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The French Fry Incident by Kyle Shearing
(Author's Note: Part of this is a true story. Like, real-life true. And then the rest is fiction, obviously. See if you can figure out which is which.)
It was one of those summers where time doesn't work right. I'm doing something and it feels like it takes forever. Or I do a bunch of things and realize it's only taken a couple minutes. My mom has to work a lot, single-parent households are expensive, so I'm mostly left to my own devices since school got out. Mostly I'm biking over to the library, hiding peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches from the nosy librarians.
My mom left me some money for my birthday, "Happy Birthday Kyle!" on a yellow post-it note, so to change it up I decide to go to the hamburger diner a bit up from the library for lunch. It's pretty empty, just me and one other family, so I'm able to get one of the small booths in the back to myself.
Sitting here I have full view of the diner, so I get to watch the whole thing take place. A dad and his teenage son come in. The son is maybe a year or two younger than me but I don't recognize him from school. They both have matching haircuts, thick blond waves parted over, with the son's thick forelock pushed down across his forehead, probably covering up some acne.
They stand in stark contrast to the police officer that follows behind them. In a dark black uniform, about a size too small, his nameplate says, "Miggs" across his chest from his badge. The badge, obviously oiled or buffed, shines as bright as the skin on the sides of his head. To match his startched-stiff uniform, his hair is carved into a short, dark brown flattop.
He heaves his arm across his brother's shoulder, who looks like a thinner, less military version of Officer Miggs, and is about a head shorter, but also doesn't seem intimidated by him. Still, Officer Miggs points at the menu and orders for all three of them without asking.
I try to not be obvious that I'm staring, though I think I catch Officer Miggs' eye one or two times too often. I try to play it off like I'm looking around, but he doesn't react either way. After a while, the Dad leaves for the bathroom and Officer Miggs turns his back to the table, leaning his head to the side and talking into the walkie-talkie strapped to his shoulder.
With the top of his head pointing straight at me, I can see his scalp straight through the short bristles. The flattop is almost "U"-shaped, forming a ridge. The hair in the center is so short it's almost to the skin. The sun shining through the big glass diner window catches his flattop, almost making it glow.
My own hair has grown over the summer, from not too long on top and not too short on the sides to probably four or five inches. I'm actually not sure about the length but when I pull out my bangs they can almost touch my nose and there's definitely hair covering my ears. The stark contrast of my brown hair to his brown flattop makes me feel even shaggier.
Officer Miggs lets his hand off the walkie-talkie for a second to palm his big ear, exposed with only skin around it, and detaches the walkie-talkie from his shoulder. Leveling his head, he holds it out in-front of his face and continues his conversation.
That's when it happens. With his back turned, Officer Miggs has no line of sight on his nephew, who looks a little sour-faced for whatever reasons he might be. I mean, I get it, I'm a teenager too. It doesn't take much.
But I'm still surprised when he slowly, carefully, lifts a long, thin french fry from his plate and gingerly places it on-top of Officer Miggs' flattop. It sits there, as steady as if it was still on the plate, held aloft by the stiff, solid block of hair. A second passes, and another fry joins the first one. Then a third.
I've never been sure why I did it. I stand up, without even thinking, and walk over to the table. Something about it just feels so wrong to me, to watch someone get made fun of who doesn't even know what's happening. It just struck something in me.
I walk into Officer Miggs' line of sight and watch his eyes focus on to me. It feels a little bit like a threat, and I feel the breath catch in my throat. But I push through.
Kyle: "Umm.. S-Sorry but... He's putting fries on your hair."
For a beat, Officer Miggs doesn't move. No one does. We're all frozen. Then, keeping his head statue-still, Officer Miggs rotates his body back into the table, facing his tray of food. He slowly tips his head forward until the fries slide down, collecting into a little yellow pile on the tray. Just as slowly, he rotates his head over to his nephew, whose whole face turns white as all the blood drains out of it.
I have a quick thought of, "Well, what was he expecting?" before I remember I'm still standing at their table.
Kyle: "Umm- Sorry it was just.. Sorry."
