Stan and Everett ran the local barbershop in town. For years as the only shop, Saturdays found every chair in the place busy holding a shaggy-haired male’s butt off the floor. When Stan or Everett finished their magic, man, you were ready for Sunday School, a tuxedoed wedding, or the Prom.
Until three weeks ago, it was just Stan. Everett died of a massive heart attack ten years ago. He fell ill, suffered poor health for about a year and had to quit the shop, which he didn’t take well. I’d see him at high school varsity baseball games, his favorite, and we’d chat. Shortly after we watched the season-ender one year, his health forced him to sell his house and move in with Stan.
Stan and Everett supported all local youth sports, ladies and gents, as far back as I can remember. I remember especially when they organized the first fund-raising barbecue to start a community chest benefitting local sports. That’s a self-sustaining annual event still going strong today even without Stan or Everett leading the way. Few remember its origin, but they recall Stan and Everett for years luring, pushing, and pulling folks and their support to the event.
Conversations with the men over twenty-odd years, revealed Stan and ‘Ev,’ as Stan called him, played baseball together here at the high school. Stan played second base, Ev, third. Ev’s senior year, their team went to State Finals. Ev was good enough to make the minors. Stan says he went to the Big Show for one season, then never went back. I never bothered to ask either of them why, thinking if they wanted me to know, they’d have told me. If you walk the main hallway at the high school, sure enough, you’ll find a fading sepia picture of that championship team prominently displayed on the wall. You only need to know what you’re looking for. It doesn’t take long to pick out a couple of familiar, handsome, fresh-faced boys you just know played and loved baseball.
Neither of the two ever married, so of course neither had children. Neither had relatives in town or nearby that I knew. It surely was a shame all around. Both men would have made super dads. If they’d had relatives, they’d have made the greatest damned uncles. I quizzed them. Both were only children and their folks passed-on long ago. The town for the longest time, was their family. They loved their family, did all they could for family, encouraged, counseled, helped family cry, and taught family to laugh.
About two years before Everett passed, I don’t know how or why, someone started a rumor the men were gay. In this day and age, that’s not a tremendously big deal, but back then it was considered a scandalous character flaw. Had there been substantial proof of the claim, it would have been disastrous. There being absolutely no proof, it was an ugly, undeserved cloud on their lives.
A while back, I went for my regular haircut at the shop. Thinning considerably as I age, I’d begun to feel I wasn’t getting full value for my dollar. Of course, that wasn’t true. Still, thin or not, when I’m not paying attention, my hair gets long on the sides and neck, making me look four weeks out of the chair like a homeless man or an old codger who just doesn’t give a shit how he looks any more. Not a good image for an attorney who’s been serving as town mayor nearly twenty years now.
The shop was nestled in a cluster of commercial buildings near the east end of town. An accounting firm, a karate studio, a clever little gift shop, and a takeout store, or what is now simply called a liquor store, occupy space there. A tobacconist shop used to snuggle between the takeout and the accountant’s office, but over the last few years trade fell-off for all the reasons you would expect, and it closed.
The sign over the barbershop still reads “Stan and Everett’s Clip Joint.” Stan maintained he’d never change it. Like the smoke shop, Stan and Everett’s business fell-off. Haircuts became much less than what they used to be. Nowadays men wear their hair longer or shave it off themselves. Then, one of those haircut, fingernail, and beauty-salon places opened-up on the west end of town. Smack on the heels of that, one of those ‘let our pretty ladies cut your hair while you watch sports’ joints opened up mid-town. Those places seriously siphoned-off a lot of what tonsorial business remained. Didn’t help that a lot of loose talk still hung around like smoke from burning oak leaves on an asthmatic October evening.
It turned out to be my last haircut at Stan and Everett’s. Creaky oaken floors long ago rubbed raw of any sealer or wax, smooth for the boots, sneakers, flip-flops, and wingtips that walked into and around the shop, greeted my entry. Walking around? Isn’t waiting for a haircut pretty much a sit-on-your-butt experience? Sure, but to trade the issue of “Farm Daily,” which is a quarterly now, for the coveted “Sports Today!” which is still a monthly, you have to walk from your chair to the magazine rack passing in front of the big mirror stained brown at the edges by years and humidity. It’s a magic mirror. If you glance into it as you walk to the magazine racks, you see, by damn, you really do need a haircut.
It used to be by the time the new issue of “Sports Today!” arrived, the old one was about to shed its cover. Lately, it looked the magazine didn’t get much wear. Not because sports aren’t what they used to be, but because shop traffic dwindled. You hardly ever waited anymore either.
As I opened the door and stepped inside, Stan offered, “Closing up, you know?”
“Aw, Stan. Ain’t got time to give me a trim?” It was one of those times I looked like a bum.
“Sure. Come on in. Have a seat.” He flourished the white cape like a bullfighter.
As he put the cape over my shirt and pinched it to hold the tissue that serves a mysterious purpose that to this day escapes me, he started his barber-banter.
“What I meant was, I’m closing the shop. For good.”
