Skip Kruger heard the car crunch up the gravel drive to his barbershop on the edge of town and said: “Here he comes.”
Old George Krumpacker, who was in “the seat of honor,” squinted at the white “Honda-Whatever” and said: “Yep, that’d be him.”
Tom Feldmeister was in the “waiting area” with an aged Sports Illustrated, and he too looked out the window and offered his opinion that, “Yep, that’d be him.”
Him being Mike Hardesty, the former editor and publisher of the Twin Maples Clarion.
Mike, who was friend and shameless promoter to all in Twin Maples, Michigan, had been diagnosed with inoperable, incurable cancer of the pancreas. He had been given a four-month death sentence in August, and it was now December 28 – the third, dreary, overcast, snow-less day of Christmas.
Mike could barely walk, and talking was an effort.
Driving was strictly out, so he had called his old buddy Ted Davis to bring him to Skip’s for a haircut.
Not that the 56-year-old had much hair to cut, what with the ravages of chemo and male-pattern baldness, but he had a pride of person that he had carried all through his illness.
Why, he wouldn’t even let his sisters help him with the “bathroom stuff.” His wife of 32 years, Margaret Mary, absolutely, but not those doting sisters of his.
“A man has to keep his dignity,” he said, over and over.
And so when he had passed his yellowed hand through the ring of wiry hair rimming his dome and then along his unruly goatee, he was ashamed. “I must look like a sheep in need of sheering,” he told Margaret Mary. “Bring me a mirror.”
And so she brought a mirror to the recliner that had become his home. Mike took one look at himself, scowled, and said, “I’m going to Skip’s. This is ridiculous. I’m going to scare everybody away from the wake looking like this.”
Margaret Mary caught the sob coming up her throat and rushed to the bathroom where she cried until her tear ducts ached.
Mike heard her, of course. He heard every one of his beloved’s heart strings break.
He wanted to make it all better – to simply tell that stupid pancreas of his to heal itself and get back to pumping insulin into his blood like it was supposed to.
“What did you say, Michael?” Margaret Mary said, emerging from the bathroom.
“I said I need a haircut. I look and feel like a shaggy dog.”
“I’ll take you.”
“No, it’s a guy thing. I’ll call Ted. He’ll take me.”
In addition to being Mike’s friend, Ted Davis was the guy from Saint Stan’s who had been bringing him communion since Halloween when Mike could no longer make it to Mass. Ted wasn’t actually a deacon or anything, but everybody at Saint Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church in Twin Maples regarded him as such, especially since he was a dutiful Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. Ted was a semi-retired photographer who had done some fine work for Mike and Margaret Mary before they sold the Twin Maples Clarion to a company in Kentucky, and he had the time and willingness to be of service to friends and parishioners in need.
And Mike Hardesty had no doubt that he was in desperate need of a haircut, and so he called Ted Davis.
And so the two of them appeared that dreary day between Christmas and New Year with Ted at the helm of the Hardesty’s Honda Civic sedan.
Ted dashed around to the passenger side and opened the door for Mike who extended a hand and said, “On the count of three.”
“One, two, three – up you go.”
And in they went to Skip’s Barber Shop, which was nothing more than a 200-square foot room in a frame house by the highway. It had a big window facing the highway, one barber chair, and the aforementioned waiting area with a row of four padded, green chairs. There was a magazine rack with a pile of aged Sports Illustrated and Field & Stream magazines, a 24-pound Chinok Salmon mounted on the wall, a mirror, and the usual barbering equipment.
And, of course, there was Skip Kruger himself.
Skip had been barbering the men and boys of Twin Maples since the day Fockler Equipment up and moved the whole shebang to North Carolina. Management made Skip a tender offer to move with Fockler, but their valued plant foreman said: “Forget it. I was born in Twin Maples, and I’m gonna die in Twin Maples.”
And so he cast his die with his hometown by buying a parcel on the highway, building a little frame house on it himself and turning it into a barbershop worthy of the men and boys of Twin Maples. Only the men and boys, mind you, because after putting himself through barber’s school in Grand Rapids, Skip wasn’t about to turn into one of those frilly uni-sex styling salons with potted plants and soft music.
