This essay is the winner of the 2016 Palm Spring Writer’s Guild contest in the personal essay category.
By Ron Dulaney
On the first morning of summer vacation, Mom burst into my room, flung open the curtains, and demanded I wake up and get dressed. Groggy and squinting from the explosion of unwelcome sunlight, I coaxed my twelve-year-old limbs over the edge of the bed and inserted them, one by one, into the garments strewn at its foot, assuming I was being rousted for Saturday waffles. Instead, Mom shoved a dollar in my hand and dispatched me to the Thriftway on a suicide mission.
Maintaining a low profile, I eased into a checkout line behind an elderly couple with a cart full of hot dog buns and scanned the tabloids, wondering if the “Monkey Man from Milwaukee” liked a tall cold one with his evening banana. When I reached the point of no return I placed my solitary item label-side down on the conveyor belt, and watched it glide into the expectant hand of the cashier.
“Just the Kotex?”
Focusing on my shoelaces, I nodded, certain everyone in the store was listening, and that everyone I’d ever met was in the store.
“That’ll be sixty-one cents… for the—”
“Right, right, right.”
I was so rattled I failed to notice not only who was at the register, but whether it was a man, a woman, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon—with the result that I could never again look any Thriftway clerk in the eye.
I sped home with my cargo of shame, anxious to put the whole sordid episode behind me. Mom, still in her pink bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, thanked me and gave me the once over.
“How long’s it been since you had a haircut?”
“I don’t know.”
We both knew. It had been twenty-eight days, nineteen hours, and twelve minutes since my first and last encounter with the dread lawn mower.
She handed me a quarter and said, “Add this to the change from the Kotex and go get yourself a haircut.”
“Could you please not say that word.”
“Okay then, go get yourself a Mohawk.”
“No, not really.”
Highland Park Barbers was a strip mall affair sandwiched between the now off-limits Thriftway and Dale’s Sundries. As I pushed through the jingling glass door my eye caught a sign in the window that read: “Shoe Shine Position Available.”
Waiting my turn I luxuriated in the fragrance of Jeris Hair Tonic tinged with a hint of talcum powder, and heard the barber nearer the window tell his customer the shoe shine boy had quit to go work in his uncle’s butcher shop.
“Wasn’t worth a damn, anyway,” he said. “Came in after school maybe once or twice a week and took off early on Saturdays just to get my goat. Always figured him for an inch and a quarter, inch and a half, tops.” After his customer left, the barber, whose name, “Barney,” was embroidered on his tunic, fluffed his cape, nodded at me, and said, “Batter up.”
Halfway into my haircut I worked up the guts to ask, “How old do you have to be to be a shoe shine boy?”
“And just why do you ask?” he asked back in a playful way that made me smile.
“I was just wonderin’.” I let a full minute pass before summoning the courage to add, “I’ll be thirteen in December.”
“Know how to spit shine a boot?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Wouldn’t be a Yankees fan, would you?”
“Then I expect you can learn.”
How it worked was I got to keep everything I made in exchange for sweeping up hair, working the till, and remaining ignorant of the child labor provisions under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. A shine was fifteen cents, and if you were brave you could request it in the barber chair while you were getting a shave or a haircut. Given that a brisk rag-buff in the midst of such an activity could, in theory, occasion the loss of an eye or an ear, the vast majority opted for Old Sparky.
This pedestal-mounted oak and leather monstrosity, into which someone had long ago carved its moniker, was a dead ringer for an electric chair, the only difference being the absence of head gear and a pair of brass ashtrays retrofitted onto the armrests where the wrist straps should have been. There were rumors it had once occupied the death house at Leavenworth and fried the likes of Machine Gun Kelly before being discarded for a newer model, and that Barney had won it in a poker game with the warden. When customers asked Barney if the stories were true he would speak in hushed tones and say he was bound by federal law to remain mum on the subject. Barney’s regulars regarded this mythology with a skeptical wink, but many of the shop’s customers took the worm and brought their friends around to show the chair off: a veritable national treasure, and for the summer it was mine.
