ABNORMAL, ILLINOIS

Ted looked down. A few shreds of his brownish-gray hair had fallen to the linoleum tiles, in a kind of aura around the barber chair. He closed his eyes. The scissors made a regular snick as they worked around his right ear. He couldn’t see what the young kid in the ochre apron was doing; with a pimply forehead and Cyrillic-looking tattoos spilling down his forearms, he couldn’t be more than 19. Must be the nephew of the owner Nico, who was up front by the plate glass, under a tube of buzzing fluorescent, reaching to shape a customer’s elaborate topiary of a high fade. Nico wore a pencil mustache, his dark curly hair plastered down like a ’40s matinee idol.

Ted felt something sting him like a wasp. He winced; the top of his ear had been nipped. He squinted into the mirror and caught the nephew as he ran his finger along the scissor’s shiny blade, then reflexively brought his red-stained fingertip to his lips and licked. 

Did he really do that? Ted couldn’t be sure. Maybe the nephew had accidentally snipped his own finger too. But Ted might as well let the haircut finish. He felt pressure on his temple to tilt to the right as the nephew switched sides. So far Ted and he hadn’t exchanged a word; everything had been filtered through Nico and translated in a language he couldn’t make out. Russian? Greek?

This was Ted’s first time at Nico’s Barbershop. He’d been trying to get his shaggy hair trimmed for over a week. In his trailer’s bathroom mirror he looked slightly vagrant. Between doing Comp 101 classes on Zoom at his kitchen table (leaning into the laptop screen, it was more like shouting than teaching) and helping his daughter take care of six-month-old Heather, he couldn’t find a spare hour. Yesterday morning in the rain, when he had hunched over beside the stroller at the playground, a young dad taking his son to school had tried to give him ten dollars. So it really was time for a trim. Tonight on his way home from Target to get dog food, he spotted Nico’s down a dark side street, lit up like an oasis. He’d never noticed it before.

He had told Nico to tell his nephew to just make it look normal again. The nephew had frowned. Ted showed him his driver’s license from three years ago. It felt odd, like he had to prove who he was. He tapped his picture and said the words louder, looking from Nico to the nephew: just make me look normal. He smiled; he suddenly realized it was an odd request coming from someone living in Normal, Illinois. The kids at the local college had sweatshirts that said, Abnormal, Illinois.

On Nico’s radio, a hip hop song was bubbling along, something about “back to life, back to reality.” Ted shut his eyes again and nodded off. He found himself in a long white corridor like a hospital. An elevator door clacked open, and two supermodels slithered out in white hazmat suits. He followed them, gliding along beside them like a steadicam in a horror flick.  Their cheekbones were sculpted, their skin had a chilly pallor. In a vast studio, flooded with sunlight through huge windows 20 stories up, overlooking a metropolis, a man’s disembodied voice with an Italian accent was instructing an angular model on a platform, her red hair spiked like an exotic fruit, who was feeling the side of her face as if it had gone numb.  The Italian voice oozed: Give me some side-eye; love the hand, love the hand.

Here the same song was oozing along about life and reality. There were racks of sleek dresses and black-clad assistants leaning over boxes of purses and models strewn here and there by the window or leaning against a column. Everyone was undulating to the beat like underwater algae, and Ted began to sway back and forth too, his eyes closed, feeling the vibe. The world melted away, and he felt totally at peace for the first time in years.

The music faded out, and Ted opened his eyes. He was lying on a cold metal table. There was the scent of ammonia. An intercom crackled something unintelligible like a subway station. He looked up at a bright glass LED-panel the size of a 60″ TV shining down on him. In its stainless-steel handle, he could make out his reflection. His haircut looked normal again, its tangles smoothed out. Ted felt hollow, emptied out. He touched his right ear and felt a drop of blood, and all of a sudden he felt incredibly, insatiably thirsty.

— Gary Duehr has taught poetry and writing for institutions including Boston University, Lesley University, and Tufts University. Journals in which his writing has appeared include Agni, American Literary Review, Chiron Review, Cottonwood, Hawaii Review, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review, North American Review, and Southern Poetry Review. His books include In Passing (Grisaille Press, 2011), THE BIG BOOK OF WHY (Cobble Hill Books, 2008), Winter Light (Four Way Books, 1999) and Where Everyone Is Going To (St. Andrews College Press, 1999).