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The Walkawayby Scott Phillips
This was the day the barber came to Lake Vista to give the old men haircuts, but Gunther wasn?t there to take advantage of it. If he?d been thinking about it he would have stayed around another day; as it was, he had become so preoccupied by the missed haircut that he decided he had no other choice but to part with the three-fifty or four dollars or whatever it was up to by now. Wincing at the thought, he touched his right hand to the back of his neck and pinched a lock between his thumb and forefinger to get a sense of its length. No, a haircut was the first order of business. Another week and it?d start to curl.
Walking west up the street, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and his clothes damp and heavy with sweat, he saw very little that was familiar to him; most of the buildings he knew had either been torn down entirely or taken over by new businesses, and he was slightly cheered to see Ray and Cal?s battered old barber pole rotating placidly on the rough orange brick wall next to what had always been Simmons?s watch repair shop, occupied now by a forlorn and unhygienic-looking frozen yogurt store. He watched it turn for a minute, its red and blue stripes faded to pink and baby blue, then yanked open the door and stuck his head through it into the yogurt shop for a moment, startling the morose teen manning the counter.
The boy regarded him with mute wonder, as though the arrival of a potential customer was the most puzzling development of his day so far. Gunther looked the place over disapprovingly, the sweat on his face and neck and in his hair going cold in the breeze from the ancient box air conditioner buzzing and rattling in thewindow behind the counter. The yogurt store couldn?t have been there long, but with its bare walls and the worn-smooth Formica countertop left over from the watch repair shop, the air inside it was already thick with failure. He knew there would be no point in asking the kid what had become of old Simmons, so without a word he slammed the door shut and descended the half flight of concrete steps to the barber shop.
Inside it was way too bright. Half a story underground, Ray and Cal?s had always been gloomy, even by barbershop standards. Now the dark wood paneling had been pulled down, the walls painted a pastel yellow, and the dim incandescent lighting overhead had been replaced with fluorescent tubes, which were also mounted around the frames of the mirrors. Two women and one young man were stationed behind the chairs, and all three of the customers were women, their clothes protected by shiny plastic sheets of dark gray. Gunther had never seen a woman in Ray and Cal?s before. All six of them looked at him expectantly, and the young man?s eyes narrowed.
?You?re going to have to leave now, okay, sir? I?m very sorry,? he said, stepping out from behind his chair and, for the benefit of the women, making a show of taking charge of the situation.
?What the hell are you talking about??
?I?m very sorry.? He was young, thirty or less, and when he put his hand on Gunther?s shoulder Gunther removed it calmly and deliberately, his eyes locked on the young man?s, gauging his resolve. The young man took a step away from him without making another attempt.
?Where?s Ray and Cal? I need a haircut.?
?I don?t know who you?re talking about, sir. Now as I said, you?re going to have to go.? The young man?s voice was artificially low and soothing like a goddamn orderly?s, and the tone made Gunther want to smash him one right in the snotlocker.
?Wait a sec, Curt.? The older of the two lady barbers spoke up. Her face was pretty and her eyes friendly, but her graying hair was shaved close on the sides like a man?s, and the combination made Gunther vaguely uneasy. ?Ray passed away a couple of years ago, sir.?
?Oh. Sorry to hear that.?
?Cal?s still around, though, out at the Masonic home.?
?I don?t think so. Just living there.?
?What do you know. So it?s a beauty salon now, huh?? He looked the young man up and down. He didn?t seem to Gunther like a fairy, but you couldn?t really tell anymore just by looking.
?No, sir, it?s unisex,? she said, and the word threw Gunther off for a second. ?I?ll be glad to cut your hair if you like. I?m almost done here and my two-thirty canceled on me.? The woman sitting in the chair in front of her stared at Gunther, in curiosity more than annoyance at the interruption of her haircut. He took a good look at her for the first time, a tall, plumpish woman of forty or forty-five with large, dark eyes; short, wet hair; and a lot of makeup. Her legs were so long they stuck out from under the plastic sheet a good six inches above the knee, and she reminded Gunther of somebody he couldn?t quite place but was pretty sure he liked. He was staring back at her so intently he forgot to answer.
