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Remembering Billy
by Sue Ellis


Sue is a retired postal worker who lives and writes in Spokane, Washington. Some writing credits include Idaho Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Prick of the Spindle, and the Internet Review of  Books.

My infant son was eight months old before he needed his first haircut, a rite of passage my Dad quickly volunteered to oversee. “Please,” I said, “don't take him to Billy's.” In 1968, there were two barbershops in the Northwest farming community where we lived, one of them requiring a wait of anywhere from ten to forty minutes, while a stop at Billy's could usually see a man in and out in less than fifteen.

Billy's shop was austere, but not unwelcoming with its odd collection of shabby furnishings and the view of Main Street through the large storefront window. The finish on the wood floor was worn thin where Billy's leather oxfords shuffled in an endless orbit around the black barber chair. He came into my parents' cafe where I worked now and then, a reserved man with no talent for small talk, although he was faultlessly and formally polite. “He's a funny old guy,” I said to my dad, after meeting him the first time. “Yup,” said Dad, “he's quite a Billy.”

It took a few encounters before it occurred to me that Billy's gender identity didn't particularly match his mannerisms. At first I thought nothing of the fact that his rounded hips and smallish waist weren't commonly seen in men, because he was odd in other ways as well. He wore a cheap wig that looked worse than his bald head might have, and typically dressed the same way, wearing a loose-fitting, white shirt tucked into belted black slacks, and a suit coat whether it was hot or cold. But it was his grandmotherly voice and gentle personality that convinced me he ought to have been born a woman.

Still, people accepted him. To my knowledge, no one teased or bullied him, a fact that didn't strike me as exceptional at the time, but the truth was that Billy carried an air of dignity about him. He inspired kindness rather than cruelty in his stoic acceptance of the condition of his birth. And his forbearance didn't end with the gender issue.

Rheumatoid arthritis was apparent in his hands, and yet he supported himself and his sister all his life, barbering.

After a particularly bad haircut, I asked my Dad why he kept going to Billy's. “He needs to make a living,” he said, “same as anybody else.”

It was a mindset that was shared among many men of the community, and they were easy to spot because Billy only knew how to cut one style.

The Dandelion, for lack of a better description, looked like he'd used the electric clippers to mow up to a predetermined cranial latitude before abruptly switching to a one-inch swath for the top. It's the look my sweet-faced boy wore home from his first haircut, lollypop in hand. I surprised myself by not minding. He was well and whole, and whatever life had in store for him, wearing the town's badge of honor wasn't a bad way to begin the journey.

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