Handsome

Saturday evening, it is almost closing time at Ben’s Barbershop. There is one customer left, Lito is finishing up on him. The other barber, Kebs, sweeps up the accumulated mounds of hair — the once styled and pampered furnishings of men’s heads now bunched up anonymous and forgotten, disposable. The air conditioning has been turned off — such was the boss’s desire in the last half-hour of all operating days to save money. Jhenlin, the attendant at the counter, sits down leisurely on the sofa of the waiting lounge, leafing through a magazine… browsing not so much the words as the manicured glosspaper abdomens of men in sunglasses leaning on a railing against a beach panorama.

The lone customer runs his fingers through his newly cropped hair as Lito steps back and studies his finished work on the mirror, the comb in one hand and the clippers in the other.

“Another damn fine job,” says the customer.

“Don’t mention it, sir,” says Lito.

“I feel like Daniel Padilla right now,” says the customer, winking at the barber through the mirror’s reflection. “My wife will never let me out of the house now. She’d get too jealous.”

“Oh that’s too much, sir.”

“No, I mean it,” says the customer. “That’s why I haven’t gone to any other barbershop ever since I’ve started coming here. You guys may be the most expensive around — I admit that — but you get more than you pay for.”

Lito titters politely as he starts to incline the barber’s chair to prepare to shave the customer. “No doubt, sir,” he says, “No doubt about it. But then we can only do so much. We are not miracle workers. I always thought to myself that a man with a handsome haircut was already handsome to begin with.”

“Bah,” says the client with the wave of a hand. “Nonsense. You flatter me.”

“I mean it, sir!” says Lito. “I mean it!” He’s quite desperate. He’s hoping to hit a fat, generous tip to end the week. “In fact…,” he says. He turns around to Kebs, who is still sweeping the floor, the tray of the dustpan full of the greasy fuzz of man hair. It looks like some lifeless, boneless rodent.

“Can I go tell him the story, Kebs?” says Lito.

“What story?” says Kebs, looking up.

“About the boy. The fat boy.”

Kebs hesitates and looks blankly to the corner, unsure. He resumes his sweeping. “I don’t remember,” he says.

“But the boy was enormous,” says Jhenlin, springing up on her seat, her arms stretched out. “Enormous.” She begins giggling just at the memory of just how enormous this boy was. “How can you not remember it, Kebs?”

“Oh,” says Kebs, smiling weakly. “That one.”

“Go tell it,” says Jhenlin. She turns to the customer and says, “It’s a good one. I was there too.”

They wait. But Kebs continues to just sweep the floor.

Meanwhile Lito has lathered up the shaving cream and massaged it onto the customer’s face. He washes his hands in the sink and brings out the razor and loads it with a fresh blade. He chuckles at the memory, has a big reminiscent grin stretched out on his face, such that his neck has disappeared, refracted into multiple stepwise chins. “I’ll tell it,” he says. “The poor kid is probably bushed.”

And so, after receiving no comment from Kebs, he tells the story: “It was a Wednesday midafternoon. Not one of the week’s peak hours. There was only one customer and I was working on him, like now. So there I was cutting his hair when from the corner of my eye I see this huge, huge figure come up and stick himself to the door, blocking out the light from outside — I didn’t even need to turn my head to see just how huge he was. He practically eclipsed the entire glass pane, he was that fat.

“I turn to give him a good look but at first I don’t see much: he quickly pushes himself away from the pane and turns around and leans back against it, his big head bobbing and looking around and at nowhere in particular as if he just happened to be waiting for someone.”

“You should have…,” Jhenlin says, struggling against the giggles to finish her sentence. “You should have… You should have seen how his big ass pressed against the glass. Like unbaked bread dough… you know how it is when you wrap it in plastic wrap.”

“Don’t make me laugh too hard,” murmurs the customer, the razorblade brushing carefully against his chin as Lito bends over him. “I’ll get nicked.”

“I thought the glass pane was going to crash in just by the sheer weight of him,” she says.

“Will you let someone else do the talking for once, huh Jhen?” Lito says, stopping the shaving and dropping his arms, his head turned to her, his gaze darkened. “How’s about it, huh?” he says. He keeps his gaze fixed on her for a moment. He turns back to his work.

