Hurley was just a working man, who’d been handed bad luck the day he was born, and a shitty job after he quit school at sixteen, and now, today, the shitty job bosses had called him in and set him down and told him this; there’s no more work for you. The work is gone. You’re not needed. Leave. His mind filled with these words too full, and burst, and he could not, would not think the fact that this might just be his last straw. After leaving the shop he walked out into the rain, lightly falling, thinking that being in his job would have saved him, but now, the job was gone. He walked through the rain, and walked, and walked, and the passing stores and tracks filled his empty mind a little at a time, until he was able to see hear and think again, and he stopped dead in his tracks. Hurley realized he was soaked to the bone, he was ice cold, and he did not know where he was; everything came at him cloudy and vague, like; he had never been in this town before, how long had he walked, how far, where is this; and before him hung a dripping wet sign over a storefront shouting ANTHONY’S BARBER SHOP. The place stood rotted, falling down, and it looked dark and closed inside. It was abandoned as he had been, back at the shop. Fired, not needed, told to leave, shoved out of sight. Like this barber shop. The rain came harder and he thought this a perfect place to get out of the rain, sit down someplace, and decide what he would do next, and think over how he would break this to the woman who had been stupid, very stupid, stupid enough to marry him. He tried the barbershop door, found it unlocked, and stepped out of the rain into the same pitch darkness that had filled his mind and made him wander so far. He squinted into the dark and could make out shapes only. Yes, abandoned things are always hollow and dark and terrifying inside. Kind of like his life. There was comfort in this rainless dark. Life was hard. Maybe it was time for it to be all over? And this was the perfect place to go through with what he’d been tempted to do, all his life. He searched his pocket, looking for his pocket knife. A man should always carry a good sharp knife, had said a dead uncle. And Hurley had done as told, and got a knife, and carried it everywhere to prove he was a man; and now, how, here had come the perfect place to use it. He finally knew for sure why every man should carry a knife. A knife could be used to escape. He had escaped the cold hard rain. Now he could go further. Maybe there’s no need to come up with what to tell his wife. The knife came from his pocket; he was drawing out his final escape, and he felt so relieved. It would be no big deal, just a couple of quick cuts, and it would be over. Where to sit, where to sit—
Come in, said a deep voice.
Hurley froze; thank God he had a knife with him—who or what was that?
Wait, wait, he called into the blankness. I have a knife, so keep back! I’m leaving, yes I am. I came in by mistake, and I’m going!
No! Don’t go! Here—
The lights came on. Too much light now—but the light showed a spotless place, worn around the edges a bit, with worn linoleum on the floor and worn paint on the walls and grimy looking windowsills, but at the same time spotless. And a large man stood before the barber chair; a huge black man, with a great barrel chest and thick legs and well-trimmed black hair slicked back, and a pointed face and blank looking eyes. His eyes were cloudy, grey, and unfocused.
The place was not abandoned.
And, Hurley realized the man was blind.
But how could there be a blind barber?
Come, he said, staring sightlessly into space. Get in the chair. What kind of haircut would you like?
I—I don’t want a haircut.
Then what do you want?
He had to say it.
You’re blind. How can you be a barber?
The barber flexed his hands.
I do it all by feel.
Hurley imagined the scissors snapping close to his ears close by his scalp and the sensitive hands moving over his head, and he thought this was amazing—just as amazing as reading Braille seemed to him—on the outside of elevators there was Braille under the floor numbers and Hurley had many times, while waiting for the elevator, closed his eyes and felt the Braille, and it just felt like a vaguely rough spot on the wall—how could the blind people detect the precise pattern of dots that made what to Hurley was just a single rough spot?
How long have you been a barber? asked Hurley.
All my life.
How long have you been blind?
Hurley thought he had gone too far, asking such a personal question, but what was said was said; so he gritted his teeth and put the thought from his mind.
All my life, said the barber—now do you want a haircut or not?
How much? asked Hurley, though he knew full well he had no money.
Hurley pushed his hands down in his pockets.
I don’t have any money, he said.
The blind barber gazed past Hurley and said, You just don’t believe I can do a good job of your hair. Come on, sit down. The haircut will be great—
But I’ve got no money, said Hurley. And I’m not sure I need a haircut anyway, he said, running a hand through his hair.
You came in here for a reason, said the barber. You came in here for a haircut—or how about a shave? Come on, sit down. The shave will be great—
Hurley imagined the feeling of the cold sharp straight razor scraping over his neck near his jugular vein and across the rest of his face, guided by the hand of a blind man. Hurley was fascinated. He had to know more about this man.
What made you decide to be a barber, he asked.
