In the dim light, black dust was drifting just above the floor of the shop. Specks of it crept from nowhere and vanished just as quickly—twirling and hovering about. They lingered by a red armchair that awaited the day’s clients. Clumps of it littered the floor around the chair. Clumpy knots fastened by thousands of curls. Their umbral shade was imposing. Olive fragrance emanated from them, mingling with the shop’s cologne and worn shoe smell. The curtains were closed, and the lime walls had three paintings fixed on their concrete surface: a dark-skinned DJ and a woman dancing; puzzle pieces approaching completion; an onyx continent unfurled across white-blue foam.
The owner swept silently. Paint chipped blades gyrated from above and that black dust evaded capture. Besides broom swipes and the fan’s thrum, it was dead quiet. A lamp beside the desk mirror lit the shop and accosted gray peering through the curtains. Facing the desk, atop the console table, a flat screen droned, mute, playing a court skit from The Richard Pryor Show.
He managed to get some large clumps off the floor. Other pieces were sparse, spread out, stuck on the tiles. It was tougher than usual, his shoulders stiff from a bad night’s rest. He hoped the day’s clients had stories to tell.
Bells chimed as the glass door swung open. “Hey, Mr. Tristen.”
Phillip turned and straightened his back, searching for the unscheduled entrant. It was a young man, his hair in a fade that’d been curled with a twist sponge. A thin jacket sagged on his shoulders. It was carbon around the abdomen, lead from the chest up, the inside collar vermillion. He knew that jacket.
“Heyo, Bobby!” He let his broom thwack against the wall and gave him a pound. “What’s good young brother? You’ve had a growth spurt.”
“I know, I know. I’m thirteen now.”
“Thirteen? Boy, you done grown so tall. You not done yet?”
Bobby laughed, his face folding into a crescent so familiar to Phillip. Phillip turned, eyeing his unkempt floor and his muted TV.
“You come for a cut Bobby? Your hair’s already fresh. Sit your jacket off, I can shape you up.”
“No Mr. T. Just wanted to catch up. Haven’t seen the place in a minute.”
He walked around Phillip to the TV, then scanned the milkcrate of books below and beside it.
“You always had good reads,” he said. “Remember that book of world records?”
“Yeah. They weren’t records. More like world’s weirdests. Ripley’s Believe it or Not.”
“Like that woman with the fingernails?”
“Pshh, don’t remind me. Every step she’d take would make the ground screech like a chalkboard.”
Bobby picked up one book at a time. He opened, flipped through, saw just about all the pictures, then set it back. He turned to Phillip.
“I could bring chalk if you want. Could scrape some on your window. It’ll be like she’s here to visit you.”
Phillip marched over and waggled a fist.
“Now I’ll beat your butt if you do that.”
“Are you sure? I know you love that noise.”
The two giggled, wrinkles tight on their mouths and foreheads. Laughter bounded from wall-to-wall, filling the soundless shop with life. When it quieted, Phillip decided the day was young and he ought to have some sound instead of his mental acrimony. He unmuted the TV.
“So Mr. Tristen, how the customers treatin’ ya?”
“Oh you know. Same stuff as always…” he said, walking towards the entrance. He adjusted the curtains to let in natural light. On the windowsill was a ceramic pot. It was coil shaped and painted blue, shiny in the light. Potted in it were bamboo stalks—for good luck.
“…every time I’m giving one guy a cut, another comes in fifteen ahead of schedule. Like they shouldn’t have to wait.” He shook his head. “But the funny ones. I forgive em.”
“At least no one’s causing any beef.”
“No, no fights break out here. The worst are the loiterers. I usually do appointments only, but that doesn’t stop some gutsy fool from tryin’ to squeeze in.” He hopped on the windowsill. “How about you Bobby? Breezing through your classes?”
Bobby waved a hand.
“I have to. Mom would have my head if I got anything below a B.” He paused. After clearing his throat, he stood and said plainly, “I’m moving. And not to a different neighborhood this time. We’re going to New York.”
“Dang, that’s a hike.” He put a hand to his chin. “You excited about it?”
Bobby shrugged. “Doesn’t make a difference, I guess. Either way I’m going to high school next year.” The two knew each other for some time, so it wasn’t hard for Phillip to see Bobby’s furtive urgency. For one, his insistence on nostalgia. Then there was his tapping foot. It tapped at this moment, to an incongruous rhythm parallel to his unspoken thoughts.
Phillip dropped his hands. “You’re nervous, aren’t you?”
His eyes shrank to marbles. He shrugged again.
Sitcom laughter rang from the TV. Richard Pryor, who was playing a Southern, racist lawyer, made a failed attempt to solicit evidence from a ditzy and duplicitous victim; instead of saying where she was when her supposed assault occurred, she described the beginning of Alice and Wonderland.
Bobby’s home the last three years was a cramped, rented space. It was a rectangle: two floors, vertical, and as narrow as a back alley. His parents’ plan was to save wherever possible so they could pay for his college. Phillip didn’t dare ask what the New York home was like.
Instead he made a hard blink and tried to focus. “It’s not easy. You’re not only gonna have more freedom than before, you’ll be in a totally unknown environment. My advice, start off slow.”
“It’d be easier to do that if my friends were there. I’ve never ridden a bus before, I don’t know any hangout spots in NY.”
“That’s what I’m saying. Your dad’ll show you the bus route to school. But when you have some free time, just walk around your block. Get familiar with the place and who knows. It might start to feel like home.” Bobby’s gaze began to soften. “As for friends, keep contact with the ones you got. You’re getting older. I’m sure you’ll be allowed to come back and visit.”
With a brusque exhale Bobby nodded, then eyed the room. He looked at the paintings—his favorite being the DJ, Phillip remembered—and the TV and for a few moments the red chair before he finally turned and asked, “Why didn’t you sweep up yesterday?”
“Hah, just tired is all.”
Phillip hopped off the windowsill and waltzed to his broom.
“Yup. Needed to catch up on some sleep. It’s good for your brain, you know. What’s it, around 75% of memories recorded during REM sleep?”
Bobby cocked his head. “Huh.”
“Don’t worry bout it. Stuff you think about when you’re older—my age older. Have you decided what you’re gonna do when you grow up?”
“I dunno. I could be one of those people that gets paid to play videogames. But I should just get money—for free, for being myself.”
“Seriously. What do you like to do that makes you happy?”
“Alright, alright. Well, I like to talk a lot. Kids in class like to listen to me, even the teacher sometimes. I guess I would be a lawyer.”
“That’s the ticket! You’ll be an excellent lawyer. Use that creativity of yours. Go and tell the jury a story.”
With a wide smile and between laughs, Bobby said, “Yeah. Yeah I will. Thanks Mr. T.”
Phillip dipped his head in approval. He was slightly startled when he noticed Bobby, laughing, was backing away towards the front door.
“Alright Mr. Tristen. Imma head out.”
“Okay Bobby, you take care now.”
Bobby waved and bells chimed at his opening the door.
Phillip threw a hand up and called out, “Hey Bobby. Come down to visit from New York sometime.”
The door shut.
The ceiling fan gyrated, incessantly, but it could hardly be heard. The TV eclipsed all sounds. Gusts swirled to each corner of the shop, and on the floor those black clumps bumbled liked tumbleweed. Phillip sighed and retrieved his broom. Lifting his shoulders made the joints crack but swaying them made them stiff. How would he get this hair off the floor?
Gritting his teeth, he swept.