You wanted that, you could motor on up to Saint Joe or some such place.
Skip prided himself on being a manly man who bagged a black bear every year a ways north in Ontario. He field dressed every kill, and he ate every last ounce of bear meat he brought back to Michigan. Folks said Skip looked like his prey, and he didn’t mind. He was truly a great bear of a man, what with his bushy black (and white) beard, and his great ursine torso.
And he had a bear-like devotion to Mike Hardesty, because Mike was the one and only newspaper editor who had relentlessly championed Skip’s Barbershop from its inception through to its every milestone. Mike would call every year and say, “Skip, it’s time to get you in the paper again.”
And Mike could and would.
He was that kind of guy, and now, Skip realized, he’s walking into my shop for his last haircut.
Skip had a whole boatload of things he wanted to say to Mike, but all he could manage was a guttural: “Mornin’, Mike.” He merely nodded at Ted Davis, because Ted was not one of his regular customers. In fact, rumor had it that Ted’s wife Elaine cut his hair at home.
Old George Krumpacker took Skip’s cue and added his own: “Mornin’, Mike,” and Tom Feldmeister made a show of taking his eyes off Sports Illustrated and saying: “Mornin’, Mike.”
Both George and Tom merely nodded at Ted, because, after all, he was not a customer.
Mike greeted the three in turn and Ted said: “Morning, gentlemen.”
Mike settled painfully into a chair, grimaced, groaned, and then set a look of studied “barbershop torpor” upon his face.
Ted took the seat next to Mike, unfolded the copy of Our Sunday Visitor he had stuffed in his coat pocket and started reading. He knew the drill.
Skip had tuned the radio to a local station that played nothing but “Oldies but Goodies – all the time,” and so the four men listened to the Beatles beg them to “Let it be” as Skip air-scissored Old George Krumpacker’s non-existent thatch of hair.
The sound of those scissors was what Old George paid for every week. Made him remember being taken to the barbershop by his daddy.
It was all good.
And it was good that the five men didn’t have to talk to one another, because they were not equipped for the consequences.
So they all listened to the sounds of scissors and the lads from Liverpool as the day got progressively drearier.
At last Skip said: “Well, George, that about does it for this week.”
Old George Krumpacker grunted as he usually did which was Skip’s cue to turn him in the chair so he could see himself in the mirror.
“Don’t know what I pay you for, Skip,” Old George said. “Ain’t nothin’ left to work with. Still, you done a good job.”
Skip smiled and snapped the barber’s bib off George in one fluid motion and gamely took the man’s $10 bill.
Haircuts were $9.50, and, as usual, George said, “keep the change, Skip.”
“Thanks, George.” He put the money in the register, turned to the “waiting area” and said, “You’re next Tom.”
Tom Feldmeister, who was indeed a master of every field he farmed, shrugged and said, “You go ahead, Mike. I’m in no hurry. Can’t plant anything today, and all that’s going to happen if I go home now is that the wife is going to find something for me to do around the house.”
“No,” Mike said, “you go, Tom. I’m in no hurry.”
And so Tom “the farmer” Feldmeister took his place in the seat of honor as Old George Krumpacker made his grumpy exit, complaining all the way out the door that “the wife is going to want me to go with her to see her sister this afternoon, and that’s the last thing that I want to do, and . . .”
Karen Carpenter came on the radio and started crooning: “We’ve only just begun,” and the shop settled into the busy silence of yet another haircut.
As he did every two weeks, Tom told Skip to “trim the sides and take a little off the top,” and Skip clicked on his clipper, and they all disappeared into the buzz.
Ted Davis happened upon an article about reaching out to others and wanted to reach out to his brothers, but he couldn’t quite find the opener. So he said to Mike, “You comfortable?”
“Yeah,” Mike said, grimacing, “I’m comfortable.”
Skip looked over from his work and said, “Yeah, good.”
Tom Feldmeister grunted his approval, and the haircut went on without further interruption.
