We’re taking a between-chapter break in the Kudzu story this week. Instead, I’d like to share a different tale. An earlier version of this story appeared in 2010 in Trail of Indiscretion magazine.
The Path That Few Have Trod
by Bernie Mojzes
My name is Sweeney Todd. Horatio Sweeney Todd, my birth certificate reads; my parents, aficionados of ancient musical productions, thought the name choice funny. They called it Intellectual Humor.
I call it Irony.
For the Sweeney Todd of legend and I have very little in common. I have never been to prison. Nor have I been to Australia. I am not haunted by the apparent death of my wife (I’ve never even had a wife, nor much use for one), nor am I consumed with a need for revenge. Really, I’m quite jovial, if a bit arrogant. I do, perhaps, eat a bit too enthusiastically, and some have said that I exercise far too rarely. However, I have no patience for such things, and wear my prodigious belly with pride. Also, I do not pull teeth. Messy business, that, and best left to others.
Apart from the name, I have only one thing in common with the Sweeney Todd of legend: I am a barber.
Until last week, of course. Hence the Irony.
I should like it to be known that none of this was my idea. I feel that it is important to stress this point. It was Jennifer Cappaccio (who no doubt is at this very moment crafting a similar exposition) that began the process of making the suggestion, late on a Wednesday night, well into our third bottle of wine, a 2012 De Loach Pinot Noir, if I remember correctly.
“He’s going to provoke a war,” she told me.
He was Harvey Smith, as anyone who is bothering to read this sordid little tale already knows.
Harvey is an astounding man. Quiet and unassuming, but with an infectious grin and a persistent good humor, he has won the admiration and even friendship of both his political allies and enemies, of the American people as a whole, and even of a-political elitists — such as myself — who typically look down with contempt at those who seek their fortunes in the political arena. Unlike those with the audacity to call themselves his colleagues, he is an artistic master of the soft science of politics, and a master scientist of the art of politics. With a few statements here, a few demonstrations of intent there, Harvey Smith could manipulate the politicians into manipulating the masses into approving just about anything he wanted. It was quite elegant, really, a beautifully choreographed ballet danced upon the political landscape.
All this, and he’s just a heck of a nice guy, too.
Regardless, politics bores me. Talk to me rather of an exquisite wine, or of the fabulous new chef at Bistro Bis, or, well, just about anything else. Politics is a sure-fire cure for insomnia. Subtle as a brick, nay, as a cinder block, these political hackeries and devices. I have no patience for such clumsiness, and yet even I begrudgingly concede Harvey’s talents.
This does not mean I have any interest in discussing them.
For example, America was shocked last year when President Teller abruptly fired his closest advisor — this being the aforementioned Harvey Smith — on a trumped up ethics charge. Shocked!
I only mention this because it bears directly upon this tale: barely a week before his ignoble sacking, a Time Magazine poll showed that Americans would have voted Harvey into office that very evening if there had been a handy election. President Teller’s unwarranted jealousy came as a surprise to everyone, even Harvey, who, when interviewed about the results of the poll, said, “I’m not the sort of person who would do well as President. I’ll leave that to the people who want it, and just stick to doing what I do best.”
Eight months later Teller’s presidency was in ruins and, tail between his legs, Teller was begging Harvey Smith back from Tennessee to try to salvage what could be salvaged. I say all this in demonstration of the theory that one can, in fact, learn whilst asleep and/or extremely drunk, which is invariably my state when Jennifer begins these dialogues, in which I am forced to act as Interlocutor to her Socrates.
“He’s a politician,” I responded, waving my arm magnanimously. “They all start wars. That’s what they do.” Jennifer started to say something, but I spoke over her. “Find some pathetic strip of land and save it from some pathetic little dictator that we were perfectly fine with last month. That’s the way it works. It’s a rather effective and time-proven solution, I believe. There’s even a phrase about it. Something about wagging one’s dog.”
