Drake Jensen, in the barber’s chair, relaxes while Ned Yoder ties the white paper band around his neck. It always makes Drake think of those ancient photographs of solemn men sitting bolt upright in stiff starched collars, glaring full-faced, wide-eyed, and unafraid at, perhaps, an imminent explosion. After the paper collar is on, Ned always pats Drake on the shoulder and says “Well young man, what’ll it be today?” and Drake always says “How about a haircut?” then Ned chuckles. “All right, I think we’ve got one of those back here. Yep, here’s one,” and Drake laughs. Today there are two other men sitting in Ned’s oak straight-backed waiting chairs. They laugh too. One of them is Willard Waller, a retired town marshal. He wears bib overalls, a short-sleeved red plaid shirt, black low-cut work shoes, and white socks. He is there for a haircut, but always defers to other customers so he can sit and talk a while. The other is Pine Summers. He sells real estate but only when the notion moves him. He is wearing a white shirt, long-sleeved and nicely pressed, with a yellow tie and blue dress pants. He always wears brown wing tips.
Drake likes it here. It’s a one-room building on the east edge of town at the corner of Lindberg and Sherman streets. Ned is always pleasant and always agrees with his customers regardless of their politics. There is always someone here (only men) and everyone has something to say. Drake listens, mostly, since he is the newcomer and since he hasn’t lived in this small town long enough to talk about things with the openness that is expected of those who’ve been here all, or most, of their lives. He often marvels at how much he has learned of the historical, political, and economic background of Wakatosa. Besides all this, Ned is an expert with a straight razor. All for six bucks a cut.
“So, Drake, how’s business?” says Pine, always thinking about business and always anxious to hear how everyone else’s is.
“Not so good right now, Pine.”
“No?” Pine says. “Aren’t they selling any machines?”
“I suppose they are. But not with my help.”
“What? Aren’t you there anymore?”
“Not since they laid me off.”
The three others moan.
“No kiddin’?” Willard says. “What happened?”
“To put it simply – too many employees, not enough profit.”
Ned says “Mmmmm” and snips hairs from the back of Drake’s head.
“They’ve all got too many people any more,” says Pine. “Too many people and too much money. If they had less money they wouldn’t have all that dead weight at the top figuring out all those great ways to make more money. They’d be out knocking on doors to sell more products.”
“Right,” Ned says, and clips around Drake’s right ear.
“I suppose you’re right,” Drake says.
“What’re you gonna do?” says Willard. “Any prospects?”
“No promises yet. I’ve sent some resumes out. Called a few people.”
“I hear they’re lookin’ for help down at the hardware,” Willard says.
Pine laughs. “He’s looking for a professional position, Willard, not a retiree’s part-time job. Drake’s got a mortgage to protect.”
“Hey,” Willard says, “I’m just tryin’ to help. Maybe Drake could use a little somethin’ to do till he finds what he’s lookin’ for.”
“I appreciate it, Willard,” Drake says. “I may have to do something like that if nothing else comes up.”
“What about your wife,” Willard says. “She still workin’?”
“Yes. She certainly is.”
“Well, that’s gotta help.”
“Oh, it helps quite a bit.”
“Wasn’t she up for a promotion or something?” Pine says.
“She was, and she got it.”
“Well, that’s better yet,” Willard says, hands on knees. “That’ll help you pull through.”
Drake nods in response, and Ned pulls the scissors back quickly from his left ear.
“Almost got you, Drake,” Ned warns.
“Sorry, Ned. I forgot where I was for a minute.”
Ned goes back toward Drake’s ear.
“What’s this new job of the wife’s?” says Pine.
“She’s a regional sales manager.”
“Wow,” says Pine. “That’s got to mean a hefty little paycheck. Is she still working at the office building out on the highway?”
“No, I’m afraid not. She works in Chicago.”
There is silence as the three other men absorb the gravity of Drake’s response. Drake grins as the silence swells and he tries to imagine how the thought is developing in each of their minds.
“Mmmmm,” Ned finally comments. “Mmmmm.” Ned’s wife never worked anywhere outside the home. His barbering has supported them and their three children over a span of forty years. He owns his home outright and has money in the bank, and takes his wife to Las Vegas every year.
