He hates this big-chain, budget haircut place, but he can’t think of anywhere else to go and wouldn’t want to pay any more than fifteen bucks for a haircut anyway. The staff here is young kids. Girls, some of them maybe not out of high school, accessorized with random facial piercings, rooster tails of day-glo hair, and bored expressions. This must be the bottom of the ladder in the haircut game.
He used to get his haircut at a place called Presidio’s, by the train station. A real barber’s kind of place, two chairs, combs in a big vial of blue liquid, a copy of the Daily News on a table by the front window. No waiting. He can’t remember ever talking to the barber, who could have been Presidio, in the seven, eight years he went there. One day he showed up for a haircut and the windows were papered over, a For Sale or Lease sign in the window.
This place won’t make appointments or reservations either, but they will write your name on a Post-It note if you call ahead to see if there’s a wait. There’s no rhyme or reason to the queue, though. No matter where his name is on whatever piece of paper, he will inevitably be sitting here when some person who came in after him will have their name called and be waved to an open chair. Or, more aggravatingly, somebody will just swan in through the door and bypass the name-on-the-paper nonsense entirely. If you go to the little front desk to see where you are on the list, you see there is no list, just Post-It notes affixed to the blotter in a cagily haphazard manner.
The clientele is older. Mostly guys, but some women, too. Thirties, forties, fifties. People who maybe aren’t too particular about their hair. Sometimes he’ll be sitting in a chair, watching some tattooed girl regard him inattentively in the mirror, scissors and comb in hand, waiting for him to say what he always says, Razor the sides, scissors for the top, short, but not too short, and he’ll divine what she’s thinking.
Why do old people even get haircuts?
He can remember thinking the same thing of his mother’s friends, when he was a boy. Why do they even bother? What are they trying to prove? They were — he does the math in his head — in their early thirties, probably. Clucking hens rooting through handbags, lighting and discarding long, slim cigarettes. Mystifyingly ancient. Ten years younger than he is now.
A big slump-shouldered kid in greasy workpants and boots stands and follows a haircut girl — no, a stylist — to the back. There are two other people with him here in the waiting area. Another kid on his lunch hour from some construction job, it looks like, and an older woman, sixty, sixty-five. Her hair is high, tight, and steely, like a bank president’s. Both customers are intent on their phones.
He hates this place. Every wall, every vertical surface, is a mirror. He’ll hear a name called and he’ll look up and sometimes he can’t quite get his bearings, his gaze caroming off reflections inside reflections. It gives him a headache.
He looks out the front window, which at least offers a stable view. It rained all night and it’s raining now, a thin, drenching drizzle. The racetracks at Aqueduct, Monmouth, and the Meadowlands will be sloppy. Usually this puts him in a good frame of mind; any randomizing variable that resets the table, skews the consensus, will serve to push play toward the smart money. And he needs a good day. His next disability check is ten days away and he’s already short.
Somehow, though, he doesn’t feel good about the rain. He’s already missed the first race, and he’ll miss the second and third, too, by the time he gets down to Lenny’s, the OTB place he favors when he’s not making the trek to Monmouth. But that’s not it. Rather, it’s an omen, a feeling in the air. Something doesn’t feel right. A free floating anxiety waiting to settle somewhere.
The bell above the front door tinkles and a woman, middle-aged professional type in skirt and heels, artfully disarranged mop of blond hair, enters. She goes to the little front desk and, sure enough, is whisked away to the back of the shop. Dye job, most likely.
He has heard that his ex-wife is working somewhere now, something mid-level administrative for the state of Arizona. He tries to remember the last time he spoke to her. More than a year ago, surely. What did she say? State government. Border patrol? She’s married again, some guy. Pete? Steve? All these little details, vanishing. He himself pulled sixteen years at Ocean Spray as a container switcher until his back went out. The plant was shuttered, what, five years ago. He couldn’t tell you where any of those guys are today.
The old lady leaps up like she’s been goosed and toddles across the floor in running shoes, off in pursuit of beauty. Why even bother, he thinks again. Lately, he’s developed this loose roll of flesh under his chin that actually sways back and forth like a fucking turkey neck when he tweaks it. His whiskers have started coming in silver and a patch of wispy, white hair has appeared at the top of his back, of all places. He’s no freaking old man, far from it, not even fifty. But still, the signs are there. Incipient. Your cells, he’s heard, are programmed to reproduce a specific number of times, and then that’s it. The smart money is on extinction. He looks around for a mirror to see how bad he looks.
The bell over the front door tinkles again and this time it’s the mailman, bag slung over his shoulder, plucking circulars and business-class mail from a stack in his hands. He has earbuds in his ears and the music is loud enough to be plainly audible several feet away.
Jesus fucking Christ, he thinks, as the other kid rises from his chair. Maybe he should just leave.
But he realizes he’s still looking for a mirror with his reflection in it. A thousand images, bent and inverted and refracted, and he’s not in any one of them. It’s like he’s here, but he’s not here.