I took my seat in the red leather barber’s chair and waited for the cape to be draped around my throat.
For two hours I’d been standing in line with every man in the city, or so it had seemed. All of us in varying states of scruffiness, respectfully standing, chatting about what was coming while we waited for our turn at Carlos’s Cuts. Now, finally reclined in the chair, the feeling of weightlessness in my feet was euphoric.
Jimmy was in today. I closed my eyes and listened to his breezy banter while he tidied a man’s head in the chair next me and I waited for Carlos to sterilise his scissors so we could begin.
Carlos Espinoza was a machine. That day he’d opened at 7am and vowed to stay open until he’d cut the hair of every man waiting in line. By then, it was nearly 6 in the evening, two hours after he’d normally close.
I heard the tap of steel on the basin and a few test snips then the snap of the cape being flicked clean of hair. The black silk settled on my chest and I breathed the familiar minty aftershave Carlos used to finish his cuts. He’d told me it was the same his father had used when this was his shop.
“Trim, Frankie?” he asked.
“Shave it, please,” I replied.
I felt, as much as I heard, the sudden ceasing of his movements.
Then his belly laugh broke forth and filled the shop with its music. “You’re joking, right?” he said. “What the hell are you talking about, ‘shave it’?”
Carlos had spent years manicuring my hair over countless fortnightly touchups in this very chair. It felt like a betrayal.
A number one over the ears, blended into temple fuzz that was more salt than pepper now, blending to longer hair cleaved by a sharp part that swept back over my scalp finishing with Carlos’s signature tapered V pointing down the nape of my neck. By anyone’s measure it was fantastic haircut. Carlos claimed to have based all the proportions of my hairstyle on the golden ratio. I couldn’t vouch for that but the first time Carlos cut my hair was the last time I went anywhere else.
“Shave it,” I said with the false bravado I’d manufactured in the hours it took to get to the front of the queue.
“This masterpiece?” he said, circling my head with his hands. “This is my finest creation?”
“I’m sorry, Carlos. I know you have put a lot of time into this hair, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to see you again.”
Carlos grimaced, sighed, and nodded slowly. “I understand.”
“Truly, I’m sorry,” I said again.
“It’s okay, Frankie. You are the tenth headshave this morning.”
“Everyone’s going crazy with this virus, huh?”
“I mean, it’s good for business this week, but once the mandatory shutdown starts? I don’t know what I’m gonna do, man.”
The virus hadn’t even hit our city yet but, in its own way, it was already claiming lives. I looked at Carlos in the mirror. He looked old and tired, the weight of the world and his family on his broad, tattooed shoulders. I felt a pang of anxiety in my gut as I thought about my own kids, both blissfully unaware of how close we all were to being out on the street. The call from the boss would come through any moment advising my contract was to be put on hold until further notice. I had a little savings, and my parents’ place on the coast was available to us if we couldn’t make rent, but who was going to help us move out if it came to that?
The announcement of mandatory quarantine for every citizen without exception was going to cripple small cash-only businesses like Carlos’s Cuts. At least he was making money today. Thirty bucks-a-head, even then the line must have still run the block.
Carlos reluctantly put the scissors away and fired up the clippers. “Number two?”
“Let’s go the one,” I said. “That ought to give me another week.”
Carlos raised his eyebrows and adjusted the blades.
The clippers’ buzzing grew loud in my ear and my heart rate went through the roof as though I was about to receive the lethal injection.
“You alright?” Carlos said.
I breathed deeply. Steeled myself. “It’ll grow back,” I announced in hope rather than fact.
Carlos was dragging the clippers in rows from my forehead to my neck. A farmer harvesting grey wheat. I watched with morbid curiosity as the tufts fell from my head. Chunks of hair once so a part of my person that I was surprised they fell without causing me physical pain. They brushed my cheek and tickled my neck and the ones from the front of my head settled in my lap. The silver nest piled onto the cape under which my hands were firmly clasped. I released my grip and allowed blood to flow back into my fingers.
I puffed air up my face to release both some stray hair from my eyebrows and the rising anxiety I was experiencing watching the removal of my beloved hair. My head was half shaved and I considered making a crack about leaving it as is but the queue outside was becoming agitated.
Through the door, the patient murmurs of men awaiting their turn rose to that recognisable urgency that precipitates an argument.
A man yelled, “Hey! Wait your damn turn, asshole!”
Scuffling at the door caused my head to turn as Carlos maintained his professional attention, pulling his clippers away reflexively, though a slip would have made no difference to the end result.
A young man in a black hoodie and oily jeans stood at the door huffing. The desperation in his eyes was the kind that we all knew was coming, that we’d all felt building in our chests as the news became increasingly alarming. We’d seen it on the news; cities, entire countries overrun by the desperate. Dramatised in countless zombie apocalypse movies, it was the look of anguish we’d promised ourselves not to judge unfairly because, eventually, it was inevitable we’d feel it too.
