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The International Writers Magazine
: Dreamscapes fiction about a barbershop

Barbershop Conversation
David Tavernier

The door chimes, and a moderately tall man, with brown hair streaked by a tinge of blonde releases the door handle and walks across the barbershop to one of the two empty, black chairs beside the mirrors. The chime plays again as the door swings shut, and out comes a graying man from an opening at the rear of the barbershop, probably his quarters. He is getting on in his years, but, by his movements, any observer could surmise his effortless skill with the scissors and comb. He looks out the door, as if expecting another customer to fill the other empty seat, and, finding nothing more than passing streetcars, asks his new guest, "How you doin'? What'll it be today. Have anything in mind?"

Pausing, the other man answers with doubt, "I'm not sure."
"Comon. You must've come in here with somethin' in mind. I can do a president if you like. Teddy Roosevelt?"
"Nah, I'm not in the mood for anything special. It's just getting long and curly at the ends, around the neck and ears. Trim it up, spick and span."
"No particular style in mind?"
"No, in fact, if you want to hear a little personal truth, I've never once had a haircut I liked."
"Then you've come to the right barbershop my friend because I've never given a dislikable haircut."
"Well," the customer laughs, "you've got a challenge today, because ever since I was a boy, after walking out of the shop, I'd shake my head into a tangle. I think I had something against symmetry, or conspicuous asymmetry. I didn't like the way it was parted down the middle, or a little to the side. I didn't like the way all the hairs fell cleanly together, their ends in square clumps. Everything was too crisp and even for me, so I scrambled my hands through my hair until there was at least the illusion of random."
"So you want something... a little off the wall?"
"No, not at all. Weren't you listening? I just don't want any symmetry in the dew. If you cut something on one side, make sure to cut the hairs differently -- at least a little bit differently -- on the other."

The barber shakes his head behind the man, visibly confounded by his customer's unusual request. He begins by sweeping off the floor around his customer, and then, pulling a green smock from the back of the other chair, drapes it over him, buttoning it around his neck.
"I always hated these things too, how they chafed around the neck."
"It sounds like you hated an awful lot of things when you were a boy."
The customer shakes his head as well as he can, tight as it is in the collar of the smock, "No, I think I may have loved a good deal of things too, but... it must be... that I remember the worst the clearest. Or at least right now I do."

The barber turns a pair of suspicious eyes on his customer as he readies his tools. He washes off a comb in the counter sink and a pair of scissors as well. He seems to want to cut off the conversation because it is getting too weird, but his customer, given the chance to speak, seems to want to pour some problem on the barber's shoulders that he is as yet unaware of. As the barber begins his task by combing his hair back and snipping off some uneven ends, the customer decides to rekindle the conversation.
"Of course, as things become less muddled, I'm sure that what I love will come back to me. Right now... things seem very dark... but -- I hope -- with time, eventually everything I lost will come back to me."
The barbershop pretends to concentrate on his work. But the customer, taking his silence as a license to continue speaking, decides to have a little monologue with the barber listening in, as if he were his psychologist.
"Every morning I wake up, and look out the window, and the world seems more vivid. Have you ever thought about what would happen if you lost all your memories? Amnesia... is what they call it... I guess. Have you given much thought to amnesia? No? I wake up, and I look at my face in the mirror, and every morning I re-discover something about myself that I hadn't known for three whole years. Like -- look here -- this scar."

The barber pretends to look, but continues cutting his hair, wanting to have the customer out as soon as possible.

"This morning I looked into my face -- and suddenly noticed it -- and it was like an epiphany, like I'd discovered America on my right cheek. Look! I said to myself. Look at that scar! And it was the first time I'd really looked at it in three years, because, this morning, I finally remembered that when I was seventeen I had very bad acne. And that I picked at the pimples some days, after school, in the mirror. And that that scar was the result of a very bad cyst under the skin that I poked and prodded until..."
"Hey. I ain't paid to hear this kind of stuff. Lunchtime's in about twenty minutes. I don't want to be thinking about anything like that while I'm eating my roast beef on rye in back. Yah understand?"
The customer looks put off, and replies despondently, "Yes... I sometimes become carried away with reliving the past. But... it's hard... if you'd only imagine what it would be like to lose them all... maybe you could understand just how hard it is... especially because everyone you know is gone, now that you remember them well enough to know them..."

