Fiction - Winter 2024

Cuts

By David Galef | February 8, 2024
Todd Lapin/Flickr
Todd Lapin/Flickr

“Next?”

The row of ancient men on the cracked vinyl seats gave no response, as if enchanted into muteness.

Isabella Bruni repeated her question, turning it into more of a statement. Surely one of the guys would come forth and deposit himself in her chair, rest his feet on the metal platform, and let her attend to his hair. As one of the three barbers at Dale’s, next to Larry and John, she needed the patronage. But the old men who formed Dale’s clientele tended to be wary of a female haircutter. At 27, she was decent-looking, with a mane of auburn hair, expressive blue eyes, and an inviting smile she’d worked on. She wore loose shirts and tight jeans, the most she could manage without exciting comment. Hip but not slutty. When she went out to the clubs with her friend Marcie, she was a hell of a lot more out there.

The problem was with Dale’s, which had been around since the 1970s, and with the customers, who had aged along with the establishment. They were gray-haired, white-haired, sparse-haired, or balding, with ropy necks and unsteady hands. Regulars all, they sat patiently as the scissors flashed over their heads, Larry or John executing a point cut. They’d talk about golf or Florida vacations or which restaurant had the best early-bird specials. What could millennial Isabella contribute to such conversations? She’d been hired by Larry, the owner, after Hank, the third in the trio of barbers, had dropped dead of a stroke. Larry had decided it was time for a change. Isabella’s clipper and scissor work were adept; she had an easy patter and related well to her customers. They’d make remarks, some of them salacious. She’d taken an acting class once and laughed on cue.

And she really needed the work. Just a few months ago, after too many minimum-wage jobs, she had obtained her license from the Roslin Barber School. The interview at Dale’s had gone well, and Larry seemed like a kind boss. He was what Isabella’s father would have called roly-poly and therefore seemed affable. John had nodded, perhaps kindly. He was tall and stiff, his manner hard to read.

No one had anticipated how the senior citizens would react to a female wielding a pair of scissors like some modern-day Delilah. If Larry and John were busy and Isabella beckoned, many of the guys would grip their seats and nod in the direction of the other two chairs. She got enough customers so that she wasn’t standing on her feet all day doing nothing, but business could have been a lot better.

“Give it time,” Larry advised, spreading his hands.

“But not too much time.” John had turned away, so she couldn’t tell whether it was an insult or a joke.

“Watch out for guys like that,” warned Marcie when Isabella described John.

At 5:00, she would clean her station one last time and head for the subway, brooding over how few customers she had and whether she’d get fired. Home was a tiny studio in Astoria, and usually, she’d pick up Thai takeout (she didn’t cook, despite her mother’s best efforts to teach her) and spend too much time with her head buried in her phone. Netflix was her main companion, along with an occasional hookup. On the weekends, she and Marcie and a few others would hit clubs like Bembé and the Rumpus Room. She’d recently ended a three-week relationship with a waiter at Sonora Café. Before that, there’d been a fling with a personal trainer at Crunch.

Her mother in Greenpoint, who was turning into a little old Italian lady, phoned her weekly. “Time to get serious with someone, tesoro.”

But Isabella was far more occupied with holding on to her job.

When she had someone in her chair, she tried hard to direct the conversation toward sports or cars, but these old men acted like they were still on the playground, shunning the girl with cooties.
After a few weeks of scarce business, Larry gave her a tip. “Hey, maybe you should reach out more to the customers. Smile, honey.”

She nodded humbly, as if receiving a lesson from the master. She flashed a smile. Damn it, she did look friendly. But nothing worked. When she had someone in her chair, she tried hard to direct the conversation toward sports or cars, but these old men acted like they were still on the playground, shunning the girl with cooties.

John began giving her fatalistic shrugs. Even Larry, who felt invested in his recent hire, started making remarks about the end of a trial run. Then one of her scant customers, a middle-aged guy named George who clearly had the hots for her, ventured to say at the end of a trim, “You know, I tell you all about myself, but I don’t know much about you.”

