Bald Man In A Barber Shop

barbershop
Just Trim A Little Off The Sides

On a bright yellow morning in December of 1963 God taught me the reason a bald man needs a haircut, the fact that Jackie Kennedy didn’t care who shot her husband, and that I was supposed to hate niggers because I looked like one.

I was sitting inside The Buzzcut Emporium — across the parking lot from Snoozie’s Trattoria — smelling white powder puffing off the soft brush with a blond wood handle that Jimmie the barber was waving against the neck of the tall, skinny, bald man who sat in the swivel chair.

I didn’t like the way Jimmie made loud speeches while holding a straight razor close to the wiry man’s throat; and the bald man sneered and blew me a kiss. So I slumped, slouched and curled my body until I became invisible. Then I slid what was left of me back against the wall, and I leafed through a copy of Life Magazine.

I stared at the Abe Zapruder colored photos of JKF’s assassination. I stopped breathing when I reached the frame where his wife Jackie held her man still and wide open to the shot that turned one side of the president’s head into red mist.

“She was sad, but she was free,” said God. “The secret service man who climbed onto the limousine’s back bumper practiced his lines and moves ahead of time.”

I considered asking God a question about Calvin’s concept of Predestination, but the barber’s voice distracted me.

“You want I should blend the sides with the fuzz around your ears. That right?” said Jimmie.

“Yeah, that and give it a proper washing, maybe even lighten it up some for the summer months,” said the bald man. Then he pulled what at first looked like a squirmy guinea pig from the pocket of his permanent-press slacks and handed the creature to Jimmie.

Turns out the pig was his hair.

Pig, wig, what the fuck, I thought. This guy’s an independent thinker like me, or he’s a nut case like me; and in either event Johnnie Rebello was right to recommend that I write my next story about whatever might happen here on a Saturday morning.

I rubbed my hand through the mess of tight curls that sat on top of my brain, and I listened to the bell above the doorjamb jingle as a cop walked inside and approached Jimmie. That tinkling bell, I realized, appeared in far too many of the stories I wrote not to hold some mysterious significance inside my psyche. Something to do with arrival and departure.

The cop wore a hat. The kind the bread man wore in the early 1950s when I was too young by a slip to go to school. I think I was in love with the bread man. It was all about the way he smelled. Sweet and hopeful as lemon sunlight shining on baby-green grass.

The fact that the bread man’s visits interrupted the beatings my mother gave me for being a weird child who was born inside her gut and could get back inside her head anytime he wanted to go there served to deepen my affection for him.

He would knock on the door, and my mother would drop her weapon, quick stop screaming, and growl at me to suck up my tears. Then she’d start singing and smiling like a television housewife who smelled like lavender perfume even after lusty sex.

I was only four or five years old at the time, but my daily travels inside my mother’s mind led me to understand — in the vague but focused way that babies comprehend the complicated aspects of communication — the connection between the beatings and her intense sense of physical frustration. A few years later, when I learned how to make myself come, I realized what she’d been missing, and how the bread man’s visits fit into the picture.

“Come on in,” she’d say when she opened the door.

He was tall and handsome, and his fingernails were clean.

My dad was short and nondescript, and his hands were always dirty from working hard-labor jobs on the railroad. Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line. Steam locomotives left over from World War II, dedicated to lugging tourists from Philadelphia to South Jersey and back again.

The bread man sported a fresh-pressed brown uniform and a snappy cap with a shiny black brim.

My dad wore grease-stained overalls and a pinstriped canvas hat that surrendered to his sweat.

The bread man filled the air with the aroma of sugar frosting and jelly doughnuts.

Dad stank of kerosene and coal tar.

And the cop carried no scent at all.

“Gotta stack of Wanted Dead or Alive posters here,” he said. His voice squealed past the fine hairs inside his nostrils and came out sounding like a sax gone sour. “Mind if I tape one to your window?”

“You know me, Bernie. Semper a Member of the Chamber. Here, I’ll hang one on the mirror, too. Who you lookin’ for this time?”

“Thug named Harry Felton. Guy wrote a book a few years back, then made himself drunk forever when no one but old ladies wanted to read the damned thing. Couple of months ago, he snorted down the wrong kind of cocktail and totaled a Packard automobile. Almost killed his own fat ass, and crippled his queer passenger, then escaped the hospital with the help of his agent just after we pressed him with a DWI. We suspect he went looking for an old dame named Gloria Lakeland. Seems like he had a score to settle with her.”

