“Haircut for me,” Space Man said.
“Buddy,” Lyle winked, “you got a wig on.”
“Haircut for me.”
“Then get up here bubs,” Lyle grunted.
Lyle’s jug ears flapped when he laughed like the wings of a bat, but he wasn’t laughing now. For a second he was stumped. As the bald man sat in the barber’s chair with erect back and loose face, Lyle tried to act unperturbed. I seen stranger heads than this, he told himself. Lyle swung the black cape around the man and, with a low clearing of the throat, selected the nose and ear hair trimmer.
The thing about Lyle’s is you could drive past that place and never even see it. A white block building with the words “Barber ‘$8.00’” stenciled on the side, Lyle’s was as close to a heart as you could find in that mean strip of Alabama highway called East Tallapoochee. The shop was part hunting camp, part museum, and along the back wall posed an assortment of stuffed fish and deer heads garbed in dust. Old Lyle lived in a trailer back behind the place, and he worked every weekday except Friday when he went fishing.
Lyle was a character. With his hair and shag eyebrows dyed jet black, oiled and slicked back, the fuzz jutting from the neck of his cowboy shirt was white as snow. He was tall, old, big bellied, skinny-legged, and stooped way over the barber chair, scissors snipping and mouth moving nonstop. A gold chain dangled near the faces of customers as Lyle shaved, clipped and razed, all the while speaking low and from the gut. Occasionally he glared up at his audience to accentuate tales that never seemed to end, scissors angled, elbows up, his voice deep and serious. He said stuff like, “Slapjack put mouthwash on his arm cause it was itchin’” and “Slapjack was shootin’ dogs in the pecker with a pellet pistol.”
With the exception of the bald fellow they called Space Man, most of the regulars who hung around Lyle’s shop were backwoods folk. The regulars figured Space Man was just asking directions when he first drove up at Lyle’s in an aged van wearing a black turtle neck and slacks. But, to their surprise, the mysterious personage opened Lyle’s screen door, walked without a sound to a narrow space on one of the benches along the wall, and sat down amongst the likes of Ronnie and Old Man Dyer with the straightest back in the world. Old men looked at each other without changing their faces.
Levitating at the tip-top of a longish head, the man was wearing this really bunched up mushroom-shaped toupee like Moe from The Three Stooges. His skin was as pale as the belly of a catfish, and he stared straight forward with eyes the color of olives. For hours and days that turned to weeks, Space Man would sit at the barber shop like a plastic dummy as Lyle told wild stories and jokes. Space Man never once cracked a smile, not even on the rare occasion when the jokes were funny. But this one day, without warning, Space Man went up to the barber’s chair with a stare on his face.
“I was out there at the bend,” Lyle half nodded at a retiree named Fred, “first cast, didn’t even get a chance to sit down ‘fore a fish snatched my Ambassador right out of my hands. My best rod and reel. One I caught that 175 pound catfish up at Lake Guin.”
“That’s a lie,” said Fred.
“And it was gone.” Lyle removed the toupee with one quick pop and began to lather Space Man’s shiny head. “Fish sucked the damn thing right off the bank. And I could see it down there in the creek. Course I kneeled down there to get it, stuck my hand in the water, got way over, just about to get my fingers on it…and then it moves, just a little bit, crost the creek, over toward the deep end. And shit I can still see it. I just got to get it. So I get back up on the bank, take my shoes and socks off, take my pants off, take off my drawers, take off my shirt, take off my hat, lay my pistol on top of my clothes—my ass is butt-ass nekkid. I scooch down there on the bank and slide right into the creek. A bass goes after my pecker!” Lyle squeezed the front of his pants.
“Bull,” said Fred.
“Son of a bitch bites my goober six times but I ain’t studying that. I’m going after that reel. So I dive in there, I can still see the damn thing way down there at the bottom. I dive down there, swim way down to the bottom, and grab it with both hands.”
“One ‘nem Candiru Fish woulda…” T.J. blurts.
