The boys were waiting when Hollis unlocked the door to the barber shop, milling in a cluster by the planter box. Two of the shortest ones sat on the concrete lip, their legs kicking at the brick. As soon as he clicked the lock open, they hopped down and all six came marching in, looking like they’d been pulled from a boarding school, dressed in the same off-the-rack suits, charcoal gray and not quite the right size for any of them. Their jackets were all unbuttoned, revealing identical white Oxford shirts. The four eldest wore ties the shiny red of ripe pomegranate, the two tiny ones matching clip-on bow ties.
“We need haircuts,” the eldest said.
Hollis smiled. “You’ve come to the right place.”
The boy, sixteen, maybe seventeen, didn’t quite look like the others: he was tan, his skin golden and glowy where the others were pale; though not sickly, they clearly spent their afternoons inside while this boy was either out on a soccer field or playing tennis or swimming. His hair was shaggy and long, unkempt along the ears and back of his neck, the brown strewn with sun blond. They were all clearly brothers, with matching cheekbones and aquiline noses. Even two of the younger ones, who were pudgier than the rest, had the same narrow faces and long necks. Hollis could see the resemblance in their jaws and lips, which were thin on top but plump on the bottom, as if they’d all been injected with a hit of collagen. The red-pink glistened under the barbershop’s fuzzy white lights, matching the sheen of their loafers.
Hollis plucked up the black chair cloth and made a show of snapping it clean, even though it had no hairs on it; he took a lint roller to it every evening when he shut the door behind his last customer, just as he’d been taught to by his father. The shop had two swiveling, pneumatic seats, but Hollis had long done away with hiring a second barber; he couldn’t really afford to pay anyone well enough after his dad’s retirement, and benefits were off the table. He’d once tried hiring a hairdresser to attract female customers, but that had been a non-starter. Most of his business came from regulars who were willing to wait until he was available, which left whoever he’d brought on spending half their time sitting in the seat themselves, flipping through People magazine or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or watching daytime court dramas on the television in the corner. It made Hollis feel bad, seeing that, so when the last one had quit—a woman who found a better gig at an upscale salon across town where a shampoo went for twice what Hollis asked—he hadn’t replaced her. Now, that seat was filled with paperback books that he read during dead hours in the middle of the week.
“Go on, Robbie,” the leader of the pack said, gesturing toward the tiniest of the boys, whose hair was the color of bleached straw. His body was itty-bitty, his shoes too large, and they clomped as he stepped forward. Though his eyes were wet and his face scrunched with the effort of keeping tears at bay, the boy didn’t issue any complaints as he climbed into the chair.
“So what’ll it be?” Hollis said, both to Robbie and the older boy.
“He just needs a clean-up.”
Hollis nodded. The little boy’s waxy hair was still short enough that from far away no one would think he needed a trim. But up close, Hollis could see how uneven his hair laid against the sides and back of his head, as if a previous stylist had been drunk or working with one eye shut. He knew that, if he combed the boy’s bangs straight down, they would hang like broken piano keys.
Hollis placed a paper collar between the cloth and the boy’s shirt. He’d removed his jacket at his older brother’s urging, on whose arm it hung like a waiter’s towel. The bowtie he clutched in his tiny hands, buried under the chair cloth. While the boy arranged himself in the seat, Hollis debated whether to read him. He hadn’t touched someone’s head like that in a long time, because it was no longer worth what it cost. But here were six boys he’d never seen before, sitting in an awkward, buzzing silence. The only sound was the hiss of the chair as it raised the crown of Robbie’s head toward Hollis’s face.
Before he sprayed the boy’s hair, he reached out and gently touched Robbie’s skull. The hair was soft as qiviut, but Hollis hardly had time to notice. He didn’t have to root around in the boy’s head at all to uncover the reason they were there; it was floating right at the surface, screaming to be heard. It took all of the concentration Hollis could muster not to gasp.
Hollis waited until after he and Dave slept together for the first time to tell him what he could do. They were lying in Dave’s bed, the top sheet clinging to their waists. The room glowed from the sodium light affixed to the corner of Dave’s apartment building, the fizzy color bleeding through the Venetian blinds. Hollis felt as if he was glowing, too, his heart still thudding from the vigor of their bodies. He was taking in deep gulps of air even though they’d been lying still, shoulders touching, for several minutes. Dave’s fingers pressed into his side and he said, “You alive?”
