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Autumn 1974 by Rob

Autumn 1974

By Rob

Autumn is a season of contradictions for me. I always welcome the temperate days and the cold nights, along with the simple pleasures they bring, like sleeping with the windows open, or warming my hands around a paper cup of hot chocolate at a high school football game. But with these small joys comes a mix of emotions I can't quite explain: nostalgia blended with loss, regret, the acute sense of time passing, and growing older. There's also something decidedly spooky about this time of year--maybe it's the nearness of Hallowe'en--but it seems like anything can happen in Autumn.

I'm grappling with this last feeling, this sense of expectancy, while sweeping red-gold maple leaves off the sidewalk in front of my shop. It's kind of pointless, since another host of them will fall in the next hour or so. The wind shifted and began to pick up early this morning. Now in mid-afternoon, it's whipping through our little town, effectively denuding most of the trees. This is the fourth or fifth time I've been out here sweeping today, but the leaves are more of an excuse to come outside than an actual reason.

Truth is, I'm bored. Except for a couple old-timers who were waiting for me when I opened at eight this morning, I haven't had any customers today. There was a time when you'd rarely find this shop empty, when all three barbers would be on their feet for long stretches during the week, and all day long on Saturday. Those days, however, are long gone, and now there's only me. Hell, I wouldn't even be able to afford to keep the business up if my old man, the original Mike of Mike's Barber Shop, hadn't had the foresight to buy this whole building and a couple others like it. The modest rents didn't make him rich, nor are they doing the same for me now, but it's enough to get by on when times are tough.

The muffled ring of the shop telephone brings me back to the here and now. I jaunt inside to answer it, happy to have some kind of human contact, however brief.

"Mike's Barber Shop, Mike speaking."

"Hello there, Mikey. Tim Mullis here." The words come out slowly, each syllable carefully measured--the trademark of a man in love with the sound of his own voice. My smile dies, and my grip tightens around the receiver.

"What can I do for you, Tim?" I can't manage a friendly tone, but I keep my voice even.

"It's about my son. He's getting some unacceptable grades in calculus."

My mood rises at the mention of Ryan. "Oh, no problem. I was never any great shakes at math but I'd be happy to help--"

"I think you're misunderstanding me here, Mikey," he interrupts. The way he says my name makes me want to puke. He continues, "The boy's not applying himself, and I just won't have it. I've grounded him, taken away his television privileges, but he's still having this . . . problem. Now I think it's time for something more personal."

"So what does this have to do with me?" I ask, letting my anger color my words.

"Ryan's stopping by your shop after school today for a haircut. He thinks he's just getting a trim, but I want you to butch his hair all the way down to stubble. If punishment at home won't motivate him, maybe the embarrassment of being the only boy at school with a crewcut will."

Now he's really pissed me off. "Okay, I've heard enough. I want no part of this. Ryan's a great kid, and this wouldn't help his grades at all. All it would do is hurt him."

Tim answers coolly. "I thought you might feel this way, so let me put it to you like this, Mikey: either you cut off the boy's hair . . . or I will."

Visions of this sadist subjecting his son to a brutal, uneven, scalp-bruising shearing flood my head. He knows I won't let that happen. I hate to let this piece of slime get what he wants, but I have to go along with it, for Ryan's sake.

"So do we have an understanding, Mikey?" His voice is thick with arrogance and conceit.

"Yeah, we do," I say flatly, and hang up.

I want to hurl the phone across the shop and through the window, but I grit my teeth and restrain myself. Christ, what am I gonna do? I don't know how to explain to this poor kid that I have to butch him, all because his father's a controlling, manipulative bastard.

I look up at the clock; it's ten after three. The high school is only a few blocks away, so he's probably on his way here already. I go outside and resume my sweeping, watching for him. In a minute or two, he appears down the block with a couple of his friends. I pray that they aren't coming for haircuts, too; it would be even more humiliating for him to be buzzed right in front of them.