After a while he says, “So I get back to cutting the client’s hair but I keep an eye on him, the boy — subtly, from my peripheral, so that he thinks I’m not watching him. I see him turn back around and look in — his hands on his brow as he peeps into the shop. He was just standing there, looking in. I observed him.

“He was a student at the A. school. You could tell by the uniform: you know that white button-down shirt and khaki brown pants. His was so large you could practically fit a man into each pant leg. I’m not kidding. He might have been in high school or late grade school — a big pale babyface he had, a mestizo, but you couldn’t really tell his age because of the size of him. My God, have I told you how fat he was? You’ll probably never believe that a boy could be so fat at so young an age. But it was true. In any case you could see that he was in that cruel preadolescent phase — his face was filled with angry red zits… as though he had been cursed by God or something.”

“Adolescence is a terrible, terrible thing,” says the client, moving his lips minimally so as not to disrupt the barber’s work. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

“You said it, sir,” says Jhenlin. “I — “ She’s stopped talking because Lito has given her another look.

“After a while of standing there he finally made to get into the store,” says Lito. “He comes in, hesitant, shy, waddling. I was reminded of a video I’d once seen of a baby elephant taking its first steps. He approaches Jhenlin at the desk and I hear him say, Can I get a haircut here? And he adds hurriedly, as if he’d already rehearsed it before: I have the money, he said, tapping his tree trunk of a thigh.

“Jhenlin leads him up to Kebs’s seat and Kebs drapes the barber’s gown around him — it was big enough, but just barely. Before Kebs does anything else the boy brings out from his pocket what looks like a magazine clipping and unfolds it and shows it to him. Kebs, hey Kebs. Go ahead and tell what the photo was, Kebs.”

“I don’t remember,” says Kebs.

“Come on, Kebs.”

Kebs continues sweeping.

Lito sighs, exasperated. “What’s the matter with you,” he says. He turns back to his customer, who has now closed his eyes, smiling peacefully, luxuriously. Lito slides the razor with expert ease on the customer’s neck. Onto a sheet of tissue paper spread out on the counter he flicks the wads of cream, the small shaved hairs bristling out, so that the foamy mounds looked like soft white hairy caterpillars.

“Anyway,” Lito says. “I got to take a good look at it, the photo. It was a magazine paper clipping of some young chap — a good-looking, well-boned kid, dapper, his hair buzzed trim at the sides, the top styled and gelled in one of those latest fashions in men’s hairstyles — you know how it is.”

“Mhm,” said the customer, not moving, his eyes still closed.

“So the boy holds up the little clipping to Kebs and asks: Can you make me look like this?” Lito says. He has stopped shaving and steps back, slapping his thigh and starting to wheeze hysterically, bent over, his hands on his knees. “Can you make me look like this?” He wheezed some more. “That’s what he said, his exact words. Not even, Can I get this kind of haircut?”

When he has finished wheezing he bends up slowly and wipes a tear from his eye and catches his breath and gets back to work.

He says, “So Kebs stands there, stunned for a while. What could he have said?”

He talks now as if Kebs was not there. And it could have very well been so. The whole time Kebs was just bent down sweeping the floor, not flinching even at the sound of his own name, as if he has turned deaf.

“At last Kebs nods and says: Yeah, sure. And the boy leans back on his chair — despite his efforts to be comfortable you can tell he is uneasy, you can see him squirming. It’s hard to hide movement when you have that much flesh on you.

“Kebs sets up his tools on the counter. He keeps a straight face throughout this all. I had to keep turned away the whole time, I was practically on the point of bursting. Meanwhile not a snicker escapes Kebs. He has his own peculiar sense of humor too. He’s hilarious.

“And then they get talking. I know it doesn’t look like it now but Kebs can be real talker too when he wants to.

“First time here, Kebs says to him.

“Yes, sir, the boy says.

“We don’t get a lot of students coming in this shop.

“No, sir.

“It’s not cheap, Kebs says. You must have some very loving folks at home.

