The customers seated against one wall of Walt’s Barbershop looked up as one, then at each other. A man in his 50’s, red of face and graying of hair, stood up, glanced at the others, then strode to the chair where the barber was waiting, sheet in hand.
The shop was old-fashioned. It had been in existence when Walt had begun his hair-cutting career. He’d worked in the shop all his life — it had had a different name then, of course — and he had bought it when his former boss retired. It had a linoleum floor of black and white squares, set diagonally to create a diamond pattern. A large mirror covered the wall behind two sinks, and two barber chairs sat in front of the sinks. The shop was one large room with chairs along the wall opposite the mirrored wall for customers waiting their turns with the barber.
“Hey, Walt, how’s business?” asked the customer as he shrugged out of his expensive suit jacket and carefully folded it before putting in on the empty, unused barber chair next to the one Walt was using. Then he took off his tie, laid it gently on the jacket, and loosened the neck button on his dress shirt.
“Kinda slow, Mr. Vernon,” said Walt deferentially, draping the sheet over the man after he’d sat down. Mr. Vernon owned a small factory in town and was quite self-important. Walt had learned in his years serving customers how to make each one of them happy. Treating this one with careful respect was just part of the job. “Summer vacations and all. It’s like this every year.”
Mr. Vernon proclaimed — much of what he said sounded like a proclamation — “Well, school will start back up in another two weeks. You usually get a rush of boys getting first-day haircuts just before that, don’t you? You’ll do all right for yourself then.” Mr. Vernon chuckled condescendingly, lowering himself to the barber’s level, acting as though he felt empathy for the barber.
Walt winced but didn’t acknowledge what he was feeling. Instead he said, “Used to, back when boys cared whether their hair was neat and tidy. Nowadays….” His voice trailed off, and his eyes took in two slender teens sitting together, waiting their turns in the chair. One had long dark hair which fell well below his ears. The other had shorter hair which was still longer than had been fashionable back when Walt was a youngster. Back then boys usually got crew cuts at the beginning of the summer. Times were different now than when he’d started cutting hair, 50 years earlier. Then, boys and men alike got a haircut every two weeks and kept their hair under control, neat and sensible looking. They used Brylcreem or Vitalis to keep it shiny looking, with every hair in place. Now, half the boys seemed to look like girls with hair down to their shoulders, sometimes, and often looking like it hadn’t seen a comb in weeks.
Not that that made the difference he’d thought it would to his business. Back when he’d started, he’d got $3.00 for a man’s haircut, less for a young boy’s. Sometimes he’d get a quarter tip, too. He’d had to cut a lot of hair, back then, just to make ends meet. Now, he cut a lot less hair, but at $18 a head, with a frequent $2 tip, he didn’t need to work as many hours.
He wrapped some tissue paper around his customer’s neck and put a clip on it to hold it, then asked, “Just like usual?”
“Yep,” said Mr. Vernon, and wiggled a bit, settling in. He glanced around, seeing if he recognized anyone. He looked a bit like an emperor on his throne, gazing over his minions.
His eyes fell on the two teens and held for a moment before scanning the rest of the room. There were several men waiting for haircuts, spread out in the chairs lining the wall opposite the barber chairs, starting in the far back corner with a man whose face was buried in today’s newspaper, then a young man, then the two teens, then two older men, well past retirement age. Mr. Vernon glanced back at the teens, and then, a little smugly, spoke to Walt in a voice intended to be heard.
“Yeah, school starts soon. I guess the guys going out for football are already practicing. You know, the real guys.”
“Real guys?” Walt asked.
“Yeah. You know.” Mr. Vernon reached up and scratched his ear where some falling hair had tickled it, then replaced his hand under the sheet. “When I played, back in the day, we had a queer who went out for the team. Thought he was one of us, man enough to play football. Acted like a fairy like most of them do. Back then, we didn’t have so many as now. And the ones we did have knew enough to keep it secret.”
He moved his eyes back to the teens, making sure he was being heard, and stared at the long-haired youth till their eyes met. Yeah, they were listening.
“We knew what to do with them, back then. But kids were tougher then. We didn’t have all this political correctness as we do now. The country was better then. When I played football, we really played. Tough practices, tough games. Lots of hitting. You didn’t play unless you could take it, unless you were a man. No room for fairies on a football team.”
“You played?” Walt asked, knowing this was what Mr. Vernon wanted him to ask.
“Oh, sure. I was a running back. Not the biggest kid, but fast, shifty — tough, too. You get hit by some of those big linebackers, you had to be able to take it. Yeah, I’d hit those holes fast, get into the secondary, and then try to punish those little backs. Some of those guys, they made sure to miss the tackles, didn’t want any part of my knees coming at ‘em. I had a pretty fair straight-arm, too. Knocked over plenty of those little safeties and cornerbacks. Lot of them never finished the games.”
“Guess you were a big star, then.”
“Well, it was a team game, so I don’t want to sound like it was just me, but yeah, I did my job, and I didn’t let ‘em down. Scored a lot of touchdowns. We were league champs, my senior year. Some celebration that was! I don’t think any of us were virgins after that night. Of course, I hadn’t been for quite a while before that, anyway.”
