I was on my way to the neighborhood liquor store when a young white man stopped me on the sidewalk. He had a ratty backpack slung low over one shoulder and a dirty blanket flung over the other, almost proudly, like a matador’s cape. But his clothes were ill-fit, and his skin was blotchy, as if he were unwell. It was clear he’d been sleeping on the street for some time, and yet he could not have been more than twenty or so. In fact, he looked like one of the college students in my writing classes. A little skeptical. Boyish. Nervous, searching, and young. Yet he already had that dazed look I’d seen in so many people all over the city, as if the world had left him permanently stunned.
He asked me if I would buy him a haircut.
I wasn’t on the way to the liquor store for anything important. Probably some beer, maybe a little whiskey, and some ice cream. My plan was to return home, smoke a joint, and watch the ballgame. I had just finished up my work for the day, and it was time to relax.
But the young man was desperate, and I listened as he told me that he wanted a job, quite badly in fact, but had found that he could not get any interviews because of his appearance, most especially his hair. He stammered as he said this, as if he’d prepared this speech and then rehearsed it in his mind many times over, only to perform it badly whenever the time came to do so. I imagined that most people he met didn’t even let him finish before they walked away. Last week, I passed a woman scoffing at a man stationed in front of a department store, who silently held out his plastic cup for a donation as she exited the automatic doors. “Get a job,” she said, and there was genuine contempt in her voice. But I had no cash, and I too gave the man nothing as I entered the bright, air-conditioned store.
There was a barber right next to my apartment building, just past the corner where we now stood, and the young man explained that this was where he wanted to get his haircut. They had a fifteen dollar deal he’d seen advertised in the window. It would be a huge help, and it would really mean a lot to him: could I, please?
I must have looked uncertain, because he continued to babble.
“I’ll pay you back,” he assured me. “Seriously, man, as soon as I get a job, I’m good for
I felt bad for making him nervous and for making him think it was about the money. It wasn’t. I was just worried about getting tangled up with him. I have a tendency to let other people’s problems become my own, and it seemed to me, no matter how selfish, that I had a right to get my beer and my ice cream undisturbed.
After all, I’d earned it.
But the truth was, I felt pained for this man, and I decided that my fear of entanglement was no reason not to help someone, especially when the request was so simple. Fifteen dollars meant nothing to me. And maybe it really would help. I didn’t have a lot of faith that this was true. But I wanted to try.
The barber was a short, squat, middle-aged Asian man in slacks and a red polo shirt, open at the collar. He smelled pleasantly of menthol cigarettes and hair gel. I’d seen him around the neighborhood many times, but I’d never spoken with him. It turned out he didn’t speak much English. He was unfazed by us, however, and it did not seem to matter to him that the young man was carrying a blanket on his shoulder, or that he had no shoes, a fact I’d failed to notice outside. Instead, he looked at us both with kindly curiosity, waiting for one of us to speak.
“I’d like to buy him a haircut,” I said.
The barber smiled, inclined his head toward a chair, and gestured for the young man to sit.
I felt good in that moment. The young man’s faith was being repaid, and in turn, I felt my own faith, always so depleted, gently filling up. The young man seemed excited—and relieved—and to my surprise, the barber had expressed none of the judgment I’d expected. Instead, he seemed to consider the young man in his chair the same as any other human being. This moved me. Yet I also felt a kind of guilt for my surprise.
The high collar on the protective apron, which the barber fastened lightly to the young man’s neck, somehow made him look even more boyish. He looked, in fact, like he was preparing for a high school picture, in some distant past, or some alternate future.
When he had the young man settled, the barber pointed politely to the wall, where it read: Regular Cut, $15.
“Right,” I said, and pulled out my wallet, from which I removed a credit card. But the barber shook his head.
“Cash only,” he said apologetically.
“Oh shit,” I said.
“Oh no,” said the young man.
“I don’t have any cash,” I told him.
The barber smiled at us both and shrugged helplessly. Then he began to unfasten the Velcro from the young man’s neck, who looked at me crestfallen.