“You mean she actually works in Chicago?” Willard says.
Willard whistles and shakes his head. “That’s one hell of a long drive every day.”
“Oh, she doesn’t commute. She has an apartment there.”
Silence once again. Pine clips his fingernails, trying to appear as if he has hardly been listening. Willard just stares at Drake. Ned, working on the very top of Drake’s head, stops to inspect a small blemish in his scalp. He’s always on the lookout for boils, carbuncles, blackheads and skin cancers even though he doesn’t remove them any more.
“Drake, I think you have a mosquito bite up here,” Ned says, gently touching the small red bump.
“I don’t doubt it. I dozed off on the front porch last night and didn’t wake up until 11:30.”
“That can easily happen,” Ned says. “Especially when the wife isn’t around to rouse you and put you to bed.”
“Or put you to bed and rouse you,” Willard submits, grinning.
Drake and Ned laugh. Pine looks at Willard without a smile.
“Very clever, Willard. We all know that comes from the local authority on arousal.”
“You might be surprised at what I know about such stuff,” Willard says.
“Mmmmm,” Ned says.
“Well, share some of your wisdom with us,” Pine says. “We could all use a little education along those lines.”
Willard folds his arms and leans back in his chair. He closes his eyes for three seconds to collect his thoughts. He opens them.
“The first thing I can tell you is, if you’re wife ain’t home she don’t arouse you.” The wisdom of this postulate is obvious to most of those in attendance.
“Unless you dream about her,” Drake says. Ned, with the electric clipper, works on Drake’s right sideburn, which Ned keeps cut one-half inch below the top of his ear and trimmed down close to the skin, about an eighth of an inch in length.
Willard, the local expert on arousal, couldn’t remember ever dreaming about his wife, at least in a way that could in any way be associated with arousal. Pine considered the idea a contradiction in terms.
“If I dream about my wives,” Pine says, “I break out in a cold sweat and wake up screaming.”
“How many wives have you had, Pine?” Drake says.
“Three too many. And not one pleasant dream. You don’t mean to tell us, do you Drake, that you actually have dreams about your wife?”
“Don’t you think she’s cute enough?” says Drake.
“Well, now, of course I think she is. But she’s also your wife. How long have you been married?”
“Aren’t you all dreamed out by now?”
“Am I supposed to be?”
“I don’t know about you, but I’d say most men who’ve been married nine years tend to have dreams about other women. What about you guys?” he says to Ned and Willard. “Should Drake be dreaming about his wife?”
“I’d say Drake is a real romantic fellow if he does,” says Ned.
“Sure,” says Willard. “Of course, if I told my wife I had dreams about her she’d think I was off my nut.”
Drake doesn’t comment. Ned’s hand is on his head, bending it forward while he clips the back of his neck. Drake hates to talk with his head bent down.
“Come on, Drake,” says Pine. “Tell us now. Do you really have dreams about her?”
Drake thinks about his reply while his head is down. When Ned releases his grip, Drake answers.
“Yeah. I really do.” Drake understands that any information he gives to Pine might as well be posted on billboards all over town. He will not tell him more. The truth is that Drake really has had erotic dreams about Kerri. They only began after Kerri started to travel out of town on her job. This was four years ago. For the past year there have been none. In fact, Drake has dreamed little about anything for twelve months.
“Watch it, Drake,” says Willard. “Now he’s gonna ask you what’s in those dreams.”
“He can ask all he wants, Willard, but I’m not telling.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do such a thing,” says Pine. “You fellows think I’m nosy?”
No one replied.
“Well,” says Pine, “think what you want.”
“OK,” says Willard. “We will.”
“Ha,” says Ned. He puts his clipper down and takes his straight razor. He sharpens it on a leather strap, then checks the edge. It’s very sharp. He puts it on the table. He draws hot leather from a dispenser and with two fingers catches some and lays it across the back of Drake’s neck and around his ears. He takes the razor again and starts Drake’s favorite part of the haircut.
While Ned works, Drake wonders whether Ned and Willard will tell their wives about his dreams. He smiles as he imagines the ladies’ reactions and wonders whom they might tell first. Will they fabricate what his dreams are about? Will they pity Kerri for having a husband like him, or will they admire her?
