Ken’s yard was just a lawn with a concrete path to the front door. No fence, no trees, no nothing. The letterbox didn’t even have a number – Henry had to walk back and forth to figure out he was at the right place. He knocked at the door. No one seemed to be home. He knocked again, louder this time, and heard chair legs groan against a wooden floor. A moment later, a shape hovered behind the frosted glass and fiddled with the lock.
‘Mister perfect,’ said Ken. ‘Only cops and Jehovah’s knock at the front door.’ He looked over Henry’s shoulder to survey the street, where absolutely nothing was going on. ‘Come on then.’
Henry walked in to the hallway. It looked a lot like his house: polished floorboards, white walls, low ceilings. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, but it had involved squalor. Ken turned to look at him.
‘Take your shoes off, dickhead.’
‘Oh,’ said Henry, and bent down to untie his laces. ‘Sorry.’
‘Don’t be. Coffee?’ Ken was in fluffy socks, tracksuit pants and a t-shirt.
‘Sure, that would be great.’
‘Strong flat white, was it?’ Ken turned from the sink and winked. He was rinsing out a stovetop espresso pot.
‘Ah, yes. One strong flat white, thanks.’ Henry sat down at the kitchen table. It was weird how nice this was.
‘So,’ said Ken, ‘what’s on the agenda today?’
‘Not much. A bit of shopping and clean the house, shit like that. Do you ever feel…’
‘I don’t know… guilty?’
‘Why would I feel guilty?’
‘You know, leaving your kid at kindy and then just going home again?’
Ken laughed as he poured hot water into cups. ‘Never, mate. Fuck that. Milk, sugar?’
‘Ah, yeah, thanks.’
It had been a terrible drop off. Ollie had clung to him as he attempted to leave, leaking snot and tears onto his leg. ‘Dad’s got to go and do his jobs, doesn’t he?’ His jeans were still wet and slimy around the thigh.
Ken opened the pantry cupboard. ‘Where the fuck is it?’
‘What are you looking for?’
‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yeah, I was just saying yes to be convenient.’
Ken shook his head. ‘Could you stop being so fucking nice all the time? It’s giving me the shits.’
‘That’s what I mean. Grow a fucking spine, mate. No wonder your missus is pissed off at you.’
‘Okay, I’ll just have it with milk, then.’
‘Are you sure?’
Ken laughed and handed him a cup. ‘Let’s go out the back.’
They sat down on the steps and looked out at washing flapping on the line. It was hung chaotically, towels next to t-shirts and kid-sized jeans and flesh-coloured little bras and single socks. Henry was relieved Ken didn’t have a deck. ‘This is a nice place, Ken.’
Ken squinted at him. ‘Surprised?’
‘A little bit.’
Ken dug around in his tracksuit pocket and pulled out a tin. ‘I’ve got a reward for your honesty.’
‘What do you have there?’ Henry knew exactly what it was.
Ken used the lid of the tin as a table of sorts; a technique Henry remembered using himself. The pale green weed, the torn cigarette, the paper packet with the edge used as a filter – his heart leapt out to it. It had been so long. Ken worked quickly, and held the finished joint up to examine before popping it into his mouth. A lighter flashed and they were off. Ken took a deep drag and passed it to him. The smell took Henry straight back: behind the shed, in the back of someone’s car, or sitting under a tree in the park when he should’ve been at uni. He nodded towards the washing line as he passed the joint back. ‘Washing hung out like that really annoys me.’
‘That’s fucking stupid,’ said Ken. He looked at the clothesline as if it had only just appeared.
‘I know,’ said Henry. ‘It doesn’t stop me thinking it, though.’
‘Who gives a shit about how you hang out the washing?’
‘It’s not about that, really,’ said Henry. ‘It’s about doing everything properly. It’s about being in the moment.’
Ken exhaled. ‘It’s about being in the moment, maaan.’
‘Yeah, it is.’
‘Well, that’s a pretty fucking boring moment to be in.’
Henry thought about that. He agreed that it was a boring moment to be in, but what made hanging out the washing such a shitty activity? It was the lack of care, of status. It was a job for a robot, or a slave. ‘Every moment is important, even the boring ones,’ he said.
‘More like every moment is torture.’
‘Being with a cunt like you.’
They sat in silence for a few moments. It felt so familiar, this feeling, like putting on an old jacket. His eyes were heavy-lidded; he could feel his mouth smiling without him telling it to. And his thoughts raced on, weighed down by an added layer of twisted worry. What if there was an emergency at kindy and they called him back? What if his mum died in a car accident? And why did he have to stand outside of each moment and assess it? Why couldn’t he be in the moment, man? This was why he had stopped smoking pot. He passed the joint back to Ken. ‘That’s enough for me, thanks.’
‘Been a while, has it?’
‘Yeah. How can you tell?’
Ken looked at him. ‘You’re as stoned as a monkey, mate.’
Henry smiled and felt shy. That was another thing: he often felt as if he was flirting with whomever he was smoking with. The intimacy of it was too much. He remembered his coffee; it was delicious, thick and milky.
Ken sucked at the last of the joint and threw it onto the lawn. ‘Right. Time for a haircut.’
‘You’re getting a haircut?’
‘Yeah. You’re giving me a haircut.’
‘I’m not a…’ But Ken had disappeared inside. Henry drank his coffee. Being stoned was like being wrapped in something, or having a bucket over your head. Yeah, a blue bucket like that one sitting on the lawn, with white marks on it where something had scraped around inside. It was echoey, it sounded different.
