While I was getting my haircut, the bell jangled, the door opened, a woman’s sweet voice said, “Hello. Will you shave my daughter’s head?”

The barber closest to the door turned and looked. He considered it. “Maybe. How old is she?” He was Yugoslavian. I liked the way he spoke.  

The rest of us looked—myself, my short barber, the man getting the fade in the other chair. We turned our heads in perfect synch to see an Indian woman in a lavender coat holding the hand of a toddler.

The toddler had dark braided hair, wore a pink coat. “She’s three,” the woman said. She pointed up on the wall where the straight razors hung from hooks. “Use that.”

The barber thought about it. He pointed at his own bald head. “Like this?” The mother nodded. He exhaled, stressed by the request, afraid to look like he couldn’t handle his vocation. “She’s three?” He spoke to the little girl. “You’re three? You want me to shave your head?” The little girl just stood there, no reply.

The mother said, “We’ve done this before.”

“What if she flinches?”

“She doesn’t move.”

“Nah nah nah.” He opened a drawer and pulled out a purple electric buzzer, shook it in the air. “I can use this.”

“No,” the mother said and pointed at the straight razors again. “Only those.”

The straight razors hanging on the wall, with six inch blades, boy, they sure did look deadly.

“I won’t do it, I’m sorry,” the barber said. The woman and the child thanked him and left the barbershop. We watched them truck onto the cold concrete, leaning into the wind, bent low at the hip to keep their hoods from blowing backwards, one hand holding the hoods up. I didn’t know where they would ever find what they were seeking, even in this city that sprawled on forever.

The woman cutting my hair went back to snipping away again. Snip snip snip. But the bald barber didn’t let it go.

“Razor a child? I can’t do that, I can’t risk that. What if the little girl moves and I slice her melon open? What then?”

“She’ll find someone who can handle it,” the man getting the fade said, laughing. He must be the bravest man in the world, I thought, insulting a man who was wielding sharp scissors.

The woman cutting my hair laughed too, and I felt her snip a mistake into the side of my head.

I remained quiet. I felt like I was watching TMZ.

The bald barber said, “I know how to do it! It’s just not worth it. What if she moves?”

My barber was a short woman, under five feet tall. Caribbean. I liked the way she talked, too. She had to recline my chair all the way back so she could reach my cowlick. She knew what she was doing but had to stretch her arms way into the sky to do it.

“It’s winter now. People are crazy,” she said looking into the mirror, meeting my eyes.

And she was right. People are crazy, but they’re often crazy for a reason you can’t see on the surface. Or a reason that you misunderstand, and then you’re crazy in your misunderstanding, meanwhile they are still crazy for some other deeper unknown reason. If you managed to get to know them better, you’d find out in time. But everyone stayed a relative stranger, and there was no time. They were spoken to briefly, and then disappeared up the sidewalk remaining a mystery. People don’t show you who they really are until you aren’t paying attention.

“It’s a religious thing,” the man getting the fade decided, saying aloud with gusto, almost singing it, “Faith.”

I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to stare at myself in the mirror, I didn’t want to keep meeting eyes with my barber. I didn’t want to look at my windburnt face.

“Faith,” I heard again.

I have no faith. Nor do I understand anyone’s faith. There is a man I work with whose ex-wife, in her new independence from him, has fallen in with a destructive cult, of sorts.

The ex-wife now takes the children into the den of that ministry for 48 hour marathon weekend sessions.

He came to me for advice in the machine shop. I was no help. He was smoking a cigarillo that smelled like blackberries. He pulled up Wikipedia and passed his phone to me, showed me an article that reconfirmed the doomsday cult thing.

He was disturbed by the cult’s beliefs. They thought the end of the world was imminent and an elderly woman from South Korea was God.

I said, “Most of my friends think the world is about to end. And hey, anybody can edit a Wikipedia article.”

“People Magazine says this, too.” He said, “I showed her, she told me when Jesus was getting going, people said he was a charlatan. But I said Jesus was doing miracles, walking on water, turning water to wine, rising from the dead.”

I said, “Okay, yeah.”

