“Don’t use the blow dryer, it makes my scalp hurt.”
“Sure,” I responded, yanking the extension cord out of the wall and pulling it away from the little pools of dripped water that the comb left. There were scars very close to his hairline. It was hard to be sure what they were from. They reminded me of the world atlas my mother kept taped up in our kitchen when I was a kid; zig-zagging in all directions, occasionally intersecting. An easy sight to get lost in.
He asked me what the hold up was and I started cutting again. When my fingers grazed them he pulled back in agitation. It was the only indication he seemed to give that he was aware of them. I angled the dirt-specked mirror in such a way not to show him the scars on his head but the progress so far. He nodded in approval. There was a professional soccer game on the radio, barely audible. Romania vs. South Africa. It was late and we were the only two people left in the shop so I locked the door in case someone might come by. It wasn’t a great shop but I had six barber chairs and four mirrors which was hard enough for my family to get the loans for. I had a few rotating staff members but mostly I gave the haircuts unless on vacation. Which was hardly ever.
It was the end of October and I was giving Steve Newman a haircut. You used to always be able to count on him coming in once a month for the usual trim.
Steve hadn’t been by recently, though. Must have found somebody else, I thought to myself. Someone he liked better. He was getting older and our ten-year age difference was more apparent than ever before in the way he hunched over when he walked. His posture was terrible. The clothes this guy wore were almost completely threadbare. Absolutely no time must have gone into the way he dressed himself. There were holes in his navy blue slacks and I don’t even think he was wearing deodorant.
‘Steve, you’re not out of work. Get something new to wear you filthy slob!’ I wanted to scream in his face, but I kept my mouth shut and kept snipping away.
The scissors were giving me trouble again. I reached in the drawer for another pair but couldn’t find any. These would have to do. They were quite rusty and jammed.
I only knew Steve Newman’s full name because he was a deliveryman for a local beer distributor and on his jacket his name was stitched along the left breast where a pocket would be. It was an old navy blue jacket with a broken zipper. He smelled of musk and stale cigarettes.
“When did you learn to cut hair?” he asked me with a displeased expression across his face. After all the haircuts I’ve given this guy I couldn’t think of a stranger time to ask such a question. Steve didn’t seem like the brightest bulb out there, though. Probably had a memory that was totally shot to shit.
He always wore a strange grimace during the beginning of the haircut. Every month. It was as if he were undergoing routine surgery. His lips would start to quiver and momentarily his eyes would shoot back into his head, exposing only the whites. He would bite down on his lower lip and never relax his eyebrows. Not a very pretty sight to say the least.
“When it was the right time to learn,” I put the scissors down for a moment. He kept moving his head dodging them, “when there were as many bills to pay as there were children to feed, not to mention child support checks, and I decided I couldn’t do anything else as well,” I said.
This guy would not sit still. He kept fidgeting.
My entire adult life I’ve lived alone and have never had children to feed or very many bills to pay, but Steve Newman seemed to hang on these untruths. So I continued as he stared into space in great interest.
“Anything else as well…,” he repeated my words back to me. The cold handle of the scissors grazed past one of the little scars on his head, his shoulders cringed like a wet clam going back into its shell. I put the scissors down again and tightened the black, vinyl smock around his neck. Some hair fell into the back of his shirt. It was a white polo shirt that was now completely covered in hair and I hadn’t even gotten around to shaving the back of his neck yet.
“Did you try anything else?” he asked.
“But you couldn’t do them as well?”
“Not as well as I can cut hair,” I said.
I touched up the back. Whoever gave this guy his last haircut did a terrible job. There were patches of long and short strands with barely any consistency. Not to mention the roadmap of scars on his scalp I was trying to hide with rest of his hair so they would be less noticeable. You would think his last barber barely even looked at him during the haircut. I hoped it wasn’t one of my guys.
“You don’t have to give me anything fancy,” he said, pausing for a moment. I let out a short, abrupt bout of laughter, but stopped before he would be able to notice.
“Just the same as last time boss,” he said.
“My wife gave me my last trim two weekends ago. What do you think?”
Just who the hell does this guy think he is? Calling me boss after he’s been too cheap to come in for a haircut.
“Pretty good,” I somehow managed to get out. Completely lying through my teeth.
“Yeah she really has some talent. I told her she should go to school for it but she’s got her heart set on becoming a nurse one day or something. In the meantime she gives me and the other guys I work with a trim every once in a while. She’s been busy though, so I figured I’d pay you a visit,” he said.
“Well your business is always welcomed here Steve,” I told him.
How many times would I use that line? It had completely lost its meaning by now.
The sideburns were practically an inch apart. I started trimming them with the jammed scissors but they kept getting stuck and then I would have to fix the uneven patches. He seemed to be listening intently to the soccer match on the radio.
“Quite a game,” he murmured out of the side of his ridiculous crooked grin.
“Who do you think will win?” he asked. I was barely paying any attention. Then a minute later he asked if I was ever athletic.
“Yeah, you know, into sports?” he asked.
