|Although the building was next to the interstate, it was said that no one could ever find it unless the seeker knew exactly where to look. Cars would go up and down the road, piloted mainly by tourists with a single piece of the puzzle, driving as slow as the law would allow as they looked for clues on mailboxes, road signs and mile markers for the location. Once you knew where it sat, it was easy but the usual rite of passage consisted approximately a half a dozen attempts but the legend loomed large enough to put up with the challenge. Once arriving, one realized that the building was built so low to the ground and complimented the local geography with a gentle unobtrusiveness that easily allowed both time and issues to elegantly pass by.
It was made up several areas but the inside did not give away any of its contents. In the back by the river butted up against the riverbank, a reptile garden housed a very content and shamelessly tame reptile while two barbershops anchored the front. Separating the two areas, a narrow bar was located along the building's isthmus, which provided a convenient hideout for folks who wanted to belong to something but didn't have the energy to make any allegiance official.
The front of the house was composed of the barbershops; sharing the same door, same cash register and the same secret dirty magazines. Although first glance made one think they were partners, knowledgeable regulars knew they prided themselves on their own independence. The only phone seemed to be located outside near the river but no one remembers it ringing much. The only sign that was technically visible was "Reptile Garden and Barber Shops" in the front but years of purposeful disregard turned the sign into a faded, slightly rusted suggestion of input.
A man approached the building from the highway, obviously stumbling upon the parking lot purely by accident; as his facial expression was one of concentration, not satisfaction. The slight opening in the side road allowed him to attempt to find a clearing somewhere around the bend with a plan of making a U-turn in order to go back the other way. He traveled down the road, over a small hill, in hopes of finding a bit of land to turn his car around and quickly get back on schedule. He was a bit frustrated and drove over the hill with an attitude of rude purposefulness and as the road rose and fell to accommodate the hill. He was surprised to find a moderately full parking lot of cars in front of the building; which appeared to be lashed together with a combination of good ideas and mutual convenience. Once he saw the building, his schedule immediately became secondary as he was compelled to wander in and look around.
The first thing Paul Keen saw was a Gila monster, komodo dragon or some large, fearsome looking lizard the size of a fat dachshund meandering out the front door and onto a little doggie bed in the shade. The doggie bed was personalized for "Rosalina" and the reptile turned around a few times, curled up and fell asleep. That series of events appeared out of a cartoon as Paul continued to stare at the sleeping amphibian when I walked by.
"You don't see that everyday," Paul said without breaking his stare.
I was going the other way, heading out of a task and said, "I politely disagree. I see that many times a day."
He continued to watch the now-snoring animal and I felt compelled to complete the thought so I repeated, "No, that is what she does." I walked over the to the doggy bed and scratched the lizard on the scruff of the neck. I heard a little grunt of satisfaction burp out of the animal as it instinctively rolled over on its belly, begging for additional tactile engagement.
Paul continued to stare, without blinking. "I assume her name is Rosalina."
"Correct." I patted the lizard one more time and walked out to the parking lot.
Rosalina stared up at Paul with beady little lizard eyes and he was compelled to give her belly a quick scratch out of obligatory proximity. Within five minutes, Paul Keen went from driving to another piece of a thankless appointment to rubbing the stomach of an animal that appeared to be prehistoric hybrid of alligator and lapdog. Rosalina, realizing the rubdown was over, rolled back onto her belly, immediately fell back asleep and began to snore with a far more impressive timbre than before.
I was returning in a few minutes with some limes so I wasn't compelled to give him a quick primer of what he was going to find there. In fact, he would do well to walk into the building and look around without a translator. I saw him bravely walk into the building from my rear-view mirror. I estimated that by the time I returned, there was a pretty good chance that his haircut would have finished and he would likely have some questions. I decided not to chat up my lime guy this afternoon; I would have needed back at headquarters to help with the transition.