“Don’t cast aspersions on these poor fools,” my neighbour had said as we lamented another failed trip to the store to buy toilet paper. “We can’t none of us know what they got goin’ on in they lives. They just tryin’ to provide for they family.”
I’d outwardly agreed, though internally I was seething at the selfishness of these paranoid prepper bastards.
The man continued to stand in Carlos’s doorway, breathing heavily but otherwise silent. The crowd behind him pawed and brayed at the man, all of them trying to get through the door at once thereby permitting none of them. Jimmy moved to the man, hands raised in the ‘I come in peace’ gesture. “Easy, buddy,” he said.
The man looked at him, disdainful, almost pitying him, as if being a barber was a shameful profession for a redhead.
“Can I help you, sir?” Carlos said with calm authority.
The man continued to huff and puff as Jimmy moved carefully behind the man and closed the door on the seething mass on the street.
“You need a haircut, sir?” Carlos said.
The man swallowed. His voice was a coarse whisper as he said, “Fuck your haircut, man.”
Before Jimmy the Irishman—whose blood was famously quick to boil—could stab the man with his scissors, Carlos urged calm. “Easy, Jim.”
At this juncture, I admit I was on the side of Jimmy taking care of the situation until Carlos continued, saying, “Now, just put the gun down, pal, and we’ll work something out.”
That’s when I saw the black pistol barely concealed in the man’s hoodie pocket. His hand was bleached white from the strain of his grip on the weapon.
“There’s nothing to work out, pal,” the man said. “You give me the cash in your till there and you live to see another day.”
Against my better judgement, I emitted a sound that I’d hoped to be words of comfort. Something to deescalate the situation. Perhaps it was the adrenaline, the abject surrealness of the scene, all I said was, “Whoah.”
“What the fuck you call me, man?” the gunman said, lunging toward me with the pistol drawn. It shook in his corpse-white claw.
“Nothing, man,” I said. “Just want us all to calm the fuck down.”
“I am calm. And I’ll be a whole lot calmer when this motherfucker empties his till.” The man swooped his gun to Carlos’s face.
“Okay, okay,” said Carlos.
Sweating through his white shirt, arms raised in surrender, he looked like every cliché holdup victim. I half-expected a director to call ‘Cut!’ because it looked too cheesy to be authentic.
Outside, the window was lined with guys yelling wildly into their phones, gesticulating and miming with invisible guns as they explained the situation to—who?—the police? A girlfriend? Who knew these days. The ones not talking on their phones appeared to be filming and I felt guilty I was going to be on the news, my wife was going to see me, and we’d have an argument about me spending thirty bucks on a haircut I could have had her do for free with my beard trimmer.
“Open it,” said the man who had backed Carlos up to behind the register.
“Okay, pal,” Carlos said as he lowered his hands slowly to the register. “Just calm down.”
The man blinked hard, kept his eyes shut for a moment as though trying to remember something. He tapped the barrel of the gun on his forehead and said, “If one of you tells me to calm down again, I’m going to shoot you both, do you understand?”
“Okay, buddy,” said Carlos. “We’re good.”
If I hadn’t known any better, I would have guessed Carlos had done this a few times. His hands were steady as they continued down, slowly descending to the register’s buttons. From my angle, watching in the mirror, Carlos’s hands disappeared below the price display on the register and he raised one finger to alert the gunman he was about to press the button and a loud sound was coming; as if he was trying to avoid startling a wild animal.
“I’m going to open the register now, pal, okay?”
“Shut the fuck up and get on with it,” the man said.
“Jimmy,” Carlos said calmly, raising his finger.
I shifted my eyes left and saw Jimmy had moved a couple of feet toward the action. He stopped at Carlos’s command and placed his scissors on the counter.
The man with the gun pointed it at Jimmy and said, “You want to die today or something?”
“No, mate. Just needed to put the blades down.”
The gun remained trained on the Irishman.
“Hey, pal,” said Carlos. “Stay focussed.”
The gunman returned his aim to Carlos’s chest.
“I’m going to open the till now,” Carlos said. “And then you’re going to walk out of here, right?”
The gunman swallowed again and waved his gun at the till. “Hurry the fuck up.”
The chime of the register was a starter’s pistol for the man. He leapt at the cash drawer and stuffed notes into his hoodie pocket, taking his eyes away from the task for brief moments to ensure he wouldn’t be interrupted.
“Hey, you prick,” said Jimmy.
The man scoffed and continued to empty the till. Carlos gestured for Jimmy to keep his cool.
