The Worst Ones

Illustrations by Sarah M. Mah

The first one was, of course, the hardest. Mostly because of logistics, although the barber might admit in her darkest heart that she was occasionally awoken by something akin to a feeling. Not guilt; that he deserved it there was no question. Not regret; she had, and would do it again without a second thought. No: it was the shock of it. Somewhere in her restful subconscious she would suddenly remember the act and then her body would jolt awake, her blood pounding. She would take stock of her surroundings. Her room. Her bedclothes in tangles. The still water at the table beside her. The silence. Her pulse would slow. She would nod, because it was all right. It was all right.

The rent, for this area in LA, was astronomical. Her barber shop was above a butcher shop that sold high-end organic meats and meat pies, and it was small and hard to find. There was an old door in the floor that at one time must have given access to the shop below. A laundry chute or something. The windows were mostly painted shut, but she leaned in on the original features, and the place looked cool and industrial. There were exposed brick walls and copper pipes and knobby faucets; all the things that were having a moment before they would be covered up again for another half-century.  

In a short amount of time, she had cultivated a reputation for discretion with her well-connected or famous Hollywood clients for the perfect close shave. Their assistants and handlers made their appointments for them. She saw them on an individual basis, and had no room for other chairs in the shop, no room in that tiny, intimate space for any other barbers. She specialized in men. The turnover was faster in general, but she still took her time with them. Made them feel special. Felt their jawlines, their throats, their hairlines, running the pads of her fingers over their skin, their stubble, before beginning. Leaning them all the way back. A hot cloth on their faces, and their eyes all closed, no matter how alert and shining seconds before. Their phones fell limp in their meaty hands as they relaxed. She used a straight razor. It was fashionable and felt authentic, which was important in Hollywood, where irony was disregarded as a rule.

It happened, as these things do, with a knock at the door. The woman who owned the butcher shop downstairs stood before her.

“Hi,” said the barber.

“Hey,” said the butcher, and stuck out her hand, introducing herself. Their names matter, but I won’t tell them to you. They became friends over several weeks. The butcher brought meat pies up at the end of the day, and they would sit on the stairs of the fire escape and take in the sunset that overlooked the dumpsters and garbage cans. They would sigh contentedly while slowly pulling the forks out of their mouths. So good. And they would talk about their troubles. Their troubles were the same troubles you have. The same as she has, over there, and her. Sometimes they told funny stories about their jobs. Sometimes they complained about things that didn’t really matter.

Then there were the times they spoke casually about things that were actually terrible. They looked ahead, watching a rat climbing into a garbage can, while describing what this man did, or that man said, or that guy’s texts that came in the middle of the night with increasing hostility. They related about the time they had been grabbed or held down or when they were told that if they didn’t do this, that would happen. If they did this, they would have that. They shared names and stories that they’d heard, about this man and what he’d threatened to do, how he’d been able to survive, with his connections, his power. It was Hollywood, after all. They would roll their eyes and sigh. They were not surprised. Why aren’t we surprised? They each knew many other women, and each of them knew other women, and all of the stories of all of these women sat heavily like a fog over the town, like an unseeable thing, like a sound that only they heard. The stories came out of their mouths while they ate the pies, the butcher and the barber. The barber had tiny hairs on her clothes, and she would find them in her bed sometimes, like her clients had followed her there. The butcher smelled like her work, and when she stood in the shower it came off of her head in the steam.

 “Everyone is tired of talking about it,” said the butcher. “The whole ‘me too’ thing,” she said, her fingers making bunny quotes. “It had its time. It’s over.”

“Yeah,” said the barber, “except for the people it’s happening to.”

“We don’t want to talk about it either,” said the butcher.


Things went on in this way: the pies, the haircuts, the sunsets, the rats, and the two women talking. In the news, there were stories about men they knew or knew of, as the men were accused publicly of things the women had heard or experienced firsthand. They noticed that if there were sixty women accusing a man, people still found it hard to prove, hard to believe. The barber knew one of the men in the news. He was a client. He was a casting director. He had once run his hands up her legs and onto her ass while she was shaving him, and she froze and lost her voice and he chuckled and put his hands back over his belly and said how relaxing it was being there. He thanked her. He said she was the best.