“Lakeland from down the road in Railsford? Did he find her?” said Jimmie.

“Yep, that’s the broad. She showed up yesterday lying in her own bed, naked, embarrassed and two days beyond dead. Her neighbors smelled her remains and called us. A note, written in red lipstick, was tacked to the headboard. Just two words: Epilogue Forthcoming. I’m not sure if I’m saying that right.”

“What’s this world coming to, Bernie?”

“I can’t answer that one. That kind of language is too twisted and high-falutin for me to want to understand.”

The cop left, and the bell tinkled.

“You’re next, kid,” said Jimmie. At first I didn’t know he was talking to me. I was too busy trying to stay invisible, and thinking about how much I hated Jackie Kennedy, to pay careful attention to the present moment.

And as far as present moments go, even back then I realized that time was a desperate concept we invented so we wouldn’t feel too dizzy and start to fall down. Being physically and emotionally tortured makes some children wither inside and turns other ones into hyper-sensitive psychics. I was a damned smart kid. Intelligence was the only thing I knew for certain that I owned, although intelligence disappointed itself by telling me that I could never be the best or the most.

“What’s wrong? Those big ears of yours not working today?” The tall bald man, who wasn’t exactly bald anymore, punched me on my shoulder and pointed to Jimmie. “Man’s talking to you, you bookworm faggot shrimp,” he said.

His trimmed and copper-toned guinea pig was sitting on top of his head. It slipped a little bit to the left as he bent down toward me. But his thin-lipped mouth tilted off to the right side of the universe, so on balance I made sense of the view.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “I like your haircut.” I kept my facial muscles tight when I spoke, so as to be sure that my expression added nothing to my words.

Of course, I was being a wise-ass motherfucker by saying I admired his orange pig wig, but I’d learned from my mother’s beatings, and from the tough acting kids at school who spat on me and had wax inside their flat shiny ears, that given the choice between a subtly delivered wise-ass compliment and none at all, the insecure among us would always ignore the sarcasm and accept the compliment as a gift.

The tall, skinny man twitched his head from left to right, the way a spastic entertains an uncontrollable tic. He pushed his polyester shirt down deep into his permanent-press slacks, scratched his balls while he was down there, smelled the fingers he pulled out and turned toward the Buzzcut Emporium’s door.

And by force of habit I listened to the doorjamb bell tinkle.

“Climb aboard, kid. Mind if I call you kid?” said Jimmie the barber. He placed a padded board across the swivel chair’s arms. I shrugged my shoulders in answer to his question, wiggled my ass into position, and wished I wasn’t short like my dad.

“Please. Can you give me a flat top? Leave it longer right up front?” I said.

“Flat tops are for real hair, not for what God gave you. You got nigger’s wool. Only one way I can try to fix it,” he said. Then he grabbed the electric razor and I listened to it hum like an attacking squadron of green-head houseflies.

“My dad told me I don’t have to get a buzz cut this time.” I heard the pleading whine inside my voice and hated myself for begging this bastard.

“Your dad’s the little guy who works the switch house down the way, isn’t he?”

“He works hard,” I said.

“Not hard enough at controlling his wife. But look, kid, you don’t want to go through this life looking like a woolly headed licorice baby, so just let me do my job. The only reason I took you in here was because Johnnie called me from over at the Trattoria and said you had potential in spite of your looks.”

“You know Johnnie Rebello?” I said.

“Like a man knows his brother, cause that’s what we are. I’m Jimmie Rebello, but most guys call me Jimmie The Razor. You’re still a young punk, though, so just keep calling me sir.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Rebello,” I said as I watched my nigger’s wool fall to the black-and-white tile floor.

“Johnnie says you’re an author. That the way it is?”

“I write stories, but so far no one wants to publish them.”

“Well, what do you write about, kid?”

“Melancholy dead guys who live in Happyland. About them and about everything else.”

I thought about how if I ever wrote this barber shop into a story I’d have to change all the characters’ names, because no one would believe that they all ended with the same sound. Johnnie, Jimmie, Bernie, Harry. Then again, I thought, life was odd and so were my stories, so maybe I’d leave well enough alone.

“That might be your problem, kid. Trust me on this. Dead guys can be melancholy, but not here in Happyland.”

“Your brother, Mr. Johnnie, told me the same thing.”

