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Back to the Barber Shop

by Morris J. Marshall

Emidio’s Barber Shop. The light blue words on the sign stood out starkly against a navy blue background. The fourth barber shop I’d visited in the last hour. All the others had lineups of at least ten people outside the door with each person spaced two meters apart. All wore masks. Those in line shuffled their weight from one foot to the other, sighing. Several men had long, scraggly hair reminiscent of the patrons of heavy metal concerts.

It was four o’clock. Two hours before closing. I glanced inside Emidio’s window at the chairs evenly spaced. One was empty.

I pushed open the door and walked inside. Those waiting looked up at the sound of bells tinkling. The smells of hairspray and Barbicide greeted me along with the “snip-snip-snip” of scissors. The barber, a dark haired Italian man in his sixties, wore a mask, a face shield and thin transparent gloves.

“Hi,” I said, taking off my jacket.

The barber returned the greeting with a muffled “Hello.”

I glanced at the men waiting for a cut. They all had thick hair. The guy two seats over had developed a red afro. The white-haired man next to me looked as though he’d tried cutting his own hair with clippers. The top was long while the sides had been buzzed unevenly.

“I’ve been coming to this barber shop for fifty years,” he said to me. “Do you live in this area?”

“I used to. My dad’s place is just down the street. When I was a kid, I went to public school a few blocks from here.”

For the first time in years, I was back in my childhood neighborhood which had changed from Italian during the 1980s to Portuguese today with cafes and BBQ chicken restaurants (Churrasqueiras). I was clearing things out of my dad’s home. He’d died of heart failure in hospital a month earlier. I’d held his hand as he exhaled his last breath. I wanted to take his clothes to the local Value Village after he’d died, but it was closed due to the pandemic. It had finally opened today.

“How long do you think it’ll be before things get back to normal?” the guy sitting next to me asked.

I shrugged. “Who knows? Probably not until they develop a vaccine.”

Emidio turned the barber chair toward the mirror and showed a customer his new coif. “Better, eh? You look like a million bucks.”

Once the customer had paid, the barber looked at the man with the red afro and smiled. Just two more cuts until my turn.

I pulled out my cell phone and began checking my email, texts and online news. Lots of articles about the effect of the virus on the economy. Economists were predicting a worse downturn than the 2008-2009 Great Recession. Some suggested that up to twenty percent of small businesses could disappear once it was all over.

The white-haired guy was speaking to me again, but I’d missed most of what he’d said.

I looked up from my phone. “I’m sorry?”

“I’m glad things are finally opening up again,” he said. “My wife died of the virus when it first started, and I don’t have any other family. It feels good just to get out of my apartment. Thankfully, this barber shop is close by.” He pointed at the walker beside him.

I sighed. “I’m really sorry.” I wanted to move closer to him but remembered Social Distancing. “I’m Cal,” I said, wishing that it were three months earlier so I could at least shake his hand.

The white-haired guy ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m Tony. I haven’t had it cut in over two months. It’ll feel good to get rid of this hair. Like starting over.”

“I know what you mean. I just lost my dad. It’s hard to have a funeral when you can’t even get together with family. The online thing isn’t the same.” I glanced at the mirror across the room. Baggy eyes beneath fluffy red bangs stared back at me. For the first month, I’d managed to keep it neat, but things deteriorated rapidly as I morphed into an eighties metal head. Never trust YouTube videos that claim you can cut your own hair in three easy steps.

“I remember this place as a kid,” I told Tony. “In the late seventies, it was Ray’s Barber Shop.”

“Yeah, that’s right. He was king of the buzz cuts. I don’t think he knew how to cut anything else.”

I smiled as my mind wafted back forty years.

* * *

“How are you, young man? That’s a nice head of red hair you have.”

Ray smiled and patted me on the head when my dad brought me to the barber shop for the first time. He was a tall, slim man in his sixties with short black hair that could have been dyed. He wore black-rimmed glasses and a tartan jacket while he worked.

It was July 1980, and Dad had been getting his hair cut there for several years. I was eleven, a huge fan of rock bands like Kansas, Rush and Queen. Crew cuts were something I’d seen on 1950s shows like Leave it to Beaver. What was a hairstyle without bangs anyway? All the best rockers had them.

“Your son isn’t tall enough for the chair,” Ray said to my dad. “We’re going to have put something under him.” He grabbed a blue square-shaped piece of plastic from under the front counter and put it in the barber chair. “Here, son, sit on this.”

When I complied, Ray put a white cloth around me. He ran his fingers through my hair. “How short would you like it?” he asked me.

“Use the clippers,” my dad said. “There’s no sense in coming back in a few weeks.”

“I’d rather have something longer,” I said. “Can you keep the bangs?”

“How are you, young man?” Ray asked in his Scottish brogue. “That’s a nice head of red hair you have. But your dad’s right; it’ll look better short and it’ll grow back fast. You can grow it longer when you get a bit older. A number two should be all right.”

I was outnumbered, and there was no point in arguing. I closed my eyes as the clippers started up.