The barbers stops cutting his hair, and looks angrily down, "Look, are you trying to feed me some bullshit or what? I cut hair for ten fifty a dew, and in the order doesn't come any psychologizing or tears of sympathy. I dunno you, just like you dunno me, just like I dunno any of my customers very well. You gotta problem, you tell it to a psychologist. You wanna haircut, you come to me, you sit, and then you pay ten fifty after it's done."
"You were ready enough to respond to me when I just small-talked."
"Yeah, well, I wouldn't have responded if I knew what it was leading up to."
"If I were to talk about the A's, or the Sacramento Kings, what would you say then? You got an opinion on them, and we'd talk the whole way through."
"That's because it's a point of common interest. A conversation is supposed to go both ways, don' yah get it? You don' go in someplace talking about somethin' no one can relate to. Go find a goddam' amnesiac convention or somethin' if you wanna blubber about old memories. And I don' even believe you anyway."
"I don't think there are any 'amnesiac' conventions... besides, I'm a former amnesiac. I'm recovering, so I wouldn't fit in there anyway."
"Yeah, well, you talked more like an amnesiac than any person I know. You're having trouble fitting in anywhere, you gotta settle for the place that fits you."
"No one should have to settle for 'fitting in'! People should build relationships from scratch, because the ones forged on common interests will only sustain as long as they remain. When they disappear, the people part ways, and that's that -- bye bye, see yah. Every day, more memories come back, and I feel different. My interests keep changing because my memories keep getting fuller and fuller. Yesterday I remembered that, when I was seventeen, before... it happened... I loved building model bridges from popsicle sticks. I'd engineer them to hold up under a massive amount of tension. But should I just join a model bridge building club or something? Tomorrow, who knows what comes flashing back into my mind? Aren't there any friends who can share more than common interests, people who just like each other's company for what it is?"
"Are you asking me to be your friend or somethin'? I got news for you: it's a little late to be makin' friends. What you need is a professional."