I high-tail it back to my booth, happy to exit the cloud of awkward tension that now surrounded their table. I'm not great at lip-reading but I can tell, whatever Officer Miggs is telling his nephew, neither one of them is enjoying the conversation. Officer Miggs' face is so close to his nephews that he barely has to whisper. His nephew doesn't say much, just a lot of nodding, with his head hanging lower and lower, like he's trying to stab his chin into his chest.
When the brother comes back Officer Miggs stands up, with his hand wrapped tight around his nephew's arm. They all exit the diner and stand in a small circle at the entrance. Luckily, I can watch them through the diner's window.
Again, I'm no lip-reading expert, so I can't tell what's being said, but the dad doesn't seem very pleased with his son. No one is yelling, exactly, but I can tell the Riot Act is getting read. And while the Dad is "talking" to his son I see Officer Miggs look behind them. One quick comment from him, a flash of fear across the teenager's face, and he and his nephew walk out of my view. The Dad walks over to his car and sits, reading something inside.
And I figured that was it. I think to myself, "Well that was fun. Dinner and a show," and make plans to finish my burger and head back to the library. It isn't a minute later before Officer Miggs throws the door open. He leans in halfway and juts his arm toward me, with his fingers closed into a blade. Even though I know I was the only one on this side of the diner, I still look around, confused.
Officer Miggs: "Hey buddy. Yeah, you. Come on."
I sit frozen, for maybe a second too long. He brings his whole body into the diner and opens and closes his hand, motioning me over. Mostly I'm intimidated by Officer Miggs, and then I'm also a little surprised to be pulled into the play I thought I was watching, invisible. But, of course, I had pushed my way into their scene the second I told him about the fries. I take a quick sip of my milkshake, unsure if it's going to melt away before I'm back, and walk toward him.
He lets the door close behind me and walks two shops down, holding the next door open, waiting for me. It's only at the last step before entering when I finally realize it's a barbershop. Everything that can be covered with wood is, and stags and antlers hang above the mirrors. There's three chairs but only one barber, a thin old man with cigarette-stained skin in a cowboy-style black button-down shirt. Officer Miggs' nephew sits right in-front of the barber, enveloped in a dark maroon cape that almost covers the entire chair.
Officer Miggs: "Okay. Now he's got an audience. Just like he wanted. You can go."
The barber takes his cue and smooths the cape down on the nephew's shoulder, making sure it's in place. The clippers shoot across the back and sides of his head, leaving only a thin glitter of blond hair. The blade is only a little bit larger than the previous one when it mows across the top of his head. It's only been a couple minutes and you can barely tell what he even looked like before. He's watching it all happen in the mirror with visible shock, and keeps closing his mouth when he sees it open, agape. The amount of hair falling is almost unbelievable. I feel guilty and ask,
Kyle: "Is this because of me?"
Officer Miggs: "No, this is because of him. It's like I told his father, 'Sometimes boys need a little extra discipline. So they don't forget their place.' And I think he's gonna remember for a while."
A tiny black comb is dragged across the side of his head, fading the almost bald sides into the slightly longer top. At the front, the barber left the nephew some bangs, which I sigh a small breath of relief over. But then the barber pulls that same tiny comb through them, lifting them up. A look over to Officer Miggs, who nods, and they are sliced in half with scissors. His nephew watches them fall to the ground. More and more is snipped off, as the barber combs them back, sideways, forward, until they're barely longer than the very short top.
Officer Miggs: "That oughta keep ya a while."
He pushes his fingers through his nephew's bangs and they stick up, a spiky little crown where just minutes ago there had been a thick forelock of hair, brushing across his forehead. The tiny red acne bumps, now incredibly visible, shine like tiny beacons. The barber pulls the cape off slowly, at an angle, so the heavy pile of hair in the center falls over and away. Officer Miggs' nephew stands up and tumbles back a little bit, catching himself on the chair.
Officer Miggs: "Let's go. Up and at 'em."
He's pulling his nephew along, out through the barbershop door, I guess just assuming I'll follow along. Which I do.
Officer Miggs opens the car door for him and almost pushes him in. When his Dad looks over and sees his son's new haircut he seems a little surprised, but shakes his head and laughs. As the car pulls out, I can see him saying something, probably "That's what you get," judging from his expression. Or maybe, "You better get used to it," judging from the kid's expression.