Ryan waves and yells "Hi, Mike!" when he sees me, giving me the kind of friendly, open smile you don't see in most other teenagers these days. I met Ryan when I moved back here after my parents died, about ten years ago. I took over the barbershop and the old house, which Ryan's family lived across the street from.

He was only six or seven at the time, a quiet kid with a "hurt puppy" quality about him. Badly needing a non-hostile male role model, Ryan just took to me, and we've had a close friendship ever since. Over the years, I've watched him grow into a kind, funny, imaginative boy, marred only by his father's emotional distance and power-trip authoritarianism. The thought of that prick starts to raise my anger again, and I'm determined to thwart his latest punishment for Ryan.

Ryan introduces me to his friends, Corey and Jason. It turns out that they also want haircuts today, only slight trims, of course. All three of them follow me into the shop while I try to figure out a way to save Ryan from embarrassment. He wants to go first, but I ask him if he'd mind running an errand for me.

"I haven't eaten all day," I say, clutching my stomach and feigning hunger. "If you run down the street to the pizza shop and get me an extra large with pepperoni, I'll split it with you and your pals here." Ryan and his friends are delighted by the idea of free pizza. I hand him some cash, and he disappears out the door. Corey yells after him, "And don't forget some drinks!"

I smile wryly at Corey. "Pretty free with my money, there, aren't you, sport?"

Corey is not chastened at all. He merely shrugs. "Hey, I can't help it if pizza makes me thirsty, can I?"

"Apparently not," I reply, and then gesture toward the barber chair. "You're up."

Corey struts over to the chair and settles into it regally, like a cocky young prince. He appears supremely self-confident, which will play well into the scheme I've just hatched to protect Ryan. Corey has very thick, slightly wavy blond hair cut in the popular style, covering his ears almost completely, and falling several inches below his collar in back. He says he wants his bangs trimmed out of his eyes, and "just a little" taken off the top, back and sides. I take a deep breath and put a #2 blade on the clippers. I'm praying that my plan works.

I run the clippers over the very ends of the long hair around his ears, taking off very little. Then I accidentally on purpose run them up against the side of his head, cutting a wide swath of hair down to quarter-inch stubble. "Oops," I say. "I really messed up here Corey. I'm going to have to cut your hair really short to blend this in." Corey starts to get upset, so I say, "Look, I'm really sorry. Why don't you keep the four dollars that the haircut would have cost, and I'll give you six more to make an even ten."

Corey stops his protesting immediately as dollar signs appear in his eyes. Ten dollars seems like a lot of money to me for a teenager in a small town. I'm counting on his greed to triumph over his vanity, and it looks like I've won. Corey looks at me shrewdly.

"How about fifteen bucks total?" he says.

"Twelve," I reply firmly. "Eight plus the four you already have."

"My last date cost me thirteen bucks, and I didn't get anything in return for it," he says indignantly. "It'd be nice to be reimbursed for that."

"Fine, thirteen," I reply with finality. This hoodlum is bleeding me dry, but I remind myself it's for a good cause.

Corey seems satisfied with this figure and tells me to proceed. I start buzzing the rest of his blond mop down to a quarter-inch all over. Tufts of soft blond hair begin flying, bringing Corey's lightly stubbled scalp into view. I finish quickly, leaving an entirely different-looking boy in the chair. The short cut suits him, making him look more grown-up and mature. I spin the chair around and show him the results.

Corey is surprised but not displeased. He rubs his head in wonder. "Damn, " he says, appraising himself and liking what he sees, "I can even make this look good." Jason, who is gazing at his friend's stubbled blond head approvingly, gives Corey a thumbs-up.

"Okay, you extortionist, here ya go." I hand over nine one-dollar bills, which Corey has the nerve to count again before he hops out of the chair.

"Nice doing business with you," he says, and takes a seat while his friend climbs up into the chair. Jason is quieter and more easygoing than Corey, whom he seems to idolize. Somehow I suspect that Jason would get a crewcut just to be like Corey, even without the added incentive of a few bucks.