“…I grab it,” Lyle continues, “both hands, and all of a sudden it feels like I’m getting pulled by a ski boat. I ain’t lyin’ that fish snatches me all the way back across to the other side of the creek, pulls me up under this brush pile, all these logs and sticks piled up there above me, and that damn bass is still biting my dick ninety to nothing. And I’m surrounded by ‘em … circling … bass, bream, suckerfish, catfish, big old gars, messed up looking fish I never even seen before, prehistoric like, big spikes on their heads like some kind of dinosaur. And they circling, staring, giving me funny looks. There was one fish with these real long tentacles, fish grinnin’ with big teeth and I think this is it, I’m a goner. And all of a sudden the rod pulls my half-drowned ass back across to the shallow end. That’s when I start reeling, and brother that fish put up a fight. Fish jumps up in the air seven feet and looks me dead in the eye. I’m thinking this has got to be some kind of mutated gator, a sea serpent, I can already see my picture in the paper and I’m pulling in that butt fucker an inch at a time. And that’s when I see a fin, like a shark, I swear to God, so I lean back with one hand and grab my pistol…”
“Eight dollars,” Lyle says as he shakes the nonexistent hair off the barber’s cloth and beckons T.J. to the chair with a long, black comb. “I grab my pistol off the bank and start shootin’. I must have capped that fish three times. And then it’s like he just jumps up on the bank and runs off, snatching the rod and reel out of my hands, again. That fish, and my prized reel, is gone for good.”
“Whad’ee look like?” T.J. asked.
“What the hell you thank he looks like?” Lyle grunted. “A fish!”
“That has got to be the stupidest fish story I ever heard,” Ronnie said.
“Oh I got stupider.” Lyle cut on his razor.
“I seen ‘eem,” Old Man Dyer said. The aged trot-liner gazed around at everybody with red-rimmed eyes. “I seen that fish.” The shop went quiet as Space Man attached the wig back to his head and handed Lyle a pristine $50 bill. The only sound made as the man shut the screen door behind him was the turkey hunting DVD playing in the corner.
The regulars figured now that Space Man got his haircut that was that, the nut was gone for good, but the next week he came back. Nobody took that much notice when he took his narrow seat, however, because the crowd that packed out Lyle’s that morning was making fun of this tubby fellow everybody called Slapjack. It was clear that Slapjack had roused the crowd into a state. Slapjack had heavy eyelids and he grinned in a slovenly fashion that said “I am bed shittin’ drunk.” Everyone seemed to be interested in Slapjack’s new false teeth and wanted to see them over and over. Every time Slapjack grinned with those horsy, spotless white falsies the boys grew agitated and confused. In the recent past Slapjack had sported a mouthful of rotten little nubs, and it seemed that the entire geometry of Slapjack’s face had changed, from jack-o-lantern pumpkin to jackass mule, by virtue of the new choppers.
“More offth top,” Slapjack said with a toothy grin. High-pitched laughter ensued from all quarters.
“Damn, look at them teeth,” Ronnie said. Clearly Ronnie had crossed the line because the crowd stopped laughing and scowled at him.
“You just jealouth,” Slapjack said and pooched his lips.
“Don’t let them mess with you Slapjack,” Lyle said as the scissors snipped along the straight edge of Slapjack’s bangs. “They don’t understand.”
“Understand what?” Ronnie blurted. “Slapjack looks like a gopher?”
“Have you ever worn a set of dentures?” Lyle stooped over Ronnie like some spook house ghoul.
“Naw,” Ronnie scowled.
“You mean you never tried on your Grandpaw’s teeth, the ones in a jar? I bet you did. Or maybe that old aunt of yours lives up the road…”
“Then shut your fat ass. Cause if you did you would have learned something about the human condition.” There was a sudden stillness in the room, all eyes trained on Lyle as he held up the mirror so that Slapjack could see the back. “Eight dollars.” He beckoned Ronnie up to the barber’s chair and spun it like a Tilt-A-Whirl.
“What you want?” Lyle pumped the chair with his foot. “High and tight?”
“Ball-headed like him.” Ronnie grinned over at Space Man.
“I’m gone tell you something. And I want you to listen.”
“Uh oh,” T.J. said and bit into a honey bun.
