I often feel in downtown Fallbrook that I have walked through a door into the past, the door I have been looking for all my life. It happens at Jerry’s Barber Shop most often. Jerry’s is on the corner of Main and Alvarado, and I take five-year-old Sam and three-year-old Hank there to have their bangs snipped into a straight, even line, to have the backs of their necks and the curves above their ears mown and clipped, to see their eyes once again, enormous and brown. They sit still in expectation of Dum Dums, small white-wrapped lollipops that taste of cherry, apple, grape, or lime.
Jerry’s is an ordinary place, archetypal in its particulars. The benches and chairs in the waiting area are upholstered in vinyl, and it’s old men, mostly, who sit waiting for their turn. The coffee table is strewn with fishing and golf magazines as worn as dollar bills. The plate-glass window casts the shadow of Jerry’s name on our legs. The backward clock tells time in reverse. Combs float in Barbicide. Behind us, stretching the length of the wall in an attitude of leaping, is a blue sailfish as shiny and hard as the linoleum under our feet. “Please do not pet,” a sign says.
The older customers tend to look at Sam and Hank and remember their own children, or themselves as children. Once, while Hank’s hair was falling to the floor like down and Sam was waiting his turn, a man in glasses and an ironed short-sleeved shirt looked approvingly at him. He started to tell Sam and me about his childhood summers, about growing up on a farm in the Northwest, where he climbed trees and fished. Every morning, he said, he and his brothers and sisters would sit at the table for breakfast. His mother would bring bowls of steaming oatmeal to each place. No one could start, though, until his grandfather had sat down and blessed the meal. His grandfather was a Lutheran, and he blessed everything. He prayed and prayed, and the children watched the steam rise up, each wisp thinner than the last. It had always stopped steaming before his grandfather stopped praying.
“My mother cut my hair with a bowl,” he told Sam. “The same bowl we used for that oatmeal.”
Outside the barbershop, the street is usually sunny. Cars stop for the light and move past us, windows down, arms resting on doors. As we wait I tend to think of what we’ll do after the haircuts. We could eat at the soda fountain across the street, in what used to be a drugstore but is now the Café des Artistes and a gallery. We could walk another hundred yards and ask the librarian if there are any new books about the Titanic. If the gem-and-mineral museum is open, we could step into the back room and ask the curator to turn on the black light so that all the fluorescent rocks glow green, orange, and yellow. There’s the Book Nook or Chubby Chix, which sells retro candy: Lemonheads, Neccos, and Charms. Slim pink bubble-gum cigarettes, the kind that leave powder on your fingertips.
But once Sam and Hank are both in barber’s chairs, I’m in no hurry to leave. I watch them the way the man in the ironed shirt watched the steam of his oatmeal all those years ago, willing it to keep rising.
“Look down,” Jerry says. “Now look up.” Sam holds still, and Jerry slowly, carefully cuts a straight line. “Good,” he says. “You’re doing good.”
Their blond hair mixes with the gray hair on the floor and I hold myself still between two red vinyl chairs on Main Street, willing it to go on a little longer, for the backwards clock to go forward and the forward clock to go backwards, so that we are always right here.