While I'm caping Jason up, he says casually, "You know, if you were to, um, make a mistake with my haircut, I wouldn't be mad or nuthin' if I could get the same deal Corey did."

I smile and reply, "Well, let's see if I make a mistake first." I pick up the clippers, turn them on and plow a wide strip through Jason's thick, chestnut-colored hair, from forehead to crown. Corey points and laughs, nearly doubling over. I turn Jason around so he can see, and he laughs too. Jason's hair being darker, his pale scalp is much more visible in contrast.

I let Jason watch in the mirror as I quickly buzz off the rest of his long hair. He squirms a little and says the clippers tickle him. When I'm done, he too looks very different than before. The long-haired androgynous kid is gone, and in his place is a handsome young man. Jason also seems to like this new look, and is clearly fascinated by the feel of the stubble on his head. Following Corey's lead, he holds his hand out to me and I pay him his money.

Jason leaps gleefully out of the chair just as Ryan comes back with the pizza and sodas. He looks at his friends with sheer amazement, completely slack-jawed at their shorn scalps. Corey and Jason tell Ryan what's been going on in his absence, and urge him to follow their lead. Ryan runs a hand through his long dark hair and looks doubtful.

This is the moment of truth. I know Ryan probably won't be motivated solely by money, but I'm hoping he'll do it just as a bonding experience with his shorn friends. Ryan looks up at me and asks me if he should do it. I tell him that I think he'll like having the same haircut as his buddies, and that I'll make him the same offer I made them. He still looks indecisive, and asks if I think he'll look stupid with all his hair cut off.

"I think you'll look great," I reply. "And . . . ," I hesitate, "I'll let you give me the same cut if you want." I look around at the three of them and smile. "I don't want to be the odd man out here."

Ryan smiles back at me and nods his head slowly. "Okay," he says tentatively, and climbs up in the barber chair. "It's only hair after all, right?" He's clearly looking for a little reassurance.

"You bet," I say, "and if you don't like this cut, it'll grow back before you know it." I tie the cape up around him and pick up the clippers, changing the guard down to a #1. I want to make sure this is short enough to meet his father's specifications. I snap the clippers into action, then gently press Ryans's head down as I run the blades up the back of his head, all the way to his crown. Ryan trembles a little, but I can't stop now. I completely shear the back of his head, leaving nothing but dark velvety stubble. I move to one side, and work the clippers up and around his ear, mowing down masses of hair in the process. I repeat the process on the other side, moving from sideburn to temple with rapid strokes. Soon there is no hair left except on top of Ryan's head.

I take a long black comb from a jar on the counter and shake off the excess disinfecting liquid. Ryan wants to watch as I finish the cut, so I turn the chair towards the mirror and step behind him. When he sees the severely shorn back and sides of his head, he looks as if he might cry, but keeps himself in check. I place a reassuring hand on the back of his clipped head, and give a gentle rub. "It's okay, buddy, we're almost done."

I comb his remaining hair straight back from his forehead, and then bring the clippers over, hovering above his hairline. His eyes are fixed on his reflection in the mirror. I move the clippers down, as slowly and tenderly as I can, right against his scalp. Ryan is nervous, shivering like he has a cold chill. I run the clippers slowly back toward his crown until I connect with the stubble on the back of his head. I repeat this motion about half a dozen times, progressively widening the path of stubbled white scalp on either side of the first pass.

Soon there is nothing left, but I keep running the clippers over his head to make sure I buzz off any stray hairs. I want this cut to be as crisp and even as I can get it. Ryan has stopped shivering, and is looking at himself with something akin to awe. He seems riveted by his transformation, and not at all unhappy. As I bring the edger out to clean up his hairline, Corey and Jason tell Ryan how cool he looks.

When I've finished and pulled the cape off of Ryan, he rubs his head and smiles. Then a mischievous gleam comes into his eye. He climbs down from the barber chair and then gestures from me to it, signalling that's it now my turn to be shorn. I remind myself that I'm doing this for the kid, and reluctantly mount the chair. I instruct Ryan how to use the pedal to adjust the chair to his height. He quickly figures it out, and then covers me with the cape.