Pine, knowing that Drake is nearly finished, changes the subject.
“Drake, Ben Jarman’s office manager quit last week. Maybe you could look into it.”
“Jarman’s? At the main office?”
“Don’t know. Jarman’s been swinging a lot of deals lately. He’s in the middle of that new addition to the industrial park. Then there’s the apartment complex over on Route 6. I also heard some guy from Michigan is suing him over that shopping center deal last year. Maybe things got a little hot at the head shed.”
“Doesn’t sound like anything I need.”
“Well, it’s just a thought.”
“Speakin’ of thoughts,” says Willard. “I just thought about all the trouble Jarman had with his daughter.”
“Mmmmm,” says Ned, razor in hand, edging deftly around Drake’s left ear.
“Oh, yeah,” says Pine. “She was something, wasn’t she?”
“She sure made his life miserable,” says Willard. “His and mine, too. I must have picked her up two dozen times before she went away to school. Why, I never saw any kid, boy or girl, who got into so much stuff. She was in attendance at every beer party I ever broke in on. She smoked dope like eatin’ candy. Then that night I caught her in the back seat of that car in the alley. Wow!”
“What happened?” Drake says.
“It was about two a.m. on a Sunday. Mrs. Lehman called me and said she was woke up by loud music behind her house. She looked out and saw a kid standin’ next to a car takin’ a leak, buck-naked. So I got my pants on and went over. When I got there, the car was there but I didn’t see anybody outside. I pulled up next to it and put the spotlight inside, and all I saw was one skinny bare butt grinnin’ at me!”
Pine and Ned laugh, even though they have heard the story many times. Drake hadn’t heard it.
“So who’s butt was it?” Drake says.
“Some kid from Fort Wayne. When that spotlight hit him, you’d a thought it was a hot flame. He almost jumped out the window. He spun around and squinted at me, and I told him to put his pants on and get out of the car. I knew someone in there had been lookin’ at the other side of that rear end. I got out with a flashlight and looked inside, and there was Jarman’s daughter. She was buck-naked too. She was down on the floor, tryin’ to hide. I told her to get her clothes on and get out, but she said she didn’t have any. I said where are they, and she said she didn’t know. I got my jacket out of the car and threw it to her and told her to stay in the car.”
Willard pauses to catch his breath. Ned, finished with the razor, wipes Drake off with a damp cloth and vacuums the loose hair around his collar. He takes the cover cloth off and shakes it. Drake stands up, shakes the hair from his clothes, and pays Ned.
“Go ahead, Pine,” Willard says.
Pine gets into the big chair. Drake takes Pine’s place, the warmth of Pine’s ample buttocks still haunting the oak chair.
“Then what happened?” says Drake to Willard.
“Oh, well then after I gave her my jacket I scared the bejesus out of that boy. I took his name, address, license number, and phone number and told him the girl’s dad would want to press charges, especially since she wasn’t even sixteen yet. He was only sixteen himself. Then I made him get into his car and take his pants off.” Willard stops and waits for Drake to ask the question. Drake does not disappoint Willard.
“Take off his pants? What for?”
“I told the girl to put ’em on, then I took her home to Ben. The girl was able to get inside without waking Ben, I guess.”
“So the kid drove home without pants,” Drake said.
“I figured turn-about is fair play. That girl had pants on somewhere along the way and somebody ditched ’em.”
“That’s a good one, Willard,” Drake says. “Did Jarman press charges?”
“No. He never even found out as far as I know. I never told him. I’m sure the girl didn’t.”
“What about her mother?”
“Oh, she was gone already by then.”
“Jarman never remarried, did he?”
“No. He’s been alone ever since. Well, ever since he sent his daughter away to school.”
Drake pondered the story he had heard.
“Maybe I should contact Jarman,” he said. “Sounds like he could use some help.”
Drake said goodbye to his acquaintances and walked out onto the sidewalk. He wished he had a job, now more than ever. He needed something to keep his mind busy, to make him tired at night and to help him cope with his loneliness. Perhaps he would get in touch with Ben Jarman. Jarman must be lonely too, with no wife and his daughter so far away. It was something to think about, anyway. In the meantime, Drake thought he might frequent Ned’s barbershop more often to while away some time. You just never know what you might learn in such a place.