“More than,” Hollis said. And then he added, “I want to tell you something.” When Dave leaned up on one arm, Hollis cleared his throat. “Actually, do something.”
Dave smiled. His teeth were bright white, even in the dark. “Didn’t we just do something?”
“Oh?” A finger stroked at Hollis’s sternum.
“Something weird. Something you won’t believe if I say I can do it but don’t actually do it. I’m not explaining well.”
Dave laid down again. “You know, usually people are nervous before they have sex with someone for the first time, not after.” He spread his arms and legs wide, kicking off the sheet. “Do what you wish.”
“I just need you to think about something you haven’t told me. Something important.”
“You’re thinking about it?”
“Does it have to be a deep dark secret?”
Hollis blinked. “Only if you want to share it with me.”
“By thinking about it? Can you read my mind?”
He placed his hands on Dave’s head like a priest offering a benediction. Dave had walked into his shop on a lazy Tuesday two months prior, Hollis half fallen into a light sleep during the doldrum hours before kids were out of school and after his few older clients came in before lunch. His father had just stopped working during the week, a signal that he thought Hollis was ready to manage the shop on his own. When Dave sat in the chair, Hollis hadn’t read him, but he knew he’d done a good job with the cut; Dave nodded and whistled at himself when Hollis was done trimming Dave’s mess of shag into a sharp high and tight. He’d come back three weeks later for a touch up and asked if Hollis wanted to get a drink that evening after he closed up. Hollis, feeling his throat go tight, had nodded. For once, he’d skipped the lint roller, instead spending a long time staring at himself in the mirror.
Dave started giggling, so Hollis shushed him and told him to think. The secret came into Hollis’s head immediately, but he liked the feel of Dave’s thick hair, tangly and damp, beneath his fingers. He could feel the bumps and humps of his skull, the first beady touch of what would later become a benign sebaceous cyst Dave would have removed in a year, not long before they broke up. A scar, too, that Dave hadn’t explained, a keloid line hovering above his left ear.
“Your dad left you and your mom for six months,” Hollis said. He lifted his hands away from Dave’s head. “He came back, but you never forgave him.”
Dave sat up, triceps bulging under his body’s weight. “How’d you do that?”
Hollis flexed his fingers into claws, then relaxed them. “If I touch your head, I can read your mind.”
“But you’ve touched my head before.”
“I don’t do it automatically. And I don’t really like to.”
“Because of what I have to give up.”
The boys went in age order. The eldest called out their names—Richie, Ronny, Ryan—and then leaned against the window next to the door, arms crossed as he held the sports coat of whichever brother was in the chair. After the first one, Hollis didn’t read them; he didn’t need to. He wanted, desperately, to say something consoling, but he couldn’t. How would he explain how he knew what he knew?
When it was the time for the second-to-last boy—Rustin—to take his turn, he and his brother fought. Rustin, clearly, didn’t want to get his hair cut. He had a mop and kept shaking his head so it shimmered and danced. He complained that it was his hair, no one else’s, and that he should be able to grow it out if that’s what he wanted.
“This isn’t about you,” his brother hissed, grabbing Rustin around the bicep. Rustin’s cheeks had retained their baby fat but also bore the chisel of oncoming adulthood. He was right on the edge. Surely, Hollis thought, the events of today would push him over.
The boys, Hollis knew from reading Robbie, were headed to a funeral. For both of their parents.
Robbie hadn’t given up much else, which didn’t surprise Hollis. He was too young to be processing their deaths in a linear, conscious way, as if anyone was ever old enough to put such pain into clear, understood order; hell, the quick way his own father had died—pancreatic cancer—was still an inexplicable jumble to Hollis months, years, later. Robbie, like Hollis, wasn’t thinking about what had happened to his parents or what he felt about their deaths or what it really meant for his mom and dad not to be alive anymore. He couldn’t articulate a narrative that would provide clues, context, details.
Rustin slumped low in the chair, the pneumatics wincing at his thrown weight. When Hollis drew the chair cloth over him, Rustin didn’t move to sit up straight. He stared at his brother, holding his jacket, which Rustin had tossed like a newspaper he was finished reading so that his brother had to scramble to catch it before it hit the floor. Rustin’s tie was the messiest, loose like a noose around his neck.
