My Old Kentucky Cocaine Haircut by Richard Stuecker

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abstract photograph of old barbershop with checkerboard floors but through a filter that abstracts it a bit

I set out before sunrise, a time of day I seldom visit. I plopped in the backseat a small duffel and my shaving kit in case I might stay over a night. I put into my cup holder a silver traveling mug with dark Italian roast I brewed in my French press – the rest of the trip would be coffee from McDonald’s, or maybe a slug of burnt from a Bunn at a place like Morning Glories Café in Paintsville or Luella’s in Pikeville. Down the addictions rabbit hole once more. The morning was alive with wonderful possibilities.

Dawn in the Cumberland Mountains is often misty and foggy at first, but the sun burned off this moisture and revealed itself rising over wooded hills and small mountains as I drove my new Chevrolet Malibu down US 23 through many curves, rises, and hollows. For me the descent into coal country was as foreign as a river boat excursion down the Congo. As I wound down the mountains, I discovered new layers and depths of misery caused by addiction – the effects on the addicts themselves and on their families.

The day before I left, I got the dreaded call.

I was in my office, my inner sanctum, my fortress of solitude at the Bellefonte Hospital CareUnit, an addictions treatment program in Russell, Kentucky, near Ashland. Joanie, my secretary, was guarding my serenity in the outer office, screening calls and visits, and making sure her nails were perfect. Inside, the walls were covered with cloth, the natural color and the texture of dried grass. A Zen fountain bubbled endlessly, and soft new age chimes played. On the wall a tryptic hung: three Hiroshige block prints of a single Japanese boat sailing down an unknown river between cascading mountains and under a threatening sky. My attention was on the Lexington Morning Herald, a Daily Racing Form,and a cup of java from my French press.

“Hey Boss, California on the line.”

My stomach tightened. I put the papers under my desk and put down the Joe. Joanie had been chatting it up with my Veep, Mike, a fallen Episcopal priest who hit the jackpot with sobriety and a Vice Presidency at the nation’s largest chain of chemical dependency treatment centers: CareUnit, Inc. He was calling from his salmon-colored, splendidly bedecked office that CareUnit had just built in Newport Beach, California. Those of us with less splendid offices called it the Taj Mahal. We visited it for meetings and training about every six months. I sat up in my chair at attention, as though he could see me on a hidden camera.

“Your numbers are down, Rick.”

This was not good.

Census in the Bellefonte CareUnit was not at its projected level. AMAs—patients leaving “against medical advice” before the end of treatment—were up. Mike was concerned. Urgently. Vehemently. Vociferously concerned.

“Rick, this is no time to meditate in your office.” (How did he know?) “Get out there and market your ass off—get those numbers up before the quarter ends,” he demanded and hung up.

Remembering the sage advice of Adolf Rupp, the legendary Kentucky basketball coach, “I looked unto the hills from whence my salvation comes.” I knew there was only one thing to do: head deeper into the Eastern Kentucky hills. There were, after all, mostly University of Kentucky fanatics in the hills, many of whom were also fanatical about mood-altering chemicals to increase their pleasure or reduce their emotional pain – sometimes both. I gathered my marketing notes, made appointments for the next day, and spent the rest of the afternoon in a moderate sweat.

I was program manager of a 40-bed unit at Bellefonte H. I signed onto CareUnit in 1987 after 12 years of teaching adolescents. You could say working with this age group was adequate preparation for dealing with people in constant motion, like with cocaine addicts. CareUnit, Inc, cared about census – the number of patients in treatment. Cared about a low rates of AMAs. Cared mostly about profit margins. My Veep only called when he was deeply troubled with my performance: i.e. when my quarterly statistics did not indicate the highest potential profits possible.

I drove down U.S. 23, the Country Music Highway that morning, so named because down its curves and straightaways lay the birthplaces or homes of many Nashville Stars: the Judds (Flatwoods), Ricky Skaggs (Cordell), Loretta Lynn and her sister Crystal Gayle (Van Lear) and Keith Whitley (Sandy Hook). Keith was a tragedy who literally drank himself to death. As if I were descending deeper into a sad country ballad, I drove past broken lives and families caused by the disease. Looking down the hollows, I saw scarred hills and mountain tops sheared off to access the entombed coal. Progress has its price, I was told, and many mountaineers longed for flat land to build on.

Fast-food restaurants with lousy coffee were fairly new, since they began expanding Hwy 23 and opening up the string of towns that took me into coal country. The mid-80s had seen a boom of long-awaited businesses in the mountains. Along the new bypasses there were Food Lion supermarkets, branches of banks out of Lexington, a few hospital clinics, and Mickey Ds. Also along these freeways that opened up the mountain towns had come dealers and profiteers out of Detroit, Cleveland, and Columbus – stopping to distribute marijuana, cocaine, and pills in Ashland, Huntington, and Charlestown, while the locals moved cash and drugs down the state and county roads to every county seat in Eastern Kentucky. I continued descending down the mountain to meet the horrors head on with the promise of clean living after thirty days treatment in the CareUnit.