“Oh sure, in fact I played quite a bit of soccer when I was young. I was pretty good too, would have made it to the regional competitions if I stayed with it,” I motioned to the game on the radio.
He nodded in approval then paused.
“I could tell. You really have the build of an athlete,” he said.
Athletic build? Very rich material here. This was the first time anyone has ever said anything like that to me. His eyesight must have been going in his old age. I’ve never played sports and have become quite out of shape from the amount of drinking I have done in the past few years. Not to mention being the only steady barber at the shop with barely any time to eat healthy. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The extended belly covered by my partially wet, stained, t-shirt seemed to look back at me now in absurd laughter.
Steve Newman kept his eyes planted on the empty package of cigarettes that the last haircut had lazily left next to the talcum powder and spray bottles. They had to be the cheapest brand money could buy; USA Gold unfiltered. Even the empty pack reeked of shitty tobacco.
I was getting so angry with these guys. They come in and smoke up a storm. Never sit still, and then leave their empty cigarette packs for me to deal with. Coughing like a mess as they thumb through their disintegrating wallets to hand me the crumpled bills. The same slobs come in every day with barely any courtesy to make conversation or tip me at all. They always ask for the same haircut. No variety. Then when they start losing their hair they expect me to work miracles, asking for a “wind-swept” look or a shameless comb over.
Eventually I stopped making any the efforts to talk with all of them. Just like the same haircuts, they would be the same conversations, I’m sure.
With Steve Newman I knew I could make things interesting. I knew this fool would hang on every word. And he did. He would believe it all and pay and that would be the end of it.
Steve was somehow older and more naïve than all the rest of my customers. A truly sad predicament for a man to find himself in. Especially at his age.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” he said with great caution in his words.
“Oh sure. Ever since I put down the soccer ball and started having all these kids running around the house I smoke almost a pack a day. Maybe two. A guy has to let off some steam one way or another, wouldn’t you agree?”
“You aren’t worried about the health risks?”
“Nah, of course not. Those things are like vitamins. As the saying goes ‘what doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger’. Everybody dies one way or another. The point is to do whatever feels good while you’re still alive, right?”
I’ve never smoked. When my father came home drunk from the bar and lit up his unfiltered Winston lights I always left the room or opened up a window. The thought of smoke makes my stomach feel like it is in the middle of a vast tidal wave with no end in sight. If anyone wants to work for me the first question I ask is whether or not they smoke. Before I even ask if they have experience cutting hair, or a criminal record. I’ve never even had any friends that smoke.
“I had to quit a few years ago. Started coughing up blood and the doctor attributed it all to smoking, so I quit. It was very hard. One of the hardest habits I’ve had to kick. I tried almost everything before I realized the only way was cold turkey. The toughest time is on the road, by your self. You get a craving and start fiddling with the radio and then you just want to smash the thing into a million pieces,” Steve said gesticulating his hands into the air. His fist smashed on his knee in reverberation to the words. He still had a twisted expression on his face and at the same time it was completely blank. No personality to it at all. His only distinguishable characteristics were scars on his head, a really bad haircut and a job delivering beer. He could believe anything if you said it like you meant it.
“Yeah when I used to drive around making deliveries, I had the same problems,” I said, working on a fade in the back to even everything out.
“You made deliveries?” His eyes lit up.
“Sure, tons of deliveries, for many different companies. I even worked for a beer distributor much like your self. Yep – definitely had my days driving that truck, listening to the radio, rolling around those heavy cases of to the different bars in the area, all by myself. Truth be told, sometimes I miss it. Couldn’t handle the work, though. Way too much stress. Made my back really hurt. They never want to sign the papers when you are on a job and that’s if you even get a job. Just had to be my own boss so I decided to start cutting hair.”
“What company did you work for?” he asked.
“Oh you know one or the other. They’re all the same, really, as I’m sure you know already.”
“I had no idea we had so much in common,” Steve said.
He kept moving his head, which made it very difficult to finish the haircut. Steve would never know the truth. That I never did anything other than cut hair. It was what my father did. It’s what every man in my family does. Often I think about how I never asked for this birth right to become a barber, I wanted to study law when I was a teenager, but my parents could never afford to put me through college. Sometimes that’s just how life works. Things are planned differently from how you anticipate. You just have to take it like a man whether you want to or not.
I adjusted the chair. It was getting old and squeaking quite a bit and would have to be replaced soon. The scissors were even worse than when I started. They jammed up with every cut that I made while he fidgeted like an impatient puppy. It was as if he were trying to make him self look awful. I asked him repeatedly to sit still and he finally did.
“You never answered me,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
The only thing left was the hair around his ear and Christ there was a lot of it. I had to be careful in case he started moving again.
“You never answered my question,” he said again.
I wasn’t following the game. I didn’t know anything about professional soccer. Wisps of blond hair fell above his ears making him look like a lost golden retriever. I had to shape everything up but before I could do anything I reached to turn off the godforsaken soccer match on the radio. It did nothing but distract me and provide for the most awkward topic of conversation. As I slowly turned the dial I heard his shaky voice.