After a few days of applying as much polish to socks as shoe leather, I perfected my technique and started leaving work with a jingle in my pocket. On an average weekday I’d haul in a buck and a half, on a busy Saturday, twice that. Tip-wise, I broke down customers into the “Big Three”—the real tippers who’d say, “Nice job, kid,” and toss you a quarter, those too proud to ask for a nickel back from two dimes, who’d say “keep the change” like they were high rollers, and the outright skinflints who, if I were out of change, would pull Barney away from a hot shave to break a dime so I got my fifteen cents and not a nickel more. When Barney had to deal with one of these lowlifes he’d glance at me from the register with eyes that said, “What say we put this half-incher out of our misery with a dull razor and stash his sorry carcass in the dumpster.”
The biggest tip I ever got was a dollar, which was more than the guys got for a haircut. I celebrated at Dale’s by treating myself to a chocolate malt and my first Mad magazine, which contained a spoof of the movie Boy on a Dolphin in which Alan Ladd, a notoriously short leading man, was featured opposite Sophia Loren in every frame, standing on a box.
Although I did live higher off the hog that summer than I ever had before, my greatest joy, which compensated for the grief my friends gave me for chucking them to “toothpick pig crap out of farmers’ boot cracks,” came from the ritual of opening my top drawer each night and stuffing the day’s earnings into what Mom called my ham can.
Granddad, who’d raised me with Mom from day one, and who’d been a telegrapher in his early days with the Union Pacific, said he’d teach me Morse code. And since the Morse Code section of the FCC exam was regarded as the biggest stumbling block in getting an amateur radio license I figured I had it made. The only other thing I needed to become a bona fide ham operator was the equipment. I figured I’d start with a receiver, which I could enjoy right away, then worry about a transmitter after I got my call sign and became fully licensed to start communicating with my fellow twelve-year-olds in places like Honduras and Antarctica. Indeed, my entire fascination with amateur radio was predicated on the supposition that if hams in such locales had to pass a Morse code test they must also speak English.
The receiver of my dreams was the top-of-the-line Hallicrafters SX-100, a magnificent apparatus with dual rotary tuners that briefly appeared in the movie Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, which I’d gone back to see four times. Unfortunately, it listed at $325 and was out of the question. A more reasonable goal was the S-38E, a plain-Jane model with a stodgy slide rule dial that sold for sixty bucks. I figured that if I could save $100 over the summer I could pick up an S-38E and be well on my way toward financing the rest of my rig once I got those dots and dashes under my belt.
Barney, the lanky, bowlegged Texan who owned the shop and ran first chair, was, according to Mom, “a man of distinguished good looks.” Judging from his most prominent features, I took this to mean bald with a shock of white hair sticking out above each ear, a description that, in his advancing years, would no doubt apply equally to Bozo the Clown. When I pointed this out to Mom, her response was, “Say what you will, but I know a man with class when I see one.” I always wondered if her esteem for Barney would have remained steadfast had she known his favorite pastime was characterizing people by the lengths of their peckers, or at least as he conjured them up in his imagination.
Barney routinely applied this rating system to customers, but also used it to size up celebrities, fictional characters, and politicians; women were largely, but not entirely, exempt. Sometimes his attributions were cause for pause: Vice President Nixon, for example, was a five-incher, whereas Mighty Mouse and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee were both sevens. One morning he looked up from his newspaper like he’d seen a ghost and declared that former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was an eight-and-a-half. Cary Grant, the debonair movie actor, whose chin, Barney was fond of saying, had “more cleavage than Rita Hayworth,” was a three. If you got on Barney’s bad side it’s safe to say you’d find yourself on the south side of two.
Aside from his lengthy pronouncements on manhood Barney was a man of few words, and even those few had to struggle to find daylight with D.C. Springer working second chair. D.C. was a beer keg of a man with a grey flattop, a face as broad as a frog’s, and a twinkle in his squinty eyes like Doberman on Sergeant Bilko. First thing each day he’d pour a lidful of coffee from a thermos, mount his throne, and try out a new joke, usually one guaranteed to make your ears curl. If we laughed he’d put it in his repertoire, if not, you’d never hear it again. When Barney asked him one day where he got his material, D.C. grinned so wide his eyes went shut and said, ”They just sorta light on me, like mosquitoes.” He knew more jokes than anyone I’d ever met and told the good ones over and over, since, to him, each customer was a brand new audience. Unfortunately, even the funniest ones didn’t stay funny forever and we were grateful he never told the same joke for more than a few weeks for fear of repeating it to one of his regulars.