Paul Keen walked into the front of the building and saw a double door, both sides open, with a proprietor's name above each side. Each sign was lettered and composed with completely different styles but both provided the name of the business, years of experience, alma mater and a small slogan complete with quotations. It was obvious that the individual marketing strategies had gone through several phases as the assumed competitive nature likely caused numerous iterations. The first one said:
Henry Bayles Barber Shop
29+ years experience
Tulane Class of 1969
Go Big Green
"Your Haircut Says It All"
The second one said:
Barber Jimmy Hipps
In Business: 25 Years and Counting
University of New Mexico
Go Lobos Go
"First Impressions Start Here"
Paul continued to stare until he was startled by the second marketing puzzle piece.
"Hey, Shaggy! Sit down, it's time for a haircut."
Paul did exactly what was told. There was no pre-cut discussion, no posted price and he heard the clippers rev up immediately. Within a minute, his carefully constructed hair strategy was replaced with a shorter, more realistic cut. As he was enjoying the newfound coolness of the hair cut, a second barber came around the corner and gave a look of frustration.
"Damn it. I go take my first leak of the day and you steal my customer."
"I didn't steal anything, you hack. I had this appointment scheduled for a week. Isn't that right, chief?"
Paul nodded, still dazed, and said, "Sure."
The second barber gave him a skeptical look and sat down in the second chair. He leaned over to a stand-alone magazine stand that appeared to separate the shop into equal sections and dug through the stack until he found a Playboy. He shrugged yet again and said, "It's your funeral. This guy is a butcher. I have seen him cut folks on a disturbingly regular basis."
The first barber, not looking up from his work, said, "Who cuts your hair?"
The second barber said as he was unfolding the magazine, "You do."
The first barber, still not looking up, said, "How long have I been cutting your hair?"
"And, I am not happy about it."
"So noted," said the first barber as he continued to trim around Paul's ears.
During this exchange, Paul again saw Rosalina lumber in and walk towards him. He continued to stare as the lizard paused in front of him and finally decided to move towards the second barber. The lizard blinked and walked up a gradual incline and onto yet another "Rosalina" doggy bed that was located near the second chair.
"You see, Rosa likes me better," said the second barber as he handed the lizard a peanut butter cookie. Rosalina gently took the cookie with her mouth, got situated on her bed and politely ate it. Once finished, it rolled over on its back and the well-trained second barber began to scratch its belly without removing his eyes from the magazine.
The first barber finished the haircut and spun him around. Paul was surprised how good he actually looked. For years he had been struggling with a receding hairline and he was desperately conscripting his few surviving frontal hairs into an equally desperate concocted structure of swirl and re-use. The strategy was futile and the results were the same: a few hairs doing the job of the fallen many with a pitiful and foolish attempt at illusion.
He had cut all the rogues off his head, leaving Paul with a close, cropped look that used the brevity as his best cranial defense. The shortness gave him an aerodynamic style with a more effective and efficient result and for the first time in a long time, he was done playing defense.
"You look better," said Henry Bayles.
"I rarely agree with him," said the second barber without looking up, "but he is right."
Paul was also in agreement. He had regained ten years in the last few minutes and he was looking forward to throwing away the large collection of his hair sprays, hair ointments and his large, private collection of hair brushes. The new look was going to save him at least fifteen minutes a day as well as slowing down the planet's ozone deterioration by at least a factor of two.
Paul decided to become personal. "Thank you, Henry."
Henry smiled and said, "You are welcome."
Paul, ready to push his luck a bit further, looked above the door jam and confirmed his next sentence by looking at the identical barber signs located on the inside of the shop.
"And I agree with you as well, Jimmy."
The second barber said, "That is my middle name but nevertheless, it is a good cut."
"So, your first name is Barber?"
"Yes, the irony is almost too much sometimes."
I arrived at the building with a large bag of limes to find Rosalina in one of her inside beds, the traveler looking like his lost ten years, Barber reading a Playboy and Henry cleaning his clippers. My arrival woke Rosie, who scurried down her ramp and looked at me with a knowing, blinking gaze.