The drive from Ashland to my marketing meetings took about three hours – plenty of time to mentally prepare myself for my approach to each client referral source. I didn’t actually go from bar to bar, pharmacy to pharmacy, shooting gallery to shooting gallery to pick up patients. I only transported a client to the CareUnit from one of my referral sources once. Marketing in the behavioral medicine world is the art of building relationships with those who might refer a patient or those who have influence in the recovery community. Today my first referral source was Jerry B, the owner of Mane Tamers, a barbershop in Pikeville. In the anonymous 12-step world, last names are never used to protect members’ identity.

After my last mouthful of Columbian from the thermos, I parallel parked in front of Jerry’s shop. He had been sober from drugs and cocaine for about a year, and it was my understanding he was starting a Narcotics Anonymous 12-step meeting in his back room. I checked myself out in my rearview mirror. I could use a trim. Outside an antique light, a revolving candy cane, slowly turned. It had been there since the 30s. So had the barber chairs and the torn leather and polished (now pitted) steel chairs that lined the wall. The floor was black and white checkered tile. Hair from earlier customers had been brushed aside. The peeling paint was as old as the shop and might once have been light yellow or maybe green. Above a chair rail the walls were covered in mirrors where one’s face, Jerry B, and the shop went on forever. They needed to be re-silvered. There was a hand lettered poster board with prices listed signed “Jerry.” I could get a shampoo and razor cut for $5.00.

Jerry B was the only “tamer” in the shop. It was easy to see that he had been a jock at Pikeville High. He had lived a hard life. His arms and thighs were thickly bunched. His belly looked bloated, melon-shaped below his chest. He buckled his jeans below his bulge. He had a full head of thick dark brown hair, a round face with a bulbous nose somewhat like W. C. Fields. His skin was leathery from too much liquor and too many cigarettes. One was burning down to the filter in the prongs of a black plastic ashtray filled with white ashes. I noticed he’d added some bling. A gold necklace was disappearing into the ridge of his neck flesh, and he wore a ring in the shape of a horseshoe — diamonds inside the shoe — on his right ring finger. He wore a scratched up wedding band on his left. He looked at me curiously, then smiled a broad toothy grin, shook my hand with his right and guided me in with his left.

Jerry began getting high in middle school. His arm was good enough for him to play quarterback which made him very popular and essential to the team.

“I was golden,” he told me when I first met him, so golden he came to school drunk and pissed out the window during Mrs. Jackson’s fifth period Friday world history class. Coach sobered him up by game time. “I was an okay quarterback, but damn I loved to pitch.” There was a gaggle of dusty trophies with little statues of men batting and throwing down the shelf from where he kept his combs and shears. “I’d be so high on pills I couldn’t remember the play I had called in the huddle.”

“I’ll be with you in two shakes,” he said, and went to a dark brown door that was standing ajar in a far corner, leaned in saying something I couldn’t hear to someone I couldn’t see, and firmly closed the door. He smiled again.

“What can I do you for, Mr. Rick?”

“Today I’d like a wash and cut, Jerry,” knowing I actually didn’t need a cut. Maybe just a trim. “I’d like to sample your work. See what you’re up to.”

What a great pleasure it was to have someone else wash my hair. Jerry wrapped me in cloth and allowed the chair to go back so my head fit in the sink. He massaged my scalp, the warm water and shampoo cleansing my hair. I breathed a deep breath, closed my eyes and let whatever tension was in me to flow out and down the sink. When he sat me back up, drying my head in a warm towel, I was a little disoriented, like after the first draw on a joint, looking at the eternity of images disappearing into the glass wonderland. The brown door opened and a figure disappeared inside. Jerry did not appear to notice.

“I understand you’ve started an NA meeting. That right?”

“Well, you know Mr. Rick, it ain’t easy.”

“No, I guess not.”

“Guys come and go, you know? Denial is a deep river to cross.”

“Yes it is, Jerry, yes it is.”

A young man, maybe mid-twenties slid out the brown door and out of the shop with a smooth snake-like move. The tiny bell above the door rang and the door closed on its own.

“It’s a killer disease. Just when you think you got it licked, well, Bingo.”

“Yes it is, Jerry, yes it is.”

“How you want it?”

“How do I want . . . ?”

“Your hair, Mr. Rick, your hair.”

The tiny bell rang again. A large black man came into the shop.

“Hey, Jer.”

“Big Tone,” Jerry nodded to the brown door.

“In the back?”


Jerry seemed a little nervous.

“Just above my collar, Jerry, just an all over trim.”

“Gotcha, Mr. Rick.”

Jerry combed back my hair, and I felt his fingers lift some between his first two digits and the clipping of his scissors.

“When you going back, Mr. Rick?”

“Later this afternoon, maybe tomorrow morning. I am wondering if those guys are coming for a meeting.”

“A meeting?”

“I thought maybe you were holding an NA meeting in your back room.”

The scissors stopped.

“Naw, Mr. Rick, though I’m sure some of those dudes could use one.”

