Fiction by Rosette Evans
I admit to not being altogether rational about hair. Just last week I was talking to Lynn, a lifelong friend who retired to Arizona. Every time I speak to her she tries to convince me to move. I always say I could never live in a place where no one knows how to cut my hair. She gets that I’m concerned about life in a small town with few if any black people. But it’s telling that I distill my reservations down into a statement about haircuts.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that no matter where I live in New York City, I take the Number Two train to White Plains Road to get my hair cut by the same Jamaican barber. Beauticians who can be trusted to cut short kinky hair often charge a fortune and still don’t get it right. So I go where I almost always get a good haircut. On the rare occasions I don’t, I can’t complain. I’m only out fifteen dollars.
It’s uncomfortable to be the only woman in a waiting area crowded with men so I try to guess when the shop will be deserted and go then. Rainy days are usually a good bet, but this time my hair looked bad enough I couldn’t bear to wait another day. So I set out on a sunny day with no precipitation in the forecast.
As a result, when it started to pour as I got off the train, I didn’t have an umbrella. My barber’s shop is almost exactly halfway between subway stops, a nice walk in good weather but daunting in a downpour. I was beginning to resign myself to getting soaked when I spotted a place I had never noticed before. It was tiny, taking up only half a storefront. I didn’t stop to think; I was getting soaked and here was a dry place.
A bell on the door sounded as I darted inside. It was like stepping back in time. There were two stations but only one barber; both were antiques. The barber was a small man whose raisin-colored skin formed a striking contrast to his glistening silver hair. The styling chairs, upholstered in tufted aubergine leather, had white porcelain bases and arms as well as fancy carved metal footrests. There was even an odd-looking contraption I guessed was a strap sharpener. Unlike most barbershops, there was no television, only an old fashioned radio playing Afro-Caribbean jazz.
The downpour hissed against the pavement and sheeted on the window like a curtain.
The barber stood as I came in and picked up the drape, ready to cover me.
“Step in out of the weather. Take your time, hang that wet jacket on the rack.”
I expected to hear the islands in his voice, but this man had an American Yankee accent. I toyed with the idea of leaving. But any idiot could see I needed a haircut. What was I going to do, tell the guy I came in to wait out the storm then leave and get my hair cut at a shop up the street? What the heck. My regular guy was becoming a prima donna. He had a huge following so there was almost always a wait. When the line was long he didn’t spend as much time with each customer and I was not as happy as I had been with my haircuts. Why not try this guy? It was only hair and it would grow back. Live dangerously; it’s not Arizona. Besides, a barber’s own hair gives hints about his skill and this guy’s hair was beautifully cut, perfectly shaped, and meticulously groomed.
When I was settled in the chair and covered with the cape, I launched into my usual litany of instructions. “Do NOT cut it short, shape the hairline in the back but don’t touch the front, don’t cut it too high over the ears or I’ll look like a fat little boy…”
The old man nodded as he listened politely then said, “Rest easy. I know what you want. A lady’s cut, soft and round.”
He sprayed disinfectant on an Afro pick and started fluffing out my hair. I relaxed a little when I realized he was taking his time with the picking. If you have kinky hair, the secret to a good haircut is not the cutting, it’s the combing. You have to get out all the tangles or the cut won’t be even.
When he was done picking, he took out a wide-toothed comb. “Comb forward or back?” Another reassuring sign: many barbers don’t remember to ask. He was as thorough about combing as picking, raking through the hair again and again with soothing rhythmic strokes. The sensation brought back memories of sitting between my mother’s knees while she braided my hair. It made me feel safe and secure. My eyes began to drift closed.
“That’s better. You tense up in the chair. Don’t care much for barbers?”
“I wouldn’t say that. My father was a barber.”
“And you don’t trust him to cut your hair?”
“He left when I was a child and he died years ago.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
There was a surge in the music from the radio. A saxophone screamed and wailed. The discourse and the music triggered memories of a tiny southern cemetery. The moist air was a weight on my skin. My heels dug holes in red clay soil. A sister stood on either side of me, our shoulders touching as we faced a fresh open grave flanked by a flag-draped casket. We struggled together with heat, humidity, and a bewilderingly intense grief. Why, I wondered, were we so emotional about the death of a man we barely knew and hadn’t seen for twenty years?
When the formalities were finished and we were back in New York, we gathered over drinks. My younger sister, who like me, is endlessly in therapy, thought she had it all figured out. “We weren’t mourning the man, we were mourning the idea. All those years, the kids in us dreamed he would come back, we would have a real father, and he would make everything okay. Now he’s dead, and we have to resign ourselves to reality and let go of the dream.”
My elder sister is a more pragmatic woman. “All this business of dreams and ideas is crap. I vote we feel sorry the SOB dodged responsibility and was never called to account for leaving. If we have to cry, we should cry over how we’ll never get the chance to throw in his face all the appalling things that happen to unprotected poor girl children.”
The buzzing of the clippers recalled my thoughts to the barbershop. The old man had finished combing and picking and was beginning to trim down my hair. Barbers must be like bartenders in that the good ones develop an infallible instinct for when to speak and when to shut up, because he finished with the clippers and started snipping with the scissors without saying a word.
He was as careful and precise with the scissors as with the comb so this step took as long as the others. There was something lulling about the sound of the snipping and I was beginning to doze off when he finally spoke again. We chatted, mostly trivia at first. But the door to memory had opened and I found myself confiding about my father’s struggles with what in those days had been called ‘shell shock.’
The barber took the long way around to his answer but half my mind was still in the past, so that was okay with me.
“I’ve been singing in the choir here lately. Never thought I’d find it so relaxing. One of the sopranos wrote a poem about it. I misremember the exact words, but the gist of it was that when she sang she reached down to the soles of her feet and dragged the sound through her whole body before she poured it out. She could feel the same thing happening in the warm bodies around her when our rib cages lifted, all taking a breath at the same time to make a magic none of us could pull off by ourselves. She said she could come to practice spitting mad, depressed, or inconsolable. No matter what, she left feeling better. I joined because my Pastor said it might help with my PTSD. Damned if he wasn’t right. The way he explained it was this. Said it’s no mistake the bible talks about us being sheep. To thrive we need to be in flocks. We feel better close up together and leaning on one another. When we get hurt, they put us in the middle and stand between us and the wolf.”
The barber snipped away in silence while I considered what he had said. After a while he continued, “Life has taught me there’s no cure for suffering, we just have to endure it. We can do that better if we’re not alone. They told me so at the VA, but they were pushing support groups. Poor man like me feels better in the choir.”
The saxophone sighed the soft intermittent sobs of a child distracted from the discomfort of erupting teeth and now drifting off to sleep. The barber looked a little abashed to be talking poetry with a customer and steered the conversation back to more superficial topics. Finally he gave me the hand mirror to look at the back of my head. It was a great haircut and I told him so with words and tip.
Quality haircuts last a long time so it was a while before I next took the Number Two train to White Plains Road. At first I thought I had walked past the shop and missed it. But no, now there was a perfume store where the shop had been. The neighbors said the old man died. He had given so much more than a great haircut. I fought the urge to weep over the loss.
I was sorry not to have the chance to see the old barber again. I wanted to tell him I’m tone deaf and I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. I’ve been thinking about group dancing though.
Rosette Evans worked as a nurse for over forty years. Until she retired, she found opportunities to write only in her dreams. She devotes much of her time to learning the craft from books, classes and workshops. She is a member of three nurturing writing circles.