“I saved up for it.

“Saved up for a haircut? says Kebs. Must be a very special occasion, he says.

“Well I was saving up for a new deck.”

Lito has to stop working because he starts to wheeze-laugh again.

“Deck?” says the customer.

Lito nods emphatically because he is still laughing and cannot speak. “A deck of cards,” he says, finally. “The boy was saving up to buy cards for one of those rip-off fantasy games. You’ve probably seen it. Those grown boys spending hours rolling dice and playing with plastic figurines on a good weekend afternoon.”

“Christ,” says the customer.

“So Kebs,” says Lito, “Kebs asks, What made you change your mind?”

“Nothing, the boy says. His eyes turn down.

“The boy kept silent now. Kebs’s hand is pressed on top of the boy’s head and he runs the shaver on the hair on the back and sides. The boy’s head was humongous — it looked so terrible to expose it like that. When Kebs puts back the shaver on the counter and gets the scissors the boy says to him, It looks nothing like the picture. More than peeved he sounded agitated, panicked, his eyes widened at his reflection in the mirror.

“Kebs says, I haven’t even started. Be a little patient.

“The boy starts to shift in his seat, I thought I could even see the chair rocking a little. You can see the boy is getting more and more uncomfortable. Kebs has to tell him to keep still a number of times. He runs his fingers through the boy’s hair and grabs a lock between his fore- and middle finger and then snips. Kebs does it expertly, without a single flinch. He’s learned fast. And he’s learned from the best,” says Lito, winking, pointing his thumb to his chest. Kebs continues to sweep the floor.

“At one point the boy said to him, Do many people ask for this kind of haircut?

“Sure, says Kebs.

“Do you think they will like it?

“Who?

“They… Anyone.

“Nothing is liked by everyone.

“The boy thought about this. He says, How about the girls. Do you think they will like it?

“Which girl?

“Any girl.

“Kebs kept silent for a while as he worked. Then he said, I reckon a girl who likes a man only for his haircut isn’t a girl worth chasing after all.

“Neither of them said anything for a while after that. The boy looked so uncomfortable and miserable so that at last Kebs said to him, But a haircut wouldn’t hurt, I suppose.

“The boy says, Just try your best to make me look like the picture, sir. Kebs had nothing to say to this. So he just steps back and continues clipping the boy’s hair.

“He played his part perfectly — you could see how he stood in front of the boy from a distance and squinted his eyes then took the clippers and cut a little of the boy’s top — snip, snip — and stepped back again, his head inclined at an angle, his eyes squinted, his hand scratching his chin. I’d never seen him so concentrated on a customer before. It was all so hilarious. You can be a comedian, sometimes, you know that Kebs?”

He turns to Kebs. “I’m talking to you, Kebs.”

Kebs just smiles weakly, not even looking up while he taps the dustpan empty into the waste bin.

Lito shrugs and shakes his head and continues the story. “After a while — at this point Kebs has brought out the razor and starts to clean up the sideburns now — he asks the boy, Where’d you get the picture from?

“Sir? the boy says.

“The picture. Where’d you get it from. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on any magazine before, says Kebs.

“You could see the boy turn red, you could see the blood rush from his neck and up his chins then up to his hairline.

“The boy said, his voice quivering now: It wasn’t a magazine sir… It was from my yearbook, he says.”

“Yearbook?” says the customer.

“Yes, sir,” Lito. “Yearbook. The little porker had cut it out of his school yearbook and carried the snipping off to the barbershop.

Lying on the barber’s chair the customer erupts in laughter. Lito has stepped back to stop his shaving and places his hands on his knees for support, he is shaking and wheezing too much. The tears glimmer in his eyes. Even Jhenlin has thrown herself on the couch, giggling as if it was the first time she’s heard all this, even though she herself has been there, has seen it. The whole barbershop resonates with an absurd chorus of laughter.

When Lito has recovered he says, “So then Kebs asks the boy, Is he you friend?

“No, sir. No, said the boy. Just someone from my class.

“He was so red now, the boy, his large head sticking out of the barber’s gown. It was like the cherry on top of a giant vanilla sundae.

