Swing, Charlie, Swing

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Charlie was a fake. His senior class knew he was hoping to sign with a major record label, but nobody knew what genre he sang. He had dyed his naturally blond hair with every colour of Koolaid he could find. It was better to have tie-dyed hair than blond hair, especially given the type of music he was pursuing. With any luck his classmates would assume he was a punk rocker, metal head, or even emo ballad kid, maybe anime songs. Anything but the jazz standards he actually sang. That would be seen as “lame.” How could he possibly admit that his musical heroes were Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and of course the man who had beaten the odds and became a star singing that music, Michael Buble? The jocks even teased the Ed Sheeran fans, even though they were the majority.

Every day after school Charlie went to the assisted living home where his grandfather lived. His mother couldn’t be bothered to see her old, mostly-blind, widowed father. She had always been rather cold, always wrapped up in her own life. Charlie would bring his homework, because several of his grandfather’s friends were retired teachers.

Even though Charlie’s grandfather no longer recognized his own daughter, he always knew Charlie. In fact, it had been Grandpa who introduced all those old songs to him; it would not be an exaggeration to say that his grandfather had raised him.

Now, at the assisted living home, the happiest part of Grandpa’s day was when Charlie came and sang the old songs. Even though they weren’t really supposed to smoke, some of the old men did, including Grandpa. Charlie had also been introduced to cigarettes by these elderly friends. Charlie’s classmates had no idea that his “older, badass friends” who gave him cigarettes were in fact nearly eighty years his senior.

One day, when Charlie was in his grandfather’s room singing to him, Lombardo, the owner of “Lombardo’s Jazz and Gin” nightclub, happened to be walking by on his way to see his aunt. Lombardo stopped dead in his tracks. That singing was live. That voice, at once boyish and sincere, but also masculine and sensual, was the kind of talent that only comes along once in a decade.

As soon as the unseen crooner finished his song, Lombardo knocked on the door. He absolutely had to meet this future star, right now.

“Come in?” An unsure-sounding young man answered. When Lombardo entered the room, he was astonished to find a teenage boy with crazy rainbow hair, in a high school uniform. He knew the singer was young, but this was far beyond expectations.

“I heard you singing, and just had to meet you. I’m Lombardo.”

The boy stared. “THE Lombardo? The nightclub?”

“Yes. And I would like you to be our singer—that is, if your mom doesn’t mind.”

“My mom doesn’t really care about me anyway. This would help me convince her to let me go to music college. She’s sleeping now, but if we catch her before she goes back to the hospital for the night shift, she might let herself be persuaded. It’s worth a try. What do you say, Grandpa?”

“You’ll always be my star, Charlie. If you have talent, you owe it to the world to share it.”

“Charlie?”

“Charles Paul Forsyth.”

Sure enough, Charlie was able to convince his mom to let him sing in the nightclub for three hundred dollars a week. This was more money than he’d ever made mowing lawns.

That very night, Charlie showed up at the nightclub, not realizing that it was the one day off of the week. There were no customers, but the band was there, practicing.

“Good, you’re here. Let’s rehearse. You pick the first song.”

Charlie thought for a minute. “Stardust.” This was his favorite.

The musicians looked at each other in surprise for a moment before they started to play. Charlie was singing with his eyes closed, completely engrossed in the song. Here was the real thing.

After he finished, he opened his eyes and noticed all of the musicians staring at him. Hadn’t they seen a jazz singer before? Or was it just too unusual to see someone so young with this kind of old-fashioned taste in music?

“You’re perfect for our band. But how on earth did Lombardo find you? You’re also perfectly disguised as a punk rocker or something. I never would have pegged you as a crooner.” The base player was probably in his sixties, but quite dapper with his carefully barbered grey hair and black shirt.

Lombardo told the story of where and how he had found Charlie, and the latter could sense the band feeling more and more respect.

“If he’s going to be our vocalist—and I hope he is—I think we’ll need to adjust his image and bring it more into line with our aesthetic.”

The pianist was looking Charlie up and down but it was obvious exactly what he meant.

Charlie ran his hands through his hair. Truth be told, he was not such a big fan of the long, shaggy mop on his head. Sure, Rod Stewart could get away with this, but Charlie was a schoolboy finally getting a chance to be a jazz singer, not a senior rocker with his own castle in Scotland. The main thing for Charlie was avoiding the Little Lord Fauntleroy or even the blond 90s Leo look.