The both of them freeze -- the barber with the blades of his scissors loosely holding a sheet of hair, and the customer with his hands gripping his chair arms. Bands of sunlight reflected by the passing cars flash from edge to edge of the room. Overhead, a wooden fan slowly revolves, and when a large pickup truck passes, it's brilliant white coat of paint reflecting a luminous wall, the shadows of the blades flutter for a moment in the doorway at the rear of the room where the barber's roast beef on rye awaits.
"Do you want to hear a little story?" the customer asks.
"Why not?," the barber replies gruffly, "As long as it ain't a pimple popping story, or anything else'll make me sick while I eat my lunch."
"Don't worry about that... I have many stories in this head..." the customer laughs, "In fact -- if anything -- I owe my profession to memory loss -- but that's beside the point, I'll begin now. Here goes.
"Picture the Grand Canyon. You've been?"
"No. I haven't been. Do I look like I got the wages to get out of here often? I got better things to do than go to some dusty canyon river anyway."
"Well it's an astounding view, one whose impression never fades -- even in the haziest hours. I'll describe it for you a little... but here, no more interruptions...
" First you come up a tall road through the dry hills -- on a jolty tour bus, or maybe in an old station wagon with the kids gabbling and fighting in the back seat, and the missus beside you. Or maybe you're a lonely fellow who came in a car all by himself on a solo road trip from California. When you crest the hill, you'll come upon a small visitor's center with a lookout gallery, gift shop, restaurant, and bathroom. There's a dancing square across from the visitor's center, and sometimes Native Americans, paid to perform, will dance around on it, in rings, in squares, in lines, singing a festive tribal song to the pounding of drums. But this is all uninteresting. You ignore these. They're all superfluous minor diversions, because ahead, you can feel something massive looming over the gravelly concrete path. Over the horizon awaits something more beautiful than the sun itself, though only because of its rarity. As you walk amidst the jiving bodies of tourists, clothed in baseball caps, t-shirts, and rubber flip-flops, slowly the infinite stratified bands of varying reds, browns, tans, auburns, maroons... the other wall of the sheer cliff, a blur from a mile away, will appear as a massive painter's canvas, streaked with every color possible in the first quadrant of the spectrum of visible light.
"The concrete path, streaming with tourists licking ice cream cones and sipping lemonade, winds its way all around the canyon, and you can see the trickle of pedestrians on the other side, like little ants, pausing with hands extended, cameras flipping through reels, binoculars following some bird or some crack in the gigantic ravine.
"You decide to walk for awhile. You're kind of reclusive, and you want to find a lonely spot away from all of the children screaming and crying. You quicken your pace as you hear an older man lecturing a group of students on the geology of the canyon. Following the metal guard rail, you weave your way through bodies as the scalding sun beats hotly down on your blue cap. There is seemingly no spot within ten meters of the gorge free from a family posing for a mantle photograph, free from a couple kissing and giggling -- almost oblivious to the view -- free from foreign students bantering in their foreign language, free from groups of buddies -- sober, but drunk on fun -- daring each other to step over the guard rail.
"So you continue walking, searching for a place where the crowd thins and the reigning sound is the susurrus of tree leaves, and the cry of vultures circling in the cloudless sky.
"Just as you come to a rest, looking at a fairly empty portion of the path with only the company of a man leaning against the guard rail taking photographs, a hot gust of wind blows your cap from your head. Annoyed, because for all it took to get away from the people, nature couldn't leave you alone, you stomp over to your cap and pick it up off the ground. But something startling happens. As you reach for your cap, you notice a cry. The man on the railing must have dropped his camera, because he is leaning far out over the rail. His hands claw at the air. Your blood surges with adrenaline and you hair stands on end, and you get a pit in your stomach. He is going to fall.
"Tripping, stumbling, he wheels over the rail before you have time to say or do anything, and you picture his broken death on the rocks below. But one of his hands grasps the cliff edge, and another fiercely flies up over the rock to grip it, shakily, with fingernails.
'Help,' he cries out to you, and you look around immediately for help. You're afraid of grabbing his hands. He might pull you down, so you search for someone else to share the burden with. Suddenly you notice another tourist in a tacky Hawaiian shirt, loosely buttoned, running over from a short ways down the path. He's sweating profusely, and his gut protrudes under his white undershirt.
'Grab him!' the man yells at you, running. 'Get his arms and I'll get your back.'
"But you're nervous. You don't know the man and you don't know if he's trustworthy. Although he looks to weigh as much as a whale, you imagine that even between the two of you, your combined weight might not be enough -- you might, all three, fall together! -- so you quickly blurt out a stuttering reply.
'You grab him first! I'll take hold of your waist with my arms, and you get him!'
"It looks as if for once in his life, the chubby man in the Hawaiian shirt is thankful for his greater girth, because he shouts hastily in response, 'Your waist is much smaller and I'll have an easier time holding onto you. I'll circle my arms around your waste, and you grab him. You don't let go, and I won't let go, and we'll have him up in no time! Now move! Get his arms! I've got your waste!'
"The fat man circles around you, trying to get behind you, but you turn to face him.
'Your hands are larger, and you'll have a much easier time holding onto his. You can get a better grip. You'd better grab him. My hands are sweaty and small, and he might slip off and fall down to his death. Do you want to be responsible for his death? Here, stop moving, let me get behind you. I'll--'
'No you don't! You let me take hold of you now or he's dead! Why the hell don't you see reason and stop arguing?'
'There's no sense in one, or even two of us dying because you're too thick to understand simple logic.'
'Logical when the man is about to fall?'
'Act quickly, but first act smartly! Never act prematurely or you'll botch the job anyway!'
"You turn your back on the other man and he tries to grab you, but you dash away. Running, you holler back at the man, 'I'm going for the Ranger's. I'll get a professional. You stay with him, or you can just go to hell!'
"The other man screams back at you, huffing and puffing, 'There's a time to wait and a time to act! You see? He's already fallen you nincompoop!'

The atmosphere in the barbershop clears. The air seems thinner. The customer lets out a deep sigh after finishing his tale, and the barber stops cutting, looking thoughtfully down at the man who he'd only met fifteen minutes ago.
"You tryin' to tell me somethin'?"
"It's just a story. You can take whatever you want from it."
"So the guy died and the two of them didn' do squat?"
"There's a reason we have professionals, psychologists for hire. It's because of selfishness. Nobody wants to hear anything if it spells his boredom or disgust, just like nobody wants to take the hand of a dying man if it might spell his own doom."
"Where'd you come up with that story man? You just make that up right now?"
"Right now."
"How do you do it?"
"Well... in the muddle... it was like I had nothing... like all there was in my head was a void... so I had to fill it with something. I filled it with those... new memories made from random things I saw, heard, and read about."
"You know," the barber scratches his head musingly, "I don't make too many friends I can talk about random things with in this business," and he finishes the final touches on his customer's haircut, "You wanna join me for lunch and exchange stories?"
"Yeah, sure," the customer gets up from the chair after the barber dusts off his neck. "How much will it be?"
"Ten fifty."
The exchange is brief, and then they walk across the checkered floor to the door at the rear of the room as the scattered beams of light reflected by the passing cars flood the walls and mirror with a random flurry.
"You know," echoes the barber's voice from the back room, "any time you wanna come down and get a haircut and tell a story over lunch again is fine by me."
© David Tavernier November 2004
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