Note From a Clean Young Man

the front wall of the store is not a wall at all, it is a window – one big window – and the letters on the store window are like ones i put on my science fair exhibits: big, plastic letters that you try to align to an imaginary line and they always end up crooked. with those crooked, badly spaced white letters with his big window reads, ‘HAIRCUTS $12,’ and in small letters, ‘veterans $8 tuesday.’ for some reason i always get excited when i see the $8. then i realize it is only on tuesdays. then i realize it is only for veterans.

i drive up one sunny afternoon and see his feet kicked up on his desk, his hands cradled behind his head. i park, kick up some autumn leaves as i get up on the sidewalk and open the door. the dog ears and ruffled edges of maybe 20 magazines lay in a big pile in one corner, a couple chairs line up against the wall, a big wooden desk sits against the other wall and two soft green swivel chairs are in the center of the room.

we do our little dance: “yes sir how you been sir take seat please.” and i smile, carefully place my wallet and keys on his counter and take a seat. he is a short chinese man with tiny eyes and large glasses. lenses like hockey pucks. he wears loose fitting shirts, buttoned down, absurdly colored, and casual pants. i’ve noticed he moves like he has a disc for a torso – he gyrates – and his arms seem to move only from the elbow to the hand. he always says, ‘how you like cut today?’ and however you answer he says ‘yes very good sir…shorter better.’ it does not matter if you say you want your hair shorter or not, he just says that. everytime. if i were to say, ‘don’t touch my hair man, just let me sit down and i’ll pay you $12 for 20 minutes of some sweet R and R,’ he would certainly say, ‘yes sir shorter better.’ when he says ‘better’ his voice raises as if he were conveying some deep philosophical truth. maybe he is. when he cuts your hair he raises his eyes and anytime you say a word a little smile creeps on his face.

i keep looking at the clock. i have to be out of here by 4:45 and it’s 4:35.

i ask him to trim my beard. “yes sir.” on the board it says ‘beard trim $4’ and i wonder if he’ll charge me the four bucks.

he cuts my hairline straight across unless i ask for the natural hairline to be followed. this time i forgot to ask. then he takes all my hair up in a big yellow comb and cuts straight across the teeth of the comb. he does this and repeats until all the hair is flat. “how you like now sir? very nice. o.k.” and he brushes the hair off my shoulders, takes off the black body cover and says “okay,” his voice rising. i say it is okay.

i get up and then remember – the head massage. i make these strange motions with my hands as if trying to sculpt a skull in the air ahead of me and say “will you do the? yes?!” he smiles and lights up and i sit down and bow my head. “thank you, okay,” i mutter. he places his hands firmly on my scalp and begins to manipulate it. a whirlwind of motion taking the flesh together and apart, firm pressure on the bone and then butterflies dancing on the skin. he moves back and forth from my brow to that straight-across hairline at the back of my head. i dissolve in his hands. i simply melt away. his hands flutter to stillness, cup around my ears and hold there very steady. i am in the thick green armchair. still, i have friends i have never been this quiet with, this close.

i look outside at the Fall day. the air is light gray, but in spots the sun seeps through, a soft autumn day in which leaves fall without a roar, people walk, breathing comfortably the cool air, their dogs even panting. i look out through the wall of glass between us and the outside world which actors call the 4th wall: an invisible baracade between the stage and the audience. i would think the goal of theater would be to unite actor and observer, to create the most believable lie, to break down that 4th wall, to get that moment where actor and observer are one.

i smile and am still; the sun shines and is still.

slowly his hands drift down my neck and he pauses before the same high-pitched voice returns, “o.k. sir thank you.” i stutter out half a sentence – “where did you learn.” the words trudge out of my mouth, falling over each other like people do when they fall: in slow motion, seeing idiocy, the inevitable, powerless. i’ve been meaning to ask him this for about a year and now it comes out like the first pitiful yawn of a bear after hibernation. brilliant. i look at his vague, uncomprehending smile, then i try again, slowly saying, “where did you learn that massage technique?”

he rails off something very fast and i cannot make it out. i know he said the name of the technique, where he learned it and i can barely make out a little story: He used to work at Supercuts and would do the massage on customers but his boss got mad at him saying ‘time money time money’ and he stopped but now he has his own place and if people want to, and have the time, he loves to give that massage. after all people do pay him money. he charged me $12, i gave him a tip and went to my appointment.