barbersop sign

Anthropologists like funerals and weddings as windows into folk culture. They ought to add barbershops. I had my hair cut at the local East End Barber Shop the other afternoon. When I got out of the chair, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay and just sit and watch and listen. Life, a community—workingmen, mothers with their boys in tow to get clipped, black people, white people, banter, stories, laughter, different accents, unsweptup hair like sheep shorn in dunes around the barbers’ chairs. The young lovely in tight jeans and tattoos and the long Kentucky vowels who cut mine had a scripted ink message on the inside of her perfect bicep that I could almost read without my glasses. Maybe I should get out more often.

I grew up above a barbershop on Main Street. Red and white striped pole on our front lawn. For a while when I was in grammar school, I would get a snip and comb every morning on my way to school. Mr. Crist, the barber, would splash some smelly stuff on there. There were mirrors on both walls, and, high in the chair, I could see myself repeated into the vanishing point.

Fifty years ago, I had an Italian grandmother-in-law who called me barba, beard, the same as in the original Latin and root of the word barber—but not of barbarian, which, I think, is how she meant it. I wasn’t patronizing barbershops at the time. And I was Irish.

Funny profession, being paid to groom strangers, but it goes back to the origins of luxury and specialization. Better than being a bricklayer. When you think of a groom, you think horses, someone who attends to the many needs of a beast, not just brushing its mane. And for ages that is what barbers did—not just cut hair and beards and give shaves, but also trim nails, lance boils and cysts, clean ears and scalp, pull teeth, set bones, and apply tourniquets. Your go-to man (always man) for your physical surface needs. In fact, that red-and-white striped poll in our Main Street front lawn originated as the symbol of a tourniquet applied to a wounded limb.

At some point, the barbers moved their trade in off the streets to shops, which evolved into neighborhood social points where men (always men) could enjoy the camaraderie of their peer beasts being groomed, and eventually, regrettably, into barbershop quartets.

The ladies have a separate history, culminating in their beauty salons, about which I am not authorized to comment. Suffice to say, the word beauty never appears in the history of masculine establishments.

I eventually married a hairdresser. Or was she a beautician? I’ll have to ask. This stroke of frugality freed me from barbershops for several decades. It was not so strange being groomed by someone I loved. The arthritis in her hands finally forced Connie to pack away her scissors and shears, and I have had to return to the world of barbershops. Or at least to the East End Barber Shop. Next visit I will bring my glasses and try to read the line of script on the papyrus-white skin of my groomer’s lovely underarm.



Library in Paradise

Atauloma, looking east from veranda

photo: J. Enright

Twice a year, around equinox, Stefan had the kids clean the books. They didn’t like it, but it wasn’t about them. He had them take down each book, clean it with a rag, check it for insects, and put it back where they got it. Ruth was better at it than Aaron and didn’t complain as much. He had to watch Aaron.  Stefan didn’t mind the spiders. It was termites mainly. These Polynesian termites liked books. If they got a colony started, they could quickly and secretly destroy a shelf of books, turning them into blocks of cement-like castings, leaving just the spines and bindings intact as if nothing had changed. He had learned the hard way.

Stefan took pride in his library. His wall of books was his favorite decoration—hard-cover history texts mostly, biographies, World War Two, complete sets of Dickens, Twain, and Will Durant, and his prize collection of classic sci-fi. He was sure no one else on the island could match it. Books weren’t a big thing here. There was not a single bookstore. There was a Christian shop where you could buy Bibles and such along with a good selection of the wide neckties ministers liked to wear and assorted Savior posters. There was a public library, but there was a good chance that the book you were looking for had been stolen or never returned.

The Peace Corps had brought Stefan to the islands several decades before, and he never left. He stayed on to work for the government. He guessed it agreed with him. He had not found a reason to leave. His salary, while humble by mainland standards, afforded him a first-class lifestyle here. His job was a mindless, undemanding sinecure. He was like a token white man, kept on by inertia. The years just slipped by in identical days.

