The Barber’s Lament

Appeared in Snapdragon, the literary magazine of the University of Idaho, Fall 1981.

It was the flat-top haircut that done me in. It used to make me so nervous, trying to get it straight all across the top. If the customer was to move just a bit, it’d throw me off. I used to get so nervous my hands would shake. The customers’d say, “Take it easy, Emil. I ain’t going nowhere.” But I couldn’t help it, it made me so nervous. I’d do the best I could, and then finish, then turn them around and they’d look in the mirror and maybe tell me they didn’t like it. Maybe I’d gotten it too close on one side, and not close enough on the other. It used to worry me so. I just couldn’t please everybody. That’s why I got out of barbering.

Of course, if I would of stayed in it a couple more years, things might of been better. Long hair come along and then everyone started letting their hair grow. You don’t see a flat-top but once in a great while now. I guess people was just as fussy as always, but I don’t think it would of been so bad. It was the working so close to the scalp that made me nervous. One little move, and I might cut somebody. There was another reason I got out of barbering. I’d been doing it about twelve, fourteen years, and I realized I hadn’t been able to put anything away. If something would of happened to me, who’s to say what Mommy and the kids would of done.

And so I quit, rented out my shop, and took a job over to General Electric in Evansville. It means I work nights and drive sixty miles each way and don’t get home ‘til one-thirty in the morning. But it also means that my family’s protected. We got a union and we got a good benefit package, major medical and all. I get one pair of classes a year, free. It’s in our benefit package. And I’ve had to have a baker’s cyst removed from my knee. It happened twice in the last ten years. And the insurance paid for every bit of it. Now, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to retahre next year, at sixty-two. I been there sixteen years now. I was thinking of staying on ‘til I’m sixty-five, to get some more money stocked away, but Mommy wants me to retahre as soon as I can. All the kids is gone now — Carrie’s gone off to school this year — and Mommy’s lonely at home, all alone. I found out not too long ago that if Carrie stays in school, I can get money from Social Security. I’m hoping she can stay there. She’s been down there a year and she’s on what they call academic probation, but she says that don’t mean nothing. They’ll let her keep coming back ‘till she gets her degree.

Carrie’s different from the rest. I guess it’s because I wasn’t there when she was growing up. She’d be gone to school by the time I’d get up in the morning, and the only time I’d see her during the week was when she’d get home from school on her dinner hour. I’d be gone to work when she’d get home from school and she’d be in bed when I got home from work. I’d see her weekends, but I most every other weekend. They give me double pay. So I wasn’t there to provide the discipline, and Carrie’d just walk over Mommy. Mommy couldn’t do nothing with her.

It was different before, when I still had the shop. It was right in the front room of our house, where the real estate office is now. Back then, even if I was working, all Mommy had to do was open the door off the kitchen, and there I was. Our first three — they was girls — they turned out all right. Emil was OK, too, but I think his being a boy had a lot to do with that, because I wasn’t going around all that much when he was little either. I started at GE when he was five. He just knew what his job was and he done what Mommy asked. Carrie, though — she’s another story. She’s just wild. She’s always out, tearing around with her friends, dragging Main Street. None of the other was like that. Evelyn, Susan, Tammy — they was always good in school, and they studied. They only got the car when it was something special, and when they’d ask me. Like I say, Emil’s always been good. He’d rather of spent a Friday evening home, talking to Mommy in the kitchen, of watching TV with her, rather than go running around with some friends, like Carrie does. Carrie — I don’t know what it is. I guess it’s just that I wasn’t around. Mommy’ll be in the basement ironing and watching TV and she’ll hear Carrie upstairs saying something, calling to her. She can’t hear, and so she has to go upstairs and ask Carrie what she said. She gets up there and Carrie’s already gone with the car. She just yells on the way out the door that she’s taking it. Mommy’ll talk to her about it the next day, but Carrie does it again. Even now, when she comes home from college — she’s home most every weekend — we hardly ever see her. She’s always out running with her friends.

I miss the old days. All it took to go to work was to get up from the breakfast table and walk through the door to the shop. I got to enjoy my little girls, and I was around a lot when they were growing up. When they’d come home from school, if the shop wasn’t too busy, they’d sit in the chairs and pretend they were customers. They’d read magazines and play jacks in the corner. Everyone loved them. I was the number-one barber in town, with the best spot on Main Street.

Of course, everything seems better in memory. I worried a lot in those days — about insurance, about trying to keep my customers from changing to another barber. A lot of people don’t know it, but I was going to a psychiatrist back then. Trogen don’t have one of our own, so I’d have to drive over to Evansville on Mondays, my day off. I ended up pending a lot of money and I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know — I was depressed. It wasn’t my idea to see a psychiatrist, but our doctor told me I should. One thing the psychiatrist said was I should try to find less stressful work. I’d been worrying about not having a retahrement plan and all, and so I took the job at GE.

That was sixteen years ago. Now, all the kids is gone and I think I missed a lot with the two younger ones. Emil’s twenty-one and Carrie’s nineteen. Evelyn’s thirty-two, and Susan and Tammy are in their late twenties. It’s almost like Mommy and me had two families, they’re so far apart. It would of been easier to move to Evansville, and then I wouldn’t of had to drive to far every day. But Mommy cried. She didn’t want to leave the neighborhood. She wanted to stay here with her friends. It was like a neighborhood back then. But now all of our friends is gone, some moved and some died. The Hopeses — they used to have a bakery two doors down — they retahred and moved to Florida a couple years back. And Doc Flanagan, on the corner, he died, and they bought his house and tore it down to make a gas station. And Appie and Katy next door — they was brother and sister, never married — they died, and now they tore that down and made it into a savings and loan. This house next to us was bought by this young fellow, and they say he’s the one selling the dope to all the kids. He’s got a shoe store in front, but I never seen anyone buy shoes there. And it’s only trash that goes in there.