In retrospect, she was surprised she hadn’t accidentally done what she intentionally did later. That he hadn’t been bothered in the least that she might do something when she was standing over him with a straight razor. That her body was there for the touching. He wasn’t afraid of her. On her phone later, she read about how it seemed like he was going to get off, how there was a lack of believability or evidence. The hashtag was trending again, and it filled her with dread. His name was also trending. She zoomed in on his face in the photos until he became a beige blur of pixels in need of a shave. By the time he came to her shop again, her last appointment of the day, she had read and digested and obsessed over what other women had said he did. She was revolted. She was angry. She leaned his chair back. She put a hot cloth over his face so she wouldn’t have to see it. He asked something about if anyone ever got a happy ending after a shave, and his hand, which was hanging lazily to the side, brushed up, almost accidentally, and found its way between her legs.

One night, a few months back, the barber had wanted to tell her new friend about her worst one. Everyone has a worst one. The butcher did. You do. I won’t ask you to think about it, but it’s there, behind the ones you might tell the story of, the ones you might even laugh about because what else are you going to do. The barber wanted to tell the butcher about the worst one. But it was too terrible. It would suck all of the air out of the nice evening and there would be nothing to say. The meat pies would taste bad after the story began poisoning the air around them. The butcher would be thirsty, but taking a drink would feel disrespectful to her friend the barber, and the barber knew this and so she didn’t tell the story of the worst one. But it was there. It was her worst one and it was bad. It changed her. She was easily startled after it. She always liked to have a window open. She never wore skirts. Things that had been born from trauma but became habit, became her quirks. Her personality grew around it like a vine grows around a wire fence so that eventually the wire becomes part of the vine. When the man in the chair reached up in between her legs, she acted, because that was who she was.

She knocked on the door of the butcher shop that night.

“I did something,” she said.

The butcher searched her face and said, “What do you need?”

The butcher had a number of cleavers and an industrial meat grinder. It was really quite a piece of equipment and she had spent a great deal of time saving up for it. She polished it so it gleamed, and it had pride of place on her counter. She moved it to the back now, behind a swinging metal door, where she had long tables for butchering. She pulled the blinds all around the shop. Then turned the sign to Closed and locked the door. I will spare you the details because they are grisly and took all night to achieve, but in the end there were rows of meat pies in the counter and in the freezer piled up in an organized fashion. And by morning, the floor was rinsed and the shop was clean and the butcher and the barber began their days, their hands shaking almost imperceptibly.

Because her food was often bought for industry events, the butcher knew a lot of women in the business. Women who were receptionists or assistants, publicists and handlers. Sometimes stories came to her that way, stuck to orders and money, floating to the floor when food was picked up, clinging to voice mails and texts. These stories were other women’s worst ones. Terrible acts done with ease, with little thought, with insistence and violence, without regret.

The butcher heard the stories with increasing anger and frustration, and recommended her friend, the barber. Because the butcher had her own worst one too, and she was also changed. “Book him in there,” she said. “You’ll be glad you did.”

Something had turned in them, the butcher and the barber. They had become the vine and the wire and it was hard to distinguish which. They didn’t think. They took all the worsts and they acted. There was a whisper network. There was a reckoning. There was a door in the floor. There were rumblings of disappearances that were covered up by the same women who had covered for them when they’d been alive for different reasons. If anyone knew, they would have said, I told you they are crazy, all of them, nuts. The meat pies sold. They were ordered by women and picked up by women and placed on brunch tables at meetings where almost no one ate carbs, but some people were on the keto diet and so bit heartily into them, and wiped their mouths as the meat juices ran down their chins, nodding at projected deadlines, laughing as a woman filled their coffee, then closed the boardroom door gently behind her.

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