“Not start. Provoke.”
“Attack? Us? What pathetic little country would dare attack us? And if they did, would we even notice?” I refilled her glass and mine, then lifted it in toast. “To the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.”
She just stared at her wine. “No,” she said softly. “Not Grand Fenwick. China.”
“That’s absurd,” I declared. “You must have misheard.”
But I knew she hadn’t. Jennifer Cappaccio is the proprietor of the fine eatery that sits adjacent to my humble shop. She also caters gala events, and whenever politicians are involved, she makes it a point to put on a uniform and get out there to serve the guests herself. She’s not above getting her hands dirty when the situation calls for it. “People talk when they feel no one is around,” she says, “and catering staff don’t exist.”
The lovely Ms. Cappaccio shook her head. “This presidency is so damaged that there’s no way to salvage it. It’s so damaged that the whole party is losing. They already lost the House. In the next election, they’ll lose the White House and the Senate both. It’s accepted wisdom that we don’t come out too well in a war with China. So the plan is to goad China into an attack, to manipulate things to time the attack after the next election, and leave the opposition to fail in the face of the Chinese assault. Then, when all looks lost, they retake the government overwhelmingly with a promise of a successful resolution to the conflict.”
Please note that I am paraphrasing with wild abandon in the name of brevity, and because three bottles of exquisite wine do little to promote conversations of a succinct or scintillating nature.
“What is the point of promises that have no hope of fulfillment?” I asked.
“Ah, see, that’s the thing. They believe they can win.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. “How do they propose to achieve this magnificent feat?”
“Nukes.” She drained her glass. I believe I blinked at her, then waved off her attempt to continue.
“Absurd,” I declared. “Absolute hogwash. I love you dearly, but you have gone completely off your rocker. No, I’ll not listen to another word.” And with that, I kissed her hand and bid her adieu.
The elections went as Jennifer predicted.
The following day, President Teller, in a televised speech, gave the first of his insults to the Chinese people. It was clever and subtle, designed to be highly insulting to Chinese culture, but appear innocuous to those who scarcely had enough culture to know how to spell the word. I recognized Harvey’s hand in it immediately, but chose to ignore it.
The next insult came three days later, and when the Chinese demanded an apology, President Teller instead ordered some manner of boat or ship to the area, ostensibly to provide support for people trying to do research on the Giant Sea Ferret, or some sort of creature that surely belongs more properly on a coat or lining my mittens. Whatever the excuse, it apparently irritated the Chinese government, who claimed that this put both Hong Kong and Shanghai within short-range missile range.
That evening, Jennifer invited me to dinner.
I fear I would be a terrible bore if I spent this time speaking merely of politics and intrigue. Instead, I should like to speak of something infinitely more interesting: art, and economics.
We are a dying breed, we hair stylists and barbers, we artisans of the blade. Who needs a barber when a coating of Fizz-Z will keep your face smooth all day? Who needs an artist’s sure hand when Do-Bots have become a household appliance? Simply enter your favorite celebrity’s image, and the Do-Bot emulates their hair on your head, with mathematical precision. Regardless of the consequences.
I fear and loathe award ceremonies.
Last year, over seventy percent of women in this country wore Nita LaCour’s hair the day after the Golden Globes. I was, of course, honored. Honored and appalled.
But I digress.
We artists have no use-value in society at large, and thus our services have become invaluable. We are a luxury. A means by which the rich and powerful express their wealth and power, and through that expression, reinforce their position.
My clients seek me out not because they need a haircut and a shave.
They seek me out because they need my haircut and shave.
This is a responsibility I take with utmost seriousness, and bring to each client the very best I can offer, with the finest tools available. Unlike much of my competition, I do not use computer-enhanced razors or other hair-styling tools. My tools are simple: a comb, a sharp pair of scissors, a well-honed straight-razor, and a steady hand.
These tools have never failed me.
