They trailed after me and I readied my rifle as I walked. It was the only light on in the entire town and it cast an odd yellow glow against all the ruin. It was a narrow building made of brick like the others and there were two large windows in the very front. We took cover across the street and tried to study the place. The light inside was very bright and I thought I saw someone sitting in a chair and reading a newspaper. “My god,” I said. “It looks like a barbershop.” And that’s when we noticed the barber pole at the side churning red, white and blue in the yellow light like cake batter. “I can’t believe it.”
Rob started walking out into the street toward the shop without any care. “Wait!” I snapped. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to get a haircut,” he said.
“You’re crazy. You’re good as dead if you do that,” Daisy warned him.
“You’re both wrong. This is an answer to my wish. You remember, Ed, I said I wanted a haircut and here it is, a place in the middle of deathly nowhere, a barbershop. Someone’s listening to me. It must be apocalyptic God or something.”
“You’re delusional,” I told him. “Delusional and downright stupid if you go over there.”
He smiled at us oddly and he turned and just kept on walking, right up to the shop. We saw that he was looking in and then he pushed the door open, and the light swallowed him up.
“We have to go after him,” Daisy demanded.
I pressed a finger against her fish lips. “Shhh. Let’s be really quiet and check it out.” We crept out into the glow and up to the building, one to each side, and we peered in through the glass. Rob Muggins was sitting in a barber chair of chrome and burgundy vinyl and a man was wrapping a cape around the front of him. I looked over at Daisy and even though I knew she saw the exact same thing as I did, I couldn’t really believe it. I pointed to the door, and we went in with our guns drawn.
A little bell rang, and the barber looked up at us and smiled. “There will be no need for weapons in here,” he politely said to us. “I don’t cause any trouble. I just cut hair.”
He stood on a booster stool and held a pair of scissors and comb over Rob’s head and started to snip away very carefully. He was a very odd-looking man of small stature with a dead-serious emotion in his cleanly shaven olive-toned skin. His hair was jet black and combed back very slick and neat against his scalp. He looked up at us again. “Were you here for a haircut sir?” he asked. Then he looked at Daisy and smiled with apology. “I’m sorry miss. I don’t cut women’s hair. Far too much emotion involved in that endeavor,” he explained.
There were three chairs against the wall and Daisy sat down. “It’s okay. I’ll just watch.” The barber smiled and went back to work. There was a small radio on the counter behind him and it played old time music very softly. The barber began to whistle along as he cut Rob’s hair.
“What are you doing here?” I finally asked him.
He stopped cutting and looked at me. “What do you mean? This is my barbershop. I cut hair.”
“But there’s no hair to cut,” I pointed out. “This place is dead.”
The barber seemed confused. “I don’t understand. I’m cutting this gentleman’s hair right now. What’s the problem?”
“Don’t you know what’s out there?” I moved to one of the windows and gestured. “This place is deserted. Why are you here?”
The barber clicked on an electric clipper and moved it carefully against one side of Rob’s head. “I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m here every day. I cut people’s hair. This is my life, my livelihood. I have an apartment right upstairs if you want me to prove it to you… I’m sorry, who are you again?”
“My name’s Ed. Ed Dick. This here is Daisy and the man you’re snipping on is Rob Muggins.”
The barber chuckled some. “Odd names,” he said. “But good to know you all just the same. I like my customers to consider me as a friend and not just a barber. It’s the personal touch that matters most,” and he looked over at Daisy and flirtatiously worked his brow up and down for a moment.
I looked over at Daisy and she looked at me. I could tell she was feeling unsettled.
“Do you have any food and water?” I asked the man.
He chuckled. “Of course, I do. I’m not a savage. If you don’t mind waiting until I’m done with this gentleman’s haircut, it would be wonderful to have you all upstairs. I haven’t had many guests lately.” He clicked off the clippers, leaned back and studied his work. “That looks pretty fine,” he said, and he hopped down off his stool and spun the chair around like a carnival wheel so Rob could see himself in the mirror.
“Wow,” Rob said, admiring himself. “That’s a damn fine haircut. What do you guys think?”
Daisy got up, walked over, and looked at him. “You clean up pretty well Mr. Wall Street,” she said.
I felt a twang of jealousy in my guts. “But he needs a shave,” I suggested. The barber studied Rob’s face. “Hmm… I really like his beard, but I suppose I can do that,” he said.
We all felt a bit nervous as he reached for the straight razor and some fluffy cream. He lathered Rob’s face and then very carefully scraped the blade across it, clearing away the stubble every so often as he went. When he was done, he wiped Rob’s face clean with a warm wet towel. “After shave?” he asked as he held up a glass bottle containing a blue liquid. Rob nodded. The barber smiled as he patted his face. “It might sting a bit,” he cautioned.
The barber undid the cape and Rob got up out of the chair and ran his hand over his head and across his face. “This feels great,” he said.
The barber shook out a towel and smiled. “Okay… That will be 23 dollars.”
Rob instinctively reached for his pockets, but they were empty. “I’m sorry. I don’t have any money.”
The barber was confused. “No money? Then why did you come in here for a haircut? Give me a break. I’m trying to run a business here!”
Daisy sensed his oncoming tirade and tried to calm him. “We’ve been traveling for a very long time. Don’t you know what’s happened to the world? There is no more money.”
“No more money? Ah blah, that’s a bunch of rubbish. I’ve got a till full of it.”
I stepped forward to get a closer look at him. I wanted to see if he was real. His eyes looked weird. “Who are all these people who come for haircuts?” I asked him. “Don’t you understand? There’s no one here.”
