By Christopher Overfelt
Hillrichs walked just a little behind Mertel, as the narrow sidewalk was not wide enough for them to stride shoulder to shoulder. Just to the left of where Hillrichs stepped, the concrete sidewalk crumbled away and lay in pieces in the gutter.
“Fuckin’ sidewalk is chewed to pieces,” said Mertel, watching his steps along the broken pavement. Hillrichs sped up to walk beside him, treading with one foot in the street.
“What’d you say?”
“I said this fuckin’ sidewalk is chewed to pieces.”
“I know it. I can hardly walk on it.”
A low gauntlet of gray concrete buildings lay before them, glass windows of shops lining the narrow street. Rust colored stains dripped down the bare concrete walls, giving the only sense of color to the drab buildings.
“This is a real shithole,” said Mertel, looking up from his feet. “What the fuck you wanna come out here for?”
“I wanna get a haircut,” said Hillrichs. “Anderson says these Turkish barbers light cotton balls on fire and swab your ears with em to singe all them little hairs off. Says it’s the damnedest thing he’s ever seen in his life.”
Mertel spit into the dip cup he carried in his hand.
“Anderson gets into all kinds of stupid shit.”
Mertel talked from the side of his mouth with his chin tucked like a turtle in his neck, making him hard to understand.
“What’d you say?” asked Hillrichs.
“I said Anderson gets into stupid shit.”
“I know it,” said Hillrichs excitedly. “He gets into all kinds of stupid shit. You remember that restaurant in Spain where they tricked him into chopping his own damn sock in half? How did they do that?”
“Cause he’s a fuckin idiot, that’s how,” said Mertel.
Despite the clear afternoon sun, they each wore a jacket against a chill wind. Hillrichs’ eyes darted above an absurd mustache on his lip. In the shop windows, Mertel’s reflection stood a head taller than his.
Suddenly a man in green trousers and a white tunic approached them.
“Inside! Inside!” he called out, appearing like a phantom from the shadows of a stone archway. In each hand, he held a cup of tea balanced on a saucer and he pushed them into the chests of Mertel and Hillrichs as they approached.
“Cheap as chapstick, habi!” he cried out to them.
Leaving the sidewalk and walking into the street, Mertel and Hillrichs tried to avoid the man but as they did a passing car blared its horn at them. They again pressed close to the buildings on the narrow sidewalk, walking away from the man as fast as they could.
“What the fuck did he say to us?” said Mertel, looking back at the shopkeeper who stood in the sidewalk watching after them.
“He said ‘cheap as chapstick, habi,’” laughed Hillrichs.
Mertel shook his head.
“If that ain’t about the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
At the corner of the block, they found a barbershop with the familiar red, white, and blue barber pole above its doorway. On the window, the white Turkish letters arched gracefully above the hard English letters below them.
“I reckon this is it,” said Hillrichs, looking into the window. “Anderson says these Turkish barbers are the best.”
“Anderson gets into all kinds of stupid shit.”
Walking inside, they found an open room with a white tiled floor and a wall of mirrors, before which sat a single, elegant barber’s chair. Its bronze frame and arm rails were mounted on a swivel and its seat and back were upholstered with plush red cushions. Throwing his jacket into a chair along the wall, Hillrichs mounted the barber’s chair and spun before the mirror, admiring his own skinny head as he turned.
“Ain’t nobody here,” said Mertel, heaving himself into a chair along the wall. He watched the back doorway, over which hung an ornate rug. It was long enough to cover the entire door frame top to bottom and the red patterns lining its outer edge converged to form the shape of a lion on the cream-colored background.
Suddenly, the snarling image of the lion’s head collapsed as the rug was swept aside. In the doorway stood a large, portly man with a well-trimmed beard and black, slicked back hair. He wore a clean white shirt with a stiff collar, over which his fat neck rolled.