‘All right, let’s do it!’ Ken was back, brandishing clippers. He moved a fold out chair near to the steps and sat down in it. Henry squinted at him in the light. ‘Are you serious?’ Ken had already harvested his fringe. His face had transformed; it was a leaner, more contemporary Ken. Was he scary? Maybe a little bit. He was exciting. Commanding. His old haircut was already forgotten, embarrassing.
‘Wow, it happens so quickly.’
‘It’s the only way to go, mate. The reset button.’ Ken handed the clippers to Henry. They vibrated in his hand. ‘Finish it off for me, will ya?’
‘All right, I’ll give it a go.’ He put down his coffee and stood behind Ken’s bent head. From behind, he looked like a little boy.
Henry rested the clipper claw at the base of Ken’s neck and began shearing him. ‘Go against the grain,’ said Ken, speaking into his chest. The hair fell away in black spiky clumps. What remained was an incredible pattern of little dots. The clippers were heavy and buzzing in his hand. He worked his way around Ken’s ears, catching every stray hair, rubbing the stragglers so they stood up ready for harvesting. Every hair would be cut exactly the same length.
‘Enjoying yourself, are ya?’
Henry blinked and pulled back. He had been leaning in so his face was only centimetres away from the skin. He was cradling Ken’s head with his free hand.
‘Sorry, I got a bit carried away.’
‘Nah, that’s good. Finished?’
‘Nearly.’ He did one more lap of Ken’s head before standing back, satisfied. Ken stood up and brushed his head with his hands. Henry flicked the button on the clippers and blew on the end of them.
‘Right, your turn,’ Ken smiled. He looked good. Henry had done a great job.
‘Eh? No, I don’t think so.’
‘Come on, time for the reset button.’
‘No, I…’ He was tempted to ask for a buzz cut every time he went to the barbers, but always walked out with the exact same haircut as every other arsehole: the standard issue, the short sides with the dog turd on top. It was the only haircut available from those places. He felt dumb walking out of there; they rubbed oil into his beard.
‘Come on. Your woman will love it,’ said Ken.
‘Really? I’m not sure about that.’
‘Nah, nah. Feel this.’ Ken offered the top of his head and Henry stroked it.
‘It does feel amazing.’
‘She won’t be able to stop touching it, mate. She’ll get wet on the spot.’
Henry laughed. ‘You really think so?’
Ken gestured to the fold-out chair. ‘I guarantee it.’
He let the shaver pushed his head around, then Ken’s hand held it steady. The sun warmed his face, but he started feeling cold. ‘What number do you cut your lawn at, Ken?’ he asked.
‘I’m just wondering.’
‘I don’t fucking know.’
When Ken backed away and told him he was ‘good to go’, Henry ran his hands back and forth through where his hair used to be, and felt new and powerful. ‘You wait, mate,’ said Ken. ‘Soaking wet. On the spot.’
He brushed himself down and walked inside to examine himself in the bathroom mirror. The hairs on his eyebrows were longer than the hairs on his head. His eyebrows looked like thick slugs. His face was old and damaged, like exposed brickwork. He squeezed his nostril against the bridge of his nose and the tiny waxy pores wormed their way up, twisting away from him. He looked stupid. He looked like a normal person trying to look like Ken.
He splashed cold water on his face and ran his hands through his hair; it was spring-loaded, and water sprayed around him in a fine mist. It would grow back in a few weeks. It did feel good. At least he didn’t look like every other arsehole now. He missed looking like every other arsehole.
There was a movement through the open door opposite the bathroom. It was Ken’s wife. She was sitting on the bed looking at her phone. ‘Oh, hi,’ said Henry. She looked up at him for a moment and took him in. Had he been talking to himself? He had been squeezing the pores on his nose. ‘Hi,’ she said, and returned her gaze to her phone.
‘Your husband just gave me a haircut.’
She raised her eyebrows while scrolling through her feed. ‘Looks great.’
Ken was standing by the sink in the kitchen, examining the clippers.
‘Here comes trouble. What’s the verdict?’
‘Oh… it looks good, I guess.’
‘Yeah, you’re right. It does look fucking good.’
‘Giving out free haircuts now?’ Ken’s wife walked to the sink and filled a glass of water. Her curly hair hung around her bare shoulders. Her face seemed translucent, like the skin was pulled back too tight. Her shoulders looked strong. She was wearing a singlet and exactly the same tracksuit pants as Ken. She looked like she was ready to fight.
‘Yeah, babe. Want to touch it?’ Ken winked at Henry.
‘I’ll be right.’ She drank some of the water and stared at him blankly.
‘This is Henry, by the way. Henry, Louise.’
‘We’ve met,’ said Henry. ‘At the library, maybe?’
Louise looked at him again and exhaled through her nose.
‘At the library eh?’ Ken put his finger to his lips. ‘Shhhh!’
‘You’re an idiot,’ said Louise. She carried her glass of water out of the room. Ken looked at Henry. ‘At the library, eh?’
‘Yeah. With the kids.’
Ken shook his head and went back to examining the clippers. Why was he annoyed?
‘I better get going.’
Ken didn’t react.
‘Thanks for the coffee. And the haircut.’
Ken turned to him and bowed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Olijnyk is a writer, editor, photographer and ageing skateboarder. His work has appeared in Vice, The Age, Broadsheet, Smith Journal, and through his own imprint, Freddo Books. He lives with his family in Wellington. maxolijnyk.com