Weekend Reads KR OnlineFiction |

Freddie’s Haircut

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Winter 1986, Vol. 8, No.1

What is it about your life you don’t like? What is it you want to change?” Drew, Freddie’s roommate, was in the bathroom, talking to Joan, the cat. Freddie went in and sat on the sink. Drew was sitting on the closed toilet, and Joan was crouching in the litter box. Recently, she had taken to spending most of her time in the litter box, leaving it only to eat or occasionally watch the traffic on Avenue A.

“We love you, Joan,” Drew continued. Joan looked up at them suspiciously and raked the litter with her tail. “Be careful,” Drew said to Freddie. “The sink might break.” Freddie sat on the rim of the bathtub. “She’s been in there all night,” Drew said. “I don’t understand it. I’m trying to talk her through it.”

“Come on, Joan,” Freddie offered. “Lighten up.”

“You better get out of there soon,” Drew said. “If you think I’m going to tolerate this behavior, you’re crazy.”

“Maybe she is crazy,” said Freddie. “Maybe she’s been inside too long. Cabin fever.”

Drew prodded Joan with his bare foot. She leapt out of the box, spraying gravel, and ran into the hall closet. Freddie began to brush his teeth.

“What are you doing tonight?” Drew said. Drew worked from ten at night to six in the morning in a record store that was open twenty-four hours a day. He had been held up twice. Once the cash register deflected a bullet he claims would have killed him. During the day he went to the New York Restaurant School. The only time
Freddie saw him was first thing in the morning.

Freddie looked in the mirror. He appeared rabid. “I’m thinking about getting my ear pierced.”

“Why?”

“Why not?” said Freddie. “To look cool. I think it looks cool.”

“Mine got infected,” Drew said. “Get it done right.”

“There’s nothing else to do,” said Freddie. He spread some Ultra Brite on his front teeth with his middle finger. He hoped this would make them gleam.

Freddie worked for a textile company that specialized in locating and reproducing discontinued fabrics. That afternoon he was standing by the elevators watching the envelopes fall down the mail chute. They dropped as quickly as birds shot from the sky. In a few minutes he could push the down button and go home.

Mrs. Grimes, the office manager, opened the glass lobby doors and said, “Freddie, can I see you in my office before you leave?” Mrs. Grimes’s first name was Bernice, but she pronounced it Berenice. Freddie had heard her answer the phone.

“Now?” said Freddie.

“In a minute,” she said. “What are you doing out here?”

“Someone said a letter was stuck. I was checking it out.”

Mrs. Grimes looked disapprovingly at the mail chute. Then she looked disapprovingly at Freddie’s new cowboy boots. Then she went back into the lobby.

Mrs. Grimes’s office was on the twenty-fourth floor, and by the time Freddie arrived—via the spiral case reserved for executives—she was sitting behind her desk, energetically pushing the buttons on a calculator. Her long fingernails prevented her from expending her total fury. “Sit down,” she said, without looking up.

The only chair was occupied by Mrs. Grimes’s dachshund-shaped handbag. Freddie was afraid to move it.

“Sit down,” Mrs. Grimes repeated, this time looking up.

Freddie picked up the handbag and sat with it on his lap. Then he put it on the floor.

“I see nothing except to be frank,” Mrs. Grimes began, confusing Freddie immediately. “Are you stealing blue uni-ball pens?”

Freddie was the supply distributor for the twenty-fifth floor. He had stolen a stapler and a rolodex for the apartment, but he had stolen no pens. “No,” he said.

“I ask because, according to my information, several gross are missing.”

Since Freddie wasn’t sure how many were involved in a gross, he couldn’t tell how grave the situation was. “I haven’t taken any,” he said. “I don’t need pens.”

“You could sell them,” Mrs. Grimes suggested.

Freddie shrugged.

“Do you lock your closet whenever you vacate it?”

“Yes,” Freddie lied.

