Alex stood outside the door to the barber shop, took a deep breath, and walked in.
He was dreading this. It had been four months since he’d been in. He was beyond shaggy and hated it. But he couldn’t bring himself to do much of anything since.… Especially getting his hair cut.
This was gonna be hard. Very hard. But tonight he promised that he’d go back to work and he needed to clean up. They’d been more than understanding, giving him much longer leave than anyone would ever be entitled to and expect to still have a job. So when he looked in the mirror this morning and saw a wild man staring back, he knew he couldn’t go in looking as he did. He walked across the shop feeling outside himself, as if he were watching the scene from outside his body.
“Good to see ya, man.”
It starts. Navigating any one of several dreadful moments: 1) Keeping himself together when those who know express their sympathy; or 2) not flying off in a rage at those who know and ignore the gaping hole of loss in his life, saying nothing; or 3) that moment when he’d have to choose to share that he’d lost his grandfather and best friend when an unknowing acquaintance asks where he’s been or what he’s been up to. An emotional lose, lose, lose anyway you cut it. I should have gone to Kwik Kutz.
Alex just nodded with a “Hey, man,” took his phone out of his pocket and had a seat to wait for his turn in Ray’s chair. By himself. The silence lasted forever. The camaraderie and silliness that he associated with this place was gone. The missing interminable. The hush in the shop that accompanied his entrance did nothing to help. Alex’s pulse throbbed in his head. He forgot to breathe. His vision was telescoping. He was about to leave when —
“Alex, you’re up,” Ray slapped the back of his chair.
He took a deep breath to clear his head and sat awkwardly in the barber’s chair. Hold it together, he thought to himself. Ray spun him to face the mirror, pulled the crinkles out of a neck strip, wrapped it around his neck, then smocked him with his usual flair. Ray stood behind the chair, hands on Alex’s shoulders and spoke to him via the mirror. “It’s been a while, Shaggy. What’re we doing today?”
“Just do the usual. High and tight. Start with a zero.”
Ray nodded, gave Alex’s shoulders a tap, and reached over to his counter to pick up his clippers. The long wavy curls fell away. Most of the haircut proceeded in silence. Alex always appreciated Ray’s ability to pick up on his mood and talk or not talk accordingly. As a bartender, Alex knew this was a skill that required a keen sensitivity, an ability to read all the hundreds of nonverbal cues people throw off without even knowing it. So really, he shouldn’t have been surprised by Ray’s reticence. Even though he wasn’t talking, Alex was screaming.
There was something biblical happening to his mourning. The reflection of his shorn head in the mirror overlaid his hollowed out sadness. He felt as flat and two-dimensional as his image. Where was the ash and sackcloth?
Then the anger hit. Dreaded Moment #2. How many times had this mark cut Papa Lou’s hair? He had nothing to say? He negated Papa’s very existence by not acknowledging he’s gone. How dare life go on as usual when this amazing light of a soul has left us! Alex simmered as Ray buzzed, cut, and trimmed in silence. The haircut nearly over, Alex was about to boil over when….
“Hey man, I’m real sorry to hear about your grandfather.” Like taking a boiling pot off the stove, the roil of Alex’s anger collapsed, millimeters from the rim. “You two were close.” It was a statement.
“Best friends,” Alex squeezed out.
“That’s rough,” he said. Ray was making this moment easier. No questions. No reminiscences. No sympathetic talk about the losses in his own life. Just a couple statements of the obvious and spaces for silence. Because with this kind of loss there are no words.
In respectful quiet, Ray practically caressed Alex’s face with the talc brush. He removed the smock and neck paper and shaved his neck. Then he gave the hand mirror to Alex and spun the chair around. Alex looked at the back of his head in the wall mirror behind him and nodded.
Via the mirror Ray looked Alex in the eye and said, “I’m keeping you both in my thoughts. We all are,” as he nodded towards the other barbers.
Alex lowered the hand mirror into Ray’s waiting hand and as his eyes focused on the waiting area, he caught his breath. Right in front of him sat a gentleman in his mid-seventies. Short, stocky, round, distinguished. A head full of silver-white hair with a gentle wave through it. The spitting image of Papa Lou, looking right at him. He winked at Alex with the friendly wink of barber shop fellowship.