Ignoring his customers, he walked heavily over to the counter before the mirror. From a drawer, he took a leather satchel, which, when unrolled, displayed a series of pockets, each filled with a pair of silver handled scissors. Choosing a slim, lengthy set, he held them up and watched them open and close, his fat thumb and finger just fitting through the holes.
Just after the barber, a small boy walked into the room. In his hand, he held a piece of watermelon that dripped onto the floor. His other arm had been shorn off at the elbow and the exposed stump wiggled like a worm on his torso. Mertel stared at him from his chair, startled.
“Ain’t you even gonna ask me what haircut I want?” said Hillrichs as the barber began to apply the scissors to his scalp. For a minute the barber didn’t answer as the blades opened and closed with a machine-like rapidity. In Hillrichs’ ear, the barber breathed heavily through his nostrils.
“Short on sides, comb on top,” said the barber finally. “No hair for Americans. It is always same haircut. Some brown, some blonde, combed forward. It is military regulation. No beards, only silly mustache. I am proud of my beard. You take off my beard, you take off my face. But I am fat. It is different when you are skinny. You are young with bare cheeks. I know how to cut your hair.”
As the boy made his way slowly into the room, he sucked the watermelon, juice dripping down his chin. Mertel could see a scar connecting the corner of the boy’s mouth with the corner of his left eye, the socket of which was filled with gray puss. He tried not to look at him.
“I want the sides buzzed short with a buzzer,” said Hillrichs. “You know one of them electric trimmers. You got electricity here?”
“It is cold outside,” said the barber, his hand floating like a butterfly, gracefully handling the scissors. “Hair too short will make you sick. Scissors are better. It is a healthy cut because it doesn’t tear the hair. It will grow better, have better color. The girls will notice you. Tell them Basim from Iraq cut your hair with his scissors.”
Looking down at the white tiled floor, Mertel suddenly saw red drops between his feet. Standing before him, the boy held out the watermelon just inches from Mertel’s face. He sat back in fright. The watermelon trembled slightly as if the boy’s arm wasn’t strong enough to hold the weight.
“Goddamn,” said Mertel. “You scared me.”
Looking into the boy’s face, Mertel saw the dead gray eye floating in his head like a cloud. It wept a translucent puss. Mertel spit into his dip cup.
“I don’t want any watermelon,” he said.
The boy licked his lips, around which a red ring stained his cheeks. A nest of black curls topped his head.
“I said I don’t want it,” said Mertel, raising his voice.
He watched in horror as the watermelon slowly lowered down onto his knee. Withdrawing his hand, the boy walked away, leaving the wet chunk soaking Mertel’s pant leg. Mertel looked down at the watermelon in shock. Lifting it up with two fingers, he set it down in the seat next to him and then wiped his fingers on his pant leg.
“You say you’re from Iraq?” said Hillrichs, looking disappointed. “I wanted a Turkish haircut. I got a buddy says the Turkish barbers swab your ears with fire. Says it’s the damnedest thing he’s ever seen.”
“You know watermelons are native to Iraq?” replied Basim. “In my garden, I grow watermelon. But flesh of Iraqi watermelon is yellow. Sweet and much juice. In Iraq, I have a house. In back, it has a garden with many trees. Americans always want fire. It destroys my garden. No more watermelon. No more yellow, succulent flesh. Only red watermelons. Watery and no taste. But Ibrahim likes them. When he first saw red watermelon, he tells me he doesn’t want to eat it. He says the flesh is bleeding. Now he forgets about Iraqi watermelon. My razor cleans hair from ears better than fire. You will see.”
When the boy returned for his watermelon, Mertel tried to scoot his chair away. The wood legs scraped over the tile, shrieking loudly. Ibrahim shrieked back, startling Mertel again. Standing with his watermelon before Mertel, Ibrahim shrieked over and over, imitating the chair and laughing wildly. Mertel cursed.