He stopped, remembering, and Walt moved to the other side of his head, snipping away. After a moment, Walt said, “The team won last year too, didn’t it? I seem to remember they won their division, even got into the state championship round. No school from around here ever did that before, I remember reading.”
“Yeah, I guess that team was all right,” Mr. Vernon replied, sounding reluctant to talk about that. “But the game isn’t the same now. It’s softer now. They let fags play, even. They had one on that team last year, and he even let people know he was one. Back when I played, there weren’t any. Well, not after we found out about them there weren’t. We handled that, privately, among ourselves. We didn’t want any of those on the team.”
Mr. Vernon turned his head and looked directly at the two boys, then said, speaking a little louder, “Yeah, fags have no place on a football team, didn’t then, don’t now.”
He glared at the boys, and the one with long hair seemed to sink back into his seat. The shorter-haired one, however, instead of sinking back, stood up. He was about to either step forward or say something, but was stopped. The man whose head had been in the newspaper had finally dropped his paper, and he spoke. Just one word.
He said it loudly enough that the short-haired boy turned to look at him. The man shook his head, and the boy looked, paused, then sat back down. The man turned to look at Mr. Vernon. Mr. Vernon turned away from the boys to see who had interrupted him from dealing with that teenager. He knew how to handle teenagers. He’d had several who’d worked for him. For a while at least.
The man rose from his chair and walked deliberately to the middle of the store. He stopped there, next to where the boys were seated and turned to face Mr. Vernon.
He too appeared to be in his 50’s. He was lean, where Mr. Vernon was pudgy. His hair was cut close to his head, instead of longer and styled like Mr. Vernon’s was. He also had a deep tan, the type one gets from being out in the sun rather than in a tanning booth. He wore Levi’s and a polo shirt. His face was also lean. His face was what Mr. Vernon looked at, because the man’s dark brown eyes had some fire in them.
“Hello, Billy,” he said, facing Mr. Vernon.
“It’s William,” Mr. Vernon retorted, his brow wrinkling. “William Vernon.”
“Not ‘back in the day’,” the man said, using a scoffing tone when repeating the words Mr. Vernon had used earlier. “‘Back in the day’ you were Billy. But maybe I’ve got it wrong. This star running back you were talking about, somehow I don’t remember you being that. What I remember is a little guy with a mean streak. A guy who didn’t play much because he wasn’t much good at the game, a guy who sat on the bench mostly, but did get in games that had already been decided, games where the coach didn’t want to risk injury to his good players. Maybe the passing years have made my memory stale. But I don’t think so. That was you, wasn’t it? Sitting on the bench? Little Billy Vernon?”
“Who’re you?” Mr. Vernon asked, looking puzzled. “I don’t remember you. You weren’t on the team.”
“Well, no, I wasn’t. I did try out for it. But then a group of you guys decided I was a fairy, as you called me back then. And you got me in the locker room when the coaches and most of the other players were gone, and you beat the tar out of me. I couldn’t even walk out of there for a couple of hours. Hurting too bad. You got me real good. All six of you did but you were the one that did his worst. That was after I was down and not fighting back and more. Not able to protect myself. One of the others even had to pull you off. You went to town on me when I was helpless.”
He stopped. His gaze didn’t leave Mr. Vernon’s though. The barber shop was absolutely quiet at that point. Walt was frozen, standing between the chair and the sink with the mirror behind it. Mr. Vernon was quiet, too, remembering.
“Yeah, you guys — especially you — did a number on me, because I was a fairy. The fact was, though, I wasn’t. I was a little effeminate, but I was as straight as anyone there. Maybe more so. I always wondered about you. About you trying to prove to everyone, and maybe yourself, how you weren’t like that. Maybe you spent a long time pretending about that. Your marriage ended pretty quickly, didn’t it, Billy? ‘Marital difficulties,’ the papers said, if I remember right. It surprised me when your daughter was born, even though you were divorced by then. What, was that a one time deal, Billy?”
“Tommy Parks.” Mr. Vernon said the name almost unconsciously. Like it had slipped out.
“Yeah, little Tommy Parks. I weighed 135 that summer. Was trying out for a defensive backfield position. I was fast, and the game looked like fun. I didn’t know there were people like you guys I’d have to face.”
He stopped, remembering also. His voice was strong when he continued, however. “So you guys beat me up. Six seniors, six guys all bigger than I was, against just me. And what did I do, after that? What I did was, I quit. I just never came back. Didn’t tell anyone, either. I was ashamed. Couldn’t tell anyone. I explained my injuries to my parents as a skateboarding accident.
“I’ve always been ashamed of myself for that, but I just couldn’t go back, couldn’t face being in the locker room with you guys, couldn’t face that I really didn’t have the stomach to fight you or face getting pounded again. So I quit.”
He stopped because the boy he’d called Alec had stood up again. The boy had anger and determination in his eyes. His fists were clenched and he took a step toward the barber chair. Tom reached out and closed his hand around the boys bicep, stopping him. Alec looked at him, and Tom was struck by the compassion he saw in the boy’s eyes.