“Years ago there was a man,” Lyle said, “lived way down past Eclectic. Caul, they called him. Big old tall ball-headed son of a bitch.” Lyle cut on the electric razor and started working up one side of the young man’s head.
“What’s that got to do with Slapjack’s teeth?” T.J. said.
“I’ll tell you what that’s got to do with Slapjack’s teeth,” Lyle said, “if you give me a minute. Caul Jeter.
That’s his name. Jeter. Back then he had this big, long, white Chevrolet, come driving up. Never seen the man smile. Never got a haircut either cause, you know, he was ball-headed.” Lyle paused reflectively. “Some folks said he had second sight. He’d just kind of lumber up and down the street on Saturdays, get stuff at the Piggly Wiggly. But here’s the thang. He didn’t have a tooth in his head neither. Just gums.”
“That’s charmin’,” said Ronnie.
Lyle looked at the ceiling. “But back then a lot of folks didn’t have, you know, proper hygiene. Hell my Grandpaw never once brushed his teeth, ‘cept maybe with a sweetgum limb. He didn’t have but one maybe two little old snagglers when I was a kid. But boy you ought to have seen him go at an ear of corn. Being toothless made them old folks’ faces kind of look like witch faces. The nose would dip, and the chin would curve up, long creases next to their eyes. Kind of like a catfish…”
“My Grandpaw uthed to…” Slapjack said.
“…this fellow Caul,” Lyle continued, “one day he was in town, you know, just kind of loping up and down the street when Minnie Cleckler run up bawling her eyes out. Your great aunt,” Lyle pointed his scissors at T.J. “It was the day her daddy died. Everybody in town knew that he was ‘bout to die of liver cancer. She came running up holding a jar with a pair of false teeth in it. It was her daddy’s. She gave those teeth to Caul Jeter and without so much as a suck yo titties he stuck the false teeth right in his own mouth.”
“But here’s the thang,” Lyle doused Ronnie’s head with a squirt bottle. “The minute he stuck those teeth in his mouth his eyes lit up like a pinball machine and he started talkin’. He was grinning, nodding…but see he wasn’t talking in his own voice. He was talkin’ in Minnie Cleckler’s daddy’s voice. Minnie hugged Caul and talked to him, asking all these questions about the great beyond. Everybody started to gather around Caul asking all kinds of questions. And you could see that Caul’s face little-by-little was starting to look like old Cleckler.”
“I ‘member,” Old Man Dyer uttered.
“After a couple of hours I guess Caul had enough and he tried to take the teeth out of his mouth. But Minnie went crazy and tried to stuff them choppers back in there, wanted her daddy back, crying and begging him to just put them teeth in his mouth one more time. She just wanted to hear her daddy’s voice one more time again. Couple of Minnie Cleckler’s cousins starting roughing old Caul up, telling him to put in the teeth or they’d whoop his ass.”
“What did he do?”
“What could the man do? He spit the choppers out and ran like hell. Got to his car and drove off. But it was too late. When he got home there was already ten or eleven people out in his yard,” Lyle grinned, “all clutching these little jars.” Lyle turned Ronnie toward the mirror.
“That ain’t right,” Ronnie stared at his hair. One sideburn had been removed, and the other one extended way down the neck.
“Boy you ain’t right. Eight dollars.” Lyle snapped the apron like a whip. Old Man Dyer wheezed and got up in the chair.
“One lady,” Lyle continued, “said her husband had a thousand dollars in gold hid out in the yard. She wanted the teeth to tell her where the money was. Another man wanted the teeth to tell who shot his uncle. Caul tried to keep them all happy, sticking one set of teeth or another into his mouth, but it was no use. People just kept a-coming. So finally, after two weeks of folks chasing him down sticking false teeth in his mouth, he run off. But weren’t no time they found him holed up in Tuscaloosa.”
“What he do?” asked T.J.
