February 28,th, 2008
Wilson laid the last of the morning charting aside, just for a moment, and rested his head in his hands. He winced a little as he felt the faint sandpapery brush of light stubble on his fingers -- he'd overslept, had spent the time he should have used shaving searching for a pair of socks instead. Suddenly apprehensive, he leaned back and looked down, pulling his pants legs up a little.
One blue sock. One dark brown.
Wilson shook his head and sighed.
It never got any easier, but some days were worse than others. Some days it was just the crushing weight of being a Department Head -- the budgets, the committees, the meetings, the sheer volume of administrivia that ground him down and spat him out.
Other days it was the dead that surrounded him, pushing their medical files at him, demanding he pore through them just one more time to find the magic bullet that would cure them. He saw them in the shadows sometimes -- the grandmother with lung cancer, the father of three with advanced colon cancer, the four-year-old who'd never see her fifth birthday.
The worst days were a combination of the two, plus the added burden of having to defend House from the consequences of his latest tilt at the windmills of normalcy. All too often it was like taking matches away from a child, only to watch helplessly as the child picked up a blowtorch.
Just thinking about it was making Wilson's stomach clench; he opened his top desk drawer and took out a small bottle of pills. Thumbing it open, he shook one of the tiny oval tablets into his palm and looked at it thoughtfully. He asked himself the question he always asked: did he really need a Xanax right now?
He forced himself to breathe deeply and rolled his shoulders to try and ease some of the knotting tension there. After a while the answer came: no, and he tipped the pill back into the plastic bottle and put it away.
Wilson leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, planning out his lunch hour. First and foremost, he'd stop by the locker room and shave. He'd go out for lunch, get a haircut, get away from the hospital. Get away from the paperwork, from all the people he couldn't save, no matter how hard he tried. Get away from House.
Lost in thought, he didn't hear his balcony door open until it was too late.
"I still don't know why you wanted to come with," Wilson grumbled.
House continued tapping his cane against the dashboard of Wilson's Volvo. He'd hijacked the radio presets the moment they'd gotten in the car and had been switching back and forth between classic rock and classical ever since. Keeping time with the cannon blasts from the 1812 Overture, he glanced over at Wilson.
"Something wrong with wanting to spend some time with my best bud on his birthday?"
Wilson sighed, then winced as House adjusted the volume to make the cannon booms louder. He'd actually been surprised when he had opened the door to his office this morning and nothing had fallen on him, jumped out at him, or otherwise attacked him. As the morning progressed and nothing had happened, he'd begun to allow himself to hope that House had forgotten this year.
"I'm not twelve, House. Birthdays don't mean that much to me anymore."
"Awww, Jimmy. Does this mean no ice cream? No candles? No girls jumping out of cakes?"
Wilson's gaze swung round, startled. "Girls jumping out of --" He forced his eyes back to the road and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. "No girls. No cakes. I'm getting a haircut, House, because I'm a grownup."
House slouched down in his seat and punched one of the radio buttons. The sound of Elvis Costello singing about Harry Houdini filled the car.
"You're no fun."
"So they say," Wilson muttered. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw House's blue eyes narrow.
Neither of them said anything else the rest of the way.
"This isn't a barbershop," House growled. He'd sunk low into one of the cavernous guest chairs and was glowering from its depths like a disgruntled tiger.
Wilson pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. "Yes. It is."
"No, it isn't. It's a beauty salon, and that's something entirely different."
House swung his cane in an arc, narrowly missing Wilson and another waiting customer. "There's enough chrome and black leather in here to stock a Harley dealership and have enough left over for a biker bar on the side." He turned a critical eye to the display shelves by the chairs. "What the hell is all this stuff anyway?"
"Can you keep your voice down? It's shampoo, conditioners --"
"Professional Molecular Hairsetter."
Against his better judgment, Wilson leaned forward, intrigued.
House turned the brightly colored product box so Wilson could see. "Tiny molecules of steam penetrate the hair shaft reforming the chain bonds to create healthy, strong beautiful curls," he read. "Did these people even take chemistry in high school? Hair is dead!"
He pushed the box back and looked around.
"Besides, it smells like an entire fruit salad exploded in here, and when I say fruit --"
"House!" Wilson hissed. "Shut up. Now."
"Dr. Wilson?" Wilson looked around, grateful for the receptionist's interruption. She smiled at the two men and tapped her long fingernails against the black granite counter. They were painted and buffed to a high polish like crimson talons.
"If she was any more perky she'd be a coffeepot," House mumbled. He grunted as Wilson's elbow dug into his ribs.
The receptionist blinked in confusion, then her bright smile returned at full wattage. The effect was enhanced by her ebony lipstick.
House frowned at her and she flinched.
