A barber has to have a good haircut. Gary knew this, like anybody would, even though it was the type of lesson that was so obvious they didn’t bother to teach it in barber college. His interview the following day was for an apprenticeship with the top shop in the region, and they would surely notice the quality of his latest style. During his search for the best shop in town aside from where he was interviewing, he found Mike’s Barber Shop. It wasn’t the closest one to his motel, but it was the one with the fullest waiting room, the cleanest floors, and the most crystal blue Barbicide. He’d driven past no fewer than four shops in search of a trustworthy place with the right kind of curb-appeal for a newly-board-certified barber such as himself. The man he presumed to be Mike didn’t look up from the gray locks he was balancing as Gary walked in.
“Grab a seat. Got a few ahead of you.” Gary nodded as the man in charge made a satisfying snip. In his own fingers, Gary could feel the reverberations of metal scissors slicing through hair. To match the other waiting men, he pulled the nearest magazine from the rack, one about home ownership. With the unread magazine open in his hands, he overheard that Mike was in fact his name. He also learned that Mike was a good barber, carrying the conversation when needed, letting the client speak more often if they were in a therapeutic mood, or simply cutting hair if that’s what somebody indicated they preferred by giving one-word answers to Mike’s open questions. His movements with the instruments were precise, his hygiene was impeccable, and his edging was sharp.
“You a homeowner?” Mike asked, walking back after flipping his sign to Closed now that it was after 5 p.m. “I’m impressed, you look like a young fella.”
“Not yet. Why do you ask?” Gary asked, sitting himself down in the soft leather chair, still warm from the previous customer.
“Had your nose buried in Home & Garden over there,” Mike indicated Gary’s previous seat while securing the cape around Gary’s neck. Gary could see his cheeks flush as he looked at himself in the mirror.
“I only grabbed that so I didn’t stand out. I was watching you work.”
“You could have simply watched. I’m used to having an audience.” Mike crouched behind Gary’s head and looked at the front of his hair via his reflection in the mirror. Without a question he started trimming the back of his head freehand.
“Don’t you want any instruction?” Gary asked. Mike stopped working and came around from behind the chair.
“This cut isn’t more than a week old, so I think I have all the instruction I need. Date or interview?” Mike asked with a soft tap on Gary’s shoulder as he returned behind the chair.
“What’s your line of business if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Same as yours.”
“A barber? You should have warned me.” Mike’s voice quaked with fake fear. He shot Gary a wink in the mirror. Gary laughed and shook his head. He felt Mike’s steadying fingers on the crown of his head.
“Don’t move unless you want to go to that barbershop with a chunk missing.”
When Gary’s cut was complete a short time later, he retrieved his wallet from his inside jacket pocket. Mike waved him off.
“Pay me back with a cut. I could use one, and I imagine you could use the practice.”
“What’s the worst that can happen? It’ll grow back.” Mike sat down in the empty chair beside his own, inspecting his hair in the mirror with the same focus he’d recently shown Gary’s. Gary picked up a comb and a fresh pair of scissors from Mike’s station, his palms growing damp before making the first cut, feeling exactly as he had the week before at his practical exam with the state board.
The haircut complete, Mike smiled at his reflection in the mirror. “You sure you want to go to that interview tomorrow?”
“What do you mean?” Gary asked, pulling the cape away from Mike’s broad shoulders with the flourish of a young toreador.
“This chair’s yours if you want it.” Mike and Gary locked eyes in the mirror.
Gary used Mike’s phone to call and cancel his interview before they’d even discussed the terms of his employment.
The sun wasn’t out yet and Gary hadn’t salted the front walk. Snow wasn’t expected until mid-morning, so he still had time. Their normal day for a haircut swap was Monday, but Mike had asked to move it up for little Evelyn’s baptism the next day. She was his first grandchild, a product of Mike’s third child with his first wife. He wanted to look his best because both of his ex-wives would be there. His widow’s peak was a bit more prominent than it had been when Gary accepted his chair three years before, a fact that neither man discussed.
“Anything special for the baptism? Some new tapering? A three-line cut or a hard part?” Gary swung his cape around Mike and laughed at his own joke.
“You pull out the edger and we’ll have problems,” Mike said.
Gary gave Mike his standard Caesar, brushing his bangs over to one side with his pinkie before starting on his neckline. Before Gary could pull out the shaving cream, Mike slid his right arm out to re-straighten his bangs with his fingers.
“I think sweeping it to the side looks good on you,” Gary said.
“I’ve got too much forehead for that,” Mike said with a wrinkle of his nose. “More every day it seems.”
“You’re a grandpa, Mike. What kind of grandpa doesn’t have a little bit of recession?”
By the time Gary was done with Mike’s neck, Mike had shifted his bangs over to the side, aligned with where Gary had put them moments before.
“It’s not half bad, you know.”
“Almost like I’m good at this,” Gary said.
“Don’t be too cocky. You’re still young.” Both men jolted at the noise of their locked door being yanked in its frame. Gary jogged over to unlock the door and flip the sign to Open.
