Preoccupied, Cliff Hayley turned onto the main drag of Cleves. After one block, he realized he was headed in the wrong direction and turned around and walked to Buck's Barber Shop at the far end of the small town.
Buck's was a one-room building with white aluminum siding, a vacant lot on each side. In the middle of the single front window, the name of the business was stenciled above an image of a barber pole.
Cliff went in to the empty place and stood by the door, wondering whether he should wait in the solitary barber chair. On the back wall, there was a price list, a sentimental print of a fretful boy's first haircut, and a hand-lettered sign in Magic Marker:
"Hello?" Cliff called out.
A man in black pants and powder-blue barber jacket strode from the back room to the barber chair, tennis shoes squeaking on the linoleum. He raised his fist to his neatly trimmed moustache and coughed dryly, then slapped the red leather chair back resoundingly and said, "I've been waiting for you."
"Sorry I'm late," Cliff said wryly. He hung his jacket on a standalone coat rack, and stepped up into the chair. The barber snapped a thin white cloth and spread it over him, fastening it too tightly at the neck. Cliff stuck his finger between the cloth and his neck to loosen it.
"Things are tight all over, aren't they," the barber said. "Like a vice."
"I'm Preston," the barber said and put out his hand.
Cliff told him his name, shaking a smooth, cool hand. "I thought your name would be Buck," he said.
"The previous owner," Preston said. "I haven't bothered changing the name. Doesn't matter, anyway, right?"
Cliff thought Preston was being rhetorical and didn't respond.
"Right?" Preston demanded. "That it doesn't matter that I haven't changed the name."
"Oh, no," Cliff wavered. "I mean, right. What's in a name? It's your shop, you can call it what you want."
Preston combed roughly through Cliff's thick hair. "How do you want it?"
"A regular haircut," Cliff winced. "I'll leave it up to you to make me look good."
Preston paused, then said "Don't you know yourself by now?"
"Uhh," Cliff said. "I'm just saying that you can probably see what looks good on me better than I can."
Preston turned the chair to the mirror so that he could look into Cliff's eyes. "There's this modern invention called the mirror," he said. "You can see yourself in it."
Cliff forced himself to keep eye contact, trying to make his eyes friendly. Preston's pale blue eyes were clear but glassy, the eyebrows arched. "So that's a mirror," Cliff joked.
"I look in it a lot," Preston said.
"Don't we all," Cliff agreed, trying to keep it light and easy.
"Most, just skin deep."
The cloth seemed to have tightened around Cliff's neck. "Yeah," he agreed, and swallowed against the pulse in his throat.
Preston looked at him, then abruptly went to the back room.
Cliff turned his head and gazed at a sanguine maple outside the window and thought of slipping out, but that would be rude, and it looked like Preston could use the business. It might be a long haircut, but Cliff thought he would enjoy the visit as he wasn't socializing much, and it was a laid-back fall morning. He had nowhere to go on his day off, anyway.
Preston returned and asked with a medicinal whiff of breath, "Where have I seen you?"
"I work at BuildTown Building Supply," Cliff suggested. "At the interstate junction." He felt impelled to explain that it was a temporary post-college job, something to pay the rent and bills until he figured out what to do with his life.
"No, not there," Preston said, remembering. "I've seen you drive by, glancing in like you were looking for something. I knew you'd stop in one day."
Cliff wondered how Preston could know that. "The boss likes us assistant-manager trainees to be neat," he said.
"I'll give you a cut," Preston said. He turned the chair away from the mirror and began buzzing the electric clipper through Cliff's hair.
Cliff relaxed as auburn locks fell onto the cape, and was amused when he realized the smell on Preston's breath was liquor. A circular clock on the opposite wall said 10:17, and Cliff wondered how long Preston would last through the day. "How long have you owned this place?" he asked.
Preston stopped cutting but left the clipper on.
Cliff thought he was calculating the length of time, but when Preston didn't answer, Cliff craned his neck to see his distressed face.
"Seven years," Preston intoned.
