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

The Small-Town Strip Mall Recruiter
Part Two

It had been a pretty successful week, all things considered. James O'Halloran pulls his fingertips down the small red mustache he keeps and feels its short bristles poke back. He didn't even have to trim it anymore, as Nick was more than happy to take care of that. He never had to question whether one-square-centimeter of it was anything less than regulation perfect. 

The same went with his high and tight flattop. Nick had shaved it down yesterday, and when O'Halloran runs his hands down the sides he feels nothing but bare skin. A quick skim across the brown and red top lets him know it is still standing sharp, at attention. A quick whiff of his fingers lets him know the butch-wax he'd covered it in that morning is still doing its job, leaving a thick trail of ole-fashioned olfactory stimulation wherever he goes.

Everything is pretty much perfect. Dan Ealy had left for MEPS on Monday, and since then O'Halloran already gotten several of his friends to sign up as well. Mostly using the same tactics that had gotten Ealy into uniform, and into the chair. One young man after another had been taken to Nick's Barber Shop, leaving with a much shorter haircut than they probably expected and a new-found sense of pride. And the insatiable urge to become a soldier in The United States Army.

The problem is that it is *almost*​ perfect. And *almost*​ O'Halloran's highest number of recruits in one week. He is one shy of breaking a personal record, and that sense of *failure* gnaws at his stomach. He'd been calling every 18 year old within spitting distance, the ones that had taken the high-school ASVAB and the ones that'd ditched. But working in a small town means a small pool. Of the 70 kids that had graduated high school last month, he'd seen almost every single one of them. But there's that word again. *Almost.*​

He goes though the student records the school's guidance counselors gave him and finds the number for Kyle Jameson. He could picture the kid's face, but he really had to try. Thin, pale, reserved. Kyle had always been out on the periphery when O'Halloran had visited the school, off in the corner. And always alone. At the graduation, which O'Halloran made a point to attend, no one had even clapped for the kid when his name was called. The principal had to, to fill the silence, holding the diploma in one hand and clapping over it with the other, the paper muffling the sound.

Kyle answers the phone with a scrappy voice, like he hasn't talked in days. O'Halloran is ready to start his mile-a-minute sales pitch, laser honed over years of practice and guaranteed to lead to an in-office visit. But, something makes him hesitate. Instead, he says his name, that he's a recruiter for The United States Army, and... asks if Kyle wants to go get lunch. And when Kyle says "ok" it almost sounds like he's on the other side of a tunnel, small and barely audible. O'Halloran can't place what feels so different about this appointment but shrugs it off and heads out toward the recruiting Jeep.


When he pulls up to Sonic, all the tables out front are empty except for Kyle's. This is good news, as O'Halloran realizes he's already forgotten what he looks like. Somehow the kid disappears from your memory even when you're looking right at him. As he approaches, O'Halloran can see he's wearing baggy black jeans and a big baggy hoodie, but he can also see the hoodie and jeans are really wearing him. They almost swallow Kyle up, forming a shell. Only his face is visible, pale and thin, swaddled with big bundles of red hair. If the rising heat of the start of the summer bothers him, he doesn't let on.

O'Halloran's voice is commanding, booming, always, even when just saying hello. From only "Hi" Kyle winces, curling backward, deeper into the hoodie. Without thinking about it, O'Halloran softens his tone. He can't even tell, but his voice goes higher, less in his chest and more in his throat. When he sits at the table he does so softly.

O'Halloran: "Hi Kyle, I'm- I'm James. It's great to finally meet you."

The conversation is small, sparse. Kyle doesn't hesitate to answer but his answers are short. O'Halloran had met shy kids before, he knew how to sell to shy kids, but Kyle was different. It was like he assumed O'Halloran didn't care about the answers, like no one could, even though O'Halloran was asking the questions. 

And when he gets to the part where he normally starts his official sales pitch, O'Halloran hesitates again. 

