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"The #1", short story excerpt

Tuesday 3/3/20

I'm going out to climb. (Keep focused, keep going, keep fighting, keep trying.) But good God did I write a great story this morning. It's called "The #1," and it's about a guy getting a haircut. And you might be like, "how the hell can that be a story, a guy getting a haircut, that's no story." But I made it into an all-timer of a story. It kills me--it is practically literally killing me--that they will not let the world see these works, that they are just works that stay here with me, piled up in mountains of masterpieces. Mountains at this point. All of them so different. An excerpt from this one.


Conversationally, my barber’s temporary hire—most of the help he brings in ends up being a temporary hire—gives you two options. He’s going to ask you a question, strongly implying that you have to answer with choice A or choice B, which he provides. The question is posed after a de facto inquiry is made about how you want your hair cut. There are limited answers for that as well. You select by the number, which is the same as the razor setting. Sometimes I forget my settings, though it’s always the #1 on the sides and back, as short as you can get it and still technically have hair there.

We’re talking an old school barber shop. There’s a strop for the straight-edge blade they use to shave the back of your neck. If they can cut your hair using only the clippers without having to deploy scissors, that’s regarded as a more efficient and desirable cut—I think it’s a machismo thing, like scissors are dainty and for your little sister or your wife.

The barber’s father had the shop before him, and the barber himself has been the proprietor for decades such that I’ve seen the cost of a haircut rise 300% over the years I’ve been coming here. The temporary barber has a face like a portcullis, excised with seemingly hundreds of lines, but it really must only be a handful, and risen patches of skin like his particular facial portcullis had also been pressed against a griddle, which makes a certain amount of sense, as he smells somewhat of sausage.

He’s a Chatty Kathy, though I expect he’d not appreciate the term. A deeper thinker—in his own mind, anyway. You get in the chair, he asks you how you want your hair cut—I say, “the #1 on the sides and the back, #5 on the top”—and puts the sheet over you so hair won’t get into your clothes. He doesn’t remember me from the prior visit, but he’s going to ask the same question. “Did you grow up on the North Shore or the South Shore?” he says. He has a way of sticking the geographical landing—landings, you might say—in that there is no equivocation in his tone, you have to be from one place or the other.

I’m kind of from their midpoint, but I want to adhere to what I feel is his directive, so the first time I said South Shore. He asks me what town. I tell him. He says that’s not South Shore. That’s neither South Shore nor North Shore. But he’s correcting me nice. He doesn’t use many adverbs. “I’m correcting you nice,” he says, “I’m not getting angry at you. See? Nice.” There’s menace in the phraseology, but if a morning dove gave up on cooing and figured out how to talk, I think it might talk like this guy.

There are only two barber chairs. They’re right next to each other. I look up into the mirror to see the guy who owns the shop trying to ignore this conversation, which I know he’s probably heard a lot. My guy asks me my age. I tell him. We’re the same age. He says I look a lot younger than he does. Says it each time. It’s always a new experience for him. “It’s good to be home for the holidays this year,” he says, before adding a customary line, which I assume he uses with everyone, but I also think he believes we have some kind of connection, and maybe he just uses it with me, but probably not. “You know how it is,” he finishes. Stabbed a bunch of people, this guy. Doesn’t shoot anyone. Doesn’t kill anyone. By the looks of his face, he’s been cut quite a few times himself. My sense is that he thinks it’s fair, getting cut back when you’ve tried to cut someone.

“This time I’m going to go straight he says, keep my nose clean,” and I nod back at him in the glass, noting that the most lines on his face seem to be concentrated in his nose, perhaps because it’s an easier target for his fellow hackers and blade-wielders. Maybe there is a subculture of respect and rules. Nick by the blade, get nicked by the blade. I see him at the café, too, around the corner. He’ll even leave a little trail of hair when he stands up from the plush couch where he likes to sit and have an espresso. “I haven’t seen you in a long time,” a well-dressed man, who has a different kind of job, will say haltingly, aware that they will not be able to leave this café without the temp-hire buttonholing him for a conversation. “It’s good to be out for the holidays,” I hear the barber say, before he adds his “You know how it is” peroration.