There were the occasional cyclones, of course, when his library needed to be protected. He had perfected that emergency drill. He and the kids had it down. As long as the roof stayed on, they were fine. Stefan got all his books in the mail. Oftentimes that took a while, so that when a slip appeared in his P.O. box saying he had a package to pick up, he couldn’t be sure what book it was. They were like presents that way, a surprise he got to unwrap. The feel and smell of a fresh, unopened book, its dust jacket still pristine. Something he would have forever.

He never loaned out books. They were his alone. That would be like pimping for his daughter. But then no one ever asked. He knew no one who would, and visitors to the house were rare. Stefan had learned to keep his distance. Friendships with islanders always led to trouble of one sort or another, and most whites were just passing through, gone before you got to know them. It paid to be polite, but no reason to overdo it. The kids had native friends, high school classmates, but they knew enough not to come by.

There were days when Stefan did not go into work. No one seemed to miss him. He would stay home and read. He often did so on days when the cleaning woman came. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her—this one had not yet helped herself to any of his belongings—but he thought she did a better job if he was there. He could never remember their names—except for that one he had had to report to the police after her teenage helper daughter had stolen and amateurishly tried to forge and pass some of his checks.

But this day the house girl did not come. Stefan checked; it was Thursday, her usual day. He had no way to contact her. This irritated him. Nothing major, just that he liked scheduled events to occur as scheduled. The new book, on the African campaigns, could not hold his interest. He decided to go out, to the P.O. to check his mail. He left the house unlocked in case she did arrive.

He was rewarded. There was a package pick-up slip in his P.O. box. He wondered what it could be. It was too soon for the Jay Gould biography. You had to go to the P.O. back door to pick up packages, hand your slip to the man at the desk. This time the man asked to see Stefan’s driver’s license, as if he had changed from the person he had always been. The package was addressed just to his surname. It felt too light to be a book. A surprise paperback?  He thanked the man and left. Two other uniformed men were waiting by his pickup truck in the parking lot. They took the package from him and told him he was under arrest. One of them put handcuffs on him. They were too tight.


Stefan did not know if the lawyer he got was good or not. How would he know? He’d never needed a lawyer, not even for the divorce. The charge was serious: felony importation of prohibited substance—methamphetamine—with intent to sell. The judge was kind enough—first offense, long-time resident, family man–to keep him out of the vile local jail by setting bail at what Stefan’s pickup was appraised at and taking his passport. Stefan was supposed to be grateful. A hearing  date was set.

The return address on the package was bogus, of course, but it had been mailed from San Diego. Stefan didn’t know anyone in San Diego, but his islander ex-wife was somewhere in California. When the lawyer learned that Stefan had two teenage children, he posited that perhaps the shipment was meant for one of them. That didn’t make any sense, because Stefan always picked up the mail and would have opened it, thinking it a book. Besides, Aaron wouldn’t be involved with anything like that, would he? The lawyer also wondered if Stefan had any enemies—his ex-wife, say—who would like to frame him.

This made Stefan laugh. Where would she get that kind of money? What had the police said? Street value ten grand? And if she had that kind of money or the drugs, she sure wouldn’t have wasted it on him. The lawyer told him the drugs were not worth anything like that. There wasn’t that much and they always exploded the street value. In addition, the meth was of poor quality, stepped on too many times. It would be worth next to nothing back in the States. Garbage, he said, good for only third-world export or setting someone up.

If indigenous justice in the islands had always been swift (and often fatal), the imported variety was anything but. Preliminary hearings, injunctions, changed court dates, amended charges. Stefan got his first lawyer bill, with the warning that non-payment would mean end of services. Stefan had been terminated, or rather, his government position had been eliminated. His only possessions worth anything were his books. He got on-line to his usual sites, only this time he was selling not buying. His first-edition, signed sci-fi would bring the most. They went first. The P.O. was suspicious of all the books he was mailing out.

