The shop was located at a busy Asian strip mall, between an ethnic deli and a herbal medicine practice. A glass door opened into a cheap glittering interior created by the mirror-lined walls, glass counters, and neon tubes.
The barbers plying their trade inside were far from glittering, except the chubby lady who wore various twinkling jewelry all over her neck and other customary body parts. The rest were three men whose blooming youth had long departed into many sunsets, including a thin one whose rough skin looked like tanned hide and who always wore a black turtleneck with black pants to match; a short and bulky one whose eyes and complexion oddly reminded me of a fish; and a tall, slim, sallow-looking fellow whose top priority in life seemed to be his clothes. The sallow dandy was from Indonesia and did not understand Vietnamese, which was spoken by the other three.
The lady was the chatterbox of the lot. She had cut my hair the first time, but she had made me so uncomfortable with her incessant jabbering that I had switched to the short guy for my regular barber. She still talked, of course, but at least it was more bearable not having her right behind my ears.
Her match, if any, would be the man in black. He was not as talkative, but always ready with a rejoinder which could be quite biting sometimes. My barber was the quiet type, usually called on to take sides in an argument by the other two but always managed to emerge neutral. The dandy, due to the language barrier, did not participate in any conversation around him unless it was in English, but if he thought he was out of it then oh dear he was sadly mistaken.
I thought it was not bad a setup with two vivacious characters to keep the scene lively and one subdued personality as a shock absorber. However the scene must have become too lively at some point, because one day I noticed the absence of the man in black and was told he had quit after a big row. The chubby lady seemed still upset and her voice rang with indignation.
"He called me a busybody. He dared to tell me to mind my own business. I was just wondering why on earth that guy would want plastic surgery for his nose, he's not a woman for heaven's sake, and it's not like his nose was broken or anything."
It turned out the guy who had had a nose job done was the Indonesian dandy.
"He said I was so meddlesome I couldn't get a husband, and he called me fat, which I'm not! Is he any better? He's so rude, so wicked that his wife has left him, the old jerk!"
It seemed the word volleys had spinned so out of control that the shop owner had had to intervene, with the result of the man in black collecting his stuffs and storming out of the door.
The barbershop became much quieter. Business continued as usual, but a certain awkwardness appeared to hang over the atmosphere.
One day I came and saw the man in black again. The owner had cajoled him into coming back, and even the chubby lady seemed happy about it. The scene became lively again, but with less contention and more good nature.
Then another day I showed up for my usual biweekly haircut and did not see the man in black. Immediately I noticed that the lady was very, very upset. "Oh no, not again!" I thought. But it was not like I thought at all.
The lady had just come back from a hospital to visit the man in black, who was suffering from a kidney problem. Since he had no family, she had been taking care of him as much as her time allowed.
"He isn't getting any better," she said in distress. "He was never good-looking to start with, and now he looks terrible. But he's sweet, a lot sweeter than he was before."
But the man in black did get better and returned to work. A couple of months later I left the area. I came back on a business trip after about a year and stopped by the old barbershop. My guy and the dandy were still there, but the chubby lady and the man in black were not. They had got married, pooled their resources, and opened their own barbershop somewhere else.