He was a true member of the baby boom, one of those kids popped out directly after the war (the big one) to be followed by what could only be called a brood. He grew up with parents who were like so many then, people trying as hard as they could to forget the war, trying to get everything back to normal, trying to remember exactly what normal was; hell-bent on decent jobs and big families and owning their own homes, in this gleaming new world of victory, all the while fucking their brains out, as if Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, were their big chance to repopulate the world, one white Christian American baby at a time.
The Cooder family unit: Marek, a father of stoic eastern-European upbringing, a shell-shocked product of combat with the Germans, and his own even more distant and war-addled father, not to mention his spirit-tamping, lung-tainting job at Ford’s, at the chromium plating plant at the Rouge plant in Dearborn. Albina, a mother, sweet and good-natured, extraordinarily sensitive (“high-strung” was what her parents called it), with a delicately threaded composure, which with every child born grew more tenuous. There were eight children in all.
Barrett, the oldest, became responsible for taking care of his brothers and sisters when his mother would disappear into a fugue, leaving pans blackening on the range or loads of laundry chugging along in the new machine. (All purchased thanks to Henry Ford, who encouraged all his employees to be fruitful and multiply, thus making them even more beholden to him.) Barrett was the one who would reach up and turn off the stove, climb up onto a milk crate to run the wash through the mangle, then bring that same milk crate out to the backyard to stretch the clothes out on the line to dry. He would change the crying baby and corral the toddlers and cut up apple slices to keep them quiet, all the while ministering to his mother and her headaches. It only got worse when she started going away to her sister’s house (with the latest baby, thank god) “to get some rest,” only to return refreshed enough for Barrett’s father to knock her up again.
The pregnancies stopped after she disappeared for three months into a sanitarium. (Another sister, unmarried, came to take care of the children, but left after a month and a half when she realized Barrett’s father expected her to take over all her sister’s wifely duties. Barrett took over, having to take a month off of school. Luckily, he was bright enough to come back and resume his studies without much problem.) Barrett never got the full story about what happened in the sanitarium. He only knew it was a relief that mom didn’t seem to be as fertile as before.
During Albina’s many absences, Barrett was forced into responsibilities that he didn’t even recognize as responsibilities until later life. He simply took care of his brothers and sisters because someone had to and he was the only someone around. He wiped their tears and their asses, made sack lunches, helped with homework, and managed to even get food on the dinner table for when his father came home. While his father did notice his oldest son handling the housework that his wife couldn’t, it somehow lessened the boy in his eyes. Not enough though, that he wouldn’t eat Barrett’s hamburger stew or pepper steak casserole or even the simple franks and beans that he sometimes served up.
When his mother came back that time from the sanitarium, there was something emptier about her, not just the organs down below that they had apparently scooped out, but in other ways as well. The blue light in her pupils was dimmer, as if she were now viewing the world through a screened window. Her voice was softer, quieter, slower than it was before. The words coming from her mouth were efforted, as if they hurt to be said aloud. She moved differently too, lugging her body about like a too-heavy piece of baggage. It worried Barrett, yet he could only worry so much for there were all the other things to do.
The blue light in her pupils was dimmer, as if she were now viewing the world through a screened window. Her voice was softer, quieter, slower than it was before.
Luckily, most of his brothers and sisters were well behaved, but this was only due to the ferocity of his father’s temper. Barrett’s father was renowned in the neighborhood. If any of the Cooder children were out playing when their father drove down the street in his Ford Mainline Ranch Wagon, the other kids would yell to each other, a kind of child telegraph system, to warn the Cooder children: “Jeannie Cooder, your father is coming home!” Whereby Jeannie would run to the back door of her house, often just a moment or two before her father pulled into the driveway. The kids were expected to be home when he was home. If they weren’t, there were lashes.
There were always lashes. When kids were bad, there were lashes. When the kids were good, there were lashes: random whippings that occurred, be they deserved or not. Barrett’s father believed these additional lashings were important in that they helped prevent future bad behavior. For Barrett’s brother Terry, the sole hellion among the children, the preventative lashings had the opposite effect. Since he knew that he would get beaten whether he was good or bad, the only logical conclusion to him was to be bad. He would brave the razor strop dry-eyed, misting only when Barrett’s father went beyond his usual ten lashes, which, to be fair, he rarely did except for extremely bad behavior.
