After Kevin gets released from jail, he lands a job stocking shelves at a Food Lion on the edge of town and tries to avoid all of his old friends and acquaintances.
It's almost a month before he sees anyone he knows, and that person is Tristan Hoffberger, a guy he used to pick on in high school. In the hallways, Kevin would walk up behind Tristan, jam his elbow in his ribs, and whisper, "Fucking queer. I'll bash your head in." If Tristan ever glanced his way, he'd walk over, lock eyes with him, and say, "The fuck you looking at, faggot?" before pushing the books from his hands.
That's the kind of person he's trying not to be anymore, angry and confrontational.
Kevin is stocking the yogurt section one morning when he spots Tristan walking down the aisle. The buttons of his cardigan and dress shirt are lined up perfectly. Although it's been more than five years, Kevin recognizes his boyish features immediately, and he turns his face away, a hot and unfamiliar sensation of embarrassment spreading through his chest. He keeps his head down and tries to look busy breaking apart an empty cardboard box, hoping Tristan doesn't notice him. He's recognizable, though. Five-two, red hair, face like a bulldog. Tristan walks by without a glance in his direction.
As he shoves the cardboard box onto the cart, he feels off balance, palms sweaty.
One of his co-workers, Logan, walks over, pushing a cart filled with cartons of cold juice. "You're not even halfway finished?" he asks. "You better hurry up. You're supposed to do the soup aisle."
Logan is a pigeon toed 19-year-old brown-noser. He acts like his main ambition in life is to be the greatest Food Lion employee of all time. Sometimes when Logan tells Kevin what to do, Kevin imagines what would happen if he punched Logan in the face. Yeah, he'd get fired and probably arrested again, but it would be so satisfying to watch the two lines of blood run down from his nostrils.
But Kevin doesn't do that kind of shit anymore. He nods and goes back to lining up yogurt containers.
Tristan is still on his mind while he's stocking the soup aisle two hours later. In high school, they'd barely known one another, and their only class together was art. Tristan was in the smart-kid classes and Kevin was in the dumb-kid classes. He wasn't dumb though. He just didn't like people telling him what to do.
Kevin had been convinced Tristan was gay. Just his name sounded effeminate. And the way he carried his books so carefully, raised his hand with two fingers in the air, ripped off the rough edges of his torn-out notebook paper. It all bothered Kevin. Back then, anything or anyone who seemed weird or different felt threatening. Now he feels embarrassed about the fact that he cared so much. And that he's so upset about it now.
As he's crouched down filling in a row of chicken noodle soup cans, he hears a husky voice behind him say, "Oh my God, it's Kevin Butler."
It's Denny Curtis and Ryan McDonnell, two guys he went to high school with. What's going on today?
They're both holding cases of beer, wearing work boots and paint-splattered clothing, grins spread across their faces.
"I thought you were in prison, dude," Denny, the husky-voiced one, says.
"Yeah, didn't you stab somebody?" Ryan asks.
Kevin picks up more soup cans from the half-full carton. At one time, Denny and Ryan may have been acquaintances, but Kevin has never liked either of them. They're a couple of unfunny smart-asses. "It was jail, not prison. And I didn't stab anyone. I just had a knife on me during the fight."
"Oh, right." Ryan nods.
"Weren't you outside of a 7-11?" Denny asks like he knows already, but it gives him great enjoyment to say it.
"That's right." Kevin wishes they would leave.
"So how long were you in jail?" Ryan has stopped grinning and seems interested.
"How was it? You didn't drop the soap, did you?" Ryan laughs and Denny joins in.
A tight ball of anger rolls around in Kevin's stomach.
"Yeah, did some dude make you his bitch?" Denny asks. They both laugh so hard their faces are pink. "Did you like it?"
"Oh, shit," Ryan says, the smile dropping off his face. "His dad."
"You don't know? His dad's a..."
Then Kevin is standing up, and the front of Ryan's t-shirt is in his fist. Kevin's forehead only comes up to Ryan's chin, but they're less than an inch apart, and he can see the green flecks in Ryan's brown eyes, which have gone wide. "You got something to say about my dad?" He whispers, red flares exploding on the edges of his vision. He's knows what Ryan was about to say. That his dad is gay. A giant fag. Then Denny will say Seriously? and laugh.
