Here is a short story from my first collection....
It was the third haircut he needed that year, but the first one he had arranged at his chair. The young man would be in around ten-thirty, time enough before lunch, after the nannies brought in the boys whose parents were too busy to hold their hands. Roberto looked at the wall in quiet indifference, the photocopies of celebrities and civic leaders taped randomly next to the mirror over faded models’ hairstyles that had gone out of fashion a decade ago. They would be back he thought to himself, they always came back. It seemed a shame to hide their faces, his friends from the past that reminded him of customers trying to place their own face between two ears, trying to picture a smile after his work was done.
He had never wanted to cut hair, or do anything for that matter. He had not wanted to leave Cuba either, but his parents were of the age to make decisions for him, and so they chose where he would live and how he would make a living. He was not complaining, his father had spent most of his life in poverty, a soldier for losing armies, the causes not as significant as the colors they wore. Discipline had kept him alive, and would keep his son alive, as long as the United States Government hadn’t the time to examine battles long forgotten in bones buried deep beneath the jungles. To their neighbors, he was simply known as the Colonel, and nothing was ever said about how he arrived at his rank or title.
Roberto’s son would be stopping by later that afternoon, and the two would take a cab to Little Havana to share some drinks and familiarity. His son did not understand money (although he made quite a bit of it), and would try to explain to his father that the real estate alone could provide a comfortable retirement.
“I don’t get it pops, why do you want to sit around all day in that hole? You could be traveling, visiting Nereida and the kids. You could finally relax.”
He did not like Nereida’s husband, Kimmy, who drove a produce truck from Florida to Ohio twice a week, and always smelled like the blue disinfectant he placed his combs in. Roberto partially blamed himself for teaching his daughter how to cut men’s hair. Kimmy was a regular at one time, Nereida cutting his hair on the day her father went down to city hall to renew a permit. Unfortunately, he could never shake that feeling that Kimmy was more interested in a free haircut than his daughter’s lovely eyes. She was too skinny.
It was not her fault. A mother teaches her daughter about men, and Nereida’s aunt was too busy with her own children to wonder if her niece’s husband was a moron that drank too much. The grandchildren were wonderful, as most grandchildren are, and Roberto spoiled them the way his own father had. It was the first time he had seen his father relax, no longer haunted by other men’s battles, comfortable with his family and their success in the new country. His children has turned out well, despite his shortcomings. He wondered what type of woman his son would marry, he wished she might be like Louisa.
The young man walked in at 10:25, and immediately, Roberto forgot his name. He was nice looking, clean shirt, ironed pants, a hint of styling mousse, but not much. They greeted each other in a friendly matter, the young man using Roberto’s father’s name to address the older man, Roberto grunting an apology for not having any coffee left.
“That’s okay, I don’t drink coffee in the afternoon.” This pleased Roberto very much, as he found coffee would eventually make his hands unsteady, especially around little boys’ ears.
“Would you like to sit down first, to collect your thoughts?” Roberto heard himself say for the first time in his life. He never even offered his son a seat, unless of course it was in front of a mirror.
“No, I’m fine, we can begin whenever you’re ready.” Roberto sat down in the chair with the best light, and looked straight ahead at the photocopy of Steve McQueen that he had signed the actors name to. The original picture had been stolen, probably sold for less than the price of a haircut. He looked to the right at the prices on the wall and wondered if this young man would want to raise them significantly. His son had been trying to convince him for years to do so, but again, his son did not understand money and the value it retained in the hands of a steady customer. Already the “$9” had forced three of his cliental to come twice a month instead of their usual weekly pilgrimage. He was sad to see this, but they understood. The young man carefully placed white tissue around his neck.
“Would you like a shave as well?” The young man’s fingers were strong and sure, a good sign.
