Bald is a Feel, Not a Look

Issue 33 by Jarrett Neal

Bald is a Feel, Not a Look

Byron shook the rain off his driving cap and wool blazer before he hung them on the rack by the entrance. He handed the chubby lady behind the front desk a twenty-dollar bill. She was honey-colored with glossy yellow fingernails and plump black and gold braids coiled atop her head like a nest of vipers. When she passed him his change and gave him a receipt she said, “That’s for them,” gesturing to the phalanx of barber students several feet away. Byron took a seat in a folding chair opposite the mauve and ash brick partition separating the waiting area from the salon. The partition, about three feet high, afforded customers a view of the barber students at their stations, either busy cutting and styling a customer’s hair or freestyling to the low decibel hip-hop thumping over the speakers secured in the upper corners of the shop. Instinct told him to page through a magazine. That’s what you do in waiting rooms, right? But no magazines could be found so he did the next best thing and thumbed his iPhone. No texts, no work emails, no new push notifications bombarding him with the latest outrage and foolishness, nothing at all to distract him from this reunion he spent over a year avoiding.

His mother orchestrated it. He could hear Evelyn muttering in the background when Paul called last week: the sonorous lilt and inflections in her speech—South Side by way of Louisiana by way of Brixton—were more like her fingerprints than her actual fingerprints. Seeing Paul’s phone number illumine on his iPhone—a reminder from a time when Paul’s life was a horror show—Byron ignored the call. But Evelyn was savvy; she made Paul call from her phone a few minutes later. The instant Paul mumbled “Wassup, bro?” in that mushmouth way he hated young brothas doing, Byron knew he was trapped. Evelyn was determined to make her boys play nice, to hell with them if they didn’t want to. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see his mother swan through the barber college right now, clouded in White Diamonds, as radiant and unexpected as spring weather in February. He envisioned her traipsing into the waiting area outfitted in a bright silk blouse and matching palazzo pants, with the Dooney and Bourke he bought her for Christmas slung over her shoulder and the latest copy of O Magazine, her second Bible, peeking out. Evelyn knew how to make an entrance.

Bored, and with Paul nowhere to be found, Byron coolly observed the barber instructors in their burgundy smocks—two of them, a portly black man and a stout Latina woman—as they migrated from one station to the other, teaching, correcting, and encouraging the young men while they cut, washed, and styled hair. Their movements seemed balletic to him. He couldn’t comprehend it. Perhaps ballet came to mind because he and Pavel saw a production of The Nutcracker in Brussels last Christmas. Or maybe the notion came to him because of the garish smocks everyone was wearing: blue for the students and burgundy for the two instructors. Byron disliked uniformity and regimentation, ironic given his job as an actuary.

Though the students, when they worked, worked independently, the instructors guided all the actions, and from the looks of it they were pedantic maestros, either the best or worst people suited to teaching. With nimble fingers and half-closed eyes behind smudged glasses, they instructed the students how to cut and style a client and chided them when they got it wrong. The jowly, compact, russet little man in burgundy gently pressed his hand flat against the back of one of the students and maneuvered the young man aside. Then, with swift aplomb, he corrected the youth’s mistakes on the client’s maligned haircut. His peer, the woman also smocked in burgundy, for her part, critiqued the students caustically. Bryon never saw her correct their errors; she ordered them to fix their own blunders. “Clients come to a barbershop to look good,” she proclaimed as as she sidled, arms folded, from one student’s station to the next. “If they look good they’ll feel good. Make ‘em feel good.” Her name tag read Ms. Ruiz.

Blue-smocked students—all of them men who looked between seventeen and thirty-five-years-old—gave obliging nods to Ms. Ruiz and the burgundy-smocked man like hobos feeling giddy yet ashamed to receive spare change. Black, Caucasian, Hispanic, Southeast Asian, straight, gay (Byron could swear he recognized a few of them from Sidetrack or Progress in Boystown)—they comprised a diversity of young men eager for a good job and steady pay, all of them landscaped with garish tattoos on their hands, arms, and necks. One of the white guys had gages in his ears wide enough for a fledgling to perch in. Some had rings pierced through their septum, making them look like cattle ready to be corralled. Most of them looked dangerously skinny, almost anorexic. Byron felt a sudden pang of guilt for eating a twenty-eight dollar lobster burger for lunch just a few minutes earlier at a gastropub in River North. He thought of his expanding waistline and wished he had an excuse to put his blazer back on, but a space heater in the corner warmed the waiting area a bit too much. Now Fetty Wap’s “Wake Up” played through the speaker. The barber students continued to jaw and horse around with clippers and cosmetics. Paul was still nowhere in sight. Byron’s iPhone stayed silent.

