by Jared Carter

“Oh no, the old hotel’s still up there,” he said. “They haven’t torn it down yet.” I was back in Somerset for the day, to consult the newspaper files in the library. I had decided to stop by the old barbershop for a quick trim. No one else was waiting.

I sat down in the padded chair. The ceramic arms, the metal pump handle that raised the chair an inch or two, the gulping sound of the oil cylinder – everything was the same. This was the barbershop I had known as a child, where my father had taken me for my first hair-cut.

It was a different barber who had greeted me a few moments ago, not one from my childhood, but he was an old friend, someone I had known for many years.

“You mean the place we explored in the Seventies?” I asked. He drew the red-checked sheet around my shoulders and pinned it to my shirt collar. “I thought it came down when they took out the Pennsylvania tracks,” I said. “I thought all the original hotels in town were gone now.”

“No, that one’s survived,” he said, attaching the band of white paper. “Still up over the Cum-Back. You get the key from the bartender, like we did before.” With scissors and comb he began to snip away. I closed my eyes, and thought about that earlier visit.

We had let ourselves in through the front door with the bartender’s key. The stairway was stacked with empty whiskey boxes and beer cartons, and the long wooden railing was coming loose from the wall. We went up carefully. During the Twenties and Thirties, this was where all the traveling salesmen spent the night.

Later, in the Forties, the pipeline crews stayed in places like this. When they came into town on Saturday afternoons, they would get rooms here, and then go out drinking and raising hell. The next morning they would wake up completely hung over, with the church bells ringing. They would look around and see the peeling wallpaper and the cracked mirror on the back of the dresser.

On the second floor the place looked as though a series of flash floods had swirled through. The hallway was knee-deep with wastebaskets and bent lampshades and telephone books and faded curtains wound around bent, rusted rods. The calendar over the main desk said 1972. There was dust everywhere.

People had gotten in, over the years, and tried to steal things – iron beds, wicker end-tables, chests of drawers. They had lugged these items into the hallways, but were unable to drag them through the clutter, and had simply abandoned them. We climbed over them and went on.

Some rooms still had a pair of rusty bed springs or a cigarette-scarred coffee-table with one leg missing. In others, even the windows were bare. They were narrow Victorian windows, counter-balanced with hidden cast-iron weights, but the ropes were gone, and the windows were painted shut now, and impossible to open. Patches of plaster had fallen from the ceilings. From one window we looked down on the brick alley and the grassy place where the Pennsy tracks used to be.

“I got laid in this room once,” he said, “right after the war. My discharge from the Merchant Marines had just come through. The town was jumping in those days. She was some gal I had gone to grade school with. This guy came home on leave and she married him right before he shipped out for Okinawa. He never made it back. She had pretty much gone to hell. Never saw her again after that night.”

We wandered on from room to room. A second flight of stairs took us up to a laundry room at the far end of the third floor. There were bulky, zinc-lined vats, their drains clogged with lint, and thin wooden racks suspended from the ceiling. A few old rags hanging from the dowel rods had bleached to the color of a wasp nest.

It was like a pilot’s house, jutting above the tarpaper roof. The windows gleamed with late-afternoon light. We could see out to the countryside beyond the town, where the fields began. There were stands of hardwood trees where the cows gathered to wait out the long summers. It all seemed so far away.

The clicking of the scissors stopped. He drew off the red-checked sheet and began whisking snippets of hair from my neck and shoulders. “They say John Dillinger stayed there once,” he said, as though understanding where my reverie had taken me. “If we knew which room it was, we could put a plaque on the wall.”

Slowly he spun the chair so that I could look at myself in the mirror. It was the same mirror, in a gilded ormolu frame, the mirror into which I had gazed when I had first come there. But I looked different now. I was no longer a small child. The room behind me was indistinct, and half in shadow, but it was still the same room, with its stark black-letter calendars and framed pictures of draft horses. The afternoon was coming to an end.

“How about the Knights of Pythias building?” I asked, getting to my feet and stretching my arms. He brought out a battered dustpan and began sweeping up the wisps of hair that had fallen around the base of the chair. “No, that’s gone now,” he said. He dumped the hair in the wastebasket.

I held out a ten-dollar bill. “They took it down about five years ago,” he said. He opened a little drawer in the glass-fronted case, put in the bill, and counted out the change. “You’ll just have to remember how it used to be.”

He clasped my hand for a moment, then turned to wink at a new customer who had just entered through the front door. “Next!” he called out.

© 2007 by Jared Carter



About the Author

Jared Carter is a Midwesterner from Indiana. His poems and stories appear online at Archipelago, Centrifugal Eye, The New Formalist, Poetry X, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. His fourth book of poems, Cross this Bridge at a Walk, was published in 2006 by Wind Publications in Kentucky.


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