“Yes, I was just coming to that. My contracts with all of my musicians include a clause about looking the part. That means no obvious tattoos, a clean and neat wardrobe—just basics, really—and reasonably well-groomed hair. That includes majestic afros, but not that mess you have on your head. I understand why you went for that look, but you won’t be in high school forever. This is an opportunity for you to upgrade to a gentleman. My wife runs the barbershop next door. I think she’s in. Let’s head over and see what she can do for you.”

Everything was happening so fast. Charlie could only do as he was told and follow Lombardo through the kitchen and into the back alley, from which they re-entered the building next door.

“Leslie, let me introduce our new vocalist. He’s only a senior in high school but what a voice!”

“Is this the one I heard auditioning just now?” Leslie was a plump grey-haired woman with a friendly, decidedly working-class charm. She emerged from behind the reception desk and extended her hand before looking Charlie up and down. She had a motherly smile but it was obvious that she was working out possible haircuts in her mind.

“You know what’s going to happen next. The devil is in the details. How short are you willing to go? I think about an inch on top with faded back and sides would look good on you, but it’s your hair.”

Charlie ran his fingers through his long hair. He wasn’t terribly attached to it. In his focus on camouflaging the colour he had never considered length with any seriousness. A close-cropped style would not necessarily make him look like a pretty boy. If he worked out, he could give off a military vibe.

“Sounds good. Anything that will minimize the blond colour.”

“OK. The easiest, least stressful way to minimize your blondness is to buzz most of it off. Let’s get started getting rid of all this blond hair.”

Leslie gestured to one of the chairs. Charlie sat down and shivered a little because the fake leather seat was cold. It occurred to him that his mother had always liked his hair on the long side when he was a child, probably because she liked the Little Lord Fauntleroy effect; the very features that adults found adorable were all too often the same ones that peers picked on.

“Don’t worry, my wife will take you from a poser kid to a real man in no time. I’ll leave you to it.” Lombardo left the way they had come, leaving Charlie alone with this woman whom he had never met before but who now had power over him.

Leslie caped him from behind and secured the neck much tighter than the stylist at Charlie’s mother’s salon ever did. He was going to have a buzzed nape.

The first thing Leslie did was to gather the right half of Charlie’s hair into a sort of ponytail, secured only by wrapping it around the index and middle finger of her left hand and slice off the length with an alarmingly large pair of scissors. When she let go of the hair in her left hand, it fell with a little thud onto his caped shoulders. The majority of his right ear was still covered, except for the very bottom of his earlobe.

After she had done the same with his left side, she reached for the clippers. For a moment she seemed to ponder attaching a guard, but she picked up a comb instead. She slid the comb under his nape hair, against his scalp, and turned on the clippers. Charlie could feel the comb scratching upward against his skin, followed by the whirring metal blade. This combination marched their way up his occipital bone, all the way to the crown of his head. He could feel the air against the backs of his ears, now exposed.

Leslie shifted to his right and began to encroach on the hair covering his right ear, until her clippers finally reached his temple.

Charlie rather enjoyed the feeling of the clippers tracing up and over around his ear. He caught himself smiling as Leslie moved behind him to shift to the other side, and liberated his left ear as well. Then she put down the comb and turned off the clippers for a moment. Charlie was afraid that was the end, but was relieved to hear the clicking sound of Leslie attaching a guard.

The gentle vibration felt good no matter how many times Leslie went over his back and sides with the clippers; it occurred to Charlie that he must be being given a fade. He almost giggled as she repeatedly edged around his ears; the guard on the clippers was ticklish.

It was finally time to mow down the top hair. Leslie pushed his top hair to the left and then the right as she ploughed through it with scissors, and then repeated passes with the thinning shears. For the last step she carefully snipped the very front row of hair bordering his forehead. It was now short enough to stand up on its own without any styling products.

“There. All done. This is the grown man’s way to deal with hair in an undesirable colour—just clipper most of it off.”

When Leslie delivered Charlie back through the kitchen next door, Lombardo smiled and the other musicians cheered. Charlie liked the positive attention and the airy feeling of having almost no hair at all on the back and sides, and not having to push hair out of his face.

That night they rehearsed for a couple of hours before Charlie signed the contract. He would start the next night.