Denny stands behind Ryan, the smile gone from his face. He shakes his head wildly.
"No," Ryan croaks. "I wasn't saying anything."
Kevin releases his grip and backs away. "Good."
They disappear wordlessly down the aisle. Kevin goes back to stocking soup cans, vision blurry.
Since Kevin's been out of jail, he's been staying in his friend Marco's cramped spare bedroom. But Marco works until ten o'clock, and after Kevin's shift ends, there's an awkward few hours when he's alone in the house with Marco's girlfriend, who doesn't seem to like Kevin. So most nights he goes out and walks around Martinsburg with no destination in mind.
It's early November, the air chilly. Businesses are closing for the night, and lights are on in houses, TVs playing in living rooms. When he was thirteen, fourteen, he used to skip school and ride around all day on his bike. He'd pedal to the train tracks outside of town and stand near them as freight trains rumbled by, getting close enough to touch the cars, feeling his teeth rattle, his skeleton vibrate.
He's thinking about how he needs to buy a bike as soon as he has the money when he realizes he's a block away from the hair salon his father owns. Some instinct urges him to walk toward it.
The salon has a gleaming white sign with the name written in cursive: Snapdragon Studios. Kevin originally thought the name sounded pretty cool until he found out that snapdragons are a type of flower. The sign advertises it as a hair salon for the whole family, but Kevin is pretty sure most of his dad's customers are women. It's bad enough his dad is a gay man living in West Virginia, but to be a man who cuts women's hair for a living is almost worse. And being both? Kevin doesn't exactly broadcast the news to anyone.
Most of the lights are off when Kevin gets to the door, but his dad is inside sweeping. He stands there for a second, hesitant about knocking. Just as he's about to walk away, his dad glances over and waves.
Kevin doesn't remember ever calling him Dad to his face. He either avoids addressing him directly or calls him by his name, Brett. Kevin and Brett look nothing alike. Brett is about six inches taller, well-built with a slim nose. His hair, which is mostly gray, is cut short, and he wears a maroon polo shirt tucked in to jeans with Converse sneakers. If he was a stranger on the street, Kevin would have no idea he was gay.
He smiles at Kevin as he unlocks the door.
"I just thought I'd come by," Kevin says after they exchange hellos. "I wanted to thank you in person for being a reference and everything."
Kevin and Brett have different last names, so Kevin used him as a reference on his Food Lion application. Brett told him he'd say he was friends with Kevin's mom if they asked, which wasn't a complete lie. The whole exchange had taken place via text. Kevin hasn't spoken to him face-to-face since July, when they ran into each other at a fireworks display. They had passed by each other near a food cart, Kevin heading back to his friends and Brett walking over alone. Kevin hadn't asked him if he was there with anyone, even though he knew Brett had lived with the same guy for years. It wasn't something they talked about.
"Of course," Brett says. "It was no problem." He's always energetic and cheerful, which is both confusing and impressive.
Kevin has a seat on one of the chairs. Conversations with his dad are awkward. When he was a kid, they'd see each other once a year at the most. About ten years ago, his dad had moved back into town and started his business. They talked to each other more as Kevin grew older, but still not a whole lot.
Brett goes back to straightening up, getting a bottle of Windex out of a cupboard. "So it's going good? The job?"
"Yeah, I guess. I mean, it sucks, but it's a job."
"What do you do? Ring people up?"
"Stock the shelves all day. It's boring." Thoughts about Ryan keep popping into his head. He's lucky Ryan is a wimp and didn't start a fight. But Kevin prides himself on not being a coward, so he doesn't regret what he did.
"You have to start somewhere, right?"
Kevin shrugs. "I guess."
"What would you rather be doing?"
"I don't know." For several years before the fight at the 7-11, he'd been selling marijuana. Before that, he'd gotten fired from Taco Bell, and before that, he'd quit a job at Dairy Queen. In jail, with lots of time to think, he decided he didn't want to sell drugs his whole life. He was twenty-three years old, and it was time to think about the future. But every day, he's less certain about how to get to some better place.