The sign in the window facing the El platform read: Paramount Barber School—We take our students to the top! But Byron never thought his own kid brother would be among their ranks. The students needed heads to practice on, and at eight dollars a cut Byron figured Paul couldn’t go wrong if he shaved him completely bald. He was eager to take the leap and go bald before his receding hairline beat him to it. Over the years he had sported just about every hairstyle a black man could have. But no more. No more brushing, picking, combing, or relaxing. No more do-rags, Sta-Sof-Fro, wave brushes, or picks. Just a smooth, slick dome he could spritz with Sea Breeze, then go. He thought there was little chance a student could mess it up. Not even Paul.

At least it was a trade, Byron kept telling himself. Barbering. A steady, reliable trade. And people always need haircuts. At least Paul would have a steady job to last him the rest of his life, provided he stayed out of trouble. He already envisioned Paul over sixty, gray-haired and stooped, dragging angry clippers along the nappy heads of sour-faced little boys; Paul, successful and settled, with his own home in Bridgeport or Harvey or Maywood, cutting heads in a shop he owned, copies of Source and Sport Illustrated splayed on a low table in the waiting area, ubiquitous tittie calendars nailed to the walls like proclamations; Paul finally discharging both Byron’s and their father’s fear that Paul wouldn’t amount to much, that the cops, the culture, or something equally pernicious would catch and destroy him like a fish on a hook. Byron could almost hear the backslaps, guttural laughter, and buoyant rounds of the dozens ricocheting off the drywalls of Paul’s someday barbershop while he helped every dude in the spot time travel back to his daddy’s day and his granddaddy’s day; back to lusty Saturday nights in rump-shaking indigo juke joints and humble, scrubbed-up Sunday mornings in church, their aching feet stuffed into dagger-pointed Stacy Adams and their scalps screeching from too much hellfire conk as powerful as Ali and as angry as Liston, but still not strong enough to unkink their hair. Paul could own a place for himself and men like himself. And maybe he would invite Byron inside, let him take his hat off, ask him to sit a while, shoot the breeze. Maybe then they could finally feel like brothers. Maybe this barber college was the start of Paul’s life and not a footnote in it, just like their mother had predicted.

* * *

“Baby boy’s going to be a barber.”

Evelyn chirped the news as they sat on her front porch one muggy night in July. They flinched at every pop of the firecrackers set off by the neighbor kids—two weeks too late, damn them—and sipped the sangria Evelyn had made the day before. It tasted sweeter than pie filling—too much fruit, too much liquor, and definitely too much simple syrup, just like everything else his mother did. The faint glow of the citronella candle caressed the angular planes of his mother’s caramel face as she held her glass. Sarah Vaughan sang “Misty” on the iPod between them. Cicadas competed with Sassy’s coloratura and lost.

“It’s a good program,” Evelyn boasted, her confidence propping up each syllable. “Paul is a fast learner. Always been good with his hands. Remember those art projects he used to bring home in junior high school? I still got that footstool he made in shop class.” She swatted a mosquito away then covered her ears when one of the neighborhood kids set off an M-80. The boom was apocalyptic.

To steady himself and please his mother, Byron took a sip of the syrupy sangria then set it aside for good. “Clay wanted him to go to college.”

“Well Clay’s not here, is he Byron? I swear sometimes I think the wires got crossed and you’re really Clay’s boy and not Paul.”

“Clay raised us both,” Bryon stated, his ire barely contained. He had grown tired of correcting his mother on this point. “Mama, I’m fifteen years older than Paul. With Clay gone, I’m—”

“If I didn’t think the school was right for him, Bryon, I wouldn’t have told him to apply. And I definitely wouldn’t have paid the tuition.”

“Say what? Ma, please tell me you didn’t.”

Another Sarah Vaughn tune, “Lullaby of Birdland,” lilted through the speaker. Evelyn’s eyes twinkled in the flickering candlelight. His mother had a way of looking like a mocha-skinned porcelain doll under just the right light, when she wore a little too much makeup. “You always tell me I should make more investments,” Evelyn huffed. “Well, this is an investment in baby boy’s future.”

“With what money?” Byron scratched at a mosquito bite on his calf.

