A Mountain Man in a Mountainless Land

Once there was a mountain babe
who climbed from mother’s womb.
He was born into a mountainless land
while the flowers were in bloom.

Once there was a mountain boy
who climbed his father’s side.
He stood upon his father’s shoulders
and met the crown with pride.

Once there was a mountain youth
who scaled the tallest trees.
He gazed upon the openness
and found no mountains within reach.

Once there was a mountain man
who dreamt of higher peaks.
He would have sought the mountain tops
if it were not for the children at his feet.

Once there was a mountain elder
now too old to make the climb.
He settled near the tallest trees
it was just the right incline.

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Clean Cut.

Elfred Canton had been cutting hair for a long, long time. By his own recollection, most of the patrons that visited him at his small shop in the quietest part of town were now the grandchildren and even great grandchildren of his original customers. The longest wall of the barbershop was littered with framed newspaper clippings and award plaques from the local council. They all mentioned the shop and Elfred’s work in the community. He had cultivated a work ethic that few could match – working diligently over the many years of his career to make a name for himself. People in the community knew him for never letting the shop close early or turning down a last minute haircut before the day was done.

Tonight was unlike any other… his last appointment came and went. Mr. Jones, or more likely his wife Mrs. Jones, liked his hair short on the sides and a little off the top. He was there past dinner time just like every other week. It was like clockwork. Elfred was cleaning up after what he thought was his last cut of the night when he heard the familiar chime of the door opening and feet pressing against the linoleum floors.

Winter had come early and strong. There was a defiant wind that rushed through the threshold of the open door like a wave breaking over a sinking ship. The draft circulated over the reception counter, in-between the barber chair and work table, and right through Elfred’s body. He convulsed from the chill and shook out the cold like an angry spirit.

In the doorway stood a man who was buried under many layers of warm clothes: a brown leather jacket with a crimson hood pulled up and tightened around the crown of his head, a multi-patterned scarf crosshatched across his face, and a wool cap brought down so low it almost completely went over his eyes. Elfred wondered to himself if he knew the man buried under all the clothes – maybe he would see a familiar face once layers were peeled away.

“Good evening, friend. Please, please. Step inside where it’s warm”, Elfred said as he gestured the man forward.

The door closed behind him as he approached the counter that Elfred was now positioned behind. For a few brief moments Elfred wasn’t sure if the man intended on uncovering his face, as he stood there looking at Elfred in silence.

“What can I do for you this evening?” Elfred said in a jovial voice, mostly trying to break the silence.

He could feel his neck start to tighten as the tension of the man’s presence began to set in. Elfred had dealt with wayward individuals in the past. The local homeless looking for a handout. The youth from the high school across town rousing up trouble out of midsummer boredom. But never had he felt an individual give off such a presence quite like the man that stood before him. After a few more moments of silence, Elfred mustered up the courage to speak in a demanding tone.

“Alright, friend, I am not looking for any trouble. If you are not here for a haircut, I am going to have to ask you to leave.”

The man raised his hands from the jacket pockets and began to unwrap the scarf that was bound to him. Slowly he drew his hands in circular lines around his face and with it came the scarf. When he was done, he took the now coiled scarf and placed it on the counter with one hand while he removed the cap with the other. He placed the cap on top of the mound of scarf, creating a small effigy on the reception counter.

“I would like a haircut”, the man said in a small and quiet voice.

Elfred registered that he had heard the words, but his mind was still processing what his eyes were witnessing. Even without the cover, the man was still unrecognizable. Though he was clearly a young man, his brow looked ancient and cold. His eyes were almost a pale grey, a sociable hue that conformed with the rest of the man’s features.

But Elfred was mostly taken aback by how ungroomed the man was. His hair was matted down from the cap and the hood, but it still jutted out in many different directions. It was long. Elfred imagined, if straightened, it would likely fall well past the man’s collarbone. Connected to his cornucopia of hair was a large, burly beard that overpopulated the man’s chin and neck. It grew wide and thick, with time allowing it to mature into a what looked like an explosion of grizzly beard.

“…And I would like you to shave my beard as well.” The man said, his words jostling Elfred back into the moment.

“I can do that for you, friend”, Elfred replied. “Please feel free to take off your jacket and when you’re ready follow me.”