“Hey!” Jimmy yelled. “That’s our hard-earned in there, asshole.”
The man extended the gun toward Jimmy. “You think I give a shit, man?” he said. “It’s every man for himself out there.”
I found my voice, though small and higher-pitched than I’d anticipated, saying, “It doesn’t have to be that way.” It felt false, a platitude. A high school counsellor dealing with a depressed kid, hopelessly out of his depth.
The man paused for a moment and flared at me. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the news lately? But yeah, it already is that w—”
Carlos lunged at the man, reaching for the gun with both hands. The man lifted the gun out of his reach and fended Carlos away with his free hand. Carlos stretched again, launching himself, but the piles of hair on the floor caused him to slip and he fell to the ground. Cash spilled from the gunman’s pocket and he crouched to pick it back up, Carlos grabbed the man’s ankle and brought him to the ground.
The two men were lost from view and Jimmy entered the fray with staggering speed before a firecracker or maybe two pieces of wood slapped together next to my ears with a deafening crack and Jimmy staggered back, he’d spilled wine on his white t-shirt, the sound had been a loud cork maybe, but corks pop from Champagne which is white, not red, then the wine came out of Jimmy’s mouth, not watery but thicker, viscous, thicker than water—what’s that saying about blood being thicker than water?—God, oh god, Jimmy was bleeding and then he fell to his knees, his eyes wide and not understanding, he pleaded to me without a word and I wanted to apologise like it was my fault then his eyes went grey while Carlos fought the man behind the counter then another crack—this one muffled—and then nothing.
The sound of Carlos wrestling the gunman, the shuffling sounds of their feet sweeping through the mountains of hair, was replaced by the familiar raspy huffing of the intruder.
He got to his feet, stuffed the cash in his hoodie and brushed his fringe from his sweating face.
“That was his fault,” he said, pointing the gun at Carlos’s body. He appeared angry, as if Carlos defending himself and his barbershop was a personal insult. “And that guy,” he pointed at Jimmy. “I mean, he jumped me. What was I supposed to do?” The man appeared shaken, his ghostly pallor was now a greyish green. He took a couple of short, sharp breaths.
He began to cry.
My shock must have been setting in because, in that moment, I felt bad for him he was so pathetic and retched with snot leaking from his nose. Notes floated down from his hoodie pocket. He didn’t bother collecting them this time; worthless as dried leaves.
“What’s your name, pal?” I said. I didn’t want to be his friend, I just didn’t want to get shot.
“Huh?” he said.
“Your name. What’s your name?”
“It’s, ah,” the guy appeared to forget for a moment before finally, “Jeff.”
It sounded like a false name but I said, “Okay, Jeff. We’re going to walk out of here now.”
Jeff took a moment to respond. He just said, “Yeah, okay.”
I rose from my chair and the sudden change in dynamic within the shop startled him. His gun was in my face and shaking again.
“Please, man. Jeff. Come on, I have two little kids waiting for me at home.”
“What? You think I don’t got kids?”
“That’s great, Jeff. Then let’s focus on our kids, hey? They’re going to want to see us tonight, right? Bedtime stories—”
Jeff’s eyes suddenly lit up and the gun swept its aim over my shoulder. The glass door shattered behind me and a voice screamed, “Drop your w—” before being silenced by Jeff’s handgun. It exploded in my ear then I heard nothing but a high-pitched squeal that appeared to originate from the depths of my brain as Jeff convulsed—first jerking his left shoulder back, then his right, like he was dancing in a video clip. Then he threw his head back and fell dead on the barbershop floor.
Two blue blurs barged past me and threw Jeff’s carcass on its stomach, cuffed it, and mouthed words into their radios.
At some point, another person guided me back to the red leather chair. The weightlessness of my feet had dispersed up and through my entire body, muted sounds were beginning to materialise beneath the ringing, and foreign smells I couldn’t place gave me the sense of being in a dream.
A lady in a police uniform was asking me questions but all I could concentrate on was my reflection.
Half my head was shaved to a neat carpet of silver fuzz, the other half was a scruffy impression of my former hairstyle smattered with dark red stains, flecks of which also dribbled down my face. In my official statement, it says I asked the policewoman if she could finish my haircut, though I have no recollection of saying that.
I haven’t had my hair cut since the shooting at Carlos’s Cuts. Partly because of the lockdown, the crippling financial situation, sure. But the way my hair’s grown out, it’s like some sculptural tribute to Carlos and Jimmy. One side neat and tidy—though considerably longer now—the other, wild and quick to become untethered from the slightest breeze.
I know I look ridiculous but I can’t bring myself to cut it. To remove the traces of Carlos and his clippers would be an even greater betrayal than the cut itself.
Carlos Espinoza. The last man to cut my hair; the virus’s first fatality.