It was true. She betrayed little about her circumstances. But what could she talk about? Her girlfriends weren’t a topic, and music wouldn’t work—these oldsters listened to dad-rock. She preferred Frank Ocean on Spotify. Cooking was out. Same with TikTok. One desperate Wednesday, her usual day off, she thought and thought about it. She considered telling them about her older brother Vincent, who worked for a real estate firm in upstate New York, lived with his partner, Jock, and was currently into artisanal carpets. But no, they would just sit there, looking like her Uncle Dave, who had gone deaf a few years back and now nodded out of context. Not that Uncle Dave, who was over 70, didn’t like to talk. He specialized in giving advice that nobody in the family wanted. He even lectured their mother on how to flirt, now that Isabella’s father had been dead for five years.

Maybe that was what she needed: a new boyfriend. If she told them she was on the hunt, the seat-huggers at the shop could give her advice, just like Uncle Dave.

On a Saturday, the busiest day of the week, she came dressed in wholesome white clam diggers and a yellow cotton crew shirt. Her first customer was a white-haired gentleman named Casey, who walked with a cane. Because he didn’t want to wait, he came over when she beckoned and sat down gingerly in her chair.

He looked up at her gruffly. “I’d like a trim.”

“Sure, hon.” She smiled like an old-time diner waitress. But instead of handing him a menu, she picked up her shears.

Ninety percent of them wanted a trim. Casey had been in her chair before, and she remembered the hard-to-reach hair about his ears that required a tricky backwards comb-and-clippers maneuver, so his ears didn’t end up looking like mug handles. But it wasn’t cutting she had her mind on. As she worked her way over his head, she leaned in to inspect his pink-and-gray scalp and ruffled the hair cropped above his nape. She gave a low whistle. “This’ll get you admirers. Are you seeing anyone?”

Casey chuckled. “I’ve been married for almost 40 years. To the same woman.”

Isabella sighed with a rueful air, a sound and sight she’d practiced in front of the bathroom mirror. “I wish I had someone to be with. Any advice?”

Bingo.

Growing animated to where she had to tell him to be still, Casey was all too willing to help her out. He had met his wife, albeit decades ago, in an Irish pub in Manhattan. His brother and a nephew had also met their wives there. “It’s a place where everybody is friendly. Some … some are romantically inclined.”

“There’s an Irish pub just three blocks away from me. O’Grady’s.” It was half a mile away, and she’d passed it many times without ever stepping inside. Sitting in that kind of bar was like being embalmed alive.

“That’s the ticket!”

Before he left, Casey bestowed upon her a more-than-generous tip. “To buy a pint with,” he said.

Her next customer, a short, authoritative man named Arnold, who had a happily married daughter, strongly recommended MatchMe. When Isabella confessed that her laptop was malfunctioning, he gave her some extra money “toward repair.”

Another man advised “playing the field,” without elaboration. Others counseled playing hard to get without telling her where to get, though one customer promised to contact a nephew named Bill. They all had that gentle but insistent manner, at times not so gentle, of confident men explaining the proper course of action.

Word of Isabella’s quest quickly spread. Some of the men now sat down in her chair all ready to give advice. They were avuncular, they were voluble, and they left nice tips. Business picked up to the point where John made one of his rare comments: “You seem to be getting popular.”

But any story gets old quickly if it doesn’t have a second act. And so, after a few weeks, she found Sam. She met him through a mutual friend at a bar, using a dating service, when she was out running in the park. He stood 5’8” (she had a thing for short men, a preference that two-thirds of her customers appreciated). He had light brown hair, the kind you like to run your fingers through, as she demonstrated to more than a few customers. He was a runner, he worked in marketing, and he liked pizza. He was 32 and lived alone in a studio in Prospect Heights. Along came recommendations for walking in Astoria Park and places that served the best pizza in Brooklyn.