He turned from the man to gather a few supplies that had already been put away for the evening and then met the man at the barber chair. He kept his jacket on, which Elfred found strange, but he chose not to think about it too harshly. The man sat himself in the chair, his shoulders slumping downwards as if a weight was placed on them. Elfred strew the black nylon cape across the man and fastened the snaps of the cape behind the man’s neck – finding difficulty doing so while also managing the jacket’s hood. After some maneuvering, the man was seated and Elfred was ready to begin.

“So what will it be?” Elfred said, a common phrase his patrons had grown used to him saying.

The man replied in two simple words: “Clean cut”.

“Clean cut?” Elfred responded. “So you want me to take it down low on the sides and top as well as shave the beard?”

The man did not respond in words, but more with a gesture of his head. He then closed his eyes and tilted his head down as if to sleep.

Elfred began the meticulous work of unknotting the man’s hair and preparing it for the cut. Through this whole process, the man sat silently with his eyes closed. Elfred was typically the type to stroke up conversations with his customers. He took pride in knowing the stories of so many people – the good and the bad – while they sat there waiting. People had a way of being wholly honest with him in the shop, like it was some sort of confession booth. As if the haircut put them in a trance-like state of mind. But Elfred could tell that this particular individual on this particular night did not want to talk… and he didn’t want to force it out of him. So he worked in silence.

“You been cutting hair for a long time?” The man said in a sudden outburst.

When Elfred looked up, almost startled by the sound, from the man’s hair towards the mirror in front of him, he was met by the man’s eyes now wide open and attentive, gazing straight through the mirror at him.

“Yes, I have been cutting hair in this shop for quite some time.”

The man did not initially respond, but even in silence he never took his eyes off Elfred.

“I don’t usually get many unfamiliar faces in here anymore though. Are you new to this area?” Elfred continued, taking his eyes off the man and back to his work.

“I don’t live here”, the man replied. “I am here for business.”

“Well I hope I am not the first to say it, but ‘welcome’ and I hope you are enjoying your time here.”

“It seems like a nice place. I saw kids in the park. It is so cold and yet they were still playing. I saw them and they seemed so happy… it… it was nice.”

Elfred found the man’s comment concerning but tried to shrug it off and keep the conversation going.

“Do you have any children, friend?”

“…no… how about you? Do you have a family?”

“Well, I was married once, years and years ago. But it didn’t work out and I never really pursued anyone else. I guess you could say I am married to this shop. I’ve spent a lot of my life within these walls.”

“So you don’t leave the shop very often or travel anywhere?”

“Me? Travel? I couldn’t tell you the last time I wasn’t within five miles of the shop. I live in the  apartment above it. I can get groceries on the corner. I don’t even own a car.”

The man grinned for a moment before his face returned back to its gaze of stone.

Elfred was growing more and more comfortable with the man. Their conversation had de-escalated the feeling of dread that had been forming in the pit of his stomach. Elfred had always tried to be the type that doesn’t judge a book by its cover. And though this man was a little strange, he wanted to believe that he was a good person.

And so time passed and the two continued small talking about sports and the weather while Elfred finished cutting the man’s hair. When he was done it was short on the sides and the top. A mountain of hair had formed under the chair and around Elfred’s feet.

He then turned his attention to the man’s beard. Trimming it down to an easier length so that he could take the straight razor to it. That feat proved quite difficult, as the beard was knotted and kinked in most places.  

But when it was finally ready, Elfred rearranged the barber chair so that the man was lying more at a tilt. He pressed the hot towel to the man’s face to soften the whiskers. A layer of shaving cream was applied and Elfred counted his breaths before taking the razor to the skin. He had done this countless times before. He probably could have done it with his eyes closed. As he swept the blade up in rows across the man’s cheek and jaw – he took deep breaths to keep his hands from shaking.

“She would have liked the park”, the man muttered almost completely under his breath.

Elfred had to quickly pull the blade up from the man’s throat so not to cut him. The movement of his lips reverberating across his jaw.

“I’m sorry, friend, did you say something?” He spoke while shaving cream dripped from the tip of the razor. He waited for the man to respond, but once again he sat silently and motionless.

