After pedaling half a mile from his new home in the San Fernando Valley and leaning his green bike against the outer brick wall, beneath the slowly revolving red and white striped pole, the boy felt the dollar bill his mother had given him folded neatly in the right front pocket of his bluejeans and entered the open doorway.
Cutler's barber shop was filled with Saturday morning customers, men and boys. Shortly after taking the only waiting chair left, one of the middle chairs, Red Oates looked up at the three barbers who stood before him cutting hair. He hoped the middle one would be his barber because he didn't like the way the other two barbers snipped their long shears above the heads of their aproned customers and the way they laughed and leaned over their customers' faces, murmuring secrets to them.
When it came his turn and many new customers had filled up the seats on both sides of him, Red gladly went to the empty chair of the middle barber. He avoided the eyes of the other customers, all strangers to him, by fixing his gaze on a faded color drawing of Old Glory. The flag was violet, yellow, and green and hung behind a sheet of glass smudged with fingerprints on the wall before him.
His barber was the tallest and youngest in the shop and was further distinguished by a thin black moustache and hair that was syrupped back on his head, past his ears. He looked exactly like Red's favorite comic strip hero, Mandrake the Magician, except he wore a white barber's coat instead of a black top hat and tails. After telling him how he would have his hair cut, "Short but not in a crew," Red did not talk to his barber while he clipped and cut his hair. However, Red spoke up when his barber laid his electric clipper on the cabinet behind him and shook the clots of red hair off the haircloth. "Have you a dollar bill on you?" the barber asked.
"You mean to pay you?"
"Yeah. But first let me see it. Got to be sure it's genuine."
Red couldn't understand why his barber had to be sure of that; it seemed strange. As he pulled the neatly folded dollar bill from his bluejeans, Red heard the other two barbers chuckle and saw one of them bend over his customer and murmur something to him.
After taking the dollar bill from Red, the middle barber carefully unfolded and flattened the paper between his palms. With mouth open, Red watched him, as one would watch a performer on stage about to transform a piece of paper into a bouquet of flowers. Red liked this barber and he liked magic tricks. He hoped this was one.
His barber glanced at his colleagues, gleamed his white teeth, then bent down over Red. "You can make this out?" The barber's forefinger pointed at the words inscribed to the left of George Washington:
THIS CERTIFICATE IS LEGAL TENDER
FOR ALL DEBTS PUBLIC AND PRIVATE
Red nodded his head.
"Now watch." Then Mandrake the Magician (without top hat and tails) folded the left side of the dollar bill under the right side so that more than half of the inscription disappeared from view. He gleamed, "Now what does it say?" and handed Red the re-folded dollar bill as the other barbers smiled and the curious customers stared. "Read it out loud," said Mandrake the Magician.
Softly Red uttered that part of the inscription which showed:
To Red, what followed was like the opening of a vein--and the pouring out, the spilling of his blood. All three barbers laughed coarsely, the two outer ones snipping their shears in the air. All the customers laughed, even the other boys in the shop. Red wanted to sink into the chair, to hide his face under a haircloth.
When the laughter finally subsided, Red mumbled to his barber that he didn't see what was so funny; he confessed, in a whisper, that he didn't get the joke.
But the barber to the left, the one who was furthest from the open doorway, overheard him. "Hey!" he shouted, so that not only the barber on the right but also the customers heard him, "The kid don't get it!"
The barber on the right didn't comment, didn't laugh as loud as before, but he snickered and his shears snipped in the air.
"Say, how old are you, kid?" asked the barber.
Red stared down his bluejeans at his black and white tennis shoes and brought them closer together on the silver foot rest. Then he answered as if apologizing for breaking a window. "Fourteen," he said.
The barber to the left was passing a comb over his customer's head. "You can tell he ain't got no hair on his chest yet."
"But," said the barber to the right, "isn't fourteen about time? Christ! When I was his age--"
During this interchange the barber in the middle said nothing. Now he leaned forward, over Red's face. Before Red's eyes the barber's thin black moustache glistened--the dollar bill, pressed between two of the barber's fingers, dangled--and, with his other hand, the barber softly pressed Red's shoulder. "Say, you want me to explain it to you, kid?"
The customers who were nearest laughed.
His blood rushing to his face, Red looked up again at the faded drawing on the wall. He asked his barber--amid the undying laughter of the shop--if he were done. When the barber on the left remarked, "Haircuts still only cost a dollar," Red Oates walked hurriedly out, not looking up at anyone, his last image of the shop the red, black, and yellow hairs strewn on the floor.
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Warren Wedin firstname.lastname@example.org