Learning to Shave

There was a time, not so long ago, when Gus was my best friend.

He wore loud, polyester button-downs and a stretchy gold watch and always, always wore a hat when he went out of the house. He’d come visit from Akron and stay with us when I was little, and my favorite time was each morning watching him shave. It was a deliberate ritual worthy of study: stretchy watch off, wash face, foam face, get to work with the razor. At just six years old I had become obsessed with men’s shaving, the confidence and masculine potency of it all was awe-inspiring. The sound of the blade scraping foam off his face gave me chills. The morning ritual.

Everything Gus did had a ritual to it: researching stocks, walking laps for exercise, shopping at the discount market for canned salmon and dented corn soup. We’d sit at their plastic-clad kitchen table and get drunk, which pissed off my grandmother to no end, but we pretty much pretended she wasn’t there, which wasn’t rude because she seemed to prefer it that way. Any time I’d teeter up to offer to chop or clear anything, she’d mutter the same thing by rote: “Sit with him. Talk. He’s waited all day to see you so you go.” So I did. And we talked.

Herman Melville. The Crash of 1929. Judge Judy. Sputnik. How the cleaning lady spent too much time arranging the fringe on the living room rug. What Papua New Guinea was like during the war.

He’d tell me I was too smart to be a teacher and I ought to do something practical. Business, or banking, or maybe if I could get the writing thing going I could do that too, but only on the side. He discouraged me from getting married and said I was better off going to college and learning how to think right, not to let someone else do my thinking for me. Sometimes I listened, usually I didn’t, but he taught me my first lessons in questioning power and not being afraid to disagree with anyone I didn’t think was right. He believed in calling people on their shit, especially fancy folks,  especially folks who seemed too sure that they knew what they were talking about. Coincidences are meaningless. Can you check the facts you’re being told? What’s the worst case scenario?

For him it was getting cancer. As a post-war building inspector he inhaled asbestos daily, and by the time he entered the new millennium his lungs were hardening like coral. Soon he was trapped in a housing that betrayed him daily. I’d visit often, but we didn’t drink like we did in years past. Instead we talked about treatments and inhalers and what he regretted most in life. “At eighty,” he weezed, “at eighty, they should just take you out back and shoot you. Because. This? Just isn’t right.”  His arms grew thin and blackened with blood and when I hugged him goodbye he wound around them me so tight I’d lose my breath but I didn’t mind. Neither of us wanted to be the first to let go.

Watch who you love in this world. Study them often, be enthralled with their rituals, remember the things that fascinate you about them. Time passes when you’re not looking.

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