One barber chair, occupied (by me). One spare, empty. Mirrors everywhere. A damp hair smell, but not hair products; this isn’t a salon. Cut hair on the floor in several hues, mostly white and gray.
Three old guys in padded chairs, waiting. Three identical chairs, empty. No news or sports playing; the four-foot thinscreen on the wall is broken. Its replacement is in the corner, still rolled up in its long, thin Featherwrap™ shipping tube after more than a month.
A fake fireplace, turned off. Fake wood fires seem pointless, when people scarcely remember real ones. A coat rack by the door: two jackets, no hats, one umbrella.
Main Street in the window. Countless e-cars, humming softly as they zoom past, beyond the well-worn sidewalk. A pothole repair robot-truck along the opposite curb, groaning, thumping, gasping, steaming.
A table with magazines, mostly Time: Heritage Edition. Nearly everything else went out of print, what, thirty years ago?
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The shop is a comfortable place to hear low-grade gossip and escape the grind. It’s a dubious setting for making major life decisions, even if this haircut will serve fresh goals and new purposes. And even if you and the barber are both divorced, about the same age, and she’s cute.
It’s a particularly awful place for learning that major life decisions have been made for you. That should happen someplace harsh and sterile. A hospital room. A supervisor’s office. The dining room table, when the kids are upstairs with their VR, and your wife sits down with a sigh – but too little emotion – and says it’s not working for her. Hasn’t for a long time. And it’s over.
An old guy speaks. “So Frank, my Key Largo retirement? Not happening.”
“Too pricy?” Frank rumbles.
“No, money’s fine. Credit score too. But that new federal civic score? Subtract 20 for retirement, and mine’ll be 43. Can’t even vacation there before I retire. That takes a 65. And no appeals for a year, they say.”
I perk up. I’ve been too busy to figure out the new civic score. The official letter announcing and explaining mine is in my back pocket, unopened.
“You’ll lose your worker housing when you retire, Bob.”
“We’re approved for a trailer park in Page, Arizona. No beach, but warmer than here, and sand, maybe.”
“And scorpions and snakes. But you could buy a Key Largo resort.”
“Yeah. Just can’t live there. Maybe I’ll buy the trailer park. Call myself king.”
“Yeah, king. My kid wants to run for city council. But he’s divorced – after an unapproved third child. Didn’t vote in his twenties. Score’s so low he can’t file for dogcatcher. Or get a business license. That’s 70 to 90, depending on the business.”
I break out in a cold sweat.
The third guy speaks. “The granddaughter wants to be an engineer. Fourteen-point boost, when you’re hired. But she had to join that fringe party and recruit for protests on the SocialWeb. Got caught with black-market weed, too. They may let her graduate, but no way she gets the job, or marries officially or has an authorized kid. Not with her score. Garbage collector in a ghost town, maybe. She can kiss her dreams goodbye.”
“Won’t let her near enough to kiss them, Carlos,” Frank says.
Bob and Carlos slowly nod. Bob intones, “I figure one lost generation, maybe two. Then most kids adjust to scorekeeping that starts before they know what a score is, and nothing ever goes away.”
Frank sighs loudly. “Connecting civic scores to housing will speed that up. Low enough score, all you get is a room. Or a bunk. And soon they’ll probably be scoring how you voted, not just whether you voted.”
I grip the armrests so hard my hands hurt. Shaking violently would be especially bad in the barber’s chair.
I’m divorced. I’ve rarely voted. I belong to no political party. I was arrested at eighteen for stealing four cases of toilet paper and driving them and my friends – without a license – to a favorite teacher’s home, for the most artistic TP job our town had ever seen. It didn’t make the news, but I did: larceny, driving without a license, vandalism.
I’ve bounced from career to career, but I’ve worked hard. I finally have the money, connections, inventory, and reputation to start my own business and hire myself to do my dream job. My next stop today, after the barber shop, is the city’s business licensing bureau. After that, a photo studio for some marketing headshots. A month from now and three blocks up the street, I’ll open my own antique book shop, specializing in buying, preserving, restoring, and selling books – actual books, with covers, bindings, paper, ink, the book smell. I’ll host book clubs and author readings. I can work there until I drop dead.
The object is finally to be happy. (My ex-wife says she’s happy.) But I might be monumentally screwed.
Rita holds up the hand mirror. I pretend to inspect my hair, then nod. She’ll trim the back of my neck, and we’ll be done.
Her ear phone beeps. She apologizes and answers it. While she recites her business hours, I reach for the letter in my back pocket.
The number’s in large, bold type: 68. Eligibility for appeal: three years, not one.
In my stomach a familiar weight appears, fully formed. Hopelessness. A firm conviction that I have no future. Only this time it’s really true. I’m as finished as my haircut.
One deep breath, then a few more. Oxygen brings resolve.
At least I’ll look good for one more minute.
I e-pay Rita, emptying my sundries account – roughly a 1200% tip – nod good day to everyone despite my jangling nerves, and open the door.
Will they adjust my civic score one last time? If so, which way? I’m arguably doing them a favor.
I crunch briskly across the crumbling sidewalk and into the street, knowing the robot truck won’t have time to stop.
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