The giant black barber leaned against the barber chair, saying, My father and my uncle were both barbers—and I used to spend all my time growing up in the barber shop. I liked to listen to all the conversations and all the crazy stories that went on between my father and uncle and the customers—and all this with a backdrop of scissors snipping and electric razors humming and the whisper soft sound of hair falling to the floor—I sat there in the dark bathed in all this, and this became my world. So, when it was time for me to decide what I would do with my life, my father came up to me and said, You’re going to cut hair too. And he took me up in front of the barber chairs and had me feel over everything on the shelf so I’d know where everything was—the combs and scissors and clippers and all. And he started having me hand his tools over to him when he cut hair, like a nurse would hand a surgeon his instruments during an operation. And he had me do that for about six months until I knew the shelf and all the tools and where they were and what they were and how to use them inside out. Then one day he came up to me, and put his hand on my shoulder, and spoke.
It’s time for you to learn to cut hair now, son.
What do you mean, I said—I was stunned.
Here, he said—and he led me to the barber chair and sat down in it and said, All right, come on—cut my hair. Just do it slow, and careful, and use your fingers to feel what to cut and where my ears are and my forehead and the back of my neck.
But I don’t know how to cut hair, I said. I don’t know how to make it look right. How will I see it, how it comes out? What if I cut you?
You won’t cut. Just decide you won’t and you won’t. It’s as simple as that to decide whether to do something for the first time. And your fingers. Use your fingers. Your fingers are your eyes. Come on, use them. God gave them to you, so you must use them. So, come on. Do it. Give me a nice short haircut.
And I did it, said the blind barber to Hurley. I cut his hair. God, I expected to hear him yell out, I was sure I’d cut off his ears, but I got through it, and I said, How does it look?
It looks great—there you go son! There you go—now you’re on your way—
Anyway, after that I cut my Father’s hair and my Uncle’s hair for about two years, and I learned how to see their heads with my fingers. I practiced cutting it long, cutting it short—then one day I was sitting in the barbershop listening to everything and smelling all the smells—I don’t know if you ever noticed it, but cut hair has an odor—a strong odor.
I never noticed that, said Hurley.
Oh yes, it does—but anyway, a customer came in and my Father told him, My boy there’s going to cut your hair today, okay? He’ll be taking over the place, so I’m getting him started.
What? said Bennie—the customer’s name was Bennie—but your boy is blind. How can he cut hair? You need to see to cut hair—
See my hair? said my Father, leaning forward.
Yes, said Bennie.
Is it cut well?
Well—my boy did it. And Gary over there—how do you like his haircut?
You don’t mean to say—
Yes. My boy did that too. So come on, Bennie. Sit down here. He’s going to cut your hair. Don’t worry. He knows what he’s doing.
I heard the sound of Bennie getting into the chair and as I draped the cloth over him and tucked it in around his neck, I asked him the question I’d heard my father ask thousands of people through the years.
How do you want your hair cut, I said.
Short, said Bennie. Short all around. But be careful!
As I walked around the chair to get the clippers, Bennie spoke to my father.
Are you sure about this? he said.
I’m sure. Go ahead son. Cut his hair.
And I cut Bennie’s hair. Short, like he wanted. I wasn’t nervous at all; I’d practiced enough—and when it was over and he was at the register paying, my father, he paid me a compliment.
Great haircut, kid, he said.
And I nodded into the nothingness that was always before my eyes, and heard the register drawer close, and I heard Bennie go out across the creaking floor, and after the door closed behind him I felt my father take my hand and put some money into it.
There you go son, he said. Your first tip. Two dollars.
I stuffed the money down into my pocket and I felt myself smile broadly, and that’s how it’s been ever since. When Gary retired a few years later I took the second chair full time, and when my Father died the place passed down to me.
What about school, asked Hurley. How long did you keep on going to school?
I never went to school. Not a single day. I just stayed here in the barber shop all the time and that chair over there—see that chair over there by the wall?
I spent years sitting in that very chair listening. I listened to every haircut my Father and Gary gave since I was a baby. And I learned Braille sitting in that chair. I taught myself.
How could you teach yourself Braille?
Oh, it was easy. I just fooled around with it and took my time.
Where was your mother all this time?
My mother died in childbirth.
Don’t be. It happened. She didn’t die right away. The birthing somehow paralyzed her. She couldn’t do anything. In about a month and a half, she died.
Are you married? asked Hurley.
No, no—I’m not the marrying kind. But anyway—how ‘bout it. A shave? A haircut?
I told you I have no money, said Hurley.
Tell you what. A free haircut for you. Things are slow. You could use a trim. Come on. Sit down. Sit down right here—
No. Sorry. Say, I’m going to leave now.
Why did you come in here if you didn’t want a haircut?
I—I don’t know. I guess I’m just confused, lost.
Good bye, he said. Good bye—and stop in for a haircut soon, will you—you look pretty shaggy.
The blind man stared with his cloudy grey eyes and wore the same grim expression he’d worn throughout the entire conversation. Hurley turned from it without a word, sand stepped outside. The rain was less. That was good. It was all over and done with now; plus, he knew exactly what he would tell his wife, once he arrived safely home, at last.