It was a little before Thanksgiving. The proprietor finished with his customer, said he was going to go out and grab lunch. “Will you be okay?” he asked, though he had already made up his mind he was leaving. You could tell he had been looking forward to a couple slices for a while. He wasn’t talking to me, he was talking to the temporary hire. “You got it, boss,” he answered. I’m sitting there, well settled in, and it’s just the two of us. He’s going slowly with the clippers, like he wants to draw out the time. “You know, I was in jail in Walpole with a guy who taught me how to do things nice, like I taught you before when you came in.” He seems to think I lied to him with that initial answer. There’s a little drink station at my barber’s. You can have coffee from a Keurig—you make it yourself—or Sambuca from a bottle. There are paper cups like you’d have in your bathroom for when you brush your teeth. He goes over and pours almost a full cup, drinks it, still holding the clippers.

“I’m a writer, you know,” he says to me. “It helps me keep my nose clean.” He favors that expression. I estimate how many times a week he might say it. If the over/under is fifty, take the over, I tell myself. I’m not a betting man. I’m very alone. I don’t have a lot of conversations. I view the world as something I face, not something I inhabit. Not an arena of residence. Of interaction. Connection. Touch. I realized over a lot of years that trying to make relationships work that don’t work just so you could say you had friends and family didn’t really mean you had friends and family. I stopped looking up the social media accounts of the man my wife was with whom I didn’t even know about until a couple years after she left. I wrote this big thing—I don’t know what you call it—a piece, an essay—about betrayal, rehashing all of the questions I asked as the aftermath was happening—because aftermath isn’t just something that is there, it is something that happens—like, “Is there someone else?” and “How come you never said you were unhappy?”—which are like postmortem inquiries, though you’re still technically alive—and someone printed it.

I received a little money, not much. I sent what I had written to my ex. I knew where she was living by then, I knew about the guy by then, I knew that covering up the guy had been imperative in the first place to taking what she took, like the house, which she would not have gotten otherwise. She moved to this part of the city where only college kids live. You wouldn’t move there if you were forty, like she was. Unless you were moving in with someone who already lived there. I didn’t include a letter in the envelope. Didn’t even think of writing one. Sometimes there are so many words that there cannot be any words. I printed out the piece, and at the top, in handwriting, not in typing, I just wrote, “I trusted you.”

She got a restraining order after that happened. Just because of those words. Well, it wasn’t just because of those words. It was because some guy who was not me had been told a grouping of lies different than the grouping of lies I had received, and you never know what might come in the mail to despoil the narrative you’ve set up, that you need to have believed. You’re not always the first one home to get the mail.

Years had passed by that point. Other things in life had happened. What you think is going to be the worst thing that ever happens to you probably isn’t going to be. Or that’s how it was for me. Maybe the barber with the portcullis face felt the same way. I didn’t understand the legalese, and I was scared, so I went to see a lawyer. I had to ask my sister for some money. “He’s just going to consult with you, he won’t be on retainer right away.” I didn’t know how she knew that. She may have meant her answer to also convey, “but sure, if it comes to that, I’ll help you out,” but I didn’t know for certain. And I go to this guy—about a twenty-minute walk from the barber’s—and I give him the summary. Try to tell him what is what. He tells me that the order doesn’t mean a great deal, just means I cannot walk within 100 yards of this residence I’ve never been anywhere near in my life, in some shaded spot, I imagine, of a neighborhood where it’s almost all drunken college kids living off-campus junior year, and maybe it’s best for my stress and my health just to leave it go at that. I thank him, and I’m about to stand up, when he clears his throat, gets ready to say something to me. “Besides,” he said, “it sounds like she got everything she wanted from you. Without a fight.” I didn’t tell him that my focus had been on saving my marriage, or that I have a propensity to blame myself, or that he was right, because he was right, which we both knew. Maybe we had a connection and he wanted me to be better versed in a future endeavor, or behave differently so it wouldn’t happen again. A new haircut can make you feel confident, make you feel like giving out some free sage advice. Maybe he had just gotten a haircut. I didn’t look that closely.


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