The barber grabbed a broom and pan and started to sweep up Rob’s fallen locks. “You keep saying that, and I still don’t understand. I get plenty of business from the hill people and the ranchers and the water barons. They come all the time.”
Daisy stepped in front of me. Her arm fell back a little and her hand accidentally swept over my crotch. “We’d love to see your apartment. And maybe we could work something out to pay you for the haircut.”
The barber looked at her porcelain face the color of flour and noticed the ring in her nose. “That’s a funny thing,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that on a woman before. Okay, let me just lock up and we can head upstairs. But I don’t want any funny business.”
The stairs were old, and they creaked as we went up. The hall smelled of cooked meat and dust. He looked at us and smiled as he fumbled with the key in the lock of a red worn door. “My apologies, but the place isn’t as tidy as I like,” he said. “I’ve been busy with other things.” He got it unlocked and pushed it open. It looked old and charming. I couldn’t understand why he was worried about what the place looked like. Everything was in order.
“Please, come in and sit down,” he offered. “Would anyone care for a grape soda?” We all heartily accepted. “Good,” he smiled. “I’ll make us some cheese sandwiches as well.” He fiddled with an old phonograph before disappearing through a swinging door that must have led to the kitchen. Scratchy weird music began to fill the room.
I went to a window, pulled the cranberry-colored curtains aside and peered out. The moon was higher now and the landscape littered with desolation. I turned to see Daisy sitting close to Rob on the couch. She seemed attracted to him now. She put a hand on his thigh as they whispered to each other about the place.
A few minutes later, the barber came back out carrying a tray with grape soda and cheese sandwiches. He set it down on an old coffee table and invited us to eat and drink. I squeezed in between Daisy and Rob on the couch and stuffed a sandwich in my mouth. The barber took a chair across from us and watched.
“Is the food all right?” he asked. Our mouths were full, and we were very pleased. I sucked down my grape soda and belched loudly. Daisy elbowed me.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I haven’t eaten in a while. It’s so good. But, where do you get your food?”
“Little elves bring it to me,” the barber joked, and then he crossed his hands in his lap and smiled. “I’m glad you appreciate good soda and cheese.”
“Thank you so much,” Daisy creamed. “This is all so wonderful.”
Rob clomped on a sandwich between sips of the soda. “Yeah. It’s great of you to help us out like this.”
“Well, I try to live a godly life. You know, do unto others …”
I looked around the room and noticed there were no photographs of other people. “Do you have a family?” I asked him.
“No,” he answered somewhat sternly. “They all died in a terrible house fire many years ago. I grew up an orphan.”
“I’m so sorry,” Daisy said to him.
“I’ve learned to carry on.”
“Do you know about the monsters?” I blurted out.
He turned to look at me, it was a cold stare. “I don’t know what you are talking about. There aren’t any monsters here.”
Daisy leaned forward and looked at him. “Don’t you know about the end of the world, and all that has followed?” she asked.
He blinked at her in confusion. “I heard a rumor about a terrible war, but that’s all. I enjoy my life here as a simple barber. I don’t want to know about such things.”
I adjusted my hat and rubbed at my rough face. “The monsters are a product of social disease. There’s no cure. They have no heart or soul.”
He looked at me with the same puzzled emptiness. “Sometimes they wander in and out, but I just turn off all the lights and pretend to be dead.”
“So, you have seen them?” I asked pointedly.
“I’ve seen others, yes, if that’s what you’re getting at, like you were talking about, but they are not my customers. Those people are real. You speak of phantoms.” He suddenly got up and changed the record. He seemed uncomfortable.
“Where are you from? Originally,” I asked. He turned to look at me over his shoulder after plopping down fresh vinyl on the phonograph. It spun slow and rough. “Chicago,” he finally answered. “I was born in Chicago.”
I thought he was lying. “What part?”
“Arlington Heights. My father came here from Appietto on Corsica many years ago and opened his own barbershop. That’s why I do what I do. Then he burned to death.”
I could tell he was getting uneasy about the subject. “I was hoping we could rest here if that would be all right. We’ll leave you in the morning.”
He studied us one by one. “You want to stay the night?”
“You’ve been more than generous,” Daisy began, “But we understand if you don’t want strangers sleeping on your floor.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Just one night?”
“We’ll head out in the morning,” I said, answering for her.
“Okay, you can stay,” the barber said as he lifted the arm up off the record and carefully set it in its resting place. “But I’m getting tired now. I think I’ll go to my room and rest, but please, make yourself comfortable. We can settle things in the morning. I hope you sleep like angels in the hay heap of a warm barn.”
I was hoping Daisy would lie down next to me but instead she rolled herself out on the floor right next to reincarnated Rob Muggins. I thought I heard them kiss, but I might have been mistaken. Whether it was real or not it still hurt my guts and heart. The place was too quiet, and I struggled to sleep. I wanted to be on top of Daisy and thrusting against her, but I felt her interest was rapidly waning. Maybe I was too old for her. Maybe I was too rough around the edges. What kind of life would we have together anyways? The world was a ruined place. I focused my eyes on a slit in the drapes as they grew heavy. I started to see some stars twinkling above the dead land. I was starting to feel sad and hopeless but tried to find peace in the thought of the coming morning. I finally fell asleep and dreamed of nothing.
The barber tip-toed to a table in his bedroom where sat an old phone and he picked up the receiver. He worked the dial with the tip of a crooked finger. It rang on the other end — four times before someone picked up and breathed.
The barber whispered in the grim darkness. “Yes, they’re here now. I think it would be a perfect opportunity to come get them. I’m sure you’re very hungry.”