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The Old-Fashioned Way by Zero
The Old-Fashioned Way (Or Haircuts, Discipline and Other Independent Variables)
When Greg heard his only son’s voice on the phone asking if he could spend the summer at his place, he was jolted with excitement at the simple thought of sharing a couple weeks before he went off to college.
He had not seen Jake in about two years, back when he was fourteen years old and he knew he would be a university student in the blink of an eye and he would see him even less when that happened.
So, for the next two weeks, he was determined to make up for the lost time and make the summer worth it for both of them.
Now, if only Jake was on the same boat with him.
His son had just turned sixteen years old the week before he arrived, and quickly, Greg had come face to face with the fact that for the teenager this wasn’t a father-son-quality-time-before-he-goes-off-to-college as it was a trip he had resigned himself to make at insistence of his mother while she was away for a month during her fifth anniversary with his stepfather.
"Your hair is pretty long" Greg stared at his only child as they sat together for breakfast.
The last time he saw Jake, he had an overgrown short back and sides, halfway on the way to turning into a mop. At the time, he had offered to take him for a haircut. Then, that particular errand never happened due to other urgent matters at the time.
Now, at sixteen, his thick golden-brown hair touched his shoulders.
It reminded him that his son no longer lived with him.
"Huh, yes?" Jake raised an eyebrow at him, waiting for further inquiry.
Without know what else to say, Greg remained quiet. An awkward silence ensued.
"So, you mom is touring Asia with Mr. Worldwide?" he tried to initiate conversation with his son that lazy Saturday morning.
"Dad, come on" Jake rolled his eyes at the joke "Don’t call Nick that, he’s actually a pretty cool guy, you know? And it’s pretty neat that he gets free plane tickets working at an star-alliance airline and all that…".
Greg sipped his coffee and didn’t make any further comments about his ex-wife’s current partner. He would be lying if he said it didn’t hurt his pride that Jake had been able to travel around America and Europe thanks to his stepfather’s job.
Having seen those kind of things, it didn’t surprise him at all that Jake had gone from wanting to be a marine like him at some point to dreaming of working for an airline or being a commercial pilot.
Nick had been to all five continents.
Greg had been to the Middle East and Alaska, once.
He had never been able to give him anything remotely like that.
That’s why he was determined to give him the father-son-quality-bonding-time-before-college whether Jake wanted it or not.
"Hey, you’re getting your driving license pretty soon, right?" Greg tried changing the topic.
"Yeah, why?" at least he had managed to get Jake off his phone, he had perked up.
"So, how about I teach you how to change a tire and the oil today, huh?".
Any resemblance of excitement had died in his son’s face "Sure" he replied dryly as he took his dirty plate from the table.
Things were so much easier when Jake was younger.
Soon, they were both in the garage. Greg opened the door to let the light and the air inside as they worked. Maybe the fresh, cool, breeze would get Jake in a better mood, or seeing the kids biking around would give him ideas. Greg pulled the car hood and got ready to check the oil in the engine.
Jake just stared at him from an arm-length distance, with feigned interest and his phone in one hand, the other inside his pocket. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his son smile at a picture of his mother and her current husband with the Tokyo Tower in the background and a heart pop in the screen.
"Hey, Jake, please get me the oil, it’s a gray bottle back there" Greg cleaned the oil’s cap with a paper napkin.
"Morning, Greg!" he heard the gruff voice of his neighbor.
"Major Domett! Good morning!".
The retired military officer glanced at his son with curiosity, eyeing from bottom to top "Well, I didn’t know you had a daughter".
"I don’t, this is Jake, my son" Greg felt flustered at his words.
"It was hard to tell from behind".
Jake caught on the conversation and put his phone away to look at the retired major with contempt.
"Jake, meet major Domett" Greg motioned for him to shake hands.
"Nice to meet you" his son offered him his hand.
"Nice to meet you, sir" the man corrected him.
"No need to call me sir, major".
What in the world did his son just say?
Greg saw the rage in the military officer’s eyes and he looked at Jake in disbelief, hoping he would notice him and take what he said back.
"I’m just kidding" his teenaged son forced a smile and let go of the man’s hand "Dad, I’m going back there to get the oil, if you excuse me, sir" he stressed the last word.
"Ha, kids these days, am I right?" bracing himself, Greg took a step forward and tried to make light of what just happened with a quick laugh.