“Keep your head still,” Ray said softly. “I know it’s difficult, son. But I want to make sure it’s even.”

“The clippers are pulling my hair,” I groaned.

It was all over in minutes. Ray turned me around in the chair to face the mirror. My stomach plunged. Two months of growing and teasing my hair down the drain. A puddle of my red hair lay on the floor. I was bald.

“Looks great, Ray, as usual,” Dad said, helping me out of the chair. He gave the barber five dollars and a tip.

“Here, son,” Ray said, handing me a chocolate bar and patting my head. “Now you’re all set for the summer. See you in a month.”

Four weeks later, I got up one Saturday morning and went downstairs in my pajamas to the kitchen for breakfast. Mom was out at the grocery store, and the smell of freshly cut grass drifted in from the front yard where Dad had just finished mowing the lawn.

He opened the front door and called out, “Hey, son, we’re going to Ray’s today.”

I glanced in the mirror. My hair had just started to get to a length where I could see the bangs reforming. “I’m meeting my friend Chris this morning.”

“Can you meet him another time? I think it’s time for you to get another haircut. Your hair’s getting long again.”

“Everyone wears it this way, Dad. Buzz cuts aren’t in style. No one wears their hair like that anymore.”

“I do.”

“Well you’re not eleven. And besides you had to when you were in the army. You don’t have to worry about kids in the neighborhood making fun of you.”

Dad appeared in the kitchen in his green workpants, a blue T-shirt and a Toronto Blue Jays baseball cap. “Put your clothes on, son, and let’s go.” He went outside and sat on the porch.

After ten minutes, the front door opened. “The longer you take, the longer we’re going to have to wait. And Saturday’s a busy day at Ray’s.”

“I’m not going! You can’t make me!”

“Come on, put your clothes on,” Dad said, seeing that I was still in my pajamas.

“No!” I ran at him and took a swing at his chest.

He side-stepped the punch and grabbed my arms. Lifting me off the floor with one arm and swinging me over his shoulder like a sack of flour, he carried me upstairs with my legs flailing against him.

“Let me go!” I screamed, punching his back. “I’m not going!”

Dad took me into the bathroom, turned the water on in the bath tub with one hand while holding me with the other. When the tub was half-full, he placed me in the warm water with my pajamas on, letting me sit there as he returned to the hallway. My heart thudded as I half-expected him to return with a belt as punishment for my outburst.

After several minutes, he opened the bathroom door and peeked in. “Are you okay?”

I nodded. I sank down into the warm water as it washed away my anger and relaxed my muscles.

“When you’re finished, come downstairs,” he said.

I pulled the plug out of the tub, dried myself off with a towel and got dressed. Footfalls sounded in the hallway, disappearing downstairs. The front door closed. Maybe Dad had decided to go the barber alone after all.

When I arrived in the kitchen, Dad’s barbering kit and a small chair sat on the table. He’d taken out the clippers.

There was no use in running. Even if I went to my friend’s house, he’d wait for me to return. As long as it took. One summer, while we were fishing up in Muskoka, he’d caught a small perch. Instead of reeling it in, he sat in the boat, leaving the fish on the hook, waiting for something bigger to bite. After two hours, the bobber dipped beneath the lake’s surface and a largemouth bass jumped out of the water.

When Dad had finished my haircut, he put a mirror in front of me. One of Ray’s buzz cuts wouldn’t be so bad right now, I thought.

* * *

“Sir?” Emdio was smiling at me. “It’s your turn.”

Tony came down from the chair with his new buzz cut and walked slowly toward his walker. “I feel like a huge weight’s been taken off me,” he said.

“Tony, I was wondering if I could help you with your groceries this week. I have a car and I live pretty close.”

“That’d be nice. Maybe we could go out for coffee.”

“I’d like that.” I handed him a piece of paper. “Here’s my cell phone number. Call me anytime.”

“What’ll it be?” Emidio asked when I was seated in the chair. “We could keep the bangs or we could...”

I ran my fingers through my hair, skimming over the bald spot at the crown of my head. Long hair would only accentuate it. “Take it off, please. Take it all off.”

“Sounds good.” Emidio chose a “two” setting on the clippers.

While he was cutting, I glanced at him in the mirror. I could have sworn Ray was standing there in his tartan jacket. Beside him, my dad was smiling, saying, “See, Ray? I knew my son would come around someday.”

Half an hour later, I drove over to the Value Village. It was almost closing time. I removed two plastic garbage bags of Dad’s clothes from the trunk and placed them on the pavement. I was about to close the trunk when I saw the barbering kit hidden among the clothes. I opened the box, removed the clippers and blew away some wisps of red hair still attached to the blades.

I thought back to the last evening I’d spent with Dad in hospital. He’d told me how proud he was that I’d become a teacher, because he hadn’t accomplished anything. I have my own students now. A grade six class. Most are well behaved, but I’ve seen the damage caused by a lack of parental discipline.

I placed Dad’s barbering kit in the back seat of my car and carried the bags of clothes to Value Village.

Copyright © 2020 by Morris J. Marshall

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