"You're still young. You have plenty of time to figure things out."
"So you want a quick hair cut?"
"Nah. I have a pair clippers, I cut it myself."
"Really? It looks good."
"Does it? I've cut other people's hair before. It's not hard."
"Is that something your interested in?" Brett asks, wiping down the front desk. "Cutting hair as a job? Not that I'm biased, but I think it's a pretty good career."
"I never really thought about it. I wouldn't want to cut women's hair."
"You could work in a barbershop," Brett says, not seeming to take it as an insult to his own work. "Barbers make plenty of money, but it's not like the training is that expensive. So if after a while you decided you didn't like it, you wouldn't feel locked into it, you know?"
The idea of not being locked into something sounds appealing.
"Cutting your own hair is the hardest. I'll tell you what. You come back here tomorrow night right after we close, and I'll let you give one of the mannequin heads a cut."
The heads, which are creepy, sit in a row on a shelf. They all have chin-length fake hair. Kevin never gave them much thought before.
In the half-light of the salon, Brett seems so eager. Does he feel obligated to try to help Kevin now that he's twenty-three? Where was this kind of eagerness when Kevin was a kid? His instinct is to reject the offer, but the alternative options for tomorrow night a walking aimlessly around town or sitting alone in his dimly lit bedroom. "Okay," he says after a moment. "That would be cool."
The next morning as he's clocking in, one of the assistant managers, Nathan, walks by and says he needs to see Kevin in the office. The office is a cramped space all of the assistant managers share. One of the plastic chairs has duct tape over the seat. Nathan tells Kevin to sit as he takes a seat behind the desk, which has a stack of manila folders piled on it. The setup reminds Kevin of the principal's office.
Nathan always talks in a super-calm way, which makes Kevin nervous. He asks how Kevin likes working here so far.
"It's okay," Kevin says.
Nathan is maybe thirty, but already he's balding, the hair in the center of his head thin. Why doesn't he just give up and shave it off? Kevin wonders.
"I asked you in here because another employee came in here with some concerns. He -- they said they oversaw you speaking to a customer yesterday and thought you might have had an incident with this person."
Through Nathan's corporate-bullshit language, Kevin understands he must be referring to what happened with Ryan. He starts sweating. At his interview, he'd told the human resources managers that he'd been in jail, and he wonders if Nathan knows. "What do you mean?" he asks.
"This person said they walked by while you were stocking aisle seven, and he saw you grab a gentleman's shirt."
He almost laughs at the idea that Ryan is a gentleman. It must have been Logan who said something because he was the only other guy working yesterday morning -- all the other employees had been women. Anger rises in Kevin's stomach at the thought of that ass-kisser, but he breaths in. "Oh, those were my friends. We were just messing around."
Nathan nods. "So there wasn't a problem?"
"No. We were just joking. Sorry if it looked that way."
More nodding. "Okay, I understand. We want you to be friendly to the customers, but you shouldn't be engaging in horseplay. You're not in trouble, but if your friends come in the future, you should really just say hi. If they need to find something, point them in the right direction. This is a work place, okay?"
There's a coffee mug sitting on the desk, and Kevin imagines picking it up and smashing it against the side of Nathan's head, watching the dark blood trickle down in tiny rivers. All of this tension and anger in his stomach would dissipate for a moment. "Yeah, of course," he says.
For the next eight hours, Kevin avoids Logan, not even looking at him when he walks by. If he spends too long in Logan's vicinity, he'll have trouble resisting the urge to punch him. Logan doesn't say anything to Kevin the entire shift, which makes Kevin's annoyance grow. Logan should have minded his own business in the first place, but if he had to know what Kevin had been doing, why didn't he ask? What kind of grown man goes behind another's back like that? In his old life, he would have confronted Logan and asked him if he wanted to fight.
That was what happened outside of 7-11. His memory of the fight is like a series of badly framed pictures, some moments blurry or completely gone, but he knows the important parts. Harvey Woods, this kid who went to WVU, had owed Kevin money for over a year, and he kept saying he'd pay Kevin back but never did.