“Please leave it on,” he meekly asked.
This guy had some nerve. I almost reminded him that this was my shop, not his.
“Thank you very much.”
“No problem,” I responded.
I angled the scissors around his ear to trim the mangy hair. He jolted to the right and they clenched into his cartilage before I could do anything. They wouldn’t let go and I could not get them off. I backed away and stood against the mirror knocking the bottle of water and the empty cigarette pack on the floor, completely unable to catch my breath. The rusty scissors sliced deep into his layers of flesh and cartilage. Their metallic handle hung lopsided with the redness dripping off like some unsuccessful sculpture in a modern art museum.
He didn’t scream or even flinch. He just sat there looking more calm and relaxed than ever. The grimace had completely left his face and was replaced by a placid smile.
“We need to take you to the fucking hospital,” I breathlessly screamed reaching for the phone. There was blood all over my hand. Now the phone was smeared with it. The lights were bright and my throat went completely dry. My hands started shaking every time I tried to pull the scissors off.
“I feel fine, though,” he said. His ear was bleeding and punctured in several places. There were parts where the pink flesh and the cartilage had been completely seared through. He felt fine? It was uncertain to me whether or not he felt anything at all. The casual smile across his numb face and the lack of any substance or experience in his eyes made everything in my shop seem estranged.
What the hell had I done? The whole side of Steve’s head was completely bloodied in a matter of seconds because I hadn’t thrown out those rusty scissors that never worked to begin with. No one ever complained so I just ignored the problem.
“Who do you think will win?” he asked. Savoring the scissors cutting through his ear as if it were a vacation or an ice cream cone. The blood poured all over the floor and the side of his face. There was no stopping it.
I would have to clean up everything after getting him to the hospital. All by myself cleaning up this whole mess. Skipping dinner again because I’m the barber. I’m the one who has to clean up the hair. It’s always me doing all the work around here.
There were spots of the chair that the redness oozed down slowly.
Not only did Steve wear the expression of a person who did not care, he didn’t even seem to notice. Completely unaware of the pain he was going through. I pulled on the scissors and a piece of his dismembered ear came off with them. The scissors chattered seconds before the ear made a plunking sound when hitting the floor.
The severed ear looked like an infants finger covered in violent afterbirth.
“You never answered my question,” he said again. His eyes met mine in the mirror and he just sat there. A chunk of his ear completely missing. I looked outside and the parking lot was completely empty except for Steve’s car. The room also felt much emptier than it was before his ear had been ripped off. I still couldn’t catch my breath. He could see now that I was in complete distress and tapped me on the shoulder.
“It’s all right, I knew you weren’t telling the truth,” he said with a quiet emptiness to his voice.
“Steve let’s take you to the hospital.”
“Is the haircut finished?”
“Sure,” I winced. His face was now completely flushed and drained of all color in total contrast to the redness pouring from his ear onto his pale, unshaven chin.
“I suppose I should pay you then,” he said. His eyes were watery now. That was the only visible reaction.
The floor was completely covered in Steve’s blond hair and the blood from his wounded ear. A mangled, bleeding wound on the left side of his head. It was red and blotchy all along his cheek.
“Don’t call an ambulance. I will be leaving soon. I just want to know before I leave who you think will win,” he calmly said.
“I don’t know but you have to clean up your ear. It looks terrible, Steve. Let me take you to the hospital, you can’t drive yourself,” I told him.
“You don’t know?” he asked.
“No!” I shouted into his motionless face. The floor looked awful. The green and white tile was bloodied. Caked with dirt and clumps of hair. I hadn’t even bothered to sweep before Steve came in.
“I don’t know anything about soccer!” I screamed.
“But you used to play,” he said with tears gathering in his eyes. His absence of an ear was oozing and the ripped flesh was barely even held together. It was starting to rain outside.
“I made it up!” I screamed again, specs of spit hurled into his bloody hair. He was silent for a short while. Then I couldn’t look at this terrible display any longer. I was completely embarrassed in my own store. He had no right to do this to me. Ear or no ear. The thought crossed my mind of asking him to apologize but I couldn’t risk losing another customer even if he did barely come in anymore. How would he know I was lying? Why did he have to point out such an embarrassing thing to my face? I stood outside in the rain and waited until he came out. The air was wet and brisk. He tapped me on the shoulder and pulled out his wallet to pay me. A nice, new leather bill fold. He handed me the crisp bills for his haircut and a very generous tip. Immediately I counted the money to avoid looking at him. The bills were getting wet in the rain so I rolled them into a tight, neat, cylinder, which I then dropped into my pants pocket.
I was speechless when I looked up to see that he did nothing to cover up the wound when driving off. His expression never changed either. He just focused his eyes on the rest of the parking lot, making the u-turn back onto the highway in the opposite direction. He drove a nice luxury station wagon. Through the dashboard I could see the blood staining the upholstery in his car and the completely blank, carefree expression on his face. Poor old Steve Newman, driving into the rain with his bloody ear and his blank stare. He’ll be back again next month.