“No, just hair.” His own shaving skills were rarely called upon these days, another reason for the young man’s arrival. Besides, he never got used to the feeling of someone else’s knife so close to his chin. His father had warned him about this, about generals who became used to other men’s humanity. Roberto closed his eyes and tried remember the first shop he had worked in. It smelled much as this one did, not unpleasant, but not attractive, like a lady’s salon. The purpose was to welcome your guest without setting out a place for him to sleep. The owner had been a friend of his father’s, a military man whose hands had started to shake. Roberto had just turned sixteen when his father left him there for the afternoon, not explaining the favor that he owed this man, the debt that his son could only guess at. His father had left him with friends before, so it did not surprise him when he was handed a broom and asked to return the next day. He never questioned the type of work he did, his dreams too wrapped up in the simplicity of paying for his next meal, the solidity of coins, the satisfaction of pleasing his father. He was not quixotic, the world was too full of change to chase things that might not ever be there. Instead, he turned his energy towards patience, and listened as the man instructed him in broken English on how to comb out a gentleman’s scalp before picking up a scissors.
“Many times, they not need haircut. You must look first.” Hector, whose name was printed proudly in red on the front window, welcomed his customers as friends, never knowing their names, but keenly aware of who they were.
“This one, he likes to be told he has more hair.” To Hector, much could be told by how a man kept his part, a skill that Roberto couldn’t understood. To him, a man cut his hair out of practicality, to Hector it was out of vanity. After a number of months, Roberto became quite proficient at cutting hair, but lacked Hector’s flare for making his customers smile. Roberto opened his eyes to look at the young man who suddenly reminded him of Hector.
After a year, it became obvious that Hector’s window would soon only reflect the working image of his new employee. After two boys were cut, the young mothers and fathers would casually demand that Roberto work on their sons. Even Hector’s flare could not see itself past fingers that had forgotten their way. Finally he resigned himself to sitting and talking to the customers who spoke Spanish, listening to the radio, reading a paper or two. He seemed out of place at first, a Christmas ornament in August, but as Roberto grew more confident in his skill, so did the old man in his new role. Gradually he would come to the shop less and less until Roberto was left alone, cutting hair, making good money for his family. Even his father would come in and insist on paying, silently acknowledging how his son would survive in the new world in which he brought him.
He had gotten the idea at Sardi’s, the pictures of famous people on the wall, the overpriced food, the warm greeting you received by the owner. The old man had taken him there to discuss selling the shop, how to best move into retirement. It was a long lunch, and he was told to order anything on the menu, to drink anything he had never heard of. Hector had only been to the restaurant one other time and was told that the kitchen entrance was in the back.
“I was mad at them, but now I understand,” he said, sipping a long draught of beer. “I tell you what, if I did go to the kitchen, the food, it be better.” He laughed too hard at this, spilling his beer, quickly demanding another. “But now no one tell me to go anywhere I don’t want, I am retired. Now you get to work....HA HA HA HA.” This pleased him for the next ten minutes, until a tear started to form beneath his tired eyes. “I work very hard for today, but now, perhaps I work too hard.” With this, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. “These, they are my best friend. They let me work every day, they never get lost, they never complain. And best... THEY NEVER TALK!!!!! HA HA HA.” He placed the keys into Roberto’s hands and closed his own around them. “You will have fun. This is a good life, much better than in Cuba. Your father is good man to you. He love you.” And with that, the old man got up, excused himself from the table and started his way down the steep set of stairs, leaving the new owner of Hector’s Barber Shop with his own thoughts and a two-hundred and twenty-seven dollar tab. As the waiter brought back the change, Roberto wondered if he got pictures of famous people, if other people would come to his shop for a hair-cut. He would try it tomorrow, and see if it worked.
The haircut style that made Roberto popular had many names, and many people claimed to invent it, but the truth of the matter was that Roberto had made a mistake that day. The white boy who had come in was very nervous. Roberto knew that he was not from the neighborhood, or even New York. It was early, seven-thirty a.m., and the door had not been open very long when the young man walked in.
“I need to have a haircut before eight a.m., is that possible?” Roberto nodded in his way and patted the chair in front of him. He took the starched white apron and swished it along the back of the chair, the way he had been taught, like a matador greeting a bull.
“How would you like it to look,” knowing full well that a person who comes in at seven-thirty a.m. to have his hair cut by eight o’ clock has no idea what he wants. At that time, there were up to fifty pictures of actors of various talents and fame hanging along the walls of the shop. The young man pointed to one on his right, in the far corner.
