Requiem at a Barber Shop
I walked into our house and cried out for my wife, Mel. I needed to share something with her. Something that would blow her mind.
“Why are your eyes all red and puffy, Charlie? You been cryin’? Dude, you took like a bat outta hell. What was that all about?” she asked.
“I know, I know; sorry about that. It’s just that you were raggin’ on me about stuff you wanted done around the house and the kids were behavin’ like little shits. I needed a break and a haircut, so I went to the Blue Hen. Can we talk about that later? Listen to this story about what happened at the Blue Hen. You will not believe this. There was this really old guy gettin’ a haircut and told us this unbelievably sad story about his family and how both his kids and his wife are all dead and he’s all alone in the world. He’s a sweet old guy and like 90 years old,” I jabbered excitedly.
“Slow down will ya? Start at the beginning.” I spent the next 30 minutes describing a tale of misery I’d just heard.
It was Christmas week when I visited the Blue Hen Barber Shop, located in Rehoboth, Delaware. I’d been going there for years. I knew all the barbers and knew exactly how I liked my hair cut. As I entered the shop, Old Toby, a sort of canine concierge, wobbled over to greet me. He’s a cross between a Collie and a whatever. He says hello to everyone who walks through the door. He’ll just stand there and stare at you until he receives satisfactory remuneration in the form of a pat on the head or a scratch behind an ear. Once the payment is made, the old mutt shambles back to his basket, which is located near the space heater. Tufts of freshly sheared hair were strewn on the floor around Burt’s barber chair. Evidence of a busy day.
The Blue Hen is a small operation—only three chairs, all of which looked to be relics from post WWII. A disused razor strop dangles from each chair, giving proof of the each chair’s vintage. Theplace could use a little sprucing up. The same floor tiles have been missing for years and a ceiling light’s been out for as long as I can recall. What the Blue Hen staff lacks in ambition, they make up for in their patriotic zeal. They love America. Every year—during Independence Day week—they hand out a free miniature American flag with each hair cut. There’s a larger flag taped to the bathroom door with bits of duct tape. And there’s a tattered bumper sticker below the flag that reads, “These colors don’t run.” Someone made smiley faces with the “O’s.”
There were only two people in the shop—Burt and an elderly gentleman who I’d never seen before. I took a seat next to Old Toby’s basket. The TV was on. The TV was always on and always muted and always tuned to the Nat Geo channel. The current program was about grizzly bears who were adroitly plucking airborne salmon as they attempted to ascend a waterfall. No frivolous game shows or saccharine soaps at the Blue Hen. That stuff’s for beauty parlors. This is a man’s barber shop.
Burt and the old fellow were as quiet as church mice. The only sound was the mechanical snip, snip, snip produced by Burt’s scissors. Prolonged silence unnerves me. I get jumpy. I wanted to initiate a conversation.
“Are you guys ready for Christmas?” I asked. “Me, I’ll be by myself this Christmas. The little woman up and went down to the North Carolina to visit her sister.” I heard nothing in Burt’s answer to indicate that he’d miss his wife one iota.
“What did that young fella’ just say, Burt?” the old man asked loudly. Burt amplified his voice and recited my question verbatim. The old man said nothing, as if my question didn’t warrant a response.
“Do you both live here in Rehoboth?” I inquired, not actually caring where they lived; my motive was to keep the conversation alive.
“Nope, I live over in Georgetown,” Burt replied. Again, the old man asked Burt to repeat what I said. “He asked where we live.” Burt shook his head, indicating his growing annoyance of having to repeat my every word.
“Oh, okay,” said the codger. “Me, I live ‘round here. Yup, been livin’ in these parts pert near all my life. I recall the Nor’easter in March o’ ‘62. It was a bad one,” the old man said shaking his head at the painful memory. “Pert near wiped out the whole boardwalk and most o’ the businesses on Rehoboth Avenue. Dolle’s Candyland was totally destroyed. They had to rebuild the whole shebang from the ground up.” Old Toby yawned and began to snore softly. Burt and I glanced at the dog, then at each other and grinned. Burt chortled.
“I’m 91 years old and a three-time cancer survivor,” the old man said pridefully, as if he defeated a formidable foe.
“Ninety one is a long time,” I remarked, “you sure don’t look it, sir. By the way, could I get your name?” Burt intervened, “Name’s Luke.”
“Charlie, could you speak up so he can hear ya?” Burt snapped. “I’m gettin’ kind o’ tired repeatin’ every thing you say,” I nodded in agreement.
“I’m 91 years old and a three-time cancer survivor,” Luke said again, not remembering that he’s told us his age and his bout with cancer only a few minutes earlier.
Luke continued to offer reflections of his life. His next utterances were deeply personal, dreadful recollections. Neither Burt nor I were prepared to hear what Luke was about to share.
“Yup, beat cancer three times, I reckon,” Luke repeated, “then Martha and me lost both our sons—one was killed in a car wreck and the other one was murdered by his wife. Doctor said she was crazy. I do believe she’s still the nut house. Then ‘round ‘bout three years ago my wife Martha passed. Marriedfor 63 years, we were. God bless her soul. She’s with the Lord now. I hope I’ll be joinin’ you soon, honey,” he said, as if Martha could hear him.
