“May I?” A voice rang through the door. Misha took his eyes off Arik’s craterous bald top to see one of his favorite patients, Viktor, holding his cap with both hands, making a shoe-wiping motion with his feet as if it he’d just stepped out of a day-long troika ride in the dead of winter.
“Since when do you need permission?” Misha asked, doing his best imitation of his dad’s mordantly flavored hospitality.
“Can you believe it? Sunday morning and the wife won’t let me eat until I go get ‘sheared.’ What am I, a sheep?”
Misha could full believe it. More than half of his livelihood, $10 plus tip at a time, was made from the watchful eye of vigilant wives who leaned on the type of men who, no matter their past professional post or social status, would sooner spend three hours inspecting their car engine than thirty minutes on personal grooming. Once at the shop, though, the ease with which they gave in to the small pleasures of small talk and another man’s professional dexterity was nothing short of amazing.
“We don’t discriminate here—animal or man,” Misha countered. He sometimes wondered if he went too far even with regulars, an anxiety that resulted in the kinds of middling jokes that served merely to pass the time.
Viktor took a seat, looking with sleepy disinterest at the Sunday-morning pregame show Misha had on while Arik was finished off. Misha, anxious to be done with his friend’s wispy patch, was nevertheless frustrated to let go. He never knew what to do with a head like this, simply going through the motions. It was impossible to lose yourself in a bare, withered cornfield that was Arik Malayev. He thought with some satisfaction of his next victim who was mere feet away—his thick, desirable mane.
“Come for dinner and chess tonight. The fridge is still full from Olya’s parents visiting yesterday,” Arik offered after a too-long period of silence from Misha. “The woman has a wardrobe full of fur and a Jacuzzi tub in her bathroom—but unless my mother-in-law is assured we have at least five types of meat in stock on her weekly inspection, I’m a complete failure,” he said, solicitously. Then, looking in the mirror and running his fingers over his temples and back around his head, where they met in visible satisfaction, “Hey, did you hear this one? My mother-in-law was bitten by a dog yesterday. – How is she now? – She’s fine. But, the dog died.” Arik struggled to finish the punchline as he burst into a long-awaited and somewhat denied-sounding laugh.
Misha was often annoyed by what he perceived as Arik’s blatant attempts to deign to Misha’s state of mind—where other mortals resided and—of bickering, in-laws, and domestic squabbles. This was a syntax they undeniably shared as Soviet immigrants. It occurred to him only in the abstract that Arik was just as much an alien in this country—and what passed for a soul—as Misha was, and that his inner turmoil, expressed in impulse buys of pool tables, whirlpool tubs, and Sharper Image gadgets could be as turbulent and sophisticated as his own soulful stinginess and misanthropic convictions. Done trimming the back of Arik’s neck, he hastened to spread some talc over the meaty nape and whipped the cape off him perfectly, as he often practiced in his barber college days, sending the tiny trail of hair gliding softly to the floor, where it would intermingle with a few dozen sets of hair before getting swept into the heap of hair history and archived in an extra-large double-bagged bucket in the back along with shredded bills and dog shit left by some inconsiderate neighbors by the shop door.
“We’ll see. Yuzya went fishing for the weekend with his son, so I’m working the late shift,” Misha replied, credibly enough, reflexively extending his hand like a shield to block his friend’s embarrassing attempt to ply him with a fat tip.
“On the house,” he whispered, in English, not for Viktor’s Russian-only ears.
“When you buy one, then you can start giving it away,” Arik said, with obvious satisfaction at his near-perfect English witticism, stuffing tens and fives into Misha’s pocket. Certitude in such charitable financial gestures was one of his admirable qualities—unlike Misha’s family members, who would shove the money back and forth tentatively and never quite convincingly, ultimately taking it back after wasting each other’s time, Arik was quite serious about divesting himself of funds he felt should line other people’s pockets—and this was no exception.
“Alright, alright, scram,” Misha waved his friend off with the back of his hand. He thought for a minute, with some satisfaction, about what he could have done had Viktor not entered the shop: locked the door, drawn the shades, distract Arik while producing a straight razor; holding him hostage to the threat of a deadly smile across his Adam’s apple as he extracted a bawling confession out of his double-dealing friend; Arik wetting himself and Misha magnanimously dismissing him without even making him wipe his own piss off the floor. This appealing revenge fantasy did little to resolve Misha’s impasse of suspected cuckoldry. He looked over to Viktor, who timidly awaited by the first chair.
