THIS GIRL, this Susan Reed, was an orphan. She lived with a family named Burchett, that had some more children, two or three more. Some said that Susan was a niece or a cousin or something; others cast the usual aspersions on the character of Burchett and even of Mrs. Burchett: you know.
Women mostly, these were.
She was about five when Hawkshaw first came to town.
It was his first summer behind that chair in Maxey’s barber shop that Mrs Burchett brought Susan in for the first time.
Maxey told me about how him and the other barbers watched Mrs Burchett trying for three days to get Susan (she was a thin little girl then, with big scared eyes and this straight, soft hair not blonde and not brunette) into the shop. And Maxey told how at last it was Hawkshaw that went out into the street and worked with the girl for about fifteen minutes until he got her into the shop and into his chair: him that hadn’t never said more than Yes or No to any man or woman in the town that anybody ever saw. “Be durn if it didn’t look like Hawkshaw had been waiting for her to come along,” Maxey told me.
That was her first haircut. Hawkshaw gave it to her, and her sitting there under the cloth like a little scared rabbit.
But six months after that she was coming to the shop by herself and letting Hawkshaw cut her hair, still looking like a little old rabbit, with her scared face and those big eyes and that hair without any special name showing above the cloth. If Hawkshaw was busy, Maxey said she would come in and sit on the waiting bench close to his chair with her legs sticking straight out in front of her until Hawkshaw got done. Maxey says they considered her Hawkshaw’s client the same as if she had been a Saturday night shaving customer. He says that one time the other barber, Matt Fox, offered to wait on her, Hawkshaw being busy, and that Hawkshaw looked up like a flash. “I’ll be done in a minute,” he says. “I’ll tend to her.” Maxey told me that Hawkshaw had been working for him for almost a year then, but that was the first time he ever heard him speak positive about anything.
That fall the girl started to school. She would pass the barber shop each morning and afternoon. She was still shy, walking fast like little girls do, with that yellow-brown head of hers passing the window level and fast like she was on skates. She was always by herself at first, but pretty soon her head would be one of a clump of other heads, all talking, not looking toward the window at all, and Hawkshaw standing there in the window, looking out. Maxey said him and Matt would not have to look at the clock at all to tell when five minutes to eight and to three o’clock came, because they could tell by Hawkshaw. It was like he would kind of drift up to the window without watching himself do it, and be looking out about the time for the school children to begin to pass. When she would come to the shop for a haircut, Hawkshaw would give her two or three of those peppermints where he would give the other children just one, Maxey told me.
No; it was Matt Fox, the other barber, told me that. He was the one who told me about the doll Hawkshaw gave her on Christmas. I don’t know how he found it out. Hawkshaw never told him. But he knew some way; he knew more about Hawkshaw than Maxey did. He was a married man himself, Matt was. A kind of fat, flabby fellow, with a pasty face and eyes that looked tired or sad something. A funny fellow, and almost as good a barber as Hawkshaw. He never talked much either, and I don’t know how he could have known so much about Hawkshaw when a talking man couldn’t get much out of him. I guess maybe a talking man hasn’t got the time to ever learn much about anything except words.
Anyway, Matt told me about how Hawkshaw gave her a present every Christmas, even after she got to be a big girl.
She still came to him, to his chair, and him watching her every morning and afternoon when she passed to and from school. A big girl, and she wasn’t shy any more.
You wouldn’t have thought she was the same girl. She got grown fast. Too fast. That was the trouble. Some said it was being an orphan and all. But it wasn’t that. Girls are different from boys. Girls are born weaned and boys don’t ever get weaned. You see one sixty years old, and be damned if he won’t go back to the perambulator at the bat of an eye.
It’s not that she was bad. There’s not any such thing as a woman born bad, because they are all born bad, born with the badness in them. The thing is, to get them married before the badness comes to a natural head. But we try to make them conform to a system that says a woman can’t be married until she reaches a certain age. And nature don’t pay any attention to systems, let alone women paying any attention to them, or to anything. She just grew up too fast. She reached the point where the badness came to a head before the system said it was time for her to. I think they can’t help it. I have a daughter of my own, and I say that.