O'Halloran: "Are- ... Are you parents around much?"
Kyle: "I never met my dad, and Mom- She works a lot, and she looks after my grandma. Most nights she stays there... I'm good."

He shrugs, a little, with a muted sigh.

The entire conversation, O'Halloran couldn't put his finger on what felt different about this kid. Even though he hid in plain sight, even though his own family seemed to have left him by the way side... He maintained eye contact. Was that it? 

O'Halloran was used to the shifting gazes of unsure youths, and even self-assured guys. Part of his tactic was to maintain a laser-focus that made them have to look away. A staring contest they didn't know that they were playing, and that they were going to lose. 

But Kyle hasn't looked away once. He meets O'Halloran's eyes with soft, steady focus. As the conversation progresses, he sits a little straighter, pulls the hood back most of the way. He even smiles once or twice. O'Halloran realizes halfway through that this is probably the longest conversation Kyle's had in ... days? Weeks? 

He also realizes he isn't selling, not really, not anymore. Everything in this kid's life bruises O'Halloran's heart, and the kid still gets up every day. An idea forms about how he can help.

O'Halloran: "Come on, we're heading back to the office."

The whole ride over, O'Halloran spends it pointing out local restaurants and shops, bragging about how this one and that one all give him discounts, or free stuff. Normally this would also be a selling tactic, "You too can get military discounts!", but this is different. He's proud that he'd earned those discounts, and he wants Kyle to be proud of him, too. A couple extreme stories from O'Halloran's time in basic, maybe embellished a little to give the kid a scare, and by the time he's finished Kyle is actually laughing. Smiling and laughing. The emotion that rumbles inside O'Halloran is pretty close to pride, he realizes, and something else he can't put his finger on.

When they get to the strip-mall it's right through the office and out the back. 

O'Halloran: "I get the sense you ain't been doin' a lot of moving around, and I think it's time we fix that, Kyle. And while we're here, maybe I call you 'Jameson.' Is that okay?"
Kyle: "Yeah, I think so."
O'Halloran: "And you can call me 'Sargeant,' alright?"
Kyle: "Ok... Sargeant."
O'Halloran: "I'm a little old and hard of hearing, Jameson. You're gonna have to really yell that one out, and start and end with it, okay? Try again."
Kyle: "Sargeant, yes Sargeant!"

When O'Halloran tells him the recruiting shirt and shorts are his to keep, the soft, genuine "thank you" that Kyle lets out hits O'Halloran in the gut. He must know they're meant to be given away, right? To make you feel obligated to listen to the sales pitch? Kyle quickly changes into them, with only a short hesitation, putting them on almost reverently. As O'Halloran folds Kyle's jeans for him, he can see the knee holes that appear to be placed purposely are from genuine wear and tear, being worn through after months. Or possibly years.

A couple hits on the pull-up bar, a couple tries lifting the kettlebells. O'Halloran even lets him use the sledgehammer on the tire, a privilege usually reserved for the day before heading out to MEPS. It's all it takes before Kyle's got a smile that won't come off. O'Halloran challenges him to a race around the block and is about to break out far ahead, leaving Kyle to choke on his dust. Instead, he finds himself pulling back, for reasons he can't explain. What had been a blow-out is now a close call, and an opportunity for learning. Where every deficit has usually been O'Halloran's chance to take small dig, pull a guy down just a bit, instead he's building the kid up.

O'Halloran: "You did real great, son."

It had been an accident, he'd meant to say, "Jameson," and it just slipped out. It hung on the air for a second, two seconds, three before:

Kyle: "Sargeant, thank you Sargeant!"

After that, everything was "son," this and "son," that. "You need to watch your form, son." "You're doing great there, son." O'Halloran feels his mind racing, all the amazing options this kid is gonna have in his Army. And it isn't about selling, that isn't even entering it. He genuinely knows this is the best choice for Kyle. A kid with no real family looking out for him? Now the Army will look out for him. Now his Army will be Kyle's family.

