Walter Grace had every reason to brood. Having lived a life pinballing from town to town, from woman to woman, from life to life, he had, at the age of fifty-seven, stumbled onto a surprising truth: Life might be fair.
“Life begins at fifty, Walt,” his old friend Cal, was fond of saying. Cal had every reason to believe that, having lived the active and prosperous life of an insurance man in a nation burgeoning with insurance law and regulation. Cal had not only begun to live at fifty, he’d actually retired that year. Full pension from Amerigo Life & Casualty. Social Security bennys. A palatial waterfront estate on the Penobscot River in Maine and a coveted double-wide located near the Gulf of Mexico in Venice, Florida.
Big deal, thought Walter, allowing that some people walk a linear pathway while others meander. I’ve had a lot more fun. Which was true, but it was fun that came at a price. The three wives had found life with Walter to be an impossible emotional roller-coaster, each for her own reason. Each time, each new bubble of optimism buoyed Walter’s hope that this time would be different. And it was, in the beginning. The singular delicious act of falling in love consumed Walter, kept him on edge and brought out his very best. Which was quite good, actually. Soon, however, the narcotic newness wore off and Walter resumed his neurotic, unsatisfying and solo journey, on to the next.
The second marriage, however, delivered him the jewel of his existence: Stella. The strawberry-blonde diamond of his life arrived in this world exactly on the day she was predicted, and remained perfect in every facet of her life until it was sadistically exacted from her in her eleventh year by the most vile and inhuman predator. The newspapers called him “troubled,” but Walter knew that the fiend was nothing more than a cruel boy who allowed his own demons their head. The things he’d done to his blessed baby girl consumed Walter’s foremost mind for more than a decade.
That and the fact that Walter was too drunk to pick Stella up at school that afternoon, so she and her girlfriend decided to just hoof it home. The last time Walter saw her alive was the grainy footage from the car wash’s surveillance camera as the creep forcefully led the only good thing he’d ever created away; a blonde pony tail wrapped in a purple scrunchy bouncing out of the frame.
They sent the scumbag, Drew Brantley Holsopple, to an institution up in the Carolina mountains, because he was only seventeen. Walter was promised that the juvenile would spend nearly the remainder of his life locked up.
So Walter brooded. A lot.
Now 63 years old, Walter was lucky just twice in his life. The first time was when he’d had the presence of mind to take his third wife’s offer to pay for his tuition at barber school. He was 47 at the time, career-less, penny-less. He’d remembered his youthful days in his hometown barbershop and thought learning the trade might be helpful to one who avoided roots and enjoyed the sound of his own voice. That he was able to focus after the tragedy was nothing short of miraculous.
Barber school went smoothly, and within two years Walter was manning his own little storefront place near the water in Venice. Barbering provided Walter with something he’d never before possessed: Peace of mind. The work was most rewarding, and the clientele disseminated insights into life that further engaged his deeply analytical mind. Being his own boss, running his own shop, these are the things for which there is no significant additional compensation, really, but Walter nonetheless considered them to be valuable benefits. He was working away in the little three-chair shop when the second round of luck occurred.
Just after lunch on a Wednesday in October, when the autumn sunshine ricocheted off copper colored oak leaves taking their serendipitous routes to earth, a young man of less than thirty came into his shop. He was dressed like a college student in blue jeans and a striped button-down, the top button undone. Around his neck was a slender black necktie with its knot loosened. Walter was about to greet the man when his eyes befell the creature who followed him in. She was lovely, raven-haired, olive-skinned, and when she looked into Walter’s eyes, there was that moment of recognition, the one probably experienced by covert agents who brush past one another in a crowded foreign city. Her figure-poured into a not-too-snug pair of dark colored shorts with nearly imperceptible pin stripes and cuffs-was lovely and her nose was pronounced, a feature that actually added to her allure. Walter would learn later that the woman’s name was Jennifer, and she was 27 years old.
The young man had a name, of course, but it was never uttered. Walter took the man’s eyeglasses, placed them in a holder. The man sat, was draped and Walter went to work. As he cut the fellow’s thick, unkempt mess though, he watched her in the mirror. She spoke.
“His hair’s always messy, sorry.” Her tone of voice was lyrical and her timbre was still girlish.
Walter laughed, “It’s why I’m here; it’s what I do.”
“I practically had to drag him here; he hates to have his haircut. Last time, he did it himself!”
Keep talking, please, keep talking.
But she quieted, fiddled with her cell phone, texting.
Walter worked, reading glasses perched on his nose. “Yes, I can tell…” he muttered. The man’s hair was a mess but Walter worked through it mindlessly, one eye-and often two-on the dark haired beauty in the mirror behind him. A sensitive man by nature, Walter gleaned from the lack of electricity in the air that the couple was not exactly ecstatic about being a couple. Yes, the diamond engagement ring loomed large on her suntanned hand, but Walter knew all too well that such a public display of never-ending love was that alone; a display. When two people are actually together it shows. These two? Not a chance.
Why am I thinking this? Walter Grace often took stock of his random and often too deep thoughts. He told himself it was because he had a love of human nature, and his fellow man in general, and he hated to see a cosmic misalignment such as the two living organisms in his shop on this dazzling fall afternoon. It caused a juxtaposition in his mind, and, even though he himself had left a great deal of chaos and upheaval in his own wake, Walter still genuinely appreciated order.