That Saturday night, Kevin had downed a six pack then gone to the 7-11 to buy some candy. In one picture, Harvey stood outside talking on his cell phone, wearing khaki shorts and a polo shirt. In the next photo, Kevin was on top of Harvey, punching him in the face while he lay on the asphalt. One side of Kevin's face tingled like he'd been hit. It was the middle of August, and Kevin's shirt was plastered to his back with sweat. He was so warm he was sure flames were going to flare up on the surface of his skin. The urge to hurt Harvey was overwhelming and instinctual.
An off-duty cop walked out of the 7-11 and tackled Kevin, held him down until a police cruiser showed up. He remembered a piece of gravel on the asphalt biting into his cheek. The cops found a hunting knife on him. It was brand new, blade shiny and unused, and Kevin carried it with him all the time.
In the second before the cop tackled him, Kevin had stopped punching Harvey. He had been about to reach for the knife, hadn't he? Did he plan to stab Harvey? Three months later, his intentions are unclear to him. All he clearly recalls is his rage, a bottomless well of it.
Somehow he manages to control himself for the rest of his shift, clock out, and get out of there. He walks home rather than taking the bus, shadowboxing the air. The November wind burns his fists.
In the salon, he holds a pair of clippers, scissors and comb on the table in front of him, a white foam head with dark chin-length hair. The mannequin head has molded facial features, it's lips and eyes set in a way that give is a blank facial expression.
Brett had explained how to give it a traditional men's haircut. Short on the back and sides, longer on the top. Kevin's palms sweat. He doesn't want to make a mistake. He hadn't realized he cared this much. With the clippers, he starts cutting around the left side of the head. The hair falls away, and after a few seconds, he relaxes. This is easy.
"You ever get customers who are assholes?" Kevin asks.
"Yeah, sure," Brett says. "Sometimes people get pissed because they have to wait for an appointment. Other times people don't like how their hair looks."
"What do you do about them?"
"You just have to put up with them, be as polite as possible. Say you're sorry. Sometimes I really am sorry, like if one of the stylists is late. Other times people are just assholes, and you have to fake being nice to them."
"Don't they make you mad though?" Kevin asks.
"A little bit, but you just have to remind yourself there are assholes everywhere. It's just a part of life."
Logan flashes into his mind. "That's true. There's this guy at work, he's always telling everyone what to do even though he's not a manager. He thinks he knows more than everybody else. The worst part is he doesn't even realize he's an asshole."
Brett grins. "I know a few people like that. What do you do about him?"
"I try to just ignore him. But sometimes I just want to knock him out." As he says it, his hands tingle, wanting to ball themselves into fists.
"You can't go around knocking people out though. You're not going to get anywhere doing that."
Kevin nods. He's finished using the clippers around the sides and back and picks up the scissors and comb.
"That's what happened with the fight? That guy pissed you off?"
Pissed off seems like an understatement. "Yeah. He pissed me off."
"You can't let people get to you. You just have to remind yourself that they're assholes, and they're probably going to stay assholes. Like this guy at work. You just have to keep going until you pass him by. Some day you'll be way ahead of him."
"You think so?"
Pieces of hair fall on the floor as Kevin cuts.
"The nice thing about owning your own business is you can hire who you want," Brett says.
Long ago, Kevin had accepted that his life would probably go nowhere. School hadn't worked for him. He hated every job he'd had. Still, he dreams about owning a big house, a nice car, maybe running a business, although he doesn't know how to get from here to there. Maybe barber school is the first step. Maybe he could control himself if there was some concrete goal in front of him.
He concentrates on finishing the haircut, snipping pieces of hair from the back to the front, using the comb to make sure it gets gradually longer closer to the forehead. When he's finished, Brett comes over to take a look, and says he did a good job.
"You have good hand-eye coordination," he says. "Like it's already in your head what a haircut should look like, and you can make it happen."
It might be the nicest thing anyone has said to Kevin in years. But then he wonders if Brett is being patronizing, and confusion starts rising up inside him. Brett starts talking about barber schools, how there's one an hour away in Morgantown, but Kevin feels hot and panicked at the idea. Actually planning for the future makes his head spin, like he's riding on a merry-go-round. He wants to have a drink.