“This is where the story gets kind of peculiar,” Lyle said. “He’s in a motel and this pretty little woman comes to his room, got these military-issue false teeth that belonged to her husband. Supposedly the fellow drowned the year before and his body was never found. When Caul puts them teeth in his mouth he starts shaking and hunching. His face turns purple and his whole body starts to jitter. ‘You whore!’ he hollers. ‘You’re tryin’ to kill me! I’m gone kill you!’ And then Caul grabs a coat hanger out of the motel closet and starts gouging at her with it, all the time the teeth have gone crazy dog-cussing her, clacking and gritting like plastic magic shop choppers. Caul’s eyes look like a devil’s, his face dark and full of murder. But then suddenly Caul chokes up the teeth and they hit the floor. And Lord he’s catchin’ a spasm. She screams and crawls away from her husband’s teeth cause they’ve come alive. There’s slobber everywhere. Blood. And you know what? They find out the husband hadn’t drowned at all but was hiding out in Cleburne County with a woman. Next day they found the husband dead in the bed with his Charlie McCarthy bit clean off. You see when Caul put on those teeth he went where nobody but God can go.”
Space Man stood like a soldier and left without a word, the door slapping shut behind him.
“Damn,” Ronnie said. “What happened to Caul?”
“Went to work at Waffle House.”
That Friday, Lyle woke before daybreak and staggered to the kitchen. Still kind of snoring, he stood next to the stove with his half-closed eyes fixed on the orange light of the coffee maker. The first whiff of the coffee stirred him a little, and he turned to the refrigerator to get out some bologna and mayonnaise to make sandwiches for his fishing trip. As he reached for the white bread, he was puzzled to see that the lights of his barber shop were burning. For twenty years Lyle had gone back and forth from shop to trailer, and he had never left the shop lights on. Lyle shuddered and grabbed his gun. In boots and white underwear, Lyle tiptoed the twenty feet from the trailer pointing the .357 at his barber shop the whole time. He crept up to the back door and tried the handle. It was locked, and he had left the key at the trailer. Arms starting to shake, Lyle stooped over and made his way around to the front door, which he found was half open. But Lyle was no fool. Instead of kicking the door wide in a blaze of bullets, Lyle backed through the door, gun pointed backwards over his right shoulder, then swiveled around like a geriatric cowpoke.
“What the hell you doing in here?” Lyle said. Space Man sat erect in the barber’s chair.
“Take me fishing,” the man said. “I want to see the big one.”
“What you talking about?”
“The big one.”
Lyle was about to slap the man’s jaws when something happened. It was nothing more than a subtle change in the man’s face, something Lyle couldn’t quite register, like parts of his face were vanishing for a second then coming back, moving, blinking on and off. Lyle clutched his throat for a second then put down the gun.
“Let me grab you a rod and reel.” Lyle coughed into his fist and glanced at the man. “You? You look like a Zebco 202.” Lyle handed the man a child’s pole.
Lyle drove the man miles down two-lane highways and crooked dirt roads until they got as close as they could to the creek then walked down a deer trail holding their rods in front of them to catch spider’s webs. Both men trudged through mud, over barbed wire fences, around brush piles and streams. The man held the tiny rod straight up with no emotion on his face. After walking for almost an hour through briars and hardwood trees, they got to a rock overhang next to a cliff thick with mountain laurel. Cigarette butts, knots of fishing line and bobbers in trees, and some charred sticks on the bank marked the fishing hole. The dark water at this bend in the creek made a slow ring, a deep eddy.
“See that brush,” Lyle caught his breath and pointed at the far edge of the creek with the tip of his rod. “That’s where I almost got ‘eem. I was using a purple worm.” Lyle opened his tackle box to get a lure, but the man had dropped to his knees. To Lyle, Space Man seemed to be having some kind of a convulsion.
“You alright Goober?” Lyle said. The man quivered, squirmed, and writhed, his body now flopping on the muddy ground. Lyle tried to lift the man, but he slithered out of Lyle’s grasp into the water. Undulating, the man moved just under the surface across the creek and disappeared in the deep water under the brush pile. For ten minutes Lyle watched and waited, then twenty minutes, thirty. He cast a few times, but the fish weren’t biting.
“Hell with this,” Lyle said. He picked up his tackle and went home.
But when Lyle drove up to his shop, the lights were burning again. When he poked his pistol through the opened door, Space Man was sitting in the barber shop chair dry as a bone, back erect, a Mason jar between his legs.
