I am walking through a neighborhood subdivision. It’s not far from my house. People ride bikes. Some are sitting on lawn chairs in driveways, taking in a sunset. Viva la quarantine.
I pass an open garage. Inside the garage is an old man and old woman talking, laughing. They are white-haired and small. His posture is hunched. She is sitting on a tall stool, wearing a towel over her body, keeping a still. He cuts her hair with scissors.
The old man moves around her like a guy who knows what he is doing. You can always tell people who know what they’re doing. My mother, for example, doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing when it comes to cutting hair.
I base this statement on my entire childhood. My mother used to cut my hair on the front porch, like all Baptists. She used dull, rusty, tetanus-covered scissors, and high-powered army horse clippers. Her method for haircuts was eyeballing it.
One time she was giving me a Fundamentalist Special out on the front porch when the clipper guard popped off. The blade ran straight into a virgin patch of my hair and cut me clear to the scalp. I could feel the blades bite my skin.
The first thing that happened was that my mother covered her mouth and said, “Sweet Jesus.”
My mother didn’t say the Lord’s name like that unless communists had invaded U.S. soil, or Conway Twitty had a new album.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
My mother started to laugh. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
She was snorting now.
I looked in the reflection of the porch window. I saw a kid looking back at me with a chunk missing from his skull. My red hair had an aircraft landing strip in the center.
She was purple-faced, rolling on the porch, and losing bladder control.
“My head!” was all I could say.
“We can fix it!” she said between gasps.
There was no fixing this. This represented the end of my social career. I was 12 years old, my ego was so fragile that it had to be kept in a protective case or it would shatter. I was pudgy, with a full face. My hair was the only thing keeping me from looking like a human Cabbage Patch doll.
And so it was that my mother attempted to repair my hairstyle. Her only choice was to remove the clipper guard and shave me down to the skin. I watched locks of my hair fall onto the porch and I cried. So help me, I cried.
When I looked into the mirror, I ran my hand along my smooth scalp and couldn’t believe the resemblance I bore to Uncle Fester.
That was a really bad period of my life. I tried to stay inside for a month.
The old man in the garage is obviously nothing like my mother. He is clipping this woman’s white hair with fancy scissors, cordless clippers, and he even has a waterproof cape. A man who has waterproof cape is no hack. He is a pro.
“Have room for one more?” I ask, stopping to watch.
And I’m not entirely joking. I haven’t had a haircut since this quarantine began. My hair is so long that I can’t even wear a hat because it’s too tight on my head. Last week, I almost let my wife cut my hair out of desperation. But, recall if you will, what my mother did to me.
He answers, “I would, but my wife has a weak immune system, we’ve been social-distancing for seventy-three days.”
I don’t come any closer. Instead, I watch from a distance while he flutters around her, doing his work. It doesn’t take long to realize that his wife is not well. Whenever he speaks she responds in a loud voice and she seems confused. He has to remind her, for example, what his name is.
“I’m Larry, sweetie,” he says. And he says it two or three times. “Remember, darling, it’s me, your husband.’”
“Oh!” the woman says. “My husband Larry, you’d like him. Have you seen him?”
After this goes on for a few minutes, he doesn’t bother correcting her anymore, he just lets her go. Soon, he is even playing along. “Your husband sounds like an interesting man, ma’am.”
“Oh, he is. He used to cut my hair. Did you know that?”
“Did he now?”
“Oh, yes, Larry could cut women’s hair if he wanted. He was good, my Larry.”
I watch the elderly gentleman move around the old woman with the grace of an artist. There’s an art to cutting hair that has nothing to do with hair. In my lifetime, I’ve visited my share of tonsorial parlors. The best barber is a master at making a body feel comfortable in his chair.
He lets her talk. He isn’t interrupting her. I watch most of the haircut, a few kids on bikes join me. We’re all standing on the curb, gawking. This is a quarantine. Entertainment is hard to come by.
When he pronounces his wife’s head done, he begins sweeping the white hair clippings from the garage with a broom.
“Forty-one years,” he says to me. “We’ve been married forty-one years.” He doesn’t add anything to this. And I don’t think he needs to. We are strangers, and I’ve just seen something I won’t forget.
I bid him good day. I keep walking.
And I am eternally grateful that my mother gave up cutting hair.