"Are you busy on Saturday night?" Brett asks. "You should come over for dinner. Or we could go out. Aaron wants to meet you."
"Aaron?" Kevin asks. The unfamiliarity of the scene strikes him. Is he really standing in a hair salon right now? Is his father really asking him to meet his boyfriend? A red hot anger spreads over him, and it's familiar, comforting in a way. "No. I'm busy."
"Some other night then? Next week maybe?"
His skin itches. He wants to be out into the cold evening air. "I don't know. We'll see."
Brett looks disappointed but nods like he understands. "You'll look up that barber school though?"
"You want a ride home?"
"No. I'd rather walk."
As Kevin pushes open door, Brett tells him he can come by anytime. Kevin only mumbles a goodbye.
The next day, after work, he goes home and starts drinking in his bedroom. Since he's gotten out of jail, he hasn't had more than a beer or two at a time. He doesn't work tomorrow, and he wants to drown himself for one night. But by the third can, he can barely stand the taste of the stuff.
He leaves the half-full beer on the night stand, puts on his jacket, and goes out. It gets dark earlier and earlier now as winter approaches, and all light has faded from the sky. He doesn't want to go anywhere near his dad's salon, so he starts walking in the opposite direction, toward the edge of town. He puts his hood up and keeps his head down, thinking about his parents, trying to follow the pieces of the tangled knot that's inside him.
From what Kevin's mom has told him, he knows she and Brett dated briefly when they were both eighteen and fresh out of high school. After she got pregnant, they broke up and he moved away to Boston. Once a year around Kevin's birthday, he would come down to visit.
When Kevin was in grade school, he would ask his mom questions about Brett, but she always said she didn't want to talk about him. In third grade, when his uncle got married, Kevin asked his mom if Brett was going to get married too. His mom had stared at him for a long second before saying she didn't think so.
She'd known Brett was gay since shortly after they broke up, but she never said anything about it to Kevin. His dad never mentioned it either. It wasn't until Kevin was in the eighth grade that he found out, and that was because kids at school started saying things. Kevin's dad had moved back to West Virginia that year, and Martinsburg wasn't a big place. Everyone knew everyone, and his dad had grown up here. Some of the boys at school would say to him, your dad is a faggot or your dad likes it in the ass.
At the time, Kevin thought they were just being assholes, insulting him the same way they insulted him about being short or having red hair, so he insulted them back. You had to defend yourself.
One day he asked his mom why his dad didn't have a girlfriend. After some prodding, she'd said, "Your dad is a different kind of person. And it's not right what he does. He's your father though, and that's the only reason you see him. I wouldn't be friends with a person like him otherwise." She had gone on about how she disapproved of Brett's lifestyle without ever saying the word gay.
Over the years, the anger he used to feel when he picked on Tristan has dissipated somewhat. Gay people can do what they want, he guesses, so long as it's not in front of him. But the facts of the situation still upset him. Your dad isn't supposed to be gay. Couldn't Brett have faked it, stayed with Kevin's mom so they could have been a family? Or at least found some other woman to marry so Kevin's mom wouldn't have worried about letting Kevin spend time with him? He should have put Kevin first.
All day he's been chasing thoughts around in his head. Why did he think going to barber school would be a good idea? Why would he take advice from Brett, who had been such a shitty father? Even though Kevin's mother might have been against it, Brett could have insisted on seeing Kevin more. They were connected by blood, after all. So what does he know about Kevin or what's best for him?
Then again, Kevin doesn't seem to know what's best for himself.
Before he realizes it, he's outside of town on a stretch of road dotted by run-down houses, and his feet are getting cold. He turns back.
At a pharmacy, he stops to buy a soda. On his way out, he nearly walks straight into Ryan McDonnell. Denny Curtis is behind him. He grins at the sight of Kevin.
"What's up, Butler?" Ryan asks. "I was hoping to see you again." He has an intense look in his eye. Denny steps around Ryan's side, so he's just a few inches away from Kevin. The smell of Axe bodyspray emanates off of his clothes.
"What the fuck do you guys want?" Kevin twists open his bottle of Coke casually. He's not afraid of them.
