The entertainer (2013)

The revered Samuel Hickman was old with short, white hair and bushy eyebrows. He was of a very short stature, but his morals were very high indeed. As the minister of the local Lutheran church, he saw it as his responsibility to educate his parishioners that they should always be kind to one another. He stood tall in the pulpit, looked out over his congregation, and gathered as much air in his lungs as he possibly could.

– In closing, then, he summarized.

– Never forget the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”!

He peered over his little, round  glasses.

– Be ye kind to one another! Be a helper! Be a good neighbour! Be practical about it…

He drew his breath quickly.

– One good advice I heard earlier was to set an extra plate at your table to remember those who are hungry and have to go without food, and be thankful that the good Lord have blessed you with enough food to eat!

The reverend gave a short nod to a woman in the corner who started playing ever so softly on an old piano.

– In closing, let us sing “Rescue the perishing”.

A loud trample of about a hundred feet was heard as the entire congregation stood up for the closing hymn.

– “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying…”

Some of the men had deep base voices, whilst some of the ladies sang in a very high pitch tone. Many hardly sang at all, whilst a precious few sang so loud you could hear them all the way down Church Road, and that road was almost a mile long.

After the song had finished, the minister led the congregation in  prayer, praying that everybody would be kind to strangers, helpful to others and generous to the needy people, and that, of course, included being generous as they passed the collection plate on their way out.

Soon, the crowd started moving towards the door. They had waited for the minister to get to the front door before starting to walk, as they knew that Rev. Hickman wanted to shake everybody’s hand as they left the church. One by one they shook his hand, complemented him on his sermon, even if they had been half asleep through most of it.

– Reverend Hickman?

A small, red haired man with a big beard was last to come and shake the minister’s hand. His face was smiling, and he shook the reverend’s hand excitedly.

– Yes, Barney! the minister sighed. He was already contemplating roast duck with gravy and roasted potatoes for his Sunday dinner, lovingly prepared by his loving wife, who loved to cook.

– I really what you were talking about today!

The minister suffocated a yawn that would have seemed quite rude.

– And what was that?

He hadn’t really forgotten, but he wanted to hear Barney Stanton’s wording of it.

– I’m telling you, reverend; today I’m gonna set an extra plate at my table.

The minister made a funny face.

– There was more to it then that, but please do what you said, then let me know how it went.

– How it went? Barney tilted his head, looking like a question mark.

The reverend said goodbye in the most polite manner he knew how, then made his way back inside the church to turn out the lights and tidy up the songbooks and Bibles who always lay all over the place. Once he had even recovered one in the men’s toilet.

Barney walked slowly back to his apartment. He climbed the stairs slowly, and soon he stumbled in the door. He warmed up some stew from the day before, then he set two plates on his dining table. Two glasses was also brought out from a cabinet, and soon Barney sat down, eating his stew whilst watching the empty plate and glass on the other side of the table. He had been given the nice oak dining table by his parents whilst they had still been alive, but no there was only him. He had no siblings, and he had not got himself a girlfriend yet, although he was already thirty years of age.

He finished his stew with some sparkling cherry flavoured pop to swallow it down with. Still looking at the empty plate, he thought to himself It’s no good to have an empty plate on my table – that won’t feed anybody! He decided right there and then that he would invite a guest to dinner the next day, but who? Someone from church? No, they already had something to eat. He thought about it for a long time before he decided what to do

The neon lights flashed in rhythm with the music from the night club. A long line of young people were waiting to get in, and only a very few seemed to be leaving. From the looks of their clothes, it didn’t seem to Barney like they were suffering financially or otherwise. lots of the boys were wearing skin tight trousers and brightly coloured shirts. Most of the girls were hardly wearing anything at all. Barney swallowed hard and kept on walking. Where could he find someone who was homeless and would appreciate a good meal. Past the night club was a public house. Laughter and music spread out into the street like a wave hitting a very long beach. Barney got an idea. Maybe there were some homeless people in the park! He seemed to remember seeing someone sleeping on a park bench a couple of months ago when he had to go through the park on his way home from a house meeting on the other side of town. some of the streets here were quite dark, but that didn’t scare him. He had decided to find a person, preferably a homeless person, who he could invite home for meal. Arriving at the city park by the sea, he found that not all of the lamp posts were working, leaving several areas of darkness where nothing could be seen. Slowly, he started walking through the park. The first three benches were empty. Then, when he came to the first dark area, he sensed a silouette laying flat out on the bench. He drew close to the bench and cleared his throat.