“You’re more regular than a rooster,” Mike said to their elderly client as he sidled into Mike’s chair and removed his ski cap. Mike stood and set Gary’s cape down.
“You guys get so dang busy that if I’m not here bright and early I’ll be stuck waiting for an hour.” Gary went to the backroom to get the bag of salt and a scoop for the front entrance. He might not have a moment to spare between now and their standard Saturday noon close.
“Watch it,” Gary said, twisting his head away from the scissors in Mike’s hands. They were millimeters from his ear.
“What are you so damn jumpy for?” Mike asked. “I’ve cut your hair, what, over four hundred times. You ever had me nick your ear?”
“You nicked that Brehm kid pretty good a couple years ago.”
“Oh god, and his mom about called the fire department over it. ‘My son, my son! Is he gonna lose that ear?’” Both men leaned over to laugh. They hadn’t been speaking much lately, and their shared mornings hadn’t had any laughter in weeks.
“She was such a cuckoo bird. Glad that you nicked him. At least it got her out of here. Now she’s someone else’s problem. Great Clips, I hope,” Gary said, wiping a tear from his eye now that he was done laughing.
“Parents are protective. I get it. You will soon.” Mike glanced at Gary in the mirror and they had a brief moment of connection. Gary broke away and looked at the floor.
“Yeah. Kids are expensive, too,” Gary said, with an edge to his voice. Mike took his fingers from the loops of his scissors and set the pair on the counter.
“Your name on that door, Gary? Does it say Gary’s Barber Shop or does it say Mike’s Barber Shop? Remind me.”
“Ask our customers. This place means the two of us, Mike and Gary, it doesn’t only mean Mike. You want to bring in a third chair, fine by me. But I think I’m a big part of the reason we can bring in a third chair, and I only think it’s fair of you treat me like the partner I am,” Gary said, his hands balling into fists underneath the cape.
“I know you might think that having a kid makes you entitled to something more around here. I don’t agree. You’re not a partner, you’re an employee.”
Gary gritted his teeth and tightened his eyes at Mike in the mirror. “That’s really how you feel about it?” he asked. Mike shook his head and shrugged. His shoulders sagged as he looked at the floor.
“In an ideal world I’d cut you in more. But you know about the divorce. It’s my third one, Gary. It’s not the right time.”
“It’s never the right time. And you ever think that the reason you can’t keep a wife is because you treat people like this? You treat the most important people like this?”
Mike threw his hands up and stormed away, his shoes clacking against the linoleum. Gary refused to look in his direction, instead surveying the progress on his partially completed cut.
“Come finish me up,” Gary called out, staring deeply into his own eyes in the mirror.
“Cut your own damn hair, superstar,” Mike called from the backroom. Gary picked up the nearest pair of scissors from the counter and snipped at the air above his head. He set them back down on the counter.
“Come finish me up, Mike. You don’t want your customers seeing me in this state.” Gary folded his hands in his lap and waited. In less than a minute he heard Mike’s shoes clicking back in his direction.
The front door of Gary’s new shop chimed. It was an electric chime, the type that would never have been permitted in Mike’s Barber Shop. If Gary was being honest, he missed the classic bell from Mike’s. The electric chime had a sound that made the fillings in his teeth hurt. As he emerged from the stock room, he stopped in his place when he saw Mike looking at the photos hanging on the wall. Even after all these years of knowing him, Mike didn’t seem right outside of his shop. To Gary, who’d had Mike standing up with him at his own wedding, it reminded him of the sensation of being a little kid and seeing his teacher at the grocery store.
“I took this one, didn’t I?” Mike asked, pointing at the photo from Gary’s first day of work as a barber all those years ago. Gary almost didn’t hang the photo up amidst the instructional and sports posters, but looking at that picture still made him feel a certain way about himself.
“I’m not sure,” Gary said, certain that they both knew the answer to the question. “How can I help you, Mike? Slow day?” Mike looked around Gary’s empty shop and smiled at him.
“Need a cut,” Mike said.
“What, you don’t trust the new guy to do it?”
“I wanted you to do it,” Mike said, indicating Gary’s empty chair with an outstretched hand. There were two chairs in the shop, and Gary had picked the one closest to the window to call his own. The window seat, as Mike referred to his own chair back at his own shop. Once his clientele grew, Gary would add a partner for the seat beside his. He nodded his assent and Mike sat down.
“Place looks nice,” Mike said. Gary surveyed the store around him as he snapped on the cape.
“I’m proud of it. Nice to have a place of my own. It was time, you know.”
“I do,” Mike said, tilting his chin back for Gary to tuck in a neck strip under the cape. “How’s business been?” he asked.
“Good,” Gary said, refusing to meet Mike’s eyes in the mirror.
“Slow week for us. I imagine a lot of your regulars have found their way over.”
“Oh you know how fickle clients can be.” Gary sized up Mike’s head in the mirror. He didn’t mention the small circle of flesh at the crown of his head that had grown more noticeable in the months since he’d been working on launching the new place.
“How’s the family?” Mike asked.
“You warned me. I should have listened,” Gary said as his eyes went wide. “Don’t know what I was thinking starting up a shop while I have a kid at home who’s learning how to walk and open drawers.”