Hollis cleared his throat and cinched the cloth tight, which was a challenge with the kid sitting at such an angle, body propped on his right elbow. He took his time, careful with the paper collar. Hollis plucked up a comb and his spray bottle and stared at the back of Rustin’s head, where a complicated cowlick spat out hair in all directions. He looked toward the eldest brother. The entire shop was silent. The younger boys were watching. He wondered if, usually, these silent feuds would have been settled by their parents.
Hollis waited. He was glad his hands were full. Otherwise, as the tension mounted, he may have simply put his fingers to the boy’s head, asked in his silent, probing way what he wanted. Be a peacekeeper, no matter what he would give away to do it.
“It’s not that I forget, exactly,” he explained to Dave, who was now willowing his fingers through Hollis’s hair. “It’s more like things go fuzzy.”
“Do you have any memories where you know a thing happened, but the details are light?”
Dave’s hand stopped. “Yeah, I guess.”
“That’s what happens. I know that whatever I can only kind of remember is something I used to be able to remember clearly.”
“And you don’t get to choose what fades?”
Hollis shook his head. “Like just now, when I read your mind. There’s a Thanksgiving where my parents had a horrible fight that I still remember, but I can’t remember who said what. I think my mother threw a wine glass, but it might have been the pumpkin pie. I can’t quite visualize what she was wearing.”
Their bodies had cooled. Hollis needed to pee. He swung his legs out of the bed and Dave said, “Have you done it to me before?”
He was splayed out, his body on full display. Hollis felt like he knew it with a jarring, pulsing intimacy. The biceps, the craters of stomach muscle, the little hairs where Dave’s glutes rose like hills.
Dave wasn’t looking at him, but at the popcorn ceiling where the fan tilted in lazy circles. “Would I even know?”
“I guess not.”
“So you don’t need permission.”
“No, I don’t. But I would always ask.”
Dave’s fingers went to his mouth as though to suck on an invisible cigarette. He said nothing. Hollis slipped out of the bedroom and into the bathroom, where the overhead light was spongy and hard and glowed like the urine he dumped into the toilet bowl. After flushing, he washed his hands for a long time, letting his fingers sit under the water until they started to prune. He thought about turning up the heat, scalding the tips and his palms, as though he might burn his ability away.
The standoff ended when Rustin sighed, sat up straight, and waved his arms, saying, “Just do whatever. Make it short.” He glared at his brother. “That good enough for you?”
“Of course not.” Rustin turned to Hollis. Up close, Hollis could see he was wearing some kind of eyeliner. “Make me classy, a good American boy. You know.” He pointed toward his forehead. “The spikes and all that.”
Hollis nodded and got to work. The other boys, he could see, were growing restless, the shortest ones kicking their legs like they were on a swing set. The eldest of those four kept wiping his hand against the back of his neck, as if phantom hairs were still piled against his skin. One of the little ones asked the oldest if he could get some candy from the gum dispenser in the corner. When he was denied by a shake of the head, Hollis, setting down his scissors to grab the electric razor, opened the cash drawer and plucked out a quarter.
“Here,” he said, holding it out. “Let him get some. The Mike and Ikes are fresher than they look.”
The boys leaned forward in their seats, necks stiff with desire. The oldest brother sighed and stood up straight. “They’re not supposed to have sweets.”
“Oh, give it a rest, Royal,” Rustin said. “Who’s going to know?”
Hollis froze. All of the boys froze, even the younger ones with their swinging legs.
All eyes went to Royal, who was clenching his jaw; Hollis could see the bones grinding. He felt a pressure in his chest. Part of why he loved cutting peoples’ hair was that he found peace in it, a simplicity and ease that most other professions couldn’t offer. Who got into fights in barbershops? They were where people went for renewal and expulsion: not only could they transform themselves, they could jettison their concerns, blathering and exhorting while the barber snipped and combed and shaved and offered affirmative nods and laughter. Over the years, Hollis had also used his ability to pull a small strand from a customer’s head to get them going on whatever matter weighed heaviest on their mind. Despite the price he paid with his own memory, this almost always led to an exorbitant tip and a body that would be back in his seat a month later.
