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Training Sessions by Kyle Shearing

Part I:

I should've seen it coming.

Irish families tend to get together a lot, and ours was no different. After the big dinners, I always ended up with my uncles. Being the only kid left, the youngest by far in our Irish clan, there was no one for me to hang out with. So when The Uncles inevitably gravitated toward the back patio, to smoke and drink beers, I'd tag along, sitting a respectable distance away from the second-hand smoke. I'd chime in on their conversation and they'd smile, and nod, sure, but I always got the sense that they weren't sure if I should be there.
Uncle Jon was different. He was technically my Uncle-In-Law, married to Aunt Cathy, but he'd fit right in with the family, red hair and all, though it was cut very short, buzzed on the back and sides, the top like a flattop but a bit longer and combed forward. He spent every family get-together leaned back in his chair, arms spread across the backs of the cushions, comfortable without trying. He'd extended that comfort to me, always including me in on whatever was being said, or ending his monologues with, "Right, Kyle?," and a quick wink.
I think the only time there'd even been an argument with him was when he talked to me about the military. It was during one of the smoking sessions, out on the back patio, when Uncle Jon asked what year I was in school and I'd said I was about to be a Senior. Before I could say anything else he'd said, "When you goin' into the Army?" It was stated more as an assumption than a question, like he already knew the answer. Even though all my Uncles, including Jon, had been in the military, Army and Navy, I had never discussed joining up, or even really thought about it. I was struck silent. I started stammering. "I -Um, I guess-"

Mom: "Don't do that to him."

My mom had been listening from the kitchen, I guess, and popped her head out. She went on about how it was my choice, and she didn't want anyone pressuring me. Uncle Jon immediately apologized, saying, "You know he'd make friends there. And I really thought he'd talked about it. My bad, my bad." He said of course it was up to me, he'd just assumed it was sort of a family tradition.

Jon: "Last thing I'll say, but I think you'd be really surprised the change that happens
when you join the military. The kind of man it can change you into."

It wasn't a big deal, and the conversation between all the uncles continued without a hitch, but every once in a while I'd see Uncle Jon thinking, mulling over something in his mind. From then on he never mentioned the military again. Or, well, only sort of. Only about my hair.
All my uncles kept their hair pretty short. Not as short as Uncle Jon, since he was still active-duty, but there was always at least some skin around the back of their scalps. And everything was always held tight in place, with a big white part combed in. Most of them even kept those tiny black combs in their back pockets. Even Uncle Jon, which was funny considering he barely had any hair in the first place.
As for me, ever since my Dad had left, my visits to the barber shop had gotten further and further apart. And then I started going to a salon instead. And then I pretty much just stopped going. Eventually I wound up with about 3-4 inches of hair, which I kept gelled and slicked back, red curls circling around my ears and my shirt collar. And at every family gathering, when my mom wasn't around, Uncle Jon would tug on one of the little curls behind my ear and say, "I don't think that's regulation, son."

I should've seen it coming.

I entered my Senior year without accomplishing anything. I didn't really hang out with anybody and I wasn't the king of grades. I did fine. I did fine in my classes, and was friendly with people but sort of just glided through. Over the summer I'd started eating cereal as a meal for most of my meals and as a result had grown a layer of pudge that my mom wasn't happy about. When she mentioned it at another family party I saw something pass over Uncle Jon's face, like a light turning on.
He said he knew a guy. A friend of his was hoping to get into personal training, taking on clients at reduced rates to try his hand at it. He smiled, but with only half of his mouth, and said the guy would probably take me on for free since I was "fightin' age." It was agreed that I'd meet Jeff Thibodeaux that Thursday after school for a trial training session.
Mr. Thibodeaux told me to meet him in the abandoned back parking lot of my school. Only teachers were allowed to park there but they didn't because you had to walk across the entire football field to get to it. That made him pretty easy to find, leaning on the side of his white truck. Even though I assumed he was close in age to Uncle Jon he seemed older somehow, more mature.

