Menu Close

Excerpt From Emancipation Day


1. William Henry

William Henry Lewis, of W.H. Lewis & Sons, Ltd., Plasterers, Willie to his wife, Will to his brother and friends, the Old Man to his sons, Pop to his daughter, William Henry to his Mama who was living in Ypsilanti or Cassopolis, no one was certain where or even if she was still alive, she’d be in her nineties, and also William Henry to himself, sat regally in his father’s ancient barber chair, his hands spread across his knees under the blue pinstriped barber’s bib, and watched himself in the large wall mirror while his brother, Harlan, shaved his chin. Harlan had owned this barbershop off the lobby of the British-American Hotel since the death of their father, Andrew Jackson Lewis, who fell dead from this very chair onto this very terrazzo floor on a hot Saturday in July of 1911, thirty-two years ago now, after a longer than usual bout of drinking during which he had taken to sleeping in the barbershop rather than going home to his wife and family. Harlan lived upstairs in one of the hotel’s smaller rooms, and kept two chairs going even though there was just the one barber, also worked as night watchman at Lansberry’s Pharmacy across the street after six p.m., also played Step’n’Fetch-It for the hotel’s white manager, also shone shoes out in the lobby if anyone asked him to. There was nothing William Henry loved more than being shaved by his brother Harlan.

William Henry had been coming to the shop every day to have his morning shave and occasionally his hair trimmed since the day after their father’s funeral, a habit that had not altered with his marriage to Josie the year after, nor upon the birth of their three children, despite the many times it would have been more convenient, because of work or the drink, to stay home and shave himself or not be shaved at all. William Henry was vain about this, he knew it, others knew it, too, and said so, but all flesh was vanity, and he liked the routine of it, it was like going to church except that church cost money and his brother never charged him a nickel, nor so much as mentioned money even to remark upon the absence of it. His coming here was a comfort to them both. They’d been doing it too long now for him to say he looked forward to it, it would be like saying he looked forward to breathing, or to the Detroit River flowing past. Thirty-two years was a long time. He tried to think of something he could start now that would go on for thirty-two more years, but he couldn’t think of a thing. Maybe something his son, Benny, could do with him every day, but what? When you came to think of it, there weren’t many things in life you did every day and liked doing.

Harlan talked and William Henry mostly listened or read the Detroit Free Press or the Windsor Daily Star, even though, as he would say if there were another customer waiting, “the Free Press ain’t free and stars don’t come out in the daytime,” now and then grunting when he agreed or disagreed with something he read or his brother said. There was always something new to listen to or read about. These days it was the war. The many coloureds who were migrating north to work in the Detroit armament factories. The many whites who were moving out of downtown Detroit for that very reason. The war was none of his or Harlan’s concern, except that it did affect business. Folks had worn their hair long during the Depression, Harlan said, almost over their collars, but now that the war was on they seemed to prefer a more military cut, even the civilians, and not just the coloureds. Everyone wanted to look like they just been called up, or would be any day now, or else just got back and wanted everyone to know it. William Henry countered with how the plastering business had picked up, too, what with everyone wanting little one-room apartments in their houses to rent to the new workers, or for when the soldiers returned. He liked the smell of the toilet water Harlan used, and the talcum powder that he sprinkled on the brush before whisking the cut hairs off the back of a customer’s neck. His own hair was thin and wavy, not wiry like some, his brother had no trouble getting even a fine-toothed comb through it, and his skin was light enough that when he did go to church he sat right up at the front and did not look around. He could have been called up for Service, but he was too old. Fifty-two. Old as a poker deck.