"Huh," Cliff said looking forward, embarrassed as if he had walked in on someone crying. "I can't imagine living seven years in one place."
Preston held the buzzing clipper and comb idly. "How long you been here?"
"How long you expect to stay?"
Cliff had been asking that of himself. He wanted to move on, though he didn't know to what, and hadn't set a date. He enjoyed the hilly terrain in the area, but vaguely desired a change of scenery. "Don't know," he said. "I'm kind of riding things out."
"You're here for the long haul," Preston said and snapped off the clipper.
Cliff faced Preston and countered, "Well, something might turn up in the near future."
Preston closed his heavy eyelids and shook his head slowly.
"And I look for job leads," Cliff said. He named several job-hunting venues.
"That's not where you should be searching."
"Okay," Cliff said, irritated that Preston kept his eyes closed. "Where should I be searching?" He looked forward to ease his kinked neck and loosen the constricting cloth, and Preston left for the back room again. Cliff was annoyed at this barber who acted like he had some insight into Cliff's life and personality. And who was he to give out advice? Boozing it up on a weekday morning in this one-horse town. Cliff would have left, leaving money on the chair, but only half his head was cropped. When Preston returned, Cliff would keep the conversation to chit-chat, the weather, the NFL. He almost turned on the portable TV on the counter for a distraction, but thought better of it.
Preston came back, clearing his throat. He picked up the clipper and comb and leaned against Cliff to steady himself, exuding wafts of metabolizing alcohol. Cliff felt Preston's heartbeat on his bicep.
"Everything okay back there?" Cliff quipped. If Preston was going to drink on the job, Cliff had a right to tease him.
"What wouldn't be okay?" Preston asked defensively.
"Uhh . . ."
Preston compressed his lips and moustache into two parallel lines and turned on the clipper to continue cutting Cliff's hair, very slowly as if he was wary of making a mistake, breathing through his nose.
It was somehow more annoying for Preston to not talk. "How about this weather," Cliff said.
Preston turned off the clipper. "How about it?"
"Yeah. You liking this crisp fall weather?"
Preston looked out the window. "Fall, spring, summer, winter," he said. "It's all the same."
"I like something in each season, too," Cliff said.
"What I meant was," Preston clarified, "is that it all adds up to the same thing. And you know it."
Cliff felt that they were talking about two different things, but didn't know what Preston was referring to. "At this point," he sighed, "I don't know what I know, other than I just came in for a haircut."
"You didn't come in just for that," Preston said. He turned the clipper on and continued cutting.
The hell I didn't, Cliff thought. He understood why there weren't any other customers and why he'd never seen any in the shop -– Preston drove them all away. A car went by, and Cliff imagined the driver looking in and chuckling at the sucker sitting in the chair getting a philosophy lesson. Still, what had Preston meant that Cliff hadn't come in just for a haircut?
Preston finished with the clipper, and continued with scissors and comb, neither one talking. Though it was awkward, and though Cliff was interested in Preston's cryptic statements, he decided not to engage him, and closed his eyes to wait out the haircut with his own thoughts.
Cliff was abruptly wrenched around to face the mirror. It took a second for his dizzy vision to clear, and for the shorn stranger in the mirror to become himself.
"How're you looking?" Preston asked curtly.
Cliff obligingly appraised the haircut. "Looks good, Preston," he said. He was glad it was over, and reached under the cloth to his pants pocket for money.
"Not done yet," Preston said. He pressed the red button on a hot-lather dispenser that sat among green and blue bottles and jars on the counter. Then he picked up a black-handled straight razor and honed it on the strop hanging from the side of the chair.
"I don't shave on my day off," Cliff deferred, looking at the Jeris brand embossed on both sides of the wide blade.
Preston squeezed a paper strip between Cliff's neck and the cloth. "Got to trim along the hairline," he said.
"It's okay like it is."
"Some barbers don't bother anymore," Preston said, "but it's all in the details."