Usually, after a hard workout, O'Halloran stood above the prospects, staring down, letting them crouch under his shadow. They'd look up and see the sun covered up by his head, and the shine on his flattop, and know that they belonged to him. Instead, he sits down next to Kyle, handing him a water bottle. Starting now, he's gonna plan out Kyle's entire daily schedule. Starting now, he will be personally tutoring Kyle on the ASVAB. Starting now, Kyle will meet O'Halloran at the office every morning, early, and they'll run laps as the sun rises behind them.

O'Halloran: "Sound good, son?"
Kyle: "Sargeant, yes Sargeant!"

That is it, that definitive answer, Kyle puffing out his chest and throwing his shoulders back like O'Halloran had taught him. That is the moment when O'Halloran can't stand it anymore.

O'Halloran: "Son, it's time you get a good ole' fashioned haircut."
Kyle: "S- Sargeant, yes Sargeant!"

It's clear Kyle is nervous as O'Halloran guides him the short, couple steps out to Nick's. His smile has been replaced with a pensive, tight grin. His first hesitation, since almost the whole day, is at the entrance to the barbershop. His nostrils flare. He takes in a small suck of air, letting it out slow. It's obvious that he hasn't had his hair cut in sometime, but O'Halloran begins to wonder if Kyle's ever even been inside a barbershop. 

When O'Halloran sets his arm across Kyle's shoulders, it's not to push him. They stand for a second, as Kyle takes in another small breath.

O'Halloran: "You don't haveta, if you-"

Kyle rushes in. Nick's waiting behind the chair as Kyle drops in quickly, pushing his back up against the seat and clasping both hands tight on the red chrome arms of the chair. Looking up at O'Halloran, Nick can only smile in disbelief.

Suppressing a small amount of shock himself, O'Halloran steps forward and assumes his position in-front of the chair. He crosses his arms behind his back, stands at stiff attention, and resets his voice back to his full-chest roar. The windows practically rattle.

O'Halloran: "This young man needs a short haircut."

If Nick's still put-off by Kyle's forceful sitting, he does a good job of hiding it. He snaps the blue and white cotton cape in the air and settles it down across Kyle's chest, cinching the neck tight once he gets Kyle's hair out of the way. A quick comb-through, to get rid of the knots, and Nick can see he's got easily 7 or 8 inches of hair to work with. Before the kid can do anything else weird, Nick slaps on the Osters and guides his head down. 

Long shanks of red hair slide down the cape. O'Halloran tells him to relax his neck and Kyle immediately follows orders, letting Nick twist and turn his head wherever he needs to. With the sides buzzed down, Nick settles into his old rhythm, slicing off the hair on top with his clippers and comb. 

Just from his head shape, O'Halloran can already tell Kyle is going to look great with the "O'Halloran Special." It is the mark he always leaves on his prospects, and a noticeable one at that. He'd get postcards from boot camp, telling stories of the Drill Instructors pulling his boys out of line at the barbershop, saying, "You one of O'Halloran's? Yeah, I thought so." Even after getting it all shaved off, men would come back after boot camp still wearing the haircut he'd ordered for them, having grown it back after graduation. For many, the mark left by O'Halloran's influence is so strong that they'll wear that haircut for the rest of their lives.

Nick has switched clippers maybe 4, 5 times by now. Kyle keeps his head wherever Nick leaves it every time he turns to change clippers. Nick stretches his thumb and pointer finger across Kyle's forehead, bringing his head up before tilting it to the side. The foil shaver makes a raucous buzz as it's turned on, and as Nick runs it over the skin above Kyle's ear the kid's startled expression lets O'Halloran know that this is the first time he's ever experienced this.

O'Halloran: "Lookin' good there, son. Lookin' real good."

With all the hair buzzed down, and without the hoodie to hide behind, O'Halloran can finally see how dynamic Kyle's face is. With a hawk-like nose that strikes out like a knife, his whole face is set forward. His eyes are large and close together, "the better to hunt with," O'Halloran thinks to himself. 