"Shame what his mother is doing to him. I remember he used to be such a sweet, polite kid when you were married".
He understood the man was offended, but there was no need to question his ex-wife’s parenting and raising either.
"Well, I wouldn’t blame Barbara. It’s just an age thing".
"You shouldn’t let him grow his hair that long" added the military officer with disgust.
"Well, if his mother’s cool with it, then I’m cool with it too".
Greg heard himself speak, and knew that not even a priest in a confessionary would believe a word he had said.
Truth to be told, he thought Jake needed a haircut.
He also thought long hair suited him, but he knew it was him battling himself and trying not to pay too much attention to the matter.
"He needs some taste of paternal attention, don’t you think? Women don’t get this sort of things, the importance that a boy learns to act and look like a man, and he can only learn that from his father" the older man looked at him in the eye "I have three sons, Greg" the retired officer paused "Word of advice, get that boy to a good barber and set him straight, the good old-fashioned way".
"Thanks, major" he replied quietly.
The older man slapped him in the back "You’re welcome".
"Is it this one, dad?" Jake returned with the plastic bottle.
"Well, see you around, Greg" the retired officer smiled at him and then turned to his son "And farewell, lad… or should I say lady?".
"Excuse me?" there was a hint of aggressiveness in the teenager’s voice.
"I’m just kidding, boy".
Major Domett left with a hand wave and crossed the street to his own house. Greg could tell Jake was still angered by the man’s mocking comments towards him.
"Okay, what’s the deal with that idiot?".
Greg rubbed the bridge of his nose "Would you please show some respect to your elders, Jake?".
"Alright, what’s the deal with that idiot, sir?" he saw his son roll his eyes in response.
"Jake, Major Domett was awarded two purple hearts!".
"They should have given him purple farts, instead" the teenager muttered back.
"Would you tone down the sass a bit?".
Jake ran a hand through his hair in exasperation "Alright, I’m sorry. Let’s continue with the oil change and stuff".
Greg observed the locks slide back into place, framing his son’s face and partially obscuring it "How long has it been since you last got a haircut?".
Well. It showed.
If Jake still lived with him he wouldn’t have his hair that long. Greg could swear his life on that. And he wouldn’t be talking back and forth to adults.
Perhaps his parenting skills had gotten a little bit rusty after all this time.
Greg watched his son push back his long bangs as he peered into his car’s engine and decided to move taking Jake for a haircut together to the top of the list of his father-son-quality-bonding-time-before-college activities.
His dad lived a more exciting life in his memories, and being here with him had been so far diametrically opposite to exciting.
Maybe his heroic dad, the marine, the war veteran slash adventurer only lived in his memories. Take that away and what was left was… well, pretty boring, actually.
Jake wasn’t oblivious to his father’s frustration with him. And he tried to connect with him and follow his lead with the whole bonding maneuvers. He tried to put his phone away and listen. But God, it was hard.
Whatever they used to have in common back in the day wasn’t doing it for any of them anymore, no matter how much they both pretended it did.
As he followed his dad’s instructions to check the air on the tires and change them, his mind wandered off to his mom’s trip to Asia and how much he wished he could be with her and Nick instead.
"So, how about you come with me to run some errands?" his father asked him.
"Yeah, sure" he shrugged as he caught the towel to clean his hands in the air.
He got inside the car. As his dad turned on the radio, David Bowie’s and Freddy Mercury’s voice came through. Immediately, almost on cue, he heard his dad whispering the lyrics underneath his breath and laughed.
"Under Pressure, right?" Jake guessed the name of the song.
"Yeah, two legends together" his father’s voice returned to his usual baritone.
He laughed "Why don’t you keep singing?"
"I think it would be an offense to them if I keep singing", his dad answered, Jake could see him smiling with embarrassment "Why don’t you sing instead?"
"I don’t know the lyrics" the teenager shrugged.
"Okay, I’ll sing, but you promise not to laugh".
"I’m not laughing" Jake snorted "I mean, you listen to better music than mom and Nick".
"Oh, really?" his dad perked up.
Maybe they still had common ground, after all.
Before he could answer him, the car stopped. Jake saw through his window that they had stopped in front of a bank. He groaned inside.
Well, it wasn’t anyone’s idea of fun. But maybe it would be quick?
