I follow the road behind the golf club winding up the valley and into downtown. I feel better because I did a hit of my coke, better coke than what I’m used to. I’m not sure where I’m going, I just know I had to get away from my father. I park my car, put some change in a meter, and start walking down the street, and it feels good to just walk. The smell of fresh-baked pizza drifts over me and my stomach turns, reminding me I haven’t eaten all day. I go into the small pizza shop that sells pizza by the slice. I order a slice of vegetarian feta because it has less fat on it than the other kinds they sell. I sit at the counter against the front window so I can look at the street. I think this will distract me from the anxiety I’m feeling from my meeting with my father. Across the street is a man in a barbershop getting a shave. The straight razor in the barber’s hand gleams from the shop lights and the barber slowly draws it up the neck of the man sitting in the chair in long, smooth strokes, leaving clean, hairless skin where there was only lathered cream moments before. With each stroke, the barber wipes the blade clean before beginning another. When he's done, he wipes the rest of the cream off the man’s face with a towel. He then sprinkles lotion on his hands and pats it gently into the freshly shaven skin.
The barber looks up and sees me watching. He motions for me to come over to his shop. I finish the last bite of my pizza slice and walk across the road. The freshly shaven man is leaving.
“Make sure you ask for a fresh blade,” he says as we pass each other in the doorway.
“Okay,” I say.
“I saw the curiosity on your face,” the barber says. “This will be good for you. It's a real man’s shave.”
He dusts off the chair and motions for me to sit down. “You need something meant for real men.”
He walks over to a little metal box. When he opens it, a puff of steam wafts out and up toward the ceiling. He comes back with a steaming white towel in his hand that smells of lemongrass.
“I’m going to lean you back so I can put the towel on your face. The towel is to help soften your stubble.”
He holds my shoulder as he leans me back until I’m almost lying flat, then wraps the towel around my face, making sure my nose peeks out through the towel, allowing me to breathe. It's hotter than I expected but not uncomfortable.
“Nice, eh?” he says.
I can hear him muddling around in his shop, and I nod, not sure if he can see me.
“I’m going to raise you up now so I can get the lather on.”
Once I’m upright, he unwraps the towel in a slow, continuous movement.
“Look at that—your skin is ready. See your pores? They are bigger now.”
He hands me a mirror so I can see my pores.
“This brush, this is camel hair. I use it only on my best customers. I think you might be one of my best customers.”
He places the fist-sized brush into some water, then into a metal container, and begins to swirl it around. A thick, white foam, like white icing, begins to work its way up the brush. When he's satisfied there's enough, he spins me around and applies it to my face in long strokes like a finely trained finishing painter.
“You want an even layer all over your face. If you get good shaving cream, it will moisturize your skin, and that is something you should do here. It’s very dry here.”
When he's finished brushing on the foam, he begins to swirl the bristles over my skin in small circles, as if trying to help my skin absorb the foam. It tingles when he does this.
“Peppermint,” he says. “You can feel the peppermint. You need to take care, though. It smells good, but it tastes like shit.” He blots my chin lightly twice.
“There,” he says. “You are ready.”
He places the brush in a bowl of water near the sink and reaches over to a jar of Barbicide, where he pulls out a straight razor.
“Can I have a clean blade?” I ask. My voice cracks.
“You have to speak louder,” he says.
“Can I have a clean blade?”
He snorts and smirks.
“This is as clean as it gets. You want a new blade, don’t you?”
“That asshole who just left probably told you that. He always asks for a new blade.”
He lets out a laughing cough.
“I’ll let you in on a secret. I hate that guy. That guy is a real prick. The first time he came in here he asks for a new blade. It was time for me to get out a new one anyway, so I do. Then he comes in again and asks for a new blade. I’m thinking to myself, I can’t use a new blade every time for this prick, so when he leaves, I grab an empty blade box and write asshole on it. See?”
He pulls out a box from the drawer. In blue script, the word asshole is written.
“So when he leaves, I take the blade off and put it in that box. When he comes again, I grab the blade from the asshole box and change it right in front of him. He thinks he's getting a new blade every time. I put it back in while your towel was on.”
He lets out a thick laugh.
“I’ve been using the same blade with him for almost two months now. It must burn like a son of a bitch when I’m done from being so dull, but he won’t say anything; he's too proud.”
He laughs again, then draws himself up.
“That is between you and me, that story. I want to see how long before he says anything. It might be never. For you, though.”