Behind me the diner door jingles and I turn to see Officer Miggs holding it open for me. Inside, he moves his tray, with the fries in a pile along the lip, over to my table and sits directly across from where I was sitting. He turns back to me, to where I'm standing at the entrance a little dumbfounded at what's happening, and nods his head toward my chair.
Officer Miggs: "Come on, now. Foods gettin' cold."
Once I sit down he leans back, letting his whole frame fill the small booth chair behind him. He pulls his thumb and pointer finger down his mustache as he thinks, and the imprint stays for a second or two. Eventually I'll learn that he uses wax in it, once he convinces me to grow my own like his.
Officer Miggs: "What you did, that really says something about you. A lot of folks don't even make eye-contact with us- With cops. And you went out of your way to help someone you don't even know. Someone a lot of folks are intimated by. And they should be! Hahaha!"
When he laughs he rolls his whole head back, so it can shoot out and up into the ceiling. When he comes back he's still smiling but also squinting, thinking. Putting something together, with a sideways cock of his head, letting his big ear graze against the black plastic walkie-talkie re-attached to his shoulder.
He asks about my summer vacation, with questions without yes or no answers. Each question leads to a different one that I wasn't expecting, and they're coming so quick I can't think before I answer. Don't let your guard down when you're talking to someone who's a trained interrogator, is what I'm basically trying to say. I eventually let him know what I told you, how I'm reading at the library most days, Mom's at work, I'm making my own lunches. His eyes light up and he coughs into his fist.
Officer Miggs: "So what you're saying is you don't really have a lot of friends. And you're not really interacting with your community, your hometown."
And it's not what I'm saying but I can't necessarily disagree. For the first time he touches me, leaning across the table, his hand resting on my shoulder, in what I now wonder was maybe a first test. I don't pull away. I lock eyes with him, letting him bore his attention into me like a drill.
Officer Miggs: "I see people everyday- Everyday I'm around people who've let themselves get isolated from their community, who've lost their sense of self. You can do better....If you'll let me, buddy, I know how you can. An easy way how."
Before I know it we're meeting at the police station, me on my bike and him in his cop car. The station is a lot of white marble and big, thick collumns, looking long and solid and established in a way almost no building can anymore. Almost like the building itself is carved out of marble. It reminds me a lot of Officer Miggs, in that way. The welcome desk and the offices behind it are exactly where you'd expect them to be. Nothing feels out of place, not an inch wasted. Every cop I see has short hair, very short hair. There are even one or two other flattops, though Officer Miggs has the shortest one.
We're standing at the desk and before I know it he's already filling out a form. On top it says, "Blanchard Young Officers Cadet Corps." I tell him, "Oh, I'm not sure about this." He says, "I am sure. So don't worry."
Officer Miggs: "Starting next week, you're gonna have a place to go to. Where they're expecting you. And new friends and you'll go outdoors. You'll be expected. And if you don't show up they're gonna call *me* so you better."
He pulls out his checkbook and peels back the thick leather cover, signing hundreds of dollars over for the entry fee and processing and putting my name in the memo box. When I try and reach over, to stop him from giving me money, my whole face turning red from embarrassment, he waves me away. His arm intertwines with mine as he pushes me back, my fingers grazing across the cold tin of his badge, my fingernail falling into every deep groove. Sometimes, even today, when I press my badge down into my chest, as I put on my uniform, I'm instantly transported back to that day.
Officer Miggs: "That money'll cover the uniform we're gonna give you. We expect you to wear it every day now, and you gotta keep it clean. And you'll have a backpack waiting for ya, you're gonna need to bring that every day, too. They'll expect it. Think of it same as your uniform. And, well... there's something else that's a uniform, too."
It's all happening so fast, he's overwhelming me with so much information, and we're walking as he's talking, across the street. Into a small barbershop that just says, "Nick's" on the door. The white paint on the bars across the window is chipping in little bits here and there but everything else is military in symmetry. The small piles of fishing and hunting magazines are flush along the edges and the black-and-white floor tile is spit-shine clean, which seems impossible given how much hair Nick probably cuts off of people, by all appearances. The pictures on the wall are each of Nick and a police officer, whichever, shaking hands, smiling into the camera, and every police officer has skin along the sides of his head.