Royal pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes. “Fine,” he said. “Whatever. I don’t care.”
The little boys sprang up, jostling to be the one to get the quarter from Hollis, who gave it to Robbie, his brothers staring at him with hard-edged jealousy.
“Share, now,” Hollis said, pointing to the turn-crank machine. He watched them skitter to the far end of the shop, where Robbie dropped the coin into the machine while his brothers stood in edgy anticipation. Hollis turned toward Royal, who was frowning. “I think they’ll be okay,” he said.
Royal blinked. “Almost done?”
Hollis looked down at Rustin. He just needed to finish off the nape of his neck and clean up the sideburns and said so.
“Good,” Royal said. “We’re kind of on a tight schedule.”
Here was his chance. Just say, “Oh?” and let Royal pour out what was clearly bottled up. But instead, Hollis nodded and went back to work.
When he’d come back to bed, Dave was still staring at the ceiling.
“I think that maybe you should share something with me.”
“I dunno. A deep, dark secret of your own.”
Hollis looked at his hands, still beating from the hot water. “I already told you.”
“No,” Dave said, rolling onto his side. “You showed me an ability. That’s not the same as telling a secret.”
“But I’ve never shared it with anyone else.”
“Not even your mom or dad?”
Hollis shook his head.
Dave blinked at him.
“Okay,” Hollis said. He took a breath, felt his stomach contort. “You’re the first man I’ve ever had sex with.”
“Really?” Dave said, his voice flipping up an octave.
“But you were so good at it.”
“Beginner’s luck, I guess.”
“Is that a bad ‘huh’ or a good ‘huh’?”
“Neither. Just processing.”
For several weeks, Dave had slipped into the barbershop while Hollis worked, watching and waiting for him to close up, helping out by sweeping away cut locks and spraying the mirrors with Windex. Then they would find a restaurant or bar and, after their meal, part ways. Until the night Dave cuffed Hollis by the arm and kissed him. Hollis had been desperate until then to read Dave, to figure out what he wanted, but he’d resisted, imagining he would lose the first moment he saw him, when Dave walked through the door, ringed by the miraculous timing of a beam of sunshine slicing in behind him, his hazel eyes wide, his handsome throat long, tendrils of unkempt hair glowing.
Hollis looked at Dave’s face in profile, the pointed chin, the slightly squashed nose that he knew had been broken in a messy basketball incident when Dave was fifteen. He found himself walking through all the things he knew about Dave and his body, the scar in his palm from accidentally smashing a glass under his weight when he worked as a busboy in a greasy spoon, the mystery line above his ear. The knots of muscle in his legs from playing water polo and tennis. The smart words that he breathed out thanks to his four years of biology and philosophy classes, neither of which he used now as a financial advisor.
He pressed his hand to Dave’s chest and felt the slender beat of his heart there. Dave laid his hand over Hollis’s.
“Can you read my mind here, too?”
“No,” Hollis said. He tapped a finger in tune to Dave’s pulse. “But I don’t need to. I can feel plenty.”
As soon as Hollis swiped the chair cloth away from Rustin he was up and out of the seat, mumbling something about waiting outside. He pulled a phone from his pocket and snatched his jacket from his brother, who shuffled aside to let Rustin pass. Hollis watched him flop onto the planter box’s edge. Royal sighed, squeezed the bridge of his nose, and approached the chair. He paused and pulled off his jacket. When he looked around, finding nowhere to hang it—the one thing Hollis had never invested in was a good coat rack—Hollis held out his hand for it and draped it with care over the books crowding the second chair.
“And for you?” he said after he whapped out the cloth, spilling Rustin’s hair onto the floor where it mixed up with the sheared bangs and curls of his brothers.
“Cut it all off.”
“All of it?”
Royal nodded, running his hand through his hair.
“Yes,” he said. “A buzz. Close. A two? That’s short, right?”
“It is. Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Please.”
“I’ll have to trim it down first,” Hollis said. “Just so the clippers don’t clog. It’ll take a bit.”
“That’s fine. Please do it.”