?Sir?? The lady barber?s voice was louder this time, but he still didn?t answer. He tilted his head to the left, trying to think of who she reminded him of. One of the nurses? An old girlfriend, maybe, or a teacher from school? No, he never saw any of his teachers? legs up that far, not in those days. She sure had long ones.
?Oh . . . my . . . god,? said the other lady barber, stifling a laugh. ?The old bastard?s getting a hard-on.?
Gunther looked down and was surprised to see that this was so.
?All right, pal, enough?s enough. Let?s go.? Curt?s voice had lost its unctuousness, and Gunther resented him a little less for it.
?I?m going.? He turned and pulled the door open. ?Sorry I was staring at you, ma?am. You look like somebody I used to know.?
No one spoke as he left. Once the door closed he stood for a minute or so at the foot of the concrete steps, waiting for his erection to deflate. It was his first in a while and he was sorry to see it go.
A quarter mile or so up the road he stopped at a pay phone in front of a Stop ?n? Rob. In the Yellow Pages under ?Hair? he found a listing for Harry?s Barber Shop, which sounded like the kind of place where he?d be safe from any lady barbers or customers. It was about two miles west, close enough to get there before the end of the afternoon if he hurried, so he tore out the page and started walking again. He thought about going into the store for a soda, but his cash was tight and he hated to pay convenience store prices. He wasn?t all that thirsty anyway. It was humid without being overwhelmingly hot, the sky was a dark, orangy gray, and sniffing the warm afternoon air he could smell rain before sundown. If he made it to Harry?s Barber Shop in time he might be able to wait out the storm there.
It felt good to be outside and unsupervised. Earlier he?d been thinking how much simpler things would be if he were in a car, but he was happy now to be on foot and decided he wouldn?t even mind being rained on a little, as long as there wasn?t any lightning. As he got closer to the center of town the proportion of familiar, intact landmarks began to increase. He passed a used car lot where he?d once bought a 1946 Hudson Super Six with 35,000 miles on it that had ground to a permanent halt less than two years later as a result, his third wife had insisted, of his never having once changed its oil. Gunther had never known or cared much about cars, and he maintained that the postwar models didn?t need their oil changed all that often; the ensuing fight had been one of the marriage?s last. He wasn?t sure what had become of her after she remarried and he didn?t have to send her any more alimony. He didn?t know what had happened to his first wife either; the one in between them was the mother of his two daughters, and they?d kept in touch over the years through the girls and the grandchildren. She lived up north somewhere, he thought, or maybe she?d died.
A couple of doors farther west was a diner with thin plaques of fake marble mortared to its brick facade. Through the plate glass he saw a waitress he recognized, bored and loitering next to the cash register. She was a lot heavier now, her face gone round and slack with deep creases running from her nostrils to her mouth, but her hair was as thick and luxuriant and black as the last time he?d seen her. She gave a little start at the sight of him and beckoned him to come inside. Eager as he was to get to the barber shop before it closed for the day, he figured he had time for a cup of coffee.
?Gunther!? She had him in a bear hug as soon as he got through the door, and feeling her warm and soft against him Gunther couldn?t help thinking that her increased girth was probably a good thing. ?How long?s it been? Long time, seems to me. Hey, Jimbo, get out here and see who it is.? When she turned her face away from him to yell at the kitchen he snuck a glance at the name tag pinned to the polyester above her substantial left breast: irma. That seemed right.
A tiny, wizened man, who looked decades older than Gunther felt, came out of the kitchen scowling and wiping his hands. He brightened at the sight of Gunther and held out his hand to shake.
?Well, I?ll be dipped in shit. What?s a penny made of, copper??
It was only at the familiar salutation that he recognized the old man as the diner?s proprietor, about a foot shorter and thirty pounds skinnier than Gunther remembered him, as though a good part of his physical being had been siphoned off into Irma. ?How you been, Jimmy??
?I been getting older. Looks like you have, too.?
?Sit down and have something,? Irma said.
