Mohammed, my barber

by Frank Carellini

Mohammed was my barber and was also my master. He was a master of all things Wabi and all things Sabi. The gilded shine of lacquer cracks on broken pottery was in his eyes. Together, we practiced the art of highlighting my imperfections: uneven ears, mottled stains of age on my cranium, an occasional scar. Around the odd shape of my head, his hands generated resonant sounds, finding song in the symphony of asymmetry. On sunlit Saturday mornings, it was we: me in the chair, his grip on my temples, the buzz, the Barbicide. On the floor, a reminder of the temporary and of time—he would have me sweep my own hair afterward, with his feet up on an old church pew cracking open an ice-cold Modelo; the same hands that sharpened my mind like a water stone, dripping with condensation and lime juice.

 

In my hair, I would occasionally find grays and pick them up to catch blaring sunlight and watch the splay of silver: the ticking hands of my clock, not moving forward in a line, but around in a circle. Sometimes, there would be an odd auburn hair and Mohammed would assign an omen to it, after which, we’d sit together on the pavement and burn it in a ceremonial dish. One day, on my walk to Mohammed’s, I found a dead woodpecker in the bicycle lane, perfectly preserved as if sleeping. Its feathers were beautifully variegated, like a jungle cat’s, and I pondered what would bring such a beautiful thing into the post-apocalyptic brutalist domain of pro-apocalyptic investment banks and crypto funds. The poor thing must have seen a mate in the blaring neon LED screens with pigments that mimicked the magic of poppies to advertise gardens of liquor in clinking drinks. I brought it to Mohammed because I knew he would remind me of time’s circle; he plucked a long plume of amber and weaved it into my hair. It was on my head, I now wore rebirth, he said. And now, when I come across a dead ginkgo leaf or other misfortune, I bring it on Saturday mornings to be woven into my host of reincarnations. So many dead things began showing up that Mohammed wove a crown and on Sundays, we lit candles in its center in honor of the passersby between worlds. Mohammed had said the woodpecker was simply flying between lives and hit a wall that only the soul passes through; it was simply a vessel to carry it from one immaterial life to the next.

 

It was stillness that Mohammed was a master of and that, which he taught to me. When I would crane my neck to see how I looked, he would urge my head away so that I remained still, remained unconcerned with vanity. When I became restless in the chair, he would hold the buzzer to my forehead. My vision would blur and centrifuge into clarity, but the clarity came only once my eyes were closed. If I was insufferably preoccupied, Mohammed would know and lightly punish, remarking small lacerations that stung with blue when he wiped my forehead. My natural instinct was always to resist, to fight upstream with my neck muscles and Mohammed would grip the back of my head at the point which induced catharsis; he taught me to surrender, to be clay in his hands. It was also vision that he taught me: the several times I glanced upwards with only my eyes, Mohammed was buzzing my head with one hand in his pocket, watching the Lakers game; not an eye on my head. It was by complete memory that he shaped my tight fade, shaping characters of zen into my sideburns. The tight fade was a signal of stature from where I came (and Mohammed and I came from the same place) and the tighter the fade, the closer to god. My childhood consisted mostly of sitting on the concrete steps of hot Friday nights: our priest was an elder with a razor and cream, who learned the way of the fade in the army. In Mohammed’s chair, I remembered the day I got my first fade and loved the feeling of bare hands so close to skull. After school that day, I fought Samir in the parking lot and he pushed my back against the pavement, where I cracked my head and bled through the tight bristled haircut. I then knew the path to enlightenment: to reduce all noise and make suffering clear. Cut away the hair to see more clearly, the wound. With my vision blurred, I closed my eyes to the clarity that was cool salty blood running into my lips.

 

There were months when I indulged in ignorance, letting my hair grow over my face—Mohammed knew these periods were necessary and did not resist. Instead of haircuts, during these times we practiced bonsai: I watched Mohammed’s fingers wrap stubborn juniper branches with shining copper wire, similar to the ways in which he bent my neck from side to side. I never reached maturity as his apprentice in bonsai, I was only allowed to pick the stones he would place at the feet of the tree draped in mottled moss, speckled with age. I always tended towards the lapis lazuli—Mohammed wouldn’t use these stones, but grind them between his hands into ultramarine powder and remark a stripe under my eyes of nearly-iridescent royal pigment. Slowly I learned the way; I learned to be the juniper tree.

 

One day I came in with a smile on my face. Mohammed knew. It would be my last haircut. It was my time. I had mastered the practice. This was the shortest my hair would ever be, where only the straight razor could go. Mohammed, one hand in his pocket, buzzed my head to the bare trunk and then took the razor from a suede sheath, glimmering in the raw morning light. At the end of the haircut, Mohammed slid the razor right into my temple and I lost all motor function on my right side. Laying limp in the stiff leather chair, I saw the ultimate light in shades of ultramarine blaring through tunnels of neurons. He sprayed Barbicide into my wound, foaming with ocean green. For months, I lay immobile on his couch; for years after, in moments of stress, cool blood would drip from my nose and into my lips: the iron and salt filling between my teeth. Eventually, I healed; the scar: fat and pink, was a mark where hair would never grow back.