“Must have heard it from me. We talk a lot. On the telephone, that is. I can’t convince him he should leave his favorite corner booth, walk across the parking lot and visit me here. He tells me that exercise is for fools who think they’ll live forever. Sometimes I think he’s got a point.”

“Mr. Johnnie is a wise man.”

“So I eat free of charge at the Trattoria once a month, and in return I give him a haircut to match his restaurant’s decor.”

“Like I said, Mr. Johnnie is a –”

“Quit while you’re ahead, kid. I don’t need you to praise my brother.” Jimmie swung me around in the chair. “You see the mug hanging on my mirror over there? Guy’s name is Harry Felton. He’s an author, too. Old, drunk and on the run from the law. He let a temporary need for love ruin his life. Happens to all you brooding artist types. I’d be careful if I was you.”

I stared at Harry Felton’s photograph, and then at my own reflection in the mirror. Harry had nigger’s wool, too. Gray to my brown, but his curls were just as tight. True enough, he looked lonely and just about dead. But he held his head high and winked at me.

I climbed down off the board and out of the swivel chair. I pulled two quarters out my pants pocket and handed them to Jimmie.

“Glad I met you, Mr. Rebello, sir” I said. “But I don’t need love. I need success. And the next time I want a haircut, I’ll look for Harry Felton’s barber.”

I remember leaving the Buzzcut Emporium, but I can’t be sure that the doorjamb bell tinkled on my way out.

Steaming Toward Wildwood, Part I

Dark Before The Dawn

This is Part I of a book I’m writing called “Steaming Toward Wildwood.” It’s all in that messy, first-draft stage right now.

The early morning darkness felt like a blanket to Silvio Moschella, the kind of blanket that warmed his heart as much as his body. He’d turned eight years old just two weeks before, but the bitterness he harbored toward life might have made him much older.

The light inside the house was deep-yellow, almost orange as it struck the windowpanes, in stark contrast to the dark-grey cloud that hugged the house from the outside.

Silvio knelt on the threadbare couch that backed up against the house’s living-room picture window and stared at a mimosa tree’s feathery leaves as they swayed with the breeze. He allowed his mind to imagine those leaves as the shadows of birds dancing through the sky on the way to an unknown but happy destination, unworried by wind or weather.

Until he felt his mother’s hand slap hard across the back of his neck, stinging the still-warm flesh she’d reddened the night before. “Get moving, Silvio. No time for dreaming. Your father dreams enough for all of us, and I’m not raising you to become another one of him.”

Silvio moved quick away from the window, stifled the yelp that crawled upward from inside his belly and touched  the tip of his tongue, slid his small body off the couch and headed for his bedroom. Inside the room filled with the cool but humid air of waking children Silvio found his younger brothers, Martin and David. They were sitting on the edge of the twin-sized bed where they slept together each night.

It was three o’clock on a Saturday morning in late August 1958. Martin and David were still wiping sleep from their eyes as they waited for their turns to enter the small house’s one bathroom. Silvio listened to his dad singing a nonsense rhyme from behind the hollow-core door as he shaved. Dad was always in a good mood when the family was about to take a railway trip to Wildwood to visit his wife’s stepmother, Mama Mae Previti.

Mother, on the other hand and on each of these occasions, expressed nothing but misery, anger and resentment. She insisted, rather than suggested, that the boys hurry out of their pajamas and pile their fresh changes of clothes — neatly, always neatly folded and pressed — into the one brown-leather suitcase, seamed threads fraying at the corners, that the boys owned. She walked the house in repetitive circles, slamming her feet on the floorboards, checking and rechecking light switches, gas knobs on the stove, windows closed the night before, and refrigerated food that she’d sealed and resealed to prevent spoilage during the course of a two-day-long voyage.

Silvio understood that to his mother this trip was work, a job she considered her responsibility; and responsibilities, she implied, never contained even a note of pleasure. In response to Mother’s frantic nature, and so as to maintain her apparent approval, Silvio smiled only on rare occasion. Instead, he donned what he considered a serious expression and assumed the role defined for him by his mother, that of eldest son.

“Turn down the thermostat,” yelled his mother. Silvio could just about reach the dial where it hung on the hallway wall, and then only if he stood on tip toes. But he knew that although the air inside the house felt chilly at this hour, turning down the heat was yet another way of saving money the family didn’t have. So he complied, even as he shivered in his underwear.