Mike stared steadfastly out the window, and Skip Kruger, who had survived two tours in Vietnam as a “tunnel rat,” knew the look all too well.
Guys with that look came home in a body bag.
Mike was going to be taken out of his house in a body bag.
Simple as that.
Skip cleared his throat and tried to give rise to the feelings tossing around his gut. But he couldn’t give them voice, so he simply continued buzzing through Tom Feldmeister’s bushy crop of hair.
Karen Carpenter, who had starved herself to death, finished crooning about only just beginning, and the station broke to a series of commercials pitching cars, life insurance, and diet remedies.
Christmas was well and truly over so far as the keepers of popular culture were concerned.
“Wife’s thinkin’ of gettin’ a new car,” Tom Feldmeister allowed after the third commercial in a row. “Wants something big. Says she don’t like bein’ out there on the highway with all them big trucks. But you looked at the price of gas these days?”
“Goin’ up, up, and up,” Skip said.
Ted Davis wanted to note that his “little Jap car” got really good mileage, but was tired of opening that can of worms in the “Motor State,” so he just cleared his throat in support of the general sentiment.
The station went back to a block of uninterrupted music, starting off with “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees.
“The Brothers Gibb,” Mike said for no other reason than to show that he had been THE fount of wisdom in Twin Maples. “Barry, Robin and Maurice. They had a weekly TV show in Australia, and that’s when they got popular. But then they went back to their native England and proved they could be popular there. But, of course, they went off the charts with Saturday Night Fever. John Travolta put them over the top – you could say.”
Skip Kruger absolutely hated that movie and all that it stood for, and he wanted to say as much, but he was still suppressing all those feelings he had for Mike, so he just grunted.
Tom Feldmeister had never seen nor heard of the movie so he just rolled his eyes.
Ted Davis turned back to Our Sunday Visitor and decided to tackle their crossword with a pen, not a pencil. Brave soul that I am, he thought.
The bands played on, and Skip Kruger finished giving Tom Feldmeister just what he wanted every two weeks without further comment.
Skip ritually shook out the bib when he was finished, and Tom dug habitually into his pocket as if he’d be surprised to find more than two wooden nickels in there. “Oops, looks like the wife left me two pennies to rub together, so I guess I can pay you today, Skip.”
Skip gamely accepted the payment with Tom’s customary $1 “little something extra,” and said, “Happy New Year, Tom. If I don’t see you at the Legion hall on New Year’s Eve.”
“Skip, when have you ever seen me at the Legion hall on New Year’s Eve?”
“Good point, Tom. Well then I’ll see you next year. How’s that?”
“That’s just fine.” Tom threw on his battered old Carhart coat, went to the door and turned ever so slightly toward the man who had lionized each and every one of his five kids and ten grandkids. “You take care, Mike,” he said. He couldn’t have said more if he had wanted to because his throat cut out on him. So he just slipped out into the gray misery of Michigan between the holidays.
The three remaining men watched him drive off in his big red Ford pick-up, and then Skip said: “You’re up, Mike.”
Ted went to help Mike get up, but Mike made it clear that he was good to go on his own. So Ted settled back and watched his friend get his last haircut.
He thought as he watched that perhaps the barber of Twin Maples should switch stations to one that played tragic operas, but then he knew there weren’t any area stations that played tragic operas. No Puccini or Verdi for Mike’s last haircut.
Just the Bee Gees and Monkees and Young Rascals and the Hollies and the Fifth Dimension.
Skip was intimidated by every conversational gambit, so he simply said, “The usual, Mike?”
And Mike, feeling similarly constrained, said simply, “Yeah, Skip. That’d be great.”
And it was great.
All 6 minutes and 45.3 seconds of it.
Mike Hardesty’s last haircut – ever, in life.
No hug at the end.
Just a simple: “Take care, Mike.”
And an equally simple: “Yeah, you too, Skip.”
Mike allowed Ted Davis to open the door for him, and the two of them disappeared into the gray mist as Skip Kruger got his broom so he could sweep up and go home.
He didn’t expect another customer, and he didn’t really want another one.
Not today, at least.