Cliff felt warm lather being spread along his hairline, over his ears and down his nape, and cursed himself for coming to this barber shop. The lather felt like warm Elmer's glue. He shifted in his seat, telling himself that he didn't have to stay.
"The razor making you nervous?" Preston asked.
"No," Cliff said in a tight voice, his hands and forearms tensed on the chair arms, ready to bolt.
"Then what is?"
"This is getting kind of . . ." Cliff held his breath as Preston began scratching at his hairline with the razor.
"Kind of weird?" Preston coaxed, scraping behind Cliff's ear.
Cliff tried to breathe in silently, and thought it shouldn't be too much longer, if Preston didn't go to the back room again.
"Right?" Preston asked.
"Right," Cliff conceded through clenched teeth. "I just didn't want to talk while you were trimming."
Preston wiped a glob of used lather on a square tissue. "Afraid I'll take too much off?"
Cliff tried to be casual but chuckled uneasily. "Yeah, I can't afford the deluxe cut."
Preston said, "Oh, you know you can afford it," as if Cliff had been serious.
"I was just . . . ah never mind," Cliff said, surprised that his irritation exceeded his apprehension. "You act like you know all about me, Preston."
"Call it a sixth sense."
"Sure," Cliff scoffed. "Like those con-artist psychic hotlines, TV evangelists. They say something general, and there are a lot of people that it could apply to."
"I'm not one of those," Preston said. "But sometimes I feel like a sculptor, cutting and shaping. To get to the real thing underneath."
Cliff was impressed at Preston's metaphor, but his voice rose shakily as he said, "And you're just guessing about me. You don't know squat about me."
"So how come you're getting upset?"
Cliff had to agree with Preston. Why was this tipsy barber getting to him? Why was Cliff putting any stock in what he said?
"I do know squat about you," Preston said, "based on what you told me. Unless you made it up. Even if you did make it up."
At this point, Cliff didn't know whether he had made it up. Preston, this barber shop, this haircut, this life seemed unreal.
"I also know squat about myself, when I see it," Preston continued. "And you and I are one and the same. I knew that before we talked."
"Oh, I get it, I get it," Cliff said, forcing a laugh. "'I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.'"
"See, I like the Beatles, too," Preston said.
"Well, 'goo goo g'joob,'" Cliff said as he stood. He wiped off the remaining lather with the hem of the cape and tried to unfasten it from around his neck. "Get this off," he pleaded.
"Sit down," Preston said gently. "Let me finish the other side."
"I need to go," Cliff said.
Preston swirled the chair towards Cliff, the razor slicing the air. "We both know you don't need to."
Cliff hesitated, then reluctantly agreed and stepped into the chair thinking it would be easier to leave if he complied. He cringed at the thought of Preston standing behind him with a razor, but figured if Preston were going to go off his rocker and harm him, that he would have done it already.
Preston slowly turned the chair back toward the mirror, taking care to not make Cliff dizzy, and smoothed out the cape. "I'll be right back," he said. "Take a good look at yourself."
"Hey, come on," Cliff said.
Preston disappeared into the back room, leaving Cliff grudgingly with himself in the mirror. He shook his head, and then smiled at the aggravation. What a kook. Probably lonely . . . like me. Cliff watched his smile droop as if it were wet lather running down his chin.
"See something interesting?" Preston asked when he returned several minutes later.
"No," Cliff said absently.
"I'll show you something interesting," Preston said, his breath ether-like. He applied fresh warm lather. This time it had a balmy, lulling effect, and Cliff relaxed and settled into the comfy old leather seat, and even yawned.
"What are you going to show me?" Cliff asked drowsily.
"But I see myself," Cliff said to the mirror.
"You just think you do," Preston said. "But what you really need is . . ." He stopped to consider what Cliff needed.
"What do I need?" Cliff asked.
Preston didn't answer, and Cliff let it go.
After Preston finished trimming, he rinsed the razor and dropped it in the side pocket of his jacket, then sprinkled witch hazel onto a clean white washcloth and soothed Cliff's hairline with it. He tossed the washcloth into an empty basket under the sink and clamped eyes with Cliff in the mirror.