When he got home his mom was still at work so he just went to bed. Feeling his scalp skin directly touching the pillow, Charlie wondered what people would say about his hair. His grandfather would most definitely approve. His mom would get used to it. What about his classmates? Would they taunt him? Or would they think he was a tough guy who had joined some kind of after-school military program? He was not about to tell them that he was now a professional jazz crooner.

The next morning his mom came home just as he was about to leave for school. “Whoah there, did you have to sign away your hair in order to get that singing gig? You’re looking less like my little boy and more like your dad when he left for his last tour of duty before he was killed in action. I’m surprised how much I like it.”

Good, his mom didn’t hate it. Having the support of the adults in his life had never been particularly useful when he was a kid, but now he was eighteen. He would be all right.

Sure enough, his teachers and classmates barely recognized him, but the comments he received were only vaguely insulting, like “Wow, you’re surprisingly handsome.” There had been nothing to worry about after all.

After school Charlie went to the assisted living home the way he always did, and was greeted with applause. Grandpa beamed when he saw Charlie, although he always did. When Grandpa tried to ruffle what was left of his hair but found too little there for that, everyone laughed.

His first night at the nightclub, Lombardo introduced him and he started to sing his songs, the way he did for his grandfather. After the first bar of the first song, a murmur spread through the audience. A star was born.

When he had been at Lombardo’s for six months, he was discovered by the producer of a local radio station and invited to sing on the radio. That was when Sarah, the most desirable girl in his class, noticed him.

“You were singing on the radio, weren’t you? I was surprised. I mean, I knew you were in music but I didn’t know you sang those kinds of songs. You’re much cooler than I thought.”

Charlie was pleasantly surprised when Sarah took firm hold of his wrist and pulled him into the storage room of the gym. Behind the wire cage full of basketballs were the mats for gymnastics. Sarah pushed Charlie down onto the mat and began unbuttoning his shirt. Was this really happening? Charlie stretched out his neck to nibble on Sarah’s ear. Her high, tight ponytail bobbed. She must have cheerleading practice today.

To his amazement Sarah began to ask him out regularly, and even came to hear him sing at the nightclub. After his performances, she liked to stroke his cropped hair. Sometimes she went with him to Leslie’s to watch his haircuts.

After Charlie graduated from high school, he was able to leverage his work experience as a singer to get into music college. A few of his new classmates were from south of the border. Charlie couldn’t understand why these American kids had come to Canada to study at first—it wasn’t like they needed to learn English—until they explained American-style student debt. No wonder they came up here.

Sarah went to cosmetology school, and when she graduated, she began working at Leslie’s as an apprentice. Sarah herself admitted that she had chosen this career because of how much she loved the craftsmanship that went into Charlie’s haircut when she watched Leslie, and wanted to learn to do it herself.

Even though Charlie was getting locally famous and therefore had to look good at all times, Leslie let Sarah practice fades on Charlie. At first Leslie stayed in the room to supervise, but she knew that Sarah really wanted to be alone with Charlie and the clippers. She could see the longing in Sarah’s eyes. She knew what the two lovebirds got up to after Charlie’s haircuts, but said nothing. After all, she remembered being young and in love with Lombardo.

By the time Charlie had also graduated, he was starting to get gigs outside of Ontario. Sometimes he had to travel to Vancouver. Sarah wanted to come with him, but because she kept his hair too short to require professional styling, it was hard to justify bringing his own hair person. A wife, however, he would be able to justify.

Sarah let her prescription for birth control lapse. She knew Charlie’s mom and probably even his grandfather would approve, since she visited Grandpa in the assisted living home even without Charlie with her. In fact, it was Charlie’s grandfather who planted the idea in her head.

“I never told Charlie’s mom this, but Grandma was pregnant on our wedding day. You think only you modern young people do that? I think Grandma did that on purpose, because women didn’t propose in those days.”

Sarah knew that Charlie had a strong sense of responsibility. After all, Grandpa raised him. When the new moon, then the full moon, and finally the next new moon came and went. Sarah was sure.

When Charlie came back to town from his latest gig, however, he seemed shaken up, even though he had messaged Sarah that the performance was a success.

“Charlie, what’s wrong? I thought the concert went well.”