“Then I am afraid the blame must be yours. I will let it pass this time, but I will keep a close watch on the comings and goings of pens on the twenty-fifth floor. And I will not hesitate to charge any further losses against your paycheck.”

“OK,” Freddie said. He stood up and put the handbag on the chair. It rolled to its side and a pack of cigarettes fell on the floor. Freddie leaned down and picked them up.

“Leave them,” Mrs. Grimes said. “Don’t touch them.”

A girl who looked about thirteen sat behind a glass case filled with earrings and roach clips, reading Interview magazine. Freddie looked in the case. Some of the earrings looked like they were made out of tabs from beer cans.

“Can I help you?” the girl asked.

“I think so,” said Freddie. He sat down on a stool.

“We close at eleven,” the girl said, although it was only a little after ten.

“I want an ear pierced,” Freddie said. “Just one.”

“You’ll have to pay for two. It’s a flat rate.”

“OK,” Freddie said.

“Pain or no pain?” the girl asked.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes,” the girl said. She picked up an apparatus that looked like the embosser Freddie’s mother used to personalize her stationery. “Some people like the pain. It makes the experience more real. It’s not that bad.”

“I want no pain,” Freddie said.

“OK,” the girl said. She went in the back of the store and returned with an ice cube. It was already beginning to melt in her palm. “Which ear?” she asked.

“Oh,” said Freddie. “I’m not sure.”

“Are you gay?”

“No,” said Freddie.

“Then the right one. Left means you’re gay.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course,” said the girl. “Here. Hold this against your lobe till it melts.”

Freddie held the ice cube against his right ear lobe. “Do I get to pick out the earring?”

“No,” said the girl. “You have to have a 14k. gold stud.”

“Is that included?”

“No. It’s fifteen dollars. I can give you just one for ten dollars.”

“So it’s fourteen dollars altogether?” Freddie asked. His cheek was getting wet from the melting ice.

The girl nodded. “Is that melted yet?”

Freddie held up the thin disk of ice.

“A few more minutes,” she said. She opened a bottle of rubbing alcohol and took a cotton ball out of a plastic bag. “I could put two holes in one ear,” she said. “That looks good.”

“Can I take it out?” Freddie asked.

“Not for six weeks. Otherwise your hole closes.”

The ice slivered out of Freddie’s hand and fell to the floor. He wiped his wet fingers on his pants.

“OK,” the girl said. “One or two?”

“One,” said Freddie.

She motioned for him to lean forward and wiped his ear with the cotton ball. Then she fingered his lobe and said, “Can you feel this?”

“No,” Freddie said. The girl lifted the piercer and rested her hand against Freddie’s cheek, steadying his head with her other hand. Freddie felt like he was being comforted. He closed his eyes and felt his lashes scrape against the girl’s throat.

No one noticed—or commented—on Freddie’s earring until he went home for his sister’s graduation from midwifery school party. It was Freddie’s idea to cut a sheet cake in the form of a baby and cover it with flesh-colored frosting. He was surrounded by chunks of cake and puddles of food coloring. The baby kept getting smaller and smaller. His mother was spraying rosettes of cheese food from an aerosol can onto crackers. “I’ve tried not to notice that thing in your ear,” she said. “Is it really an earring?”

“It is,” said Freddie.

“What does it mean? Or would I rather not know?”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Freddie said. He touched the tiny stud, coating it with pink frosting.

“First gypsies wore earrings,” said his mother. “Then Catholics. Then normal girls. And now my son. Where will it end?”

“With pets,” Freddie said.

Freddie liked a girl who worked in Deferred Sales. He sent her anonymous gifts of unrequisitioned supplies through the mail. On Friday afternoon she opened the supply closet door and said, “Rumor has it you’re the man with the stuff.”

Freddie was arranging bottles of liquid paper on a shelf. “Stuff?” he said. “You mean supplies?”

“In a way,” she said. “Supplies for living.” She closed the door and sat on a stool.

Freddie didn’t understand. “Huh?” he said.