“I can see if you don’t believe in J.C., even though I do, but you’re going to tell me it’s right to believe in this? It’s absolutely insane.”

“Sounds like bad news for your ex and your kids. But them worshipping an old Korean lady doesn’t sound any more insane to me than any other religion.”  

He said I was a moron, and I vaguely disagreed. I said he was a genius, and he strongly disagreed with that.

The barbers were still arguing about why a mother would shave their kid’s head in the middle of winter. My barber had her phone out. She googled the answer. “It’s their religion. They do it when someone dies in the family.”

“Oh, that’s terrible. Now I feel absolutely terrible.”

“Or they do it when they are visiting some kind of holy temple…Wait. Here’s another reason…”

“Don’t keep me in suspense,” the bald barber said.

“Tonsuring. It’s a popular sacrifice according to this.” She paraphrased, “Exchanging hair for grand wishes to come true…Gods accept hair as fair bargains.”

“Good we got plenty to bargain with then. All over the floor. I’ll sweep it up and we’ll start wishing.”

“Oh shut up.”

The bald barber said, “I’ve heard of tonsuring. Put your phone away.” He addressed me. “Buddy, I’m sorry, she’s addicted to her phone. Yell at her.”

“Shut up, shut up,” she said, slipping her phone into her back pocket.

I told her, “I’m addicted to my phone. Elon Musk says we’re already cyborgs.”

The guy with the fade said, “They shave to the scalp so the hair grows back thicker. Prettier. Fuller.”

“That I’ve heard.”

She was doing a great job with my haircut. This was my first time at this shop. Their shop telephone was off and to make an appointment I had to click on either the bald Balkan barber who was scared to use the straight razor on the baby, or this really short Caribbean woman with super curly hair. I chose the woman because the guy had tribal sleeve tattoos and he looked pretty intense. I didn’t want to talk about football. I didn’t want to talk about anything.

I saw now that the bald man was not intense. I was wrong about him. But I was right to choose the woman because she had no interest in talking to me. She just wanted to do her job and be left alone to do it.

The place down the street used to cut my hair but they were twice as expensive and made a whole production of it, dressed like it was the 1940s, called themselves “master barbers,” but really they were just fucking dorks. Those dorks made a big deal about what scissors they were using and they gave you a tour of each scissor before they used it. But it didn’t matter how serious those master scissor dorks were, the next morning at work, my coworkers still asked me if I’d gotten a lollipop with my haircut.

The woman finished my cut, brushed me off. I paid and tipped and walked out onto the street, the bell jangling, all of them saying Merry Christmas as I waved through the window and immediately stopped as soon as I was out of sight. I leaned back on the brick wall, happy to be back in the big cold world that made your lungs sting.

Across the street, by the metal security gate of the pharmacy, stood a nurse in green scrubs and an Antarctica jacket, who said into her cell phone, “Ya know what…”

I waited to hear what.  

Her eyes were on fire. Her mouth hung open.

Here came the what:

“Then we’re not together anymore, and now you can go FUCK YOURSELF.”

She turned and kicked the metal gate and hurt her foot. “I should have NEVER believed in you!”

She was by the trash can and I thought maybe she was going to slam the phone into the trash can, but she didn’t. She just hung up the phone and leaned against the metal security gate, and rubbed her foot. I wondered why the pharmacy was closed down. Inadvertently, she looked over at me. She had tears in her eyes. She lit a cigarette.

I continued leaning against the wall on my side of the street and waited. Because where was I supposed to go? What was I supposed to be doing?

My head was colder because I’d had a lot of wishes chopped off and left there scattered on the floor.

I looked down the city street. Everybody looked like they didn’t know even one single thing. The only person who knew anything was the nurse who was crying, who knew she didn’t have anyone or anything to believe in.

I almost knew one thing. I almost knew someone was coming to meet me. The someone could be Buddha, or Lucifer, or Jesus, or Mary, or Zeus/Jupiter, or Pluto/Hades, or the Tetragrammaton, or any one of the 33 Vedic deities. Or I could have been waiting for Moses, or the Prophet Muhammad.

But no.

Rachel Buleri. That’s who I was waiting for.