“I’m sorry, man,” I said. “There’s nothing I can do.”
The young man groaned, a sound of pure disappointment, then grabbed his backpack and blanket, and stalked out of the store.
Outside, we stood together in the bright Los Angeles sun, as awkward as any two strangers have ever been.
“I’m sorry that didn’t work out,” I said.
“Fuck it!” he shouted, and flung his backpack into the air, kicking it once when it landed again. He then picked it up, and without another word, turned up the sidewalk and walked away.
I watched him go, my heart tight in my chest, and then, as if I no longer had anything to do with him, I headed to the liquor store, where the ATM I only remembered when the young man had already disappeared up the street seemed to watch me in line with my IPA and my bag of Doritos and my cookies and cream container, not with anger or reproach, but something like curiosity. Why couldn’t you stick with the problem a little longer? it seemed to ask. Surely you would have remembered me if you had. Yet I wondered if I really would have used the ATM, even if I had remembered it, though I had no way to answer this question now that the young man was gone.
Later that evening, Alice and I attended a party, where we mingled with the other thirtysomethings, drinking Spanish wine, and eating olives and Cheez-Its, and smoking joints in the yard. I tried my best to mingle, but I was in no mood to be social. It was one of those nights where anything anyone said or did seemed not only asinine to me, but offensive, as if they were all trying to outdo each other in a competition to determine who was the most useless. I did not say any of this out loud, of course. But the thoughts kept coming anyway.
We moved from group to group, chatting about nothing, before we wound up talking to another white couple around our age, hip, angular, tattooed, and convivial, who at one point began decrying the migrant crisis at the border. It was inhumane what they were doing down there, they said, especially to the children. They stated this in between recommending Wendy’s new burger and asking if we’d heard the latest about the oppressive actions taken by the Chinese government against the Uighurs.
Alice seemed to take everything the couple said in stride, responding with her own observations in turn. But I struggled. Some nights such conversations do not faze me, but tonight, I felt a kind of whiplash. I eat fast food and do nothing about the Uighurs, too. And this couple no doubt seemed earnest. Yet something about their confidence, as if their mere knowledge of the situation was a kind of action, irritated me, and I could not help myself.
“I’m not saying I agree with the right,” I said. “But what do you suggest we do about the migrant crisis?”
“Complete amnesty,” said the man.
“Totally,” said the woman. “I’m a huge believer in the most humane solution.”
“Right,” I said. “But what do we do with folks once they’re here? I really want to help people. And again, I don’t agree with the right. But are we sure we can really handle that kind of responsibility? I mean, we all agree America is not good at taking care of our vulnerable and our needy. Right? Aren’t we always saying that? Why would this be any different? What makes us so sure we can actually take care of people?”
“Doesn’t matter,” said the woman, and the man nodded in agreement. “You have to do it, full stop.”
She took a long sip from her Wendy’s cup and then shook the ice.
“I mixed a bunch of Jim Beam into this Diet Coke,” she said. And then she grinned sweetly at her husband.
“Can I have some?” he said.
“I had this weird encounter today,” I said, as she passed him her drink.
“Oh yeah?” said the woman.
“Yeah,” I said. “I tried to buy a homeless man a haircut, and it was honestly kind of—”
“Unhoused,” the man corrected.
There was a silence in which Alice gave my hand a warning squeeze.
“I actually don’t get this argument,” I said. “Less is just a suffix. It doesn’t actually imply that anyone is less. It only means they’re an individual without a home. Which is exactly what unhoused means.”
“Are you sure you don’t agree with the right?” said the woman, looking me up and down.
The man laughed, then looked at me with disapproval.
At this moment, to everyone’s relief, a group across the yard called the woman’s name. She waved, recognizing them, and smiled, apparently just as grateful for the interruption as me.
“Excuse us,” the woman said to Alice, giving her a warm smile. “Great to meet you both.”
“What happened with the kid?” said Alice, when they were gone. “Did you get him a haircut?”