“Frank, are you going to be finished in there anytime soon?” Mother yelled from her perch in front of the mirror that hung above her dresser in the small master bedroom. “The train leaves at 6:13, and your sons haven’t even brushed their teeth yet.”

The bathroom door opened. Silvio breathed in deep the aroma of his dad’s Barbasol brand shaving cream and Old Spice cologne. “Come on, boys. Silvio, you’re first. Your mother’s right. Your mother’s always right. Ain’t that right, sweetie? Come on in and brush your teety teet teet.”

“Will you quit the silliness, please?” his mother said. But what his mother called silliness was to Silvio a reason to love his dad more than he could ever love her. His dad enjoyed playing. Singing silly songs that he composed on the spur of the moment was a child’s game, and Mother never played games.

Silvio pressed his hand against his brother Martin’s back and nudged him forward into the cramped bathroom. Next, he grabbed David’s pudgy hand and pulled him forward to stand beside the toilet. Martin stood before the sink waiting for his older brother to reach for the faucet that his own arms weren’t yet long enough to touch. Silvio opened the metal tube of Colgate toothpaste and pressed a dab of the white cream onto Martin’s brush. Martin stretched his lips to reveal his teeth, and Silvio guided his brother’s hand so as to start him moving the bristles back and forth against his teeth.

“You have to go again?” said Silvio to David. David, not yet quite articulate at age four, was busy bending forward, his tiny hand pressed to his tummy, his face clenched and wrinkled with discomfort.

Silvio pulled down David’s underpants, then held him under his armpits and lifted him onto the toilet seat. “Up you go, Davey. Good boy,” he said.

After he’d seen to caring for Martin and Davey, Silvio shooed them back toward the bedroom that  all three of them shared and whispered that his brothers should get dressed. Then he brushed his own teeth, humming the same melody his dad had hummed earlier as he watched toothpaste foam splatter onto the mirror.

An hour and a half flashed by, and by 4:30 a.m. the family of five stood on the house’s front porch. Mother turned the key inside the lock and listened for the click and tumble that announced the beginning of their weekend trip. The sky still held on to darkness. No sign yet of sunlight, as Mother directed them as to who would carry which parcel, package or piece of worn luggage. Silvio held the brown-leather suitcase he’d earlier filled with fresh underwear, socks and summer shirts in his right hand. He clutched Davey’s right hand with his own left hand, who in turn grasped Martin’s right hand with his left, so that the three young boys formed a line that stretched across the sidewalk’s full width. Behind their three sons walked Frank and his wife, Florence, who never held each other’s hand.

They would travel approximately two miles on foot — they were the only family on their short block who owned no automobile, this a sore spot for Florence — before they reached the railroad bridge that crossed above and over a marshland home to summertime mosquitoes and greenhead flies. On several Saturday mornings each summer season, his dad would take Silvio with him crabbing along the edges of the bay-water creeks that ran through these same marshes. Silvio had come to love the smell of the swamp’s oily mud and the pinch of tiny bones that poked into the flesh of his hands as he split open the fish heads that he and Dad used as bait. Beside each opened fish head, Dad had taught Silvio to tie a ripped piece of red rag to the rusty cage. “We let the crab traps rust, so the crabs can’t see them under water,” he told Silvio. “But when the current washes away the fish heads’ blood, they’re fooled by seeing the red rag into knowing food is there for them.” Silvio wasn’t sure that he believed his dad’s story, but he loved him for the telling of it.

When they reached the bottom of the railway bridge, they re-shuffled luggage, so as to rest their muscles for a few seconds, and then began the climb up the tall staircase. At the top of the stairs Silvio looked at the wooden benches, sheltered from rainstorms by a length of roof. Sunlight was breaking through the clouds, just enough to reveal the cuts and chips of dark-green oil paint that covered the wooden structure. Silvio felt the deep-down-inside of his belly begin to float upward toward his lungs. He loved the start of this adventure. As he thought about his Mama Mae, he could almost imagine living with her, forever after free from the tense atmosphere of his family’s home. Silvio was plenty smart enough to realize that by this trip’s end, the feeling inside his belly would sink down once again, but he was, as well, imaginative enough to stave off that end for as long as possible.