He opened the car’s door and started walking towards the bank, when his dad’s voice called him.
"Where are you going?"
"To the bank? Isn’t that where we’re going?" Jake looked back at him.
"Turn around, kid" his dad smiled and pointed behind him.
Jake studied the building behind him and found an old-fashioned barbershop. He followed his dad and stepped inside it.
The smell of leather and barbericide hit him right away, as the faint scent of witch-hazel and Jake felt he was taken back in time. His father used to take him to the barber at least once a month when he was a kid.
"Good morning!" their entrance was announced by the clink of a bell.
"Greg! Back so soon?" a barber greeted his father getting up from the chair.
"Yeah, I bring you my son Jake here today" his dad slapped him on the back playfully.
"What?" Jake felt his heart skip a beat.
"Alright, you’re in luck we don’t have appointments this morning!" the man announced merrily "Take a seat, young man!".
What was going on?
He wrapped his right hand around his left arm and observed the empty leather chair the barber was motioning for him to sit at.
Then, he felt his dad shoving him forward with one hand.
Jake turned back to his father, looking for an indication that he was kidding, but he only found his encouraging smile.
"Dad, I don’t want a haircut" he whispered, not wanting to make a scene.
His dad only punched him softly in the arm "Come on, Jake, you know you need it".
"No, I don’t" the teenager replied.
"It’s going to be fine!" his father massaged his upper arm fondly.
No. It wasn’t going to be fine.
He liked his hair the way it was.
Though, he admitted it had been a long while since he last had a haircut.
He looked back to his dad. He was beaming with pride, introducing him to his very own barber and he knew he most likely wouldn’t have the chance to bring him along again. So far the summer had been an awkward episode after another, until just minutes ago. Discouraging his dad would probably jeopardize the energy they had going.
He took a deep breath.
Jake guessed that if the barber cut it too short he could always grow it back.
"Okay" he stepped forward and forced himself to smile.
As he sat in the leather chair, he wrapped his hands over the arm rests. The barber quickly took a white tissue and secured it around his neck, lifting his hair carefully. Then, he unfolded a stark white cotton cape and tied it around his throat.
He couldn’t help but gulp in discomfort. In front of him he could see a pair of scissors and hair clippers lined up. He felt the barber detangle his hair with a comb gently, running the teeth across his locks.
"Jake, isn’t it?" the barber’s voice was friendly and warm "Relax".
With his eyes he watched the movement of his golden brown mane and took note of the direction it grew towards to, studied the cowlick on the back of his crown. His father was standing beside him with a reassuring smile on his face.
"Alright then, what’s it going to be, then?" he finished combing his hair.
"Give him a good military buzz, an induction cut".
Jake wasn’t very knowledgeable of military haircuts, but he knew an induction cut was awfully short "Dad" he called him with unease.
"What number?" the barber went to the counter and picked up a pair of hair clippers.
His dad thought about it "Let’s make it a number one, you okay with that, right, Jake?".
"How short is that?" Jake called him a bit louder.
"Relax" his father ran his fingers through his hair and pushed his long bangs back "It’s going to look fine".
He tried to raise his voice "Dad, please".
"Come on, you’ll look great" his dad patted him on the shoulder as he saw the barber coming back "Trust your old man on this one".
Jake saw his father going back to the chairs against the wall and then his eyes encountered the barber bringing the hair clippers in his hand. He felt his heart stop. The barber secured his face in his hand gently and lifted his chin, forcing him to look forward.
Then, he heard the clippers being snapped on.
The noise petrified him. Their loud growl filled the air around him. He felt the barber lift a section of his bangs with the comb and clear the way for the machine. The angry mechanical clatter of the teeth became louder as he approached them to his hairline.
Jake felt the cold blades dive into his hair slowly and the first locks coming off without resistance from his head. The barber pushed the whirring teeth further back, all the way to his crown and as he moved, Jake could see the stubble left in the mirror and feel the clumps colliding with his shoulder.
As he finished the first pass, the barber shook his wrist and he watched eight inches of his hair fall to the floor.
He knew the barber was just starting.
As the man drew his hair clippers back before making a second pass, he locked eyes with his dad in the mirror. His father watched the whole thing silently, relaxing in the chair, with a satisfied smile on his face.