I reached in my pocket and gave her a piece of beef jerky. She took the jerky and began to wander back to her Western bed. Right then, Henry opened a can and the "whoosh " caused her to reverse her path and head towards the Eastern ramp. Rosalina almost ran, as well as a lizard could almost run, and landed on the third known monogrammed doggie bed, and waited patiently until Henry depressed several cashews into its cushioned folds. Rosalina seemed satisfied with her harvest and gave no interest in returning to her nap for the time being.
I pulled up a chair and said to Barber, "I have your scotch." And then I looked at Henry, "And your rum. The shipment just showed up."
"What about the limes?" asked Henry.
I waved the laundry bag in his direction and said, "I just had coffee with the lime guy. The limes are here and they are sassy little bastards."
"I assume you have a liquor store," asked Paul.
"Well," I said, "It is kind of a reptile garden-liquor store."
Paul, having now exhausted his general curiosity, decided to accept the facts as they lay and did not followed up with any more questions.
I felt sorry for him so I decided to fill in some blanks with a deep breath. "I have a liquor store, both on and off sale, in the back of the reptile garden. I have a few regular customers plus a few drop-ins."
Paul nodded his understanding. "And I assume," he said pointing at Rosalina, "she makes up your reptile garden?"
"That is correct."
Rosalina watched the conversation go back and forth and moved her little lizard head side to side as if she was following the questions and answers. I knew it more likely that since she had now finished her cashews that she wanted to see if anyone had any food. Once she determined her snacks were over for the time being, she settled back into her bed and fell immediately asleep.
Barber walked out of the barber shop(s) and headed towards the back of the building. When he left, Henry tidied up around his chair, sweeping the valiant, exhausted strands of hair into a dustbin. Once satisfied, he sat down in his chair and absentmindedly began to rub the top of Rosalina's crusty little head. She did not stir but did subtly reposition herself to receive maximum contact with Henry's hand.
Barber walked in with four empty glasses, two bottles and a pocket full of limes liberated from the bag. He placed them on top of the magazines and said, "I think it is time for a drink."
Paul looked at his watch and decided this day was far too interesting to stop so he pulled up a side chair and smiled.
I looked at my watch; it was almost three in the afternoon so we were well inside our official drinking time. A few locals were in the back bar but I was not concerned. They were all regulars and they knew how to work the cash register and mix guns better than I could. I found it easier to place them on their own behavior back there so I didn't have to supervise them. Other than a few heavy-handed pours early in the day, I was money ahead but not having to waste my time supervising them.
There was no worry about a surprise inspection or other outside influence screwing up the arrangement, as the inspectors always liked calling ahead before their surprise inspections so they could get a haircut when they stopped. One time, about ten years ago, a rookie inspector showed up unannounced and started listing citations due to the unsupervised back room. He was starting his second page of violations when a call was placed to his supervisor. Within a half hour, the red-faced supervisor showed up and actually ripped up the report in front of his face. He was told to
come back and try again while the supervisor pleaded with us all to give the kid another chance. Barber, Henry and I voted that we would give another chance and Barber agreed to throw in a free haircut.
Completely relieved, the supervisor sat down next to Rosalina and got a quick trim. A few minutes later, the young inspector came back and declared the establishment had complied with all necessary statutes and handed me the renewed licenses including one for a reptile garden that was not requested but was issued as a sign of rapprochement.
"Thank you," said the rookie. "You have a nice place here."
I thanked him and invited him back anytime. He was a young kid, full of vinegar with a desire to fit in, so he appreciated the lesson in the benign ambiguity. No one was in need of the state's protection in this little country watering hole and he finally had figured out that it wasn't what you did sometimes, it was something that you didn't do that would make the best sense. The kid was young but smart and after his own haircut, left with handshakes all around. From that moment on, the state and the garden had an understanding of a peaceful co-existence. All licenses were now sent in the mail and all onsite visits were considered social calls and scheduled usually later in the day.
After pouring him a drink, Barber asked Paul for his story.
