Cal! I thought. Dear, dreadful barber, here I come.
Cal’s barber shop in Venice was situated right across the street from the city hall and next door to a bail bond shop where flies hung like dead trapeze artists from flypaper coils that had been left in the windows for ten years, and where men and women from the jail across the way went in like shadows and came out like uninhabited clothes. And next door to that was a little ma-and-pa grocery, but they were gone and their son sat on his pants in the window all day and sold maybe a can of soup and took horse-race telephone bets.
The barber shop, though it had a few flies in the window that had been dead no more than ten days, at least got a wash-down once a month from Cal, who ran the place with well-oiled shears and unoiled elbows and spearmint gossip in his all-pink mouth. He acted like he was running a bee farm and afraid it would get out of hand as he wrestled the big, silver, bumbling insect around your ears until it suddenly froze, bit, and held on to your hair until Cal cursed and yanked back as if he were pulling teeth.
Which is why, along with economics, I had my hair cut only twice a year by Cal.
Twice yearly, also, because of all the barbers in Cal in the world, Cal talked sprayed, gummed, cudgeled, advised, and droned more than most, which boggles the mind. Name a subject he knew it all, top, side, and bottom, and m the middle of explaining dumb Einstein’s theory would stop, shut one eye, cock his head and ask the Great Question with No Safe Answer.
“Hev did I ever tell you about me and old Scott Joplin? Why, old Scott and me, by God and by Jesus, listen. That day in 1915 when he taught me how to play the ‘Maple Leaf Rag’. Let me tell you.”
There was a picture of Scott Joplin on the wall, signed in ink a few centuries ago and fading like the canary lady’s message. In that photo you could see a very young Cal, seated on a piano stool, and bent over him, Joplin, his big black hands covering those of the happy boy.
There was that joyous kid, forever on the wall, captured on film hunched over to seize the piano keys, ready to leap on life, the world, the universe, eat it all. The look on that boy’s face was such that it cracked my heart every tune I saw it. So I didn’t look at it often. It hurt enough to see Cal looking at it, gathering his spit to ask the age-old Great Question, and, with no begs or requests, dash for the piano to maple leaf that rag.
Cal looked like a cowpuncher who now rode barber chairs. Think of Texas cowhands, lean, weatherbeaten permanently dyed by sun, sleeping in their Stetsons, glued on for life, taking showers in the damn hats. That was Cal, circling the enemy, the customer, weapon in hand, eating the hair, chopping the sideburns, listening to the shears, admiring the Bumblebee Electric’s harmonics, talking, talking, as I imagined him cowhand-naked dancing around my chair, Stetson jampack-nested above his ears, crave-itching to leap to that piano and rake its smile.
Sometimes I’d pretend I didn’t see him throwing those mad stares, shuttling his love glances at the waiting black and white, white and black keys. But finally I’d heave a great masochistic sigh and cry, “Okay, Cal. Git.”
Galvanized, he shot across the room, in a cowboy shamble, two of him, one in the mirror faster and brighter than the real one, yanking the piano lid up to show all that yellow dentistry just aching to have its music pulled.
“Listen to this, son. You ever hear anything, ever, ever in life, ever hear anything like this?”
“No, Cal,” I said, waiting in the chair with my head half-ruined. “No,” I said, honestly, “I never did.”
“My God,” cried the old man coming out of the morgue a final time inside my head, “who gave him that awful haircut?”
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