Mr. Thibodeaux: "Nice to meet ya, Kyle."
Kyle: "Nice to meet you, Mr. Thibodeaux."
Jeff: "Nah, I get enough of that at work. Just call me 'Jeff'"

When I reached out to shake it was like sticking my hand into a bucket. His huge paw wrapped around mine, enveloping it. He slapped his left hand on too, giving a sharp decisive shake and then leaving my hand in the air. I had the quickest flash of a thought, "I'm f***ed," without knowing where it came from.
He had on a plain t-shirt, olive green, tucked into grey running shorts that hit him mid-thigh. White socks that choked on his massive calves tucked into plain white sneakers. A ridiculously large black plastic watch and those Asshole-style sunglasses, where the lens is A-shaped and frameless at the bottom, spreading out across the cheekbones. A neon green nylon cord hung off the back of them and curled around his neck. Completing the package, an American flag tattoo, bigger than it needed to be, poked out of his left shirt sleeve. Without thinking anything about it I realized his skin was bright red and flush like mine.
His hair must have been cut that day. The back and sides were shaved to the bone, to the point that they actually reflected light, glaring in the afternoon sun. The top was a flattop like Uncle Jon but a lot more square, or squared away as Jeff would later call it. It was all angles and sharp edges, stiff and standing with a layer of what I'd later learn was Krew-Comb.
His hair was the same shade of red as mine. He could have fit right in at the family parties.

Jeff: "You didn't bring nothin' to train in?"

I'd never really been a gym person, and I hadn't really thought about it, to be honest. I was wearing jeans and black sneakers and a Hurley sweater since it was still a little cold outside. He said not to worry about it and reached into the backseat of his truck. He handed me a pair of grey gym shorts, the same as his, and a large black shirt that said, "Be All You Can Be," on the back of it.

Kyle: "I guess you're in the Army?"
Jeff: "I was in the same squad as your uncle, until I changed my MOS. You ready to get started?"

I looked around, quickly realizing he expected me to change there, outside, with him standing right in-front of me. The parking lot was empty and the football field was clear but I could hear people off in the distance, laughing and yelling as they left school. Jeff saw me hesitate and clapped his huge hands together.

Jeff: "Let's do this. Come on."

Something in his tone made me feel both comforted and egged on, encouraged, and I quickly popped off my sneakers, feeling the sharp asphalt poke through my black socks. Looking down I was happy to see I'd worn one of my pairs of boxers that didn't have a hole in them. As I put on the shorts and the shirt, half a size too small, Jeff folded my sweater and jeans into tight squares and pushed them into his back seat.

Jeff: "Lookin' good. Let's go."

Jeff drove us to a gym down the road that his friend had just recently started, slowly being built up inside an abandoned electronics store. There was only exercise bikes and free weights at that point, while his friend got some more money together, but Jeff said that was enough for now. We began with a medium-sized pair of barbells as Jeff tested out what I was capable of. I was pretty embarrassed to discover that I could barely lift the starting weights, my skin getting redder and redder as I struggled.
But there was something about Jeff, his personality and the way he approached everything. He made it seem like it wasn't a big deal at all, casually handing me a smaller set and guiding my arms up so they didn't buckle to the sides. Next we sat side-by-side on the exercise bike, nothing too fast, just talking. He seemed genuinely interested in what I thought about school and we even liked the same TV shows. Every once in a while Jeff would reach his enormous arm across my chest and press some of the buttons on the bike's screen, changing the pace or incline, but for the most part it felt more like I was spending time with a friend instead of a trainer. By the end, though, I was dripping wet, long strands of hair stuck to my forehead. He'd barely broken a sweat.
Jeff drove me back to my car in the front parking lot of my school and said I'd see him every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, in that same assuming way as my Uncle Jon, telling not asking. He said I could keep the shirt and shorts he'd given me and as he pushed my folded jeans and sweater into my chest I saw there were several more shirts and shorts included.