She shifted her gaze to Wilson. "Mister Julian is ready for you now," she chirped.
"Thank you, Renee," Wilson said, and started to rise from his chair. He was stopped by House's hand on his right arm.
Wilson looked down. House was shaking his head decisively. "No," he said. "Friends don't let friends get their hair cut by guys named Mister Julian."
His hand still on Wilson's arm, House lumbered to his feet. Wilson braced himself, taking House's weight for a moment.
"Come on," he said. His voice was stern, brooking no argument. "I'm taking you to my barber."
"You have got to be kidding me," Wilson groaned, looking up at the grimy window. They were on one of the worst blocks, in one of the worst parts of Princeton, and the fact that there was a rotating red-and-white barberpole on the storefront gave him absolutely no comfort at all. He had to squint to read the business name, painted in flaking gold on the window.
JOE'S, it said. HAIRCUTS. Underneath that, in smaller letters, the legend Joe Kraznik, Proprietor. And beneath that, almost invisible, obscured by years of neglect, We specialize in hair pieces.
"Joe's the best, Jimmy." House hooked the handle of his cane through the door handle and pulled it open. "How do you think I've maintained my boyish good looks all these years?"
"All these years is right," Wilson mumbled, and was rewarded with a thwack on his shin. "Ow!" he yelped.
"Age before beauty, birthday boy," House said, and pushed him into the shop.
The first thing Wilson noticed was the smell.
The inside of the barbershop smelled ... spicy. And sweet. But only a little sweet, not like Mister Julian's mango-infused salon. This was a sweet like new-mown grass, like woodsmoke, like the ocean at dawn.
What the hell?
And it was dark. Well, not really dark dark, just a dim sort of dark, like someplace where all the lights weren't turned on very often.
Wilson stood still, eyes trying to focus. There was a long, cloudy mirror along one wall and ceiling fans with wooden blades spinning lazily, stirring dust motes in the late-winter sunlight that filtered in through the dirty window.
It was pleasantly warm in the shop, a comfortable animal warmth like falling slowly asleep under worn woolen blankets.
Wilson was jolted out of his reverie by House banging his cane against the small tin bell suspended from the doorway. He flinched at the discordant jangling.
"Joe!" House yelled. "Got a customer!"
Silence. Wilson realized there were no other patrons in the establishment.
"C'mon," House muttered. "Sit. Joe'll be out in a minute."
"Are you sure? I mean, this place looks like where Norman Bates probably got his haircuts." Wilson's next words were swallowed as House shoved him into one of a row of chairs aligned against the near wall. After shooting an annoyed look at House that was completely ignored, Wilson picked up a dusty magazine from the nearby table.
NIXON INAUGURATED! the headline screamed.
"Damn, House -- these magazines are older than the ones in the clinic."
"You got a complaint about our periodicals?"
Wilson's head jerked up; the question had come in a low rumble from behind the front counter by the door.
"Joe." House's voice was easy and relaxed. "Brought a friend in for a shave. Think you can fit him in?"
"Shave? I thought I was here for a haircut. I can shave myself, and besides there's nobody else --" Wilson's objections were stifled with a swift kick to the ankle.
"Could you please. Stop. Doing that," Wilson growled. House ignored him.
"What do you think, Joe?" he asked.
Wilson narrowed his eyes, looking hard at the man behind the counter. Wasn't there when we came in -- or was he? The barber was huge, three hundred pounds, minimum, his attention concentrated on the flimsy news-sheet before him. From Wilson's perspective, it looked like The Racing Form.
"Who d'you like in the fifth?" the man asked. The question was clearly directed at House.
"Santa Anita or Belmont?"
Joe licked his right forefinger, carefully turning the thin newsprint page. "Belmont."
"Wonder Boy." House's voice was steady. "I like Wonder Boy in the fifth."
The big man slapped a hand down, trapping the Racing Form pages. "I do too," he said. "Wonder Boy it is."
Heaving himself up from his stool, Joe stepped out from behind the counter.
"Dr. Wilson," he said. "If you'll please take a seat." He waved one meaty hand, vaguely indicating the row of barber chairs.
"Really, I'm just here for a haircut," Wilson began.
"He doesn't need a haircut," House said.
Joe nodded. "You don't need a haircut."
The chair was comfortable, Wilson decided, even if it was old and creaky. It was burgundy leather, with large brass rivets set down the armrests and along the sides. He'd taken off his black lambswool coat, his suit jacket; loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top of his collar. It felt strangely odd to be in this place, tilted back and at rest in the middle of a working day. However, this seemed to be turning into a very odd day and so maybe it was all right.
