Inside the barbershop there were four men sitting in a line in five chairs, waiting for their turn. The shop had been there for fifty years, but the barber was not a very old man, only in his forties, his business inherited. The barber cut a man’s hair and you could see the man watching his hair being cut in the mirror. The scissors moved so quickly that first time customers cringed and shied from the blades.
But the barber’s precision was legendary. He had never cut a man’s ear or missed a depth and left a thin patch. The barber had heavy hands, and tugged your head wherever he wanted it, but this was a place with character, where real men went to have their hair cut, so no one would say anything. Around the mirror hung pictures of the barber from old newspapers cutting the hair of famous hockey players, the mayor, visiting parliamentarians. There were pictures of the barber armed and in fatigues with a squad of special police in Lebanon, from another life.
The door opened and a bell rang and in came a tall man with hair hanging ragged on his shoulders and a heavy beard, long and misshapen. The man stood there for a moment as though giving everyone in the barbershop a chance to take a good look at him and get used to his being there. He had a coat that was filthy and streaked in dirt. He wore old Wrangler jeans and the cuffs were frayed and hung loose over his split leather boots. He was pegged as a vagrant by all. He didn’t care. There are worse things to be.
“How long?” the vagrant said aloud.
The barber stopped, his eyes on the man.
“About thirty minutes…forty-five minutes buddy?”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I’ll come back.”
The man reached for the door but the barber stopped him.
“If you go and other people come I have to give them a cut first. First come first served, you see?”
The man let his hand drop, studied the barber for a while, then the store. Then he just walked over and sat in the empty chair. The man beside him shifted his legs and then tried to pretend that he hadn’t.
“Are you sure you want to wait buddy? It could be a long time. If you don’t want to wait then please leave a chair for the other customers. I don’t want to lose any business.”
The barber looked at the vagrant as if he waited long enough he might get another answer, but the vagrant just sat and smiled under his graying beard. The barber turned back to finish the task at hand.
One by one the barber cut the men’s hair and four of the five seats emptied as the men got their coats and left, but nobody else had come in. And now as the barber finished he looked in the mirror and saw only the bearded vagrant was left, sitting on the end of four empty chairs. The barbershop was small and the barber would have been able to smell drink if the man had been drinking, but there was no scent of booze in the air and no other foul odor. The man had not been rude and he hadn’t harassed any of the other customers, but still their faces wore old trauma from sharing the room with this man. They paid and left quickly and when the barber had swept around the empty chair and dumped the hair from his dustpan into the garbage bin he couldn’t find any other polite reason to stall. He shook out the apron that he would drape on his customer, and he looked out at the bright day and the busy city street and wondered why no one else would come in. He had no reason to blame the vagrant but he couldn’t help feeling that this man had brought bad luck into this store and though he only half-believed in such things he was born in another part of the world where superstition still existed and those old omens hung like a fog around his shop and his heart.
The vagrant didn’t seem to notice the barber’s problem. He just waited to be called. “Buddy,” the barber said. The vagrant looked up and smiled before he rose and crossed the store in three long strides. He sat and the barber asked him to slide down in the chair. The man slouched down and sat quietly as the barber pondered the situation for another moment before snapping to and inwardly chastising himself for being so suspicious. This man is just a man and a man has a right to have his hair cut well and to not be treated like a dog. The barber drew his scissors and over and over in his head he told himself this was a man like any other, like him, and the more he told himself the less he could see it.
The barber cut the vagrant’s long hair with the scissors, the swaths of graybrown hair dropping to the floor like curtains unhooked, showing the barber the man’s face. He had a long scar that split through his right eyebrow, and though his left eye was dark green, this eye was nearly colourless, the pigment lost to some old damage. On such a man the barber expected to see a nose turned sideways, buckled at the bridge, but the bone stood straight. The beard was the rest of the man’s face.
The barber didn’t realize he had done it but again he had turned to look out of the window and on to the street. Prairie wind took paper up in the air and spun it on the sidewalk over broken pavestones, glass, last night’s vomit dried and stinking. Across the street stood a rundown movie theatre and an old Irish tavern, huddled together like the last fearful holdouts on a city block where buildings were missing like teeth knocked loose.
“Your shop’s been here a long time,” the vagrant said.
The barber came out of it and turned back to him.
“View used to be nicer.”
The barber couldn’t tell if the man was asking him or telling him these things.
“Perhaps,” he said. “I remember when this hotel on the corner had famous politicians and musicians staying there at one…Well…That was a long time ago.”
The vagrant looked straight ahead.
“You can say it buddy, I don’t mind.”
“This city’s gone to shit,” the vagrant said. “You can say it. Hell, I just said it.”
In the reflection the barber watched the vagrant, but he couldn’t read his face through the beard.
“Yes,” the barber said. “It has gotten much shittier. But I think it will get better also.”
“Yeah?” “Yes I do.”
The vagrant smiled and this made the barber smile, and for a minute he could have been a woodsman on a rare visit to town, a man from the mountains on his way to meet a woman, or to see his son graduate college.