“Caul Jeter,” the man said. “I want to see Caul Jeter.”
“What’s in that jar mister? How’d you get back here so fast?”
“What you want to see Jeter for?”
“He went where nobody but God can go.”
“I don’t know about all that. Some folks don’t even believe that story.”
This time the man’s whole head flickered, shifted around, the nose taken in by the skin for a second, the chin becoming blank then the forehead, entire eyes seeming to go out and come back. And when it stopped the man’s head was somehow swollen, his skin even whiter, the olive eyes flatter. Lyle again felt a tingle in his throat.
“I’ll take you,” Lyle wheezed. “Just cut that shit with your face out.”
Space Man stood up holding the jar.
“What you got in that jar? That moonshine?”
The man pulled from the jar a set of twisted teeth the size of a child’s fist.
The long hallway at the retirement home was empty, the room cold and dark. A stark night light and a couple of aged medical machines created this empty haze around the man-sized knot lying in the bed. When Lyle and the man entered Caul Jeter’s room, it was clear that the old clairvoyant and former Waffle House employee was near death. His aged face was half-squinted like a man who had suffered many strokes. His eyes continually rolled, his lids flickered, and his pinched hands were twisted up around his neck.
“Mr. Jeter?” Lyle said as they stood by the bed. “Mr. Jeter? This feller…”
“Rise,” Space Man said and pulled back the sheet. Caul Jeter sat up like a made-for-TV vampire, his arms up and toothless mouth opened wide. The man put the strange teeth in Caul Jeter’s mouth and with long, skinny fingers pushed his lips together. In an instant Caul Jeter got different. A sharp pair of eyes opened as Jeter leaned forward, his grayish face and head seeming to stretch. Jeter glared at the man, teeth exposed…
“…I tell you what,” Lyle lathered T.J.’s neck. “Ain’t too much I haven’t seen, but I ain’t never seen nothing like that.”
“Seriously,” Ronnie said, “what happened to Space Man?”
Lyle wiped the straight razor on both sides. Fred clicked the remote looking for the basketball game.
“It’s like he was made out of paper,” Lyle said in a half whisper. “Jeter just kept staring at the man, him staring back, both of them froze, their faces almost touching like they were whistling into each other’s mouths until the man just slumped. Space Man just kind of bent sideways, and it’s like I don’t know he looked like a corn husk, like he didn’t have nothing in him. When I reached over to get him out of Jeter’s face, his shoulder and his shirt just kind of broke up in my hand like crumbs. Then, from everywhere I’m talking about, ants and roaches crawled from every crack in the room and started clustering all over him. They were on him just like that. I couldn’t see him anymore there were so many bugs on his body. The ants were inside him bubba, eating holes big as soda crackers and scurrying in and out of the holes in strings. I just stood there about to puke. Less than a minute later I’m telling you that joker was gone, vanished, carried off by the roaches and ants and creepy crawly bugs bit-by-bit-by-little-bit. But when the nurse opened the door, all she saw was me standing by Caul Jeter’s bed. Jeter was still there, but the bugs was gone. It was like nothing had happened. There were still a couple of roaches clinging to the ceiling in one corner, but she didn’t see ‘em. She pulled Jeter’s sheet up, fluffed his pillow, and told me visitation was over. Looking at me funny, she put her hand in Jeter’s mouth and pulled out the fish teeth and stuck them in the pocket of her scrubs. With the look she had on her face, she let me know that this kind of thing had happened before. Said she wouldn’t report me if I promised to leave the old man alone, said Mr. Jeter needed rest. Then she walked out.”
“‘Ma’am, what you got in your other hand?’ I asked the nurse in the hall. She didn’t say nothing but just kept on walking. But I knew. I saw ‘em. She was clinging to her own set of teeth, trying to answer some questions of her own.”
“Bull ‘thit,” said Slapjack. “Tell another one.”
Lee Rozelle is a professor of English at the University of Montevallo and author of Ecosublime: Environmental Awe and Terror from New World to Oddworld. This story was recently featured on the Scare You to Sleep podcast.