There wasn't much traffic, just one old pickup coming toward me, one old pickup, its hood primer gray, its fenders dull green, its passenger-side headlamp broken, coming slowly, one old pickup, thwarting me and the U-turn that would deliver me neatly to the curb right in front of the barbershop. So, I waited, waited for it to pass so I could make my swing. But the old pickup didn't pass. It slid right into the spot I had my eye on, the spot I'd been waiting to turn into, the spot right out front of the barbershop. "Lucky," I spat. There was plenty of parking, sure, up and down both sides of the street, but, now, because of a few lousy seconds, I'd have to wait for another full head of hair to be shorn. Oh yeah, I noticed that right off, as soon as the driver stepped out on the running board - he had a thick, black mane tinged with gray around the ears. "Lucky bastard."
Inside wasn't that bad, just one old guy in the chair and Lucky ahead of me. I remembered the old guy from another day, but forgot his name. He had moved into an old folks home over in Kalispell when his wife died but he still drove all the way to Columbia Falls a couple times a month to get his hair cut, even on days like today when there was snow on the roads.
"So, Mr. Davenport," said Tom, the barber, loud enough to penetrate a concrete wall, "how they treatin' ya down there?" He caught a waft of Mr. Davenport's hair between the second and third fingers of his left hand, then snipped off the ends. Even the old man had more hair than me.
"What's that?" barked Davenport.
"I said 'How they treatin' ya down at the home?'"
"Feedin'? Terrible! Worst cooks in the world!"
Tom glanced over at me and flicked his eyebrows playfully without missing a beat with his scissors. Lucky was reading the paper.
"Eat out most of the time," the old man went on, "especially breakfast, at Sykes, you know."
"They make a nice breakfast. I'll have to say that," said Tom, stopping a moment and stepping around the chair so he could face Davenport head on. "But, it doesn't make much sense to me, eating out everyday, when you can eat at home for nothing." I had a feeling they'd conversed on this subject before. "You're paying for meals there. They're included, aren't they?" As he got back into position, he repeated the same set of facts for me. "I know," he went on, "because my wife and I checked on moving her aunt down to the very same place. Real nice. Nice folks, too. And they cook three meals a day. What's wrong with the food, anyway?" He glanced, again, over at Lucky and me. "They fed me and my wife a nice lunch - chicken, with a little salad. And Jell-O for desert. It was pretty good food, I'd say, considering. What don't you like about it?"
"Aw, it's okay, I guess. Just ain't never ready when I am."
A young man, early thirties, stopped outside, peered in through the window to count heads, then came 'round through the door. Tom looked up and acknowledged him. "John," he said.
"Tom. Get me before lunch?"
"Guess I can," said Tom without stopping to check the time. "You'll be the last."
I'd been in the shop once when Tom stepped out for lunch. The customers just waited around a half hour until he came back.
"I like to eat when I'm hungry," proclaimed Mr. Davenport. "Not after. Not before."
"Well," said Tom, "if it was me living there, Mr. Davenport, and paying to be fed, I don't think I'd be eating out every day. Once in a while, maybe. But not every day. That's all I'm saying. What's new with you, John?"
"Oh, Christ," said John. He emptied his lungs, took a deep breath, then blew that one out too. "My wife's cat got run over."
"You don't say!" said Tom as he removed the old man's bib with a swoop. "There ya go, Mr. D." As he led Davenport to the register, he said to John, "Hurt bad?"
"Killed," said John, as though no other outcome had been possible. He looked over at me. I didn't say anything, but I pressed my lips together and shook my head as that's-a-damn-shame sympathetically as I could.
"Ooo," said Tom, cringing. He turned back to Davenport. "Eight dollars, Mr. Davenport."
The old man gave him a ten, waited for his change, then left without tipping. Drives 25 miles to stiff his barber, I thought. But, Tom didn't seem to mind, and cheerfully bid the old man good-bye. "You drive careful, you hear? See ya in a couple weeks."
He was tying the bib around Lucky's neck when he resumed talking. "Hope I can still get around when I'm ninety-one."
"He's ninety-one, that old guy?" asked John.
"In March, I believe." He gave Lucky's head the once over. "The usual?"
"Yeah," said Lucky, nodding first.
"How you been makin' out?"
Lucky wagged his head side to side a few times. "Okay, I guess."
"That's good," said Tom. He cut silently for several moments, then revived the conversation with John. "So your cat got killed. That's a shame. You know our cat got clipped by a car while back. Broke his leg. But he's just about back to normal now. Can't keep him away from the road, though. Next time might not be so lucky."
"This was my wife's cat. She's had him since before we got married."
"Ohhh (clip-clip-clip), must be attached to him..."
"Her," John corrected.
"How's she takin' it? Upset, I bet."
John had been leaning forward in his chair, elbows on knees, his head drooping, eyes close. He looked up slowly. "Doesn't know."
"Doesn't know!" observed the barber. "Ohhh."
"She already went to work when it happened... Jeez... I didn't wanna call'er there... I dunno... Maybe I should."
"It'll only upset her. I can see waiting till she gets home tonight. Won't hurt anything."
Though he didn't say anything about it, Lucky seemed to be giving the matter of the dead cat serious thought. From the forlorn sag of his features, I deduced that he must have had a cat of his own, once, and maybe it had been run over.
And I think we all understood John's quandary. Why call his wife at work with news he knew would be devastating? It really wouldn't do any good. But at the same time, it seemed unfair, maybe even cruel, to let her carry on in a carefree ignorant bliss which, in light of the heart-wrenching tragedy, was actually a lie. We thought in silence. Even the snip snip of the scissors seemed muted.
Tom, nearly finished with Lucky, was standing before the mirror, thoughtfully sprinkling talc on his brush. "You know," he said, "it might not be a bad idea to go out and get your wife a kitten. Know what I mean?"
It wasn't the most original idea to ever come down the pike. In fact, the replacement question was debated every time anyone lost a pet and it seemed to me there were convincing arguments for both sides. Tom looked toward me for support, but all I could offer was a noncommittal shrug. It didn't seem like Lucky could make his mind up either. He continued to ponder.
"I don't know," said John. "I don't know."
Talcum powder rose in a puff as Tom quick-brushed the back of Lucky's neck. "There you be," he said. Then, to John, "Well, it's an idea."
"Yeah," John conceded, "it's an idea."
The barber obviously thought his advice was worth taking. Handing Lucky his change, he pushed for support. "One dies, just run out and get yourself another one, right?"
Lucky thought about that only briefly. "No," he said. "She was the only one for me." Then, he was gone.
Tom stood by the window and watched Lucky climb into his pickup and drive off. "Poor fella," he observed. "Lost his wife a few months back... Seems to be doing okay, though. Time heals all wounds." He turned 'round toward me. "You next, young fella?"