A second bunch of heavy and perfectly healthy locks, this time from his temple, brushed past his face as they cascaded down on the white cape. Jake didn’t say a word. He just watched the barber striping him away of his mane, shearing it all down to stubble. He knew he couldn’t do much but let him cut all his hair off and see it come off in mounds.
He felt his stomach churn.
The clippers made a deafening noise on their own, but it went in crescendo every time the man ran them across his head. Soon, the right side of his head was almost shaven, except for a grayish shadow that hinted he had hair.
The man pushed his head forward and began to buzz the back of his head. He placed the hair clippers on his neck and then he moved them upwards towards his crown. With every flick of his wrist, Jake could see his hair dashing past his shoulders, rolling down to his lap or falling to the floor.
The machine would ascend across his scalp, following the curve of his skull, and then descend again and climb once more. Every time, more of his mane coming off his head as they crackled with effort, only to emerge through a new path of what he knew was stubble, at best.
His head started to feel lighter and colder.
His initial shock was dying down now and it was making way for indignation.
The barber tilted his head to the right and ran the machine up his left sideburn to his temple. The rhythmic pulsations of the clippers made his heart race faster.
"Honestly, I don’t get why you kids let your hair get this long" the barber commented to himself.
Jake tightened his grip on the armrests, his knuckles whitened.
"You’ll see how much better you’ll be without this heavy mop, son. This all belongs to the floor".
The man pushed his bangs back and prepared to buzz what was left of his mane. Jake closed his eyes in preparation for the oncoming rain of hair that would follow. As the machine went across his head, he felt the locks trickle down his face.
A couple passes more and he didn’t have a single hair past an eighth of an inch anymore. It all laid over his shoulders, rested on his lap in lifeless mounds to be discarded and thrown away.
Jake saw himself in the mirror as the barber ran the clippers all over his head in swift movements. He tossed his head from one side to the other and moved them back and forth across his pate. He could feel his fingers on his scalp through the bristles.
The man removed the guard and started buzzing his hairline on the back and sides with the bare blades. He felt them crept up his sideburns, behind his ears and across his nape multiple times. He saw millimeters of his hair, like miniscule needles coming off every time and showering the cape.
His face and neck itched from those stubs of hair sticking to his skin.
The man covered his neck with warm lather, and spread some across his sideburns and behind his ears. It was then that Jake knew the haircut was almost over.
The barber returned with a straight razor in hand and with a surgeon’s precision he tilted the teenager’s head to have a better angle and shaved off his sideburns clean with soft strokes, at the very top of his ears, military-style.
Then, pushing his head forward once more, he scraped his neck, squaring his hairline to his liking, shaving it what felt like an inch or so higher than its natural growth pattern. Jake could only mutter a curse underneath his breath when he felt the cold razor vanishing the stubble further on the back of his nape.
At last, the man took a thick brush and used it to shake off all the shorn hair off his shoulders and remove the strands trapped behind his ear.
"And we’re done here! A fine military buzz, just as requested" the barber presented him with a mirror to let him see his closely shaven sides and back gradually tapered from zero "So, what do you think, young man? A big improvement, right? It really suits your face".
Jake could see his scalp through at all the angles. He could see how brutally short he had taken his hair, what scarcely remained.
He tried to be polite and reply to the barber. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
He hated it.
In the mirror, he saw his dad approaching with a grin on his face. He avoided eye contact with him as the barber finally untied the cape.
"Let’s go" he hurried to the door.
"Jake, where are your manners? Aren’t you going to thank Larry?"
"Thank you" he said in a monotone voice and then spoke back to his dad "Let’s go, please".
"Wait a second, I have to pay our pal here" his dad laughed.
"I’ll wait outside" Jake replied coldly and stepped out of the barbershop.
Looking back, Greg had felt a slight pang of guilt and regret when he saw the barber taking the hair clippers to Jake’s perfectly healthy, shoulder-length mane. His son had inherited his mother’s thick and wonderful golden-brown hair, and not his rather unremarkable and awful black mess of cowlicks and unruly waves he could never grow past a certain length.
But he shut it down. Jake needed a haircut, and it had be one that would last him. He had just done what any reasonable father concerned with his son’s appearance would. In time, Jake would understand and thank him for looking after him.
Or at least that was what Greg told himself.
The truth was another matter entirely.
Jake was pissed.
He was f***ing pissed.
No. Beyond that.