So now we’re all alone. This isn’t a neighborhood anymore. It’s so noisy, it seems the kids is always going back and forth, dragging Main, blowing their horns. You wonder why their parents don’t do something about it. They’re wasting so much gas. And they throw their trash out of their car windows. When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is puck up all the beer cans and broken bottles out front. It’s enough to make you sick, the way people just throw out their garbage. They’re nothing but pigs.

There’s nothing to keep us from moving away now, but if I do retahre next year, there’ll be no season to move to Evansville either. Mommy and I lived all our lives here in Trogen, and we’ve been in this house now for thirty years. So I guess I’ll keep driving it. A few more months can’t hurt.

Working at GE don’t make me nervous, like barbering did. I’m just part of the line, and there’s a lot of down time. I guess out of the eight hours I’m at work, I actually work about two. I spend time talking to the boys on the line or talking to my kids. We got a WATs line at work, and so I call them all. I get to talk to each one three, maybe four, times a week. We usually get one or two of them home each weekend. Emil and Carrie are still in school, and they bring their laundry home for Mommy to do. All our kids sort of settled in this part of the country. So far, at least. We’re praying they don’t get a job and move away. None of them’s further than a two-hour drive. It’s nice to call them. It helps me pass the time at work. Of course, the WATs line is for official company business, nit I don’t see that it does any harm. The company’s got to pay for it anyway, and none of the executives if ever there at night to use it. If anyone was to say anything, the union would take up for me.

Mommy makes fun of me, because I’m always calling the kids to remind them of things. I keep a checklist of who’s got a car coming up for inspection, or who needs a new driver’s license or to buy new plates. Mommy’ll never let me forget last year, when I reminded all the kids to buy new license plates, and then I was driving around for two weeks with expahred plates myself. I guess I’m just getting old. I forget things.

It’s not a whole lot of fun driving home at one o’clock in the morning. I’ve fallen asleep a couple times and run off the road. In sixteen years, I’ve had three accidents, none of them serious. When I first started at GW, Mommy used to wait up for me, but now she’s usually asleep when I get upstairs to bed. Sometimes, she’s in bed but not asleep. That’s when Carrie’s home for her weekend. Mommy don’t worry about me so much anymore, but she worries about Carrie. She can’t go to sleep until Carrie’s home. Sometimes, after a dance or something, she don’t get home until three or four in the morning.

It’s hard to get up some mornings, especially Sundays. I work two or three weekends a month, for the double-overtime. But even when I work late on a Saturday night, I still get up for early mass. I’ve never missed a Sunday at mass in my life, even on Guadalcanal during the war/ Of course, that was an inter-denominational service, but a priest told me it would count just the same. I’m kind of proud of that. I think I raised a family of good Catholics. I give as much as I can to the Church. I believe if I have any extra money, or even if I don’t, I owe it to God.

I enlisted in 1940 to get my commitment over with and then the war begun and I was in for the duration. I made it to captain and I was a medical administrator.

I think sometimes I should of stayed in. I would have been able to retahre long ago. I think sometimes I should of done a lot of things. My father died when I was three. I can’t remember a single thing about him. My mother raised me and my brother and sister on a farm up the road here about twelve miles. I’ll never know how she did it. She died here a few years back — she was ninety — and I never got to ask her, “Mother, how’d you do it?” She and my father came from Germany when they first got married, and she got pregnant with my sister on the way over. I never even spoke English until I was nine, and they made us learn it at school.

I guess I wanted to be a farmer when I was a boy. That’s what Dad had been. Mother leased out her farmland — that’s how we lived; that, and selling what produce we could grown. Then Mother moved into town, and she did laundry and mending for people. She raised all three of us by herself.

I didn’t want to be a barber. I guess after I got over wanted to be a farmer, the thing I wanted most was to be a doctor. But then I went into the service and the war begun, and when I got out, I was kind of worried. I felt I was so old. I was getting a later start, and it would of taken too much time. All I thought I could afford was barber school. And it was only a six-month course.

But I really wanted to be a doctor, all the time I was in the service, working close to it. I would of been a good one, too. I’ve always liked helping people. But it just seems nothing in my life has worked out the way I wanted it. I knew Mommy before I enlisted, and all the time I was in the service, she wrote to me faithful. When I got back, we were just so eager to get married. She was always thirty. She hadn’t gone out with anyone the whole time I was gone.

So we got married, and I went to barber school in Evansville. I had to do something to make money. A couple months later, Mommy was pregnant with Evelyn. Then Susan come along the next year, then Tammy. Barbering wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I supported a family. I took pride in my work and I was good at it. I always wondered, though, how it would of been if I could of gone to college and medical school. I could always learn things quick. I know I would of been a good doctor.

But we can’t spend all our time thinking about how things would of been. Next year, I’ll be able to retahre, and Mommy and I will get to spend all our time together, enjoying life. I’ll get to work in my woodshop more. Maybe we can travel some. We’d like to go to Florida.

The only hair I cut now is my son-in-law’s. Susan got married three years ago. He’s a teacher. They don’t have any kids yet, though. She’s still working up to the newspaper in Evansville.

Whenever they come for a visit, she makes him get a haircut. I still got my chair in the basement. I do it for him, but he’s awfully fussy. He has to have it just so. He don’t let me trim his neck the way I’d like because he says he don’t like shaving it all the time. He just wants it to grow. I don’t like the way it looks, but I don’t say anything. I just give him a little trim. He has nice, wavy hair. I wish he’d let me cut it the way I want, but the first rule of barbering is to the please the customer, and that’s what I try to do.