Jeff: "Gotta have the right gear."

It wasn't until I got home that I discovered all the shirts were Army recruiting t-shirts.

Without even thinking about it, I suddenly had an after-school routine. My entire life I'd always been asked what I wanted, even from a really young age. But Jeff told me what was happening next. At the start I'd hesitated a few times and found that Jeff responded to hesitation with more reps, more pushups, more laps around the football field at school. It was never discussed, exactly, but I eventually learned not to hesitate. He'd say, "Give me ten more, recruit," or, "Hop up on the bike, recruit." And I sort of just did it.
Early on I'd said it seemed pretty stupid for me to go all the way to the abandoned parking lot when I could drive to the gym and meet Jeff there. But he firmly shook his head, shaved sides beaming in the sunlight, and said, "No." He said the long walk was a good warm up and that him driving saved fuel. Before I could even nod my head he grabbed my shoulder and guided me to the truck, like he was showing me how to get in. He'd never waited for a response from me. I don't think I realized it then but I'd felt a small twinge of guilt, and maybe shame, for having made a suggestion.

I should've seen it coming.

It was maybe a week or two later, maybe three, as we were driving back toward my high school when Jeff casually mentioned my clothes didn't fit anymore. I'd assumed he meant the size, as the once too tight shirts he'd given me now felt slightly baggy. It wasn't something anyone else would have noticed except Jeff, whose green t-shirt always looked like it had been sewn onto him. We approached the school but he kept driving, past my car and past my house. It probably says a lot about me, and him, that I didn't ask any questions.
It all happened pretty quickly. Jeff drove me to the Sears at the mall, walking to the store and through the aisles with a purpose while I followed behind, confused. The skater-style clothes that I usually wore were on the other side of the store in the Young Men's section but Jeff had taken us to the Men's section. He handed me an assortment of short sleeve polos with button-up collars and various shades of slacks without making eye-contact. He lifted them off the racks and held them behind him, assuming, rightly, that I would collect them in my arms. I'd thought Jeff had meant my clothes didn't fit like they weren't the right size. But as he placed a pair of khaki shorts on top of the pile I was holding I realized he meant my clothes didn't fit a version of me that he had in his head.
He didn't seem angry or upset, or mean. But it was clear that something was driving him, and that I was expected to "follow orders." Even now I can't exactly explain why, but I obeyed. That was just what it was like being around Jeff.
I did manage to make a small comment, as Jeff walked toward the register and I mumbled, "I don't have any money on me." Jeff laughed and turned back to me, facing me for the first time in a while. He ran his hand over his flattop, which looked freshly cut as usual, and smiled wide.

Jeff: "I think I can cover this one, recruit."

He drove me to my car with the bags of clothes in the back seat.

Jeff: "This'll be good. You'll see."

He dropped me off and said he'd follow me home. Walking in like he owned the place, he said hi to my mom and asked where my room was. He said that *I* had wanted a change of pace and talked about it with him. And that he was "Only too happy to oblige." As my mom looked to me, all I could muster was a, "I think this'll be good."
Jeff set the bags down on my bed and lifted out the new clothes, placing them beside the bags, which stood crisp and at attention. This seemed to all happen in one swift motion. Just as quickly, he opened the drawers of my dresser and lifted out my old clothes, which I'd been keeping folded like he'd taught me. They were dropped into the waiting bags.

Jeff: "No use leavin' the temptation."

