Just a little off the top - the last words of Marie Antoinette

The Place for a Good Crop
by John DesPlaines ©2012

Jim bounded down the stairs into the garden-level barbershop on Astor Place. Having been there for almost two centuries, it was the kind of neighborhood staple where they had all those photos on the walls of the owner with second-class celebrities, stars from serial police shows and such. The photos weren't even the glossies. They were printed out on someone's old dot matrix printer and tacked to the wall with a folded open paperclip or whatever someone had, gum maybe. Django Reinhardt's "Love's Melody' rang out from the sound system as Jim stepped across the threshold.

Inside, it was like a banquet hall with a low ceiling and dim lighting. There must have been thirty barbers, each with their own mirrored station, spread out in the huge room. Jim stopped at the front desk and a receptionist pointed to a station. Number 34. Jim looked at the tip of the man's finger and followed with his eyes. A little old Sicilian man with thick glasses and white hair smiled at him from across the room. It was the kind of smile that's folded. You had to have dentures or small teeth to make a smile like that.

"Ecco, ecco." Jim approached the man and sat down in the vinyl chair. The sounds of buzzing clippers and snipping scissors around the room seemed to play counterpoint with the jazz music. "My name is Carlo," he said and lifted the gray smock so it flew up above Jim like a circus tent filling with air, and gently settling just right on Jim's chest. The little man put a white towel around Jim's neck and buttoned the smock over it. "How you like?"

"Like the 40's. You know, clean cut. Gregory Peck" said Jim.

"Okay, you like-a movie star. I make-a you looka like-a movie star." Carlo proceeded to take out a black comb from the jar of Fratricide. It was a blue liquid disinfectant, labeled with a logo of two Romanesque-looking brothers on it. It smelled like turpentine. Carlo sprayed Jim with water, and pulled the comb through Jim's dark hair.

"I start like-a this." Carlo made the first few snips on Jim's hair. Little black strands fell in clumps, sliding down the smock's silky slope. Jim made sure to tuck his hand under the nylon. He had learned the hard way twice before. A while back, he was cooking soup and spilled on his hand, both burning his skin and melting the wires of his cellular phone implant, having to get it replaced for 600 Worldbits. A year after that, he forgot to wear gloves and had to dig out his ElectroTitan from the chemi-snow, getting water in his speaker holes, which cost him 275. Jim made sure to protect his hands.

Carlo circled him like a proud bullfighter. A real professional from the old country, thought Jim.

"So, you come-a here often?"

"No, just a few times over the years. I went to college around the corner."

"College boy. Good to learn. Very important."

"Yep." Jim suddenly felt rather alienated. He always messed up like that, revealing just a bit too much. Why did he even mention college? This barber likely couldn't afford an education, himself. It might have offended him or turned him off to him. He shouldn't have said anything. After that, Jim was silent, and for the next few minutes, Carlo cut.

Jim fell into deep thought. The dance of the barber was meditative. A memory flickered into focus in Jim's mind. He grasped for faint images of his parents, a boat, the sounds of wind through the long tendril like branches of willow trees. Nearing the finish, Carlo took out his clippers and clicked them on. The buzz was soothing.

"So, you come-a here often?"

"Huh?" Jim asked.

"So you come-a here often?" Didn't he already say that? Jim tensed up in the chair.

"Uh, yeah, just a few times."

"Okay. Maybe you like the cut, and you come back more."

"Sure, yeah" said Jim, but he was already looking around the room at all of the barbers, suspiciously. Was it possible? Were all of them like Carlo?

He had repeated himself. The repeated line was the ever-familiar glitch- the one positive "tell" that the organics could use as the litmus test for warm-blooded life. That, or the old way: Cut him and see if he bleeds. Jim glanced into the barber's eyes and observed the wrinkled skin as his hands came around Jim's face to trim the sideburns. Carlo's skin hung on him like the real thing. There were sunspots and moles, arm hair, too. Jim worried he was being watched. Did they know he knew? Could they see it on his face? A bead of sweat burst from his pores and dripped down his cheek.

"Too hot, yes?" Carlo swung in methodically with a little tissue and wiped Jim's brow.

"Uh, thanks," Jim said. It had been several years since the wars ended between the Government and the Working Party. This was all way back, before Jim was born. There had been rumors that many workers disappeared, but for Jim and his friends and everyone he knew, that was just a rumor. Afterall, there were still people to drive the ElectroCabs, punch his WorldFood Ticket at the market, sweep the streets and even cut his hair. If they disappeared, how did the world go on as normal?

