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The Small-Town Strip Mall Recruiter: I by Kyle Shearing


The Small-Town Strip Mall Recruiter
Part One


Out past 22nd street, off-set on the other side of the barren field behind Fry's sits a small strip mall. Every teenager in town knows it, and most stay as far away from it as possible. Just 5 interconnected buildings, bunched together in an L-shape. 4 recruiting offices, one for each branch, and Nick's barbershop at the end. If the recruiters don't scare the local boys then Nick's sure will; large red leather and chrome chairs, haircut pictures from the 1950's, and a reputation for taking every haircut down just a little shorter than asked.


It's that last fact that stands as a little point of pride to Sgt. James O'Halloran, recruiter for The United States Army and, in his mind, molder of young men. Off all the businesses that could have been placed directly next to his office, that it's a barbershop is great enough. That it's owned by a barber that knows how to take the sides of his high and tight flattop to the skin is an unbelievable blessing. And that Nick doesn't hesitate to buzz a young man down before he can even think twice is, well... O'Halloran isn't sure how he got so lucky. Was he a literal saint in a past life? Did he save the life of an American President?


It is a gift, of that much he is certain. One he spends each day earning.


He arrives at his office well early, vacuuming the floor and tapping all the brochures flush to the edge. Every table is polished to a shine, same for the windows. His Class-A's are ironed and pressed within an inch of their life, crisp lines setting off his fresh-shaved face and his bright, red and brown butch-waxed flattop. Any young prospective recruit that enters will be knocked down with unshakable awe, same as a penitent entering the Sistine Chapel. Of this, he has no doubt.


The door pops open and in walks Dan Ealy, 5 minutes late for his appointment and proud of it. His Dad had made the appointment, and it is already obvious that Dan sees this as a casual obligation; a small, silly act to get his old man off his case. His shirt is from some fancy designer, just black with their logo on the center, and his jeans have patterns stitched down the sides that tell O'Halloran they cost more than his mortgage. He doesn't shake with awe at the office, or at O'Halloran. He clearly doesn't want to be there.


Easy pickins.


O'Halloran starts first real casual, like this meeting is a nuisance to him too, simply a box he needs to check. He lays on a couple small compliments, implying the military probably isn't a good fit for a guy like Dan. Beaming at the attention, Dan pulls the long, dark hair off his face and combs it behind his ears. When he laughs at a quick anecdote, about a recruit who got diarrhea at boot camp, the shine from the florescent bulbs overhead makes every strand of hair glitter. O'Halloran grits his teeth, with a not small amount of disdain, but makes sure it doesn't show.


Since they have to spend an hour or two together, just to keep his old man happy, O'Halloran suggests they head outside.


O'Halloran: "If we're gonna spend the time anyway, why not spend it doin' something fun?"


Through a large green metal door and back behind the building sits a playground, of sorts. Pull-up bars and huge, heavy tires. Sledgehammers for said tires sat up against the brick wall, next to various kettlebell weights


O'Halloran: "But I guess you can't do much in those jeans, can you? Oh, wait, here."


A quick trip back inside and Dan is handed an Army recruiting shirt and running shorts. "On the house." When Dan hesitates to change, probably first to just change clothes but then also to change in-front of a stranger, this is O'Halloran's first chance at a quick jab. Hasn't Dan ever been in a locker room before? What, he's worried someone will walk by and think he's a chicken because of his bony legs? And so on, etc. Dan doesn't know it but as he's taking off his jeans and putting on the dark green shirt, he already belongs to O'Halloran. If he notices that his recruiter has changed into the exact same clothes as him, matching top and bottom, he doesn't say anything. He's one of O'Halloran's boys now.


Every quick little competition, every small "You vs Me" ends with O'Halloran winning. By a wide margin. A run around the building becomes a run around the block, with O'Halloran smoking Dan with little effort. Shame ripples across Dan's face, as he loses one after another. With O'Halloran's gruffest coach voice, Dan's form is evaluated like an Olympic athlete, suggestions for how he can improve coming so quick and so fast he can barely even think straight. And somehow each of these new goals he didn't even have before can be easily reached with the Army's help. When he's picking apart Dan's form during a pull-up, it's explained as "this is what you'll need to know for when you get to boot camp."


His hair is mentioned casually, in a practiced way that Dan doesn't catch. The bangs, thick, hang over his face in a sweaty lump. A haircut is suggested quickly, in the middle of ten other things. And when Dan agrees to a free bottle of water, with an Army logo on the side, he unknowingly agrees to everything else, too.


They're out the front door and turning right into the barbershop before Dan can even catch his breath. He manages to pull back a bit, hesitating, leaning his body back away from the large barber chair he's being pushed towards. But his mind isn't as quick as O'Halloran's mouth, and isn't this what he'd agreed to, and didn't it just make sense for all the training he's gonna be doing? It only takes a minute, and by the end of it Dan almost thinks he's the one that suggested it.


Nick watches from behind the chair, with a very subtle, almost invisible smile, holding the blue and white barber's cape at the ready. It's barely a second after Dan's back hits the chair before the cape is snapped out over him. Nick's thick fingers are a lot more nimble than they look, and he cinches the cape tight around Dan's neck one-handed, as the other hand grabs the big, red Oster clippers sitting right beside him.