An even greater sense of pride rushes through his chest. This face had been hidden under all that hair, and it took an Army Recruiter taking charge before Kyle could show his real face to the world. This is not a face that can be forgotten, even years after meeting him. This is a new Kyle.

Nick takes the long, steel scissors out of his front pocket to shape the top. He pulls the hair up between his fingers and is ready to chop as O'Halloran steps forward.

O'Halloran: "Wait, stop. Give me a minute."

Nick steps back and O'Halloran moves even closer, placing his pointer and middle fingers on Kyle's temples. He rotates the boy's head right and left, with Kyle offering zero resistance. He tips the boy's head forward and pulls his hand roughly through the hair left on top. O'Halloran juts his jaw forward, letting his shark-like bottom teeth sink into the sharp regulation mustache hairs above his lip.

O'Halloran: "He's gonna want a flattop."

Nick comes forward and pulls at the hair on top himself, randomly lifting chunks from the front and back.

Nick: "You sure? The way I buzzed the sides, it's gonna havta' be a short one."
O'Halloran: "I'm sure. He wants it just like mine."

With no word from Kyle, not that anyone was asking, Nick flips the Osters on again and plows a long buzzed strip up the back of Kyle's head, over the crown, down the middle of his skull, stopping about an inch away from his bangs. The next cut is brutal, with Nick leveling his comb inside the boy's bangs and sliding through them with the clippers, severing almost 3/4ths of what was left. The clump of hair on the edge of his comb is tossed into the air, with little care for where it lands. Nick is a man on a mission, buzzing off more and more of Kyle's hair, going back to the same spot 3, 4, 5 times.

When he brings the comb across the top now, it's nothing but short red bristles and an ever-widening landing strip of almost bare skin in the center of Kyle's head.

O'Halloran: "When you get to boot camp, sometimes some of the Drill Instructors might have high and tight flattops too, and they can get a little pissy about a recruit having one. If they ask, you just tell them you've always had it cut like this. Your Dad had a flattop as long as you've known him and you've had a flattop as long as you can remember. You got that? Say it back to me."
Kyle: "Sargeant, my Dad's had a flattop for as long as I've known him and I've had a flattop as long as I can remember, Sargeant."
O'Halloran: "Good boy."

Nick had taken the opportunity provided by this short conversation to spread butch-wax out across his boar's hair brush. He drags it through the hair on top of Kyle's head, pulling it back and sideways and left to right, until the short bristles stand straight up. Kyle is surprised to see the clippers brought out again, as Nick starts another pass over his head and then another. Kyle's ears blush at the amount of attention being paid to him. With Nick cutting the flattop, and with O'Halloran watching the whole process with focused intensity.

Kyle rears back a little at the blast of cold hairspray across what is now his nearly naked scalp. Nick returns with the brush, pushing though Kyle's new flattop countless times until he's satisfied. The scissors are brought out but only to fix minor mistakes. Any hair not perfectly squared away is snipped off.

Nick: "There we go. A high and tight flattop."

He turns the chair toward the mirror with a nod to O'Halloran.

Nick: "And a pretty great one, if I do say so myself."

O'Halloran walks up and lets out a small whistle. He can see in the reflection that Kyle is thunderstruck, having gone from long shaggy hair to one of the shortest, squarest, most military haircuts possible. He runs his hands over the skin on the sides of his head, across the sharp flat plane on top, dumbfounded. But O'Halloran smiles with electric confidence.  

The honed edges of the flattop make Kyle's already angular face even more extreme. It emphasizes his cheekbones and makes his shoulders and neck look more defined. His whole face becomes more set in, carved out of stone. Looking every bit the squared-away soldier O'Halloran will mold him into. He's made his mark. This is the new Kyle.

A pair of Army-branded sport sunglasses are snapped onto Kyle's face, as O'Halloran slides his own on and levels his face next to Kyle's in the mirror, their flattops standing at matching angles.

O'Halloran: "You were born to wear this cut, son."

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