At one of his court appearances, the judge, a new one, concluded the proceedings with a speech blaming white outsiders—he used the local slang word for Caucasians—for the drug epidemic among the island youth. He noted that the post office had reported that Stefan had received many such packages before, by the grace of God, he was caught. How long had he been poisoning their community? They were a warrior people. They could resist any external enemy, but this was a different sort of enemy, the insidious outsiders among them, with their evil introductions, attacking them, eating away at them from within.

Stefan wondered about his chances for a fair trial. The minimum sentence was five years. He had no real defense beyond the fact he knew nothing about the package and that when the police had ransacked his house, including his library, they had found nothing collaborative—no other drugs or paraphernalia or stashes of cash. Then, three days before jury selection was scheduled to begin, his lawyer came to him with news.

“I got it,” he said. “I know what happened. I can’t tell you how I found out. I have my sources. You were never supposed to receive that package. It was addressed to you because you received many packages that size. Someone at the P.O. was supposed to intercept this one. If it happened to get sniffed out before that, you get busted, not them. Well, the system failed. Their interceptor took a sick day and missed it. Who knows how many times it had already worked?”

Exoneration. Only, he could not use the story in trial. “I know what happened, but I don’t know who. And even if I did have names, I couldn’t use them. Hearsay. Not to mention I have to live here and I’d be accusing unnamed persons—related to everyone—to a conspiracy to commit unreported crimes in a public office. That tool is not in my defense attorney’s tool bag. Plus, I have to live here and argue in that court again.”

Stefan forbade the kids from coming to the trial. They wanted to, to show their support. Seeing as he had no other supporters, they would have been on their own. The paper’s headline read, “Drug Kingpin Convicted.”


Red Sky in the Morning


Marina grew up with too many parents. She can’t be blamed for that, but how she learned to manipulate that situation was volitional. You could read it like a rap sheet. In the car on the way up, Marina got stoned and confessed her past and life MO to Jessie. Jessie disliked confessions because she could never forget them. Between them, Marina’s parents had racked up five semi-permanent mates after their divorce. So, Marina had had four fathers and three mothers, at one point and another. She had been bounced between households like a refugee.

The dictionary defines evil as “the condition of being immoral, cruel, or bad.” That’s pretty loose, isn’t it? All judgement calls. In Marina’s judgement, her actions had never—or at worst, rarely—been immoral or bad, only necessary; and as for cruel, well, that could only be determined by the targets of her actions, whether or not they accepted the fact that they deserved what they got. Pretty simple. Jessie knew simple was seldom a sufficient answer.

They were waiting in line for the ferry now, the windows rolled up. It was raining, of course—the default condition here on the sound. Marina’s cannabis cloud got so dense that Jessie had to open a window, one in the back seat so they wouldn’t get wet. Marina was explaining what happened to Frank, her mother’s last husband. Jessie was thinking, this could be a cable TV surreality show. Jessie had missed the exact nature of Frank’s digression, but Marina was clear about his retribution. Jessie wondered if Marina’s parents’ poor track records with mates didn’t have something to do with their daughter.

In Clinton, where the ferry dropped them, there were already Christmas lights up and lit, even though it was still three weeks away and it was the middle of the afternoon, a wet, dark-gray afternoon. They looked like lipstick on a corpse. There’s not much to Clinton. Jessie followed Marina’s directions from the ferry dock. They had to drive across the island. Jessie had tried pot three times. The first time she threw up. The other two times she fell asleep, once while having sex. It didn’t seem to slow Marina down.

Jessie envied that. And when Marina slipped in phrases like “I was in Morocco then” or “we had to get out of Oaxaca,” Jessie realized she had nothing to say, no reason to interrupt. Everyone wants to talk about themselves, but most don’t. Maybe because they’ve been raised that way, maybe because they’re too bored to say, maybe because they’re ashamed. Jessie would only talk about herself if someone asked; no one ever did. But Marina had a lot to tell, and she was not shy about it. Jessie never had to ask, just listen, or pretend to listen as she drove. There was no traffic to speak of.