Corey and Jason are looking at Ryan expectantly; they clearly want a piece of the action. Ryan asks me if I have any other clippers, and I reply that there should be a couple in the drawers under the counter. He finds them, plugs them in, and motions for Jason and Corey to come over. I make sure that all three clipper blades are set to a #1 length, and then Ryan turns me away from the mirror.

I am nervous about this cut. I haven't had a crewcut since I graduated high school fifteen years ago, back in 1959, when it was the reigning style. Now there's not a man in town under the age of sixty with a cut like this. I'm also concerned about my reputation and livelihood--what younger guy in this day and age would let a barber with a butch cut anywhere near his hair? Still, this was part of the deal, and I have to go through with it, for Ryan's sake.

Ryan, for his part, is composed and ready to go. He issues orders to his partners in crime.

"Corey, you buzz the left side; Jason, you take the right; the back and the top are all mine."

The boys turn their clippers on at the same time. The machines hum and buzz together in oscillating harmonies. I can't see them from this angle, but I imagine that they look like a trio of shorn, sinister haircutting elves.

They descend upon me in unison. I feel three clipper blades chewing through my dark, medium-length hair. What the boys lack in technique they make up for in enthusiasm. Corey and Jason are racing to see who can shear his side faster. Huge dark clumps of my hair are rolling down the cape, like tumbleweeds. Ryan is more methodical, slowly and deliberately running the clippers up the back of my head. Within a minute or two, they are done.

Ryan tells the other boys to have a seat while he finishes cutting off all the hair on top of my head. He takes a fresh comb from the jar and runs it through the hair that remains on top, just as I did with him. When my hair is all glossy and combed back, he depresses the pedal until the barber chair is in its lowest position. Now Ryan has the leverage he needs to complete the job.

Still behind me, he reaches for the clippers, turns them on, and holds them above my forehead. Corey and Jason have started a chant--"Go!Go!Go!" Ryan brings the clippers down softly, right against my scalp, and drags them back slowly through my hair, buzzing a wide path. He repeats the motion, very slowly, over and over, leaving an ever-widening strip of dark stubble.

Ryan has a surprisingly sure hand with the clippers, and it's clear that he wants to do a thorough job. After he shears off the remaining bit of hair on top, he surveys the rest of the cut, making corrections here and there. When he's satisfied, he turns me around to have a look at his handiwork. "Well?" he says, sounding a little anxious. "How is it, Mike?"

I'm too much in shock to reply right away. I barely recognize myself without my dark cap of hair. I look like a freshly inducted young GI. My whole head is clipped bare save for a thin layer of velvet stubble. As a man, I'm stunned at this transformation, but as a barber, I'm fairly impressed. This could have looked a lot worse.

I turn around and face my young barbers. "I think you guys did a nice job on me, especially you, Ryan. Good work. You can cut my hair anytime." Ryan seems genuinely pleased by the compliment. "And before I forget, here's your money. Go buy something fun with it." He takes the slim pile of bills, pockets them, and thanks me sincerely.

Then we all tear into the pizza, cementing this experience with the age-old ritual of shared food and drink. We are all in high spirits, and at this moment it seems like there is no outside world, just four guys with crewcuts talking and laughing and having a good time. I can't recall being this happy in a long time.

Soon, though, the afternoon light begins to fade and the boys reluctantly have to get going. Each of them actually thanks me for his haircut, and shakes my hand warmly. I feel like I've established friendships with Jason and Corey, and my connection with Ryan is stronger than ever.

The boys wave goodbye and exit the shop. I go to the window and watch them as they amble down the street, still joking and laughing and rubbing their heads. Unconsciously, I reach up and begin rubbing my own stubbled scalp. I feel a profound sense of satisfaction knowing that I spared Ryan some measure of humiliation. Shorn by himself, he certainly would have been made fun of at school. Having his friends buzzed as well made the experience not so terrible, even enjoyable. Together, the three of them should be able to handle any teasing that comes their way.