“I’ve got money.”

“I do your taxes, Ma. What money? From where?”

“Boy, you ain’t Perry Mason.”

The kids down the block set off more firecrackers. This time Bryon heard a screen door slam then an irate woman yelled at the children, “Keep on lightin’ up all that shit. Hurry up. Y’all gon’ pop all them damn firecrackers—tonight. Else they gettin’ throwed out. Y’all ain’t paid for shit!”

Another triumphant mosquito attacked Bryon, this time in the space where his thumb joined his hand. He picked up his glass of sangria just to let the cold soothe him. Then his mind added cause with effect and came to the conclusion he feared. He inhaled sharply and nearly leapt out of his seat.

“You mortgaged the house again, Ma?”

Evelyn spoke plain. “Not another mortgage. Just a small loan from the credit union. I do for my boy. Barber school may not be Stanford, but it’s a damn sight better than what could have happened to him, Byron.” After a moment, Evelyn implored, “Byron, help your baby brother, okay? Don’t judge him. He’s not you. Everybody makes mistakes. You should know that.”

He knew what she was talking about: an incident almost twenty years ago. A parking lot, a blue BMW with a car seat in back, and an economics professor with football-shaped biceps, caramel blond hair, moist lips, and calloused hands. Blows with a little blow, Byron had quipped before Colin pitched the car seat into the front. They snorted rails before Bryon slid down his Levi’s and Hanes. Transferring to UIC a few months later was nothing compared to the loss of an entire career. Where was Colin now? Was he capable of forgiveness? Another mosquito bit Byron but he let it have its victory.

More pops, blasts, and booms interrupted Sarah Vaughn’s rendition of “Poor Butterfly.” Byron watched his mother cross her legs at the ankles. Her eyes were like hazel marbles staring into the middle distance as mosquitos and fireflies buzzed around her. She seemed oblivious. Why was it that whenever he told anyone the truth about themselves—his mother, Paul, Pavel, even Colin—it resulted in alienation? He was expected to do everything—to be a good son, a good brother, a good student, a good employee, a good lover—but no one ever bothered to think of the cost to him, the multiple uncompromising positions he grudgingly placed himself in to make others feel something, anything, whatever they needed to feel in the moment. As cars whizzed by, pumping one aggressive hip-hop beat after another, Byron stretched his arm across the porch table, between the two goblets of cloying red sangria jeweled with blueberries, raspberries, and shrinking ice cubes, and gently clutched his mother’s hand. Of course, he would comply with her wishes. Against his better judgment. Against common sense and his stepfather’s dying wish to keep fools and foolishness away from his mama. Of course. She turned and cast a forlorn gaze at him, the one that communicated to him the vast need she had for him to set things right, even if he knew she might be wrong again.

* * *

Paul beamed brighter than his smile when he rounded the partition and embraced Byron. Still rangy and bowlegged, dressed all in black except for his blue smock, he looked a few years older than his twenty-one years. Once a skeletal disaster, he looked hearty to Byron now, well-fed and rested. Bryon noticed that his deep ebony skin bore none of the acne and scars that once canvassed his face, unlike his own walnut-brown skin cratered with open pores trailing along the bridge of his nose. But Paul’s smile, big and toothy, signified just how much he had transformed since Byron had last seen him, when he was a drowsy-eyed, kinky-haired, funky waste. His mother was right: Paul was recovering nicely.

“Ain’t seen you in a minute, bro,” Paul said.

Bryon kept his shoulders back when Paul gripped his hand and pulled him in for a hug. His legs, stiff as if they had fossilized, couldn’t move. The smell of bay rum aftershave wafted from his brother’s neck, and Byron wondering if sipping it could get someone drunk. Instantly, he banished that thought and chided himself for even thinking it. Then, unsure what was appropriate or what would get reported back to his mother, he changed his mind, moved closer, and tightly embraced his little brother. Paul looked like his father now, lithe and full of strength. The difference only made Byron more aware of how bad things had gotten for Paul over the last two years. He handed Paul the receipt the receptionist gave him.

“You been good?” Paul asked as he took a step back to look Byron over.

“Just busy.”

“You don’t get to the gym no more?”

“Why you say that?”