The new clothes were placed in the drawers and the dresser closed shut with a heavy thud. Jeff grabbed the bags up in his arms, easily, and walked out the door with a firm, "See you tomorrow, recruit."
The next day, Thursday, I made the long walk to the abandoned parking lot wearing a black and grey polo and the khaki shorts. They hit me mid-thigh. I don't know if Jeff ever told me that they were meant to be worn with the shirt tucked in, but I did it anyway. I think I knew that was what he would expect. When I got closer I heard him start to clap. He smiled and yelled, "Lookin' good!" I think I blushed a little. He handed me another Army recruiting shirt and said to get changed, which I did without hesitation.
On the drive to the gym he asked if any of the other kids made any comments and I had to admit they hadn't. If I'd glided through high school in my other clothes, in the clothes he'd chosen for me I was pretty much invisible. He got a knowing look on his face and nodded his head.

Training Sessions
Part II

It was only a week later when Jeff, reaching over to push some of the buttons on my exercise bike, mentioned the ASVAB. He somehow knew that my school was about to offer it, on a Friday next month, to any interested Seniors, enticing us with the promise that we could leave early for a long weekend and go home when we were finished with it. I admitted honestly that I hadn't really thought about it one way or the other.
This'd started him on a whole monologue, about how valuable it was. How it could help me find new aptitudes for careers I'd never even considered. How it could help me plan my future. Instead of our normal conversations, our training sessions after that were spent with Jeff drilling me on ASVAB test questions, sometimes pacing around me with an "ASVAB for Dummies" book in his hand, though usually the questions were off the top of his head. I don't think I ever actually said I would take it, but I guess by then Jeff knew if he was saying it would happen that meant it would happen. And I guess I knew that too.
I told him that I'd heard some of the other kids saying they were worried about getting calls from military recruiters. How, since recruiters held the test, once you took the ASVAB they all got your phone number and e-mail, and would start hounding you to join them. But he said I didn't have to worry about that.

Jeff: "Just tell them you've been training with Jeff Thibodeaux. They know who I am.
They'll let you alone after that."

I should've seen it coming.

It was the Thursday before the ASVAB and Jeff had pushed me through an especially hard training session, though he ended it a bit earlier than usual. Still, I was drenched in so much sweat that the thin gym towels Jeff handed me ended up soaked through. Jeff told me to hop into the showers, which had just recently been built, and that he'd meet me at the truck. He said I needed to hurry.
The showers only had cold water for now, which made me try and go even quicker. I kept my hair from getting wet so I wouldn't have to shampoo it, since that would have taken more time, and rushed to get dressed. I threw on my blue polo, making sure the buttons were closed all the way to the top like Jeff expected, and tucked them into the new pair of khaki shorts he'd bought me last week.
When I walked by the mirror as I was leaving, I saw that my hair had been roughed up by the difficult session, and maybe by me pulling on my shirt too fast. 6 inches long at this point, half of the hair was still held down with gel while the other half hung in limp red strands over my face. I pulled it back as best I could and ran out the door.

Jeff: "You didn't wash your hair? I told you to shower."

I hadn't expected that Jeff meant for me to wash my hair, too, and I found my hand combing through it, trying to shape it.

Jeff: "It's fine, I guess, he'll just have to wash it there."

I looked to Jeff with a questioning face but he was already getting into the truck, opening the passenger door for me from the inside. I got in and Jeff sped down the road, as it rapidly became clear that he was not driving me to my car.
We arrived at the mall again, though this time further back, out where a collection of businesses circled around the main building. He pulled up in-front of a large glass window that read "Robert's Barber Shop" in big green letters. With a quick, "Let's go," Jeff was out of the truck and holding the barber shop door open, waiting for me to follow.
The barber, with a white nylon shirt that said "Robert" on the pocket in small green letters, was standing right next to the big blue chair, all leather and chrome. The smell of aftershave and the antiseptic water was so thick I could barely think, which was maybe the point. Robert's hair was salt-and-pepper colored, though it was hard to tell since it was buzzed down so short. The thick black glasses he wore looked just like the Army-Issue ones I had seen in the pictures Jeff had shown me from his time in Basic Training.

Robert: "I was just fixin' to close up. Ya'll lucky you got here."
Jeff: "I was worried we couldn't make it."
Robert: "No, no, Mr. Thibodeaux, you got in just in time... So what we doin'?"