“That’s nice, isn’t it?” the man said. “That’s nice to think.”
The barber finished cutting the man’s hair. He had cropped the sides short with the clippers and then blended in the hair above the temples as it met with the trimmed hair on the top.
“You gave me an army haircut bud, pretty near.”
“No, it is a Caesar cut.”
“Yeah? Looks like an army hairstyle to me.”
The barber stood in front of the man, put his fingers on either side of the man’s head and tilted it this way and that, pretending to examine the haircut as one would a painting that one man claims is real and the other swears is a forgery. The barber held the man’s head still with one hand and with his other he picked up the scissors and raised them slowly, concentrating hard, and then quickly he cut a rogue strand of hair that may or may not have been there.
“It is a Caesar cut,” the barber said definitively.
Both men smiled at each other.
“Well, alright then,” the man in the chair said. “It is if you say so.”
“Okay,” the barber said, and put his scissors down. He now went to arrange his tools for the shave: the brush, the soap, a wet towel, and the straight razor itself. As he stropped the razor on a hanging strip of leather the man in the chair watched him carefully.
“There’s some skill in that, isn’t there?” he said.
“Some,” the barber said, continuing his work.
All you could hear was the sound of the blade scraping along the strop for a little while, and then the man spoke again.
“You were in the army, weren’t you? That’s why I thought you cut hair like that.”
The barber looked at the man’s image in the mirror and the man pointed up at the picture of the barber in his fatigues with his men.
“I was,” the barber said. “But I didn’t learn this trade until after that one. I was very young.”
“In Lebanon, yeah?”
“Yes,” the barber said.
He made a point of stopping and facing the man in the chair, acknowledging the respectful gesture of only claiming to know where another man was from when you actually knew.
“How did you know?”
“I’m a pretty slick guy.”
The barber laughed.
“I was in the army too,” the man said.
“Here? In this country’s army?”
“Yessir,” he said. “We’ve had our moments.”
This might have been the man being funny again, but there was no humour in the way this was said. The barber decided not to let the silence last.
“This is a bad war I think, this war we have now. Do you think so?”
“I think they’re all about the same.”
“Oh, okay,” the barber said.
The man laughed out loud.
“Actually that’s a lot of bullshit. I just felt like hearing what it sounded like coming out of my mouth.” the man said. “Maybe I heard some other asshole say it or saw it in a movie. I don’t know…They’re as different as can be. Wars. As different as the places and the people who start and finish them.”
The barber nodded. Now he knew this man had fought in a war. He just didn’t know which one.
After the barber finished shaving the man’s face he cleaned the soap away with a wet towel and put lotion on the skin. The barber could not believe the man sitting in the chair was the vagrant who had walked into his shop an hour ago. When he had cut the hair he could still see the resemblance. But then he had cut the beard. He could not believe how much it concealed. It had hidden all kinds of details. This man was no older than the barber, a handsome man, with a sharp jawline and broad neck. The man in the chair let the barber brush the loose hair from his head and pull the apron free. The ragged clothing he wore was the only thing left that proved he was the same man who had sat down in the chair before. The man looked proudly at himself in the mirror.
“You do a good job,” he said.
The man got up and stretched, massive when he stood, and walked over to the till where the barber met him. The man reached into his dirty pants-pocket and pulled out a fifty dollar bill.
“Here,” he said.
“It is too much,” the barber said.
“No,” the man said, his face serious. “No, it’s not.”
Thinking that he had already insulted the man enough the barber took the bill from him and put it in his register.
“Thank you sir,” he said.
The man kept looking at him, and then that smile broke again on his face, on his new face, wide and grand and full of promise, like the sun that comes up late after a long night.
The man turned and went to the door, opened it and walked out boldly into that sunny afternoon. He closed it behind him and the barber watched him go as he began to clean up the man’s hair on the floor with the broom. He bent down to sweep the hair into the dustpan, and when he rose he turned just in time to see the man walk straight out into the street, stride across the centre line, and step into the opposing lane where a city bus came storming through and ran the man under, taking all of him so violently that the barber didn’t hear the brakes squeal until the bus and man were gone from sight. In front of the window you would not think anything had happened with the sun beating down on the asphalt and the people all standing dumbstruck in some mindless tableau. This quiet did not last long.
The barber set his broom against the wall and laid the dustpan on the windowsill and left his shop, still wearing his apron. He walked out onto the avenue where people had stopped their cars and gotten out. The barber passed them by. When he came near to the lane where the man had been hit he looked east and saw the city bus parked awkwardly with its right-front wheel atop the curb, the driver sitting on the ground with his head in his hands. The barber walked over to the place where the man’s body lay.
Sirens could be heard in the distance. The barber’s hands were steady now but he knew what would come later. There were parts of the barber that had been excised long ago with none of the precision he brought to his trade. The barber looked at the fallen man. He thought of him as he was before and saw him now as he was, broken in the roadway. Some small melancholy settled over the barber but he could not seize it. Then he turned and went back across the street toward his shop. He walked quickly and said nothing to anyone he passed and when he reached his storefront he went inside and locked the door behind him.