“I didn’t have the courage to stand up to you guys,” he continued, looking back at Mr. Vernon. “I didn’t have the courage this boy has.” He patted Alec on the back and nodded toward the chair the boy had been sitting in. Alec took a quick look back at Mr. Vernon, then sat back down.
Tom turned back to Mr. Vernon. “I never did lose my enthusiasm for the game. I didn’t play, was too small, really, but when I went to college, I became a team manager, and took some coaching classes for my PE requirement. I’ve been assisting the Columbia team’s coach for the past few years. Defensive backfield coach. Alec here has been my best student.
“He’s also one of those ‘fags’ you hate so much. He’s the boy that you mentioned, the one who was on the team last year. What you didn’t say is that what you guys did to me, he had done to him, too. A bunch of team members didn’t want him on that team, either. Why? Well, because he defended the boy sitting next to him there. That boy was out at school. Alec didn’t like the way he was being treated. By this Carlisle kid, who was on the team.
“So they made sure Alec knew how they felt. The only difference is, they did it to me just once, and they used fists and feet. Alec got it much worse. They whipped him so badly with a belt, he still has scars on his back, and some down lower. Whipped him more than once, when he hadn’t had time to heal from the first whipping, whipped him till he was screaming and throwing up from the pain. Stripped him naked in front of them and whipped him raw.”
Tom stopped. His voice was affected by what he was saying, and he had to swallow.
“Who could do something like that?” he said when he could. “Who could hate someone they didn’t even know that much? Who could have so little feeling for another kid to do that? It’s almost like someone had to teach a kid that much hatred for him to act that way. Oh, yeah, it was that Carlisle kid, wasn’t it? Him and some others. But he was the leader.”
Mr. Vernon pulled his head and shoulders back the inch he could. He looked away from both Tom and Alec. He didn’t say a word.
“Yet, Alec didn’t quit, like I had. In all the pain he was in, facing all that hatred and humiliation, standing alone, he continued on the team, continued to show up, continued to practice, even when every hit he took on the field, every tackle he made, would have made almost anyone else scream out and collapse in pain because of the whipping he’d endured. He never complained about what happened, never even told the coaches while it was happening.
“Eventually, the coaches and team captain found out and stopped it, kicked the guys doing it off the team, and they were expelled from school, too.
“Kids on that team saw him in the shower, and the word got out what he’d been through. Those kids couldn’t believe what they saw. None of us could. He may be the toughest kid in that school.”
He stopped and turned back to Alec, who’d withdrawn in his seat and was looking down. The kid next to him had a hand on his shoulder.
Tom resumed his dialog. “He learned how to play football, and he became a truly skilled safety. He’s the reason the team went as far as it did last year. He seemed to have an intuitive feel for what the quarterbacks were going to do, like he could read their minds, and was almost always in the right place at the right time. He made interceptions in the last two games that made the difference between winning and losing. This ‘fag’, this young, unimposing boy, has more heart in his body than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s the reason that team won last year. And he was voted team captain this year by the returning players. Some fag. Some queer.”
Mr. Vernon didn’t say a word. He refused to meet anyone’s eyes, either.
Tom turned to walk back to his place in the last chair in the shop, but then halted and turned back. “Oh, by the way, how’s that grandson of yours doing, Billy Carlisle? I heard he got in some trouble with the law, beat up some little kid for no reason, put him in the hospital. Heard he’s in the state Boy’s Home for the next few years. Chip off the old block, I guess. I’ve heard you still treat the guys unfortunate enough to work for you that way. Take advantage of them. The ones without the stuff in them to quit. The ones who need a job that bad.”
The shop remained quiet after he’d sat down. Then, Walt, all 5’ 5” of him, stood up as tall as he could, whipped the sheet off his customer and said, “You’re done, Mr. Vernon. No charge because I didn’t finish. Get your hair cut somewhere else from now on.”
When Mr. Vernon had steamed his way out of the shop, Walt brushed off his chair, took out a fresh sheet, and turned around.
One of the old men stood up and without preamble said, “He goes next,” and pointed to Alec.
A bit red-faced, Alec got in the chair.
Walt threw the fresh sheet over him and leaned close to his ear. “Yours is no charge either,” he murmured. “From now on, I cut your hair. No charge ever. I’m proud to have you as a customer.”
They walked home together, Sasha sporting hair that had been trimmed a mere half-inch shorter than before and Alec having been shorn to the point of his hair having almost disappeared altogether, giving him what he’d decided to call his football-training-camp look. Sasha kept reaching over and smoothing his hand over Alec’s soft stubble, and Alec kept batting his hand away.
Sasha was bubbling over. He recounted what had happened in great detail, adding his own decorations to the tale. He finished, then looked over at his silent boyfriend.
“You know what impressed me the most, Alec?”
“You didn’t say one word. Not one snappy comeback. Not one sarcastic remark. Nothing. Nada.”
Alec looked up at him and gave him a quick, almost shy grin. “I’m working on that,” he said.