Nick smacks a newspaper onto the hand-rest of the steel and red leather barber chair he's sitting in and rises to shake Officer Miggs' hand, like he's greeting an old friend. Nick's a little chubbier than the pictures, making his white, starched barber smock fit a little tighter. It moves up and down with every breath. As he crosses his arms when he looks over at me, assessing me, looking me up and down but mostly up, at my hair, I can hear the seams of the sleeves struggle.
Officer Miggs: "My buddy here's going into Young Officers."
Nick: "Of course he is. But not like that."
Officer Miggs: "No. Not like that."
The heavy smell of blue antiseptic is assaultive, demanding. And another layer under that, crisp, and then another, musky. The amber gold and green aftershaves,colognes in heavy glass bottles, line the base of the mirror in front of the chair. It's hard to explain now, except maybe it isn't. The wall of smells trying to take control of me, trying to transform me into a man. By force if necessary. And a small part of me is fighting it but mostly I want it to take charge.
Officer Miggs pats me on the back, between my shoulder blades, and I feel a swell of emotions. He pushes me into the chair and I let him, sighing out a long, slow breath as I sink into the leather. I put my hands in my lap, then up on the hand-rests, then back into my lap. I look to Officer Miggs for an answer but it doesn't matter, as Nick whips a thin, powder-blue cape into the air and guides it down as it drapes across my chest. He clasps it closed around my neck, tighter than he needs to, and just like that I'm trapped.
Nick: "Nice and clean for ya? Cop him up a little?"
Officer Miggs: "A lot. Definitely. He's gonna make us proud, I know it."
Nick's got big hands but somehow the big clippers make them look smaller. He *clacks* them on and a heavy buzz fills the room. So loud I can barely think, which is probably by design. Without a seconds hesitation they're plowing up the sides of my head, straight up from the sideburn I'd been trying to grow all the way to my temple. He's got me turned away from the mirror, toward a vintage military recruiting poster, so I can't see what's happening to me. But when he makes a return trip up the side of my head again I can tell it's as short as the recruit in the poster. The face of the clippers feels hot and tight against my scalp.
As he starts up the back of my head I can feel thick pelts of hair landing on my shoulders and in my lap. It's all sticking together in thick brown clumps, like sheep's wool. He's going so fast I can barely get a breath in before another ball of hair lands on me. My head gets pushed sideways, forward, wherever he needs. I worry for a second that the angles means the hair is sticking up further, getting cut closer, and then he's pulling the scalp up, sometimes with a thumb and sometimes with his calloused palm, so he can do just that. Get it shorter. I realize nothing is left to chance in this barbershop, which is probably why Officer Miggs comes here. And why he brought me here.
Nick spins around behind me and grabs a new clipper blade, slapping it on in a little dance move I can barely register in my periphery. The new blade slides up the back of my head as he pulls my scalp taught again, rising mid-way to the top of my head. Tiny splinters of hair spray all around me, which comes as a surprise since I'd assumed the last brutal clipping had left me bald. But I guess that's what this new clipper blade was for.
At last Nick turns off the clippers, leaving loud silence where there'd been none before, and even though I'm letting this happen I feel a deep rush of relief through my entire chest. Officer Miggs has been watching me the whole time, studying my reactions. Being on display for him makes even my smallest movement feel weighted, and it's both exhausting and exhilarating. And, if I'm honest, a little intimidating as well.
I mean, who does this? Who am I to him, from Adam? In the course of a couple hours he's taken command over my life. More in-charge of my decisions than either of my parents have been for the last couple years. I think I know why I'm letting him, why I let him, but why would he do this? All this must have raced across my face, which he is watching intently.
Officer Miggs: "A cop never knows when he starts the day where it's gonna go. But every other minute there's a new opportunity to better your community, to make a difference. You're gonna see that, Kyle, when we're through."
I blush again, overwhelmed by the attention, and look down into the pile of shiny brown hair in my lap. Nick swats a couple clumps of hair from my shoulders into my lap, too, like he wants me to see them.
