Alan Barber sings with the Rubber-Neckers « Michael Byers

Alan Barber sings with the Rubber-Neckers

September 1928

He finds that he wants to sing, too.  Finding a notice on a board outside the library, he joins the Rubber-Neckers Glee Club, on Lexington Street.  Every other week he has the feeling of sneaking out though no one is watching, and no one gives a damn.  Well, his mother, maybe, from her perch.  After putting down his pencil and washing his hands in the basin and knocking his hair into shape, he walks down Hayer Street and turns right at the shoe store.  Three blocks down Foley, his hands in his pockets and whistling through the gap in his front teeth.  Right at Lexington.  Two storefronts and a narrow door.

“Barbarino,” says Garibaldi.  “You got some nerve.”

“Gee, but it’s all I got these days.”  He shoulders himself out of his coat, hands it to Garibaldi who patiently lays it aside.  “Who let all these grayhairs in, anyhow?”

“They come for the young fruit.”

“Well, they can keep their hands off, I guess,” he says, and pulls from the inside pocket of his jacket the evening’s music.  It is folded neatly at the center and he makes his way into the room, back on his heels a little because it is a bigger group than usual.  He uncreases the music with the blade of his thumbnail.  His shoes are damp and he thinks that he could use a pair of galoshes.

The Rubber-Neckers is not attached to Harvard.  But everyone in it is.  It meets every other week in this building that was once a ward hall.  It has an upstairs and a downstairs and a cellar.  It is long and narrow with very old wooden floors that creak underfoot.  At the far end of this first floor there is an oak bar and behind this a mirror.  To use the john you make your way into the cellar, ducking your head, and step up two stairs into the privy.  Drinks are served, but they are not cheap.  “Ahoy,” says Douglas Green, sighting him with one eye.  “Hold this.”  He hands him a glass of beer and reaches through a pair of other singers to the bar and takes his own.  “Cheers,” he says.

Alan lifts his glass and drinks.  He likes Douglas but knows little about him other than that he is in the Divinity School and has a good tenor.  He wears a light fall suit that is dirty along the crease of the lapel.  His shoes however are first-rate.  His hair is parted smoothly down the middle in the style of about three years ago but he holds himself with a thoughtless sufficiency.  It is this that leads Alan to think he may be rich, but not of the showy variety.

Douglas is in the midst of his exams. “I had to run out for two hours but I’m going to regret it,” he tells Alan.  “You too?”

“I’m leaving,” he admits now, in the crowd.  “At the end of the year.”  He senses Douglas’ polite interest and says, “Got work, actually.”

Douglas accepts this with polite curiosity.   He will not ask anything more, as possibly it is a sensitive topic.  So Alan explains: he’ll finish his coursework but they’re letting him to undertake his dissertation on the job.  Douglas is relieved.  And to Douglas this course of action seems very sensible.  He himself will be in China in a year on missionary work and doesn’t expect to have any use for Harnack versus Gwatkin or the modern German theories of Kenosis.  But he is so deep in his flogging that he can reach for these names as easily a grocer would his cans of peas.  In fact to Alan he seems sort of radiant, not that Alan has any use for the religion of it but Douglas is stuffed with fact and the interior of his brain is, at the moment, ornate with theoretical understanding, which gives him, to Alan’s eye, a kingly air of discernment.  Also he does not seem to be bothered by girl trouble.  He has no time for it, possibly.  So Alan is envious, partly.

Because they are both leaving Boston they are bound together for a moment.  “I’ll miss it, I guess,” Alan says.

“Well,” Douglas says.

“They’ve been all right to me,” Alan says, and is immediately embarrassed.  “Better than  sticking it out in Ohio,” he blunders on.

Douglas nods and purses his lips as though to urge him to silence.  When it is time to sing they stand a few feet apart and Alan can feel the strands of a forensic inquiry spiraling from Douglas to him as they sing in parts.  He is becoming unfit for regular company, Alan thinks.  When the singing is over he escapes into the night air.  It is raining heavily.  The gutters are choked with newspapers.  Douglas appears in the lighted doorway, pulling his raincoat over his shoulders and setting his hat on his head.

“I know a place,” Douglas says, catching his arm.

It is on Alan’s street, halfway down the block, one of the subterranean speakeasies.  This one is decorated to resemble a barn, with hay on the floor and implements on the walls.  The smell of hay is good, mixed with the smell of spilled beer.  From the high window near the ceiling there comes a rattle of rain.

“My ma’s back in Indiana,” Douglas says, as he pays for the first round of drinks.  “She thinks I’m crazy.  I mean she thinks I’m a nutter of the first order.  She says religion is all right but you’re taking it to extremes.  I tell her it ain’t religion it’s more like moral philosophy.  Which you can imagine goes over – “  He sighs and drops a hand through an arabesque onto the wet table.  “She’s got a girl all picked out for me.”

“You’re going to China.”

Douglas nods, shuts his eyes at the idea.  “You don’t – “  He purses his lips now and looks sideways at Alan.

“No.  I always thought it was a bunch of hooey.”

“Not always.”

“Sure.  Well, I don’t know, I guess.  I don’t mean to get personal.”

“That’s all right.”  Douglas lifts his glass.  “Don’t guess I’ll get much of this in China.  It’s twelve of us.  We’re supposed to not get massacred and come back with a few scalps.  Spiritually speaking.”

“Women too?”

He drinks.  “In their own compound, however.”

“Well that sounds peachy.  Why don’t you just cut it off, I guess.”

Douglas looks embarrassed now and preens up slightly out of his collar.