“No,” I said. “They only took cash, and I didn’t have any, and I forgot about the ATM at the liquor store. Or at least I think I forgot about it. I don’t know. It was all pretty dumb.”
A silence passed, and I said: “Sorry I got weird just now.”
Alice shrugged. “You’re just saying what you think. Even if it’s not what other people think, it’s allowed.”
I stared at the couple’s laughing backs across the yard. “They sure seem to think they’ve got it all figured out.”
“Walker,” Alice said.
“We talked about this in therapy. You can’t assume you know how people feel.”
I grunted. “Well, they don’t actually care like they think.”
“How do you know?”
She was right, of course. I didn’t. Yet I could not bury the feeling that I was certain that I did. I tried to tell myself I should have just been grateful that the conversation was over. I could get stubborn with people, who hardly understood me anyway, and sometimes everything fell apart, and I behaved like a fool. But I always began by thinking I was just talking, and that everything was fine, and only later would it occur to me that perhaps I’d been concealing some essential agitation from myself all along.
But tonight, nothing like this had happened, and I was even somewhat relieved I hadn’t been able to tell the story of the haircut. I was almost certain the real feeling I wished to express would have remained inside of me, no matter what I might have said. Yet, even for my own self, I had no idea what this real feeling was exactly.
“Why don’t you go enjoy the party for a bit without me?” I said to Alice. “I know I’m a lot tonight.”
She smiled, though I could not help but see the hint of sadness in her eyes.
“Okay,” she said, kissing me lightly on the neck. “See you later, alligator.”
A little later, beer pong started up, which only a few in the group, including myself, had ever played before. I watched Alice mingle as I missed shot after shot, conscious of people watching. Normally, I was pretty good at beer pong, though I could not remember the last time I’d played.
By then, the whole party was high, or drunk, or both, and it was perhaps due to this that our host, a gregarious, pushy man named Anton, decided to make what he called a “cynical parlor game” out of asking everyone to guess how many people had been killed in last week’s mass shooting in Idaho, while also shaming us all for not being sure of the number. In fact, many of us seemed to have forgotten there’d been a shooting at all, and whenever someone told Anton it was callous to make a game out of a shooting, he replied, in a charming, remonstrating tone, that what was really callous was how easily we all forget, which was the whole point of his game in the first place.
“A week!” he kept saying, appalled and drunk. “It’s only been a week!”
The numbers we guessed ranged from four to twenty-three, and as more numbers were tossed out, a side discussion ensued amongst the party, in which we all tried to remember the most people ever killed in a mass shooting in America, and whether this record had been set recently. I knew the answer to this. 60, I said in my mind. Mandalay Bay. But I did not say it out loud, and no one remembered it, until Alice finally said:
“Las Vegas,” and everyone groaned in recognition and then hung their heads. Meanwhile, Anton, not satisfied with mere numbers, next asked everyone to guess the type of gun, as well as the age, race, and gender of the suspect in Idaho, which he also shamed everyone for not knowing. His voice became higher and higher pitched, and he paced the room like a circus clown, gleefully and painfully intent on making his point.
“A fucking week!” he said. “Are we all lunatics, or what?”
“Do you remember, Anton?” someone said.
“Of course not!” Anton shouted, and the whole room burst into laughter.
With everyone distracted, I began to play better at beer pong, and soon found myself the winner, though it seemed the whole room had by then moved on. All of the guesses were at last tallied, and it was now time for Anton to reveal the truth. He dimmed the lights and lowered the music, and then centered himself in the middle of the room with a fresh bottle of champagne, which he held above his head like a wrestler about to deliver a signature line.
“Dear party guests!” he said. “The answers are: seven people! An Uzi! And the suspect is twenty-nine years old, male, and white! And not a single one of you guessed any of these things correctly, except for male and white!”
There was an uncomfortable silence in which even Anton seemed to regret the moment he’d created, a silence that was only broken when someone said:
“Way to ruin your own party, Anton!”