The scissors began again.

“Couldn’t we all?” I said.

“You, Mr. Rick?”

“If they had assessed me my junior year in college . . . I was lucky, I guess.”

The scissors stopped.

“You weren’t no hippy,” he stated. “Woodstock?”

I stammered a bit. “Well . . .” He eyed me as though he was trying to imagine me in a fringed leather coat, love beads and bell bottoms.”

“Damn, Mr. Rick, Woodstock.”

“I had friends who . . .”

Jerry laughed, and the scissors clipped through my hair as though pleased.

“Look at you now, dude, hanging with judges, lawyers, executives, all those docs up in Ashland.”

The tiny bell rang. A woman with long dirty blond hair that needed washing and a belly as big as a summer watermelon stopped in the doorway.

The scissors stopped with alarm.

“I told you not to come down here when I’m working, Darlene.”

She sat down across from me. She crossed her legs and folded her arms. She looked out the front window where the words Mane Tamers made an arch and the shop hours were listed in white. I could see the barber light twirling. Darlene suddenly seemed to notice me. The scissors clipped at a pace just a bit faster than the shaking of her foot. She uncrossed her legs and looked at me.

“You that man from up in Ashland?”

I confessed I was. The clippers clipped faster.

“Leave Mr. Rick alone.”

“You leave me alone you miserable dick head. Should have left me alone about nine months ago.” She stood and turned toward me. A skinny dude in tight jeans, red wife beater t-shirt and U of K cap came out the brown door and slipped out the front door. The tiny bell rang.

“He tell you he relapsed?”

“Fuck, Darlene.”

I felt the comb go through my hair and the angry clippers take off another inch. I could see Jerry, Darlene, and my head in the forever mirrors.

“Yeah, fuck Darlene. Now look at me this way and him a goddamn addict,” she continued to talk to Jerry through me.
Hell hath no fury, I thought, but I could not think what to say.

“Damnation, I believe he’s the son of Satan hisself. What am I gonna do with a baby to take care of when they take him away, like they done before?”

I guess I knew Jerry had a record. Jerry continued to cut my hair in silence working on me with precision and keeping his eyes on my head, away from Darlene.

“What you think they doing back there, mister?” she looked at me. “Every junkie in Pike County been through that door the past three weeks.”

The scissors stopped.

“I can stop when I want.” Jerry said to no one in the room. “We need the money.”

“Tell him he ain’t doing it for me and the baby. He’s doing it for just one person like he always done. I bet you high now, Jerry Brown.”

I looked at Jerry’s eyes. Maybe they were a little loopy. I could never tell with coke addicts when they might be high. I wondered about my hair. Was any left? Had Jerry cut some weird symbol in my hair?

I felt trapped between them in the center of the mirror universe of never ending heads – Jerry’s, Darlene’s, and mine in the middle frozen for an eternal moment.

Darlene turned to me.

“What you gonna do for my Jerry, Mr. Bellefonte Hospital man?”

This stung. There wasn’t much I could do. Jerry had no insurance, I was sure of it, just as I was sure Jerry had blown up his nose whatever he had made dealing coke. I was sure it would not be too long before a man wearing a Smokey the Bear hat would figure out what was going on in the back room of Mane Tamers. Addicts always talk.

“That’s what I thought,” she said.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Rick.”

I handed Jerry a twenty. The tiny bell above the door rang out my departure. If I didn’t stop I could be walking into my kitchen just before dinner.

But I did stop. On occasion I could give a free treatment to addicts who would refer clients to the CareUnit. I wondered what my Veep might have made of this grove in his salmon-colored offices in the Taj. I wondered if he and the other Veeps ever thought about the lives of the men and women we treated that made them rich enough to play golf on Thursdays at the Orange County Country Club. It was quiet and I heard a mockingbird warble in one of the few trees that remained along the street. I wondered what I thought of myself.

I reached the offices of Johnson County Mountain Comprehensive Care, a mental health center, where I often met with therapists and the director, just before closing. Nancy, the receptionist, allowed me to call Bellefonte, jangling her keys at me. Joanie answered, my secretary with beautiful nails who could not type a lick.

“What’s the census?”

“Boss, you won’t believe it. Soon as you left the phone started ringing and rang all day.”

It’s the wonder of marketing.

“Call admissions and tell Dave I have one coming. It’ll be a marketing bed.”

In the parking lot I adjusted the rear view mirror so I could examine my head. It was the best looking haircut I have ever had.

Ric StueckerRichard Stuecker is a poet, essayist, and playwright who graduated from Duke University in 1970. Presently, he is a student at the Bluegrass Writer’s Studio MFA program at Eastern Kentucky University. His poems have appeared in or been accepted by Pegasus, Main Street Rag and District Lit; creative nonfiction in Connotation Press, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Crambo, Louisville Magazine and Delmarva Review; book reviews in the Louisville Courier-Journal. A collection of essays on aging, Vibrant Emeritus, was published in 2014 by John Hunt Publishing (London).

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/sam leighton

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