by Billy Renkl
Four years ago, we went to see Earl at The Holiday Barbershop (“with vacuum clippers!”) for my son Will’s first haircut. Earl’s shop is just the sort of establishment you’d expect to find in a small town in Middle Tennessee: four chairs lined up facing a faded print of a farm scene gone blue, the mostly unnecessary mirrors at your back. For a while in 1998, there was a harbor scene, but nobody who comes to Earl and his colleagues is looking for change, so the farm scene quietly reappeared. The magazines (most of which address hunting or automotive subjects) are along the back wall, supervised by a phalanx of mounted fish and birds startled in the middle of some strenuous activity.
Earl is the perfect barber. He has intuitively grasped the finer points of haircutting, things he couldn’t possibly have learned in school. He holds your head casually and confidently, positioning it just so for the clippers. As he works his way around your head, he adjusts its position with exactly the right pressure. He finally shaves your neck using warm lather and a straight razor, working decisively from sideburn to sideburn. He discreetly removes ear hairs without comment.
The best thing about Earl is the comfortable conversation he makes over the buzz of those vacuum clippers: trips he’s made with his church, the trailer he just bought, visits from his nephews. I’ve been going to Earl for 15 years, about as long as he’s been at the Holiday Barber Shop. By now he always asks after my wife by name, wonders what my son is up to. He can tell if I’d rather not talk.
If anybody was going to cut Will’s hair, I wanted it to be Earl.
The thing is, I didn’t really want anyone to cut Will’s hair. Like every parent, I liked him just the way he was. Of course, Will was changing every day, on his own, but I didn’t much want to interfere with that. Will’s body seems to be him. He inhabits it completely, seamlessly; his every emotion registers directly on his face. He has the unself-conscious grace of the young, still blithely at home in the world, his skin just a membrane between what is and is not him. For the moment, at least, he still lets me hold his hand as we cross the grocery store parking lot. And that hand is perfect.
And so, it seemed at the time, were the hairs on Will’s head. They weren’t something on his head; they were him. And my patient wife had trouble convincing me they needed some shaping up. I put it off for months, but Will and I ended up together in Earl’s chair one Saturday morning in December.
I was as aware of bodies as it is possible to be that winter of Will’s first haircut. On one level I lived one delightful moment after another, watching Will change from day to day, a first time for everything. His lovely golden body grew and grew, he learned to walk, he found his voice, he stretched toward the world. But at the same time, my father’s body began to falter, betrayed him. His silver hair gone from chemotherapy, he fought for optimism as cancer bloomed inside of him. And I found myself, my own body, suspended between the two of them, both anxious son and anxious father. I would hold a blanket around my father when he caught a chill. I held Will whenever he would let me.
Will was anxious, himself, on that first trip to the barbershop. Despite my open confidence in Earl, Will didn’t trust the stranger with the vacuum clippers. I sat in the chair and held him, dense and familiar, in my lap as Earl made his way around both of us. Will clung to me, fitting perfectly against my chest. Helpless to comfort my father, I took solace in consoling Will: I could put a Band-Aid on a skinned knee, I could pat his back after a bad dream, I could sit in the barber’s chair with him.
A haircut is still $9 at the Holiday Barber Shop—$2 extra for a head massage, which I’ve never had the nerve to request—but for your money, you get much more than a haircut. That busy Saturday morning, Earl was as patient as Job: it took an extra-long time for him to coax Will’s head away from my chest enough to get at it from all sides. When he was finally finished, he held up a hand mirror so that Will could see for himself what had happened. Then Earl carefully folded a perfect jet-black lock into a tissue and gave it to me to keep.