“So when at last Kebs finished the haircut he held the boy’s head between both hands and looking at the mirror he dropped down his own head so that their faces were beside each other. They both held still like this for a minute, both looking silently into the mirror. There was something very solemn about it. It was almost as if Kebs was comparing his own image to the boy’s.”

Lito giggled. “I was expecting Kebs to just crack at any moment,” he says. “But he kept a straight face the whole time. I don’t know how he did it. It was all a joke, the fat boy looked nothing like the picture. I mean, he looked even more terrible with the haircut. Fat people should never wear their hair so short… they look even fatter with short hair. It’s all a matter of proportion,” says Lito, motioning with a hand around his face.

He says, “And then Kebs removed the barber’s gown from the boy and flapped it in the air like a magician. There, Kebs said. The boy moved his head left and right, left and right, examining himself in the mirror. Meanwhile, Lito had stepped back, beaming. His eyes were absolutely ecstatic, I tell you, as though he’d just created his magnum opus. Hilarious. He even took out the hand mirror and gave it to the boy so that he could examine himself more closely. Even I could never have gone that far.

“What do you think? said Kebs.

“What do you, sir? said the boy.

“Superb, says Kebs. You look good.

“He said that, and with a serious face, no hint of irony or exaggeration, can you imagine. It made it all the more cruel,” says Lito, chuckling and shaking his head. “I couldn’t believe it.”

“And you see how the boy’s face just lights up,” says Lito, “this huge grin traversing the vast expanse of his cheeks. You really think so, sir? he says.

“Yes, says Kebs.

“The boy just sits there for a while and looks at himself in the mirror. He looks at himself from all angles, blinking, with shining eyes. He really thought he had suddenly turned handsome. I almost felt pity for him, felt I should snap him out of it. Kebs was playing the part too well.

“The boy then jumps off the chair — he’s in a rush now, all smiles and confidence, his moobs just bouncing with joy on him — and pays Jhenlin on the counter and treads out of the store. In all his rush he doesn’t even tip Kebs, that tub of lard. All that acting work for nothing.”

Lito pats the aftershave lotion on the customer, who has now sat up. While Lito massages his back the customer smiles at the neat, new self that looks back at him on the mirror. He really is quite handsome, and he knows it.

“Well,” the customer says. “That was a good one.”

“That’s how it happened, sir,” Lito says.

“It was a good one,” the customer says. “I could use that good laugh.”

Lito got the huge tip that he had been waiting for. He’d tucked it carefully into his breast pocket. The floor had been swept clean by Kebs, and Jhenlin had started to clear the counters to close for the day.

“How much did he tip you for?” said Jhenlin, eyeing Lito’s bulging pocket.

“None of your business,” said Lito, preparing his things to leave the store.

“You ought to split it with Kebs,” she said. “Without him the story wouldn’t have been so funny.”

“You really don’t know when to just shut it, do you,” said Lito.

“I’m alright,” said Kebs. “I’ll have none of it.” He sounded tired.

He’d already started packing his bag at his barber’s station and he was ready to go home. But he stopped and studied himself and his surroundings on the mirror. He practically lived the entire workday staring at the mirror but it was as if it was only now that he’d noticed something and whatever it was he didn’t seem happy with it. In fact he looked like he was going to get sick. He pulled down at one of the bags under his eyelids. He said, “I think it’s about time for me to take a vacation.”

“Ha,” said Jhenlin. “Vacation? See if the boss will let you. You’ve hardly been here a year.”

“I could use some time off.”

“See if he’ll let ever let you back if you try to take a vacation.”

“I think I need it.”

“Don’t be a fool. You think you’ll ever get such a lucky break again?”

“Let the kid do what he wants,” said Lito as he made to leave the shop. He tapped at his breast pocket and smiled to himself. “I’m going out to get a well-deserved drink.”

Kebs was left alone in the barbershop. On her way out Jhenlin had closed the lights on him but he continued staring at the mirror even if now he could only see his faint gray outline from the streetlamps outside. He would not go home. It was as if his feet were hopelessly planted there, as if he was waiting, waiting silently, for some change to take place.