Bryon would have cussed out anyone else who mockingly patted his round belly the way Paul did. But because it was his baby brother, and because he wanted to get this visit over with, he let it slide. Earlier at lunch he gobbled a mound of garlic parmesan fries and a side salad drenched in dressing along with his lobster burger. He washed it all down with a couple of Stellas. He ate hearty whenever he went out by himself, probably because he and Pavel seldom ate together at home. One of them was usually traveling or working late. He could count on one hand the number of times the dishwasher had been turned on in the last month.

Forcing a smile, Bryon said, “I’m getting a gut, I know, I know. Proves how busy I am at work. Got less time to hit the gym these days.”

“You still hulked up, though, B. Ma said you planning another trip.”

Bryon scratched the stubble on his chin. “Amsterdam. In May.”

“Word? Man, y’all stay gone. You still with ol’ dude?”

“Pavel? Yes. He says hello.”

Byron didn’t consider it a lie, though it certainly was one. Pavel had begged him not to see Paul, to cut his losses and forget he even had a brother. From the start he had never been fond of Paul, and the events of the last two years, the dark maw that swallowed Byron up and spit him back out, proved his point. Pavel had no tolerance for weaknesses in character or betrayals of any kind. When his family refused to accept his homosexuality, he emigrated from Poland without even telling them. Cutting ties was that simple for him. And he enjoyed nothing as much as being able to say I told you so.

Several black leather barber chairs lined a wall backed by mirrors and countertops crowded with the usual products: glass jars filed with aqua blue Barbisol, assorted clippers and brushes, green containers of Pinaud talc, a collection of hairspray cans rainbowing the whole salon. The array of products and gadgets had a haphazard order to it, as there seemed to be in every barbershop Byron had ever patronized. Inhaling the blend cosmetic smells, Byron’s thoughts transported him to the string of past salons and barbershops he had visited. Over the years, as he traveled from Chicago to Stanford, back to Chicago, then to San Francisco, then Brixton, then Brussels, Rome, Berlin, Kansas City and, breathlessly, back to Chicago, finding a barbershop that could cut black hair was a challenge. As he grew older, as one degree surpassed another and the people in his environment lightened in complexion and increased in income, getting his hair cut by someone who knew the intricacies of black hair rattled him.

“I’ma do you up good, big bro.”

Paul patted the back of the chair. When Byron sat, Paul pumped the seat up then covered him in an azure cape. Next, Paul took a paper neck strip and wrapped it around Byron’s neck before he fastened the cape behind his neck.

“Too tight?” Paul asked.

Byron wished Paul and other young black men would stop mumbling. “What you say?”

“Is it too tight?”

“A little.”

Once Paul loosened the collar, he placed his palm on top of Bryon’s head. He had Clay’s long, artistic fingers, the kind that made gripping a basketball or playing a piano effortless, yet neither Paul nor Clay excelled at either pastime. The feel of this little brother’s hand upon him released memories he tried to keep locked away. When the cancer hit hard and the chemo made it virtually impossible for Clay to do anything other than sleep and vomit, Byron was the one who took Paul to get his hair cut. Twice a month he’d pick up Paul early on Saturday morning before the city roused itself and drive them to a barbershop in Hyde Park on Fifty-fourth Street. They’d each wait for Herman, a friend of Clay’s who had been cutting each of them for years. Each took his turn in Herman’s chair, first Paul then Byron. Afterwards, Byron would take Paul to Burger King for breakfast: bacon, egg and cheese croissant sandwiches and cold cartons of orange juice. It was hard not to think of Herman in this space, or those cobalt blue early mornings with his kid brother at Burger King, how relaxed they felt in each other’s presence. Byron was beginning to make the connection between those memories and this present moment.

Mr. John sauntered up to them and introduced himself to Byron. Byron shook his puffy, slick hand, eyed the bottle of hand sanitizer on the receptionist’s desk, and wished he could get a surreptitious squirt of it. They began to banter. John told Byron about Paul’s hard work in the program while Byron graciously thanked him and offered him equally perfunctory comments on the school, the students, and the good work he personally had done to transform his junkie kid brother into an upstanding barber student. Who knew how much puffery or half-truths each man believed?

“Where you normally get your hair cut?” Mr. John asked.

“Lakeview.”

“Where?”

“Salon Smythe.”

“Say what?”

“Salon Smythe. Just off Armitage.”

Mr. John gave him a quizzical look. “North Side? Who the hell cuttin’ you up on Armitage?”

“My stylist. Mikiko.”

It seemed to Byron that someone had turned the volume of the room down. Even before he formed the name on his lips he knew the other brothas would judge, estimate, and strike him off their list. If they could take back his black card they probably would have.