“Like the guy from ‘Chicago Precinct.’” Unfortunately, for the young man, there were two actors from “Chicago Precinct” enshrined above the mirror, and Roberto took out a number two razor and began to sheer the young man’s left side.
“What are you doing,” he asked as a large clump of hair grasped fleetingly to the white robe.
“You wanted to look like the guy from ‘Chicago Precinct,’ Sergeant Paul Maloney. He has short hair.” Hector was an avid fan of the show’s gritty realism.
“No, not him, the undercover guy, the guy with the blond hair.” The two of them watched as the hair slipped down the white fabric slide and on to the floor, permanently severed from their conversation.
“I fix, I fix, you don’t have to pay anything, I fix for you.” And with that a thousand scenarios played in Hector’s head as a hairstylist’s catalog was flipped through like a book of cartoon stills, slowly animating itself from beginning, to middle, to end. That is how the “short-snapped head flip” was invented, through mistaken identity.
Some months later, the young man appeared on “Young and the Restless,” his haircut much as Hector had styled it, with a few highlights in it. The actor, whose name escapes Hector today, later starred in a small independent film that would gross $360 million and project that young man into the fashion elite, with everyone’s first question being, “Who does your hair?” Hector’s Barbershop soon sprouted a sister store, “Roberto’s Hair”, and two years later, provided the ribbon cutting for “The Shop,” a fourteen-chair salon that catered to both men and women. It was here that Hector asked his wife to marry him.
Louisa knew a great deal more than Roberto, including hair and what to charge for it. “The Shop” had been her idea, and she started talking about it shortly after being hired to run “Roberto’s Hair.” He knew that he was going to marry her, rather, he hoped immensely that she would fall in love with him. He had always thought of himself as a good barber, that was until he saw her work. Her nickname for him was “chopper,” and she would constantly call him over to her chair to show him some trick or way of saving time. He was too distracted to recognize this as flirting, and it took him almost a year to bring her coffee in the morning, and another two months to find out that she liked both cream and sugar in large amounts. By this time, both shops were full for most of the day, with pictures being sent to him in droves. Roberto’s only rule was that a picture would never be taken down. When Louisa started taking reservations for customers, she took her boss out to lunch and told him two things. The first was that they needed to open a third much larger store, if for no other reason, than to have more space to put up pictures, and that he should ask her to dinner next Tuesday. Somehow, Roberto managed to do both.
“Would you like your hair off of your ears?” the young man asked, Roberto kept his eyes shut.
“Whatever you think is best, young man.” He tried to picture his wife on the day they opened up “The Shop,” her hair in bunches, the young girls she hired nervously dusting their stations. It was all smiles that year, Nerieda would visit them in the fall, forcing her mother to spend less time cutting hair and more time managing the stores. A small grey Maine coon cat appeared one morning, distinctly sniffing the various tufts of hair on the floor, stopping casually to lick her front paws before finding a comfortable place to sit.
“Go on, get out of here,” Roberto yelled before his wife stopped him.
“This is luck, a little grey cat. Besides, the customers will be more at ease without dirty mice running around.” She named the cat Julie and placed a small pillow next to her desk.
Roberto had never noticed money before, but now began to see how the accumulation of it changed people’s perception of him. His story became one of success within the small Cuban community from which he came. Even the mayor came in during an election year to have his hair cut, and ask Roberto’s opinions on immigration laws and social services. People who brought in large pictures were asked to return with smaller versions. A picture would never be taken down, but it could be replaced with a postcard-sized rendition. Even though he no longer needed to cut anyone’s hair, he found solace opening the smaller “Roberto’s Hair” every morning, waiting for the older customers to come in and talk about what they found in the morning papers, or on the evening news. For Christmas, he would give these customers cigars, or sometimes a small bottle of rum.