Nick: "What about the top here?"
Officer Miggs pulls his hand through the hair I have left on top, heavy. The weight of his hand pulls my neck back. I feel his fingers graze across the sharp buzzed back, just at the edge. He leaves his hand there, lying there, as he says,
Officer Miggs: "He wants to look just like me, don't ya buddy?"
He lifts his hand up and steps a couple inches back. I don't say anything otherwise, and Nick doesn't ask. A long metal comb swims into vision above me, digging into my bangs and grabbing them up. When the clippers glide across it they make a sharp *zip* that I'll hear in my dreams for the next few days.
Long hair tumbles down the left side of my face, longer hair than I even knew I had, more hair than I even knew I had. Another tug across the top of my head, another *zip* and more hair joins it. He's going just as fast as when he was buzzing my sides, slicing away at my hair with reckless abandon. Does he even care how I'll look afterwards? Does Officer Miggs?
A thought blips across my mind, of how this could all be a joke, or a prank. You take a kid, bully him into a barber chair through sheer force of will, and leave him bald and alone in the streets of Blanchard for everyone to laugh at. You parade him bald through the city so everyone can see how dumb he is, how he actually believed someone cared about him. What a joke.
All of this must have been visible across my face, too. And maybe my eyes are watering up a little. Maybe. Whatever, it was a lot. Officer Miggs crouches down a little bit, so he and I are eye-level, as another bunch of hair tumbles down in-front of me.
Officer Miggs: "After this, you and me. We're gonna mosey over to the uniform shop. It's over on the other street. It's a cadet uniform, not a police officer one like mine, but you're gonna feel the difference it'll make in you. You wait and see."
He rises back up, tall, the sharp edges of his flattop blocking out the overhead light like an eclipse. He stretches his arms back behind his head.
Officer Miggs: "I'm gonna need to see you at the station tomorrow and all this week at 0600 hours. That's 6am in military time. We need to get you ready for class. Probably not used to as much running as you're gonna be."
Nick had finished his initial assault, and turned away, so I'm free to nod my head in agreement. Officer Miggs flashes me another big smile and turns his attention back to the barber.
Cold, thick butch wax is smacked through the bits of hair I have left on top, followed by blasts of heat from a hairdryer. The heat slowly cools and a sharp brush stabs across my head, combing all the hair back and maybe taking a little blood with it.
This time I hear the *zip* of the clippers across the metal comb before I even see the hair, tiny shards of what I have left. He's pulling it through my hair from the back of my head, resting the comb close to my scalp.
Nick: "Usually I have to warn guys that the first flattop is gonna be shorter. It's gotta be short to train the hair. But that's never a problem with you cops."
I can't tell if he's referring to Officer Miggs or to me.
He pulls the comb tight against the side of my head, squaring the edges. Squaring me into a different version of myself, really. A few blasts of ice-cold hairspray, more of the broiling hairdryer, a little butch wax and my hair is frozen in place.
When he turns me to the mirror, I'm more shocked than I would've expected. I knew what Nick was doing, and that I was going to get a flattop, obviously. But it's not just the haircut. It's the realization that I've been transformed. I now have a haircut that can't be changed, can't be combed different. I turn my head to the right, to the left, and see only sharp edges. From when I wake up to when I go to bed I will look like a … well, like a squared-away police officer. Like Officer Miggs.
His is the first hand to feel my new flattop. He gingerly rubs across the brush-like tips, cemented into place with the butch wax. This sends a shiver down my spine. He knocks his rough knuckles across the pale, bald band of skin around my ears and neck. It's a neon-bright sign to everyone that I've been shorn. My ears are sticking out just as bad as his.
He leans over me, facing me through the mirror, placing his head so close to mine I can smell the milkshake on his breath. His hand runs over the top of his flattop and then over the top of mine, back and forth, with a big, boyish grin.
Officer Miggs: "So what'ya think? Are we twins?"
Nick: "He's your spittin' image."
Officer Miggs stands back up, rigid, pulling the bottom of his shirt down back along his belt. He tightens the sleeve-cuffs of his uniform down at his wrists, flexing his biceps.
Officer Miggs: "Not yet. But he will be. That's a promise, buddy."