‘Raymond, boy, you must have you hair cut.”

His mother’s all-seeing, schoolteacher eyes scanned him like an x-ray machine, as her precise voice cornered him. She would not have said, nor would she let him say, “get haircut.” Yet she said “boy” just like his father.

She was not perfect. He was a fifth-grader now. But she was the biggest presence in his life. At the same time. He sensed a conduit through her to a life she wouldn’t dominate. She was precise about the rules for his young life, but very spooky about the rewards of that other intimidated life. He knew he would have to earn his way.

“Already?” he tried.

“It grows at the same rate year ‘round, Raymond.”

She always replied with a lesson, irrefutable for a 10-year-old.

“Yes, mother.”

“You have the money?” She also closed off retreat.

“Yes, mother.”

Raymond faced the first serious crisis of his life, the first conflict among those norms his mother had engraved upon his mind. Unfortunately, there was only one barbershop in their town and only one barber, and Raymond could not go there again. He couldn’t tell her why not, but he couldn’t lie either. So he could not get a haircut. He could only disappear from the face of the earth.

Too young and inexperienced to disappear, he brought his construction-paper scissors from school that afternoon and paid his little brother, Jamie, half the haircut allowance to trim his hair and vow silence. After all, Jamie was the cause of it all.

At dinner, his mother remarked that the barber must have been in a hurry.

“Oh, he’s always busy, Mom,” Jamie offered quickly, taking a proprietary interest in Raymond’s quandary.

“Were you there, Jamie?” asked their mother. “You were supposed to come right home.”

Raymond squinted disapproval at Jamie — he knew he couldn’t risk glowering, his mother would notice it. Jamie was still too young to know that you shouldn’t volunteer too much information to your mother even if it was all accurate. You shouldn’t even think of transmitting inaccuracy. Lying — a broad, almost borderless territory for his mother — was the pinnacle of sin.

“No, he wasn’t there, mother,” said Raymond, tossing his head toward Jamie to dismiss him. Stay out of it for your own good, idiot, he meant to show him. You caused it all to begin with. See what a perfect comment I made and learn something. I didn’t lie and I saved your ass along with mine. It’s true that you weren’t there and I didn’t have to say I was there.

“It’s a terrible haircut. Say something to the barber, won’t you, dear,” his mother said to his father.

Raymond threw himself on his father’s masculine mercy, something he seldom risked in his mother’s presence, but this was the worst crisis of his life.

“Dad, please, that would be very embarrassing.” He had to imply that a young man needed a man-to-man relationship with his barber, even thought Raymond wanted more than anything in the world to avoid that barber. He had to make certain that neither his mother nor his father spoke to the barber.

“Let’s let it go to the next time, Elizabeth.” His father had come through for him! “But, you tell him, boy,” he admonished Raymond. “You tell him you want a better cut. Let him know.”

Oh God, thought Raymond, trapped, and thinking the Lord’s name in vain.

For the next two weeks he slicked his hair down each morning and again in the afternoon, so his mother wouldn’t appreciate the extent of the damage his idiot little brother had done. It was a standoff. His mother looked at his head often but said nothing. She knew something was off-norm, but she didn’t have the evidence to make a case.

When, inevitably, she give him his haircut allowance, she reminded him sternly, “Tell the barber just what your father told you, Raymond, when you have your hair cut this afternoon.” There was an instructional imperative to her voice. He couldn’t risk Jamie with the scissors again.

He sat morosely on the school bus, offending Jamie who had basked in his older brother’s protection since the critical playground encounter. It was going to be the last day of the best part of Raymond’s life, one way or another.

He hardly noticed the admiring greetings that morning, the greetings he had enjoyed for nearly a month. Two haircut periods was the way he counted the time. He hardly noticed when an eighth-grader called him “Tiger.” Then on the way to home room, Henry Luger, the barber’s son, actually said hello to him, and Raymond puffed for an instant in the remembered grandeur of that testing time in the schoolyard.

It had been a bright, hot day, once of those days when the dust rose from the baked grounds in swirls thrashing little bodies kicking balls and pushing each other. Raymond was in the midst of one of the dust eddies when someone yelled that Henry Luger, the class bully, was beating on Jamie. Of course, it was a dare. Was he going to protect his brother, a year younger and smaller than the toughest kid in the fifth grade? The dare implied that Henry Luger could take both the brothers. Raymond thought all those things in the moment it took him to run to where Henry was pummeling Jamie at his leisure.

“Fight, you weenie turd,” Henry was shouting at Jamie, who just stood covering his bent head.

Jamie looked so small beside the barber’s son that Raymond simply waded in between them. Henry Luger was so surprised that anyone would interfere with his dominion over the school yard that he dropped his arms for an instant, and in that unplanned instant Raymond landed a smart right cross to Henry’s nose, causing a spurt and then a continuous oozing of blood that ended the combat.

Someone in the crowd announced that Henry was crying as he left the yard, and they all glowed on Raymond. He had been a hero ever since. But he had been terrified to admit fighting to his mother and scared to confront Henry Luger’s father, the one and only barber. Mr. Luger was a formidable figure. His language was tough, his tolerance short. He always knew the football scores. What would he do to someone who had bashed his son’s nose?

His only hope, thought Raymond, as he walked the three blocks from school to the barber shop in the afternoon, was that Henry had not told his father. But someone would have. Mr. Luger was probably just waiting for him to show up.

Indeed, he was.

“Where’ve you been, Marsh?” Mr. Luger always used the last name, just like fight managers or football coaches.

“Sit down.” His voice sounded gruffer than usual to Raymond, and he opened and closed the scissors with a menacing swiftness.

“Hold still,” he commanded, grasping Raymond’s head painfully. His garlic breath flowed over Raymond’s vulnerable left ear. Hit men were mainly Italian and ate garlic, thought Raymond. It didn’t matter that the barber wasn’t Italian; he knew all about fighters, fly-weight to heavy-weight.

“Heard you hit my son.”

There it was! The fingers seemed to tighten on Raymond’s head, the scissors were silent. Poised?

“Bloodied his nose, I understand.”

Oh, God, I should have lied to mother, or told her the truth. Something. Raymond was paralyzed.

The barber was making a strange, strangling noise deep in his throat that became a — chuckle. Then a laugh.

“Deserved it,” he said. “Little bully had it coming.”

Raymond hoped that he wasn’t sweating from his scalp where the barber could see it, but he could feel a trickle under his ear. He breathed deeply, as if it were the first breath since he had entered the shop, and assured himself that he would not have to slick down his hair again. What he didn’t do was mention his father’s words to the barber. He left the shop planning how he would, truthfully, avoid telling that to his mother.

Russell Marks is retired from a career in management at several international corporations. In retirement, he has chaired several nonprofit organizations and exhibited paintings and sculptures in juried exhibitions in New Jersey. He has published two novels and is preparing a collection of poetry.

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