Jeff threw his arm over my shoulder proudly.

Jeff: "This nice young man here is taking the ASVAB tomorrow, but I can't have him goin' in like this
and makin' a mockery of my Army in-front of everyone. It'd be an embarrassment."

Robert nodded and pulled the red-and-white striped cape off the armrest of the chair, beating it against the blue leather seat.

Robert: "Well we can't have that."
Jeff: "No we cannot."

Jeff started forward, pulling me toward the chair with his arm across my back. I remember the slightest hesitation, as I stuck my left foot down beneath me.

Kyle: "I- I don't have any money."

Jeff smiled, pushing just slightly harder as my foot slid across the checkerboard linoleum floor.

Jeff: "I think I can cover this one, recruit."

I didn't sit in the chair as much as I landed in it. Jeff moved to the side and the cape was draped down in-front of me, over me. Robert folded my polo collar into my shirt and snapped the cape very tight around my neck.

Jeff: "I always liked how you make the cape nice and tight, Bob."
Robert: "Well it keeps the hair from getting' in your shirt."
Jeff: "You got that right."
Robert: "And it looks like there's gonna be a lot of hair going down there."

Robert pulled a small black comb, same as my Uncle Jon's, out of his front pocket and started dragging it through my hair, struggling to get it through the gel.

Robert: "It's gonna need washin' first."
Jeff: "No, yeah, course. I'll cover it, not worried bout that."
Robert: "And the cut?"
Jeff: "Oh, squared away. Definitely squared away, no question."
Robert: "Alright."

I still wasn't even sure what was happening as a large white towel was thrown over the back of my neck and the top of the cape, covering me from my shoulders down to my stomach. Robert grabbed the back of my head and leaned the chair back, faster than I expected, making my stomach lurch. My head was placed against a cold porcelain sink lip, facing up so all I could see was the ceiling. I heard the water shooting out of the hose next to me, felt it splashing all over my face. It was hotter than I'd expected, and the whole sink quickly filled with steam.
Robert ran the hose over my head with one hand while the other rubbed hard through my hair, scrubbing almost with his nails, pulling my head down. The salon I'd gone to was so soft and gentle on this part, nice and slow, but he was pushing my head around like he was racing somebody. And then he stopped. I realized I'd been breathing heavy, so shocked and surprised by the rough treatment. I looked around but still could only see the ceiling, and the top of Jeff's flattop.
A big plastic bottle moved over me and he poured some kind of yellow shampoo all over my head. And then it started again, somehow harder than before. More vigorous. A thought ran through my mind, that I almost felt like a little kid right then, one who couldn't be trusted to wash his own hair right. Like when I really was a little kid, and was taken in to the barber shop by my Dad.
Back then, I'd always left with a short back and sides cut just like his and like all my uncles, parted into thin, hard ridges with a palm full of the barber shop gel. It always felt way too short, by far, especially since we'd gone every four weeks, before it even had a chance to grow. Something told me this haircut, though, was going to be a lot shorter.
The water stopped and everything went dark, as Robert pulled the white towel up and wrapped it over my face. He pushed hard as he dragged it across my hair, pulling my head this way and that, eventually digging my chin down into my chest. When he pulled it off it took my eyes a couple seconds to adjust, and the first thing that came into focus was Jeff.
He was standing right in-front of me, close but a reasonable distance away to let the barber work. His arms were crossed and he seemed taller in some way, more imposing. He wasn't smiling anymore, instead staring at me in the chair with laser focus, not looking away for a second. Was he holding guard over me? Did he think I might run away? Could I run away, or maybe ask for just a trim?
I felt Robert comb my hair up into his hand, pulled tight between his fingers and, before I could say anything, I heard the *snap* of the scissors above me. An unexpectedly long chunk of damp red hair fell down into the cape. Another *snap*, faster than I thought possible, and down came another long red shank, at least 4 or 5 inches. He was chopping through the top so quickly, one *snap* after another without almost any break between them, there was no way he was measuring the hair. Or trying to give it a specific style. He'd started at my bangs and was already slicing into the hair around the crown, in the space of maybe 15 seconds.
He yanked the hair on the side of the top of my head out straight, pulling tighter than had to be necessary, and sliced that off just as quickly. These *snaps* sounded even closer to the scalp, echoing through my ears like drums.