“I cut hair for a long time,” said Basim, continuing. “I can see many things about my customers, not just hair. Your fingernails are showing, I can see them. It is oil from your airplane that discolors them. You turn wrenches like I clip scissors. Your hands are skilled, touching the airplane to make it fly. You are a good mechanic like I am a good barber. We take pride in our work, my haircuts and your airplanes. I have seen them, flying to bomb Iraq. The bombs are quiet. They come down unseen and strike like lightning.”
Squawking like a bird, Ibrahim jumped in circles before Mertel until his watermelon fell suddenly to the ground. The red flesh splattered and bled across the tile. As Ibrahim paused, Mertel again met the dead gray eye for a moment. Bending down, the boy scooped up the watermelon from the floor. Bits of short, dark hair clung to it. As Mertel watched the boy lick the hair from the sticky fruit, he felt his stomach turn inside him.
“You got a pisser?” he asked, suddenly jumping to his feet.
“He was screaming,” said Basim, focusing on Hillrichs’ head, not seeming to have heard Mertel. “His arm, it was pinned beneath concrete. We had to cut it to save him. Skin hanging off his face. In the rubble of my house, I see the shrapnel covered in American writing.”
Lunging for the rug over the back doorway, Mertel expelled a stream of vomit from his mouth, covering the lion’s head like a target. Basim’s scissors suddenly paused atop Hillrichs’ head. The stream of hair falling like rain to the floor ceased. Mertel stood frozen before the rug, watching the rust-colored puddle drip from the lion’s head.
“A loom is a beautiful thing,” said Basim, resuming his scissor work. “I watch my mother weave. Her hands move the shuttle side to side, spinning threads together. You must see where threads intersect to make picture. My mother makes beautiful pictures. The lion is in our family a long time. She tells me when I am little I will be strong like a lion. I am not strong. The things I do to get here I cannot speak.”
Ibrahim began to squawk and jump in circles again. Carrying the long scissors with him, Basim left the barber’s chair and walked over beside Mertel. Even next to Mertel’s stocky figure, Basim was an imposing presence.
“It is all I have from Iraq,” said Basim, lifting the scissors high above his head. Suddenly he brought them down violently into the maw of the lion.
“All I have!” he screamed, stabbing the lion again.
Mertel started back. Ibrahim squawked louder as Mertel slowly backed away from Basim and then, turning, ran out the front door. From the barber’s chair, Hillrichs looked on in amazement.
“Ain’t you even gonna finish my haircut?” he asked, running his palm across his clean scalp. When Basim turned the scissors on him, he, too, slid from the chair and ran out the door.
“I never seen somebody so ate up over a damn rug,” said Hillrichs, tearing the apron from his neck and throwing it in the street. “Did you throw up cause that boy was in your face? I seen him come outta that back room and I thought he was some kinda creature hid in a closet somewheres. God, he was ugly. What do you think they got behind that rug? I’d bet my bottom dollar it’s some crazy shit.”
The wind chilled Mertel’s clammy skin. On his teeth and lips a sour coating of vomit had formed. He spit his chew onto the sidewalk. At the stone archway, the shopkeeper with the tea again accosted them. Mertel shoved him back out of the way.
“He just threw up,” said Hillrichs, calling back to the shopkeeper. “Some ugly boy was breathin’ in his face.”
The concrete buildings came to an end at a wall topped with barbed wire. Hillrichs and Mertel followed the wall until they came to a wide gate flanked by two guard booths. Overhead, a sign scrawled with English and Turkish letters read ‘Incirlik Air Base.’
Inside the guard booth, a Turkish soldier stood with a rifle slung on his shoulder. He wore a beret slanted across his brow, beneath which showed bright blue eyes. Mertel and Hillrichs handed him their I.D.’s through the window.
“Your middle name is Aslan,” said the guard, looking over Mertel’s I.D. “Aslan is Turkish for lion.”
From his pocket, Mertel took a can of dip and scooped a wad into his lip.
“Ain’t that some shit,” he said.
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