I’m a barber running my own hole-in-the wall shop. On one side of me is a deli, on the other a Laundromat. Down the street are a bar and a new funeral home. I do the old hairstyles: the Caligula, the Sal Mineo, the “Kookie” Burns. I don’t get many customers anymore. Never did, and I mainly live off a war wound. If I were smarter I’d think of a way out. But I’m not very smart. I made it to sixth grade. I have a low IQ. Turn left at the peak in the bell curve and go down a standard deviation or so, and there you’ll find me: 85 on the Wechsler scale and 83 on the Stanford-Binet. I’m the imbecile behind the waxed mustache, hoping his sartorial signature is not irremissibly louche.
When a customer comes in, he’s usually a drunk from the bar down the block. I tip him back in my worn leather chair and let him relax. If he wants to start a conversation, I let him do the talking. If I talk at all, I steer clear of the unholy duo of divisiveness: sports and weather. I prefer the safer topics: Darwinism and religion, affirmative action as it affects race relations, and the threat pluralism poses to moral universalism. When my customer is good and relaxed, I open its case and break out my billion-dollar Stradivarius. That’s what I call my old set of electric clippers. It’s a standing joke in my establishment and often draws a laugh, at least if the customer hasn’t heard it too often. Most of my customers have heard the joke too many times and now pretend to be deaf.
Sometimes a customer will ask me why I don’t update my place. They like the new hairstyling spot down the block. This establishment just opened, and would take all my business if I had any. It’s run by a family of foreigners, probably Asians or Mexicans. They may not even be legal, but they get no trouble from the town, so they maybe paid somebody off. What kills me is their son. He’s the same age as mine, 13, but he does women’s pedicures in their shop. That slays me. A 13-year-old boy in a blue smock and earrings kneeling before middle-aged women to scrape their heels and paint their toes. Does a good job too. My wife got a pedicure from him that took 20 years off her feet. I understand this may be part of their family tradition, but it’s just wrong. What will that do to the boy’s manhood? He should be giving himself tattoos with a charred needle and buzzing gang names in his scalp like my boy. My boy’s on thin ice at school, but his manhood isn’t in doubt. He’s gender-normative for a kid born with testicles. Meanwhile my wife left me. I guess she wanted a man with young feet like hers.
She’ll be sorry she left. What I mean is, my career may finally be taking off. Out of curiosity one day I dropped in at the new funeral home they built near my shop, Bottom-Rate Burials. They had an ad in their window for a mortician’s cosmetologist. I went in and applied, told two men about my hair and skin expertise. They asked how I’d feel about tidying up men who were covered with blood and powder burns after testing explosives back in the woods. I said I didn’t see a problem, I did drunks in my shop who came in bloody with knife wounds and with liquor and puke all over them all the time. By the time I was done with them, they were presentable enough to be burned or buried easy, especially if you put a shroud over them. The men laughed and clapped me on the back. They told me they’d call if they decided to detonate the explosives.
They didn’t call, so I called them. Joe, one of the guys I’d talked to before, told me the explosions were on hold, and they’d decided to go on fronting as a cost-cutting cremation and burying service. If I was interested, I could do the sprucing up of the stiffs until they hired a mortician. I said I had no experience with embalming or makeup, but Joe said if I did haircuts and shaves and maybe manicures if the nails were grimy, they’d provide cheap new suits, and that would be sufficient. Did he take me for a fool? I said look, my wife used to do nails at my joint, but she was long gone. Shaves and haircuts I could manage, but no one would mistake my manicures for the real thing. Joe disagreed and after listening to him, I saw he was right. My fear of change now looked regressive and any objection quite nugatory.
I start Thursday. If this works out, I’ll be bridging to an elite economic status and joining the vanguard of upward mobility. Eleanor, do you hear me? And one more thing, sugar: any idiot can do nails, so long as the customers grow rigid in the chair and can’t open their stupid yaps.