After another week, she began taking Sam home. She started to see him in three dimensions. He sat at her tiny breakfast table and drank one and a half cups of coffee. He had a slightly crooked grin, slanting up to the left. He left pubic hairs on the soap in her shower stall (better not mention that, she decided). She planned activities with Sam that she thought her customers would appreciate, like having a picnic in the park, near the bocce courts. One of her customers asked her what they’d eaten (chicken sandwiches) and loftily advised her on wine pairings. He even brought her a bottle of Pinot Noir the next time. She tried to follow up every recommendation or at least give the appearance that she did. She couldn’t get into Grimaldi’s Pizzeria because the line was too long, so she peered through the window, inhaled the aroma wafting out, and read the menu online. “Best pizza in the world,” declared the recommender, who wanted a trim. “Am I right or am I right?”

“But enough about me,” she’d sometimes say. “How about you?” Not that she didn’t extract plenty of information about her clients’ lives—everything from back problems to infidelity. It was like an extra job, and she worked hard at it. The customers came in like film cuts, one sequence followed by another.

Surprisingly few customers asked to see a picture of Sam. For those who did, she Photoshopped a magazine picture of a man with brown hair, smiling into the distance. Now she had a real image to focus on.

One customer frowned. “I thought you said his smile was crooked.”

“Um, no—his grin. Not the same thing. Comb it wet or dry?”

Larry was pleased with the uptick in her business and said so.

John looked sideways at her. “You talk a lot, don’t you? Advertising.”

Isabella shrugged. “Word of mouth.”

Marcie thought it was a fun gag and toasted Sam when she and Isabella went out to the Pyramid Club with two other women.

Should she tell her mother? No.

Then it was a month later, and another change was needed. Conversation was languishing in trivia, like what brand of running shoe to choose for Sam’s birthday. She thought about breaking up with Sam and starting up with someone else, but she didn’t want to remind her customers of every time they’d been dumped. Besides, she’d grown quite fond of Sam, his habits and foibles. She thought of his feet, which were clean and size 10. Onward and upward, as her father used to say, with a soaring sweep of his hands. Time to get serious.

They could live vicariously through him, even those who’d been divorced more than once. Isabella felt strangely happy, too. She liked talking with Sam, who proved to be a witty conversationalist.

She broached the new topic Monday morning, three weeks before Memorial Day weekend. “Sam and I are thinking of taking a trip, and I’m supposed to decide where. Any ideas for a romantic getaway?”

“The Poconos!” The customer who said it, a balding gentleman named Richard, made the same sweeping gestures as her dad. Other recommendations included Montauk, Cape May, and Lake George. She mentally tabbed who suggested where, wrote down a list, and virtually visited every location.

Returning from the Poconos/Lake George/Shelter Island/Cape May, she had some news. “Guess what? Sam and I are engaged!” She flashed a ring that had belonged to her great-aunt Sophie and somehow come sideways to her. Few of the customers were quick enough on the uptake to notice what was on her finger until she brought it to their attention.

“Mazel tov!”

“So when is the wedding?”

“Did he go down on one knee?”

“He did.” On the beach/outside the lodge/by the lake. “I said yes as soon as the words left his mouth.”

That elated the customers. Sam was one of them, after all. They could live vicariously through him, even those who’d been divorced more than once. Isabella felt strangely happy, too. She liked talking with Sam, who proved to be a witty conversationalist.

Larry gave her a thumbs-up. John pronounced “congratulations” as if it meant the opposite. All he seemed to make were snide remarks. Some of his clientele had abandoned him for her, and that was just fine with Isabella.

Weddings were boring to most guys, not to mention costly, so she opted for a civil ceremony at Town Hall. Then came the honeymoon in Charleston. Because keeping track of who’d said what was growing complicated, she solicited advice but didn’t follow it. A few customers were disappointed that she didn’t fly to Bali—too expensive—or Puerto Vallarta—not crazy about Mexican food—but that didn’t deter them from enjoying Charleston as she described it. A couple of customers who’d been there gently corrected a few details about the city.