Robert: "Got a real long-hair here."
Jeff: "Yes Sir. But not anymore."
Robert: "No, not anymore."

He'd stopped cutting, fiddling with something behind me. I realized, unlike in any other haircut I'd ever had, Robert had turned me away from the mirror. There was no way for me to see how it was going, or for him to check in with me. Instead, the chair was pointed straight at Jeff, who's expression hadn't changed in the, admittedly short, time since Robert had started cutting.
Robert's hand spread across the top of my head as he guided my chin into my chest. He was putting all his weight on it, to the point that I was worried my neck might snap. The clippers *clacked* on behind me and started up my right sideburn, going all the way up the side of my head in one complete motion. And then down again and up, half passing over the part they'd already buzzed. The hair they were chewing into felt unexpectedly long, meaning he'd maybe only used scissors on the top part of my hair. He'd left the sides and back for his clippers, knowing they'd have no problem taking care of them.
The amount of hair that'd come off the top of my head had been a surprise. But the amount that was coming down then, as he buzzed and buzzed, was shocking. It seemed like he was aiming for the center of the cape. And I couldn't do anything but look at it all, with my head pointed straight down into my lap. The red hair had collected into a small, wet pile between my legs, weighing the cape down so it grazed the new khaki shorts Jeff had gotten me, after telling me I needed to wear them more often.
I saw Jeff's black sneakers start to shuffle, as he looked around at the barber's work. Then he coughed, hard, cleared his throat with authority, and said,

Jeff: "No, No need to go easy now. Let's go 'head and take 'em down."

Robert turned the clippers off and turned to Jeff, still not letting my head up.

Robert: "You thinkin' skin?"
Jeff: "Oh yeah. Absolutely."

Jeff stood next to Robert and ran two knuckles up the now buzzed side of my head, going well above my ears.

Jeff: "To here, at least."
Robert: "Oookay. Gonna be real pale on the sides under there."
Jeff: "They'll tan."

As he'd turned back to his barber station, Robert finally took his hand up and freed my head. Seeing Jeff was checking something on his phone, I carefully slid my hand out from under the cape and to my head. Rubbing my fingers across the already very short sides, it was almost more than I could bear that Jeff wanted them shorter. Or was ordering that they *would be* shorter. Shorter than the barber even thought they should be.
"Now's your chance," I'd thought. "Say something!" I could say they were short enough already. I could say they'd never even been this short before, let alone shorter. I could say how it wasn't even like I was in the military, not really. Jeff coughed again and cleared his throat, still looking at his phone, and I darted my hand back under the cape and onto the chair arm, gripped tight where I figured Jeff wanted it to be.
Who did I think I was kidding? It had been a slow process, one so slow I couldn't even perceive it, but Jeff had taken complete control of me. He knew I would follow any orders he gave to the letter. He knew it was something I had always wanted to do, or maybe needed to do, even if *I* had never known it.
Maybe I was in the military. In Jeff's Army.
Robert turned back to me, sliding his hand across my head, palming it like a basketball, as he guided it back down. I wasn't even really a young man to him. Maybe a boy, at most, one that had to be watched at all times. One that might move his head around if he wasn't forced to keep still.
The clippers sounded different from before, sharper maybe, louder. The zipped up the buzzed side of my head as quickly as possible, spraying little splinters of hair out in-front of my face. As they reached the back of my head, where the hair had been left long, they hesitated. Only slightly. Robert pushed my head down even harder, forcing my head into a sharp angle, as he slid them up. My hair offered no more resistance, falling to the linoleum tile floor with a loud wet *plop.*
The other side fell just the same. Robert let my head free and, as I lifted it up, I'd realized it now felt lighter. Much lighter. Jeff stared right at me, almost seeming to read my mind, letting a small smirk rise across his face.