Barrett himself got his share of lashes along with everyone else, though it didn’t seem exactly fair that he would have to interrupt cooking dinner or ironing clothes in order to be beaten for no reason. He himself would even have to retrieve the razor strop for his own lashes, which irked him particularly: an additional chore as well as a beating. He tried to understand why his father might do such a thing, but could never come up with a reason, other than the fact that the beatings often occurred on the days after he would hear his father yelping in his sleep. It was more slurred noise than anything, but every once in a while, he could make out someone’s name. After one of these episodes, none of the kids spoke much. Everyone tried to pad quietly through the house, barely exchanging a word.
As for his mother, there were a lot of things she couldn’t quite do. The mangle still confused her, so laundry was difficult and dangerous; the blue flame of the range was always too high or too low, alternately burning or leaving food near raw; she was befuddled by the coffeepot so the bottom of his father’s cup would end up a silted topography of grounds and eggshells. These jobs continued to fall to Barrett. The smaller kids had always exhausted her, but back before she went away to the sanitarium, she could usually wrangle them enough to get them dressed and off to school. Whereas now she would lay down for “a quick nap” at 7:30 a.m. after seeing her husband off to work, leaving Barrett to get all the kids, including himself, ready for school.
Eventually, she was able to take over some of what Barrett’s father called her “maternal duties,” but she still needed Barrett around and working most all the time he wasn’t at school. He was glad to do so. Her constant need and his constant willingness to help created a bond between the two of them that seemed to rankle Barrett’s father, who was feeling superfluous now that he could no longer impregnate his wife. He would call Barrett “Little Mama” as if his readiness to clean the house and build meals for his brothers and sisters somehow made him more of a girl than a boy. Barrett didn’t say anything to his father, as was the rule for children at that time, but he took note. He had figured out long ago that he was the smartest one in the house, and most certainly smarter than his father. For all his work at home, he always maintained an “A” average throughout school. It was the one thing that Barrett allowed himself to quietly smile about, that his excellent grades seemed to annoy his father. The random beatings distributed amongst the kids were always worse for Barrett after report cards. And his mother’s pleas to leave the boy alone only seemed to make the lashings worse.
Things did get better though. As Barrett grew older, the other kids were able to help around the house more, taking over the chores that were once strictly his provenance. Over time, his mother regained more of her wits and stamina and even a bit more confidence. By the time Barrett entered high school a year early, she was able to take over the cooking. She had also learned to protect Barrett from her husband in subtle ways, basically keeping him out of the old man’s sight, sending him off to the store when she knew the razor strop was coming out, encouraging him to join clubs and stay late after school. As he grew into his teens, Barrett put on weight and muscle. He did not look like he was younger than everyone else in his class. He grew four inches one summer. His mother encouraged him to try out for football. He took to it well. As a lineman for the Clawson Trojans, it was all too easy to work up a smoldering rage against the Warren Fitzgerald Spartans or the Rochester Falcons, and it felt good to hit them as hard as he could and crush them into the ground. The coach recognized something in Barrett and though he called it hustle, it wasn’t long before Barrett recognized it as the fury it was. He had the body weight and the coordination to use it correctly. Though it looked as though he was fat, he was extremely strong.
All this of course, made his father all the more determined to keep him in line on those now rare occasions where they crossed paths. He did notice that his father would sometimes ask him how practice went and would even go to the occasional game. Somehow, seeing his father up in the stands made him a better player for he was even angrier then.
Barrett took beatings until he was sixteen. That was when something clicked in his head while his father was taking the strop to his back and behind. He realized that he could easily turn around, take the strop from his father and throttle him with it. At that moment, his back straightened and he no longer made any noise with each lash, which he knew tended to make the beatings end sooner. This at first enraged his father, made him lash harder until he drew blood. (Barrett could feel the blood burn down the curve of his spine then between his buttocks.) Finally the old man realized that Barrett was going to be silent no matter how hard he beat him, so he lost interest.
He realized that he could easily turn around, take the strop from his father and throttle him with it.
It was six months before the next attempt at a lashing came, and at that time, when his father told him to go get the strop, Barrett just stood there. He just stared at his father, towering over him, saying not a word. He was prepared to either stand there all day or beat his father to death with his fists. His mother must have noticed what was happening and screamed for her husband from the kitchen. She had burnt her hand badly on the stove. Barrett was sure that she had done it only to defuse the situation.