I turn toward the mirror that runs along the back wall of the shop, and give my new cut a thorough inspection. I still can't believe what I'm seeing; I look practically bald. "Jesus," I whisper to myself, "this is so short." It'll take the better part of a year to grow all my hair back. Without the boys, I feel self-conscious now, and my mood becomes far less buoyant. I decide to close up early--I don't want to have to explain my bare stubbled head to anyone tonight. I don't even bother sweeping up the huge mound of hair on the floor. I grab my jacket, turn off the lights and sign, and lock up. Once I'm outside, the crisp October air feels especially bracing to my shorn head. I pull the hood of my jacket up over my head and walk home slowly, lost in thought and self-pity.

* * *

The next day, I arrive at the shop just before seven-thirty. I clean up the mess from yesterday and have my morning coffee so I'll be ready to open in half an hour. I'm surprised by a knock at the door at seven-fifty-five. There's a man outside whom I've never seen before, smiling and waving at me through the glass. I'm puzzled but pleased to have a customer, even if he's a little early.

I unlock the door and usher him inside. He's a tall, nice-looking family-man type, with medium-length blond hair. The man introduces himself as Dan, and greets me warmly with a smile and a hearty handshake. He looks familiar, but I can't quite place him. I notice that he's checking out my severe butch cut with undisguised interest.

Finally, Dan speaks up. "I sent my son Corey to get a haircut here yesterday. He was with some friends, I believe. I certainly got a surprise when he came home and I saw his hair, or lack of it." His tone is friendly, so he doesn't seem angry or upset, but I figure I should apologize anyway.

"Yeah, I'm awfully sorry about that, sir. I usually don't make mistakes like that."

"Mistake?" He laughs. "Hell, that's the sharpest cut my boy has had, well, ever. Of course, my ex-wife won't much care for it when she sees it, but you know how women are." He rolls his eyes, and I nod in sympathy. "But I think the crewcut really becomes the boy."

"But what really impressed me," he continues, "is that you tried to make him feel better about it by letting Corey and his friends give you a buzz as well. That shows a lot of character, man."

I thank him sincerely, touched by his kind words. "I appreciate that you came down here just to tell me that."

"Well, to be honest," he says, a little sheepishly, "that wasn't the only reason I came down here. My son's crewcut reminded me of when I was growing up in the 50s, and I realized how much I miss those simpler times and customs. Anyway, I want to encourage my boy to keep his hair short, and it seems like the best way to do that is to set a good example myself, even if it isn't the most popular style right now."

He concludes, "So that's the real reason I'm here, Mike. I want you to give me the same haircut you gave my son."

"All right, Dan," I say, clapping my hands together and rubbing them briskly. "Let's get you in the chair and get started on your crewcut."

Dan goes to the chair immediately and gets settled in. I pull a white crepe paper strip from the dispenser, and secure it snugly around his throat and neck. That done, I unfurl a clean white cape around him and tie it behind his head, crinkling the tight paper collar underneath.

I reach down and gently smooth out Dan's soft, overgrown blond hair. I ask, "You ready for this, pal? It's going to be a real dramatic change." He chuckles a little and says, "Do your worst, Mike. I can take it." The clippers are already in my hand, still fitted with the #1 blade from my shearing yesterday. I bring them to life with a crackle and aim them toward Dan's right sideburn.

The clipper blade bites into his scalp like a combine in a field of wheat. I guide it up and around his ear, sending a mass of shorn blond hair tumbling down the cape into his lap. With steady motions, I plow through all the hair on this side of his head. His bared scalp is clean and pale, and the blond stubble looks like pure gold in the morning light.

Within minutes, I literally make short work of the rest of Dan's blond locks, shearing him down to next to nothing. Then I remove the paper collar and complete the cut by etching a crisp hairline around his ears and on the back of his neck, using a straight razor and hot lather. I follow this up with a warm wet towel to wipe away hairs and excess lather. Now finished, I step back to get a good look at my work.

