They never remembered me, even after I’d been going there for two years, which meant I got asked the same questions each visit. Did I have the day off from work? Did I live nearby? Both had hearing loss, so I had to shout all my answers, often twice. Both smoked, and their hands smelled acrid and sour from their last cigarette. Jackie, who was eighty-three, used an electric shears and finished with my eyebrows, getting those stray hairs that seem to jump up out of nowhere. “You’ve got some nice hair, there,” she commented, every time. Her voice sounded like it had been packed in salt and stored in the sun. I guessed Ray was in his late-70s; he used scissors and only deployed clippers at the very end to clean up the neckline. Sixteen bucks. I gave them a twenty and said keep the change. There was a third barber, too, the owner, but he only worked if Ray and Jackie both had people in chairs. Otherwise, he watched the TV. For a long time, before I figured it out, I just thought he was a friend of theirs who had nothing better to do than spend his days in a barbershop.
The shop itself was old, with a dusty assortment of bobble-head dolls lined up in the window and a portrait of Ronald Reagan on the west wall, just inside the door. A wall-mounted TV played constantly, tuned to a channel that seemed like a portal to the past; it showed nothing but black and white movies, the kind of b-list cowboy fare I associated with sick days at home when I was a kid and had to watch whatever was on the three channels we could get on our ancient Zenith. They also had a signed photo of Johnny Unitas when he was a young Colt, and another of Art Donovan. The red and white striped wallpaper was peeling in places.
Then one morning I went in for a haircut and my two elderly barbers were absent. In their place was a big guy about my own age—which is to say pushing sixty—wearing a yellow bowling-style shirt. He had a ponytail and a beer gut and densely tattooed arms.
“Help you?” he asked me when I came in. There was something aggressive about the way he said it, as if I might have come in with another, more nefarious purpose.
“Haircut?” It seemed like a dumb thing to have to say. They weren’t serving lunch.
“We can do that.” He motioned me toward what I thought of as Ray’s chair. “Have a seat.”
This new guy used scissors. I long ago gave up on asking for specific things from barbers. I’d rather trust them. I don’t believe we know what we look like, anyway—only other people know that. In the same way that I don’t believe what my voice sounds like played back to me on a tape recorder, I don’t like seeing myself in mirrors.
It came out that this was his first day. “Yeah, I was out of work quite a while, and when I was ready to come back, my old place wouldn’t rehire me. Luckily, Stan had an opening.” He nodded toward the owner, who was seated in his usual spot, watching Gunsmoke.
I felt some responsibility to make him welcome—he was the outsider. I asked him about why he’d been out of work.
“Lost my sight,” he said.
“I was completely blind for a year.”
As near as I could tell, he could see now. I certainly hoped so. His hands moved about my head, lifting, snipping. I considered making a joke about how my former barbers here had all been deaf and now my new one was blind, but decided he might not think this was funny. Also, what had happened with Ray and Jackie? I asked him why he’d been blind and he told me someone had hit him from behind with a two-by-four.
“Messed up my optic nerve. They told me that was it, I’d never see again. It was depressing. My wife left me. I couldn’t work. I had a new furniture set, and that got repossessed. I’d sit and listen to the radio and feel sorry for myself.”
“That’s rough,” I said.
“But then I found this doctor, Scharfstein. He says to me, ‘Matt, I’m going to treat you. I can bring that eyesight back. Eighty-percent, guaranteed, one-hundred, quite likely. And it won’t cost you anything. And you know why? Because you are going to make me rich.’ See, he’s got this new procedure. I’m one of only three people ever to undergo it. And I’m here to tell you, it works. This is after I spent $200,000 with Johns Hopkins, too, and had nothing come of it.”
He didn’t seem to me like someone with $200,000 to spend, and I didn’t like the sound of his doctor. He cut my hair. I paid and left. It was a haircut. Not a good one, I could tell, but it only cost sixteen bucks.
A few weeks later, I go back, thinking maybe I’ll see Ray or Jackie, but it’s Matt again. He asks me what I want. Again, I have to say the actual word: haircut. He has no memory of me, but there’s no reason he should, after all, he did get hit in the head with a two-by-four. Stan is there, on one of the chairs in the waiting area, watching Andy Griffith.
I get the whole story again. The two-by-four, the lost vision, the miracle doctor, how his old shop gave away his chair. “I can’t get my old customers to come here,” he says. “I think it’s the parking. A lot of them, they don’t want to deal with the street parking.” He hot lathers my neck, scrapes it clean.