He waves his finger at me.
“For you, I’ll get you a new blade. Look.”
He pulls out a box from the same drawer that had the asshole box in and slides it open like a matchbox. Inside is what looks like a thin piece of paper. “You want to watch yourself. This will cut right through you.”
He carefully pulls out the thin piece of white paper and unwraps it. Inside is a fresh blade, gleaming in the light like a mirror.
“Perfect,” he says.
He loosens the screws on a pearl-handled straight razor, then slides in the new blade. When he finishes securing the blade, he steps in close beside me.
“Don’t move,” he says, “or you will need to find a new head.”
He laughs and lowers the blade to my neck. I feel pressure at the base of my neck. It’s faint, barely there, but I can feel it move up toward my chin, accompanied by a thin, scraping sound. He pulls the blade away from my neck. The icing-white lather is speckled with brown specks of stubble like pepper. He wipes it on the towel.
“There,” he says. “Feel that?”
I bring my hand up under my chin to where he dragged the blade. The skin is perfect and smooth, with no hint of hair having ever been there.
“It’s my father’s razor,” he says.
He draws up another scrap and wipes the blade clean.
“He came over from France in the twenties. He was only a teenager then. It was tough to make it as an immigrant, especially a French immigrant. He tried some labor jobs but wasn’t able to find anything for very long. It wasn’t long before he was living on the street and working odd jobs, saving up his money and then getting in fights to protect that money he was saving. Then, one day, he finds a shopfront that was empty, and he went in and rented the space with his savings. A week later, after he fixed things up, he opened a barbershop.”
He lowers the blade back down for another stroke.
“I think people came because my father was a gentleman; he always treated his customers right. That is something I do, too, except that asshole before you—he's the only one. It didn’t take long before my father had some money and he brought in this gold razor. He said he always would look at it in the catalogue, so he ordered it. I like to think it made him happy.”
I feel the scraping this time and the sound is louder in my ears, like fine-grit sandpaper rubbing against porcelain.
“My mother worked at the Singer sewing factory, and so, my father would bring me to work. I grew up in his shop. When I was able, he taught me to do a shave. I was shaving men before I could shave myself. The customers didn’t trust me at first, but my father charged less if the men would let me shave them. It didn’t take long before they didn’t even notice a kid was shaving them and my dad started charging full price again. After that, he'd cut hair, and I was doing all of the shaving at full price. It was a great time. Not a care in the world. I really loved those days.”
The long scrapes up my neck and across my face continue, each followed by a cleaning of the blade with a single-motion swipe into a crisp, white towel. “I brought my own son here and taught him how to shave. But when he was twelve, he wanted to do other things. He told me he wanted to make real money, make something out of his life. I told him this was a noble profession. That a real man can find satisfaction by putting himself at the service of another. He told me he could get a shave by some girls in a tight shirt and mini shorts at some new place and most of the guys he knows go there to get a haircut. I was real mad when he said this. I mean, what does a woman know about shaving? The boys go there to look at their tits.”
He stops and drinks some of his tea.
“So when I get too tired for this, this store will close down. A week after I am gone, it will be a Starbucks or a Subway or some franchise shit like that. The old ways are dying.”
He pulls back.
“There,” he says. “You are done with the shave. Do you like Yves Saint Laurent? That is all I use for aftershave in my shop. French, after all.”
He drags the towel up my neck and around by my ears to wipe off the remaining lather. He pulls out a bottle of L’Homme aftershave lotion and sprinkles some on his hands, then pats my cheeks and upper neck. A fresh, clean scent fills my nostrils, and I make a mental note to buy some. He walks over to the counter and pulls open his top drawer.
“I want you to have this,” he says.
In his hand is a box about five inches long and three inches wide. A coat of arms in emblazoned on the top of the navy-blue box.
“It’s a straight razor, a real razor,” he says.
He holds it out, and I take it from him. “Thank you.”
“Now,” he says. “You are a man.” I wonder if my father will agree.
Leslie Chivers is a novelist and short story writer. He has spent the past ten-plus years working in communications and marketing and is a board member of his local Writers’ Guild and the Art Mentorship Society. Chivers’ fascination with pop culture and stance against censorship—as well as his collection of “banned books”—has greatly influenced his writing and hobby of collecting rare first print, first edition books. Many of his stories explore themes of privilege and lost youth, disdain, and despair.