That was about the time that Barrett graduated from high school a year early. When he came home from the ceremony in his cap and gown, the only words his father uttered were, “Ain’t it time you registered for the draft?”
When Barrett got the full scholarship to the University of Michigan, no one was surprised. Leaving his mother was the hardest thing, second hardest was leaving the brothers and sisters whom he had raised and who loved him so much. Though they all knew he was barely an hour and a half from home, they also knew that things were going to change in ways that nobody could predict, even Barrett, as bright as he was. Right there in 1966, the yawning, sprinklered suburb of Clawson and the university in Ann Arbor couldn’t have really been further apart.
College for Barrett was a shock. It was strange to be able to concentrate mostly on one thing, more or less. (His mother had told him that he needed to get a job and not to worry about coming home, except on the occasional holiday.) Besides his studies, he had two jobs, one working in the university cafeteria, at which he excelled after all his years of preparing food for the family, even though he was usually doing clean-up. His other job was at Drake’s, a sandwich shop on campus. He liked to call himself a “soda jerk” though that expression was long out of use by that time.
To the other players on the football team, Barrett was known as “The Chaplain,” not because he was particularly religious (he had let Catholicism quietly fall away when he was twelve, having had his own aha-erlebnis of atheism), but because he didn’t seem to be interested in drinking or going out with girls. His father’s drinking had put him off the idea that it might be enjoyable, but now that he was away from his father and since everyone around him was drinking, he eventually tried a beer or two. He decided that drinking was all right, but it still worried him, for the last person he ever wanted to be was like his father.
As for girls, it wasn’t that he didn’t like them (although that was alluded to by the football team as well, but in coarser terms), it was that he was terrified of them. He was certainly not naïve about sex, having grown up in the house he did, but he was terrified of getting a girl pregnant, so it seemed better to stay away than to risk it. As much as he loved his mother, she was the second to last person he wanted to be, trapped by children, imprisoned by their constant needs; her sanity and energy whittled away one thin strip at a time, as all possibilities evaporated.
Everything he had done so far in his life, all his choices and decisions had been firmly founded in the desire, the hope, the absolute need to not become his parents. He had seen long ago, realized on his mother’s second trip away from her children, how profoundly unhappy she was. He knew it better than she did, or at least he knew it before she did. He knew that she loved him as she loved all her children, but she never should have had children. She was too delicate, a child herself in many ways, but that was never a choice for her. Yet it was for him.
But again, he was away from home, away from his parents and Barrett let down his guard. He met a girl at an anti-war rally. Cecilia, a sophomore with dark ringlets of hair, blousy, flowered dresses and who was a little overweight like himself, yet full of all the outward confidence that he lacked.
“There’s going to be a mass draft card burning on the Diag next week,” she said, when they got coffee after the rally. “You going?”
Barrett immediately saw this for the test it was, but he wasn’t going to lie to her. “I have nothing to burn. I’m not eighteen yet.”
She waggled a finger at him and smiled. “Look at you. How precocious. Aren’t you a little smarty-pants?”
Barrett didn’t get much of a chance to blush before she continued.
“Anyway, they don’t care. The government is already sending kids your age off to the slaughter. You can’t possibly register for the draft. This war is an abomination and Nixon is a fascist.”
“Anyway, they don’t care. The government is already sending kids your age off to the slaughter. You can’t possibly register for the draft. This war is an abomination and Nixon is a fascist.”
It was good to hear these ideas. With his birthday as well as his registration for the draft looming, he was considering his options. In theory, he had a college deferment, but could he trust that to save him from the meat grinder? He had already heard about gung-ho high school classmates from the R.O.T.C. being sent off to places like Hanoi and the Mekong Delta and coming home in pieces, or worse yet, in body bags. Barrett could hope for a high number in the lottery, but that wasn’t much of an option for him. There was also Canada, merely a half hour and a bridge away from Detroit, just across the River. Most of all, he worried that his father still had some control over him in his regard.
The next time he saw Cecilia, they went back to the apartment that she shared with some other girls. They started kissing on her bed. She told him that she was on the pill and it had always worked in the past, so he just shouldn’t worry. The whole thing was over in what felt like five minutes. It occurred to him that he had been perhaps too scared about an act that to Cecilia, was as simple as brushing her teeth. Like drinking, he realized that sex was all right too, but both things still concerned him because of his mother and father.
