When Vern Lundquist, our local barber, answers the rotary black dial-up phone that sits on his hair infested counter below the cut mirror in his barbershop, and says in his deep serial-killer voice, “Vern’s Barbershop,” I say, “cut me!” Like Bones did in that one episode of Star Trek, when he got shot and Captain Kirk had to do some emergency surgery on him. Then, when Vern hears it’s me, he says something like, “okay,” or “now,” or maybe “twenty minutes.”
But this morning, it wasn’t Vern who answered the phone. It was Karl, Vern’s retired barber assistant. Karl comes in now and then when Vern gets too busy, or goes on a vacation. Apparently, Vern was on another junket down to Branson, Missouri with his new girlfriend, soon to be wife, Patsy. Vern was a pretty big gambler, truth be told. He’d go up to the casinos on the Indian reservation and think nothing of dropping a grand on the slots. But this was my Saturday for the cut, so I made the deal with Karl and snuck out of the house.
When I got to the barbershop, Karl was working on another middle aged man in jeans, tennis shoes, and a Green Bay Packer sweatshirt. So, I snagged a Sports Illustrated, and took a seat in one of the old chrome waiting room chairs. I actually enjoy a short wait at Vern’s. It gives me a chance to catch up on what’s happening in the big leagues. I had just settled in and was staring at an ad for the upcoming Swim Suit edition, when this older guy comes in through the back storage room door and makes his way over and stands by Vern’s chair. At first I thought he was just another old guy in for the Saturday cut, but then after a pause where he sizes me up, he says loudly, “well, you wanna a hair cut, or not?” I hesitated for a moment and looked over at Karl. He nodded his consent, so I picked myself up and headed back to the chair.
His name was Bob. We shook hands and he looked away at the last moment when we made eye contact – like he was searching for something – which he was. Apparently, I was his first cut of the day, maybe the year. Bob, like Karl, filled in as a semi-retired barber. He was getting pretty long in the tooth, as they say. I could see he was wearing a hearing aide, and I don’t think he had it turned up loud enough. He kept talking loudly. “Okay,” he’d say, “how you want it cut?” Then he’d turn and fumble through an old gym bag, looking for something.
He spun me around in the chair a couple times just to get used to it. Vern kept his old chair well greased for easy spinning. I had to grab on the first time around to keep from falling out of it. Then he tried lowering it, unsuccessfully. Karl chimed in with some complaints about Vern and the old equipment in the place – like it was stuck in some time-warp from a couple of presidential elections back. He said he had an election poster for Eisenhower still pinned above the toilet in the storage room.
Bob kept fumbling around behind me for the switch to the old blower, the plug for his vintage set of clippers, and getting himself situated for the job. He was starting to freak me out a little. I’m sitting in an old blue fake leather barber chair with duct tape running down the middle of it, with this old guy Bob talking real loud behind me, who’s about to have his way with my head of hair.
I’m trying to keep my cool with it, but the full irony of the situation begins to come shining through the place with the morning sun pouring in through the front dusty shutters onto the faded brown plaid carpet. I catch myself in a full frontal blank stare, getting lost in the reflection of the sun off the stainless legs of the old naugahyde chairs as Bob grabs my left shoulder and begins running the whirring clippers up the back of my head. I surrender myself, as all middle aged men must do, to the barbering Gods, and will surely suffer the fate of it.
So, while Bob’s buzzing off my identity, Karl finishes up with his first victim of the day, and he decides to do a little housecleaning. He grumbles the whole time about what a slob Ol’ Vern is, and if he’d just fix this, or do that; and what about this Toys For Tots barrel – and he gives the big pink fifty-five gallon drum with only a few toys in it a kick with his size thirteen well worn wing tip, then swings it a little tighter to the corner. He shakes his head, stands up straight, leans back and puts his hands behind his hips. Karl’s a big man with plow like features and has a conservative small town Midwestern attitude towards most things. He says, “whewph, whatta mess.” Then he bends back down to put his golden touch to the brown paper grocery bag that’s overflowing with old magazines. “You want any of these,” he says. He creaks down on his haunches to paw through the stack. “How about it,” he says, “these are freebies.” He pulls out a Men’s Health, “here ya go.” He tosses it over by the chair. Bob stops his cutting and shuffles out from behind to take a better look.