The girl opened a bottle of pink liquid paper and began painting her thumbnail. “It’s a madhouse out there,” she said. “Do you mind if I hang out for a minute?”

“No,” said Freddie.

“I’m Diane,” the girl said.

“I know,” said Freddie.

“What I meant before was, do you have any pot?”

“Who said I had pot?”

“I thought it was common knowledge. I thought people were always escaping to the supply closet to get high.”

“Not this one,” Freddie said.

Diane observed her pink nail and switched to ledger green liquid paper.

“I’d check the mail room,” said Freddie, “if you’re that desperate.”

“I’m not desperate. I’m just a little tense.” Diane capped the bottle and fanned her polished nails at arm’s length. “I like your cowboy boots,” she said. “They’re so pointy. Do they hurt?”

“No,” Freddie lied.

“You must have weird feet then.”

“Do you like my earring?” Freddie asked.

“You have an earring?”

Freddie bared his ear. “No one notices.”

“Are you gay?”

“No,” said Freddie. “It’s the right ear.”

“That means you’re gay.”

“No. It means you’re straight.”

“If you want people to notice it, you should get your hair cut.”

“You think so?” asked Freddie. “How short?”

“I don’t know.” Diane stood up. “I could cut it for you. Do you have scissors?”

“Of course,” said Freddie. “But do you know how?”

“I’ve done it before. I love to cut people’s hair. I cut my boyfriend’s.” She opened the cabinet. “Where are the scissors?”

Before Freddie could dissuade her, Diane found a pair of scissors and began to snip them ferociously in the air. “Sit on the stool,” she commanded. “I’ll just cut a little around the ears.”

“Are you sure about this?”

“Don’t worry”.

Freddie sat on the stool. Diane ran her fingers through his hair. “You have funny hair,” she said. “It sticks out funny.”

“I didn’t wash it this morning,” Freddie explained. “We didn’t have any hot water.”

Diane started snipping. She handed the cut hair to Freddie. Someone knocked on the door.

“Shit,” Diane said. She tried to throw the scissors back into the cabinet, but they landed on the floor and separated.

Mrs. Grimes opened the door. Freddie jumped up from the stool, and his cut hair flurried to the floor. All three of them watched it for a second.

“Excuse me,” Diane said. “I was just leaving.”

Mrs. Grimes watched Diane leave. “I see you’ve been getting a haircut, Freddie,” she said.

“I guess so,” said Freddie.

“I think I would like to see you in my office before you leave today.”

“OK,” said Freddie.

Mrs. Grimes went out and closed the door. Freddie picked up his cut hair and put it in an interoffice envelope. He sent it to Diane.

Drew was whipping egg whites with a rat-tail comb when Freddie got home. He looked at Freddie’s head and said, “What happened?”

“Everything,” said Freddie.

“No. Really. What happened to your hair?”

“It got cut. At least some of it. And I got fired.”

“You got fired? Why?”

“For getting my hair cut,” said Freddie.

“They can’t fire you for being ugly, can they?”

“Thanks,” said Freddie.” That’s just what I needed to hear. No, this girl was cutting my hair in the closet and the office manager found us.”

“And she fired you?”

“Yeah,” said Freddie.

“She fired you because you were getting your hair cut?”

“She also thought I was stealing pens.”

“Were you?”

“No,” said Freddie.

“You need a drink,” said Drew. He inserted the comb into the meringue and watched to see if it would stand. It did. “Let me fix you a drink.”

Drew mixed some vodka with cranapple juice and gave it to Freddie. Freddie drank it. “What am I going to do?” he said.

“It’ll all work out,” Drew said. “But I’d get my hair fixed before I looked for another job.”

After Drew left for work, Freddie took a shower and washed his hair. It didn’t look much better clean. He was trying to decide if he could fix it himself when the phone rang. It always seemed to ring when Freddie was naked.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi,” said his mother. “This is me.”

“Hi,” said Freddie.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh,” said his mother. “I was calling to see if you got the check.”

“What check?” asked Freddie.

