Jason tucked his phone into his pocket underneath the nylon apron, and fumbled thorugh the rest because he’d lost his keys.
Maureen pulled the hair over his left ear between her pointer and middle fingers, and snicked.
“Where was the last place you had them?” she asked. The scissors snicked again and a hank of brown hair fell to the floor on a little plastic tarp wrapped around the barber chair like a tree skirt. It looked crimson on the white where it pooled.
Jason sucked and then chewed on the inside of his cheeks.
“I don’t remember that either.”
“At least you know you drove here,” she said.
“If you say so,” Jason said. Then he laughed at his own joke.
Maureen answered with the noncommital sound useful to women who work in intimate industries.
“Hmm. Ready for the shampoo?”
Jason jumped out of the chair, and his height forced Maureen to stretch to reach the apron snap around his neck. He fiddled with his pockets again, and she rolled the tarp on the floor with the hair caught inside. The static curled it into one mass, and she brushed it into a waiting bin with her fingers.
“Ever been here before?” Maureen said.
“Never,” said Jason. “I won a certificate.”
“Hmm,” said Maureen again. “Well, we’re full service. Follow me.”
She led him to the back of the salon where the sinks lay in headstone rows without checking to see if he followed.
“At a school bake sale,” Jason said when he nestled into the memory foam recliner. “No wait. A cake walk? I can’t remember the difference.”
“A cake walk is the one like a bingo game,” Maureen said. She turned on the water, and held her hand loosely cupped under the faucet to test the temperature.
“It’s funny how we can’t rememember things sometimes,” Jason said. “It was only a couple of weeks ago, but it’s-” and he snapped his fingers. Then the hot water ran over his temples, and the surprise froze with his mouth open. It hung while she scrubbed his scalp and moisturized his hair.
“Shave?” she said, and he swallowed without closing it.
“Please,” he said, and even through his shirt Maureen could tell his muscles were tense in anticipation of the straight razor.
She stropped it, then asked.
“I do this without using cream. Alright?”
He nodded, and she fetched a hot damp towel from the steam cabinet to open his pores. When his skin was ready, Maureen tickled his face with a wet-bristled badger hair brush, and started trimming his sideburns. The blade made a shirring sound where it touched his cheekbone.
“I don’t even have a kid. My nephew had a…something.”
“Bake sale,” said Maureen, “or cake walk.”
“No,” Jason said, and then pressed his lips tight while she cut his mustache and the soft spot under his full lower lip. “It was his birthday. And he wanted to go to the bake sale because he made cookies.”
The salon was empty, other than them. The only noise was his occasional remark and the clang the razor made she tapped it on the side of the sink to clear the blade.
“No,” he said. “Cupcakes. No, cookies. Why can’t I remember anything today?”
“You’re distracted,” she said, and stropped the razor again. “Feels good?”
“Like magic,” he said. “You’re a witch.”
She shaved the other side of his face, then handed him another hot towel.
“Anything else?” she asked, and he wiped his face and puffed his cheeks.
“There’s more?” he said.
“We’re full service. You’re paid up.” She rinsed the sides of the shampoo sink, but didn’t open the plug. The remnants of Jason’s beard floated inside.
“Well, alright. What should I do?”
“When was the last time you had a manicure? I don’t remember,” she said, and pitied him with half a smile when their words overlaped. “Come over here.”
Maureen settled him into an office chair near the window, with wheels covered in duct tape to keep it from rolling. She took her seat opposite in a metal folding chair, and held his hands over a shiny metal tray that looked like a misplaced baking sheet.
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I’m a virologist, actually.”
“Where?” she asked, and began to work in earnest on his thick and embedded nails.
“Here – oh you mean, what company. It’s – yikes. I work somewhere, right?” He laughed, but with nervous twinge at the back of it..
“Hmm,” Maureen said.
“What’s funny,” Jason went on, “is that I actually study memory for a living. I’m a virologist. Did I tell you that?”
Maureen picked up an emory board, considered it a moment, and continued working. Powdered bits of Jason’s skin floated into the tray as if he’d been ground between a mortal and pestle. He watched the pile of himself grow with an increasingly green complexion.
“Pedicure, too?” she finally asked, and he nodded.
She gave him Korean spa gloves to wear, partly to let the lotion set and partly so he wouldn’t have to look at how much dead and dying skin she’d taken from his hands.
“You’ll like the pedi better,” she said. “It’s farther away from your face.”
“Farther away than what?” he asked. He nodded, but didn’t stand. She lifted him by the elbow, and walked him to the pedichair the way you escort an old man who’s forgotten it’s his younger brother’s funeral.
She placed him in it softly, and untied his shoes, and went to fetch a kit from under a counter. When she came back, Jason seemed surprised to see her.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m a virologist. I study memory loss in pandemic victims.”
“Hmm,” Maureen said.
“So, it’s funny I’m feeling so scattered today.”
She began with a massage on the ball of his left foot, a dab of lotion squirted exactly on the ball of her thumb.
“It’s fascinating,” Jason said, “are you interested in science?”
“I was homeschooled by my grandmother,” Maureen said. Because it was her job to, she added, “Tell me something about memory.”
