Barber

The garbage truck always came at the stroke of 7 AM and Misha wondered at the punctuality of a driver who daily faced so many seemingly random variables: schoolchildren crossing the street, cars haphazardly parked too close to the curb, the unpredictably odd and oversized items that had to be fork-lifted over the front and compacted into the big hulking truck bed. And when someone added to the pile of fat black garbage bags in front of their home a fully assembled bed frame or a large bookcase that couldn’t possibly fit through a doorway, as he had done last week…what then? Such items were easy enough to sneak out of the building after midnight, provided you had an accomplice in a brother and you didn’t bang it too much going down the stairs. In the mornings, the always sweaty super shook his head every time such items littered the sidewalk in front of the building, but Misha refused to feel bad about it, knowing at least three quarters of his neighbors wouldn’t bat an eye engaging in the same shameless dumping at all hours of the night. If anything, his relatives berated for letting go of so many desirable items.

“This is something those brainless Americans do—dumping things instead of fixing them,” Uncle Kolya would say. “Stinking materialists.”

“You should be thanking these ‘morons’ for decorating your last three apartments,” Misha would throw back, brandishing his own wit like a rapier in front of rabble armed with staffs and clubs. Unlike his wife, he usually  stopped short of mocking Kolya’s weak socialist credentials, shed slowly, like porcupine quills, a decade ago when he started leaving his job at the Dushanbe post office early to manage an underground cooperative business importing the bestselling vehicles of General Motors and Ford Motor Company to Central Asia. Sadly, the highly lucrative enterprise that enabled him to grease the wheels of the Soviet bureaucracy and rescue his ailing wife from inadequate medical care was a barely real memory, and not one he was fond of sharing with the humbling contrast of his current predicament in plain sight. These days, Kolya’s proud past as a communist organizer and soapbox decrier of Western moral dissipation was on display behind the squeaky-clean glass doors of a cherry-colored china cabinet in his small bedroom. Misha always felt a sense of dread looking at that cabinet whenever he went to drop off his coat on Kolya’s bed during birthday and anniversary parties. It reminded him of their furniture sets back in the old country. Here in America, they seemed even more old-fashioned and depressing, a feeble and stupid attempt to recreate their lives back home in the microcosm of a lower-middle-class Rego Park apartment—a dismal diorama built from memories that grew more distant every year.

The truck passed and Misha’s thoughts returned to the toolkit in front of him. He shook the Clubman container. All outIf Yuzik is sticking me here on a Sunday, he shouldn’t mind if I borrow his talcum powder. Brushing his hand over his partner’s table, Misha added to his arsenal some clipper oil, the fancy hair gel he always passed over for the store brand, and a soft-bristled duster that put his own tool’s receding horsehairs to shame. He knew Yuzik would be pissed when he came in the next day—Yuzik hated anyone taking his stuff—most of all his partner. Misha looked forward to the argument that would ensue—Yuzik calling him unprofessional, Misha calling him a miser, Yuzik snorting sarcastically and saying something to the effect of “that’s rich.” Minor skirmishes with a precedent for resolution were how he kept the larger battles of business partnership at bay.

By the time he finished sweeping the floor, washing the mirror, and eating the hardboiled eggs his wife had wrapped in a paper towel and stuck into a small cellophane bag for him the night before, it was almost 9. He flipped the sign to OPEN and left the door ajar. Yuzik hated leaving the door open. “It’s desperate,” he would say.

“No, it’s welcoming—we’re a local shop, not an upscale beauty salon,” Misha would counter.

Sundays were usually slow and painful. Full of commiseration with husbands forced to get haircuts for evening restaurant gatherings, boys brought in by parents lamenting they were starting to look Mowgli from The Jungle Book, and people who didn’t care for American football—in other words, no one Misha particularly wanted in his chair during Bills games. His affinity with the team was a fluke. Back when his family first emigrated to the States from Tashkent, a relatively prosperous cousin from the affluent Upstate New York suburb called Amherst decided to take him to a Bills game while his wife spent the day shopping for a new stroller with the cousin’s wife. At the time, Misha had trouble buffering with gratitude for hospitality his resentment of the suburban accountant cousin and his ostentatious display of success when Misha’s mind was fixed on matters more mundane—finding employment and a home for his six-month-old daughter.

This bled into Gameday. He didn’t care for the frustrating rules of a strange new game that had a familiar old name. He didn’t understand why a perfectly good round ball was beaten into a starfruit shape, why the game stopped every few seconds, and why the only time the ball was kicked was on penalty shots with no goalie to stop it, and why it was booted into the mouth of an oversized slingshot. People painted their bodies with ridiculous letters and wrapped themselves in overpriced towels to guard against the brutal Buffalo winter. He couldn’t understand why everyone lacked the brains and foresight to wear thermal long johns like he had. This was not the football he grew up playing on the streets of Tashkent and watching from the hot nosebleed section of Pakhtakor Stadium. But when, after three months of fruitless job-hunting, Misha’s wife forced a move downstate to Queens, where she had family and a solid job offer at a medical office, he took a growing interest in the game. Three years later, when a small color TV was installed first in the “office” and then, on Misha’s suggestion, in the main parlor of the barber shop, Misha had become expert at every penalty, and would yell at the coach after every botched third-down call. His adopted team, improbably enough, was the Bills. Whether it was the image of the charging buffalo or the vague notion in the back of his head that another three months in that obscure, faded town would have yielded a dream opportunity inaccessible to the droves of immigrants streaming like cattle into the five boroughs of New York City, it was clear that this plain post-industrial Midwestern town in Upstate New York had left an unexpected impression on Misha.

The door suddenly flew open and a loud greeting invaded the silence, “Mishulya, open for business?” He swung around to find filling the entrance a short, heavyset frame draped in a powder-blue velour sweat suit, a wide oval head jutting out of the collar with almost no hint of neck. It was fully conceivable that someone waking up from a deep and convincing dream would see before them a talking snowman someone forgot to top off with a carrot nose; a snowman now extending a plump wrist decorated with a thick gold bracelet.

“I hope you give better customer service to strangers than to friends,” Arik said in slow, painstaking English he knew Misha appreciated more than his usual street Russian.

 

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Ex-Soviet immigrant turned wanna-be scribe. I bite off more than I can chew, but at least I've got good teeth.

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