Now, I’m starting to feel trapped in a barbershop hell. I’m stuck in the chair at the far back corner of the shop with half a head of hair left to go, with these two old farts rummaging around on the filthy floor, paging through old magazines. “You got the Swim Suit edition in there,” Bob says raising his bushy eyebrows. “No,” Karl laughs. “I’m pretty sure Ol’ Vern wouldn’t be tossing out the Swim Suit edition. He’s got that tucked under his desk somewhere.”
When Karl tries to restuff the bag, it begins to tear a little on the corner as he pulls himself back up off the floor. Bob sees this and starts to say, “Ahhh!,” then the whole bag rips open and all the magazines spill out onto the filthy floor. Bob shuffles back behind me, and Karl braces himself for the final ascent with one hand on his knee, while letting go of the bag with his other. It all goes to hell in a hand basket. “Ah crap,” he says, putting his hands behind his back to stretch back up to a full stand. Karl’s about had it with this whole morning. “Son of a bitch,” he says. “Why the hell does Vern keep these damn’d things anyway?” He tosses the Men’s Health he’d been holding in his hand as a possible take home for himself out onto the rest of the pile.
Just then Judy Gunderson, the acting Mayor, opens the front door, making the little bell Vern had wired to the ceiling jingle. She has the posters for the upcoming Fourth of July Dog Sled Pull & Bar-B-Q Competition in her arms. “Where’s Vern?” She says, looking over the situation with a curious eye. Karl lets out a sigh, “we think maybe Branson, or up on the Indian Reservation – we don’t know exactly. He’s out there somewhere gambling his money away.”
“What happened here?” She nods at the floor and the mess of magazines. Bob lets out a soft wail from behind me, and Karl says, “ah, just trying to be nice guy, n’ help clean this Ol’ dump up.”
Judy pulls one of the posters off the top of her pile and engineers it into the front window. She has to displace Vern’s schedule of hours to fit it in alongside the dusty bowling trophies and bobble headed dolls he has stuffed on the ledge. She turns one more time as she heads back out the door. “You boys be careful in here. We don’t want anybody getting hurt on what looks to be another beautiful day in paradise.” She pauses before stepping back out onto the sidewalk, to let a young mother jogging behind her baby stroller go whizzing past, then heads west down the street.
I stare out the front window while Karl goes back to his clean up job. The cars are going by on Washington Avenue. The movie theater across the street is playing the new war movie by Spielberg. I can see just part of the poster, but not the title. A soldier is carrying his wounded buddy off the battlefield. I glaze over and zone out. I can hear Bob and Karl bantering conversation back and forth, but it’s like a dripping faucet off in some other room. The morning sun through the front window is magnifying every speck of dust. There’s a terrific reflection off the blue and chrome fleck of the old barber chairs. It bounces off the back wall of mirrors and throws up shimmering ghosts onto stained and faded ceiling tiles. Out front, the old paint chipped spinning barber poll seems to slow almost to a stop and I’m welded to the chair with the apron, the sound of the vintage clippers, and the white hairs that tumble off my eyelids like tiny snowflakes.
R.M. Hunt: I am a husband, father of two, grandfather of two, and a lover, a fighter and a wild bull rider. That last part is mostly now when I’m playing with Henry and Sullivan – my 5 and 3 year old grandsons. They’re helping to keep me young.
A routine haircut quickly becomes an unexpected fiasco when a substitute barber takes off more than was asked for. As the narrator of the story loses his hair, he undergoes an emotional awakening. By the end, his heart seems enlarged by the view through the barber’s window and the soft snow of his own hair falling before his eyes. A resonant epiphany.
– David McGlynn