“You got some white chick cutting on you?” Mr. John held his mouth slack.

“Asian. Japanese. American.”

Across the shop, one of the students, a short dark-skinned guy with a dyed orange Afro, shouted, “How much you pay for that North Side cut, dog?”

Byron tapped his foot on the footrest. “It’s kind of pricey to be honest.”

“But how much?”

Byron let out a long, dejected breath. “Forty.”

Mr. John put a hand on Byron’s shoulder. “Hold up. You payin’ some girl forty dollars to dome you on the North Side? Plus tip?”

“She’s good,” Byron repeated, as if pressing this point would be enough to appease the brothas and let him back into the fold. He wished he could turn in his chair and see the expression on Paul’s face. He knew his brother would pay some sort of cost for this: ribbing, humiliation, or ostracization. It was the last thing he wanted. It was the last thing Paul needed.

Mr. John grimaced and sucked his teeth. “Shit, Mikiko gonna have to do more than cut my waves for forty dollars plus tip. Know what I’m sayin’?”

The other men nodded, smiled, and backed Mr. John up with a chorus of “Damn right!” and “Hell yeah!”

Mr. John took a moment to study Byron and Paul’s faces. With his head cocked to one side and his hands in the pockets of his smock, his face relaxed into a removed, sphynx-like expression. “Y’all are brothers for sure,” he declared. “Got the same eyes. Look just alike.”

He was only half right, Bryon thought. True, from the nose up both he and Paul looked just like their mother. But from the nose down Paul was all Clay and Byron was the mirror image of his father, wherever he was.

“Check your angles before you get started,” Mr. John advised Paul. “Cuttin’ a head is just like cuttin’ a face. Remember to stretch the skin and cut with the grain, not against it. All right?”

“Aw ight,” Paul answered.

“Matter of fact,” Mr. John said, “start with a Five Star and after that take him down with a straight edge. Check out how I do it first then you can do it.”

Gesturing Paul out of the way, Mr. John took the maroon box razor in his puffy hand. With a flick of his thumb he buzzed the Five Star to life. Then he quickly switched it off.

“Sure you want it all gone?”

“All of it.”

“Beard and mustache?”

“Cut it all off.”

“Okay, North Side.” Mr. John clicked the Five Star on again. “Just had to be sure. One time I cut this dude’s soul patch off and he about lost his mind. Jumped up out the seat and said, ‘Man, my wife gonna kill me!’ I said, ‘What you mean?’ He said, ‘You cut off the best part—the tickler!’”

His laughter, velvety and thick, bounced off the walls. The students, along with Ms. Ruiz and the receptionist, looked up from the heads they were cutting and styling and directed obliging gazes at Mr. John. Their faces enlivened with an esteem even Bryon absorbed. He chuckled too, slouching in his seat a little to allow the unabashed naughtiness of the joke to permeate.

Byron seldom took his eyes off Paul, who never took his eyes off Mr. John. Focused, his admiration for this little man trespassed the boundary of mere respect for a good teacher. Paul’s face thrived with fealty, admiration, and, Bryon couldn’t deny it, something covetous. With his father dead and his relationship to Byron consigned to a no man’s land of hollow gestures and thinly concealed distrust, Paul had replaced both of them, torn them down and exposed them for the false idols they were, and replaced them with Mr. John, his new model for manhood.

“They ain’t biting you is they, North Side?” Mr. John asked.

“The clippers? No,” Byron said, nudged out of his ruminations.

“Good. Thought you flinched.”

An interlude of buzzing passed. With the chair turned toward the brick partition, Byron observed flecks of his hair—mostly black, some gray—drift onto his cape.

Mr. John clicked off the Five Star. “All right, Paul. Lemme see you take down North Side. Uh, I mean your bro.”

Gingerly, Paul took the Five Star in his hand. Bryon felt it buzz over his scalp, not completely sure if he could trust Paul to do a good job yet marshalling all of his confidence in his little brother. Mr. John stepped in front of him and closely observed, canting his head up past Bryon’s head to monitor Paul’s work then back down to meet Byron’s gaze. For an uncomfortable moment, Mr. John stared directly into Byron’s eyes with an expression Bryon couldn’t fix. Was he being judged for being bougie, for being tough on his kid brother, or for just being himself? It was one of the reasons black barbershops always filled him with dread—the judgments of other black men. Even with all of his accomplishments, which only seemed to ostracize him, Byron would never fit in among the brothas the way Paul, despite all of his fuck-ups, seemed to slide right into place. Just like Clay, Paul had a knack for finding his tribe anywhere, from strung-out drug addicts rolling in their own filth to young guys clowning around in a barber school. Byron, on the other hand, had traveled the globe yet felt at home nowhere, not even in the home he shared with Pavel. He broke from Mr. John’s gaze and glanced down at the smock to find more gray hairs than there had been before.