The second pregnancy was a difficult one, marked only by the fact that Louisa stopped taking customers completely. She was still all smiles and fuss around the staff, but Roberto could see the toll her body was taking. He called her sister Eileena to stay with them and with her help, they convinced Louisa to stop making the trips downtown. The doctor, a good man with traditional advice unwisely suggested to Louisa that his patient stay in bed all day. The refutation alone lasted half an hour, the plight of Hispanic women and their role in the new America was thrown against fifty years of antiquated male-dominated medicine. What she wanted was exercise to make her feel better, what she needed was to listen to the doctor’s understated opinion.
His son, Roberto Jr., was born two months before anyone expected. He was well enough to come home after a month, his mother was not as fortunate. It seems she would never rest, her eyes always looking out the window, questions about the business and new pictures seem to drive her through the day until her body gave out to fitful bursts of sleep and quiet. It never occurred to Roberto that his wife was ever in any danger. The doctor tried to explain that her body would not hold the nutrition it needed to stay alive. She believed that it was the pregnancy that had made her weak, but it would be many years before doctors could identify what it was that killed her. A cold March wind brought loneliness to his small family, tears masked rage he felt towards the world for taking away his Louisa. “The Shop” was sold to a Portuguese family who would run it into bankruptcy just eight months later. They were not bad or lazy people, it just seemed that the soul of the place had left.
Eileena stayed with the small family for five years before falling in love with a grocer who lived a few blocks away. Roberto Jr. entered kindergarten, never knowing that other children had mothers who had not died, and cried when his father explained to him who his mother had been. Roberto finally closed Hector’s Barbershop when the neighborhood changed from genteel Cuban to something more dangerous. The younger men, all unemployed, would come in with guns and knives, demanding that his staff give them free haircuts. After Emmanual, his oldest employee refused to open the store, Roberto made the lonely trek up every morning to try and keep the appointments of customers who could not go anywhere else and were accustomed to their routines.
The young man was washing out the comb when a police officer walked in.
“Good morning Joe, how are you this afternoon?” The police officer took off his hat and looked into the mirror.
I’m good this morning Mr. Ruiz, I see you have someone new.” The young man started to shrink behind the chair, uncomfortable with being the subject of conversation.
“Not yet. He is testing the equipment to make sure that he will be able to work here.” The young man smiled, a nice smile.
“Should I come back?” Joe place the cap back on his head and looked down at his radio.
“Yes Joe, if you could come back later this afternoon, we will take very good care of you.” He watched as the policeman smiled and nodded his approval.
“Okay Mr. Ruiz, Good luck young man.” This silver and blue image quickly left the mirror, returning to the street.
“You know young man, I always give free haircuts to the policemen. It is nice because they don’t take advantage of you, except one did, but now he’s a police chief, and has his hair cut done somewhere downtown. I used to have another store, up in the Bronx, before my wife and I got married. It was a good neighborhood when I first owned it, but slowly, it became worse, the drugs were bad, the police were bad, the children were no longer children. Everyone who worked for me was scared. I went back up to work, and found that they were right, but then one day a policeman came in and I gave him a hair cut for free. Soon there were other policemen, and soon less of the bad people came in. Of course, it was not always so good, and once in a while some hoodlum would come in and demand I give him a haircut. And you know what I did? I give him a hair cut, only a very very very bad haircut. So bad, that his friends, they laughed. Of course I was very apologetic, I offered to not charge him, which was funny to me, because he had never paid anyone before. I think he was proud, and so he gave me money, too much. He told his friends that I was the best barber in the city, and that I had given him the best haircut of his life. His friends, they shut up, and then they pay me to cut their hair the same way, so I did. I never forget it.” The young man stopped for the first time and looked at his work.
“Did they come back?”
“No, because it really was a bad haircut. But others came in, the same kind, bad. I would ask them what they wanted their hair to look like, and then told them that I was an old man who did not know how to cut hair in that way. After a while, they left me alone. That is how I stay safe. This neighborhood too, was very bad for years, but I did not sell. It has my name on it. That is important young man, to have your name on something.” Roberto looked at his hair, taking the mirror from the young man’s hand and looking at the back.
“Would you like the sides shorter?” Hector stood up from the chair and took the apron from around his neck.
“No, I think you are finished. We should go to lunch. Right now. Have you ever been to Sardis?” Hector reached into his pocket and felt a set of keys resting peacefully against his quivering fingers.