– Excuse me? he said, his voice almost in a hoarse whisper. He cleared his throat again.

– Excuse me?

This time it was loader, but there was still no reaction from the bench. He gathered up all the courage he could muster, then shook the shoulder of the person laying on the bench. Judging fro the clothes, it would almost certainly be a man.

– Excuse me!

The man on the bench jumped up suddenly, his dirty, unshaven face centered by a big open mouth. He closed his mouth, took a few unsteady steps, then sighed.

– You almost scared the pants off me, man! What are you doing? Are you an unmarked police officer?

His words were a bit jumbled up, and Barney could tell that the man was obviously intoxicated with something strong.

– I apologize, Barney hesitated.

– No, I am not a police officer!

An angry frown spread across the drunken mans face.

– Then get your sorry face away from here, or I’ll redecorate your face.

Barney pulled back.

– I-I-I-I-I … am so… so sorry, he stuttered. He started running away from the homeless man, thinking that the man would not be able to follow him. He didn’t slow down before he got to the next dark area. Looking back, he found that the man had not followed him. Giving a big sigh of relief, he made his way towards the closest bench. An older man sat on the bench wearing a dark green hat, a dark green scarf around his tall neck, and a big green coat with a brown belt tightened around it, probably because most of the buttons had come off the coat. The man smiled a big smile, revealing that his two front teeth were missing.

– Oh, don’t mind old Henry there! he giggled.

– His bark is worse than his bite!

Barney studied the man closely. He seemed friendly, and he was most likely a homeless person. He had a shopping trolley parked by the side of the bench that probably contained his few earthly belongings.

– I probably startled him, Barney suggested with a faint smile.

– Never mind him, said the green man.

– He’s probably gone back to sleep already! He seems to drink a bit too much!

Barney bit his lip, then, once again, he gathered up his courage.

– May I ask you something, Sir?

The green man laughed.

– It’s been many years since someone called me Sir! What would you like to know?

Barney felt confident that this was the man he was looking for.

– Please, Sir! he started.

– Please don’t be mad if I have mistaken you for someone else! Are you, by any chance, what is called a… a… homeless person?

The man in green got a serious look in his face.

– I suppose I’ve been called worse things too, he mumbled.

– Yes, it’s true! I do not posses a house at this present hour, nor have I done for several years since my business went bankrupt just over ten years ago!

Barney’s eyes turned big.

– Did you have your own company?

The green man suddenly looked sad.

– That I did, son, that I did!

Barney shot up straight.

– Well, my name is Barney! I would like to invite you to my flat for dinner! i hope you don’t find that rude, Sir?

A smile spread across the green man’s face.

– On the contrary, he beamed.

– It is me who is rude! My name is Alistar!

He shot his hand forward to shake Barney’s hand.

– I would love to come to  you for dinner! When do you want me?

Barney thought quickly.

– You could come tomorrow, or if you are hungry now, we could go straight away.

Alistar stood up from the bench, straightening his back.

– It is getting cold in the air, he uttered.

– Maybe we could go now? I am normally hungry at all times…

They both laughed, then they started walking slowly back to where Barney had come from.

Alistar seemed nice, and he talked all the way. On a serious note, he turned towards Barney.

– You need to be careful who you invite to your home, he said.

– Some people can not be trusted. they may rob you blind, and maybe even hurt you.

Barney looked deep into Alister’s eyes.

– But you wouldn’t do that, would you Alistar?

Alistar shook his head and smiled.

– No, of course I wouldn’t do that! I am not some kind of animal…

– Please hand me that tin of tomatoes…

Barney was busy working in the kitchen, making his “famous” spaghetti blog. The minced meat was already fried, the spices had been sprinkled on, and now the tinned tomatoes were poured into the frying pan. Barney stirred with a big, wooden spoon, mixing all of the ingredients in the pan. The spaghetti had almost cooked for fifteen minutes, and it before they knew it, the grub was ready for eating. Silence descended as they ate. Barney had made plenty, and Alistar ate more than his fair share.

– I don’t know when I’ll eat next, he excused himself.

Barney was just happy that he seemed to enjoy himself. Nobody had ever appreciated his food as much as Alister… ever!

As the dinner had been consumed, Barney found some ice cream in the freezer. Happily, the two finished off their big meal, petting their bellies and belching loudly. Indeed, they were two confirmed batchelors who enjoyed their food and each other’s company.