The driveway was long. The house was big and on the water. Marina knew where the key was hidden and the code for turning off the burglar alarm. It was chilly, only slightly warmer, inside. It smelled abandoned. Marina found the thermostat and turned it up, but they stayed in their outdoor clothing. There was a fireplace in the parlor, but no firewood. Marina joked—?—about breaking up the furniture to burn. Among the framed photographs on the mantle was a black-and-white of a tall man in a suit and a frail-looking woman in a sun dress; between them a girl of ten or so in a dorky dress scowled at the camera. “That’s Dad,” Marina said.


Jessie had signed up because she needed every gig she could get and she liked to drive. It was a service offered by her local women’s co-op, a sort of feminist-protective Uber. Its logo was that silly symbol of a circle with a cross stuck in it like a vampire stake and the adjoined word trip. Let your sisters take you where you need to go. No more creepy male drivers looking at you in the rearview mirror. A righteous, empowering, solidarity service. Jessie had figured it would mainly entail taking old ladies to and from doctor and beauty-shop appointments. But this ride was different. Marina had hired her for several days at an hourly rate, a trip out of town. They would spend the night here. Jessie found a blanket and slept on a sofa.

She awoke to the sound of splintering wood. Her first thought was of the fireplace. But she was sleeping in the parlor with the fireplace, and Marina was not there making kindling. There was no fire in the fireplace. The half-hearted pink light from the windows said dawn. The house had warmed up in the night. The sound again—smashed and cracking wood. It came from above her. Jessie went to the foot of the stairs in the hallway and called out Marina’s name as a question. The only answer was the sound of more ripping wood.

Marina was seated on the floor in an alcove off what Jessie took to be the master bedroom. In front of her was a massive old rolltop desk. She was tearing at it with a screwdriver, hammer, and chisel.

“What in the world…?” Jessie said.

“None of your business. Get lost. You’re a driver. Go drive some place.”

Jessie did. They had passed through a small village a ways back. She went there and found a café serving breakfast. Coming back, she got slightly lost and drove up several wrong driveways before finding the right one. She had decided this gig was over. If Marina wasn’t ready to go back, she could just pay for her time up till then—Jessie figured twenty-one hours—and find her own way back or wherever. Jessie was just “a driver,” after all. She had no obligations. The car still smelled of pot. When she pulled up to the house, another car was parked there, a Mercedes. On instinct, Jessie turned around and parked headed out.

Well, good. Jessie wouldn’t have to feel like she was stranding Marina here. Sisterly solidarity and all. She would just check out, collect her pay, and wish Marina the best. There was someone sitting in the Mercedes, a woman in the driver’s seat. She was slumped over, motionless, her chin on her chest.

It wasn’t until Jessie approached the car that she saw the glow of the iPhone screen in the woman’s hands and realized the woman wasn’t dead but texting. She kept walking.

The driver side window buzzed down. “Hold on. Who are you? What are you doing here? Be warned, I am armed.”

Jessie turned but didn’t come closer. “I’m here with Marina. I gave her a ride.”

“Is she here?”

“I guess so. I left her here.”

“Let’s go in, shall we?” There was a silver gun in her hand.

“Sure. Why not? Is that necessary?”

The woman didn’t answer, just gestured with her gun hand for Jessie to precede her. Marina met them at the door. “Sarah?” she said.

“I figured it was you when I got the message that the alarm had been turned off,” the woman said. “You know you’re not supposed to be here.”

Marina was looking not at the woman but at her gun. “We were just leaving. I had to come back for a few of my things.” She had a cloth bag over her shoulder.

“There was nothing of yours here,” the woman said.

“Do you have a permit for that?” Jessie asked. The woman ignored her. She had one of those hundred-dollar haircuts, gold earrings.

“Your father’s court order barring you from being here is still in force, even if he’s no longer with us.”

“Fuck you, Sarah,” Marina said. “What are you going to do? Shoot me? In front of a witness? Like I said, we’re leaving. You’re lucky I didn’t burn the place down.” Marina walked around the woman and said “Let’s go” to Jessie.

