I can feel her eyes glance at the side of my head and then dart back to the coffee cup that she holds between her hands like a squirrel. She glances again, but this time a moment longer. Without lifting my head from scrolling my news feed I say, “Out with it, darling.”
“Come on. What is it?”
She smiles at me the way you smile at a silly child who shows you his early abstract artwork. “I think you need a haircut, that’s all. It’s getting a little long on the sides.”
I lift my head to meet her eyes, and I run the fingers of my right hand along my temple and behind my ear. “It’s long? It’s barely been more than two weeks.”
“Little long, babe.” Her smile transforms into a bashful grin. “And. Just a little gray.” She sings the word little.
There is nothing like that first blossom of sprinkled gray hair that comes in at the temples to remind a man of his own mortality. As long as it’s not on my chest–or lower. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scorned a little by her mentioning it, and I am ashamed a bit when I scan her face for some signs of malformation to her beauty, but she cuts me off before I could conjure up any retort. “Tim. Don’t.” She smiles with a confidence that I find so agitating yet so seductive. She has the type of smile that she could, one day, come to breakfast with a full tornado of messy hair, alabaster white, and cavernous valleys of wrinkles on her forehead, velociraptor feet at the corners of each eye, and that smile will always cement her in as a solid ten–and my lovely smart-ass wife knows it.
“Alright, darling. I will go this afternoon.”
“I like it, though,” she says. “You look distinguished.” She can’t hold back her snickering.
I smile at her as if she were a mischevious child. “I’ll go now, actually. Before we take the kids to your sisters. Okay?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll get them dressed. Take your time.”
I take my last sip of coffee, place my cell phone in my pocket, and get up to get my jacket and keys. Before I leave, I turn back toward her and say, “darling.” She looks up at me, smiling like a cat. “You got a poppy seed in your teeth,” and then finger my own incisor as to indicate the location. Her grin reverts to a pucker, trying to suck the imaginary poppy seed free.
The Speakeasy Barber Shop is a throwback to old barbershops. A self-service bar in the back with bottles of local bourbons and cognacs, a lounge in the rear for cigar smokers to sit at a small rusted table with matching ocher dusted seats. Old Man Merkel has already poured himself a scotch, swirling it in the snifter, and he’s cut himself a dark Macanudo. He drops a twenty in the glass tip jar that’s half-filled with the dummy cash from the barbers. When I enter, the bell jingles, summoning the three barbers to sing my name in harmony as if I walked onto the set of the television show Cheers. The three barbers, Johnny, Vigo, and Ozzy, are all related and share the same bushy eyebrows, black and singular. Two sofas line the walls across the chairs and are filled with young men hunched over their cell phones. Ozzy nods to me and smiles, flashing the whitest teeth of the three, and then he shows me three fingers while holding a comb telling me where I fall in the queue.
Old Man Merkel comes here every Saturday whether he needs a haircut or not. He waits outside, sitting at the table alone, wrapped in a stagnant cloud of sweet chocolate smoke that wafts in with the occasional breeze. With three ahead of me, I decide to pour myself a finger of Buffalo Trace and join the old man.
The rear of the shop is overgrown with wild brush, vines up the pallid teak of the wooden fence from the houses to the back. Old Man Merkel’s hair is wild and matted like a lightning struck birds nest. Small tendrils of hair reach out from the edge of his ears, and his five-o’clock shadow is more like a 9’ocklock shadow.
“How are we doing today, Mr. Merkel,” I say as I sit in the empty chair across from him. His face brightens to my presence. An empty home had sent the old man into a dystopian apathy, treasuring the halcyon days of when he was a young man with a wolf pack of five men sporting matching D.A.s and leather jackets. Often he would tell tales of catcalling and stickball, a 67 GTO, and how the war changed all of that for him.
“A fine spirit and a stogie is all I need these days, laddie.”
“I hear that, Mr. Merkel.”
“What are ya sucking on?”
“Buffalo Trace. Helps me accept these grays that are sprouting in.” I point.
“Own it. I have.”
“We have no choice, right?”
“Eh, there’s always a choice, lad.”