Nick: "What am I gonna do with all this?"


He asks it to the room, since he knows what comes next. Dan opens his mouth to ask for a trim, maybe an inch or two off, but O'Halloran's already off and running.


O'Halloran: "Dan here was telling me about how he needs to get the hair outta his eyes, athletic guy like him needs something a lot more streamlined, can't be running around with a long, sweaty mop on your head, right Dan? And with a million-dollar face like that you can probably pull off any haircut, right Dan?"


Dan smiles and that's all the go-ahead Nick needs. The Osters clap on so loud Dan almost jumps, but Nick's other hand sets heavy on his shoulder, pausing just a moment, before sliding up his head and pushing his chin down into his chest. Dan opens his mouth again, ready to issue a plea to save some of his hair, but O'Halloran is talking twice as loud as before, a mile a minute, without stopping to take a breath.


Standing directly in-front of Dan, he locks eyes with him and starts to run down the list. Dan's gonna do this kind of training, and needs to buy this kind of shoe for running days, and he might as well get this kind of sock while he's there, "The same kind I'm wearing right now!" Because the next couple weeks are gonna be packed with training and test prep, he's gonna do great on the ASVAB, "smart guy like you." Dan couldn't hope to get a word in edgewise. He can barely even register what's happening as Nick buzzes the right side of his head into sandpaper fuzz.


Nick's fingers spread out and hold Dan's head like a basketball, angling it to the right so Nick can start buzzing up his left side. It's been maybe a minute, maybe two, but the cape is already heavy against Dan's belly and groin, weighed down with all the summer growth he'd fought his Dad so hard to keep. He can smell the steel and oil of the clippers as Nick drags them around his ear. The long sideburn he'd been keeping trimmed and shaped for the last 2 years is stripped off and dumped onto the floor. He'd bought special little clippers for his sideburns, a tiny yellow set that buzzed like a friendly bee. The Osters roar like an industrial shop vacuum as they're pushed higher and higher up the sides of his head.


Nick grabs the stubby rubber comb from the front pocket of his white smock and drags it through the top. Wet and cold with morning sweat, he pulls the bangs out onto Dan's face. Still holding the clippers, he sets his knuckles onto the occipital bone, so it sits between his pointer and middle finger, and pushes until Dan's neck is almost at a 90 degree angle, looking straight into a pile of the hair he used to have. Yanking the top hair up with the comb, Nick starts slicing it all off, leaving 2 inch long tufts sticking right and left. He doesn't have to ask what haircut O'Halloran wants this boy to have, he already knows. It's the same haircut every boy he drags in here gets. Setting into a rhythm, he lifts one long shank of hair after another and slides the clippers across the comb.


As he goes over the sides with one clipper after another, and then another, Nick watches all hesitation and tension leave Dan's body. What's left to fight for, when you can feel the clippers digging into the sides of your head and leaving only skin? He pulls the scalp on Dan's head taught, again and again, pushing the clippers even closer each time. Not even stubble will survive. Still 5, 10 minutes after the haircut the sides of Dan's head will stay warm. He'll wonder whether he lost a layer of skin.


At this point, O'Halloran stops talking. He doesn't have to distract Dan anymore, so he instead gets to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He can't help but smile, like a proud dad, as Nick whips out the foil shaver, scraping across the back and sides of Dan's head, revealing shiny whitewalls over his ears. When Nick finally pulls out his scissors, 20 minutes into the haircut, and begins to shape the top, O'Halloran has to fight off a snicker as a half-inch chunk of black hair tumbles down Dan's face.


Nick had learned, a long time ago, that transformations like this are best performed with the chair facing away from the mirror. No sense letting the boy get nervous and maybe change his mind, though with the O'Halloran boys they didn't have a choice one way or another anyway. With a quick nod to O'Halloran, he guides the chair around, letting Dan see the new version of himself, ordered for him by his recruiter.


The sides are bald, completely bald, all the way up to the temple. From there it is just fuzz, expertly faded by Nick. Less than an hour ago, Dan had maybe 6 inches of hair on top. What's left is barely over an inch, combed forward. The bangs combed up and over to the side in a small swoop, held fast with thick gel Nick slathered over Dan's head. A razor-sharp part had been sliced in with his comb. As Dan turns his head to the side, his hair stays exactly in place. Even after running or working out, he realizes, it will look exactly the same. Maybe even after swimming.


O'Halloran is at his side within a second. His left hand shoots out of his pocket and snaps something open as his right locks onto Dan's chin, freezing his head into place. A pair of Army-branded sport-style sunglasses are slid onto his face, with a sharp tap in the center to push them tight to the ridge of his nose. O'Halloran pulls his own sunglasses, the exact same Army sport-style, from the front of his t-shirt and slides them onto his face. He leans his head down square with Dan's, locking eyes with him in the mirror.


O'Halloran: "Hell yeah. Streamlined. That there looks like an athlete. That looks like an Olympic athlete! ...You know what? That there looks like a soldier."


Dan Ealy swears The Oath of Enlistment before the end of the month.



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