Crew Cuts

Boy getting his hair cut. Photo by Sofía Boriosi.
Photo by Sofía Boriosi.

There were four of us boys who needed crew cuts so our dad stuffed us into the station wagon to go get crew cuts. Our brother Seamus died when he was a baby so he does not need a crew cut. Sometimes two of us brothers leave the slightest space between us in the car for Seamus but we do not tell anyone because our dad’s face will tighten under his crew cut like someone turned a knob in his face. He was at work in the city when Seamus died and he had to leave work early in the afternoon when you were not supposed to leave work yet and he came all the way home on the train from the city not knowing what was the matter only that something was so badly the matter that our neighbor called and said tersely Jim come home right now and when dad got home he found his first son his namesake dead he just died in his stroller one moment our mother was tickling his fat chin and the next he was a spirit traveling on unimaginable paths into the Limitless Mercy of the Lord. Someday we will meet him again. Our grandfather said so. He had a crew cut also. When he died we asked grandmother if the Lord would give him crew cuts now and she said we were vulgar cruel boys and we should be ashamed of ourselves and she went to her room. She sulks, she sulked, she will sulk. Seamus was too young to have a crew cut but he might well have a crew cut right now this minute unless he has not aged at all or has aged in unimaginable ways in the Halls of Heaven. Crew cuts are one dollar each but four for three dollars. Our oldest brother goes first because he is in a hurry. He is joining the Navy. He is always in a hurry. He pays for his own crew cut and rushes out of the barber shop. Our dad’s face gets two notches tighter. Next up are us two brothers who sometimes leave room for Seamus. We are so close in age that we are treated like twins most of the time. We climb into adjacent chairs and the barber goes back and forth from one to another to entertain our youngest brother. The barber makes a tiny mistake while he is laughing with our dad and he nicks my sort-of-twin brother’s ear. The barber doesn’t notice but I do because I feel it in my left ear too and I see my brother crying without using any tears a trick at which he is excellent. The barber finishes and we jump down and my dad swings our youngest brother up into the chair and as the barber flourishes the apron and my dad says cheerful things and our youngest brother looks like he is going to barf I lick the blood off my brother’s ear and he is grateful and we go sit down in the chairs near the magazines about motorcycles. You may not touch the magazines because who knows where they have been but you are allowed to feel the back of your crew cut but not the front where the barber put green guck in the tiny picket fence above your forehead. If you get the green guck on your hands the Good Sweet Lord Alone can save you and you will make a mess and grandmother will go to her room and no one will say anything for a while which is the loudest sound ever. Finally our youngest brother is finished and now he is proud because he thinks he is cool like us because he has a crew cut and actually he does look almost cool and we decide to be kind to him because Seamus died and our oldest brother rushed out and dad’s face is taut. Years later my sort-of-twin brother who grew up to be unbelievably good with tools will say that the word ratchet is an excellent word for what happened to dad’s face when he was troubled or sad, and our youngest brother who grew up to be the coolest of us all will say that the best thing about growing up was that we finally realized we would do anything not to ratchet dad’s face ever again, anything, which was and is exactly true. 

Lake Oswego, Oregon

Photo by Jerry Hart

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine. He is the author of many books of essays and fiction, notably the sprawling Oregon novel Mink River and the headlong sea novel The Plover. His latest essay collection, Children and Other Wild Animals, was published in 2014 by Oregon State University Press.