The whole room chuckled nervously at this, and then, as if on cue, someone dropped the needle on a James Brown record, and the horn section blasted from the speakers like heavenly mana, and Anton shouted, “At least we can dance!” and with an immediacy that was as desperate as it was vivacious, asses began to move and hips began to shake, and playful insults were hurled at Anton, who admitted that he hadn’t even been sure there really had been a shooting last week when he began his little game; there were simply too many shootings to keep up with, and anyway, he was drunk and also a little rolled. Alice and I danced uncertainly. I wondered what she thought of all that had happened. She looked somewhat pensive, though she smiled at me warmly as we moved, and besides, the room was too loud for real conversation or questions, so I closed my eyes and held her waist and pretended that the music and the movement would truly succeed in making me feel better.
I told Alice the full story of the failed haircut on the ride home. She understood my regret. But she didn’t have any comfort to offer me.
“You can’t change it,” she said. “Yet I understand why you wish you had.”
“I just keep thinking how simple it would have been to get cash.”
“At least you tried. That’s more than most people would have done.”
“Maybe,” I said. “I’m not so sure.”
“I wasn’t so sure about Anton’s game,” Alice said.
“Me neither. Though I take his point. None of us knew.”
“We guessed with the rest of them, though.”
“We sure did.”
“And apparently we couldn’t remember either.”
“Nope,” I said.
A silence passed.
“You won at beer pong,” she said, and took my hand.
“Hooray,” I said, without much feeling.
“Did you know my mother thinks Sandy Hook is fake now?” Alice said. “I guess Facebook finally got to her.”
For some reason, this cracked both of us up, though in fact there was nothing funny about it. Then Alice said: “I think she’s going to die soon.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know,” said Alice. “It’s just a feeling.”
Her mother was seventy-two and sick with emphysema. She’d been unable to quit smoking and, consequently, her illness had only worsened. Living alone compounded the problem, and she had a tendency to refuse most help the family offered her. It seemed reasonable to fear that her death was imminent, and yet as far as we both knew, nothing more than usual was wrong.
“Have you called her?” I asked.
“About a week ago.”
“You should call her again.”
“I get it, Walker.”
“It’ll make you feel better.”
“Sure, honey. Problem solved.”
She then patted my hand in that knowing, exasperated way that meant she very much wanted the subject to change.
“You’re avoiding something,” I said.
“No,” she said. “It’s just that what I’m talking about won’t be solved by a phone call.” I nodded and looked at the road. For as long as I’ve known Alice, she’s resisted my often-strident urge to fix problems, as if they are car motors in need of repair, most especially when this impulse turns on her. I used to think of this resistance as a character flaw, one that kept her from growing and thus moving past the obstacles in her life. But in our many years together, I have come to see that she is in fact much wiser than me and has been all along. Far from fixing problems, I’ve discovered that I have not once moved past a single obstacle in my life. It seems the only possibility of change is in my relationship to the thing itself, though this does not stop me from trying to find some kind of permanent, sealed solution to various troubles anyway.
I noticed then that the driver seemed to be ignoring our conversation, in the way that those who must work in the company of strangers often do. He was a handsome man, perhaps Pakistani-American, with a photograph of two young girls who looked exactly like him hanging from his rearview. In the reflection, I could see he wore a Run the Jewels t-shirt. He looked around forty years old. We passed by bars busier than ever at this hour, their neon lights appearing somehow mournful. The car windows were cracked, and I could smell trash and wet sand and the surf coming through on the breeze. On the bay, a container ship blew its horn, just as, at a stoplight near our building, an ambulance blasted through the intersection, its siren howling feverishly.
None of us reacted to any of this. We simply sat there, seemingly the same as ever.
“So,” said Alice, as we watched them pass. “What happened in the baseball game today?”
I’d just poured us both a nightcap of bourbon when I noticed the young man I’d met earlier standing on the lawn belonging to the house across our street. His shirt was off, and he was speaking to an older Black man sitting next to him, a neighborhood man suffering from schizophrenia who I recognized, as he often screamed elaborate grievances while wandering our block.