“Please, Sir, have a seat,” Misha said, with simulated sycophancy.
“Much obliged,” Viktor returned, in full sincerity. Even with this unobjectionable customer, Misha was disappointed in Viktor’s unwillingness or inability to play along in his facetious game for two.
“The usual?” he asked.
“Please. My wife asked if you could do a straight line in the back, no ‘tail.’ I could care less, but you know how women are.”
“Pffft. She’s clearly scared of all the attention you were getting with my ‘V’ special.”
Viktor chuckled, embarrassed even by the joking insinuation that he, at the age of 50-something, he of the tiny poodle on a purple leash that his wife made him purchase for their 35th wedding anniversary and walk every day thereafter, would still be a virile stud, an object of desire for eligible and non-eligible batchelorettes.
Misha sighed, swapped a #4 razor cartridge for a #3, and went to work on Viktor’s box-shaped head. He went up and down the sides and top with calm, habitual precision, like a tractor plowing an Iowa cornfield. This was Misha in his element—losing himself in the beautiful, palliative routine of his chosen profession—craftily showcasing his deftness with the tools of his trade. One stroke, and he moved closer to the faintly lit tunnel of happy oblivion where his family tree was gradually pruned…and he was alone again—he was Misha before trips to the U.S. and Israeli Consulates in Tashkent petitioning and bribing his way to an application for asylum; another, and he was Misha before Galya and the paralyzing mix of exultation and consternation that came with dating a woman who should have never been his; one big pull across the thick row up top, and he was Misha before Anya, his pretty young daughter, one minute the budding apple of his eye, the next a rotten apple core who wanted nothing to do with him; a few more smooth passes along the curve where Viktor’s hair parted and Misha was a teenager running with “fast” young girls down the artificial shore of Lake Chardara, ignorant of next year’s rejection from the aeronautics institute in Moscow because his father was too poor to overcome anti-Semitism with a “donation” to the “alumni fund”; a couple of quick sideburn adjustments and he was a boy sitting on the side of a sand-strewn road, waiting for the excitement of a passing Volga, the gorgeous Russian sedan reserved for athletes and politicians that had began appearing in town—a boy who wore cheap sandals and knew nothing of his neighbor’s larger kitchen, his brother’s detached house, and his friend’s enterprising foresight to create a college fund for his daughter; as he changed the blade and prepared for the first leg of the V, he was almost there, the tunnel’s gravitational pull growing stronger and stronger, his eyes gliding out of their sockets and into the blur of a shapeless black hole that represented unlimited possibility or certain destruction, where one choice was just as good as the other, just the V, and—
“Um, remember, no V, please.”
“What?” Misha asked coldly, incredulous that this pipsqueak would deny him his shot at eternity.
“She’s going to think I ignored her on purpose, or worse, that I don’t listen to her requests. Please, no V, I’m sorry.”
Misha wanted to spit at this abject creature, this mosquito of a man, whose desperate prick was just strong enough to take him away from the tunnel, the black hole, the mysteries of life and the universe beyond his tiny barbershop and slightly larger apartment, a likely cheating wife and a knocked-up daughter who chose to store her trust and, lately, most of her belongings, in her girlfriend’s house. He sputtered and spun back down to Earth like a deflating balloon leaking an invisible trail of helium blood.
“As you wish,” he said, unable to deny himself a slight bit of professional disdain for his customer’s faintness of heart. He buzzed the back line quickly and smoothly, showed him the back, dusted the hair off briskly, and whisked the cape off his body like a magician unveiling the stunning result of sewing a woman in half. Startled, the man gripped the chair and shrunk back into his seat as if Misha had ripped off all his clothes. Viktor was ushered out unceremoniously, without even the 30 seconds of pleasantries he’d come to expect. Shrugging either from habit or to show his insouciance, he walked through the doors and disappeared from Misha’s life for 6-8 weeks. Luckily, there was no one waiting yet—the perfect window for a cigarette and football score break—but only if he could get Viktor out of his chair before the next hirsute husband walked in. He’d had to change the channel to the Russian news to avoid fielding annoying questions about the mechanics of the game and listen to repetitive complaints about the game’s stupidity.