“Really?” I turned in the chair to face Stan, jeopardizing my sideburns. I shouldn’t have worried. Stan was a pro – he’d handled first-time customer five-year-olds suffering perpetual peripatetic palsy common to every youngster thrown into a bull pen with ten strange grown-up men. My sideburns were in good hands – whether I sat still or not.
“Yup. Seems time,” Stan continued.
“Well, hell. I mean, no sign announcing a fire sale or anything.” I meant it for a chuckle.
“Not much need really.” Stan was oddly resigned.
“Well damn. I need to stock-up.”
Stan did chuckle at that. Guess he recalled a time or two I got so busy I really did get my money’s worth when I finally dragged my shadow through his door. Like that day.
That haircut, my last good haircut, my last real haircut, took four hours. In the middle, at the end actually, Stan and I walked down to Marge’s Diner for lunch. I bought. Pretty big tip for a haircut. Well, I did tie the barber up for four hours. We talked mostly nonsense, the old days, and damn, didn’t the high school team have a good shot at the state title this year?
We returned to the shop. Stan thanked me too much for lunch. It was mildly embarrassing. As I prepared to leave, the conversation took an unexpected turn. I stood in the door, ready to leave, and Stan had posted himself guard behind his chair.
“I miss him,” Stan said. “Ev.” There was a heart-breaking emptiness on Stan’s face and a little-boy-lost look in his eyes.
“Of course you do,” I cajoled. “We all do.”
“Not the same.” That’s all he said with a nod of his head and shrug of his shoulders.
A tear introduced itself and ran down Stan’s cheek. I thought it dumb, out of place, and stupid, but I walked over to the chair and hugged him.
“You do want to ask, don’t you?” He posed.
“If Everett and I were gay? If I’m gay?”
“Don’t see as it makes a lot of difference, does it, Stan?”
“No, I guess not.”
We waltzed away from the subject, as men do when they’re uncomfortable about something. I struggled the conversation back to closing the barbershop.
“Sorry to see you close down, Stan. I really am. I’m gonna have to drive all the way to the city for a haircut.”
“They got the new shops here.” Stan actually seemed concerned I’d have to drive to the city, and it was somehow his fault.
“Not the right kind,” I started in. I’d heard talk about the other shops. They seemed to be what they advertised, too. “I want a haircut. Don’t want it styled. Don’t want to fantasize about some woman’s too-exposed breasts. I don’t like the prices at either place and both concepts put me off.”
“I guess I understand.”
Still at the door, ready to leave, I summed-up. “Listen, Stan, you take care of yourself.”
“Okay. Guess I’ll close up. Last time. No celebration.”
I smiled, walked over, and gave the old man another hug. He was frail.
“Stop by now and again, Stan. Pop into my office. We’ll have lunch.”
“So am I.”
I shook his hand. Figured we’d done enough hugs. His grip was firm. It belied the frail man I’d just hugged. I could imagine a second baseman, sixty years ago, pulling the ball from his glove as he spun midair to throw to first for the end of a righteous double-play. I didn’t go so far as to imagine the throw had come from Ev on third. Would have been fitting. But I was a bit flustered. Me, a lawyer, at a loss.
“Later,” I said, and opened the door to walk out.
While I was still facing Stan, he said, “We were,” staring straight at me.
It was stupid, but I said it. “Doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to me, Stan.”
Stan smiled. I think he nodded.
I smiled back and closed the door.
Two weeks ago, I learned Stan was sick. Hospital-sick. When I first visited him in the hospital, he didn’t look so good. The hospital parking lot has seen my old pickup about every other day or so since. Stan’s not getting better. When he passes, and I suspect that will be soon, I’ve resolved to speak at his funeral service.
That’s a “thing” here. When you pay respects before the Pastor gets up to speak his cut-and-paste message. Usually observed by family, but if they’ve a mind to, friends may say a few words about the departed. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. No, not thinking. It’s kind of seeped into my mind and settled-in so’s I know it’s a conviction.
I’ll get some real ice from the people I know after. Probably some from folks I don’t even know just yet. Suspect I’m gonna get to know them, the ones I don’t know now. The ones I know, I’ll learn new things about, some I hope in a good way, and sadly, I know, some in a bad way.
You see, it’s my intention to upbraid the whole damned community for cold-shouldering Stan, and before that, Everett. For something the town didn’t know, only maliciously suspected. I don’t intend to broach the subject of all that insane gossip; that’s irrelevant. I do intend to remind them of all those men did for the children of this community. Their children. Not Stan’s and Everett’s; they weren’t blessed. Hell, some of the people who’ll likely be there, are some of those children, all grown-up, with kids of their own. I’ll spread around some shame to be picked-up and tried on for size. Shame them because they deserve it. Stan and Everett deserved better than what they got. They deserved respect and admiration. Not for what they did, though that was exemplary, but for who they were. And the whole damned town deserves to be put in their judgmental places. Maybe me, some, too.
You’ll excuse me now. I’m headed to the hospital.
(From Milestones © S P Wilcenski, 2020)