After the football season was over, Barrett quit the team just like his new hero Jack Kerouac did at Columbia. Yes, he knew that Kerouac had broken his leg, but that didn’t matter to Barrett. He knew that Kerouac had simply been done with football and ready to move on to the next phase of his life, as was Barrett. He was sure that his father would be furious about it, but Barrett no longer cared. In fact, that may have been one of his reasons for doing it. He had an academic scholarship anyway. He had only played out of habit, not because it meant anything to him. During that six months, he had also realized that he had only done it in high school for the physical relief it had brought him, a way to vent his anger, and because it was the only thing he’d ever done that even came close to making his father happy. Away from home, he wasn’t as angry as he used to be, so football seemed only a ridiculous colliding of bodies. Even sex, which was kind of the same thing, made more sense than football.
He had not seen his parents in six months, when he came home for three days for Christmas of 1966. Everyone was shocked by how he had changed. His sandy hair was longer now, down almost to his shoulders. He had lost weight too, enough so it worried his mother, though she didn’t say anything. He could just tell. But then, she always looked worried. His brothers and sisters were the only ones who seemed truly happy to see him. They were all so grown up now. His father grunted his greeting, gave a look at his hair. “You quit football so you could become a hippie?”
Barrett said nothing. He had learned a long time ago that arguing with his father accomplished nothing. It only got the old man worked up. He just went down into the basement and did his TM. It was only for three days.
In spring of 1967, after his freshman year, Barrett turned eighteen and received his notice to register for the draft. He decided to ignore it and then wrote his mother, telling her that he was not going to go back to Clawson to work at the Chatham supermarket as he had originally planned. He knew she would understand.
Three days later, Barrett hitchhiked to San Francisco with about sixty dollars in tip money in his pocket. He stayed at the YMCA for a week and by that time he had met some people at a bagel shop who lived in a large Victorian mansion near the Haight district, who invited him to stay with them. There were eleven other people living there, six men and three women, two dogs, a baby and a three-year-old, with other people floating in and out at all times of the day. Barrett stayed in a large closet with an itchy, stained mattress on the floor, which was fine for him and his bedroll. In a month’s time, he had smoked marijuana, hash and opium, took speed twice (which everyone agreed just seemed to make him act normal, instead of his usual quiet, observing self), took LSD five times at the Acid Tests (the third time he had a vision of Kurt Vonnegut telling him to stay away from the war by any means necessary), had sex with seven women, as well as an interlude with two young men and a girl. He got crabs, but wasn’t sure from whom. In July, Barrett happened to see a newspaper (no one at Fulton House seemed much concerned with the outside world) and found out that there had been a race riot in Detroit.
People had died. Entire neighborhoods had been burned to the ground. From what he read, the shootings and lootings and the presence of the National Guard was limited to within the city limits, so he assumed that his family was all right. They didn’t live very close to Detroit, about six miles from the closest border, but the whole thing worried him enough to make him think that it was time to head back home.
Barrett stuffed his hair up into his hat and started hitching. Despite what Kerouac had written in Big Sur, hitching was still pretty easy, especially if you were willing to get into a van with a bunch of freaks. He got back to the Detroit area in about a week, arriving at 4 a.m., hungry and tired. He slept on the front porch until daybreak. Then, realizing that the first person from his family that he would probably see would be his father, he walked into downtown Clawson and had a cup of coffee with his last quarter. In Clawson, everything looked exactly the same. There was still the Chatham and the shoe store and the library and Faym-Us Fried Chicken with the giant chicken on the roof that generations of Clawson High grads had stolen and would continue to steal.
Barrett stuffed his hair up into his hat and started hitching. Despite what Kerouac had written in Big Sur, hitching was still pretty easy, especially if you were willing to get into a van with a bunch of freaks.
When he showed up later at the house, his mother was thrilled to see him, but she also seemed on edge, as if she wasn’t sure what was going to happen when the old man got home. It was great seeing his brothers and sisters, who were all more grown now. As he suspected, everything was fine, but all anyone could talk about was the riot in Detroit. All the neighbors he talked to were scared and worried that the looting could have spread to the suburbs and that snipers could still appear anywhere. Nothing at all had changed where they were, except now everyone seemed scared. That and the fact that when Barrett came home from the summer of love, he discovered that his father had bought a gun.