Burt froze; he stopped snipping and looked at me. A pall of gloom suffused the shop. It was palpable—it was so thick you could smell it. Suddenly, Luke broke down. He must have been overwhelmed. He buried his face in his hands and began to sob. They were heart-felt sorrowful sobs. He rocked back and forth slightly. I wondered if a heart can be broken three times? Given Luke’s display of unbridled human emotion, I was sure that it could.
Again, Burt and I glanced at each other, not sure what to do. Through eye contact and facial gestures, we arrived at a tacit agreement—not to insert ourselves in this man’s extremely personal moment. After a few minutes the sighs abated. He wiped the tears away with the back of his hand.
“Don’t know what came over me boys. Sorry ‘bout bawlin’ like that. I probably shouldn’t o’ been talkin’ ‘bout Martha so much. I can’t help it.” We told Luke that he didn’t need to apologize. Then I blurted, “We understand, Luke.” Immediately, I realized that was a stupid thing to say. There was no
way that we could empathize with Luke; we could never relate to his agony. We asked if we could help in any way. Luke didn’t speak; he only shook his head “no.”
I was stunned. I could only sit there, motionless. I turned my attention to the TV, pretending to be interested in the wildlife show. The last thing I wanted to think about were fish and bears. My mind
was focused on what I had just heard. Luke’s gaze was trained on Old Toby. Burt switched to the electric razor. At least it provided some much-needed noise to beak the silence. I wondered what was going through Luke’s mind—snapshots of family life, perhaps—birthdays, graduations, funerals, Christmas mornings… How could any of it be good? It was the family memories that were the source of his pain.
Burt stopped using the razor. The room was perfectly still again, which was the last thing we needed. It only magnified the unease we all felt. Then, as if on cue, Old Toby began whimpering and twitching. I thought he was having a dream. His timing was flawless; it broke the silence. We all stared at the dog and smiled. Luke managed a half smile, which meant that his episode of his despair was waning.
We noticed that it began to snow; a well timed divine intervention. They were large, moist flakes—good making for snow balls and snow men.
“I don’t believe there was snow in the forecast,” Burt observed.
“I reckon those weather people get it right once in a blue moon. I trust the Farmers’ Almanac. Wish I could o’ been so wrong and kept my job when I was still workin’,” Luke groused. I was delighted that he rejoined the conversation. The blanket of fresh snow made the outside world seem, a little cleaner, a little brighter.
As Luke was paying, Burt offered him a freebie.
“You wanna refrigerator magnet, Luke? They’re free with every haircut right up ‘till Christmas Eve.” The magnet featured a picture of the Blue Hen staff and its mascot. The slogan below the photo read, “We Cut The Musturd.” Even though the word “mustard” was misspelled, the owners decided to distribute them anyway. The magnet manufacturer said they were on the house. I don’t think Luke noticed the spelling error. As Luke donned his coat, he bade us farewell.
“I hope you both have a very merry Christmas.” His demeanor had changed completely. There was a twinkle in his eye and a bounce in his step. A welcome confirmation that he’d recovered from the jag a few minutes earlier. I was thankful.
“Burt, have a good Christmas and you too, young fella’. I know I’ll enjoy the holidays because the Lord’s birthday will soon be upon us. He patted Old Toby’s head. The mutt raised his head slightly, then resumed his usual position. Luke waved farewell as he left the Blue Hen. As he made his way to his car he faced skyward so the snow flakes could melt on his face. This boyish behavior was additional proof that he was in better spirits. Although I would never see Luke again, he was never far from my thoughts.
It was my turn for a trim. “The usual, Burt.” He knew exactly how I liked my hair cut. This is one of the advantages of having the same barbers cut your hair—they all knew how I liked my hair cut. As usual, Burt and I engaged in meaningless palaver—military service, former careers, sports, grandkids … Neither of us mentioned Luke’s outburst. Some things are better left alone. That doesn’t mean we weren’t thinking about Luke.
As I drove home, I relived the previous hour of my life. As I reflected on several things. I marveled at the Luke’s ability to cope with his insufferable misfortunes. I admired his stoicism. And I wondered how I would bear up if confronted with a similar situation. I also thought he must possess a limitless reservoir of inner strength. One that he can summon when necessary. Perhaps his religious beliefs provided a modicum of comfort and guidance.
His story forced me to acknowledge untapped emotions, emotions most of us possess. I grew misty-eyed when I thought of the suffering that Luke endured. How much can one person take? I also thought about the injustices in the world and how bad things can happen to good people. I felt a pang of shame. Shame for habitually complaining about piffling matters in my everyday life. If I wanted to emulate Luke, and I did, then I had start focusing less on myself and more on my family and friends and the downtrodden in our society. I’d have to examine my own existence to ensure that I honored the promises I made to myself.
Luke made an indelible impact upon me. He gave me two extraordinary Christmas gifts. The gifts of forbearance and a renewed appreciation for those around me. After I shared Luke’s story with Mel, she also became crestfallen. The kids strolled in.
“Are you guys okay? Have you both been cryin’?” our daughter asked.
“We’re more than okay, honey,” I replied. I pulled her and her brother close to Mel and me. I embraced them all in a firm, heart-felt way. Never again, would I take them for granted. Never again would allow myself to wallow in self-pity over fiddling matters. I was grateful to Luke for making this Christmas meaningful. I took comfort in knowing that it wouldn’t be long before Luke rejoins his family—he would be in a far better place. Thanks to Luke, I knew that my family and I were in a better place.