?Guess I got time for a cup of coffee,? he said, taking the stool nearest the register. The stools looked new, and in fact most of the fixtures seemed to have been replaced since he?d been in last. Shiny chrome along and behind the counter, new Naugahyde on the booths and stool tops, unscarred red-and-white checkerboard linoleum on the floor. He wondered where Jimmy had come up with the money for a remodel; there wasn?t another customer in the place.
?Have something to eat if you want.?
?I just had lunch,? he said, though in fact he hadn?t eaten since breakfast, some fruit salad he could tell was from a can and part of one of those pressed sawdust oat muffins they gave the old folks to make sure they all crapped like clockwork.
She poured him some coffee. ?I?ll make a fresh pot for you here in a sec. So how?s old Dorothy?? Jim went back into the kitchen.
?She?s fine,? he said.
?Give her my best. You?ll have to bring her in some time.?
?So how long since we?ve seen you??
?Not long after I retired, probably.?
?So I guess that means you didn?t know Jim and I got married?? She held up her left hand, palm inward, to show off a wedding band and what looked to Gunther like a pretty expensive engagement ring. Jimmy must have been squirreling it away for years, unless he was just spending himself into the poorhouse out of love.
?Thanks. It was a long time in coming, I?ll tell you that. Look, we even changed the name.? She held up a menu with ?Jim and Irma?s? printed on the cover. ?We had to throw out all kinds of menus and pens and guest checks marked ?Jim?s,? ? she said, and she pulled a framed photo off the wall behind the counter and handed it to Gunther. It was a wedding picture with Jim and Irma surrounded by a group of children ranging in age from toddler to about ten.
?Nice-looking bunch of kids.?
?Three of ?em are mine by my oldest daughter Nina, the others are Jim?s son?s kids. You got any grandkids??
?Six, all of ?em grown,? he said, though it was a guess. It was close to that anyway. ?One or two got kids of their own now.? He found himself distracted by the smell of frying onions.
?You don?t have a picture to show me, do you??
He reached for his wallet, thinking he didn?t. Inside, though, were pictures of a little boy and girl of about five, taken separately, and another of the little boy, slightly older, with a girl of about two. There were also high school pictures of two other girls and another boy. He pulled them out one by one and gave them to Irma.
?The one girl?s my granddaughter Cynthia?s first, Cynthia?s expecting her second in November. The brother and sister are my other granddaughter Tammy?s. My grandson Steve isn?t married yet, but there?s nothing wrong with him. These three older ones are Tricia and Amy, and the boy?s Danny. They?re Dot?s boy Sidney?s kids. None of them?s done with school yet.? The litany of names and relationships had poured out so fast and effortlessly he wondered where it had come from. For the first time since he?d left it occurred to him that people might be worried about him.
Irma studied the photographs with great interest as she emptied his coffee cup and refilled it from the fresh pot. ?They?re beautiful, Gunther.?
?Yeah.? He took a sip of hot coffee. It was the first caffeine he?d had in a long time, and he could feel himself starting to get a little jittery by the time Jimmy came out from the kitchen holding a plate with a cheeseburger and fries on it.
?Told you I didn?t want anything to eat.?
?I was going to throw these fries out anyway, and you never used to come in here without eating a cheeseburger.? He set it down in front of Gunther, who was too hungry to be stubborn.
?I?d hate to see it go to waste,? he said. He poured some ketchup onto the plate for the fries, then some more onto the onions on top of the patty and took a big bite out of it. Jimmy?s had never been his burger of choice, but this was better by a long shot than any he?d had since taking up residence at Lake Vista, and five minutes later burger and fries were a memory.
?You sure you don?t want something for dessert, Gunther? Piece of pie, maybe??
?Guess I?d better not.? He took another sip of his coffee and took out his wallet as he got up off the stool. ?Going to get my hair cut this afternoon.?
* * *
Just a block farther was a bar he knew from an armed robbery one afternoon in the late sixties when the owner had gunned down the would-be thief, who turned out to be armed only with a starter?s pistol. Gunther remembered congratulating him, both of them marveling at the poor dead shit-for-brains on the floor next to them trying to rob a bar in midafternoon on a Tuesday, when the till must have had less than twenty-five dollars in it. Peering into the dark, empty bar through the glass pane set in its front door, he was trying to remember the owner?s name and coming up blank when he heard the horn honking behind him. He turned to see a late-model silver Caddy pulling over to the curb, its passenger-side window rolling smoothly and effortlessly down. The driver scooted over to lean out the window.
