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About the Author

Jeffrey Whitmore’s work has appeared in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine, The Whole Earth Review, and the webzine Sour Grapes. His "Bedtime Story" is featured in The World’s Shortest Stories (Running Press) and has been reprinted in numerous other publications, including Glamour magazine and the supermarket tabloid Globe. It has shown up on numerous web sites around the world and has been read on NPR and on the BBC. It has also served as the inspiration for two ultra-short films. A California-based freelancer, Whitmore is currently writing the screenplay for Sterling Johnson’s English as a Second F*cking Language (St. Martin’s Press).

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Outside In: Review by A.L. Sirois

The Works

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The barber covered Nathan with a heavy-linen hair drape and fastened it behind his neck. Then he lowered the back of the chair to a 45-degree angle.

Nathan inhaled, feasting on the mingled scents of bay rum and talcum powder. Did he detect a hint of baby oil? That might explain the barber's gleaming scalp. A moment later those scents were joined by a soapy tang—a touch of lime—as the barber hand-applied a base coat of lather to Nathan's face.

The meld of odors triggered memories of places and events: the comforting grip of his grandfather's hand as they stepped out of a snowstorm and into the warmth of a Vermont barbershop; the elegance of his first professional shave, in the lobby barbershop of a venerable Boston hotel; years later, the beat of a tropical downpour on a tin roof in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, accompanying a whispered tale of voodoo from a barber who wielded his razor like a sorcerer.

Nathan was pulled from his reveries as the barber spread a steaming towel over his face. He gasped at the exquisite balance of pleasure and pain. Then he sighed at the whisper-swoosh sound of shaving soap being whipped into a lather.

Every barber had his own style of creating lather. Some worked silently; others were more boisterous—not in itself a fault. The careless ones knocked their brush handles against the shaving bowl, clickety-clack. With one of those you'd later find a dab of lather behind your ear, or perhaps a nick on the lobe.

This barber augmented the rhythm of his brush with a throaty humming. He wore a short-sleeved white tunic that revealed bare arms more befitting a blacksmith than a barber. When he turned back to Nathan, the wooden bowl of lather and the shaving brush were miniatures in his hands.

As the barber brushed the lather onto his face, Nathan took a deep breath. It was muskier than the base lather. He thought of dark woods and mushrooms.

A moment later Nathan smiled as another rhythm cut in: the slappedy-whick of a razor being stropped. It ceased, and the barber moved to Nathan's side. He put his left hand on Nathan's head and, with his thumb pressed slightly above the hairline, stretched the skin taut. A freehand stroke cut through the lather from the right sideburn down to the corner of Nathan's mouth. An upward, backhand stroke cleared the remaining lather from Nathan's cheek.

With one finger, the barber tipped Nathan's nose up. It took a single swipe to lay bare the area on the right side between nose and lip. Then he touched Nathan's forehead with his finger. Nathan arched his head backwards, exposing the length of his throat.

Another stroke, and the barber cleared the area from just below the point of Nathan's chin down to where the grain of the beard changed. An upward stroke and the right side of Nathan's neck was cleared.

The barber glided around behind the chair, sweeping the razor across the wiping towel, stripping it of lather. Now, on the left side, he duplicated the previous strokes, adding a single stroke dead-center between Nathan's nose and upper lip. He finished with two flicks of the razor between Nathan's lower lip and chin. He wiped the razor on the towel and set it in a metal container of antiseptic solution. He left the hair drape in place, but dropped the towel into the hamper.

Nathan sat upright and looked in the mirror. He ran a hand over his face to confirm what he saw. Not a hint of stubble. Not a speck of lather. Thirteen sure strokes to a perfect shave.

"Well—" Nathan began, but he was cut short. The barber put a finger on his forehead and forced him backward. Still humming, the barber massaged lime-scented lather into Nathan's scalp, then spread a steaming towel over the lather.

Was this some new shampooing process? Before Nathan could decide, he heard the whisper...swoosh of the shaving brush and caught the scent of musky lather.

The barber stripped the towel from Nathan's head, removing the lime-scented lather base with it. He re-lathered Nathan's scalp with the musky lather, even covering his eyebrows. Then he stepped behind the chair, razor in hand, and with seven rapid front- to-back strokes cleared Nathan's dome of both hair and lather. Two more swipes, and away went the eyebrows.

The barber undid the hair drape and dropped it into the hamper. He stepped to the side of the chair and undid the buttons on Nathan's shirt. When he tugged on the shirt, Nathan leaned forward, raising his arms. The barber pulled the shirt off and dropped it into the hamper. Then he moved behind Nathan, reached forward, and seized his wrists. Nathan yielded, as his hands were pulled back and tucked behind his head.

The barber pumped the hydraulic lever, raising the chair, then lowered the back rest until it was parallel to the floor.

Nathan looked up at the motionless blades of the ceiling fan directly above him. They were formed from some kind of rich yellow wood. Squinting, he could make out dual reflections of himself, distorted in the shiny metal that sheathed the tips of the blades.

His concentration was broken as the barber lathered his armpits. He fought the urge to giggle. No base coat this time, just the musky lather. He heard the slappedy-whick of the razor and strop. Moments later the barber was behind the chair. Nathan pulled his elbows back, tightening the skin of his armpits.

The barber grunted. Approval? Nathan wasn't sure. He pulled his elbows back even further. He barely felt the blade, although he caught sidelong glimpses of it as it swept through the lather. Two strokes on the left, Two on the right. Nathan relaxed and turned his head from one side to the other. His armpits were as smooth as well-scooped melons.

When the barber finished shaving Nathan's chest and belly, he stripped him of his shoes and socks and dropped them into the hamper. Then he undid his belt and pulled off his pants and boxer shorts. Into the hamper they went.

Nathan sighed. Even if he tried resistance, what would be the point? He felt his legs being raised, separated, and coated from the ankles to the upper thighs with warm lather.

In long, straight swoops, the barber's blade flashed again. Five swoops to a leg and two quick maneuvers around each knee finished it off.

It took less than a minute to lather and shave Nathan's pubic hair. Then the barber tipped him on his right side and patted his knees. Nathan brought them up to his chest. The barber put the palm of his hand on Nathan's left hip and with his thumb separated the upper buttock from its twin. The shaving brush went swip-swap the length of the cleft. Seconds later the razor followed with silent precision.

The barber stepped away from the chair and eyed his handiwork. Not a spot of lather on Nathan's body. Except for his eyelashes and his nostril hair, Nathan was as hairless as an egg.

The barber dusted Nathan with talcum powder, then lifted him from the chair and carried him to the back of the shop. There was a small metal door in the wall that Nathan hadn't noticed before. The barber set him down on his hands and knees in front of it.

The floor was colder than Nathan anticipated, and a shiver ran through him. But when the barber unbolted the door and opened it, Nathan felt a rush of warm, moist air. He needed no prodding to move off the tile, over the wooden sill, and onto the sawdust-covered floor on the other side of the doorway.

There was a familiar smell to the room that Nathan couldn't quite place—something between uncooked rice and well-tended hamsters. The room was nearly a yard high and about thirty-feet long by twenty-feet wide. As Nathan crept forward he saw, stretching along the wall on the far side, a row of wooden pens. The lighting was dim. A few bare, low-wattage bulbs were screwed into fixtures in the ceiling.

Nathan thought he saw movement behind the wire-mesh doors of the pens, but he couldn't be sure. One of the doors stood ajar, and he started toward it, shuffling through the sawdust on hands and knees. He was halfway there when he heard the clank of the metal door closing behind him.

(continued)

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