According to my personal system, it was time to get another haircut. Army regulation states that one’s hair must be neat and orderly and conform to the outline of your head. My regulation says that one sergeant per day telling you to get a haircut is ok, but two per day is tiresome and leaves one vulnerable to an unauthorized instance of self-defense.
I walked up to the barber shop and saw a paper on the door.
“Closed until further notice by order of base commander.”
It was only a matter of time before Lai’s place got shut down. My only option now was to go to the other shop. I did so grudgingly. I’d never been, but I’m the kind of man that enjoys rituals and things familiar. I don’t like change, and especially don’t like new barbers.
“Assalamu alaykum” the young man greeted me. He wore a starched long white shirt, flawless. His face was round and his thick black hair was wavy and down to his shoulders. Afghans have probably the best hair I’ve ever seen. Thick and shaggy as lions’ manes, only a few bald scalps, and never any sickly thinning tops.
I mumble my response and lay my rifle on the ground and take my blouse off. We haggle over what I want done, and he asks me what number attachment for the clipper. I hate it when barbers ask me that. He picks up a snaggletoothed #2 and every mean swipe leaves a bunny trail for him to “eyeball” with his dull scissors. They squeak and grind and the hair is more ripped out than it is snipped off. I squint and flinch and he “tsk”s me. My mood worsens, and my eyes narrow into a half squint.
He has what looks like a straight razor, but it holds a tiny razor blade. He employs a used one and scrapes and drags it against my dry skin around my ears and nape. He chats and gossips with his mate, and they’re having a grand old time now they’ve lucked into a monopoly.
Finally, the mean charade is come to an end, and just as he motions to release the apron from my neck, he places his thick butcher’s hands on either side of my head and says “crack”. Not a question, not a warning, but a statement. I tense up just in time for his hands to wrench my neck to the left and right, loosening any vertebrae from their impertinent holding places.
I stood and reached into what moments before was my back pocket, and spitefully peeled off four limp dollar bills and stuffed them into his fist. He slapped me on my chest, which was now my back, and bade me well.
Of course Lai had to go. Of course we don’t have the South Korean goddesses they do in Bagram.
Later I saw a friend playing guitar at the Green Beans coffee shack. Black fella from Alabama, glorious bald shiny head. He had a few old wooden-combed harmonicas splayed out on the table, and was looking over some chord charts. He said he was just learning and loved the blues. He offered me the guitar, and I started picking around with some old Delta Blues chords. It was a Pakistani or Chinese guitar, muffled, cardboard sound, but I hadn’t played in months and it felt good.
At the beginning of a chord progression, he lets out in a clear, pure voice an old Muddy Waters lyric. It repeats and comes around for the payoff. We play and stomp our feet together, lost in the mystical purity of two brothers in music.
I used to have long jam sessions back in my brief stint at college. Folk songwriters, guys that made their own guitars, white guys with laser precision in their licks, and black guys that seemed to breathe an all-encompassing stream of music through their fingers. And me, a clunky hayseed kid doing his best.
My friend picks up an “A” harp and plays alongside me. He warbles and shakes the low register, reaches into the high and nearly breaks the notes from bending them so far. I lose myself in the intoxicating rhythm. We stamp our feet and I try not to sound so wound up alongside this vocal master. People start to look, girls start to look.
And then he sits down across from us.
He has veins coming from his forehead. His skin looks rough as leather, and his shirt is tight against his ridiculous muscles. He has tribal designs crawling up his neck, and a giant green spiderweb on each elbow. He looks like he just got back from the yard from his weekly Aryan board meeting.
He puts down a plastic GNC cup sweating with fresh protein shake. And he has a guitar. His ID card strapped to his half-cantaloupe bicep tells us he is a Staff Sergeant. “Hotel California” he says, not a question, not a warning.
The scent soon travels and there is another Sergeant with a guitar and another. And another. Soon there is a drowning wall of strumming in unison and hoarse throaty voices. Someone starts “Every Rose has a Thorn” next, and another guitar approaches. Someone pulls out a video camera and shoves it in the singer’s face, then sweeps to his guitar neck to document the 3 chord gymnastics. Then two Privates in the back strike up some Tenacious D and then venture into Dave Matthews for a bit of sincerity after the comedy didn’t work.
I handed my friend his guitar back while he was massaging his temples and told him we had to get together again and play some blues without any Sergeants around.
I snuck out, then went to a run after I heard the first bars of “Gimme Three Steps”.