At first, his father had actually seemed glad to see him, then Barrett quickly realized that he had mistakenly interpreted his enthusiasm. He was actually excited to show Barrett the gun. That was when Barrett was sorry that he had come home. Especially when he saw the gun, a cheap-looking service revolver that his father had bought off a retired cop friend. (Though he doubted that his father was capable of actually having a friend. It was most likely just someone he drank with at the bar.) His father was pleased about his purchase, more so than Barrett had ever seen him. The old man kept looking up at him, trying to read his face, as if knowing that his son would be disturbed by the whole thing and relishing the fact, as if sensing that Barrett had spent the past two months around people who weren’t the least bit interested in firearms and were, in fact, doing their absolute best to avoid having to carry them into war in Southeast Asia.
“A beauty, eh?” he said to Barrett, pulling it from the rumpled soft brown Chatham grocery bag that held it, as if that was the most normal place to keep a gun. Beautiful was not how Barrett would have described the thing. It was flinty blue and oily looking, with the imitation wooden grip ingrained with grime as if whoever had it last never bothered to wash their hands before or after using it. He had seen a gun like it in a pawnshop on the Haight, when a speed freak friend was trying to hock his graduation watch. He referred to it as a “Saturday Night Special.”
“Why do you need this, Pa? Nothing happened here in Clawson. There was no rioting here.”
He shook his head slowly. “Never know what’s going to happen next. They might get a mind to head out this way.”
They, Barrett knew, meant black people, who had had every right to start the riot, though it only seemed to serve to burn down the very areas where they lived. But then, the revolution had to start somewhere and no one said that it wasn’t going to be messy. Barrett had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X over the summer and had heard a lot about the Black Panthers while he was in the bay area, where they were renowned, revered and feared, even by the hippie community, with whom there was a shaky and unofficial alliance. Barrett had not met any Black Panthers in San Francisco, though he had met plenty of black folks.
“If those Zulus head up this way, I’ll be ready.” His father raised the gun and pointed it at a Pennzoil can as if it were Stokely Carmichael.
Barrett sighed. “I hope you’re keeping that out of reach of the little ones.”
His father’s leaden eyes settled on Barrett. “None of them are little anymore, case you haven’t noticed. They all have sense enough to leave a firearm alone. We’ve gotten along fine since you been away to college, getting your fancy education. Seems to me you’d be better off in the Army, serving your country.”
Barrett was going to ignore him, but finally he said, “It’s not that fancy, Pa.”
“You need a haircut,” his father said, as he walked away, which seemed to indicate that the conversation was over.
Barrett wasn’t so sure that his mother was getting along fine. For the most part, Mom seemed to have crawled back into the dark quiet place that he remembered from when he was thirteen. His little brother Terry was that age now, and he was obviously stoned, the one time that Barrett had spotted him around the house. Jenna, who was seventeen, had taken over for Barrett as the one caring for them all. She was a big girl, built like all the Cooders, stocky, with a low center of gravity and not easily moved out of place. She was smart and pretty too, having grown into the kind of girl who didn’t even realize that she was pretty and even if she had, would not have found it to be all that important. She had too much else to do. Most girls that age were thinking about boys and clothes and dances, but not Jenna. One conversation with her had convinced Barrett that boys were the last thing on her mind. Dad had soured them all of them on men. She was planning to go to secretarial school, and getting out of the house as soon as possible. He told her that he would do everything he could to help.
Barrett wasn’t so sure that his mother was getting along fine. For the most part, Mom seemed to have crawled back into the dark quiet place that he remembered from when he was thirteen.
“It’s going to be harder for you,” he told her.
She already knew. A girl don’t need to go to college, is what their father had said to her. She needs to be home with her family.
Despite his doubts, Barrett realized that the family no longer needed him. Maybe his father was right. They were getting along without him. The old man was still the old man, an asshole, only now he was an asshole with a gun. The kids were old enough to take care of themselves, which seemed to be what was happening. The youngest, Essie, was ten and she was usually off on her own. The rest of them sifted in and out of the house, all doing their best to stay away from Dad, especially if he had a snootful, but generally, they seemed to be surviving.
He decided to go back to Ann Arbor as soon as possible. He had a friend who had decided to live off campus over the summer and he knew he could stay with him.
When he mentioned it to his mother, she encouraged him to leave. “You’re too much a threat to your father. It’s not good that you’re here.”