The result is staggering--this man was born to wear a crewcut. His head is perfectly shaped, bringing classical Greek sculpture to mind. His eyes, which I had not noticed with his veil of hair, are large, deep-set, and jade green. In fact, all Dan's handsome features are thrown into striking relief. It seems criminal to me that they lay obscured for so long.

I ask him if he's ready to see the transformation for himself. He seems hesitant until I give him a reassuring smile. Upon being turned around, he's astonished at his appearance. His hands go straight for his shorn head, his fingers tactilely confirming that what he's seeing is correct. "Wow . . . ," he says in wonderment, "Why the hell did I ever stop cutting my hair short? This crewcut is damn sharp; it looks great on me and feels even better."

"It is a great cut for you, Dan," I agree with a smile. "But the best thing about it is that now I won't be the only grown man in town looking like an army recruit." I reach down and give his shorn, golden velvet head a rough but playful rubbing. He grins, closes his eyes, and relaxes into the massage like a cat, enjoying the moment to its fullest.

"As I recall, this was the nicest part about about having a crewcut, " he says. His voice is deep and languid, and his eyes remain beatifically closed. "Just the simple pleasure of being touched." He pauses thoughtfully. "I guess that's why they say that simple pleasures are the best." I murmur softly in agreement, not wanting to break the spell of Dan's deep relaxation.

I continue rubbing his handsome, clipped head for another few minutes, then force myself to stop. Otherwise, I'll quite happily go on stroking him all day long. Dan opens his eyes slowly and sighs. "That felt amazing, Mike. Thank you so much for everything. I have to say, I think you're an exceptional barber and a terrific guy."

His heartfelt compliment makes me color a little. I manage an embarrassed "Thanks," and remove the cape from around him, shaking all his shorn blond hair out of it, onto the floor. He stands up out of the chair, and looks down at the heap of his former locks and shakes his head, dismayed.

"I can't believe all that was on my head until this morning."

"Well," I reply, "I was more than happy to relieve you of it, Dan, especially since it means I won't stand out quite so much now."

Dan steps close to me and reaches his hand around to the back of my head, gripping it gently. He looks at me earnestly, eye to eye, and says, "You are definitely not alone now, Mike. From now on, you have a new friend and 'buzz buddy' in me." Dan smiles softly and brings his hand from the back of my head to my shoulder. He gives the muscle a firm squeeze as a parting gesture.

Then he turns away from me and collects his jacket from a nearby chair. He goes to the door and waves. Streaming through the glass, the morning sun bathes Dan's cropped head in warm light, producing a thin halo around him. "See you next week," he says, halfway out the door. "I can't let this get too shaggy. Take care, Mike." And with that, he's gone. I notice a five-dollar bill on the chair where his jacket was lying, and I laugh. "Like I wouldn't have paid him for this haircut," I say out loud.

I light up a cigarette and pour a fresh cup of coffee, humming an upbeat tune from my youth. Then I settle into my barber chair, which is still surprisingly warm from Dan's presence. I feel damn good. All the doubts and self-consciousness I had about my crewcut are now behind me. Just sharing this experience with Dan has made all the difference for me. And I still feel good about what I did for Ryan, even if it no longer comes at such a high price.

I want to take deep satisfaction in the knowledge that I've ruined some bastard's mean-spirited scheme, but my mind is more pleasantly engaged elsewhere. I'm thinking about how the actions of one decent person can make a real difference to another, and how life ultimately rewards that decent person for his actions. In this uncertain world, it seems like the only thing worth taking a risk for, is each other.

I finish my coffee and cigarette in silence, watching the world outside. Yesterday's crazy wind has abated, but the evidence of its handiwork is all around: every yard and sidewalk is strewn with a thick pelt of fire-colored leaves. Maybe later I'll get out there with my pushbroom and do something about them, but for the moment I merely sit back and enjoy the view.

copyright 2002 Rob

The End

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