Jessie wasn’t sure she wanted to give Marina a ride, but then she hadn’t been paid. Marina tossed her cloth bag into the car.

“I’ve already informed the troopers of a burglary in progress. Now I can give them a description of the getaway car—the silver Camry with a bullet hole in the rear window.” The woman turned and fired a round into Jessie’s rear window.

“What!” Jessie said. “Why, you bitch.” It took her only a few steps to reach the woman and knock her to the ground. The gun bounced away. Jessie picked it up. “You’re going to pay for that.” The woman rolled over to push herself up. “No, I think you better sit there until your troopers arrive.” Jessie pointed the gun at the woman, and she sat down.

“Let’s go,” Marina said. “She’s bluffing about the troopers. Even if she isn’t, I don’t want to meet them. We’ll take her car keys and her phone, get off the island.”

“Who’s going to pay for my window? You?”

“Fuck your window. Let’s go.”

“I know your license plate. I’ll find you,” the woman said.

“And what? Bring me the cash for my window? Or come to retrieve your gun, which you used when you tried to kill me?”

“I never …”

“I’d swear you took a shot at me and missed. My witness here will agree to that. That’s our story when the troopers get here.”

“And I will say I interrupted a burglary.”

“How can it be a burglary when it’s her home and she has a key? Maybe she did break a court order by coming here, but that’s a minor misdemeanor compared to attempted murder. You probably don’t even have a permit for this attempted-murder weapon. You could be the first member of your garden society with a felony arrest record. I’m sure you can afford some good lawyers. And who are you, anyway? We were never introduced.”

“Meet my evil stepmom Sarah,” Marina said.

“She’s right,” the woman said, “I hadn’t called the troopers yet.”

“Well, why don’t you do that, then?”

“Maybe there’s another way to resolve this.”

“Yeah, pay for my window and we can agree to forget about it.” Jesse sort of liked holding a gun. She had never held one before. She liked the weight, the grip. It was comfortable. She wondered what it felt like to fire it.

“I can give you a check for your window,” the woman said.

“I don’t take checks from criminals.” Holding the gun gave Jessie a sense of power she had never felt before. “Marina, is this the stepmom you mentioned who got you busted?”

“Yes, the same.”

The woman had a half dozen gold bracelets on one forearm. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll take those as payment,” Jessie said, pointing with the gun to the woman’s wrist. “You can keep the earrings.”

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“Marina, get her phone. I think she left it on the seat. We’ll call the troopers, then. Bring her car keys, too.”

The woman went to get up. Instead of using the gun, Jessie pushed her back onto the ground. Marina brought the cellphone and the keys. Jessie put the keys in her pocket, and took the phone. “Will you call the troopers, or should I?” she asked.

“No, don’t call them,” Marina said, sounding panicky. “Sarah, please!” Then, tugging on Jessie’s sleeve, “Come on, let’s just go.”

“I need to get paid, for the damage and the trip. I have nothing to hide from the cops. I’m just an innocent bystander to your craziness.”

“This is all your fault, Marina,” the woman said. “As always. Here, take the damned bracelets and leave. This is robbery.” Marina brought the bracelets to Jessie.

“No, it’s payment,” Jessie said. She put the cellphone into her back pocket and had Marina slip the bracelets one by one onto the wrist of her non-gun hand. She liked having a gun hand. “Let’s call us even.” She went to her car.

Jessie wasn’t sure how it started, but Marina and her stepmom were suddenly going at it, not throwing punches but locked in a hair-pulling wrestling match. They fell to the ground. Marina was screaming something. As Jessie started up and pulled away, Marina broke free long enough to yell at her to stop. By the time she got to the woods along the road at the end of the driveway, Marina was up and running after the car. “My bag!” she called. Jessie slowed down enough to toss the Mercedes’s keys as far as she could into the underbrush. On the road she threw the cellphone into a drainage ditch.

She kept the gun. She would have to stop for gas. She didn’t know what times the ferry ran. Her bracelets jingled.