“Don’t you mean the High Battery?”

“Of course. That’s the one.”

She blamed the errors on the dizzy rush of the honeymoon. She leaned in. “Tell you the truth, we spent a lot of the time in the hotel room.”

Then came the smirks and a few lewd suggestions that she politely ignored. She was now a woman with a husband. Sam wasn’t straight-laced by any means, but he could grow jealous. A crease in his forehead was the tipoff.

Isabella’s steady clientele felt like they owned a part of her life. She attracted a lot of the undecided crowd, those who sat in back and played the field. The two other barbers couldn’t exactly get angry about that, though John scowled more these days.

Faking a life was exhilarating but also fatiguing at times. It was as if she were leading a double existence. She backed away from a few casual hookups. She canceled a couple of Saturdays with Marcie because all she wanted to do was chill at home with her husband. But lately, they weren’t getting along so well. “You okay?” asked John on a slow Tuesday. They were in the back room, where a coffee machine stood on a rickety table.

“I guess.” She massaged her hair-cutting shoulder. As with most barbers, her right arm was more developed than her left. Sam had made a mean joke about asymmetry. “I’m coping.”

“Yeah, with what?”

She shrugged. “Marriage, you know. It’s all about sharing.”

“So I’ve heard.” John screwed his features into a semi-sympathetic expression. “Sam—what’s his last name, anyway? I can’t recall. You didn’t take it, did you?”

“No, I—no.” Stupid. Of all the things she’d imagined about him, somehow she’d neglected to give him a surname. Think quick. Her gaze fell on the coffee maker. “It’s Sam Keurig.”

“Sam Keurig, huh. Interesting name.”

“Uh-huh. That’s what I thought when we were going out.” She had to improvise, and she chose conflict. “Now it’s just the last name of a guy I don’t always get along with.”

John was forthright to the point of rudeness. “You thinking of some time apart?”

“A separation?” What, and lose her main business appeal? “No … we Brunis don’t give up so easily. He’ll come around.”

“Good luck with that.”

Isabella went back to her chair, congratulating herself on a quick save. Keurig, Keurig, Keurig. To the next customer, a man she’d nicknamed Monobrow, she announced Sam’s last name, though he hadn’t asked.

Partly for the experience, she signed up with eHarmony to get a real boyfriend and went out on a few dates that underwhelmed her. She tried and the guys tried, but no one quite diverted her like Sam and his nice feet. On the other hand, married life consisted mostly of “Hi, honey. How was your day?”

Time to move on, but in what direction? She was running out of ideas. She couldn’t fake a pregnancy, not yet, maybe not ever. And who said men were that interested in a woman who was going to have a baby?

Marcie clued her in over a giant pitcher of sangria at Iguana. They were back to their Saturday nights. “You know what most couples argue over? Sex and money. Not necessarily in that order.” Marcie’s authority was dubious, since she hadn’t had much of either in a while. Yet what she said sounded more or less right. Sex was riskier. She took the risk.

“So I told Sam, ‘You don’t touch me the way you used to.’ He says, ‘What do you mean?’ I say, ‘Not what you’re thinking. Just something like this.’ ” She laid a hand on the customer’s shoulder, her fingers curling slightly.

One or two sat up and half-humorously asked for chair massages. Only one man, recently divorced, overstepped boundaries and made an off-color suggestion. But he stayed with her even after she told him off and pretended to pull his hair.

Around this time, she began drawing customers who hadn’t been in the shop before. Word of mouth? She acquired a following. Larry was happy. Jealous John was not.

Suppose Sam got laid off from work? Next week, Sam and Isabella had a loud argument over their joint account—$500 was missing, and it turned out that he’d lost it playing online poker. Isabella tried to be understanding, but it was tough. How could he?

“The problem is, he has too much time on his hands now. I know that.” Isabella raked her fingers through her own hair, cut in a trade with Larry. The customer, the same one who’d made the indecent suggestion, had inquired how married life was treating her.