Wilson looked around as Joe re-appeared suddenly by his side, an armful of steaming white cotton towels in his grasp. He jumped a little as the first hot towel was draped gently over his eyes, effectively blindfolding him.
"Easy, Jimmy," House murmured, and Wilson tried to relax. More hot towels went up and around his face, wrapping under and over his jaw and across the bridge of his nose. Steam from the soft cloth began to permeate his skin, seeping deep into his pores, soothing his ever-jangling nerves. Slowly, slowly, he began to sink into the welcoming leather of the chair. He heard a breathy snap as a larger towel was shaken out, felt an increase in warmth on his chest as he was covered up. He raised his head a little as Joe's big hands drew the towel up a bit and tucked it around his shoulders.
The shop was quiet. The ceiling fans spun, the soft thwap of the blades sounding like birds' wings. There was the faint squeak of leather shoes as Joe moved away from the chair. The dull thump of House's cane accompanied him and Wilson was left alone. He was vaguely aware of the two men conversing in low tones, and after another moment he was asleep.
He awoke to to the sound of something being briskly mixed in a cup. Wilson tensed again, then remembered where he'd heard that quick, rattling sound before. It had been his grandfather Jacob's morning ritual, when Wilson and his older brother had stayed there for weeks upon weeks during the summer. A white china cup, chipped on one side, a badger-hair shaving brush with a red and white wooden knob for a handle ... his grandfather had lathered up his face with clouds of soap, a bubbly white beard.
"Santa Claus!" David had shouted, and Grandpa Jake had rolled his eyes, touched the bridge of his nose.
"Leo and Bette are raising you boys as meshuggenah shegetz," he'd muttered, then dipped his steel Gillette safety razor under the hot water from the tap and begun shaving in long, easy strokes.
The memory vanished as the towels on his face -- now cooled to lukewarm -- were carefully unwound and lifted away. The cloth over his eyes was taken away, but quickly replaced by another, freshly steamed and hot. He heard a soft click as the china cup was set down on a counter, then the rolling hiss of a drawer being slid open.
"Not that one." House's voice, and Wilson turned his head a little towards the sound. Joe mumbled something. "That's it. The teers is-sard." House had spoken the last words with an accent, and a long-unused part of Wilson's brain accessed his McGill University days in Quebec. Thiers-Issard. The name meant nothing to him, and he was confused. Did a French company buy Gillette? he thought.
The china cup was picked up again and the brisk mixing continued. There was a low grunt and a faint squeak of leather, then a louder squeaking that tailed off into a metallic rattling sound. Rolling stool, Wilson thought. Guy carrying that kind of weight probably can't stand too long. Funny he's still a barber. There was a different sound too -- a fast fapfapfap that Wilson couldn't identify. It didn't matter. Warm lather was being spread on his cheeks, his chin, dabbed carefully under his nose, and Wilson allowed himself to enjoy the soothing heat and the feel of the soft brush on his skin. The shaving soap was different than the fizzing canned foam he'd always squirted into the palm of his hand. This was light and airy, creamy and smooth against his face. It wasn't scented with strawberries or peaches or any other fruit. It wasn't sharply antiseptic. It was simply clean.
The barber gave one last flick of lather to the tender skin above Wilson's larynx; the badger-hair brush dropped back into the cup, striking a small ringing note. The fapfapfap sound continued for a moment more, than stopped.
Wilson lay quietly, the heat from the last towel still sinking into his closed eyes. He offered no resistance as the barber placed two fingers on his forehead and turned his face gently to the right.
The touch of the razor was a revelation. The blade seemed to float above his skin, hardly touching it; the downward stroke a smooth, skating glide. The barber's thumb was firm on his left cheekbone, kneading upward, pulling the skin taut for the cutting blade.
This wasn't a Gillette. This wasn't any kind of safety razor or disposable shaver Wilson had ever used. He could feel it -- the blade was too long, too wide. There was no drag, no tug. What --
An image flashed into his mind. Old black-and-white movies, crinkled photos taken with his grandparents' Brownie camera ...
Wilson shifted uneasily in his chair.
A pause, then, "Yes?"
House's voice, much too close to his left ear. Wilson froze. The razor glide stopped in mid-stroke.
"Jimmy, don't tense up."
Wilson ignored him and raised his left hand, intending to pull away the warm towel still covering his eyes.
Two things happened almost simultaneously: the razor left his cheek, and strong fingers wrapped around his left wrist, stilling it in mid-reach.
Wilson grunted. "Come on, House. What the hell is this?" Twisting a little to the side, he started to sit up, using his right arm for leverage.
The hand left his wrist and pressed firmly on his chest, preventing his escape and forcing him gently back in the barber chair.
"House," Wilson whispered. "I've seen Sweeney Todd. Don't tell me I'm going to end up as a TV dinner on someone's plate."