“It gets easier.” The door chimed and a client walked in. It was one that neither man had seen before. Gary exhaled through his nostrils. The new customer nodded and grabbed a magazine on his way to sit down.
“I hope it does,” Gary said.
“It gets easier.”
Gary walked into Mike’s Barber Shop, a smile spreading across his face as he heard the bell tinkle above him.
“Be out in a minute,” Mike’s voice called from the back. Gary walked to the rack and picked up the nearest magazine. When he saw that it was a few years old, he attempted to tuck it behind a more recent issue and couldn’t find one. Returning the magazine to where he’d found it, he walked over to Mike’s chair. The Barbicide in the jar nearest the chair, the only one in use, was closer to green than blue. He retrieved a clipper blade from the counter and ran his hand over its groves, stray hairs falling to the ground like so many dead leaves.
“You’re not stealing my blades, are you?” Mike asked, hustling from the back of the shop near silently. He’d switched to tennis shoes after his back surgery. It still struck Gary as odd not to hear his dress shoes clacking around like a bell around a cow’s neck. A blue and red NASCAR hat atop Mike’s head, the gray hair that emerged from the back long and verging on unkempt.
“You think I’d steal a blade this dirty?” Gary asked, wiping his hands on his thigh.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve saying my blades are dirty.” Mike extended a hand for a shake, then he plopped down in his own chair. “Clean me up, Gary. It’s been a minute since my last trim.”
Mike removed his hat and tossed it on the empty chair beside his. Gary surveyed the top of his head, where not much hair remained. There was a clump on the front that had grown long and been combed back, and island in a sea of scalp.
“What’s the style for you these days?” Gary asked. “It’s been a few years since we did a cut swap.”
“Oh, same as before. You’ve cut my hair more than anybody,” Mike said.
“How long do you want it?” Gary asked, lifting up the combed back piece of hair and peeking beneath.
“Give me the standard Mike.”
During the cut, Mike talked about how Evelyn, his first grandchild, was graduating high school the next day. That was the reason for the near frantic call asking for Gary to come over for an emergency cut. Gary knew that Mike’s old Caesar look wouldn’t work, so he gave him a modified slick back that was presentable and still afforded a bit of deniability about the absence of hair.
Unable to find a clean comb at the end of the cut, Gary opted for the cleanest one he could find and slicked everything back. Mike ran a hand over his hair.
“I’m bald, Gary. I’ve been one of those old men in denial. Remember Frank from when you were a pup? Gave us more grief about the three strands left on the top of his head. Treated ’em better than his own children. I’m Frank now. Acting like I have hair, then making you pretend, too.” His eyes were watery as he patted what remained of his hair on top of his head.
“You want a butch cut instead? Or I could do it high and tight? Those both look nice for men in your situation.”
“Men in my situation. You asshole.” Mike laughed and ran his hand over the top of his hair. “I’ll get a buzz or maybe a crew next time. For tomorrow this’ll do. Don’t want my hair to be a topic of conversation. It’s Evelyn’s day.”
“Let’s make this a regular thing, Mike. I’ve missed swapping cuts with you.”
“Why don’t you get the guy at your place to do it?”
“He quit a year or so ago. Off to start his own place.”
“What a lowlife,” Mike said with a restrained smile. “You want to come to graduation tomorrow? You can be my plus one.”
“You don’t have a new wife to bring?”
Mike shook his head in the mirror, rolling his eyes at Gary. “I’ll come to your place next time. Thanks for doing this house call. I sort of panicked ahead of this graduation. I’ll be in all sorts of photos tomorrow.”
“You’re the only one I’d do this for, Mike.”
Mike was surprised when Gary’s wife had called him to ask for a special haircut. Mike had been retired for a few years now, and his cutting days were long behind him. Ever since the retirement he’d even been paying Gary real cash for the monthly buzz he could easily have done himself, refusing to even trade cuts with Mike in lieu of payments. It wasn’t as if Gary would have accepted a cut from Mike anyway. Gary was the one whose gentle urging had gotten Mike to hand in his scissors at the end.
It was a strange angle to get at Gary’s hair, surely the strangest of his career. That helped to distract from the overall strangeness of the request. The casket didn’t afford a lot of room for him to get at the hair behind Gary’s ears. He did his best with the scissors from his unused kit and by the end the hair looked like Gary’s again, at least from the front. Gary’s fatal aneurysm had happened when his hair was on the longer side for him. Combined with how a dead person’s skin pulls back to make the hair look longer, Gary’s cut had been unrecognizable. It was difficult for Mike to even look at Gary’s face while he was giving that final trim, but the times he looked he was taken aback at how puffy his face was. The bodies at other showings he’d been to hadn’t been quite so puffy.
The only time he got emotional was when the mortician’s assistant came in with a handheld vacuum to clean up the hair trimmings from Gary’s white pillow. He could see that Gary’s hair was still long in the back when his lifeless head had been lifted to vacuum underneath. When his head was back against the pillow, though, he looked nice enough. His hair looked nice.
A barber has to have a good haircut.
Featured image: Slay / Shutterstock
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