“The check I sent you. You didn’t get it?”

“No,” said Freddie. “Not yet.”

“Well, I thought you could use a little extra money. It’s just for fifteen dollars.”

“Thanks,” said Freddie.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing. I might go out and get my hair cut later.”

“Isn’t it too late for that?”

“Some places around here are open late. Till midnight.”

“How’s work?”

“OK,” said Freddie.

“Monica delivered her first official baby today.”

“Oh,” said Freddie. “How did it go?”

“Fine, I guess. She said it was a little difficult because the woman insisted on having it in the dark. I think it’s absurd: having your baby at home in bed with all the lights out.”

“It’s the new thing,” said Freddie. “It’s supposed to be better for the baby.”

“You were born in an operating room. I don’t remember anything. The last thing I remember is lying on the couch timing the pains and watching a war movie. All these planes flying back and forth, back and forth. I forget the rest.”

Freddie couldn’t think of what to say. He wanted to say, “I got fired,” but it was all too complicated and horrible to admit. “I’ve got to go,” he said.

“I’ll talk to you soon,” said his mother. “I hope you get a nice haircut. Freddie?”

“What?”

“I’m sorry about what I said about your earring. I mean, I shouldn’t have said it. I think it’s fine for you to have an earring. Really, I do. I hope I didn’t upset you. “

“No,” said Freddie.

“OK, honey. Bye-bye.”

“Bye,” said Freddie.

There were two people in the haircutting place when Freddie arrived. A woman was sitting in one of the chairs watching herself drink coffee from a paper cup in the mirror. It was as if she were watching TV and starring on it at the same time. A man with a zebra-striped mohawk was sweeping the cut hair into a pile. Freddie stood inside the door.

Finally the woman turned away from the mirror and said, “Do you want your hair cut or something?”

“Yes,” said Freddie.

She got out of the chair and motioned for Freddie to take her place. He did.

The woman took a comb out of a jar of blue liquid and poked Freddie’s head. “It looks like it’s just been cut,” she said.

“It was a mistake,” said Freddie. “Can you fix it?”

“Sure,” the woman said.

“I want it cut the way it is now, only a little shorter.”

“No you don’t,” the woman said. “We’ll fix it up.”

“How?” asked Freddie.

“Trust me,” the woman said. She opened a drawer and removed a set of hedge clippers.

“What are they?” asked Freddie.

“They’re shears,” said the woman. “They give your hair a lot more texture. And height.”

“Oh,” said Freddie.

The woman tousled Freddie’s hair and attacked it with the shears, snipping randomly at the tufted locks. “I’m cutting on the angle,” she said. “To add fullness.”

Freddie watched in the mirror, fascinated. Even the skunklike man laid down his broom and watched. The woman tousled with one hand and snipped with the other, establishing a rhythm that was oddly soothing for all of its fury. Freddie felt like he was outside, hatless, in a terrible storm.

He did not cry until he got home. He managed to pay the woman—even tip her—and walk home, all the time hoping that his hair would look better in his own, familiar mirror.

He went into the dark bathroom and could sense Joan crouching in the litter box. Freddie knew why she was there. One day she had been sitting on the windowsill, watching the traffic, and he was washing dishes. He dropped a plate, and as it shattered, he heard Joan screech, and when he looked up, the windowsill was empty. He ran downstairs—two flights—and found her, stunned but alive, flattened against the sidewalk. He carried her upstairs and ever since then she had crouched near the floor in small, contained places. Freddie didn’t know why he felt responsible for this. Technically, it had been an accident.

When he turned on the bathroom light and saw himself in the mirror, his worst fears were confirmed. His spiky hair looked menacing and hideous, and as he leaned towards his reflection it occurred to him that even he, even now, did not deserve to look this ugly.

Reprinted with the permission of the author and Irene Skolnick Literary Agency

Kenyon Review logo
Peter Cameron is the author of six novels including Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You and The City of Your Final Destination and several collections of short stories. He lives in New York City and Vermont.