“I’m bringing the wine tonight,” I informed Jennifer.
The wine was, first, an exquisite Montello e Colli Asolani Rosso, followed by a rather delightful Clos du Chêne Vert. I also brought a bottle of Château de Jacques and a Chianti that I can’t remember, but we didn’t drink those. Jennifer’s contribution was a number of hors d’oeuvres, most spectacularly a dish of Kobe beef, sparingly seared, then thinly sliced and wrapped around a bit of asparagus.
I waited until we’d successfully consumed the Rosso and the food before I got down to business. It is never good to allow business to interfere with the consumption of great food.
“So,” I said, “how do they plan on winning a war with China?”
“Harvey is friends with the president of a company that has developed a prototype anti-missile device. The plan — which is already underway — is to deploy them in secret. Not by the government, but by friends of Harvey’s. The government wouldn’t even know.”
“If the government doesn’t know, how are they to use them?”
“That’s the point — they wouldn’t, not until Teller is reinstalled as president. Then the command would go out to all the devices to neutralize the enemy’s nuclear arsenal.”
“I see.” I refilled her glass. Mine sat, half-full. I refilled it as well, then reached for the next bottle, the fantastic Clos du Chêne Vert, which I opened and set aside to breathe.
“So,” she continued, “as soon as the Chinese nukes were useless, we’d launch ours. Of course, the devices would be easily captured and reverse engineered. So our attack would have to be devastating. It would need to leave no opportunity for reprisal.”
“So they’re talking about destroying all of China?”
Jennifer nodded. “Two billion dead, in East Asia alone. But that’s not all of it.” Her glass was empty again. I filled it for her, and she tasted it. “Very nice,” she approved. “Since this is a trick that can only be used once, they plan on hitting all the nuclear powers at the same time. Russia, Pakistan, India, Iran, North Korea. I’m not sure whether they’re planning on including France and Britain. There was some debate. Teller has never been fond of the French.”
“That is… inelegant.”
I looked at the bottle of wine, whose grapes are grown exclusively in Loire Valley of western France. I wondered whether the wine would taste the same if it glowed. I highly doubted it.
“So what do we do?” I asked.
Jennifer’s face darkened. “I don’t know what you’re planning on doing, but I’m going to host a dinner honoring Mr. Harvey Smith. I’ve already begun lining up guests and speakers. I’m hoping that you’d be willing to help make the Guest of Honor presentable for the occasion.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“A haircut,” she said, with a bitter smile. “And a shave.”
I cannot praise Jennifer Cappaccio’s efforts more highly. She spared no expense. Every course was exquisite, and she served only the very best wines from her cellar. “Tonight,” she told me, “will be nothing but the very best. No point in saving it for later, after all.” I thought she seemed a bit pale.
There were speeches, of course, even in the absence of the Guest of Honor, who had left a message that he was running late, but would be joining us in time for the main course. Speeches and entertainment. A string quartet played Shubert during the meal, and between courses a bluegrass band flown in from Tennessee fingerpicked their way through some of the more abominable music I’ve had to sit through since I last had a Gilbert and Sullivan show inflicted on me.
There was a fish course, served with a respectable white wine of a vintage that I must admit, to my shame, I do not remember. I really am not a fan of white wines, you see. President Teller himself gave a speech, praising the man that not so long ago he’d banished from the kingdom. The President spoke in grandiose terms, and the reporters dutifully recorded it all, cameras flashing. I believe that the speech was broadcast live.
Busboys cleared our dishes and the emptied glasses of white wine, set out new wine glasses. The wine waiter brought out carafes of a deep red wine, poured a bit for our Hostess, who tasted and approved, and then the wine was poured for all.
Our esteemed Hostess raised her glass as the main course was served.
“To Harvey Smith,” she said, “who has served our country well. It is our hope that we may serve him with the respect he deserves.”
The Guest of Honor was well received. My complements to the chef.