“So, you two have a date set yet?” Walter’s intentions-though of them he himself was not yet cognizant-were to fertilize the seeds of doubt in one or both of them such that the wedding would be canceled, or at least postponed. His subconscious told him that he simply could not bear to see another train wreck of a marriage.
“March 13,” answered the woman, of course. The noise the man’s throat made indicated that the date had just been clarified for him; he was not entirely on board. She was, though.
“It’s going to be grand; we’ve got the nice ballroom out at the Hyatt. 300 guests already and the list continues to grow. Got it all right here on my Blackberry.” And here, she swiveled the electronic device in her hands so that Walter could see the illuminated screen in the mirror. Again, she looked into his eyes. To Walter they said Rescue me.
Softer, in his customer’s ear, Walter said, “You don’t seem that enthusiastic about all of this, sport. Cold feet?”
“Whaa? No, no I’m just letting her take care of all the details, is all. Um, you can take a little more off on the sides, please?”
“No problem,” and he looked again at the woman. Shears in one hand, a black taper comb in the other, Walter worked methodically, carefully, while his mind raced. What’s going on here?
It was then that an audible voice roared in Walter’s head, consuming the entirety of his mind with its authority.
Upon hearing these words, Walter raised his head again to see the woman’s dark eyes on him, firing the thought into his brain. His own senses driving him now, Walter searched his being as synapses fired and adrenaline raced throughout his middle-aged body. The dark lady’s thoughts continued their assault on his consciousness and Walter tried to sort them out, like trying to drink from a fire hose. The young man did not speak to her except once to say, “Babe, get my cell out of the car, will ya?”
Walter’s mind started to settle, and that is when he noticed the bruises on the woman’s arms. Grip marks. He startled himself when he also looked carefully enough at her to see the exaggerated makeup job on her eyes, obviously performed so as to conceal a purple bruise under the left one. Now, suddenly clenched by a strong sense of Stella’s presence, the barber’s eyes automatically dashed back and forth between the man’s slender throat and the pearl-handled straight razor in his top pocket.
DO IT, DADDY!
Overcome with a cacophony of thoughts-both his own and the other-in his mind, Walter began to sweat. He glanced at himself in the mirror, tried to sort it all out. Breathing deeply, Walter noticed he was shaking. Extra cup of java gets me every time. Then he remembered he’d had only his usual one cup that morning.
“You alright?” asked the young man.
Walter regained the present, smiled. “Yeah, I’m fine. Too much coffee today, I guess.”
“Who’s ‘him’??” Walter said aloud.
“Huh? What?” The man in the chair started to squirm, moving his head around making movements as though he was examining the progress of the haircut in the mirror. But the alertness in his body telegraphed something more to Walter. His thoughts clarified and his vision clearing, Walter looked again in the mirror, past the man’s facial hair and bushy hair. He paused to replace the eyeglasses on the man’s head.
“What’re you doing that for?” the man asked.
“I just want you to have a look at how it’s going,” replied Walter.
“Oh, I can see okay without them,” but it was too late. Walter got a good look at the man in his glasses. His breathing came rapidly, and he stood before the man firmly on two feet. In his peripheral, Walter noticed the woman, who was taking a peculiar note of the developments. She was smiling. Then she spoke.
“I thought you may want to see him,” said Jennifer, the friend Stella was walking home with that awful day.
“Whaaa??” again, the evil man stuttered. He continued to fidget as he swiveled his head back and forth between Jennifer and Walter, who was reaching for the razor in his pocket. Then, for the man, Drew Brantley Holsopple, immediate recognition.
“You took my baby girl. And now I’m gonna take you!” As he withdrew the razor and deftly snapped it open, however, the lad was quicker. Without hesitation, Holsopple flew from the barber chair and scurried for the door. Walter nearly caught him, but his hand came away with only cape as the frightened man yanked the glass door open and dashed outside. Fortunately, Holsopple was so distraught that he disregarded every parent’s mantra to look both ways prior to crossing the street, this time in front of the shop. The driver of the SCAT bus had not even time to transfer his foot from the accelerator to the brake as the fleeing man was splattered to its front, like a love bug.
“You know this guy, sir?” the policeman asked Walter. The two were outside the shop, where emergency vehicles of various types had congregated in the street. Holsopple’s body was covered in a white sheet, still in front of the bus. The driver was giving his statement to another cop.
“Never seen him before. I had just finished cutting his hair and I guess he saw someone he knew or whatever. Just ran out, Bam! Happened so fast.”
“Anybody else see it happen; that is, was anybody else in the shop at the time?”
Here Walter suddenly remembered the woman, Jennifer, Stella’s friend, and swiveled his own head around, searching for her. But, of course, she was gone. Walter smiled.
“Well, was there?” The cop just wanted to wrap it up.
“No, nobody else. We were alone in the shop.”
Later that day, in the midst of the quiet shop and its clean aroma, Walter thought about the words of his old friend, Cal; he smiled again.
“You were almost right, Cal, old buddy,” he said aloud.