Jeff: "Lookin' good."

Robert pushed my head back down again and turned on a new pair of clippers, somehow even louder than the last, almost sounding like it was full of bees. Up they went, almost half-way up my head, taking my hair shorter than it had ever been. Under Jeff's orders.
I'd felt Robert hold a long comb tight along the sides of my head, running his clippers over it, fading the sides into what I assumed was skin. He spent almost as long on that as he'd spent cutting the sides and back off in the first place.
After that, the clippers were turned off, leaving me to wonder what was happening. It was then that I heard Robert tugging on a squirt bottle, spraying the top of my head. This was a pretty big surprise, since I could tell from the wet cape weighing into my legs that the hair was still pretty damp from the washing. He sprayed the bottle and dragged his fingers through my hair, just as rough as when he'd washed it.
Next came a hairdryer, shooting fire-hot air into my face. I'd shut my eyes tight as quickly as I could but they still watered, leaving little tears trailing down the side of my face. I think I heard Jeff snicker to himself. A thick, heavy brush started pulling back through my hair, with Robert pushing it as hard as when he'd held my head down. My head went almost all the way back every time he pulled it through.
A couple ice-cold shots of hairspray, and then more brushing and blowing with the hairdryer. And then a comb was pulled through and sliced over by Robert's clippers, sending huge shards of red hair down into the cape as he leveled it off. One after another, he'd pulled the comb straight across my head and pushed the clippers across it. I watched at least half of the hair I had left tumble down in-front of me. There were points where the clippers were so close to my head I could feel the buzzing rattle my skull. Toward the back and center of my head I'd realized he was holding the comb right down to the scalp. Jeff watched the whole thing, sometimes nodding his head, giving his approval.
I'd felt the comb slide tight up the side of my head as he buzzed the top there, leaving what I had come to realize were going to be square edges. Jeff rubbed the tips of his flattop as he watched my hair get carved into one too. His smirk, at that point, had morphed into a full-sized grin.
A stick of what I'd later know to be Krew-Comb was rubbed across my head like a giant chapstick. Then more of the hairdryer, more rough brushing, more cutting. Then even more cutting, but slower, more methodical. Robert was fine-tuning his creation, his masterpiece. A high and tight flattop.

Robert: "Whadda we think, Dad? Is he your spitin' image?"

A large shock shot through my body, like there'd been a clap of thunder. My chest shook. The barber had thought Jeff was my Dad, and that I was his boy. Getting dragged to the barber shop to get cleaned up, put back into shape. Squared away. Like Dad expected for his boy. I looked up to Jeff, ready for him to issue a correction.

Jeff: "He's lookin' good. Finally lookin' like nice young man should."
Robert: "Yup. A real chip off the ole' block."