The pair seemed to be engaged in more of a dance than a conversation, and though I could hear them quite clearly through the open windows, I could hardly understand a word they said. As they talked, the young man threw his backpack into the air and howled with laughter, and whenever he did this, the older man held his belly and guffawed right back. The whole scene was charming and utterly incomprehensible. And all I could think about was whether to go get my wallet, before I remembered that I still didn’t have any cash.
“Do you have cash?” I asked Alice.
Alice looked a little helpless and then began to search her purse. She found no cash. Then she remembered the rolls of quarters she’d just picked up from the bank in order to do our laundry.
“This is thirty bucks worth,” she said. “It’s a little weird, but I’m fine with it if you want. You could even give some to both.”
I took the quarters with resolve then, filled with a kind of adrenaline rush at the prospect of correcting my former self, but before I could get out the door, I saw the lights of the house across the street come on in a flood, illuminating the orange and black “Private Property” sign that the young couple who’d just purchased the home had recently put up. There were a few young azalea bushes freshly planted in the soil along the lawn, and in his excitement, the young man had trampled on one of these plants. He noticed this now and seemed abashed, and he gathered his shirt and blanket close to his chest, as if he was about to be punished.
A stocky, baby-faced Hispanic man about my age emerged from the front door of the house, looking determined, but also a little abashed himself. He wore a white T-shirt over white boxer shorts, looking for all the world like a man straight from the 1950s, an effect that was only amplified by his pompadour and his square, wire-rimmed glasses. He stopped halfway onto the lawn, his face revealed by the glow of string lights that just yesterday I’d watched him put up.
“Look, guys,” he said. “I just planted those damn things. My wife is pissed. I understand it’s hard out here. But you have to go somewhere else.”
“Fuck y-o-o-o-o-u-u-u-u!” sang the older man operatically, pointing a grinning finger at him.
The young man screamed with laughter at this. “Oh boy, Eddie, I don’t know about you,” he said, and repeated it. “I really don’t know about you.”
But in spite of everything, neither of them moved. The Hispanic man took a step closer.
“If you don’t go,” he said uncertainly, “I’m going to call the cops.”
“Oooooh!” said the young man. “You think we don’t want to go to jail, asshole? They’ve got food in jail.”
“Fine, man. Whatever,” said the homeowner, and then he began to tap the pockets that were not there for his phone. “Screw you.”
The young man held up his hands.
“I’m just joshing you, man,” he said. “We’re on our way. We didn’t realize this little stretch of earth belonged to somebody.”
And he bowed deeply to the homeowner, who looked both annoyed and relieved.
“Any day now,” he said.
The young man and the man named Eddie then gathered their belongings and
wandered into the dark, still joking and laughing, the streetlight haloes periodically illuminating them as they went.
I stood watching at the window for a moment, still holding the three rolls of quarters in my hands. I felt like hurling them through the glass.
Across the street, the man’s wife joined him on the lawn. She was petite, broad shouldered, and very pregnant.
“Thanks,” she said to her husband. “I didn’t like that anymore than you did.”
“I hate to say it,” he said, his tone almost amazed. “But I think we have to build a fence.”
The two of them headed back inside. The house lights went black a moment later, leaving only the string lights to illuminate the lawn.
Alice put her hand on my back.
“It’s probably better you didn’t go out there,” she said.
“Probably,” I said.
“You can’t interrupt a thing like that to hand someone a roll of quarters.”
“No,” I said. “I guess not.”
But I felt an ache in my heart that I could not explain away, though perhaps I only hurt for myself. The next week, the neighbors paid someone to build a fence, and a week after that, it was finished, a neat, ordered job stained a dark burgundy color that I agreed went well with the house. The men and women living on our block now passed this fence just like anything else on the street, yelling or singing or dragging their feet, lost to themselves and still stunned at the world, for which no one could rightly blame them, while I spent the rest of the month wondering whether I would have done the same as my neighbor, and what I would have told myself if I had.
Spencer Seward is a writer living and working in Long Beach, California. His work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Indiana Review, and Sentence. He teaches undergraduate writing at UC Irvine. Currently, he is querying a novel and is at work on a collection of stories.