Toward the end of July, on a Tuesday so hot Barney had closed the shop when the thermometer hit 105, Mom decided to serve ice cream and canned peaches for dinner. Dishing up my second helping, she said, “So how much have you saved toward your radio?”
I added the buck-forty I’d made that day to the running total I kept in my head. “About… seventy-one dollars. Why?”
She looked at Granddad, who turned to me and said, “Abner Spalding’s selling a secondhand Hallicrafters. Says it’s like new.”
I had no idea who Abner Spalding was but the word “Hallicrafters” got my heart racing like hamsters on a treadmill. “An SE-38?”
Granddad shook his head. “An SX-100, like the one in your movie.”
I squeezed my buns together as a safety precaution. The hamsters shifted into second.
“He’s askin’ two but I’m thinkin’ he’ll take one-fifty.”
The hamsters collapsed in a pile.
“I don’t even have half that,” I said.
Mom spoke up. “Your granddad and I were thinkin’, if he’d take the one-fifty we’d kick in the fifty, which would be your Christmas and birthday this year, so you’d only have to come up with the hundred. We could even advance you the, whatever—”
“—and you could pay us back outta what you make in August.”
I still had four weeks before school started. Twenty-nine divided by twenty, about a buck and a half a day: definitely doable. “So why’s he willing to sell it so cheap?” I asked.
Granddad said, “He bought it for his kid who had to have it, until he got it; now it’s just clutterin’ up his workbench.”
That bleak synopsis made me wince a little; then I pictured some spoiled rich brat who probably didn’t know a mixer from a reactance modulator. It was agreed Granddad would approach Mr. Spalding at his lodge meeting that night with an offer of one-fifty.
To distract myself from getting my hopes up too high I spent most of the next few hours in front of an oscillating fan wondering if Abner Spalding was related to the Spalding that made baseball gloves.
When Granddad pulled into the driveway. I bolted from the couch, knocked over a glass of melted ice from the RC I’d finished an hour, and met him at the door.
“You realize every nickel you make ‘til school starts goes toward this…”
“He took the one-fifty?”
“Did you hear what I just said?”
“Yeah, every nickel, when can we pick it up?”
“It’s out in the car.”
I told the guys about how Granddad, a world class tightwad, had talked Mom into playing barber with these mechanical clippers from Monkey Ward that looked like a miniature lawn mower. The resulting haircuts, which were more like cockfights, had brought him as close to saying actual cuss words as I’d ever heard. D.C. said those clippers had been designed by the Gestapo to extract confessions from hardened spies, and to bring Granddad in for a real haircut on the house. I said “Okay, but on one condition—that you swear on your dead mother’s life not to tell any dirty jokes,” because Granddad would not only disapprove but probably never speak to me again, which was unacceptable since I was now counting on him more than ever to teach me Morse Code.
He agreed, so the following Saturday Granddad came in early, before the place filled up. At his request I gave him a shine, which was terrifying because he was always so fussy about his shoes and would never have let me touch them at home. I was so nervous, I must have buffed each shoe ten minutes.
“Hey, leave a little leather on,” he said. “I’d like to get at least another week outta these.” I went stiff, then glanced up to catch a reflection of Granddad smiling at D.C. and was so relieved I said the f-word, but, fortunately, not loud enough for anyone to hear. Granddad scooped a fistful of change out of his pocket and plucked out five pennies and two nickels he insisted I take. He climbed down off Old Sparky, pulled up his pant cuffs one at a time to admire his reborn warhorses and said, “Good enough for church.” Since, to my knowledge, Granddad had never attended church in his life, I wasn’t sure if he was being serious or sarcastic.
When it was time for his haircut, D.C. asked Granddad if he’d like to start with a hot shave. Granddad said if it’s on the house you betcha and D.C. pulled a hot towel from the steamer and wrapped up Granddad’s face like a mummy. I took my usual post on top of Old Sparky with one of the car magazines Barney kept stocked in the rack.
Dabbing lather on Granddad’s neck, D.C. said, “Ronnie here says you like a good joke.” He winked at me and I could feel the contents of my bowels begin to bubble up, like Mom’s macaroni and cheese. I shot D.C. The Look, but he made sure he was too busy stropping his razor too notice.
“You know why mummies have trouble keeping friends?” he asked.
I hadn’t heard this one before; I held my breath.
“Why?” Granddad responded.
“’Cause they’re too wrapped up in themselves.”