Time ticked away, and Alistar pointed to what looked like a tall table with a blanket thrown over it.

– What is that? he asked.

Then he suddenly bit his lip.

– I’m sorry, he said.

– I didn’t mean to pry…

Barney tried to sit up a bit, his over filled belly almost hurting after he overate.

– No, he replied.

– That’s quite all right! It’s a piano that I inherited from my parents! I don’t know how to play it, but I haven’t got the heart to sell it either…

Alistar stood up and walked over to it.

– Do you mind? he inquired.

– Do you play?

Barney couldn’t believe that Alistar could play the piano. It definitely didn’t look like he could afford any lessons.

Alistar smiled, almost shyly.

– I had lessons when I was young, he smiled, as if he could read Barney’s mind.

– And when I was still in business, I owned a very nice piano indeed.

Barney smiled back at him.

– Please, he said.

– Help yourself…

The homeless man gently pulled the blanket away, let his long fingers slide slowly over the top of the piano, then turned back towards Barney.

– It’s a Steinway, he said, lump in his throat.

– They are good pianos…

He sat down by the piano, opened it up, and stretched his hands out. Then he started playing. Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” filled the entire room, and Barney just closed his eyes, listening to the beautiful music. Alistar played on whilst Barney listened. When the music came to it’s end, Barney finally opened his eyes again.

– That was beautiful, he sighed.

– Could you play it again, please?

And Alistar played it again and again. The concert lasted almost a whole hour. Then Barney got up.

– Thank you for playing for me! he puffed.

– I enjoyed that very much!

Alistar nodded.

– Glad I could give you something back for that nice meal you gave me!

Barney looked full of thought.

– Alistar? he said.

– Mhmmm…

– If you will come back and play for me, I will keep feeding you…

Alistar looked at Barney, full of thought.

– Okay… he nodded.

Months passed, and Alistar was a frequent guest at Barney’s flat. Barney was not a bad cook, and he fed Alistar plenty when he came to visit, about two or three times a week. Alistar would play on the piano, and he could play more than just The Entertainer. Both seemed happy about their arrangement.

Then, one December afternoon, Barney came down to the park to look for Alistar. He found him huddled up in a blanket on his bench. His nose was red from the cold, but otherwise the old man looked pale. He had developed a chesty cough, and his breath was heavy and wheezy. Barney was shocked.

– Why didn’t you tell me you were ill? he almost shouted.

Alister coughed.

– You didn’t ask…

They both laughed a bit, and that made Alistar explode in a violent coughing fit. Barney grabbed his arm.

– That’s it! He said sternly.

– You’re coming home with me!

Alisar tried to protest, but Barney had made up his mind. He half dragged, half pushed Alistar to his flat. Well indoors, he made hot tea with honey and lemon for Alistar, and he made up his bed and put him in it, claiming the couch for himself.

With Barney’s nursing, Alistar started getting better. At Christmas, Alistar played Christmas songs for hours, and Barney would sit in his rocking chair with his eyes closed, listening to the lovely sounds that made his flat become so alive, so vigrant and pulsating. Barney bought Alistar some new winter clothes as his old ones were too old and full of holes. It made Alistar feel bad that he ad no gift to give to Barney, but Barney said that the music he played was more than enough gift for him.

The new year came, and the snow with it. Barney told Alistar to stay inside, but as he had lived most of his life outside, he had to out to get some fresh air once in a while. It was at that time that the temperatures hit the bottom low. Barney enjoyed a few walks in the park, but soon he developed a new cold. Barney started nursing him again, but Alistar did not seem to get any better.

– It’s time to call Dr. Conrad, Barney decided.

Alistar twisted round in the bed.

– I don’t like doctors, he wheezed.

– Please don’t call him.

Barney cut him off.

– You aren’t getting any better! As a matter of fact, I’ll say you’re getting worse. I will pay for the doctor. Don’t you worry.

Alistar turned his back to Barney as he mumbled to himself.

– I don’t want no doctor, says I. It’s time to call doctor Conrad, says you. Baa humbug!

Barney smiled. Alistar didn’t seem to have lost all his good humour. He got on the phone and called the family doctor, Dr. James Conrad. he was busy out on a house call, but an hour and a half later, the stubby old doctor with his thick, round glasses were at Barney’s apartment. He took of his hat and parked his walking stick in the hallway. His grey hair was very short, and his neatly shaven face was round and friendly. Barney showed him into the bedroom where Alistar was peering suspiciously at the good, old doctor.