But maybe I was doing some side-waiting. I might have been side-waiting for Allah. I took a look inside the hotel of my heart and saw a No Vacancy sign for Allah, and for any of those characters at the moment, but the moment was always slipping away, so who knew about tomorrow.

I didn’t have faith in anyone besides Rachel Buleri, who I knew was really coming here to save me. Who had sent me a text that said, Hey bb! I’m on my way! Yayyy!

Faith, I realized, I did have faith. I had faith in her. Not that I specifically doubted any of the other characters. I wasn’t an atheist. And I wasn’t one of the Jains, whose religion lacked a belief in a creator god.

I believed there could be a god but I just didn’t have a name to the face, nor a face to the name, so on. God was so large it encompassed everything, and was built of so much nothing, and was anything by sheer volume of will.

For all I knew, the barber who’d cut my hair was God.

I pulled my hood up to keep my head warm. Across the street, the crying nurse saw me do that and she put her hood up too, the wind blowing her smoke and her tears away as fast as she could make them both.

Maybe I was waiting for Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom. I wasn’t sure what Ahura Mazda would say to me if he ever showed up, but I liked that if he ever did show up to this windy street, I could guarantee he would come and lord out some wisdom.

The nurse’s phone rang for awhile. Eventually, she answered it. At first arguing into it, and then segueing into a calmer tone. Something was being resolved. Amends were being made. The fire in her eyes turned to medicine. I wished she was shouting, “I love you!” But she was talking low and sweet and for now there would be no more shouting.

I went down Grove towards Ibby’s and waited inside at a table by the ATM machine. Someone was singing  through the speakers in a language I didn’t understand, and it was more beautiful than it would’ve been if I was able to understand.

A minute later, Rae walked in and we kissed, and said hello, and she ordered us two plates of food, hummus and falafel for her, chicken shish kabob for me. We shared a Coca-Cola. And then another Coca-Cola.

The next morning at work, first thing as I walked through the door, my coworker saw me and said, “Hey loser, did you get a lollipop with that haircut?” I said, “Yeah, I did.” He pointed at the clock and said I was late. I said I had a good excuse but I wasn’t going to bring it up.

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

I said, “My driver’s side rear tire exploded while driving on the turnpike. Dry rot, or punishment from a disappointed deity, pick one.”

I’d changed the tire on the side of the highway as traffic blasted by. And I’d felt at peace, though any second someone could’ve come careening over and crushed me.

He said, “Yeah right. You just got too drunk last night.”

I told him I had a full size spare on now, but was dropping the shredded tire off after work to get a new one put on that rim. I could show him the tire if he really didn’t believe. If he needed to see the truth with his own eyes. He said no, he didn’t have to see the truth with his own eyes, he already knew the truth.

He said, “Drop the tire off tomorrow. We’re going to the strip club after work.”

“Oh yeah, all right.”

We got bundled up after that, put on our warm work gear. Then we went a few hundred feet up in the air and began hanging steel, bolting up beams flown in with a crane. We had blueprints and so did the guy on the ground sending up the material. We were trusting each other. And trusting the blueprints, even though some fallible, mere mortal had drafted them up.

I passed my coworker a wrench and he cranked down on the hardware. We sent the rigging away on the hook. The whole time we worked, we talked. It made the day go by. This day was no different. I asked, “Didn’t you used to go to that Baptist church over by you.”

“Yeah I did.”

“And you liked that? You liked going to that church?”

“In a way, yeah, I did.”

“Your ex made you go?”

“No. I just went alone. For me.”

“Would they get all wild and dance around and feel the holy ghost moving through them?”

He laughed. “They would. They would.” And then he got kind of serious, kind of uncomfortable explaining it. “You know, that was the one thing I didn’t like about going there. I always felt like those people were just putting on a show. The preacher would be up on the stage yelling and one by one people would rise up out of their seats, be shaking and…”

“Talking in tongues. But putting it on.”

“Talking in tongues, exactly. All babbling babbling. Maybe faking it. I don’t know. They’d march up the aisle to the preacher who would like whack them on the sides of the neck and then they’d fall over and stop shaking and the devil would be gone…”

“But you didn’t do that?”

