This Is the Life
We walked in and the two Chinese girls who ran the place looked up and gave us a nod. They were both busy and neither of them seemed too pleased to see us. But Louis was oblivious to that, so we sat down anyway and waited our turn.
Soon as we sat down, the two Chinese girls started working very slowly, as if there were a competition between them to be the last to finish. The prize for coming in first would be to have Louis as the next customer, and neither of them wanted that. So they both attended diligently to detail and went snip-snip-snipping with fine precision and they used plenty of combing and lots of changes of blade sizes and plenty of holding up of the mirror for a look at the back of the head.
By this time Louis was all beard, moustache, straggly hair, and eyebrows. The eyebrows arched quizzically, or, if Louis had been fiddling with them, which he did, they pointed up like small devil’s horns. I didn’t think he had had a shave or haircut in six months, maybe longer. Nor had he
trimmed his beard in any way. He looked like a wild man, like one of those homeless people you feel part sorry for, part afraid of, and part repelled by.
The remains of some ancient dinners were hiding in the moustache. No wonder the Chinese girls were working slowly. If I’d been a Chinese girl, I’d have worked slowly too, or have closed the place early, or simply have said no and pointed at the door.
But they were too polite, or kind, or resigned, or simply didn’t want to lose the business. Finally, one of the seated customers was done with. The taller Chinese girl—who also appeared to be the older—shook hair from the gown and then invited us to step forward.
“She’s ready for you, Louis.”
Louis looked at me in that mileky-eyed way he had adopted, and in which fashion he looked at almost everyone. It was a strange look, one of appeal and also of stoical resignation. It took me back half a lifetime, to when we were kids. No, more than half. It was a lifetime. His, at least, and maybe mine too soon—who knows?
He stood up and took the beanie hat off, handing it to me along with the blue cooler bag he carried his needed possessions in—things like drugs and paperwork and his cell phone, which he seemed to have forgotten how to use, and his bank card, the number for which he could not remember.
He sat in the barber’s chair.
“So what will it be?” the Chinese girl said. She half looked at Louis, but really she was addressing the question to me, and we all knew it. But Louis was an adult and he still had a brain—well, most of one.
“What would you like, Louis? How short? General trim?
How about the beard? Short but not too short, maybe? That all right?”
He gave me the milky-eyed look and nodded.
“Short but not too short, please.”
The Chinese girl nodded, and she got to work. If she felt any revulsion or repugnance, she didn’t show it. She knew there was something wrong and that Louis wasn’t firing on all cylinders, but that maybe he had done once. It wasn’t as if he’d always been this way, which would have been a different matter. But it wasn’t like that at all.
She seemed to realize all that, and she clipped and snipped almost with respect and reverence for the old Louis, the Louis as he was, Louis as he had been. Not, in all truth, that he had ever been so different. You wouldn’t have called him dapper or well-groomed at any stage of his career. (If you could call it a career—maybe random trajectory might have been better.)
But she cut away, first with the scissors and then with the electric trimmer. Gradually, Louis emerged from behind the disguise, and then suddenly there he was again, just like he’d been when we’d been punching the daylights out of each other all those years ago. Just older and grayer, that was all. I started to wonder if he hadn’t always had that sad, milky, lost, and appealing look in his eyes, as if to say life was just one bewildering mystery, and why didn’t he fit into it, when he could do so many things, and be good at them too. But nobody ever had an answer to that. Nobody, in my experience, has the answer to much along those lines.
Louis looked at me again and he raised one of the eyebrows to which the Chinese girl was referring as if to ask my opinion.
“If you could,” I said. “That would be great.”
It wouldn’t be great. It would just be shorter eyebrows. But that’s the kind of thing you say to people in shops. It’s along the lines of Have a nice day and How are you doing? and Awesome and No worries and No dramas.
Louis settled back and closed his eyes to let the eyebrow work begin.
I wondered if maybe he was developing cataracts, and that possibly accounted for the milky look that was turning to cream. He already had glaucoma. He’d had a lot of ailments. Maybe he hadn’t looked after himself. He’d lived with Bella for fifteen years and Kirstin for seven. She’d moved out ten years ago and he’d spent a solid decade neglecting himself.
The Chinese barber took a comb and trimmers and deftly cut back the mad eyebrows. By the time she’d finished, Louis looked normal and sane. He wasn’t the wild man anymore. You even realized that he was almost good-looking. In fact I wondered if he wasn’t better-looking than me and thought that he might be. But then, as any not-so-good-looking person can tell you, looks aren’t everything.
It took her a while to do it all, and when she was finished, she did the business with the two mirrors and the back of the head. But when she had done, she didn’t charge any extra, just the standard rate. Louis looked at me to pay, so I took the money out of his wallet, and the Chinese girl seemed surprised when I gave her a tip, though she plainly deserved one.
We thanked her and left and I handed Louis his wallet back.
“I gave her a tip,” I told him. “With your money. Hope that was all right.”
He didn’t respond, just put the wallet away in his blue cooler bag.
“How do the bits and pieces look?” he asked, taking a glance at his reflection in a window. The sun was high and bright and the shop windows were like mirrors.
“Fine,” I said. “She did a good job.”
“Where’s my hat?” Louis said.
I gave it to him and he put it on.
“Aren’t you too warm in that?” I asked.
“It’s all going to fall out anyway,” he said.
I saw that the brand name on his beanie was Piping Hot.
As he put the hat on, I saw his scar clearly for the first time. It had healed well but still looked ugly. I didn’t like the thought of it—of having your skull cut open and a part of your brain taken out, even an infected part.
“Let’s go and have a coffee,” Louis said. “I’ll shout you a coffee.”
Louis always had the knack of sounding particularly generous, even when he wasn’t actually doing that much.
“I’ll stand you a coffee,” he said. “Or lunch.”
We walked on down the street. The Brisbane suburb looked American to me; it had that wide-spaced look, with buildings sprawling out instead of up—like some outback town.
“How about here?”
There were cafés everywhere, but this one had plenty of free tables outside. The waitresses were young and friendly. Not Chinese, maybe Malaysian. But I guess they were all Australian really. They’d just started off as Chinese and Malaysian once, and now they were Australian, same as the onetime British and Irish and Greek and Scottish were. It was a broad church, you might say.
We sat at a table and a waitress brought a menu over.
“Can you light one of those gas burners?” Louis asked. “I’m cold.”
“You want to sit inside?” I asked him.
“No. But I’d like the burner.”
“Sure,” the waitress said. “No worries.”
And she opened a valve and pressed some button to light the burner.
When she’d gone I said to Louis, “How come no one here has any worries?” He looked at me, puzzled. “Everyone says ‘No worries,’ ” I told him. “I can’t believe they don’t have any.”
He didn’t respond. He kind of looked right through me. But that was nothing new. He’d always done that, since we were kids.
He was staring at the menu but couldn’t make sense of it, so I read it out.
“I’ll have that,” he said. But then he wanted to know the price, and when I told him, he almost changed his mind.
“I’ll pay,” I told him.
“It’s all right,” he said. “But it’s expensive.”
“It’s the cost of living, Louis,” I said.
And what else did he have to spend it on anyway? And how long left did he have to spend it? The world was full of people with money worries, but there were also people with no money worries at all, yet they were still worried—they were worried that something might happen and their money wouldn’t be able to fix it.
I sometimes think that if you started listing all the things that money can’t fix, it would be even longer than the list of things it can.
Sometimes money is as much use as rocks in the desert, when what you need is a glass of cold water.