Paul was a sales representative and sold large manufactured airflow systems. The sales were long-drawn out affairs and most of his sales calls were both thankless and obligatory in nature due to the complexity and expense of the systems. He had made a call earlier that day to a nearby plant and forgot to drop in on the senior plant manager as part of the visit. The manager didn't know him but he was always told to make an effort to visit with all decision makers and even though he accomplished his tasks with the Procurement Manager, he wanted to stop by and introduce himself to the plant supervisor yet again. He didn't like kissing the ass of middle management but the sale of manufactured airflow equipment was just as much of an art as it was a science.
The call ended and Paul was on the road for about twenty minutes before he remembered that he wanted to stop off and see the manager. He was already out of town and was looking for a place to turn around when he literally stumbled onto the reptile/barbershop(s). He had every intent to make the u-turn and speed back to the plant for some obligatory kowtowing, but took the turn into the reptile garden and within a half hour, his priorities had shifted as well as his view of life's interactions with those priorities. On long trips, he had plenty of time to ponder the mysteries that made up his life and realized some things happened for reasons and many things just happened.
He was getting up there in age with four children grown and away from home. The pattern that made up life was comfortable but becoming dangerously boring; he hated his customers, tired of the political aspects of his job and was finding himself slipping more and more into life's in betweens. This was not a comfortable place for him as he was proud to define himself as a legitimate stand up guy but the fatigue of middle age, the wasting of time on stupid issues and mortality in general created a perfect storm of boredom. He had both the money and the time but in both situations, they were definitely lacking reptiles and limes.
"I guess I am done for the day," said Paul as he took his first sip.
Paul wanted to ask questions: the surrealistic situation was begging for some answers but he was instinctively aware how fragile the balance between want he wanted to know versus what he needed to know. He knew he had stumbled into a bit of a time warp when people came and went on their own terms and the interactions he had witnessed earlier
were being played out almost everyday in a pleasant and rhythmic energy. His lack of energy and abundance of boredom couldn't force this dynamic to become all about him.
As close as he could estimate, there were about a dozen people in the back bar taking care of themselves. There was the rise and fall of collective conversation but nothing that troubled his three new human companions and looking at Rosalina, assumed she wasn't too worried about much of anything.
"Can I ask you three questions?" asked Paul taking his second sip.
"Sure, but make the simple," said Henry. "I don't want to justify anything but will make an attempt to answer what I can answer. I don't have any stomach for defending what you see, please let that whole thing lay. I am afraid that under scrutiny, it might implode."
"Close enough," said Paul. "Let me start with an easy one. How old is Rosalina?"
I answered this because at her last physical as I asked the vet the same question.
"I asked the vet the same question just the other day. He estimates that she is thirty years old."
"What is her life expectancy?"
"How long has she been part of the reptile garden?"
"Almost twenty-five years," said Barber. "She came through a few years after I started and has been here every since."
"She literally walked up from the swamp," I said. "We were eating oysters…"
"Clams," said Barber.
"Right, clams. She was about half that size and even then, as tame as a dog."
"And, for some reason, has been enamored with the barber shop, which was about it. She never left and for some reason, she seems to like the activity and the food. In addition, she is a lady that likes to sleep late. She is not an early morning lizard."
"Any more questions?"
Paul wanted to ask them about the two barbershops, the serve-yourself bar and other issues but he didn't want to be greedy. He wanted to know how they made their money and how things were done but as he drank the rum, he knew that too much knowledge was a tricky thing. The best strategy was to enjoy the moment and see where the day brought him.
"I got two more questions."
"May I come back?"
"Sure but don't make a big deal about it. Now you know where the bar is and we'll let you know when it time for the next haircut."
"You got us on a good day, all three of us are here. If we are not, the door is always open so feel free to visit anytime. If you open up, make a pot of coffee and if the phone rings and if you can find it in time, answer politely."
"And you haven't seen any of us," said Henry.
"And the last question?" I asked.
"Henry, how much do I owe you for the haircut?"
"That is four questions but since you are new, where did you go to school?"
"The University of New Hampshire."
"Then, you decide. Just place it in the green coffee can. No checks."
Paul pulled out two twenties and slipped them into the can. He waved at anyone, including Rosalina, and left.
"He'll be back," I said.
"I'll be back," thought Paul as he walked to his car.