“I didn’t feel that. No. No, I didn’t do that. I just sat in my seat through that. Every time.”

“Every time? All the seats would be empty and you’d just be sitting there all by your lonesome?”

“Yes.”

“The preacher or the other people didn’t make you feel weird about it?”

“They did a little. It was awkward. But, I just wasn’t feeling it.”

“You weren’t moved by the spirit. You just sat in your seat watching it all. Did you have any popcorn?”

“Hahaha. No, I should have had popcorn. But you know, I’m not going to get down on anyone for what they believe in. It just didn’t happen to me.”

In between beams being flown up with the crane, we spoke once again of the doomsday cult. He’d read that what they did was mostly make people give them all their money, their cars, and houses, and anything they could get. “Which isn’t that big of a deal because my ex-wife doesn’t have shit to give them.”

“So that’s good then. It’s no big deal to be in a manipulative doomsday cult as long as you don’t have anything to offer.”

“Something like that.”

I thought about all the cults I knew: the cults that tried to pretend they could get you into heaven; the cults that said there was no heaven; the cults for those losing their hair, or for those who had too much hair they had to get rid of; the cults for the starving artists; the cults waving the flag of hunky dory oblivion; not to mention Don DeLillo’s cults of the famous and the dead; or the cults of the 24 hour orgasm; the cults of the perfect mattress that you can order off the internet and try free for 365 days; the academic cults; the blue-collar cults; the perpetual war cults; the cults who wouldn’t even turn on the heat in your apartment building until after the first of the year; whatever cult I was in; whatever cult you’re in; whatever cult we can’t get in no matter how hard we try, no matter how loud we beg, no matter what we are prepared to sacrifice.

It was almost Christmastime. Things can get screwed up at Christmastime. I asked him, “The church she goes to, do they worship Jesus, too? Do they throw him a big birthday party?”

He said, “They don’t. They think it’s a pagan holiday.”  

I almost ran my mouth about that because I thought I knew Christmas actually was a pagan holiday. The Romans co-opted the Winter Solstice Feast, called it their Savor’s birthday to recruit people to Christianity. People didn’t want to lose a holiday to monotheism. Or so some book, or podcast, or tripped out weirdo somewhere had told me. One thing I knew for sure, we were all wrong, all seven and a half billion of us. We all just said stuff to hear it come out of our mouths. This one time, someone shut up.

I remembered back around Halloween, when he had first told me about looking up her religion on Wikipedia. He had done so because she wasn’t letting the kids go trick ‘r’ treating, saying how evil it was. He was really upset by that, pointing out to me, “This is a girl who was still going door to door getting candy when she was 26! And now my kids are 3 and 5 and they can finally go trick ‘r’ treating and she doesn’t want to let them? They’re supposed to spend the whole night in the church doing church stuff. And she sent a letter to their teachers saying they can’t carve pumpkins or dress up or get Snickers bars because it’s against her children’s religion.”

“Oh that’s shitty.”

“Whatever it is, you know what I do, right?”

“You give those kids all the candy they can eat.”

“You’re goddamn right I do. When they come and stay with me, we get evil. We get evil as hell. It’s Halloween, man. It’s Halloween. We get evil.”  

I tried to cheer him up by telling him about my friend Sean who had grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness. Sean couldn’t celebrate any holidays. Not a single one. He didn’t even get a birthday. When Sean was eleven, he got a Def Leppard cassette tape in some gift swap at school. His parents found the Def Leppard tape in his room and set it on fire in front of him.

“What songs do those guys do?” my coworker asked.

“Def Leppard. Eh, they do ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me.’ And they do…well I don’t know the names of any others.”

“‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ sucks, dude.”

“I agree, I agree.”

“Unless someone’s stripping to it.”

“It’s stripper music. Totally. That’s all those Def Leppard songs are good for,” I said.  

“Then I’m not sure if they did a good thing by burning it or not.”

“True.”

“I’ll know later when ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ starts playing and I see some hottie spinning around on a pole, nekkid, and as glorious as God made her.”

BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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