I have a policy: if you come into my barber shop and pay for a haircut, then you don’t leave until you’re fully satisfied. I don’t care if it takes me ten minutes or a week—if you’re not satisfied, I get back in there and work on it some more until you are. That’s the policy. Like this one guy—he came in the other afternoon, a walk-in—I take walk-ins every day, a standard thing for me, take them as they come—and he strolled in with all kinds of hair. One of these guys with a big all-around beard and a real low hairline and just thick, thick and curly all over, and this fellow hadn’t seen a cut in six months or more. He had hair all over the place. Well, he told me he just wanted a trim. And even if I thought he needed more than that, I wasn’t the person in the chair—he was.
“You got it, boss,” I said. “A trim. We’ll take a half-inch off and see what you think. Sound good?” He nodded and we were on our way.
Now, I don’t do a whole lot of talking while I’m working. I focus on the hair. After I wet the head down, I focus on getting that line of hair between my fingers and cutting it just at the length I’ve been asked for. I believe in service and precision. And so I worked my way around this fellow’s head, around and back again, and got that half-inch off of there. A little halo of hair developed around him on the floor, a very thin halo. I’ll be the first to admit that, when I finished, he looked much the same as when he first came in.
He considered himself in the mirror. “You know,” he said, “I hate to ask this, but I wonder if you could take some more off. Maybe even another whole inch.”
I looked into the mirror right into his eyes. “Sir,” I said, “you don’t leave here until you’re satisfied.” There was nobody waiting, and I wouldn’t have cared if anybody was waiting. But the shop was empty.
So I took that next inch off, and we were really starting to get somewhere then. I did some layering, neatened up the back, worked on the sideburns a bit, and though he was shaggy—and I don’t object to that as a style—we’d definitely gotten somewhere from where we’d started. But I saw the look in his eye when I stepped back from the work. “You want to lose some more,” I said, and he nodded. “How about something on the short side?” I suggested. “I can keep that curl you’ve got and still get pretty close in. What do you think about that?” He nodded again.
The truth is that I love the sound of cutting hair. I love the bright snip of the scissors, the buzz of the clippers, even the sound you almost can’t hear of the comb pulling the hair into order. I can get lost in those sounds. Not lost enough to forget what I’m up to, but lost from the rest of my life, anyway. Well, I kept at this guy until you could really see his face. There was still some curl to the cut—if you pulled the hair straight, he probably had anywhere from two to three inches, depending on where you were on his head, but there was still some curl to the cut, and you could see his face. The man had large green eyes, and didn’t look so much like a lumberjack anymore. The floor, on the other hand, was halfway to becoming a rug.
“You know what?” he said then, his face doubtful. The man was not satisfied.
“Right,” I said. “How about a shave? Really see that face.” I checked his eyes. That wasn’t going to be enough for him. I said, “And how about something really short on top? Downright military.”
“You don’t mind?” he said. “I know I’ve been here a while.”
“We’ll finish when we’re done,” I said, and gave him a wink.
The beard came right off, and underneath that the man had bright, bright skin, like it hadn’t seen direct sunlight for a long time, which it probably hadn’t. And the clippers brought his hair on top into shape. Soon enough he was ready to join the marines if he wanted, and those green eyes looked like the eyes of a commanding officer. We took a moment in stillness, both of us, to look over the results in the mirror. What did we think? I knew what I thought, but I was more interested in what he thought.
“You know what I’ve always been curious about?” he said.
“I know,” I said. It’s a rare man—maybe a rare woman, too, for all I know—who doesn’t wonder what he’d look like if he were bald. “Let’s do it,” I said. I almost turned the door sign to CLOSED, but I didn’t think I’d be seeing any more customers, anyway. It was getting dark by then.
The hair gave way easily to the clippers, and it turned out that the man had a good-shaped head. You never know how it will turn out, but this fellow could have been a pharaoh or something, his head was so even and well-proportioned. I took him all the way down to the scalp, and then I stood back, backed up all the way to the wall, and leaned against it, my arms folded over my chest, waiting. We studied his head, me and that man. We studied it.
“What do you think?” I said.
He nodded his head a few times, finally sure of himself. “We’d better keep going,” he said.
“I thought so, too,” I said.
“You don’t mind?”
“I don’t mind,” I said. I took out the other clippers and I got back in there, and I didn’t stop until I had dry bone all over, from his chin to the back of his head. The halo around his chair had gone over to clean flesh. And the man had a truly beautiful skull, with fissures that seemed like rivers to somewhere worthwhile. I stood back again.
“Did we get it?” I said.
His green eyes, brighter than ever, took it all in. I gave him a hand mirror so he could see the back. “We’re close,” he said. “We’re almost there.”
“I think so, too,” I said. “But let’s do this right.” I took up my tools again, and I took off the next layer, all the bone. It was so easy it was almost like he was just shedding. I stepped nimbly among the chips on the floor; I had more energy than I’d had in years. And I only stopped for a moment with his brain, though it was a well-formed and attractive brain. I stopped for a moment to admire it, and then he waved me onward, and I went. His green eyes were steady in the mirror. I kept at it and kept at it until I had gotten as far as I could go. I stood back again, all the way back against the wall again, and we both admired what we’d reached. There in front of us was the man’s naked soul, also a bright green, poking out of his collar. He had taken good care of the thing; it was groomed. Healthy. Outside the shop, things had gone fully dark and the only light in the room came from this man’s soul. It was enough light.
He breathed in and out, nodded a few times. “You don’t think it’s too short?” he said.
“Nonsense,” I said.
“Really?” he said.
“Listen,” I said. “If more people looked like you I think we might really be okay around here. But you’re the customer. You tell me.”
He looked himself over and then he nodded again. “I think we’ve got it.”
I smiled and took off his apron, brushed all the hair and everything else off his lap and his neck until he was as clean as a man could make him. He stood and shook my hand. “I’d like to pay you something extra,” he said, “for all the extra time you took. The extra care.”
I shook it off. “None of that is extra,” I said. “It’s part of the cut. It’s my policy.”
The green of his soul brightened like a smile. “Thank you,” he said, shaking my hand again. He paid me the standard fee in cash, plus a few dollars for a tip. More than I deserved. “I feel like a new man,” he said.
“You look it,” I said.
Then he put his wallet back in his pocket, waved, and headed out the door, running a hand over the top of his soul the way people will when they’re still getting used to their new cut. But he wasn’t one of those people who would cover it up in embarrassment, put a baseball cap on when he rounded the corner. I could tell.
With that man out the door, there wasn’t any light in the barber shop at all, none except the lamplight coming in from the street. I left it that way for a minute. It was nice like that, too. Just for a minute, though; I had to clean the place up to get things in shape for the next day. Once I’d had my fill of the feeling, I turned on the overheads and swept from chairs to walls, corner to corner. I swept meticulously, swept until it was done, until I was satisfied that everything that man had taken off himself was gone, gone, gone.
David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including, most recently, the novel How to Mars (Tachyon Publications, 2021) and the poetry collection Some Unimaginable Animal (Orison Books, 2019). He teaches at Georgetown University. Visit him at www.davidebenbach.com. (updated 6/2021)
Ebenbach founded the AGNI blog in 2015 and edited it until 2019.