– Well, my friends, the doctor said in a friendly voice.

– What seems to be the problem.

Both Alistar and Barney started talking at the same time, and the old doctor started laughing.

– Steady now, both of you! One at a time please!

Barney shut his mouth and let Alistar tell the doc about his cough, chest pains and sneezing. The doctor asked if he had a temperature, and Barney shot in what his temperature was. Dr. Conrad took out his stethoscope and listened to Alistar’s chest as he coughed loudly. Then he listened to his back. He got out a small wooden stick, checking his throat, then investigated his ears. He gave a small sigh. Barney jumped at him straight away.

– What is wrong?

– Well, the doctor said, clearing away his instruments.

– He has double sided pneumonia, and to be quite frank with you, I think he should be admitted to a hospital to get himself checked out. I fear that there could be something else wrong.

He turned towards Alistar.

– Do you have health insurance?

Alistar coughed deep and chesty as we shook his head.

– Not to worry! the doctor said with a smile.

– There is a non-profit hospital down town who will take in anybody, no offence!

The doctor turned towards Alsitar.

– Non taken! Alistar wheezed.

– I’ll write down the address for you on a piece of paper.

Dr. Conrad produced a small post-it where he wrote down an address for Barney and Alistar.

– Say that I sent you, or they might not take you in!

– We will, said Barney, reaching out his hand with some money in it.

– No, that’s okay! the doc said.

– This one was on the house!

Barney thought it was strange that Dr. Conrad didn’t take his payment. He always had in the past. Fearing the worst, he followed the good old doctor to the door, then he called a taxi for them both so they could get to the non-profit hospital.

The church was almost empty. Reverend Samuel Hickman had done his message, and was now sitting down whilst the organist was playing the last piece of music. “The Entertainer” came deep and powerful through the organ pipes, and tears flooded Barney’s eyes. A couple of homeless people sat at the back, and a man in a black suit sat on the second row. The casket started rolling into a hole in the wall, and Alistar would never be seen again. Barney turned and saw that the man on second row had tears in his eyes.

– I’m sorry, whispered Barney.

– Did you know Alistar?

– Oh yes! the dark suited man exclaimed.

– He was my brother!

Barney gasped in shock.

– He told me he didn’t have any family, he almost shouted, irritated that Alistar had concealed the truth from him.

– I looked him up a couple of times and asked him to move home to me, but he always refused. He wouldn’t take any hand out’s, he said.

Barney looked puzzled. The man continued.

– I looked for him at Christmas time, but I couldn’t find him. I feared the worst.

Barney lowered his eyes.

– He was living with me the last months. He had a warm bed, and I fed him well. Then he played music for me on my piano.

A smiled spread across the man’s face.

– Al sure loved his music, he said.

– It sounds like you have given him more than just a warm bed his last months. I will like to thank you for it. Would you take some money for your troubles?

Barney’s eyes widened in disgust.

– Money? No thank you!

He calmed down somewhat.

– I did it at first as a good deed after listening to a sermon in this very church. But then, after listening to the music, I realized that it was me who  got the better deal. I loved to hear him play.

– How did it end? I heard what the pastor said, I want to hear what you have got to say.

Barney thought for  while.

– He was taken ill again after the New Year. My doctor came and said that he had double sided pneumonia and should get checked out at the hospital. Well, at the hospital they fond that he had cancer that had progressed to far to be treated. They gave him four to six weeks to live. He died after three weeks at he hospital. When he could manage it, he got help to get to the piano at the hospital, and he would play a song or two before he got too tired and had to be taken back to his bed.

The black suited man nodded.

– That sounds like him! he agreed.

– He loved music, especially Scott Joplins “The Entertainer”.

– And it’s so fitting, Barney blurted out.

– He was a true “Entertainer” himself…

The two got up and walked out of the church together. They went down the road, and Alistar’s brother, who was named Gordon, bought them both lunch at a local cafeteria. They sat talking about an hour before they shook hands and parted. Barney walked straight to the closest music shop, then he bought himself a copy of Scott Joplin himself playing “The Entertainer” just the way that Alistar had. With heavy steps, he walked slowly home to his flat. When he had arrived home, he put the record on the record player. As he sat down, “The Entertainer” spread it’s notes all around his flat.

Barney held his head in his hands and cried like a baby…


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