When the shave was complete, Elfred took a cold towel to the man’s face and then applied the aftershave. He stood the chair back to its upright position, pulled off the nylon cape and swept the remaining hair from the man’s jacket. With a polite gesture he motioned the man to stand up to his feet and follow him to the counter.

But the man remained seated, he was staring intently into the mirror at his own reflection. With his hair cut short and the beard gone, he looked nothing like the man that first came into the shop. What was once the rugged look of a man lost in the wild was now upright and noble. Almost galant, although very thin. But his eyes did not change. They still had something primal within them.

The man would not take his eyes off of the mirror. He sat there stiffly and began to mutter something once again under his breath. Elfred got closer so that he could hear, fearing that something was wrong with the man.

“Clean… cut… clean… cut…” the man repeated over and over again.

Worried, Elfred tried to put distance between himself and the man. He was hoping to get to the counter to phone the police. But before he could, the man jerked his hand from his jacket pocket and latched onto Elfred’s wrist. The stature of the man did not match his strength, as no matter how hard Elfred tried to jerk away from the man, he could not break away. Still holding tight to Elfred’s wrist, the man reached from the chair and grabbed the straight razor still wet from the shave.

It was enough of a distraction that Elfred needed to violently wrench his hand free of the man and begin to turn away. But the man quickly countered with a wide slash of the razor that swooped long and cut deep, slicing itself into Elfred’s thigh and calf. The sharp sting of the cut brought Elfred thundering to the ground. The force of the impact made him curl to his side as his hands wrapped around the wound hoping to slow the bleeding. He tried with all of his might to shuffle away from the man. All the while watching as the man rose to his feet and walked towards him.

“Clean… cut…”, the man continued to chant.

“Listen…hack…listen friend, if you want the money you can have it. Whatever you want you can have it.”

“Clean.. Cut… clean… cut…clean cut!”

Elfred gasped for air as the room began to spin. The blood, he was losing too much blood. For a moment it was completely silent as the man stood over him and began to speak more clearly.

“You… you… made a clean cut… didn’t you Elfred Canton? You thought you were in the clear. Didn’t you?!?” What started as a soft voice became a pounding tone of gravel hitting a brick wall.

Elfred was fighting back the tears, a mixture of fear and pain from the cut. He desperately wanted to get away from the man, but he was too dazed from the fall.

“You tell yourself the story of being married to this shop and it helps you forget? That you’re a hero in this bullshit town with your plaques and your stories and your lies. You can’t remember the last time you were five miles from this shop? REALLY! You can lie to everyone else and you can lie to yourself, but you will NOT lie to me! No…no… no… NO! You thought you made a clean cut? That you got away with it?  How can you live with yourself? HOW CAN YOU LIVE WITH YOURSELF?”

The man grabbed Elfred by the straps of his workers apron and hoisted him close. The razor was now inches from Elfred’s face. He could almost feel the sharp edge against his throat. The man had tears streaming down his red and irritated face. Elfred could barely hold his head up, his limp body dangling in the man’s arms.

“I… I… I don’t know what you’re say… saying…” Elfred gurgled out, his chin pressed against the center of his throat.

The man violently threw Elfred shoulder first back to the ground, his head thumping hard against the floor. There was a buzzing in his ears.

The man rose back to his feet. Pacing in circles around the barber chair, he continued shouting.

“She was beautiful and happy! She liked dinosaurs and wanted to be an astronaut. She loved her mommy and her daddy…She… she…”

The man kept pacing and howling but his words became more and more faded into the nothingness.

Elfred took shallow breaths… the room was becoming darker and colder. The pain.. it was disappearing. He laid there trying to catch his breath. He laid there and he knew. He knew that it was over and that he didn’t have to hide anymore. He knew that the past had caught up with him. He closed his eyes, and the last thing he saw was the man coming back towards him.

