I saw the guilty party standing in the window of his barber shop, gazing out at the fog, looking like one of those people in empty rooms or cafes or on street corners in paintings by Hopper.
I had to force myself to pull open the front door and step in, gingerly, looking down.
There were curlicues of brown, black, and gray hair all over the place.
“Hey,” I said, with false joviality. “Looks like you had a great day!”
“You know,” said Cal, looking out the window, “that hair has been there five, six weeks. Ain’t nobody in their right mind coming in that door save tramps, which isn’t you, or fools, which isn’t you, or bald men, which isn’t you, asking directions to the madhouse, and poor people, which is you, so go sit down in the chair and prepare to be electrocuted, the electric clippers have been on the fritz for two months and I ain’t had the cash to get the goddamn things fixed. Sit.”
Obedient to my executioner, I bounded forward and sat and stared at the hair-strews on the floor, symbols of a silent past that must have meant something, but said nothing. Even looked at sidewise, I could figure no strange shapes or imminent forecasts.
At last Cal turned and waded across that forlorn porcelain and forelock sea to let his hands pick up, all by themselves, the comb and scissors. He hesitated behind me, like the axeman sad to have to chop some young king’s head.
He asked how long I wanted it, or how ruined I wanted it, take your choice, but I was busy staring across the glaring white Arctic emptiness of the shop at…
For the first time in fifteen years it was covered. Its gray-yellow Oriental smile was invisible under a white mortuary bedsheet.
“Cal.” My eyes were on the sheet. I had forgotten, for a moment, the old Venice ticket office man lying cold with a terrible haircut. “Cal,” I said, “how come you’re not maple leafing the old rag?”
Cal let his scissors snip-snip and then snip-snip around my neck.
“Cal?” I said.
“Something wrong?” I said.
“When does the dying stop?” said Cal, a long way off.
And now the bumblebee buzzed and stung my ears and made the old chill ripple down my spine, and then Cal got busy hacking away with his dull scissors as if he were harvesting a wild wheat crop, cursing under his breath. I smelled a faint whiskey odor, but kept my eyes straight ahead.
“Cal?” I said.
“Shoot. No, shit is what I mean.”
He threw the scissors, comb, and dead silver bumblebee on the shelf and shambled across the ocean of old hair to yank the sheet off the piano, which grinned like a big mindless shape as he sat down and laid his two hands like limp paintbrushes on the keys, ready to paint God knows what.
What came out was like broken teeth in a mashed jaw.
“Damn. Hell. Crud. I used to do it, used to play the living guts outa that thing Scott taught me, old Scott… Scott.”
His voice died.
He had glanced up at the wall above the piano. He glanced away when he saw me looking, but it was too late.
For the first time in twenty years, that picture of Scott Joplin was gone.
I lurched forward in the chair, my mouth dropped wide.
At which time Cal forced himself to hurl the sheet back over the smile and return, a mourner at his own wake, to stand behind my chair and pick up the torture instruments again.
“Scott Joplin ninety-seven, Cal the barber zero,” he said, describing a lost game.
He ran his trembling fingers over my head.
“Jesus, look what I done to you. My God, that’s a lousy cut, and I’m not even halfway in. I ought to pay you for all the years you let me make you run around looking like an Airedale with mange. On top of which, let me tell you what I did to a customer three days ago. It’s terrible. Maybe I made the poor son-of-a-bitch look so bad someone killed him to put him out of his misery!”
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