Mr. John mused as he walked a semicircle to the other side of Bryon’s chair to inspect Paul’s progress. “Some people think you can’t mess up a bald cut but that ain’t true. Bald is a feel, not a look. Just ‘cause some dudes are out here slick-domed looking like Jordan, that don’t mean they got a Jordan cut. Or a double zero. You feel stubble, you see stray hairs, you ain’t bald. Feel me?”

“I feel you,” Paul said.

After he did all he could with the Five Star, Paul lathered Byron’s head, took a straight edge razor and slowly glided it down Byron’s scalp. Mr. John stood in front of them observing, steady and focused. After fifteen minutes, Paul stopped shaving and Byron felt relieved that he didn’t feel any cuts.

“Let me go get a hot towel, bro.”

Byron watched Paul take generous, bouncy strides to the opposite end of the salon, marveling at the change in him. Two years ago he had totally given up on Paul. It was fall then too, chillier and wetter. His mother phoned him on a Saturday night a week before Halloween. He and Pavel were out with friends at Marty’s in Andersonville, knocking back large martinis while they swaddled themselves in stories about home renovations, retirement savings, reality TV, and trips to Rome and London. When his iPhone buzzed and “Ma” flashed on the screen, he knew bad news was about to worm its way into his ear. Somebody was sick, somebody was dead, or somebody was in jail. Good news never traveled under moonlight. Ma would never call after nine o’clock on a Saturday night if it wasn’t trouble. And since Clay’s death, Paul had been trouble.

He sent Pavel, frowning, home in an Uber, then sped to Bridgeport. His mother was standing in front of her house when he pulled up. As she got into the passenger seat, dressed in a black Nike track suit and matching running shoes, clutching the original Kate Spade he bought her for her birthday back in April, she continually phoned and texted some girl named Iris. This girl, Iris, with an accent Evelyn pegged as pure West London, called two hours earlier and told her to get to the spot quick if she wanted to stop her son from overdosing tonight. Iris wasn’t answering any of Evelyn’s calls or texts. Evelyn told Byron they were going to the West side. Off Cicero. The rainswept streets hissed angrily at them as the car sped along.

They drove to a boarded-up apartment building abutting a large empty lot strewn with trash. Bryon took his mother’s hand and led her inside. The stench was so foul Evelyn snatched several Kleenexes out of her bag and pressed them to her nose and mouth. They descended the narrow concrete steps and entered the basement apartment. Byron had no clue what awaited them, who or what crouched in the dark ready to strike, so he led Evelyn by the wrist and they made their way tentatively. Inside the apartment, the only light beamed from the streetlight on the corner through a slotted window blind. They stepped on a thick layer of trash. Byron could see pizza boxes, empty two-liter pop bottles, soiled clothes, used diapers and condoms, and discarded syringes amid the filth, all of it crackling, crunching, and squishing with each footfall. A white bucket stood in a corner. Byron only needed to inhale to know what it was being used for.

He saw the girl first, a white girl with red hair and a large tattoo he couldn’t make out in the semidarkness. It swooped and curved from her big toe up her leg. She was a buxom girl wearing clingy jersey-knit shorts that barely covered her ass and a cropped T-shirt. She lay face-up and spread eagle on a dingy mattress beside Paul. Her large breasts lolled to the side and the bottoms of her feet were black. Evelyn told him that Iris was this girl’s cousin. Her name was Lares.

Lares raised herself on her elbows and glowered at them. “What the fuck y’all want?” she brayed.

“I’m here for my boy,” Evelyn said from behind her mask of tissues. “You do what you want, but I need my boy. You hear?”

Lares smirked. “My cousin a straight-up bitch. Y’all must be bitches too.” Even as high as she was, Byron could tell this girl was doing her best to sound black and ghetto. Anyone who had spent significant time north of the Loop could hear Lululemon, Whole Foods, Pride and Prejudice and Goop in her voice. “This here is my spot. Y’all in my house. So take y’all asses outta here ‘fore I get stupid on y’all asses.”

