Fiction · 07/10/2019

A Miracle Shy of Martyrdom

Wendell Ford owned and operated a two-chair barbershop in a dying strip mall, catty-corner from the Fullerton Public Library. Even Wendell had difficulty listing the two or three other businesses. This could be accounted for both by his age and by the unremarkable nature of whatever occupied the other storefronts. Perhaps one of the shops repaired shoes or let out the waistlines of trousers.

Wendell was the sole employee of his barbershop but couldn’t suffer his second chair going to waste. As a solution he alternated where he seated customers, based on the patron. The two deciding factors were whether the person looked Wendell in the eyes upon entering the shop and what sort of shoes they were wearing. Flip-flops for a haircut, whatever the weather, was incomprehensible, and any customer who fit that bill was seated further inside lest potential clients should see exposed toes and become discouraged from their trims.

Wendell was the youngest among his Navy peers during the Second World War where he had taught himself to cut hair. His hands’ coalescence with scissors and comb was perfected through an apprenticeship of youthful bloodshed. A significant majority of the heads he sheared returned home not as young people with potential, hope, and goals, but as Dear Johns in lieu of their remains abroad. Perhaps tattered on the shores of Germany or elsewhere in the Pacific. Choose which.

Wendell made love with two partners during his life, each of them once. Maxine Kurtain was a nurse who treated Wendell’s only wartime injury — a modestly exaggerated Purple Heart for a second-from-the-last-toe shot off through the boot. No matter the version of the story, “One of my buddies had to hack the boot off,” was always part of the narration and “hack” was always emphasized. A clear explanation of who shot the toe off Wendell or how they managed to do so was conspicuously missing.

The second lover, Frida Piccarelli, was stateside. Wendell understood little of what the recently immigrated woman said — although English, it was unsure English. Likewise, Frida grasped few of the sentences Wendell strung together.

When describing their single sexual encounter to her friends over hands of Canasta or Malice, he imagined that Frida detailed the exchange as unfulfilling and brushed Wendell off with a flippant wave, though he wouldn’t have known the words she chose, cazzo molle, which elicited laughter from the women with whom she played cards.

Admittedly, Wendell hadn’t learned much from Maxine back in Europe. In the too quiet, poorly lit room, Wendell had only heard Maxine’s shallows breaths and knew she tried and failed to imagine Dom Manion, her fiancé who was deployed elsewhere on the continent.

While Frida excused herself to the bathroom, Wendell wondered what all the fuss was about. Both unmarried exchanges remained the subject of much fretting and guilt for Wendell. It hardly seemed worth eternal damnation, in retrospect. If it were going to happen again, it could wait until marriage.

But Wendell never did marry, never dated. He spent the rest of his life celibate, cutting hair, polishing his shoes, perfecting his chess strategy — his pals learned to train a careful eye on Wendell’s Knights — and reading the complete works of Louis L’Amour.

The last detail was a personal fact that remained unshared, as none of the texts was ever purchased, but instead borrowed from the library. Nobody, with the exception of the twenty-three or so members of the staff, would be aware and likely wouldn’t have had the thought to look for the information. Wendell would drop off a book and checkout a new one after closing the barbershop for the day, not long before the library flipped its own sign from Open.

Each night, Wendell made himself a neat gin martini — his only luxury and only indulgence, for which he owned his only nice piece of glassware.

Each morning, Wendell said five Hail Marys and five Our Fathers prior to a shower, straight-razor shave, and a day of vicarious living through the stories of the people whose hair he cut. The daily share of customer exploits was plenty for Wendell. This life that he’d assembled was well enough for him.

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John Christopher Nelson’s youth was split between ninety-four acres of chaparral in East County San Diego and a defunct mining town in the Nevada high desert. He has moved thirty times and currently lives in West Seattle. He is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA, where he has served a variety of roles for Stonecoast Review. He earned his BA in American Literature from UCLA, where he was executive editor of Westwind. His work has appeared in The New Guard, Chiron Review, Able Muse, The Matador Review, Broke-Ass Stuart, the Hammer Museum, and Indicia, among others.