Robert ran a loose brush over my head and face, tossing little hairs into the air with every sweep. He ripped the cape open, careful to dump the now dry pile of hair to the side of the chair. He ran a small set of clippers over the back of my neck, though it was hard to believe there was any hair there to cut, and pulled the collar up out of my polo and smoothed it down, pushing hard there too, like if he held it down hard enough it would stay in place forever.
I must've sat there for a second or two, waiting, before Robert slid his hand between my back and the chair and knudged me up. He'd never shown me the haircut, with the small hand mirror or the large wall mirror behind me. He'd only shown Jeff.
Jeff helped me the rest of the way up, as my legs had gone a little weak and shaky. Bending me around, he held me up straight and aimed me toward the wall-mirror across the shop. I don't remember if I said anything but I remember my mouth was open, as I stared at a completely different person. Robert had been right about the sides of my head, as the too-pale skin gleamed in the harsh florescent lights. A slight fade into buzzed sides led right into a sharp, stiff, bright red flattop, barely half an inch long, shiny with Krew-Comb. I could even smell the Krew-Comb, finally recognizing it as the scent I most associated with Jeff. And now I would smell like it too.
Jeff met my gaze and locked eyes with me, saying, "Now that's what a proud young man looks like." Everything that came after was a blur. Jeff buying me a stick of Krew-Comb and making an appointment for the both of us in two weeks. Jeff driving me home and instructing me how to style my new haircut so it would look just so. Just like his.
The next day, Friday, I got up bright and early. I didn't know if Jeff would be able to find out if I was late to the ASVAB test, but I didn't want to tempt fate. I used the Krew-Comb like Jeff told me and wore my new khaki shorts, which I'd washed the night before to get all the hair off of them.
It was held in the school auditorium, and all us students were held in the entry-way lobby while the recruiters set up the test. If anyone noticed my new, shorter haircut no one said anything. Finally, the doors opened up and we were told (ordered?) to file in and take our assigned seats. As I'd walked in and looked for my name, my eyes locked onto one of the Army recruiters further toward the back.

I should've seen it coming.

There stood Jeff, decked to the nines in his green dress uniform, silver medals and red, waxed flattop glittering in the harsh auditorium stage lights. He pointed to a seat in the very front row.

Kyle: "I- guess I never asked but- You're a recruiter?"
Jeff: "Always looking for the best and the brightest for my Army. Sometimes I run into a recruit
that needs a little more guidance. And I am happy to oblige."

I thought for a second. He'd always led the conversation during their recent training sessions, pretty quickly and firmly making it clear that questions were not expected from a recruit.

Kyle: "Shouldn't you've told me? Did my uncle ask you to convince me to enlist?"
Jeff: "Jon told me he knew a young man that could stand a change in his life.
Everything else was you and me."

I can't explain how many emotions were running through me there, standing before him in clothes just like he wore, when he wasn't in uniform, and a haircut that he'd made sure was done exactly like his. And, of course, right at that second is when they'd started flashing the lights, signaling for us to take our seats and start the test.

Jeff: "I know you think maybe I pulled somethin' on you, and maybe you're a little pissed, but I couldna done it, any of it, without you goin' along. And you know it. And I think you know, too, that you owe it to all your hard work, and all my hard work, to sit down and take this test."

Again, I can't even explain all the emotions I felt. I couldn't tell them apart. But I also knew, somewhere deep inside me, that he was right. I sat down in my assigned seat. Jeff patted me on the back and left to help the other students to their chairs. About three hours or so later I was done, and I turned my test in and headed down the aisle toward the entry-way. Before I'd even gotten through the doors I felt Jeff's enormous hand grabbing tight over my shoulder. He pushed me into the empty lobby and held me fast before him, both hands on my shoulders now.

Jeff: "And how'd you do?"
Kyle: "You know how I did, Jeff. I already knew all the questions."

He grinned, pulling at his black bow tie like he was fixing it in a mirror, beaming with pride.

Kyle: "I'm gonna go."
Jeff: "Where you think you're off-to?"
Kyle: "I- They said we can go home early after, if we finished."

He smirked, winced his eyes almost closed, and shook his head firmly.

Jeff: "Sounds to me like you got time for an extra long trainin' session. Gotta make sure you are ready for my Army."

He guided me through the door outside, his strong arm pushing across my back, and started walking me toward the abandoned parking lot. He stopped and turned so he was in-front of me, the sun blocked out behind him.

Jeff: "And from now on, you call me 'Mr. Thibodeaux.' Or just 'Sir.'"

He ran his fingers across my stiff flattop and across the pale shaved sides, and smoothed down the buttoned-up color of my polo shirt, like he was going over everything for military inspection.

Mr. Thibodeaux: "Come on, recruit. Let's get you changed."

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