And with that injunction, all energy leeched out of Lares. She collapsed onto the mattress and rolled onto her side. With more of her leg exposed now, Byron could fully see the cobra tattoo that began at her big toe and looped around her leg and torso. The cobra’s venomous fangs pierced her neck, and tiny drops of blood ran down the side. Byron had never seen a more lifelike tattoo.

Paul sat cross-legged beside Lares. His head bobbed up and down as if he was struggling to stay awake. His eyes, when he managed to open them to narrow slits, looked as brown and heartless as shards of malt liquor bottles. The signs were unmistakable to Byron. He had sampled his fair share—the incident with Colin came to mind—but nothing too serious, nothing that would pulverize his entire life and leave him wrecked. Byron didn’t know if Paul was snorting it or slamming, but it didn’t matter anyway. Zombies didn’t look as ghoulish as he did.

Across the room, a rat leapt over a mound of clothes and trash and scurried through a hole in the wall in the opposite corner. Evelyn screeched, and both she and Byron recoiled. Paul and Lares lay as still as corpses.

“Get up, Paul,” Bryon said. When he didn’t respond, Bryon shouted, “Paul! Get up! Now!”

Struggling to stay awake, Paul scratched at the track marks on his right arm. What was inside those sinister, pigmented eyes was nothing Byron had ever seen in his brother before.

“Why are you doing this, Paul? You know your daddy would kill you if he saw you like this. You’re going to die, man. You wanna die?”

Paul’s head bobbed a few times before he raised his chin. Byron shuddered as Paul opened his eyes slightly and leveled a serpentine gaze at him. “Fuck you. You don’t know me. You fuckin’ faggot. Dad said I’m not supposed to listen to you cuz you a fag. Take your bitch ass outta here.”

Why the hell am I here? Bryon thought. Why was he wasting his night in a building that should have been condemned, in an apartment that reeked of piss, shit, and vomit, in a room with a hysterical mother, a drugged-out brother, and his slammed-up whore? A clean life waited for him in Bucktown, a clean condo with clean air and plenty of space and light, shiny mahogany floors, quartz countertops, three bathrooms. He made six figures. People relied on him; people admired him; some even feared him. He was going to Rome in the spring with Pavel and their friends Desi and Mark, a retired married couple with more money, free time, and bitchy gossip than they knew what to do with. He would eat cacio e pepe in a sunsplashed trattoria and drink one Negroni after another while watching the world go by. He would tour the Colosseum, Trastevere, and, of course, the Vatican. Why was it his responsibility to continually save this boy when he repaid him with insults, lies, and condemnation? Why did he have to tolerate a drug-ravaged, skeletal, half-dead half-brother vomiting hatred on him. Byron didn’t need this.

Byron could hear his mother’s quick footsteps on the trash as she chased after him. “Byron! Byron, where you going? Byron!” As he rounded the corner and stomped up the concrete stairs, he heard her say, “He’s sick, Byron. You hear? That’s not your brother, Byron. He’s sick!”

Behind the wheel of his car, his first thoughts weren’t of Paul or his mother. Strangely enough, Colin came to mind. Those moments of madness in the backseat of his car when they were both high not only from the cocaine but from the sex and the risk of it all. How could they have been so stupid? As an actuary, he calculated risk all the time, computing behaviors and choices with dollars and cents. The odds for Paul were dire. He should still be back in that hellhole—his mother was still there, and Clay would have wanted him to be there—but he wouldn’t let himself be abused. Why should he go out of his way to save people who clearly did not want to be saved, people who would poison him in the process?

Evelyn had been calling and texting for the last five minutes. Just before he drove onto the ramp to I-290, he sent an Uber to pick her up and take her home.

* * *

One of the students had switched the SiriusXM Station to Heart & Soul, and Byron was thankful they were finally playing music from singers he liked—Maxwell, Jill Scott, D’Angelo. With his haircut complete, the client seated in the next station got up and tipped his barber student. The client was tall and wide, with an unruly gut that extended wide. He grunted a thanks to his barber then put a White Sox cap on his head and waddled out of the barber school.

“That’s a damn shame.” Mr. John shook his head. The straight-edged razor scraped behind Byron’s ear. In the mirror, Bryon could see Paul suck his teeth as he looked out the window and watched the fat man in the White Sox cap slowly make his way down Wabash Avenue. “Man, how you gonna diss the barber and put your hat on like that?”

