HUMOR: From Umbrellas to Artichokes

The last place Charles thought he would get advice was from his barber. But… hadn’t they once been physicians?

Sitting there, hearing the hypnotic clip clip, he settled into the big, comfortable chair, with nickel-plated ashtrays built right into the hand rests. Those were the days, when a man could smoke in a barber chair or elevator. Someone told him these huge, heavy, deeply padded leather chairs were more expensive than any dental chair, than any surgeon’s table, with infinite positions and adjustments. A hidden foot pedal operated in deft strokes raised you up, and another with a gentle exhalation released you back, back to earth. The barber shop was a meeting room of mystery and commerce. Growing up, you saw money change hands, bets taken. It was an enduring place, a place of nostalgia, of smoking men, of intrigue, with magazines of nude women thrown casually about and sporting journals featuring dark-haired glowering prize fighters, naked to the waist. Oils and emoluments lined the wall. Ever since childhood, Charles Hathaway found barbers to be suspicious, even sinister. They knew more than they were letting on.

“I wouldn’t do it,” Nate told Charles, beating his shoulders with a whisk. “You got to play it safe.”

His partner Arne paused with his scissors. He trimmed an old man’s silver hair.

“How much are you going to pay?” Arne asked. Charles told him, and he shook his head. “Nate’s right” Arne said. “That’s too much.”

Each barber glanced at the other from the corners of their eyes. They had cut hair together for thirty-five years. Nate fought in ‘Nam, and didn’t sleep well. Arne had kicked alcohol. Together they represented an extremely complicated puzzle with pieces fitting exactly. They never disagreed, until one or the other was out of earshot.

Charles paid at the cash register. “Listen,” Nate said, taking him by the arm. “Count me in for five big ones. I got to take a chance, I need the dough.” Then he called over his shoulder in a loud voice, “But mister, she says. They’re twice as big in Montana!” He guffawed. Then quietly to Charles, “Arne’s drinking again”.

When Arne followed Charles into the street it was with the pretense of buying a coke from the machine. His nose nearly touched Charles’ cheek. “Can you get me in for a thousand? We’re broke, but I’ll skip the next bank deposit. Nate will never know.”

“Won’t he find out?”

“He can’t concentrate. It’s bad again. If a helicopter comes over, he hides in the restroom.”

Charles Hathaway pulled away in his Lexus. Not a ringing endorsement from either man. And now he had partners.

There is no Chinatown in Pleasant Valley. The closest thing is a food warehouse sporting the image of a long stenciled dragon with the words Hong Fat Supply. Charles walked past the front desk and found Hong Fat himself carrying a clipboard and supervising the unloading of a semi-trailer. Hong glanced at Charles through narrowed eyes. He carried everywhere that furtive, surprised look of a man who never knows what may happen next.

“Shipment late,” he said. “Not my fault.”

“That’s not why I’m here,” Charles said. “I trust you.”

Hong’s eyes fluttered.

“I’ve got investors,” Charles said. “Can you get me more product?”

“Oh yes,” Hong Fat said. “Much more. They need in Quing Ha everything. From umbrella to artichoke.”

“We’ll stick with umbrellas. Why don’t they make their own?”

“The new provisional government in Quing Ha is very corrupt.” Hong’s accent could suspiciously abandon him without warning. “Only make chopstick. No umbrella, rain all the time. Hong Fat long time live in Quing Ha. Hong Fat all wet.”

“Put me down for another ten thousand.”

Hong scribbled feverishly.

Charles Hathaway sat in his condo and worried. Exporting umbrellas to a place where there were none seemed like a sure thing.

28umbrellarain

Still, he was breaking the Number One rule of all Hathaways everywhere: Never Do Anything. They had been a lounging, tennis-playing, whiskey-drinking tribe since old Augustus Hathaway plundered the Northland of timber and iron ore, so long ago. And that was the problem. Day by day, year by year Charles yearned to make some mark on the world himself. It wasn’t enough to cash checks, attend galas, sit on charity boards. In his mind he saw all the Hathaways who had gone before staring down like Roman gods, judging him, urging him on. He would be the first since Augustus Hathaway, the old man himself, to successfully lubricate the engines of commerce. Like Zeus on his own cloud Augustus looked upon Charles, and smiled.

The ship date came and went, but Charles had faith. Hong was a busy man. Soon all of Quing Ha would be opening umbrellas, and then, who knows? Maybe they did need artichokes. Or televisions, or Beanie Babies or….. But why dream so soon? For the time being, the export business seemed destined to make Charles Hathaway the prominent and respected businessman he always believed possible. And it was all so simple. You just put in a certain amount of money and in short order you took out more. Put in and take out, like his trust fund. Well, not quite. He’d only taken money out so far.

That was about to change.

Charles Hathaway drove down to Hong Fat Supply. As he parked the stenciled dragon leered malevolently. Their shipment was long overdue, and Hong Fat hadn’t returned calls all month. The door was open. Walking in he heard his footsteps echo in the big warehouse.

It was empty. Helloooo??

An old weathered man sat at a shipping desk sipping tea. Where is everyone? asked Charles. Do you speak English?

“They’re all gone,” the old man spoke in flawless English. “The joint went out of business weeks ago.”

“But where’s Hong Fat?” Charles asked.

“Hong? He’s in Quing Ha.”

“Did he take the umbrellas over?”

“Umbrellas? What the heck for? It never rains in Quing Ha.” The old sport chuckled and sipped his tea. “If you want umbrellas there’s a whole crate of them on the loading dock.”

Charles ran to the crate. He reached in and pulled out a blue and white umbrella. There were hundreds of blue and white umbrellas. Many were broken. Someone had carelessly (or hurriedly) smashed into the crate with a forklift. He opened one.

Made In Quing Ha.

He took it with him. As Charles walked to his car, dark clouds were building overhead. It might not rain in some places, but it sure did in Pleasant Valley.

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Richard Donnelly

Richard Donnelly lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Classic flyover land. Which makes us feel just a little... superior. Mr. Donnelly's first book is 'The Melancholy MBA,' published by Brick Road Poetry Press in Columbus, Georgia.