There was something in Royal’s breaking voice, his desperation for Hollis to clip away his long, bouncing hair, that made Hollis purl into his mind when he pressed his thumbs beneath his ears to position his head. It felt like skimming through a book, looking for a page with large print or a picture. Human brains were a flurry of rushing, inchoate sounds, swishing noises that often didn’t make much sense unless they were thinking something clearly and immediate.
Royal was thinking about the funeral, which was at eleven. Still an hour and a half away. Beneath that sat an image of his parents, dead on a mortuary slab. Hollis discovered that Royal was the one to make the official identification, a shock to Hollis because, surely, the boy was too young. But there it was: he’d had to look at his mother and father’s bruised bodies, the gashes to their foreheads and chests where they’d been clobbered by their car imploding during the accident that took their lives. Hollis felt a wave of sickness and had to let go. He managed, just barely, to remain standing up straight. As he cut Royal’s hair, Hollis worked hard to keep his hand steady, his lines clean, even if it didn’t really matter: it would all get shorn off eventually. But something about cutting in clear, even strokes felt important.
All of a sudden, he couldn’t remember how he had lost Dave. He remembered an argument, half a dozen years ago, the sound of Dave’s voice crisp as a fresh sheet, but he couldn’t put any words to the noise. He could remember the months of distrust, Dave at first joking that Hollis was reading his mind and then believing it, never accepting the truth of Hollis’s denials.
He kept Royal facing the mirror and took his time, as if, at some point, as long strings of hair fell to the floor or gathered in his lap, Royal would change his mind about the buzz cut. But the boy remained silent. Behind him, his younger brothers watched their brother’s hair disappear. Royal himself seemed to have zoned out, letting Hollis tilt his head left, right, back, forward. When Hollis had his hands on the side of Royal’s neck, fingers pressed along the tender meeting of jaw and throat, he pulled more: the moment that Royal had answered his phone, late on the previous Monday. He was lying on a bed in a small, attic-shaped bedroom in shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt, watching television. No, a movie—a movie on television. The image was bright and hard, something Royal had obviously replayed in his mind several times. He was, as far as he knew, the only one still up, his brothers long in bed, their parents out for a date night, Royal in charge of keeping the peace and getting his younger siblings’ teeth brushed and beds occupied at a reasonable hour. And then the phone call from the unknown number.
As Hollis finished, he realized he couldn’t remember the moment he first read his father. He knew he’d just given his dad a haircut, his first real attempt after his father had spent weeks explaining, demonstrating, talking through technique. Hollis stood behind him, both of them facing the mirror, his father reaching up to feel the back of his head. Hollis, desperate for his dad’s approval, had put his hands on the crown of his father’s skull without thinking anything except that he wanted to know what was going on in there, and then he knew.
But now he didn’t.
He pulled the hair cloth away carefully, as it was dense with spilled locks. His hands were starting to tremble. With a snap of his wrist he sent all that lost sun-blond onto the floor like hundreds of little snakes writhing at his feet. Royal stood immediately and rooted around in his pocket.
“It’s fifteen per cut, right?”
Hollis wanted to refuse the money, but he said, “That’s right.”
Royal produced a small wad of bills that Hollis could see were fresh. He looked from the money to Royal, who, with his bristling corona of short hair, looked like a new person: both older and younger at once. Perhaps that was the point.
“Here,” Royal said. “Keep the change.”
Hollis took the money, but then saw that it was a pair of hundreds. He swiveled back toward Royal, who was barking orders for his brothers to get up and go while he grabbed his jacket. Their eyes met and the boy raised an eyebrow. His forehead was longer and more prominent than it had been with the flop of surfer hair, the look in his eyes hard and glassy, almost a challenge.
Hollis’s mouth was dry. Even though he wanted to say thank you, words wouldn’t leave his lips. He watched the boys march out the door, Royal at the back of the pack. Rustin, who was still waiting outside, lurched up and nodded at his brother, a sighing bit of truce.
There was a moment at the end, when they were the only two left in the shop, that Hollis thought Royal might say something. He glanced back, but instead of speaking, he stared at Hollis and offered him nothing but a single nod of the head. As if he could read Hollis’s mind. As if he knew that they had both changed. That they’d grown both weightier and lighter. That each of them had gotten rid of something important.
Image: Photo by Daniel Gold, via Unsplash.