So there she was. Matt told me they figured up and she couldn’t have been more than thirteen when Mrs Burchett whipped her one day for using rouge and paint, and during that year, he said, they would see her with two or three other girls giggling and laughing on the street at all hours when they should have been in school; still thin, with that hair still not blonde and not brunette, with her face caked with paint until you would have thought it would crack like dried mud when she laughed, with the regular simple gingham and such dresses that a thirteen-year-old child ought to wear pulled and dragged to show off what she never had yet to show off, like the older girls did with their silk and crepe and such.
Matt said he watched her pass one day, when all of a sudden he realized she never had any stockings on. He said he thought about it and he said he could not remember that she ever did wear stockings in the summer, until he realized that what he had noticed was not the lack of stockings, but that her legs were like a woman’s legs: female. And her only thirteen.
I say she couldn’t help herself. It wasn’t her fault. And it wasn’t Burchett’s fault, either. Why, nobody can be as gentle with them, the bad ones, the ones that are unlucky enough to come to a head too soon, as men. Look at the way they all the men in town treated Hawkshaw. Even after folks knew, after all the talk began, there wasn’t a man of them talked before Hawkshaw. I reckon they thought he knew too, had heard some of the talk, but whenever they talked about her in the shop, it was while Hawkshaw was not there. And I reckon the other men were the same, because there was not a one of them that hadn’t seen Hawkshaw at the window, looking at her when she passed, or looking at her on the street; happening to kind of be passing the picture show when it let out and she would come out with some fellow, having begun to go with them before she was fourteen. Folks said how she would have to slip out and meet them and slip back into the house again with Mrs Burchett thinking she was at the home of a girl friend.
They never talked about her before Hawkshaw. They would wait until he was gone, to dinner, or on one of those two-weeks’ vacations of his in April that never anybody could find out about; where he went or anything. But he would be gone, and they would watch the girl slipping around, skirting trouble, bound to get into it sooner or later, even if Burchett didn’t hear something first. She had quit school a year ago. For a year Burchett and Mrs Burchett thought that she was going to school every day, when she hadn’t been inside the building even. Somebody, one of the high-school boys maybe, but she never drew any lines: schoolboys, married men, anybody would get her a report card every month and she would fill it out herself and take it home for Mrs Burchett to sign. It beats the devil how the folks that love a woman will let her fool them.
So she quit school and went to work in the ten-cent store.
She would come to the shop for a haircut, all painted up, in some kind of little flimsy off-color clothes that showed her off, with her face watchful and bold and discreet all at once, and her hair gummed and twisted about her face. But even the stuff she put on it couldn’t change that brown-yellow color. Her hair hadn’t changed at all. She wouldn’t always go to Hawkshaw’s chair. Even when his chair was empty, she would sometimes take one of the others, talking to the barbers, filling the whole shop with noise and perfume and her legs sticking out from under the cloth. Hawkshaw wouldn’t look at her then. Even when he wasn’t busy, he had a way of looking the same: intent and down-looking like he was making out to be busy, hiding behind the making-out.
That was how it was when he left two weeks ago on that April vacation of his, that secret trip that folks had given up trying to find where he went ten years ago. I made Jefferson a couple of days after he left, and I was in the shop. They were talking about him and her.
“Is he still giving her Christmas presents?” I said.
“He bought her a wrist watch two years ago,” Matt Fox said. “Paid sixty dollars for it.”
Maxey was shaving a customer. He stopped, the razor in his hand, the blade loaded with lather. “Well, I’ll be durned,” he said. “Then he must… You reckon he was the first one, the one that…”
Matt hadn’t looked around. “He ain’t give it to her yet,” he said.
“Well, durn his tight-fisted time,” Maxey said. “Any old man that will fool with a young girl, he’s pretty bad. But a fellow that will trick one and then not even pay her nothing…”
Matt looked around now; he was shaving a customer too.
“What would you say if you heard that the reason he ain’t give it to her is that he thinks she is too young to receive jewelry from anybody that ain’t kin to her?”
“You mean, he don’t know? He don’t know what everybody else in this town except maybe Mr and Mrs Burchett has knowed for three years?”
Matt went back to work again, his elbow moving steady, the razor moving in little jerks. “How would he know? Ain’t anybody but a woman going to tell him. And he don’t know any women except Mrs Cowan. And I reckon she thinks he’s done heard.”
“That’s a fact,” Maxey says.
That was how things were when he went off on his vacation two weeks ago. I worked Jefferson in a day and a half, and went on. In the middle of the next week I reached Division. I didn’t hurry. I wanted to give him time. It was on a Wednesday morning I got there.