Current Occupation: Graphic Designer
Former Occupation: Library book repairman
Contact Information: Brandon Bell lives in Louisville, Ky. His work has appeared in Barrier Islands Review, Leaf Garden and Inkspill Magazine (United Kingdom), and will soon appear in Apiary.
leash your inner kitten
Bald Steve pondered the stringy mop sitting in his chair. The shop didn’t get many long haireds, let alone women. She had explained the cut as a simple few inches off the shoulders, but Steve was clueless about where to begin. In the on-deck chairs, Ray-Ray and his son and I sat transfixed like three tykes front row at a freak show. We watched Steve scoop a strand of hair with open scissors. His hand then went slack and the hair fell to her shoulders.
Excuse me a second, Steve said. He turned to the barber mirror. From the counter he picked up the cigarette burning in the ashtray and took a drag. He seemed to be asking himself, What do I know about cutting a woman’s hair? His entire skill set lied in sheers pressed to a skull.
Paul, working the middle chair, kept an eye on Steve but knew better than to meddle. Paul had just finished with the Jones child and was ringing up the cut on the smoke-yellowed cash register. It sat atop a cabinet crammed with fashion products and conditioners that we regulars allowed to gather dust. Paul gave the child his change with a Dum-Dum on top.
You go easy on your momma now, Paul said.
The child grinned backwards outside. His exit jingled the doorbell and we three waiting nearly jumped out of our skin. I looked out the window to make sure Simon wasn’t returning from the tavern across the street. A cut from Simon meant cock-eyed sideburns and trimlines gouged across your crown. I can’t believe Simon caught most of the fish decorating the walls. Now he drinks too much to bait a lure. I wouldn’t trust him with a can of taxidermy lacquer.
Hey you, Ray-Ray’s boy said. He wiped his pubescent mustache and appeared to smell the finger. Paul ignored him and the boy stretched forward from his seat and snapped three times fast. He fiddled with his crotch like he needed to potty. Old man, hey.
You’re gonna show respect, Ray-Ray said. I mean damn, Philly. I got to remind you how many times?
Philly shuffled forward, short steps shishing his Kentucky Wildcats jacket, and plopped into Paul’s chair.
You mind this, Mitch? Paul asked me. I did mind. I was already standing, ready to sit in Paul’s chair, but what could I do? Jerk the snotnose out of the chair? Philly in a way did me a favor. The longer this took, the longer my reprieve from my own runts. Not that I didn’t love them.
I sank back into the chair underneath the black and white TV showing Andy Griffeth. Steve had turned the woman’s profile to me. I felt her single fish eye watching me but I didn’t look up. In my periphery I saw Steve holding the scissors at her eyebrows, easing the scissors shut as if trying to learn their mechanics. Then he began snipping in a frenzy. He knew it didn’t matter how bad the cut came out and so he just went for it.
Paul spread the smock over Philly and ran the tape tight around his neck. Up off the ears and boxed in the back, Paul said.
I want whatever’ll get me the most tail, Philly said.
A raspy laugh emptied smoke from Paul’s lungs. You’re hounding already.
They be hounding me. I gotta carry hand sanitizer to keep my ass clean for the next in line.
Respect, Ray-Ray said, eyes fixed on a magazine. The door opened and in walked a thirty-something man. He was wearing a faded Franklin Count High School letter jacket and at his waist a holstered 9 mm. I nodded at the fellah and the gun and got no response from either. He slapped hands with Ray-Ray and took a seat.
Sup Hal, Ray-Ray said.
Little line up in this bitch, Hal said.
Philly motioned at Hal from under the smock. Let me see that gun, he said.
Ain’t a toy, Ray-Ray said.
That’s a Browning, right? Philly said.
Little gun nut, Ray-Ray said. He subscribes to Guns and Ammo but ain’t got a piece himself.
Maybe, Philly said.
Paul spun the chair away from the gun and pinched a clump of Philly’s crown and trimmed the bristles sticking through his fingers. Your hair’s thick, Paul said. Your brother’s got thin. Probably brushed too much off on the bedpost.