She was better at narrative now than when she started out: details, like the way beach sand felt off-season; and plot, like what caused the argument about privacy (an overheard phone call), leading to a Samsung Galaxy flung at the wall.

Two clients offered consolation and a cornucopia of advice, from how to act firm to grooming tips, which annoyed her, but she thanked them both. She had become not just a barber but a cause. Somehow in the process, Sam changed from an obliging husband, the kind who’d do dishes, to a demanding helpmeet, who wouldn’t—

Ever. Frickin’. Listen. And the behavior! The other day, they’d just stared at each other the entire time it took to walk 10 blocks.

“What I would do? Take a walk around the block.”

“Tell him to take a walk.”

“My wife and I have gotten along for over 30 years. Here’s the secret.”

“My wife and I fight constantly, but we’re still together.”

“You two getting along in the bedroom?”

“Sounds like he could use a good spanking,” said you-know-who, with a dirty wink.

She needed to choose her scenarios with care. But she also needed to ramp things up. It was like being in a Netflix drama in its second season, when the scriptwriters felt they had to up the ante.

At times, she’d engage in a little play-acting with a customer, pretending he was her husband. She swooped her head in close. “Is that vodka on your breath again? Sam, it’s not even noon!”

One guy improvised a skit with her, ending in more drinking. Another, an AA member, subjected her to a lecture and strongly suggested she join a support group for spouses of people with alcohol addiction.

September turned to October, and Sam was still out of work. He wore a new, tight expression, as if his mouth were being pulled apart by invisible rubber bands. He treated her like she was something left over on a dinner plate. In fact, some of her descriptions made the customers nervous, as if she’d exposed some secret in their marriages. She needed to choose her scenarios with care. But she also needed to ramp things up. It was like being in a Netflix drama in its second season, when the scriptwriters felt they had to up the ante.

Then came the accident.

It was a dumb move. That evening in the kitchen, she smacked into a cabinet door she’d left ajar. She ran right into it, and it felt as if someone had punched her. She was surprised by how much it hurt and started swearing at the cabinet. She felt her right cheek, which had already begun swelling, its own relief map. Damn—she knew it would look bad by the morning.

It did. When she examined herself in the bathroom mirror, she saw a reddish bruise shaped like a candy bar. Last thing she needed. She started to cover it with concealer when she stopped herself.

In the shop, she downplayed what had happened. Larry was off that day, but John noticed at once. “I walked into a cabinet door, that’s all.” But when all he did was nod, she quickly changed the story. “Let’s just say this was a gift from Sam. I’d like to return it.”

“Sorry to hear it.” John shook his head, then leaned in to inspect the wound. “Funny thing is, it really looks as if you ran into a door.”

Yeah, well, I don’t think any of my cabinets would be that mean. Or, You should ask Sam about that. These were two of the responses she thought of later. But at the time, all she could come up with was the awkward, “Doesn’t it look right?”

By 10:00, she had cut the hair of four customers, three of whom commented on the injury. To each of them she mentioned walking into a door, then let herself be talked into admitting it was Sam. “What do you think I should do?” she asked softly. She reached up with her left hand to finger the bruise, which throbbed.

“Leave the bastard.” This was the voice of a bullet-headed man, who delivered flat opinions on everything from soup to sex.

“Don’t try to solve this yourself. You know the National Domestic Violence hotline?” The AA man seemed to have an intimate acquaintance with a lot of help organizations.

“How’s your left hook?” said the customer she’d dubbed Mr. Curly. He had curls everywhere and joked about everything, though he meant well, and he always tipped with bills so crisp, they felt freshly minted.

Business was good all week, but nonstop and tiring. She was in the back room, feeling fuzzy and yawning, helping herself to some coffee from the Sam machine, when John walked in.

Isabella looked at him, waiting for him to say something. He did.