It’s awkward, no doubt; sitting there in silence with an old man who just stares back at you through the smoke after nothing is left to be said. Thankfully, Vigo, the barber, calls for him, and Mr. Merkel cuts the cherry off the cigar, and goes inside. I finish my drink and follow him. Johnny is telling his wild tales, inspiring occasional and patronizing laughter from some of the customers. Ozzy laughs at his stories and rolls his eyes at the absurdity of them, knowing the truth of most of his tales and sometimes referring to him as Johnny Bullshit. Johnny is a bragging philanderer, an embellisher, a sinner who loves to sing the songs of his sins. The three barbers often play well off of one another, which is often entertaining enough to attract business. But Vigo appears different today; his eyes sunken above pallid bags of skin, and his hair uncharacteristically messy from his usually stellar pompadour.
Vigo spins Old Man Merkel in the chair so that he is facing me as I sit on the sofa. He wets his hair and combs it, catching the knots and bullying them free.
“Jesus Christmas, lad. You’re gonna scalp me,” Old Man Merkel says, and Vigo doesn’t relent until the comb moves freely through Mr. Merkel’s hair. “Timmy, you know when I was younger, all we drank was Johnny Walker. The best.”
“Johnny Walker is good, but I prefer bourbon.”
“To each his own, I guess.”
Vigo spins Old Man Merkel back around, and we continue a conversation through the mirror.
Old Man Merkel says, “The whiskey is what seals the bond between us. You never trust a man that doesn’t drink. Because he doesn’t trust himself. The spirit lifts the veil so we can see a man, see how he really feels about a thing.”
Johnny interjects, “I prefer the herb, personally.”
Vigo takes the scissors and clips his hair in rapid zips, combing then cutting with the synchronicity of a sculptor.
“There was this one lad who’d never touch the drink, not a thimble. Well, it wasn’t long before we beat the piss out of the horny weasel and sent runnin home to his mama. That was…” Old Man Merkel searches for the date in his mind as if it were cataloged like all his reminiscing.
“That’s pretty interesting. Sounds like you had yourself some really good friends,” I say.
“Oh, them boys. The best.” He smiled.
Vigo fills his hand with foam and slaps it all over Old Man Merkle’s face getting some on his nose and some just under his right eye.
“What’s with ya today, Vigo? You’re really kicking my ass here.”
Vigo doesn’t respond; he turns his back and sharpens the razor on a leather strap. Then Johnny begins another tale about an old girlfriend who, he claimes, used to walk him like a dog. The sound of Vigo’s blade whipping across the leather quickens. Every time Johnny pauses in his story the thrashing of the blade against the leather strap crescendos.
“Vigo, you trying to turn that razor into a scissor?” Johnny says, pausing in his story.
Vigo turns to Johnny and stops. His eyes sunken, are narrow under drooping eyelids. I can see the muscles in his jaw clench. Johnny continues his story, and Old Man Merkle looks at me with a what-the-fuck expression.
From behind the old man, Vigo holds the blade at the base of Mr. Merkel’s neck where the foam begins. He presses the blade, dimpling the skin and swipes upward toward his chin in a swift swipe. No nicks, no cuts. But I can tell the old man is holding his breath and a look of trepidation falls over his face. Vigo returns the blade to the base of his neck, but this time holds it there. Vigo’s eyes stare into the top of Old Man Merkel’s head as if looking into it, through it, through him and through the floor. The muscles in Vigo’s Jaw begin to twitch again. I glance at Ozzy, who returns my puzzled look.
I don’t know why I say it. I wanted to say something, anything to return Vigo back to the room. “Vigo, you mind if you cut my hair today.” It came out like an anxious yelp. Vigo looked at me for a moment then swiped the blade briskly upward.
“You will be next,” Vigo says. “They don’t wait for me.” He gestures to the other customers sitting on the sofa.
Ozzy furrows his brow, and I tell him, “Sorry, Oz. I’m in a bit of a hurry today.”
After Old Man Merkel’s cut and shave, Vigo snaps the black cape off him like a matador’s muleta. The old man pays him and walks out without saying a word.