“Yeah, it did, but I overhead someone in the front row say my voice had changed, so I heard my voice recorded to see if they were right. It didn’t sound the way I remembered it, so I compared the latest recording to an older one, and they were right. My voice is changing, clouding over. I don’t like it.”

Sarah knew what Charlie was talking about. He seemed to get winded more easily lately when he climbed stairs. She also suspected that he knew the cause. If they were to get married, and especially if they were going to live together during her pregnancy—and after the baby came, for that matter—then she couldn’t have Charlie smoking in their home.

“Actually, there are two things I wanted to tell you. I thought I should wait until after your concert, so as not to worry you too much. It’s good news and bad news.”

“Let’s hear the bad news first.” Charlie was fumbling in his shirt pocket, his hand clearly searching for his lighter.

“Grandpa has been diagnosed with cancer. It’s pretty far along, too. The doctor said it was because of all the years of smoking.”

Charlie nearly dropped the cigarette he was about to place to his lips. It was Grandpa and his friends who had taught him to smoke.

“And the good news?”

“We have a baby coming. There, I said it.”

Charlie’s eyes went big. “Will Grandpa make it long enough to see the baby?”

“I don’t know. The doctor wants to Grandpa to quit smoking, though, even at this late stage. I guess she hopes it’ll help.”

“Oh. I guess I’m going to have to do some serious thinking. Maybe look into those patches or something. You know, with Grandpa.”

That was exactly what Sarah wanted to hear. That meant Charlie was at least thinking of quitting smoking. If he lost his voice he wouldn’t be able to sing anymore, and that would be torture for Charlie. Maybe if Charlie tried to quit smoking now, it would help Grandpa.

At the assisted living home, Charlie showed his grandfather the nicotine patch on his arm. “Let’s do this together.”

Grandpa reached out from his bed and stroked the brush cut top of Charlie’s hair. His eyes were smiling. “Don’t make the mistakes I did. Marry Sarah. She’s the woman you need. And I was wrong about being able to smoke and not face consequences. I thought we Forsythe men were invincible. Apparently we’re mortal, too. I’m glad you’re recovering from this before it’s too late for you. It’s probably too late for me, but I’ll try if you try.”

For the next few days, Charlie could barely hold a microphone without shaking. Even when the shaking subsided, he still didn’t know what to do with his hands. That was when Sarah gave him her lucky charm to hold on stage. It was her scrunchie from her high school cheerleading days. Sarah had stopped bleaching and chemically straightening her hair once she got pregnant. Charlie found he actually preferred her natural brunette curls. Maybe she could be persuaded to cut off the dyed, damaged part of her hair.

After three months of not smoking, Charlie noticed that his voice was better than before. Sure enough he began to get better press, too. It was at this point that Charlie felt ready to marry Sarah.

The day before Charlie’s wedding, Sarah cleaned up his fade before accompanying him to the assisted living home. Grandpa was almost as excited as Charlie and Sarah about the wedding. The home had agreed to let Grandpa attend the wedding at the church and have the best wheelchair for the day. Some of Grandpa’s friends had also been invited. “Do I get a Sarah haircut too?”

Charlie looked at Sarah. He hadn’t considered this, but it did make sense. Sarah smiled mischievously and nodded. “The most fashionable way to deal with sparse white hair is to crop it close. No comb-overs.”

Sarah carefully put a cape around Grandpa, choosing the kind that has a bottom that folds up; she wanted to avoid making a mess. Sarah also wanted to avoid making a lot of noise with buzzing clippers, so she opted for a scissor cut. She could crop just as close with scissors. He looked younger already with his back and sides cleaned up. Who knew, maybe he would impress a special lady at the wedding.

The day of the wedding, Grandpa was sitting on the aisle side of the pew on the groom’s side. Sarah’s widowed great-aunt happened to be sitting right across the aisle from him. Sarah smiled under her veil when she realized that her great-aunt was glancing at Grandpa furtively.

Several months later, Sarah gave birth to a baby boy. As soon as he was ready to leave the hospital and to be carried around, she brought him to see Grandpa. Grandpa smiled. “What a lucky little boy. He has many years of good haircuts in front of him, as does his dad.”

Meanwhile, Sarah’s great-aunt had moved, of her own accord, to the assisted living home, even though she had been dead-set against it, because she knew that Grandpa lived there. They dated in the common areas until she passed away.

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