It was a surprising thing for her to say. He loved his mother, but didn’t really think of her as the kind who could look at her husband and discern his particular brand of rage and pathology with such a remark.
That Friday night, Barrett packed his rucksack and told his mother that he would take the bus to Ann Arbor in the morning, but he planned to just hitch a ride. He was in the basement, which was where he had been staying since he got home. There was an old Army cot there, on which he had simply thrown his bedroll. It was fine, especially since after he had left, all the sleeping arrangements upstairs had now shifted among the kids according to need and age. He did not mind in the least, in fact he preferred the basement, other than the fact that his father’s workshop was down there. Occasionally the old man would tinker with something there, though most of his time was spent drinking in front of the television and bellowing at whoever dared pass through the room.
On his father’s workbench, crowded with jars of washers and wood screws and hinges, he spotted the rumpled Chatham bag, placed right near the ancient miter box. It couldn’t be, Barrett thought. He just left it sitting there on the bench? It didn’t make sense. If he was that afraid of another riot, why would he keep the gun down here?
Barrett walked over from his side of the basement and stared at the bag for a moment. Then he gingerly opened it from the top, trying not to touch the gun, not knowing how hair-triggered it might be, given the circumstances under which his father acquired it. He looked inside and recognized the bluish metal and the filthy handle. The bag gave off the smell of machine oil. Just then he heard the creaking of his father’s footfalls on the basement stairs. He closed the bag and quickly walked over to his cot, lay down and closed his eyes.
When he opened them, his father was standing over him, staring down on him. Barrett tried not to look surprised. “Hey, Pa.”
“I thought I told you to get your hair cut.”
Barrett wasn’t sure how to handle this. His father hadn’t brought it up again since and he had hoped that he’d forgotten about it. He should have known that he wouldn’t. “I’ll get it cut when I get back to school,” Barrett said. “There’s a barber there who does it cheap.”
His father looked at him, but not in his usual way. He smiled. “Nothing’s cheaper than free. I’ll just get my clippers.”
Barrett sat up in the cot, but his father didn’t move. Barrett was much closer than he ever cared to be to his father, he could smell tobacco and stale sweat and Canadian whiskey on his breath, but he didn’t care. His father was playing games with him. He tried to stand up, but his father pushed him down onto the cot in a sitting position. “Stay right there.”
The way he said certain things with ominous authority still managed to immobilize Barrett. He watched as his father walked over to the bench. He tipped open the tops on a few old cigar boxes. “I’ll give you a good Navy flattop. Fix you right up. You’ll be looking sharp and not like some queer hippie girl.”
Barrett sighed. “That doesn’t make any sense, Pa.”
“Never you mind.” A rusty wrench fell onto the floor where it collided with a metal dustpan. The noise jarred Barrett. “Where the hell are those clippers?”
“I don’t want a haircut, Pa.”
He kept looking through cigar boxes. Barrett saw him move the bag to the edge of the counter. “You need a haircut, boy.”
“I told you I’ll get one when I get back to school.”
“As long as you’re under my roof, you’ll abide by my rules.”
That was when Barrett was able to get up from the cot.
“Sit down, goddamn it.”
“I’m going upstairs.” Barrett didn’t know why he announced it instead of just doing it. His father was still at the bench and he managed to get to the foot of the steps before his father spoke again.
“I said, turn around.”
Barrett got up two steps before he heard the click. He stopped and didn’t believe that he heard what he was hearing. It’s not that he was so familiar with how guns sounded. He had shot .22-caliber rifles in Boy Scouts and skeet with a shotgun once, but he had never really heard what a handgun being cocked sounded like. Mostly, he just knew it from television. Marshall Dillon on Gunsmoke was always cocking his pistol, it seemed, the same with the villains on Peter Gunn (Though Peter had an automatic, he thought.) He didn’t know why he was thinking of any of this. None of it mattered anyway because he just instinctually knew what he was hearing was real. It was the click of a hammer being pulled back. Barrett turned around and saw that his father had the gun in one hand and a pair of rusty old Wahl clippers in the other. The gun was pointed right at him.
“Pa, what are you doing?”
“I’m going to give you the haircut you been needing.”
“I meant why are you pointing that gun at me?”
His father rubbed the side of his nose, a gesture that Barrett recognized from when he used to get a lashing. His father would always rub the side of his nose and curl up one side of his mouth just as you bent over. “I told you, this is my house and you’ll abide by my rules.”