—-

Area Man Found Dead in Local Barbershop

The body of Elfred Eliezer Canton, a once beloved barber and community advocate, was found in his barbershop early Tuesday morning. The news of his death coming just hours before local news received an anonymous package and apparent evidence that Canton, 68, had been involved in a deadly hit-and-run car accident with at least one fatality in north Georgia in 2014. The information has been passed on to local and state police who have opened up an investigation to find out if the information about the hit-and-run is connected to Canton’s apparent murder. The body of Canton was found by Lawrence Coffee, 52, who told reporters that he frequents the barbershop often. When interviewed about the incident, Coffee claimed that when he opened the door to the barbershop this morning – that he found the body of Canton sitting in his barber chair. In more shocking news, according to Coffee and others at the scene of the crime who corroborated the story, whoever had been in the shop and killed Canon had also written “CLEAN CUT” in blood across the northern wall. The town is in a state of mourning and shock as more information unfolds.

On Grief and Empty Spaces

It is hard to explain the tangible feeling of grief. This morning at 4:00 am I was startled awake by a disturbing dream. Once the fog of sleep and the distress of my pounding heart subsided, all that was left was this “pit-of-the-stomach”, nauseating feeling of sadness that basically drove me to the fetal position.

I had a friend tell me a story once about a family member that was forced to live the rest of their days in a facility due to a very serious past drug addiction. Their knowledge and their memories became this loose concept that prevented them from functioning correctly. My friend would tell stories about how they would go and visit this family member and how sad it would be that the family member could not remember who they were, who the visitors were, and anything about the past. The saddest part though, as my friend told it, was that there were these brief times during some of the visits were the family member would have these moments of clarity and everything came back into perspective. The realization of it all would drive the individual into this catatonic, melancholy state. To remember what they had done and where they were would overwhelm them. Then they would slip into sleep and that feeling would slowly dissipate and the numbness of ignorance would take back control.

The hardest times for me concerning grief is when I fully remember something. How something tasted or felt. The emotion connected to an event or an idea or an object. The words that I said and did not say. The words that were said to me. These moments of full and complete clarity related to an actual event that took place in my life and all of the emotions related to that event. I think I am having trouble getting around the grief because it all feels so real. These moments (which unfortunately continue to play out in my dreams) have this powerful effect on me. They make me miss what was lost, regret what was done, yearn for missing intimacy, and hate what I did and did not do. To the point that I eventually feel overwhelmed before slipping back into a feeling of numbness.

It is hard to function in this state. It is hard to stay focused, when all I can do is play old memories of times of happiness and sadness in my head. It is hard to enjoy things like friendships and experiences, when eventually something will remind me of you and it all comes flooding back. And it is hard to sleep, when I can still remember the feeling of reaching out and finding you a foot away from me. But now when I reach out in the dark all that I find is empty space. I think I feel like empty space.

Groceries

What you can never be prepared to know about divorce is how it changes your view of parking lots. You pause and take a deep breath. Scanning the rows as you pass them by, your eyes intently watching for that familiar vehicle. It makes my mouth dry. What if they are in there? What if they are getting groceries too? What if they are with someone that is not you?

I walked the aisles like a zombie. The bags underneath my sockets were pulling my weary eyes down. My eyes were red and raw and tired. It was the first time I went grocery shopping on my own. I broke down in the frozen food section. Who knew bagged broccoli and shredded cheese could bring a man to tears?

If focusing on the big picture – the “this all adds up logically” part of what is going on – then it seems as though I am alright. On a massive scale, I am finding peace and forgiveness and hope and all the other things one needs to move on. It is the small things that still break me. Like for example, sometimes before I go to sleep, if I lay really still, it feels like I am still in our bed. Logically I know that cannot be true, we haven’t occupied our bed together for some time now. But underneath logic, in some small place, I think how I can shift my weight and roll over and reach for you. That I can feel the softness of your shirt or the warmth of your skin. I feel like I am collecting these small things the same way that we collect grocery bags shoved into the corner of a pantry.

Tree

“From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.” – Franz Kafka

The wooden box was made to look like an antique book. The dust jacket was designed like an ancient map. The lid was tied by cotton twine. Inside the cover there was a message left many years ago. Back when love seemed like forever. It’s false pages were misleading from the outside just as the message was misleading within. Inside the box were poetic words and ghost stories.

The tree was always special. He found it by accident. Its twisted roots were pulled half from the earth. It rested on its side like a sleeping giant taking shallow breaths as it buried its branches into the ground. He took you to the tree, his special place. His refuge. His calm. The tree was him and he was the tree. He showed you the tree. He watched you climb its branches and rest under its limbs.