With a palm out, Vigo gestures for me to sit, and he attempts a smile that resembles more of a snarl. His teeth are gray and shadowed. The scent of sweet cigar smell left with Old Man Merkel and is replaced with a subtle stench of body odor. I notice the sweat stains under Vigo’s armpits when he sprays my head with water. I tell him how I want my hair cut, but it seems he has some other style in mind. I hear the scissors dance around my head. Then he reaches for the clippers and drives them hard into my temples as if grinding the time away. He doesn’t ask me if I want a shave when he fills his hands with foam and covers my face, mushing my cheeks together, preventing me from speaking. He dips the blade in a tall cylinder or blue disinfectant and it clangs against the glass rim. He dries it and begins sharpening the blade again, back and forth as if he is scrubbing a stubborn stain out of a garment.
The young men waiting on the sofas continue to look down into their laps at their cell phones. I can’t see any of their faces, just an array of unkempt hair, eyeless domes, powerless robots waiting for activation. I look at Ozzy who now has perspiration budding under his eyes; eyes that are wide with apprehension. And a twin expression from the kid sitting in Ozzy’s chair.
Vigo stops sharpening the blade, and I can smell him turn around. I can hear his breath on the back of my neck. And Johnny, to no one in particular, begins another tale.
“So there was this one chick, yea. Long, long time ago. She was a solid A but easy as a C-.” Johnny pumps his fist and grins at the room. “She always wanted to touch the hair, yea. I tells her, ‘I only let you girls touch it in bed,’ and she smiled at me.”
Vigo brings the blade to the nape of my neck, and I can feel the pressure slowly increase. I feel his breath steam through his hairy nostrils, his jaw grinds again, and it sounds like conspiring mice hidden somewhere in the walls.
Johnny continues, “So I say to her, ‘I let you have a little taste for now,’ and I let her run her fingers through my hair once. Oh, my goodness. I don’t know who was more hot, her or me.”
The blade swipes up, and I feel a small pang of heat at my jawline. Vigo wipes the blade on the paper towel wrapped around my neck and returns it to my throat. I notice a small tinge of red mixed in with some of the foam that remained on the blade.
“Vigo,” Ozzy says and doesn’t receive a response. I feel Vigo towering over me, breathing like a wolf; his noisome body odor nauseating me. “vIGO,” Ozzy says again with a flutter and the quivering blade at my neck settles for a moment.
Johnny waves his comb around like a conductor with a baton. “So, get this, I take her by her hand–“
“Johnny,” I bark loud enough that the row of all the men waiting lift their heads from their cell phones, their faces matching in a weary emptiness. “Johnny. Shut. The. Fuck. Up. No one wants to hear your bullshit.”
“Mr. Timmy, I—“
“No. Not another word. I swear if you tell another story. So help me God, If you say another word–“
Ozzy jumps in and says, “Yes, Johnny. Just shut up for once and just cut his hair. Poor kid has been sitting in your chair for forty-five minutes.”
Johnny’s eyes bounce around the room, looking for a fan, a single atom of empathy. He only receives the scolding eyes from Ozzy and me. Vigo continues to stare at the floor, and the faces on the sofa return to their cell phones.
I don’t feel Vigo’s breath, I barely smell his body odor anymore. I want to run. I want to leap out of the chair, cape on, half-shaven, covered in foam, and sprint to my car in the lot. But I say, “Vigo, my friend, would you please finish the shave, and we can enjoy the silence for a change.”
The cold steel of the blade drifts across the contours of my face gracefully. Vigo wipes me down and treats my skin with a hot towel. Before I get up, he says, “Wait.” He turns to his table and returns with a dab of white paste on his finger. He works the paste into the small nick on my jawline. “I am sorry,” he says in a bass-filled whisper. He takes the cape off and snaps it away from me, freeing the hair to the floor. I pay him. I tip him double. And the last thing I hear after the bell chime of the front door when I leave is him say, “next.”
Salvatore Sodano is a writer and member of the English honor society Sigma Tau Delta at Southern New Hampshire University. He’s a husband, father of two boys, and an FDNY firefighter since 2003. His most recent work, “The Fool,” is published in Penultimate Peanut Literary Magazine, and his short story, “War with the Magi,” will be featured in the upcoming issue #5 of Waxing & Waning Magazine.