‘The octopus has eight brains,” Jason said. “Humans have only one.”
She stopped rubbing his foot to look at his face.
“Alright,” she said, then reapplied her lotion and pressed her thumb into his other foot.
“So if you cut off an octopuses arm, it loses part of its brain, as well as the suckers.”
“Hmm,” Maureen said, and raised her eyebrows. Jason went on.
“Humans can lose a whole leg and still think just as clearly as ever. A whole torso, even, assuming you had a way to keep the brain oxygenated. An octopus can’t remember anything if you cut off even a part of it.”
“Maybe an octopus just thinks things eight times.”
“Maybe,” Jason said. He lost focus and looked at nothing in the distance. “I just had this thought.”
“What is it?” Maureen asked.
“Someone told me once, I remember, that an octopus remembers everything eight times.”
“Sounds like a joke,” said Maureen. She went to the manicuring table, and returned with the tray of clippings. She cut his toenails and ground his heel into it.
“What? Sorry, I lost track of what I was thinking. Oh. A human has one brain, so when it comes to memory, the rest of the body is just bubble wrap. Your memories, the way you recognize yourself-”
“Other foot,” Maureen said.
“-can be pulled right out of the box. It’s possible, theoretically, to strip away everything from your body but your brain, and you’d still be right there. Smaller and slimier but the same, nothing lost. No memories, at least. You could get peeled like an onion and still be safe in the middle. It’s the stuff that gets inside you actually have to worry about.”
She buffed, and polished, and cremed.
“I’m a virologist,” he said. Maureen slapped his feet with greasy hands and the sound echoed.
“Done. You know we’re full service?” she asked.
“The spa. Me. We’re full service. You’re paid up.”
“Come on.” She took his hand, and dragged him back between the sinks and through a side door.
The room inside was poorly lit, and smelled like sweat and cheap incense. A folding massage chair with a roll of butcher paper on top of it dominated the space.
“Take off your clothes,” Maureen said.
“Ok,” Jason said. “Why?”
“Take off your clothes, and I’ll tell you.”
He did, though she had to help with the zipper of his slacks. He slipped onto the table, and rolled onto to his stomach to fit his face through the open pillow.
“My grandma taught me,” said Maureen, “everything. I never went to school. I’ve never even seen an octopus. But she always told me this story.”
She went to the far end of the room, where the near darkness hid a little drink cart. On it was a bulk bag of disposable razors, a porcelain basin with a spout, full of water, and a bottle of hand sanitizer.
“When she was a kid, her grandma could see souls.”
“I don’t believe in souls,” Jason murmured.
“Hmm,” she said. “I do. Mind if we don’t use the cream?
Without waiting for a response, she went the cabinet and returned with enough towels to wrap his entire body. When he was steamed, she began on his lower back, and moved up to his shoulders.
“What she learned is that we are animals. You’re the same as an octopus. You can’t divide yourself into little pieces without losing bits.”
She stopped talking to focus on his head. She shaved it cleanly, but quickly, and incautiously.
“I was taught,” Maureen said, “that we don’t have a soul, but that we are a soul, and our meat is as much of it as our big ideas.”
Jason didn’t answer, or even move. He breathed heavily while she scraped him of every hair, and tapped it into her bowl.
“When I was fourteen, I snuck out of the house to get a haircut. My mom beat me when I came home. ‘I’m not my hair,’ I screamed, and she screamed back, ‘you think you’re better than the animal that birthed you?’”
She stopped for a moment.
“Memory is funny,” she said. “I remember her saying that so perfectly. Roll over.”
Jason did, and she razored the front of him.
“I’ll tell you why I think you can’t remember what happened last week,” Maureen said while she took his eyebrows. “I think it’s because you give up your soul too easily. The memories in your fingernails are small, but they’re yours, just the same.”
She shaved his head, beard, and chest, then his groin, his legs, and between his thighs.
“That’s why I’m taking them,” she said. “They’ll be safer with someone who isn’t trying to pull them off with tweezers. Someone who doesn’t think he’s better than them. Roll over.”
She examined his body entirely, front and back, making occasional swipes to fell little forests she’d missed in the first cut.
“Stay here,” she said. She left, and Jason lay unmoving. In a moment she came back carrying the hair sweepings and the water from the sink and and powdered nails in the silver tray. She tipped them into the porcelain bowl, stirred once with her finger, and then swallowed it all down. Then she took the bottle of hand sanitizer and shot a swig into her mouth. She swished it between her teeth before swallowing.
“Germs,” she said. “You’re done.”
Jason stood, but couldn’t find his clothes, or the door. Once on the sidewalk., he stared in frightened confusion until Maureen handed him his keys.
“They were on the front desk,” she said.
Jason stared at them with watery eyes.
“Am I going somewhere?” he said.
“I don’t care,” Maureen said, “Your car’s the red one over there. Good luck.”
Then she went back into her shop, and locked the door.
Christian Owen Loftus writes short stories, poetry, and scripts under the name Owen Loftus. He published his first piece of creative writing in 2022 and has two more short stories schedule for publication in 2023. He’s always writing more. Follow him on Twitter to stay up to date on his latest work.