"You'll have your backroom and front room, too," Preston said. "This is mine." He rotated the chair slowly. Three aluminum-framed chairs sat at the opposite wall. A flimsy coffee table in front of the chairs held a couple neat stacks of magazines. "This is it," he said regretfully.
Cliff's skin tingled from the witch hazel, or what Preston was saying. "You could try something else," he said optimistically. He felt silly with what he had said, as if he had had a drink of Preston's liquor.
"There is nothing else," Preston said resonantly. He leaned on his forearms on the chair headrest and began narrating about himself over Cliff's head, and more to himself than to Cliff as his eyes wandered off into the mirror, his boozy breath mingling with the other cosmetic smells. At various points in the narrative, Cliff would say, "Yeah," or "Uh-huh," to show he was listening, but he didn't have to do that, as Preston never asked him if he followed what he was saying or if he understood.
Cliff groggily became aware of a silence in the room and realized that Preston had stopped talking, and was in the back room. His ears rang slightly and his brain was overloaded and suspended with the details of Preston's life. The details –- enlistment in the Navy, two marriages, children, various jobs -- had blended into a general impression: a life of drift, an aimless search for something. And there was a familiar feel to Preston's life, as if Cliff had heard it before somewhere. Is that why he had chosen this barber shop? A felt kinship with this lonely man whom he would glimpse sitting in his barber chair in an empty shop, staring into the mirror, as Cliff was doing now. He was having odd thoughts and shook his head to get blood to it. He was startled to see that the clock in the mirror said noon.
"Preston?" Cliff called out like a lost child for its parent.
Preston wobbled from the back, his eyes puffy and red.
"Hey, man," Cliff said, "maybe you should take it easy on that stuff."
"It's not the stuff," Preston sniffled, rubbing his eyes. "The stuff doesn't work." He went to the sink and patted cold water on his face.
"Is there anything I can do?"
Preston dried his face, then inspected Cliff's hair, nodding satisfactorily at his handiwork. He unfastened the cape from Cliff's neck, easing the flow of blood in a head-clearing rush, and draped it on the back of the chair.
In the mirror, Cliff saw that Preston's eyes had cleared. Ah, he'd just had a momentary case of the blues.
"Yes, there's something you can do," Preston said. "Watch." He looked at himself in the mirror, turning his head from side to side, and carefully put the razor to his neck.
Cliff thought that Preston was going to shave a few random whiskers, but flinched spastically as Preston yanked the razor across his throat, blood welling out in a crooked line. Preston hiccupped and dropped the razor as he locked eyes with Cliff in the mirror, then he grabbed Cliff's shoulders as though holding him back from, or pushing him towards, some impending danger.
Cliff lurched off the seat as Preston stumbled backwards into the coffee table, gagging as he landed in one of the chairs, his arms limp. Cliff grabbed the thin cape and bunched it up and pressed it against the pulsing red gash, trying not to look at it.
Preston moaned and feebly tried to push Cliff away.
Cliff saw a cordless phone to the side of the sink and rushed and grabbed it and a couple white towels, knocking over the bottles. He pressed one of the towels on Preston's neck and got him in a gentle headlock. As he flicked 9-1-1 with a jittery thumb, he nearly vomited, and retched while he faltered the emergency to the detached dispatcher.
"Can you stay with him?" she calmly asked.
"Yes!" Cliff shouted. "Yes!" He dropped the phone and quietly added, "I'm not going anywhere."
He looked past the letters on the window at the vivid maple and held his breath for the EMS, shuddering at Preston's weight and their damp shirts. Someone driving by and looking in might have seen two long-lost friends tearfully reuniting.
BIO: Rick Taliaferro is a freelance writer and editor (TextPosit). In his spare time, he spends one hour, or one page, or 200 words per day on fiction. He recently had a novel published, Cascades, and is currently rewriting the first draft of a new novel. Before he became the Associate Editor at Bartleby Snopes, several of his stories appeared in the journal.