"I have a little more class than you do, Butler, so I'm not going to fight you in a parking lot. But you just tell me when and where, and I'm there."
Kevin finishes taking a long drink. He can feel himself heating up inside as his instincts kick in. His hands itch with the desire to clench into fists. Just ignore it. Just ignore these assholes. "No," he says. He screws the cap back on his drink to keep his hands busy.
Denny laughs dryly. "No?"
"I'm not doing that. I already know you're a pussy." He looks Denny in the eye. "That you're both pussies, so there's no point. Now get the fuck out of my way." He shoves Denny with his shoulder. If they start some shit here, it'll be them starting it, not him.
"What the fuck?" Ryan says. "We're pussies? You're pussying out right now, you fucking faggot."
Anger rolls around in his stomach, but he keeps walking. You're not running away, he tells himself, you're just passing by these assholes. Halfway across the parking lot, he turns around and gives them the finger.
"I'll beat the shit out of you," Ryan yells. "Except you won't see it coming." Denny gives him the double middle finger. Then Kevin turns around. They're like little kids who want attention, and he's not going to look at them anymore. The anger is still boiling inside of him, but he keeps moving his legs, lets it burn away.
A few days later, he's stocking the cereal aisle, checking the dates on the boxes and rearranging them. Logan is somewhere nearby, and Kevin is worried about avoiding him. Walking away from Ryan and Denny burnt him out. He doesn't know if he has it in him to walk away from another fight if Logan pisses him off.
It's not until Tristan walks all the way past him that he realizes who it is. Tristan is inspecting the peanut butter jars at the end of the aisle, picking up one and reading the label. They're only ten feet apart from one another, but he doesn't glance in Kevin's direction. Ryan can't let go of something Kevin did, but Tristan can just ignore him. A few months ago, if Kevin had seen some kid who used to jam an elbow into his ribs during high school, he would have gone up to him, fists ready to swing, and said, Remember me, jerkoff?
Tristan puts a jar of peanut butter into his shopping basket and is about to walk away when Kevin stands up.
"Hey," he says. "Tristan, right?"
A look of confusion passes over Tristan's face. He nods. "Yeah. You're..."
"Kevin Butler. We went to school together."
"Oh, right," Tristan says. "How's it going?"
Kevin says he's doing pretty good, and Tristan tells him he just moved back to the area. He'd forgotten how small this town could feel. He says he better get going.
"I just wanted to say, if I ever gave you a hard time in school, I'm sorry."
Again Tristan looks confused. "What do you mean?"
"You know, I guess I called you some names and stuff. I was just trying to act tough."
"Okay. I don't remember." He laughs in a forced way, as if trying to cover up how awkward he feels. "But thanks, I guess."
Tristan disappears. Kevin picked on him, there's no error in his memory. The fact Tristan has forgotten all those times Kevin walked up behind him, threatened him, called him a faggot, amazes Kevin. Those moments are so clear in his own head, the past so close he can almost brush his fingers against it. But to Tristan maybe those moments were insignificant, maybe Kevin was like a fly landing on his shoulder. Or maybe he can bury those memories because he realizes they mean nothing in relation to who he really is.
And if those things could become insignificant for Tristan, why couldn't they become the same for him? Why couldn't he just brush off those moments when he'd been a homophobic asshole, engulfed in anger and fear over anything that seemed different or unfamiliar? He could walk past his old self and go on to better things.
That evening, he puts on a good shirt and throws on a blue and white striped sweater his mom gave him last Christmas. He goes out onto the dark streets of Martinsburg, passing by the business and half-lit houses with the TVs glowing in the windows. Before he turns onto the street where the salon is, he hesitates. What if his dad is angry about the way Kevin ran out the other night? He takes a deep breath. He's going to say what he said to Tristan earlier: I'm sorry. It's not an expression that comes easily, but if he said it once he can say it again.
Brett sits behind the desk in the salon, doing something on the computer. For a second, Kevin freezes by the door. Should he knock? But then Brett looks up, smiles warmly, and stands up. Kevin waits while his dad unlocks the door to let him in.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Sean Walsh. All rights reserved.