Mr. John sucked his teeth. “Motherfuckers ain’t got no kinda respect,” he groaned under his breath.

It was an unspoken rule Byron learned from the time he was a boy and Clay would take him to get his hair cut. When Clay was moved to hospice care, he inculcated the same injunction in Paul. No man was ever supposed to put on a hat right after he got his hair cut. No matter how cold the weather, no matter how stylish the hat, if you put it on after you got your hair styled you may as well have spit in your barber’s face. For a barber there was no worse insult, another in a line of tacit codes among black men that Byron either forgot, misread, or rebelliously refused to recognize.

He closed his eyes as Paul brushed his head and chin with talcum powder. Next, Paul laid a hot towel over his newly tonsured head and massaged it before he poured Sea Breeze into his palms, slapped them together, then rubbed the oil into Byron’s scalp. Mr. John took one last inspection at Paul’s work: Byron’s smooth, shiny bald head. Looking at himself in the mirror, Byron had to admit that he looked years younger. Yet with his head and face denuded, the bags under his eyes and the open pores on his face became more prominent. Though they signified his age, the grays at least had given him a distinguished appearance. And he had no idea how Pavel would react when he saw him. Well, it was too late now.

“All right,” Mr. John said to Paul, approvingly. His gaze toggled back and forth between Bryon and Paul and, his armed folded over his chest, he gave a self-assured nod and confirmed, “Yep. Y’all brothers, sure ‘nough.”

Now came another awkward moment: tipping. Bryon had to tip him, not only because he was his brother but because Bryon couldn’t breech another tacitly understood protocol. Paul deserved something, not only because he cut his hair but because he was his brother, and brothers had to look out for each other. He had folded the bills—a generous sum—into a tight, small square while he was waiting for Paul. He slapped his palm with Paul’s and pulled his baby brother in for a tight hug, chest to chest, with a strong pat on the back.

“You good?” he asked.

“Uh huh,” Paul grunted.

“I’m glad. You look like you’re doing all right.”

“I’m trying, man. Gotta take it one day at a time, nahmean?”

“Right.”

“Gotta meeting tonight. I be on my meetings.”

“Ma said so. That’s good.”

“Roll with me tonight.”

“To the meeting?”

“Yeah.”

“I got this thing with Pavel tonight. I will though. Soon.”

“Promise.”

“I promise, Paul.”

“Word.”

As Byron took his cap and blazer from the rack, Mr. John exclaimed, “Catch you later, North Side!” at his back. Byron waved and proffered a half-smile.

The dingy gray sky released a chilly drizzle. He would rather spend the weekend indoors with pizza, books, and movies, but Pavel had bought tickets to the new play at the Goodman Theatre. Then there was a party he really didn’t want to go to—Pavel’s friends in West Loop—and another Sunday brunch with Desi and Mark. Too many plans with people he didn’t care about and too many masks to wear. When Byron pressed his palm to his scalp, the slick smoothness impressed him. Perhaps Paul had skills after all. But on the sides, he felt patches of angry stubble his brother had neglected. The shave, likewise, was close, but stubble remained. He should have told Paul to shave against the grain too, not just with it. He should have made him do it, demanded like any client in real life would have, despite Mr. John’s edict about shaving with the grain.

From across the street, Byron looked over his shoulder back into the school. Paul had merged with the indistinguishable pack of young men clad in blue. They were rowdy with laughter—raucous, extravagant, enviable laughter—and gesturing wildly, stomping their feet, jumping up and down, punching and kicking at the air. Red-faced, Mr. John and Ms. Ruiz hunched over in merriment. Even the few remaining clients laughed themselves out of their chairs. The receptionist with the tower of braids was also laughing, holding her belly with one hand and wiping away a tear with the other. Everyone inside looked spirited, as if Paramount Barber School was the happiest place on Earth and anyone who wasn’t inside with them at that moment was a fool, because the joke was on them. As Byron plodded up the stairs to the El platform, he put his driving cap on.

About the Author

Jarrett Neal

Jarrett Neal's first book, What Color Is Your Hoodie?: Essays on Black Gay Identity, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. His essays, fiction, poetry, and reviews have appeared in The Gay and Lesbian Review, Chelsea Station, NewCity, Litbreak, The Good Men Project, and other publications. A graduate of the MFA program in Writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he is currently working on a collection of short stories titled The White Boy Does His Work. He lives in Oak Park, IL.