That’s why I put the bitches on the floor, Philly said.
I’ve seen you around with that little blonde girl.
Which little blonde girl?
You got a whole litter of them.
Well I ain’t settling on just one. I’m a lion on the prowl.
Steve had bent over to snip the strands of hair covering the woman’s neck. The boy’s a kitten, he said. Needs to leash it up.
I’m a damn man, Philly said.
He’s just teasing, Paul said.
Didn’t sound that way to me. Bald-ass barber.
I tried not to chuckle and succeeded to an extent. Steve spun the woman to face herself. She turned a cheek to the mirror and then the other, revealing a small mole on soft skin. She locked eyes with my reflection and I realized the eyes hadn’t changed and when I recognized her I sank down in my chair. Yeah, I knew her. A drunken night at Sud’s, fifteen years earlier. Mandy Something. Just one night. After that I dodged that bar for weeks, a boycott derived from shame for a night to forget.
She looked at me with indifference, but the black smock reminded me of a judge’s robe and I felt like I was under scrutiny. Steve loosened the tape around Mandy’s neck like he was easing off a Band-Aid. Hal and Ray-Ray paused their talk to check what Mandy had under the smock. I pretended to fix on the TV and watched a commercial for a lawyer in a superhero cape. Courts. Child support. I had put the past behind me and here it was, after a marriage and two kids, my luck had run out.
How much, Mandy asked.
Steve smiled and put his hands behind his back. It’s my pleasure, Steve said.
She protested and tried to put money into his hand. He refused pay for the two crooked snips he had given her. Watching this, I missed Hal handing the gun to Philly. Paul leaned against his station as Philly pointed the gun sideways at the mirror. The coal handle looked huge and black against his freckled fingers.
Jesus Paul, Steve said. He pushed Mandy behind him. She fixed on me in the mirror. I remembered seeing her walking along edges of highways, hand-in-hand with a little girl. Our eyes met in the mirror and I knew that kind of moment told what kind of man I had become. But how could my duties as man be shaped by crimes I committed as a boy? I would’ve run had every muscle in my body not tensed from shame. Hurt beamed from her and so did demands she could never say aloud, going by the timid wet eyes and locked jaw. I was safe and still frozen, like a deer in the headlights of a parked car.
Philly waved the gun and mocked Steve with a smile. What you sweating for, Philly said. Like I don’t know my way around a piece.
You’re real tough, Steve said.
I’s born a man and got to be one to survive.
It’s a life worthy of a graveyard.
It ain’t even loaded, Philly said.
The gun sparked like a failed lighter and a pop careened through the cramped shop. The mirror shattered and Mandy’s reflection split into a million pieces. I started patting myself for holes. The gun dangled flaccidly from Philly’s finger. Hal jumped on top of Philly like secret service and stole the gun away. Someone started going, Oh shit oh shit. Philly looked scared, not for anyone’s safety but about the beating he earned from Ray-Ray.
The door jingle cut into my ringing ears. I looked up and saw Mandy escaping outside. I saw myself following even though I didn’t move.
Everybody okay, someone said.
Out the window I saw Simon limping across the street. A few months earlier he’d gotten into a bad wreck. Word was he’d been drinking. He entered the shop and the smell of rotten roses mixed with cigarette and sulfur discharge.
Watch where you step, Paul said. Glass, Simon.
Who’s next? Simon asked. He didn’t notice the broken window and patted Ray-Ray on the shoulder and tried to herd him to the open chair. You next?
Ray-Ray kept shaking his head. God damn, Philly.
Nobody got hit, Philly said. What you so pissed about?
You want a cut? Simon asked Hal.
Jesus, Hal says.
Like a moth to light my eyes hit Simon. He tugged the smock off his chair and shook it like a bullfighter cape. I should’ve chased Mandy and started to do so. Instead I sat in Simon’s chair. He began wrapping me in the smock and asking how I want it.
Philly laughed. Damn, brave, he said.
I’m going to rip you out of that chair, Ray-Ray said.
Just telling the guy to sit good and still for the nice man, Philly said. Behave and you might get you a lollypop.