He was the only customer. One barber dozed by the window in the afternoon sun, a copy of Esquire in his lap. The other one gestured to the chair; he sat, the barber pumped the lever to lower him down, and put the cape around his neck with the flourish of a man baiting a bull.
“Mind if I smoke?” Joe asked.
“Smoke away,” he said. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a matchbook. “On the house. How you want it? High and tight or halfway down the nape?”
“Not too short.”
“Not too short it is. More guys wearing it like that. I haven’t shaved a neck G.I. style all week. Front? Like you got it now combed at the part?”
“Like it is. Just shorter.”
“That’s my job. Can’t do nothing about leaving it longer.” He ran a comb through Joe’s hair, pulled it up and started to snip. “Some fellas be happy if I could, but you’re not one of ‘em. No bald spots, no receding hairline. Your grandpappy have a full head?”
“In the pictures I’ve seen he was pretty bald. But he was old. I don’t know about when he was younger.”
“Mm-hmm. They say you get it from your mother’s grandfather. Baldness. Skips a generation.”
Joe reached up under the stiff plastic cape and extracted a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He lit one and studied the matchbook.
“‘The proof is in the palm of your hand,’” he said.
“Lessen you smooth it with your hand knuckle side down, I suppose,” said the barber. He reached over to the shelf, dunked the comb in a tall blue bottle of Barbicide and extracted a comb. “Say, how you think the Browns will do this season?”
“They go into training next week. Hope they’re not thinking it’s too early. But you’re right. All eyes on the Tribe right now.”
“I don’t really follow them.”
“Oh, ho. You from somewhere else? Don’t tell me I got a Dodger fan here, and me with the sharp instruments in my hand. Put your head down for me . . . there.”
“I don’t follow sports. Wish I did sometimes, though; gives you something to root for. Something to think about outside of work and the front page.”
“Front page is a full plate of how-de-do,” the barber said. “They say the Russians are working on a new bomb twice the strength of our H-bomb. My wife, she wants a shelter. I tell her there’s no point, and she says I don’t care about the kids. On it all the time. I say fine, as long as it’s just us. Her sister can’t come in. They live down the block. That about right in front?” Joe nodded. “She says I’m selfish. I ask her why her sister’s husband can’t build one. She says that’s not the issue. But I tell you, if he builds one, I have to build one.”
“Keeping up with the Jones,” Joe said.
They sat in silence for a while. The barber clipped and snipped, He worked fast.
“You ever listen to Sam Spade on the radio?” Joe said.
“Sure. Been off a while, though. He was a Red, wasn’t he? I heard something about that.”
Joe looked at the matchbook. “Mennen. Made me think of it. They sold Wildroot on the Sam Spade show. They had comics in the Sunday paper where Sam would solve a crime and it always came down to hair. The clues, I mean.”
“That was a good show,” the barber said. “I wish they’d put it on the television.”
“I used to listen to it with my dad. He loved that show. Laughed and laughed, thought Sam was the sharpest guy on the air. Howard Duff, that was the guy.”
“Mm-hmm.” The barber pumped the chair up a few inches. “Around the ear - quarter inch, half?”
“Take it up a half.”
“I used to listen to Dragnet, before it went off,” the barber said. “But that’s on the television too now. Not the same. They just stand around. When it’s on the radio you could picture it being more exciting, I guess. On TV you get used to things happening. You get spoiled, I guess.”
The barber sitting by the window gave a snort; they both looked over at him. He didn’t wake up.
“Frank. About the only head he cuts these days is mine.”
“You remember Sam Spade’s badge number?”
“I thought it was 137956.”
“Could be.” He stood back. “Okay, take a gander.”
Joe nodded. “That’s fine.”
“You want some cream oil?”
The barber leaned over to the shelf and pulled out a flask of Wildroot.
“They gave me the matches. They didn’t give me any product and that’s fine by me. Between you and me and Frank over there, I don’t like it. And I don’t like that hand. Looks like it’s saying STOP or something. Like I’m doing something wrong. It’s little stuff like that they never think about.”
“Yah, see, I study these things.”
“Sure, tricks of the trade. The way they’re always telling you this or that. I have an idea that it all goes up here -” he tapped the side of his head - “to a part of you that’s not thinking but is just watching. I got this idea once between customers, looking out the window, looking at the pole. The barber pole. The stripes are always going up. They disappear. Headin’ up to heaven. What if you rewired a competitor’s pole so the stripes went down? I’ll bet that fella would see his trade go off by half.”
“I never noticed which directions they went.”
The barber took off the cape. He grinned at Joe in the mirror.
“Sure you did. You just don’t know it.”