Silvio felt something knocking into the left side of his hip. He looked down to see that Martin was punching at him with one hand and pointing off into the distance with his other hand. Hanging with the lightening clouds was a moving plume of dark smoke that signaled the eventual arrival of a steam locomotive. When the engine’s whistle sounded, Davey clasped his hands around his ears and squeaked his voice in imitation of the train.

“Remember, boys, to stand back when the train stops. The steam can burn you if you’re standing too close,” said their dad.

“Hold their hands, for God’s sake,” said Mother. “Talking to them won’t do any good. Why can’t you understand that?”

Dad reached for Silvio’s hand. As well, he used his other arm to hold back Martin and David, who were already backed against the station’s bench. “They’ll be all right, Florence. I know what I’m –”

Silvio stared at his mother’s mouth and saw that once again she was yelling at his dad. Wrinkles appeared on her forehead. Spittle flew from between her between her lips. But the deafening sound of the now arrived train muffled her voice, and Silvio felt glad for the unusual opportunity not to listen to whatever she was screaming.

The train’s conductor appeared, climbing down from the passenger car’s short run of steps to stand on the pavement. “All aboard,” he called. “Next stop, Atlantic City, then on to Avalon, Wildwood Crest and Wildwood.”

Silvio stepped onto the train first, then turned to help his brothers up. His mother followed them, frowning as she climbed, lugging her suitcase, muttering about the weight of it all. Dad followed the rest of his family. He nodded in the conductor’s direction. Dad worked for the railroad, Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Line, and he seemed to feel close to all the men who worked for the same line, even to those whose names he didn’t know.

The passenger car’s seats were stuffed, high and heavy, covered with a brocade pattern in dark maroon. Silvio helped his dad swing the back of one long seat so as to face the seat opposite. He felt proud that he could handle the seat’s weight. Dad told Silvio to take a place close to the window, then he nudged his own body close to his son’s. Mother took the seat opposite Silvio. She reached across the space between them and snatched at the collar of his Sunday shirt, straightening it and knocking her knuckles roughly against the underside of his chin as she did so. Silvio ignored her as best he could. He turned his head and stared out the train car’s window.

He felt the earth tremble as the train began to move. He enjoyed the shivered sensation inside every part of his body. For a short moment he closed his eyes and thought of Mama Mae, sitting at her dining-room table, waiting for them to arrive, a box of powdered jelly doughnuts still closed, a quart bottle of Iron City Beer sweating cool droplets of water on the brown glass, a crystal tumbler in her hand, orange liquid inside the tumbler, white foam glistening on her lips.

Mama Mae was a fat woman who smelled of soap and baby powder and yeast. She wore floral-patterned dresses whose sleeves wrapped tightly around her soft upper arms. Her teeth were almost bucked in front. A coarse, black, single hair grew from a mole just to the left of her upper lip. This hair poked into Silvio’s cheek whenever she kissed him, but she felt like a big, soft pillow when she gave him a hug; and she never frowned; and she never slapped him on the back of his neck.

“Where did you go this time?” the voice said. Silvio awoke to see his mother’s face close to his own. Her breath felt hot, and as usual her eyes looked angry. He didn’t answer her. With two stiffened fingers she touched his chin and jolted his head sideways. “Dreaming again, just like your stupid father,” she said. “Nothing I say means anything to you, does it you little brat?” she said. Silvio stared hard at her, and with all the power at his disposal he conveyed his hatred. She thinks I’m like Dad, he thought. But I’m much more like her. I can despise people better than she can.

Silvio Moschella turned his head toward the train car’s window again. Outside the sun had risen. The yellow light was bright. Meadow reeds, topped with fuzzy cattails, moved only slightly as the train cut its way through them. Soot-covered locomotives sat on spur lines, their tail ends sticking out from maintenance shacks. Tall smokestacks pushed trails of white and black smoke out from their top ends and into the sky.

Silvio heard Davie whimpering from where he sat sandwiched between their mother and Martin. Whenever Mother grew angry enough to strike his oldest brother, Davie became frightened.

“We’ll be there soon with Mama Mae, Davie,” said Silvio. Don’t worry. We’ll have fun. I’ll help you gather figs from Mama Mae’s tree. Then Dad will take you and me and Martin for a walk, won’t you Dad?” His dad nodded yes and smiled. “I promise, Davie. We’ll have a good time,” said Silvio.

Mother shrugged her shoulders, pushed her head back against the seat’s cushion and pretended to sleep.

To be continued . . .