His father rubbed the side of his nose, a gesture that Barrett recognized from when he used to get a lashing.
“I’m your son. You’re pointing a gun at me. What if it went off?”
“I don’t even know that you’re my son. You don’t act like my son, prancing around here with your hair flowing behind you like some faggot. College has done nothing for you but turn you into a goddamn pansy. I don’t know what I was thinking letting you go do that.”
“You’re going to shoot me over the length of my hair?”
“I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to do.” He was still holding the clippers in his other hand.
“Mom wouldn’t much like it if you shot her son.”
“Your mother doesn’t know her ass from her elbow, you know that.”
Barrett looked at the distance he was from his father and the distance from the upstairs door and wondered if he could make it up the stairs before his father could shoot him. He decided that he couldn’t make it. The strange thing was, he was relatively sure that his father would shoot him. It made him sad just then to be so certain that his own father would kill him in his tracks.
The old man would say that it was an accident, probably to the same cop friend who sold him the gun. He was just cleaning it. The old man would likely be believed. It would be a great tragedy that would befall the Cooder family. There would be a funeral and his mother would cry and the kids would cry and neighbors would bring over casseroles and Jell-O salads. And all for what? The length of his stupid hair?
To hell with it, Barrett decided. It will grow back. And it will grow back because I will never return to this house again, as long as my father is alive.
“I guess then I’m getting a haircut,” said Barrett.
“Now you’re talking sense,” said his father, smiling his half smile again.
“Where do you want me to sit?”
His father put the clippers down while still holding the gun, which was now only vaguely pointed in the direction of Barrett. He pulled out a metal stool that was tucked up against the workbench. He placed it in between he and Barrett and even pantomimed brushing off the seat as if they were at the barbershop. “I’ll fix you right up.”
“Will you stop pointing that thing at me?”
“I’m just going to put it right over here where I can reach it.” He uncocked the gun and set it down on the edge of the workbench, then picked up the clippers again, reached down to plug them in. The clippers emitted a snick and gave off a metallic clatter at first, as if it had been so long, the blades were reluctant to move.
Finally, the sound grew more high-pitched. He turned and saw that his father was holding a can of 3-In-One Oil and was carefully putting droplets of oil on the razor guard of clippers. “Pays to take care of your tools, son,” he said, then wiping the oil off the stainless steel guard with a filthy rag.
It was not lost on Barrett. Son. He realized how seldom he had heard that word from his father. Son. Now that he was submitting to his father, he was again his son.
Barrett felt his father gather his hair in one hand. There was something intimate in his touch, something that felt entirely unfamiliar to Barrett. But it wasn’t the way that his mother at one time might have touched his head, in a loving way or even just to smooth down a cowlick. This was simply so his father could run the clippers directly up the back of his head, to make a long bare patch, a racing stripe of scalp.
The hair was raised and Barrett felt the oily edge of the clippers at the nape of his neck, felt the dull pinch of the blades as they vaguely pulled at his hair, then felt the coldness of the metal against suddenly bare skin. He felt the blade move slowly up the back of his head.
“It’s all going to get cut off anyway, where you’re going,” he said. “Might as well let your old man do it for you.”
Hair dropped on the floor. He felt the kiss of hair on his lower neck and on his T-shirt, then the clippers jammed and wouldn’t go any farther. He felt another pinch, this one, halfway up the back of his head.
“Goddamn it,” his father said. Barrett could feel his warm breath on the bare spot and Barrett knew his father’s head was directly behind his. Without thinking, he nodded forward, then leaned back fast and slammed his head directly into his father’s face as hard as he could. He felt something snap, but while that was soft, he also could feel what might have been a tooth dig into his scalp.
Quickly, he turned to grab the gun off the corner of the workbench before his father could reach for it, but his father wasn’t reaching for the gun. He was holding both hands over his mouth and screaming. Blood was flowing from his nose and soon Barrett found the gun in his own hand. He thought about putting his father out of the misery of his life and his family’s lives, then decided that it wasn’t worth it to ruin his own. His father was screaming something, but Barrett couldn’t understand what he was saying and didn’t care.
Barrett walked up the stairs. At the top, his mother was standing there in the doorway with the same worried look she had always had, the look he had been seeing his entire life. He kissed her cheek and slipped the gun in the pocket of her housecoat.
For Mark V. Snyder