?Excuse me,? she said. With her hair fluffed and dry, it took him a second to place her as the woman he?d been ogling back at Ray and Cal?s. She was prettier than he?d thought before, more carefully made up than most of the women he saw lately. Since he found large women attractive anyway, he appreciated the fact that they often worked extra hard to look nice, although in her case he thought she might have overdone it a little around the eyes. ?I didn?t mean to embarrass you back there.?
?That?s okay,? he said, surprised that he rated an apology. ?Didn?t mean to stare.?
?The thing is, after you left? When you said I reminded you of somebody??
?Probably my imagination.?
The woman looked at him doubtfully. ?Is your name Gunther??
?My name?s Loretta Gandy. It used to be Loretta Ogden.?
The first name meant nothing to him, but the second resonated somewhere in the back of his mind.
?Sally Ogden?s my mom,? she added.
The name gave Gunther a jolt, though he wasn?t sure why. It was a good bet, though, that this Sally was the woman she put him in mind of, and he relaxed a little. ?Oh.?
?Do you need a lift? I?d be glad to give you one.?
?Which way you headed??
?Whichever way you need to go.? She unlocked the passenger door and pushed it open, sliding back into the driver?s seat.
?Thanks a lot,? he said, and as he got in the first few warm drops of rain started falling, spotting the reddish dust on the windshield. She set the wiper to the slowest speed, smearing the drops into mud and necessitating a shot of wiper fluid as they pulled out.
?Harry?s Barber Shop, on Cowan and Second.?
She nodded and continued westward on Douglas, and for a while they were silent, though it seemed she was waiting for him to say something. Since he didn?t know what she was expecting, he kept his counsel.
?So, don?t you want to know how my mom is?? she finally asked.
?Sure,? he said, though who she was might have been a more pertinent question than how.
?Well, pretty good, at least as good as you can expect. She buried old Donald last year.?
?Was he dead?? He was instantly sorry he?d said it, but the old censoring mechanism had never been too sharp to begin with; now it seemed to be completely shot. She held her breath for a second, then looked over at him with her mouth wide open, stunned. He was about to apologize when she let out a loud laugh like a seal barking.
?That?s a good one. Guess you didn?t have any reason to like him much, huh??
He guessed that he probably hadn?t; the list of people he liked much was a short one.
?They moved back to town five years ago. I?ve been here since college. I don?t think she ever sees any of her old friends.?
?Probably they didn?t like Donald,? he said, not knowing who Donald was.
?Probably. He was pretty good to her, though, you got to give him that.?
?I guess you do.?
?You were, too. She always said so.?
He turned away from her to look at the passing streets, and she suspected he was trying to hide a tear. In fact, he was just trying to figure out what it was he was supposed to have done for this Sally. In an odd, indirect way it seemed to Gunther to be connected to his money and where he?d left it.
Gunther recognized Harry?s Barber Shop when he saw it. The front of the building faced the street corner, and an uneven old sidewalk bisected a triangular lawn a week past mowing time from the intersection of the sidewalks along Cowan and Second Streets, in a mostly residential neighborhood. Inside a lone, elderly barber stood bathed in ghostly, greenish fluorescent light, looking out a picture window at the sprinkling. By now the sky was so dark Loretta had put her headlights on. ?Here we are. Cowan and Second. That must be Harry in the window.?
?Must be. Thanks for the ride.? He tried to think of something else to say. ?Give my best to your mom.? He pushed the door open slightly.
?Hey, Gunther . . . ??
He pulled the door almost shut.
?How are you fixed for money??
?I got plenty of money. I just can?t get to it, that?s the problem.?
?The thing is, I know Mom owed you some money, ?cause I?ve heard her talk about it. . . .?
He couldn?t tell if she was lying or just nervous about offering him money; in either case he normally would have been insulted. But right now he needed money badly, and he was certain he?d be able to pay it back in a timely manner. ?Maybe so, it?s hard to remember. Don?t worry about it.?