Well, patter was part of any haircut, so why shouldn’t she practice what she was good at? And if what she told people wasn’t entirely accurate, that was part of the entertainment. Sam was hers.

“What’s the deal? They all want you today.”

“Yeah, well.” She sipped some coffee, waiting for the caffeine to kick in.

John examined her face as if for the first time. The bruise had changed color from black and blue to yellow-green. “Really did a number on you, huh?”

“I know. I’ve got to redo those cabinets.”

“What?”

“That cabinet door.” Realizing her slip, she frantically backpedaled. “I mean Sam. Sam Keurig. That’s my excuse for him.”

“Your excuse.”

“My cover story, I mean. People don’t want to hear about that kind of thing.”

“Oh, I dunno about that.” He made himself a cup of coffee and sloshed it back to his chair. He soon lured a scant-haired customer and started comb-over-scissors, a soft-point cut across the crown. Still on her break, Isabella looked toward him with a twinge of guilt. John had an expert hand at texturing. Too bad he had no conversational flair.

Well, patter was part of any haircut, so why shouldn’t she practice what she was good at? And if what she told people wasn’t entirely accurate, that was part of the entertainment. Sam was hers.

After she’d downed her cup, she headed back to her chair, where a gray-haired regular was already waiting. He was the nonobservant type and had just noticed her bruise. It was her 12th or 13th cut of the day. Suddenly she felt quite tired of telling the same story and waiting for a response, like a scientist working with lab rats. But this narrative had broken loose, as if it were no longer hers. He squinted up at her. “Wow, what happened to you?

Showtime.

By the time she got home, she was fried. She ordered green curry from a new Thai place and forked it directly from the container. She didn’t want to open the dish cabinet for fear of hitting her head again. She’d have to get over that. In a few more days, the bruise and its origin would be history. So what would come next?

She slept poorly that night, as she had all week. In the one dream that floated to the surface, she was giving a balding man an awful buzz cut that made his hair sprout back in little aggressive patches. “I know all about your cabinets!” he yelled at her, then froze like the final cut in a film.

She awoke with the resolve to do something—to change her story, to move to Staten Island and start another life, to give back all her tip money, or to top her previous history with another whopper that she could add to, but what? Show multiple contusions? Get a restraining order on Sam? Maybe she should have imagined him differently.

She arrived at the shop a little late. John was already setting up and turned away. Larry wasn’t coming in till 10:00. She and John started haircuts at 9:00. The man she was working on, a regular with wiry hair, hadn’t yet seen her injury and was concerned.

An hour later, both of them having finished their third haircuts, John walked over to her as if to deliver a salutation, but he looked odd, his face contorted. He leaned in, quiet for a moment. He whispered five words: “I finally located Sam Keurig.”

“You—you did?”

“Yeah. Says he doesn’t know you.”

He placed his coffee cup in the sink and walked away.

Isabella bit her lip hard. She’d been found out, exposed as a liar—all her stories dissolving like gunk in Barbicide. But the sinking feeling was soon replaced by one of relief: no more Sam to step warily around. Now she didn’t have to invent a reason for leaving him, which she knew she couldn’t have done anyway.

Her wide eyes settled on her barber’s kit, with its array of combs and scissors and brushes. She reached over for her Equinox shears and held on to them like a talisman. Had John told anyone else? What about the customers? She bit her lip again, and it started to bleed.

She was trying to think of a comeback when the shop door opened, and Larry entered in his orange down coat that made him look wide as a gate. He pulled off his coat and hung it on the rightmost hook, crowding out her blue parka. He looked at her station, where she had begun sweeping up, even though she’d already done it once.

Isabella’s hands were shaking. Larry cleared his throat. “We need to talk.”

“About what?”

He nodded toward the break room. What was there to do but follow him? He looked both angry and weary, tasked with an unpleasant obligation. As Isabella walked unsteadily toward the back of the store, she felt the need for a supporting arm, a few husbandly words of advice. But Sam wasn’t there.

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