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O.Henry Ending

The Razor

A clean-cut remembrance of a gentle soul

By Tim Swink

It was on the front steps of the YMCA in a steel mill town, where I’d rented a room, that I first met him. I had followed a pretty girl who’d come south for a two-week stay at the coast back to Northeast Ohio. I was smitten. I ended up staying until the end of August, when I returned home to begin my fall semester at Guilford College.

Picking up work on a construction site as a carpenter’s helper or a laborer, the summer job for many college guys down South? No problem. But the problem here was being able to walk through the barbed-wire fences that surrounded worksites without a union membership card. After being unceremoniously asked to leave, I realized that this was a steel town where the world was hard, as were its men. Manpower Temporary Services became my employer, assigning me jobs nobody wanted to do.

After a day’s work for Manpower, I’d sit on the front steps of the YMCA, waiting for my girlfriend to pick me up so we could spend the evening together. It was on those granite steps that I first saw him. Back then, he was labeled “gimp-legged” since he walked with a very bad limp. I later learned that his leg had been crushed in an incident while working in one of those steel mills, leaving him disabled, with a meager monthly check and a room at the Y. Later on those evenings, when my girlfriend would drop me back off, a dread would fill me. As I entered the lobby and could hear shouting and curses echoing up and down the halls, I’d run up the stairs, two at a time, to my third floor room and immediately lock the door. When the noise would die down late in the night, making way for me to tiptoe down the hall to the communal bathroom, where I’d finally wash up.

The Y was a daunting place, where rough men with rough lives resided. But there was one exception: “the man on the steps.” He had a kind, gentle nature. A contradiction in the given environment. A wounded man, physically, against a backdrop of hard men and their hard living. Through evening conversations at the Y, I came to know him. I don’t recall what we talked about. And I don’t recall his name. I wish I did. He deserved that. But I felt a connection with him and I can still see him to this day, just as he looked when he’d gaze up into the soft twilight glow. He’d fixate on jets that periodically streamed across the sky. One day I heard him say to himself, “Man, I’d give anything to be on that jet, going wherever it’s going. It wouldn’t matter. Just outta here.”

During one of our evening talks, I rubbed my hand across my stubbled face and mentioned that I’d either lost or forgotten my razor. The next evening, there on the steps, he reached into his pocket and extracted a worn razor and held it out to me saying, “Here. Take this.” I resisted, but he insisted. “You need it more than I do, to stay handsome for that pretty lady.” Looking down at the razor, I noticed he’d colored the base of the handle red — to identify it, I assumed. You had to protect what was yours in the YMCA.

As I type this piece, a used razor with a red handle sits on my writing desk. A simple gesture that said so much. A remembrance of a kind, gentle man from so long ago, who wanted me to stay handsome for the pretty lady who later became my wife. The kind, gentle man who just wanted to fly away. To anywhere. I hope he did.  OH

Tim Swink resides in Greensboro and is the author of three novels: Curing Time, Madd Inlet and a sequel to Curing Time, Where the Flowers Bloomed, released in February 2024.