House chuckled softly. "No demons of Fleet Street here, Jimmy. Just trust me."
Drawing a shaky breath, Wilson made a concerted effort to settle his nerves. "Says the man holding the weapon." The hand stayed on his chest, a warm counterbalance holding him down. "Okay," he said. "Okay. Just tell me what kind of meat cleaver you're using."
Another low chuckle. "Nothing so clumsy." The hand lifted away, and for a moment Wilson missed the weight. He felt warm breath on his temple, fingers urging him to turn his head just slightly this way.
"This is a Thiers-Issard, Jimmy. One of the finest razors ever made." House was continuing to work as he spoke -- short, even strokes that slid over Wilson's skin. "High carbon, hammer forged. Damascus steel."
The blade whispered over Wilson's cheekbone, following the arch.
"Same method used by Japanese swordsmiths." Up and down, one side and then the other. House's fingers were warm, his touch gentle. "You know how they do it?"
"Hrm," Wilson mumbled, trying not to move.
"They take a single piece of steel, heat it and fold it over itself, and hammer it flat. Then they do it again -- bend it, hammer it flat. Over and over. Bending. Hammering. Beating it down dozens of times, folding it over and starting again. Pushing it to the breaking point. Until the steel is strong. Strong enough to hold an incomparably hard edge. Strong enough to shear through lesser metals. Strong enough to bend, and not break in the bending."
He knew House was leaning closer; he could feel the increase in warmth, the soft exhalations of breath. He had a sudden urge to reach up and remove the folded towel, to look into those blue eyes and read what was there.
The shop was quiet. The only sounds were that of the fans, and the unoiled squeak of the wheeled stool as House maneuvered it from one side to the other with his good leg. Wilson's lips were dry; he licked them a little and tasted soap.
"Where's Joe?" he asked softly.
"Out," House said. "Placing bets. Wonder Boy in the fifth." The stool squeaked again as House moved. "Ready?"
Strong fingers on his chin, the very slightest of pressure.
Wilson tilted his head back, and bared his throat to the blade.
He blinked, eyes readjusting to the dim light. Cool terrycloth moved gently over his face, wiping away the last of the lather.
Wilson felt curiously boneless, and he lay still as House picked up a small glass bottle and poured a little liquid into one palm. He rubbed his hands together, then smoothed the liquid over Wilson's face. One thumb slowly traced the length of his right cheekbone, then House was stepping back and wiping his own hands with a clean towel.
"Up and at 'em, Jimmy!"
Wilson sat up slowly as House used his cane to lever the barber chair to an upright position. He ran one hand over his cheeks, his jaw. His skin was smooth, satin-clean -- the epitome of the proverbial baby's bottom, he thought.
"I want to see it."
House tossed the cloth aside. "See what?"
"That butcher knife you were shaving me with."
House shrugged and picked up a small object from the counter.
"Careful," he said.
Wilson took it gingerly. The blade was open, standing out from the pale horn handle, and he looked at it with surprise. What had felt like a giant cleaver against his cheek was, in reality, only three inches long, with an unusual wavy pattern in the body of the steel.
"The pattern comes from the forging." Wilson looked up; House was leaning back against the counter, resting his right leg. "Different people call it different things -- Forty Steps, Ladder of the Prophets, Jacob's Ladder."
He turned the razor over, keeping his fingers well away from the exposed blade. The small instrument was beautiful, brutal in its elegant lines. He blinked again as a tiny red drop welled from his left forefinger; it had cut him, and he'd never even known it.
A towel landed in his lap as the razor was taken from him. House's voice was gruff. "Told you to be careful."
They stepped out into twilight. Wilson looked around, unbelieving.
"Shit!" he cursed. "How long were we in there? What's the time?" He fumbled at his wrist. "I've got patients, meetings, committments --"
"Calm down," House snapped. "You don't have anything. Cuddy gave you the afternoon off."
Wilson stopped trying to look at his watch.
"What do you mean Cuddy gave me the afternoon off? What are you talking about? House, what did you tell her? What have you done?"
House's gaze was steady. "What friends do," he said. "I could stop ..."
Wilson stared at him. "No. I'm just ... unaccustomed to it."
A corner of House's lips quirked up, and after a moment Wilson smiled back.
"I never got my haircut," he said.
House reached into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a woolen cap, worn and frayed at the edges. "A haircut," he replied, "wasn't what you needed."
Wisps of white spiraled down, catching like soap flakes in the lambswool of Wilson's coat.
It had begun to snow.
You can't always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes, you just might find -
You get what you need.
-- from You Can't Always Get What You Want, words and music by Mick Jagger and Keith Richardson, 1968