She pulled open her purse and dug excitedly through it. ?No, no, Mom?d never forgive me if she knew, now hold on . . .? She pulled out a billfold and took out a pair of hundred-dollar bills, then a business card. She wrote something on the card, then handed it to him along with the bills.
?You take this, and if she owed you more than that you call me, okay??
He got out of the car and as she watched him marching up the sidewalk to Harry?s she worried that she hadn?t given him enough. She knew it had been hard for him to accept the money, and she was sure he?d never call to ask for more. This was likely her only chance to do something for him.
She rolled down the window just as he reached the door.
He turned and squinted at her, his hand braced perpendicular to his forehead to shield his eyes from the rain. Offering him more now would only embarrass him.
He nodded, turned away, and entered the barber shop. As she drove away it struck her that no trace of a smile had crossed his face since she?d first seen him, an oddly endearing trait that accorded with her own vague memories and her mother?s occasional drunken anecdotes about him.
Gunther didn?t feel much like talking, but Harry couldn?t seem to stop. He went on for a while about the local triple-A baseball team, which Gunther thought had folded years ago, then moved on to the subject of his kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. Having listed them all, he waxed philosophical about the business of bar- bering, and Gunther let it wash over him, enjoying the luxurious sensation of being in a real barber chair again. When Harry was finished cutting, he applied lather to the back of Gunther?s neck and sharpened a straight razor with a leather strop hanging from the counter.
?Why don?t you give me a full shave while you?re at it.?
?Sure thing. Not many go for a shave anymore, they got their Norelcos and their Brauns and they think that?s the same as a real shave.?
?Uh-huh.? The sight of the slightly curved blade jogged something. ?Did you have an accident in here with that once??
?It was no accident. You?re showing your age. That was in forty-seven.?
It was coming slowly into focus. It had been a big story at the time. ?Some old-time vaudeville comedian, right??
?That?s right, Jimmy Cavendish of Cavendish and Carlisle. He was from around here, raised on a farm outside of Shattuck.?
?Yeah, I remember him.?
?Carlisle played the hayseed and Cavendish was the city slicker, just the opposite of what they was in real life. They was big in vaudeville in the teens, then on Broadway, after that they made some movies. Last one they did had Martha Raye in it.?
Once he?d finished shaving the back of Gunther?s neck he brushed warm lather onto Gunther?s face and began carefully and systematically drawing the razor down at the side of the ear.
?He used to come back to see the family. His nephew Jack was a great friend of mine, we were in school together. I was just starting this place up, fresh out of the army, when Jack brings in his uncle for a haircut. His partner Carlisle had just died, and he was in kind of a funk. He wasn?t a young man anymore. Younger than you and me today, course, but remember back then a man of sixty was old.?
Gunther nodded. ?Mm-hm.?
?Anyhow, right after I lathered him up he says in this real quiet voice, ?I?m not going to make it to supper, Jack, tell your mother I?m sure sorry,? and by God if he don?t grab the straight razor right out of my hand and slash it right across his throat.? He moved the razor quickly under his own chin to illustrate.
?Yeah, I remember now.?
?Cut so clean that for a second I didn?t think he?d really done it, then I seen the blood start coming in a straight line through the lather, pretty soon it was all over the sheet and everywhere. Bled to death right in this chair, and it was brand new at the time.?
?I was scared it?d hurt business, but it sure didn?t. Put me on the map is what it did. Once I had the chair reupholstered I had all the business I could handle. I?m sure as hell sorry he killed himself, but he really did me a favor, doing it here in my shop.? Harry finished up the shave and pulled the sheet off of Gunther. ?Still raining. Your daughter coming back to pick you up or what??
?My daughters both live out of state. That was just somebody who gave me a ride.?
?Well, okay. How you getting home??
?Don?t know.? He wasn?t sure where home was anyway.
?Well, you can sure sit it out in here. I close up at six.?
?Thanks,? Gunther said, and he sat looking out the window while Harry talked, not thinking about much of anything except the rain.
Copyright © 2002 by Scott Phillips
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