy Rudi Blesh from outa New York,
he went all around the country and talked to everybody, me
included, then he took what the people said and made it up
into a book. But it's all fulla mistakes. I tried telling
him he shouldn't do it that way, you know, too many chickens
spoil the broth, but he didn't want to listen. Now I don't
know if my book is ever get published, and if it don't,
when I'm gone, there ain't gonna be nobody to tell people
about Scott Joplin and his music."
Cal's eyes bulged. He raised a hand under the apron.
"Brun, put down that razor."
The barber glanced at his hand, then hunched his
shoulders and stared at Cal. "What d'you mean, put down the
razor? How the hell am I supposed to get the edges clean."
"Just use the scissors," said Cal. "You're waving that
razor around like a sword."
Brun couldn't seem to decide what to do.
"Put it down." Cal spoke gently. "Before you say one
more word about Scott Joplin."
Slowly, the old barber laid the razor on the shelf,
picked up the scissors, and went back to work. "I'm trying
everything," a dull monotone. "I show young kids how to play
the music right. I write articles about Joplin, they get
published in important music magazines. I make phonograph
records. I get interviewed by music professors and experts.
I'm workin' with Ethel Waters - you know who she is?"
"Yes, Brun. I know who Ethel Waters is. I've even heard
"Well, then." The wind picked up; Brun's sails
refilled. "I got Miss Waters interested in making a movie
about Joplin's life, but the people down there in Hollywood,
they don't want to let a colored woman say nothing but Yassir
and Yas'm in a film, so I'm afraid that ain't ever gonna
happen. Christ, kid, I'm sixty-seven years old. How much
longer do I - "
A howl from Cal broke off the barber's speech. The young
man reached from under the apron to grab the side of his
head. "Jeez, Brun, can't you sharpen those scissors once in a
while? You're pulling my hair out by the goddamn roots."
The barber looked contrite. "Sorry. Sometimes I get
myself carried away. But I ain't givin' up. People in
Sedalia're puttin' on a big ceremony, couple of weeks from
now. They're gonna present a big bronze plaque to hang up in
the colored high school there, saying how it was in Sedalia
that Scott Joplin signed the contract with Mr. John Stark to
publish 'Maple Leaf Rag.' I'm working along with them, gonna
go out and play at the ceremony, but also, I think maybe I can
talk Louis Armstrong into giving a scroll to Mrs. Joplin in
New York, right at the same time as they present the plaque in
Sedalia. And I want the radio people to broadcast the whole
shebang over their network."
Cal nodded, but didn't say anything.
Brun read his thoughts. "I know, a plaque in a high
school ain't the same as a monument in front of the City
Hall...or a museum, say. That's really what they ought have
in Sedalia, a museum. While I'm out there, I'm gonna see if I
can't get them cracking on setting one up for Mr. Joplin and
ragtime. Hell, that town's been on the edge of the grave
since the Depression. Just think about the tourists who'd
come in to see a museum, and hear ragtime music."
A smile curved a corner of Cal's lips. "So you're going
out to Missouri."
If I can figure out how to get food for the Greyhound,
Brun thought, and sighed. "I gotta."
The old man pulled the apron away from Cal's neck, then
shook it with a quick downward flip of his wrists. A sharp
crack, then a cloud of dark hair fluttered to the floor. Brun
tore the tissue from Cal's neck, held a mirror up to the back
of the young man's head. Cal cringed.
"Guess it ain't one of my better jobs," Brun mumbled.
"Figure it's on the house."
Cal pushed a dollar bill into the barber's hand. "It's
not the worst you've done. If you could only talk about
something beside Scott Joplin and ragtime, at least while
you're cutting peoples' hair."
"Damn, boy, what in creation should I talk about?
I ain't never had anything in my life come close to Scott
Joplin and ragtime."