Photography © Glenn Bowie
Hair of a Fallen Angel
Brother Sly is serving out his time doing clean-up and general duties at the barbershop. Under the circumstances, what with the virus, and the jails filled to the brim, and Brother Sly being one of those religious types they couldn’t quite tap for an actual crime against nature— well, Judge Henry and the priest had a pow-wow.
Melville owns the barber shop. In Mel’s opinion Judge Henry should be locked in the asylum for sticking him with Sly. On that subject, I keep my mouth shut. I’m just here to cut toenails off men too old or fat to bend over and cut their own. I’ve met some tough yellow nails. It’s a service Mel has offered since forever, I guess, including a hot scented towel. I cut toes and lay towels and listen to complaints all day about Sly doing this and that wrong.
I want to say: You know, I could easily do whatever Sly does around here. I can sweep up the hair and push it toward the hair drain, AJAX the sinks, tidy up.
Frankly, I could use the extra money. Living in that two roomer down by the swamp, where the mosquitoes feast before you know they’ve landed, I am desperate. A small clean trailer would put a big smile on my face.
This morning, by nine-thirty, no sign of Sly. Melville is having twenty-two fits.
“That good for nothin’ petit-four,” he’s grumbling. I want to scream: Pedophile. Say it! Say it!
But, no. Everyone here beats around the bush. Everyone here knows, has known forever. With that stuff it’s only a matter of time before things blow up.
It’s only morning and hot as blazes. Yet I can feel change in the air. I should look up my horoscope. Mel keeps the newspaper on top of the step-to garbage bin. “I can pick up for Sly,” I tell him.
He shoots me a look. “For today,” I say quickly. Does he think I’m on the game with Sly? Jesus!
Mel’s got no choice. Bucky Fuller is just now stepping into the shop, booming his wide hello, and someone has to drape him in the chair.
“Go on, Janelle,” says Mel.
I take a drape off the hook and put it across Bucky, tying the back loops at the neck. “Thank you sweet cakes.” Bucky winks. Not a word to Mel about where is Sly.
“Hot today,” is all Mel says.
“Give me the whole enchilada,” Bucky tells him. Meaning shave and a hair cut. A hot towel to finish. Does he want his nails clipped?
“Janelle, get the lime shave cream, would ya.”
At the back cabinet where the shave creams and shampoos are stacked, I take out the lime foam then grab a drape and a couple of towels. A nice clean trailer on the uphill side of town, I’m thinking.
Bucky calls me sweet cakes again when I place the shave stuff on the side stand. I give him a little smile and move away hoping he doesn’t want his nails done. He and Melville get into some boring talk. I turn on the radio always set at the same music station.
The same. It can drive some people crazy. Maybe it drove Sly away and now he’s far from here; far away from serving out his time. Living in a city. Where no one has a clue. But like the judge said (according to Mel) They always repeat. It’s a sickness.
Bucky gives me a two dollar tip after he pays. “I like the way you comport yourself, darlin’,” he says. “You class up the place. Not like that …”
Melville snort laughs.
I don’t feel Bucky’s words require a reply other than thank you. I don’t want to lead him on. Not that he’d be capable of much of anything at his advanced age. Then I almost giggle picturing Bucky heaving over a woman then sputtering out.
The morning drags. Two more old guys come in and I have to clip both. Down on my knees, one has nails like curved steel. Even with the large size clippers my hand cramps during the process. It’s a process. I saw a show on TV about that type of psychological thinking. When things are less than satisfactory, you tell yourself It’s a process. It helps me most of the time, except when the roof lets go during heavy rain. I run around setting down buckets, and wish I’d given Clyde more of a chance. When the rain stops, so do my thoughts of Clyde. It’s a process.
When the firehouse sounds the noon whistle I say to Mel, “I’m getting a plate from Kenny Rogers. You want anything?”
“You gettin’ a whole meal? Not just a sandwich?”
What’s it to him? “Yes, I thought I’d treat myself today with chicken and biscuits. They do a nice gravy.”
He’s looking at me all funny. Like I said I was getting caviar and champagne. “Mel, is there a problem?”
He puts up his hands in defensive mode. “No! No! Not a problem whatsoever. Just that you always eat little foods like those salads and half a sandwich.” He still has that odd look on his face. “Bucky must’ve tipped you real good.”
“He gave me two fucking dollars.”
“OK! I was just jokin’.”
Except, he wasn’t. Does he think we have a little side thing going? Me and Bucky? Christ almighty. “Now I lost my appetite,” I tell him.
“Janelle, you go on to Kenny Rogers and set yourself down at a nice table and eat your chicken and biscuits in the cool air conditioning.” He tries out a grin. Then he sighs. “I got to get downstairs and pull out all the hair from the trap before the Chinese wig guy gets here. Now go on! Shoo!”
I look down at my own shoe. The one coming apart at the side seam from a bunion the size of a walnut. I could use a new pair, like those Sketchers they advertise on the Home Shopping Network. Lots of color choices and cute patterns. If I had long, thick hair, I’d chop it off and sell it to the Chinese wig guy right on the spot. Mine is wild and wiry, dyed red like carrots. Clyde used to bury his face in my hair, calling it hair of a fallen angel.
How many others did he play using that same line? Fucker.
Mel hands me the soiled towels. “Throw them in the washer before you go out,” he says. “Use the cold water cycle. Half the soap powder it says.”
Cheap. Everyone knows you have to use hot water. Especially under these current conditions which nobody here ever speaks of. Like that virus is some Martian living in a craft that will not cross the state line. Except, it already has. A breath-sucking Martian that’s making tracks through this very county as we speak. I suddenly want to scream: Wear a goddamn mask! Get vaccinated Mel! You don’t believe? Ask Mae Lewis who lost her husband and oldest boy to that Martian back in June.
I do none of that. I gather up my sack purse and leave the shop. I don’t go to Kenny Rogers. I walk the hot streets of this stinking town thinking: Let Mel and the guys fend for themselves. Cut their own nails. Drape themselves in plastic that’s decorated with the Confederate flag. Live out the dream. ‘Til there isn’t one.
Susan Tepper is a twenty year writer and the author of nine published books of fiction and poetry. Her most recent are Confess (poetry from Cervena Barva Press, 2020) and a zany road novel What Drives Men (Wilderness House Press, 2019). Right now she’s in pre-production of an Off-Broadway play titled The Crooked Heart, re-written and adapted from an earlier novel, which focuses on artist Jackson Pollock in his later years.
Glenn Bowie is a published poet, lyricist and photographer from the Boston area. He also owns and operates an elevator company that supplies custom-built elevators for clients from New England to Hollywood. Author of two poetry and photograph collections (Under the Weight of Whispers and Into the Thorns and Honey) on Big Table Publishing, he donates all profits from his books to various charities for the homeless and local animal shelters.