But here, this Carlo, he wasn't right. Carlo had slipped up. As Carlo took out the AirDry, Jim worried. If Carlo and the other barbers were all DigiMatter instead of Organics, where had all the real barbers gone? Was it possible that the Government-

Jim had to stop thinking. With his scalp exposed, the Government's wave readers could be tracking his thoughts. Did they have them installed in barbershops? No, it's impossible, Jim thought. But then again, if they had DigiMatter Barbers, then the Government was everywhere. All seeing, all-knowing. Jim worried. He tried to push the questions away. Stop thinking. Stop wondering. The pressure to stop thinking released a memory, a nursery rhyme he used to sing on the playground when he was a child.

Mister Worker worked all day
Mister Worker got bad pay
Mister Worker raised his voice
Mister Power had no choice

The rhyme was accompanied by a game, where one child who played Mr. Power would run around the others sitting in a circle. Whichever "Worker" was tapped on the shoulder at the word "Choice" would have to chase Mr. Power. If you couldn't catch up to Mr. Power, you had to sit in the center, out of the game. They called the center, the ReUse Factory. If you had to go to the ReUse Factory, you effectively "disappeared." You had to sit that round out.

Jim got the chills. Was it just a game, or were those days on the playground the childlike acting out of a repressed cultural memory, something that everyone wanted to forget? The more he thought about it, the more it all made sense. Those rumors. In the night, some thirty years ago, had the workers had been rounded up from their homes, killed with Silence bullets, their bodies disposed of in the ReUse Matter factories near the river? It was a familiar story parents told to scare their children into behaving like little angels. "If you're a bad boy, we'll send you to the ReUse Factory, and you'll be made into fertilizer for GenetiFood crops."

Again Jim tried to stop thinking, but he couldn't. Maybe it wasn't just the barbers. What if all the workers had been replaced? What if they were all DigiMatter, and the entire LearningClass had no idea. How would he tell people? If he did, wouldn't the Government try to stop him? Was he already in danger for embarking on this train of thought?

Carlo was still cutting when Jim stopped him.

"You know what, it's great. It's looks wonderful. I gotta go."

"Whatsa matter? I'm not done with-a the haircut."

"Sorry. Here ya go." Jim tipped Carlo an extra 10 WorldBits and stood up, the black clumps of hair falling to the floor like feathers. Jim ripped off the smock. The Government was on to him. They must know. But where could he hide? As soon as he could, he'd have to go somewhere. Maybe Alphabet City. There, he could get a lead hood to wear over his head. The wave readers wouldn't be able to scan him. He'd rip out his cellular. He could sew his hand up himself, he could buy thread and disinfectant. He'd go on the run. He could-

All of these thoughts racing in his head, Jim reached for his coat, and bumped into Carlo, who still had the scissor in his hands.

"Ay!" Carlo shrieked, as he grabbed for his palm, dropping the scissor to the floor. Jim stopped and stared. Some of the nearby barbers and customers looked on. What had happened?

"I'm so sorry," said Jim.

"You oughta watch-a where you go! Crazy kid. Don't college don't teach any of you people to have-a manners?" Jim didn't know what to say. Carlo lifted his hand from his palm to see the damage, and there was a bit of blood where the scissor poked him.

"Are you all right?" Jim asked.

Carlo exhaled and calmed himself. "Yeah, yeah. It's okay. I putta little alcohol on it." He said it like "Al-call". Jim stared at Carlo, ashamed, unsure what to do.

"It's been a crazy week," Jim blurted out, as everything in the barbershop went back to normal.

"It's okay, I sorry I yell at you. I don't-a mean it." Jim reached out and shook Carlo's other hand. "Long day for me, I lose my keys, too," he added.

Jim looked at Carlo, this little old Sicilian, white hair just beginning to grow in his ears. The man was old. He was forgetful. That was all. He was just forgetful.

"Thanks for the crop. It's very good, I'm just in a hurry to get back to work" Jim said, as he admired the haircut in the mirror and began to leave. He climbed up the steps and out of the shop, the little bells on the knob jingling as he left.

Jim trudged back to the office, a little less worried, but when he got to a corner and saw a man in a green jumpsuit sweeping trash, he couldn't help but wonder.

x x x

If there were only four barbers, that would make them a barbershop quartet, huh? One of my hobbies when I was younger. Ever notice how many of my sentences contain the phrase "when I was younger?" Anyway, sing out your praises for Mr. DesPlaines' debut tale on our BBS. -GM

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