by Charles Baxter
The barber, whose name was Harold, had read the sports section, the business news, and was working his way down the front page when the boy and his mother came inside, The boy was wearing a spring coat too large for him, with mittens attached to the coat sleeves with alligator clips. The woman, upon entering, stood up straight as the barber looked at her and dropped his paper onto the floor.
“Louise,” he said, and the woman nodded. It was midday, and there were no other customers and no other barbers. Outside, the ice had melted into puddles, and the boy was stamping his feet. The woman and the barber stood looking at each other until finally he said, “Louise, it's been a coon's age.”
“Has it been that long?” she asked. She dropped her spring coat on one of the chairs, helpd her son out of his hat and coat, and led him toward the first barber chair. “Such a nice day,” she said. “Like spring, even though it isn't spring yet. Time for Robbie's first professional haircut. And I thought well, certainly, you should do it. “She leaned forward an dkissed the barber on the cheek.
“I've seen you around town,” he said. “Sometimes I wave, but you never seem to see me.”
She smiled. “Oh,” she said, “I see you. And I always think, “Well, there's Harold, and he's waving at me,” and what I do is, I sort of wave back, but, you know, mentally. Not so anyone would see.”
They stood there for a moment, the barber looking at the woman's face, doing his best not to stare at it, and the woman turned in profile to him, gazing at the display of Pinaud Clubman aftershave and Lucky Tiger hiar tonic on the windowsill. Her hands were on her son's shoulders.
“Did you know, Harold, that they're going to send a hot air balloon down, well, I mean, just over the main street in a littlle while? I heard about it.”
“It's a promotion,” he said. “Tulip Days in Five Oaks. They're going to drop discount coupons from the balloon into the street. It's good for business.” He was tugging nervously at his mustache. He stopped himself and went over to the counter near the mirror and came back with a board, which he put over the arms of the chair. He hoisted the boy up on the board and tucked the cloth in around his neck and spread it over is shirt and pants. The boy squirmed for a moment.
The barber bent down. “So, how old are you, young man?”
Three fingers poked up under the cloth.
“Can you say it?” the barber asked.
“He is very shy,” the boy's mother said. “But he can say it. He knows. He's three, aren't you, Robbie? Aren't you the handsomest kid in all Five Oaks?”
The boy said, “No,” and looked at the floor. He smiled for a split second, and, just as quickly as the smile had appeared, it vanished.
“Everyone's handsome at three,” the barber said. “It's later that they aren't. Louise, how do you want his hair cut?”
“Sort of normal,” she said. “Sort of like a normal boy.”
Harold nodded and began clipping around the boy's ears. His knees were trembling slightly and he had to lean againts the chair to steady himself. He noticed that his scissors were't quite steady, either, so he stopped for a moment. His face, and Robbie's, and Louise's, were reflected, in the usual way of barber shops, forty or fifty times, accordion like, back into darkness beteen the two wall mirrors.
How's George?” the barber asked.
“George? George is fine. George is always fine. He's the definition of fine. Except he's losing his hair. You should know. You cut it. Don't you two talk?”
“Yes,” Harold said. “About the weather. And sports.” she said. “You told me.”
“I'm a barber, Louise. I have to talk to these men about something.”
“Well,” Louise said, standing by the window, “you could toak to George about me.”
“What would I say? I don't see you anymore, exept to wave. And I don't want ot be curious, do I?” He stopped cutting the boy's hair to glance at her. She shrugged. “No, I do not talk George about you. That's not even…” He thought of a word he never used. “Conceivable. That's not conceivable.”
“Oh, you cauld say something about me. To him. But he wouldn't notice. He'd go right on sitting, having his hair cut, and not noticing.”
robbie squirmed, and Harold began to sing “Boris the Spider,” walking his fingers across the top of the boy's head. Robble laughed and said, “No Boris.” When he had settled down again, Harold bent to clip the hair at the back of the boy's neck.
“Robbie's hair color is the same as yours.” Louise said, “and his eyes, too, the exact same. youknow, sometimes I have these thoughts, when I'm lying in ben, late at night, next to George, and he's snoring, you know, asleep and ignoring me, and anyway, I'm looking at the way my toes poke up under the blankets, so there are two little peaks down there at the end of the bed, and I'm having these thoughts, and the only trouble with them is, they're tricky. you can't say them around George, you know?”
“Sort of,” Harold said, She was as beautiful and as crzy as ever. His craziness, his wildness, had once been able to match hers, and then it could not. “Have you ever tried to say them?”
“I'm trying to say them now,” Louise said. “You remember in junior high, when we had that math teacher, Mr. Powers”
“He taught shop class.”
“He did that too. Anyway, once in science club, one of our meetings when you weren't there, he said that maybe the universe was imaginary. That maybe it was all made up. And that it could be a thought in someone's head. Or, maybe it was a trick, sort of like a practical joke.”
“What are you saying, Louise?”
“You're so handsome, Harold, no wonder I fell in love with you. But you're so mild. You never took me anywhere. You never even drove me out of this town. you talked softly and you had nice hands but you didn't spirit me away. That was the one thing you had to do, and you never did it. You never even took me to a movie. Of course there was George by then, but you see what I'm getting at.”
“Oh, God, Louise,” he said. “For Gods sake.”
“”But that's it,” she said, “that's what I'm saying. I'm not blaming you. You never took me away because I as married to George, that was the first thing, and the second thing was, you were yourself> Mild. A very very mild and pleasant-feeling man who never did anything execpt cut hair. Who couldn't take me away because he just couldn't, hat's all. And that's what I mean about the universe. Those are my thoughts, when I'm lying awake at night.”
“I don't get the part about the universe.” He was finishing up on Robbie's hair, trimming along the sides, going quickly so the boy wouldn't have to sit much longer. The fine, blondish curls fell over his fingers onto the floor.
“the universe, Harold, is a practical joke.”
“Why, on us, of course. They put it together to be a joke on us.”
To be continued on page 2….