It was a level of pissing he had never seen in him before.
All the road back, all the hours that followed, he pretended he didn’t exist. He didn’t say a single word to him.
That was how he knew he had utterly screwed up.
Greg wasn’t sure he should venture to say a word to him either after he locked himself in his bedroom.
But he knew he couldn’t spend the whole summer in silent treatment.
It was at nightfall, that he heard the door opening and caught sight of Jake going to the porch of the house. Greg knew he had to give it a shot then and walked hastily behind him, not knowing what he would hear or if he would hear anything.
"Hey, champ" he called quietly, and then he caught a peculiar smell "Jake… are you… are you smoking?"
"F***!" he saw his son hurry to turn off a recently lit cigarette in the middle of a coughing fit.
"What do you think you’re doing? You’re sixteen, for God’s sake! Where did you even get those from?" Greg panicked and went to hold him.
"You had them lying around in the room!" Jake’s eyes were tearing up "And let go of me!" he shoved him aside.
Oh, for f***’s sake, not now. Now was a terrible time.
"Major Domett!" he called to his neighbor.
The retired officer peered their way across the street "I see you took my advice and took that boy for a haircut. Congratulations on getting your son back!".
With that, the man got inside his car and left the house waving at them.
"Alright, why were you smoking?" Greg focused again in the matter at hand.
"Screw that! What does that douchebag mean you took his advice?" Jake raised his voice at him, anger flaring in his eyes.
At that moment, Greg really and deeply wished there was a parenting guide of sorts that taught him not to screw things up. A ‘How to Keep Your Teenage Son from Hating You’ would be amazing right now.
"Well, I was talking earlier to the major and he gave me suggestions… he raised three boys, you know and I thought that maybe it would be a good idea to do the sort of things we used when you were a kid" Greg tried to improvise, lie and survive his way through his son’s questioning.
"You thought it would be a good idea to take me to a barber and ask them to shave my head!? And you hoped I would be cool with that!?" Jake took a step towards him.
"I didn’t tell him to shave your head".
His son raised both his arms "You might as well have! I mean, what the f*** is wrong with you?".
Then, Jake turned his back to him with a scoff.
"It’s just hair, you don’t have to make a big deal out of it" Greg crossed his arms "Besides, the buzz cut suits you".
"Dad, it’s not about my hair, you…" Jake bit back an insult "I told you I didn’t want to cut my hair and you didn’t care! You didn’t even ask me to get… I don’t know, an inch off, or a shorter cut or whatever, you just made me cut off all my hair!".
Greg studied his son quietly. He saw the barely there stubble that covered his head, where he had a head full of hair hours ago. He knew it would take it months for him to grow it back. He looked into his eyes and saw how hurt he was, the amount of discomfort he had put him through unnecessarily.
He let out a sigh.
So much for trying to do things the good old-fashioned way.
"I remember when you were a little kid, I used to take you to the barbershop and you always wanted the same cut I got" he said in a soft voice.
"Well, I’m not a little kid anymore" his son retorted back.
Jake barely let him finish "Then why the f*** did you…"
"I don’t know" Greg rubbed his eyelids "I think it’s because I miss you. I miss having you around and doing these things together and you’re growing up so fast" he paused "But, it’s alright, you can hate me, I get it".
Jake didn’t reply right away. He took a deep breath and raised a hand to his shaven nape, and massaged the back of his own neck softly.
"I don’t hate you" the teenager admitted "I hate that you let that old gas bag get to you".
"I really screwed up, didn’t I?" Greg looked his way.
His son took a step towards him "Yes, you did" he paused and felt the stubble on the back of his head "But, you’re right. It’s just hair… It’s going to grow back, anyway".
"Hey, son…" Greg approached him carefully "Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?" he sang quietly in the tune of the song they heard earlier.
"Okay, please stop singing" Jake burst out laughing.
"I love you so much" he wrapped him in a tight hug close to him "Don’t forget it, okay?".
Jake pushed him back after a couple seconds "Hey, it’s freezing out here. Let’s go back in and huh, watch a movie or something… I don’t know".
"It’s your call, son. You make the plans from now on" he caressed his buzzed head gently as he led him back.
That night, Greg set aside all his father-son-quality-time-before-Jake-goes-off-to-college plans. He decided he would get on board with whatever Jake chose from now on.