Granddad smiled as I exhaled a good ten percent of the earth’s atmosphere. When I caught D.C.’s eye in the mirror I signaled him to please cut his act short by shaking my head, which prompted a second joke.
“You know what Confucius say?”
No, God no. I’d heard a hundred of these, none remotely acceptable.
Granddad shook his head.
“Confucius say, Kotex not best thing in world—”
“—but next to it,” Granddad interrupted, almost like he’d been waiting for the setup.
D.C. cracked a broad smile and his belly began to jiggle. Then both men laughed.
Paralyzed on top of Old Sparky, tiny demons stripped the insulation off the wires in my brain and crossed them at random, setting off sparks and creating a thick haze as I struggled to reconcile the last twelve seconds with the previous twelve years: Granddad laughing at a dirty joke, a Kotex joke… a Kotex joke he’d already heard… that he remembered well enough to deliver the punch line… with me sitting ten feet away?
“Guess you know that one,” D.C. said.
“Heard it at Lodge.”
Oh my God, that’s what he did at Lodge. I’d always pictured a bunch of old farts wearing hearing aids sitting around stirring Instant Postum with their spoons and commiserating about the gout.
Like an artist putting the finishing touches on a masterpiece, D.C. flicked the tricky spots around Granddad’s nose and mouth then asked, “Got any more?”
Without hesitating, Granddad asked, “You know how a Scotsman finds a sheep in tall grass?”
“Uh uh, how?”
And they were off and running.
At one point D.C. said, “From the look on Ronnie’s face, I don’t think he’s ever heard any of those.”
“And as far as his mother knows, he still hasn’t,” Granddad said, tilting his head to indicate that this was more for my benefit than D.C.’s.
Throughout this carnival, Barney had sat reading the paper without once changing the expression on his face. As D.C. took his scissors to Granddad’s eyebrows, Barney lowered the paper, turned to D.C. and said, “I’m thinking a seven, maybe a seven and a half.” D.C. curled his lip and squinted one eye shut to help him concentrate, “Yeah, that sounds about right. Ronnie, what do you think?”
“Seven or seven and a half?”
Clenching my jaw and holding my breath to avoid losing it, I shrugged my shoulders.
Granddad sat staring into the mirror, contemplating his own expression of mild bewilderment. If he’d deduced that this cryptic conversation was about him, and that it referenced his most private of privates, he didn’t let on.
“Seven and a half then,” Barney concluded then hoisted his paper back to eye level.
All that was left was the final ritual: the whisking of the neck with the duster, followed by the artful removal of the cape so as not to leave a lock of incriminating evidence on the customer’s trousers. After thanking D.C., Granddad shook hands with both barbers, plucked his straw fedora off the coat rack, and said, ”See you back at the ranch, Kiddo.” Since he only called me this when he was in a decent mood, I knew the morning had been a success.
As the door jingled to a close I buried myself even deeper into the dog-eared April issue of Hot Rod and braced myself for the teasing; but there was nothing. Barney picked up the sports section and D.C. busied himself with some new clippers. I jumped down and swept up the few silver wisps of hair D.C. had shorn from Granddad’s thinning supply and carried them back to the big can. When I returned, D.C. looked up and said, “Your granddad’s okay…,” then added with a grin, “…didn’t leave a tip, but he’s a good sport.” Hearing this, Barney lowered his paper for the second time that morning and shot me a wink.
Although the morning was slow for a Saturday, things took off around noon and by four I was up over two bucks. Playing Granddad’s visit over and over in my head had given the day a surreal quality and when I saw D.C. hang the closed sign on the door I was shocked that six had come so soon. As we all wished each other a good weekend two thoughts competed in my mind for attention: one, if you think you know somebody, wait for the punchline, and, two, this morning never happened.
I am a recovering academic from the University of Montana. My credentials as a published author include a university level economics textbook and a smattering of refereed journal articles in the area of forensic economics, a field in which I was a consultant for 35 years, and from which I recently retired. Over the past 20 years I have participated in numerous workshops and colonies focused on writing for the stage and cinema. In 2012 I completed a year-long online course in screenwriting. I am currently working on my first novel, which is adapted from the rough draft of a feature-length screenplay I wrote upon completion of that course. Having become a full-time resident of Palm Springs a year ago (after being a snowbird from Montana for seven years) I am excited at the prospect of becoming involved with a community of fellow writers in the Coachella Valley.