He opened the door, took in a deep breath of middle Queens air, a cocktail that was two part oxygen, one part expressway exhaust. When a barrel-chested, broad-shouldered teenage boy walked out of the record store next door and stopped in front of the shop, he paid little attention. During work hours Misha robotically locked in on his customer base and filtered out everyone else—women, Latinos, babies, and definitely jock types.
“Hey, bro, can I bum one off ya?” the boy asked without a hint of doubt in his voice that Misha would give him one. He was the type of guy who was used to getting what he wanted and not saying thanks.
Misha, more curious than annoyed at this audacity, silently complied. He held a cheap lighter decorated with a picture of a joker card a safe distance from the boy’s mouth to avoid an appearance of interest. Whether wielding scissors or a cigarette, Misha was the consummate professional. It never occurred to him that he was enabling underage smoking.
“This your shop?”
“I usually go to my guy down the street. You know, the salon?”
Misha nodded again. Happily, he didn’t feel a pinch of professional jealousy. Saying he was competitive with full-service salons was like saying a hot dog vendor competed with diners.
“Thing is, though, he’s not in today, and I don’t trust the dude they have filling in. Some purple-haired fag.”
At this, Misha looked the boy over. Like any straight man, he was ready to tacitly accept others’ homophobia. It was more the way the word rolled off the guy’s lips. So casual, like he was talking about a thing.
“I’ll take a cut from a new dude, but not a fucking homo. Know what I mean? I don’t want to deal with that shit for half an hour. They take their time there.”
Stubbing out his cigarette, Misha realized this was the boy getting into his good graces with a backhanded compliment. No, he wouldn’t let a fag cut his hair. He wanted a real, no-nonsense, 10-minute buzz from a regular guy.
“OK, step right in, my friend.”
Misha watched the boy plop down into the chair and spin around once lazily, already looking bored in the way Misha ascribed to many harebrained American teenage boys. Like a surgeon laying out his scalpels at the side of an operating table, he spread out the clippers on a small rag placed on the mirror counter.
“So, how are we going to cut it, my friend? Short on the top, short on the sides?”
“Fade should do it, bro. But I, umm, have a special request.”
Misha perked up instantly, all eyes on the kid, finally awaiting a potentially interesting order. “Yes?”
“You’re Russian, right?”
“Something like that.”
“So my girl is Russian. Can you tag something cool on the back of my neck? She’ll flip!”
“You mean like graffiti?” Misha smiled at the prospect of giving this likely Irish or Italian kid the ethnic hair treatment his racially confused type so craved. “Yeah, I can do that.”
“What you gonna write?”
“How about a surprise? Something your girlfriend won’t be able to resist,” Misha said, winking. Here was a project he could finally sink his teeth into.
“Aaight, just make it look good. Nothing too crazy.”
“Don’t worry. She will be very impressed,” Misha assured him.
Misha clipped the cape at the neck and went to work. The boy, caught in the rare situation in his life over which he lacked any control, now seemed to be just slightly out of his comfort zone, and transferred his attention from the mirror to the TV screen. “Hey, what’s the score in the Fish game?”
“Not sure, they’re showing the Jets game now.” Whereas the typical barber from Misha knew more than enough about his favorite sport to realize the guy was a Dolphins fan. Great. “So, this is a nice Russian girl?”
The kid was somewhat discomfited by this question. He was clearly in the habit of taking care of business with girls, not sharing his feelings. “She’s cool. Kinda has that Arab look, you know what I mean?”
“Is she Uzbek?” Misha asked, less casually and more interested than before.
“Yeah, Jewish, too. I usually don’t go for Jewish chicks, but this one’s got a body on her, knowamean?” the boy mused, drifting back to the conversational tenor he could handle and enjoyed. “Tits down to here,” he boasted, illustrating them with a fist-shaped protrusion from his belly area that recalled the hatching monster from Alien.
Misha was momentarily distracted from spraying water on the boy’s top in preparation for a 30-second scissor trim. Though he himself had once married a woman whose beauty rivaled the one described by this future deadbeat, he couldn’t stomach the codeless crudeness with which boys here referred to women. He smirked thinking of the ridiculous words he could carve into the boy’s head that he’d probably find totally “hot.” Bratan (dude)? Krutoy (cool)? Krisha (mob boss)?
“Ah. Did you meet her at school?”
“Yeah, man, she tutored math to be at Forest Hills. Some kind of math whiz. Girl’s got a brain on her, too,” the boy paused, reflectively. “College girl for sure…Me, I’m going into cash money, myself.”
Misha, one ear catching the halftime show of the Jets game, the other taking in the kid’s sexual swagger, bristled all of a sudden.
“What’s her name?”
“Why, you want to see if she has a sister?
“What’s her name?” He said, this time more forcefully, his other ear ejecting football platitudes about Gang Green’s need to stop the run, now fully on guard to hear the boy’s response.
“Chill, bro, what the fuck!” The boy said, nearly jumping out of the chair, as if from habit. The vigor in his voice had faded—this was the defensive stance of a bully who’d been shown pushback.
Misha just stared back, unfazed, like a lion watching his prey.
“It’s Nadya, OK? What the hell does it matter, anyway?”
The barber took a sigh that to a stranger would be a strange expression of relief, but to a friend would bear the muted, decompressing sound of reluctant resignation. The cold, silent killer’s look dissipated, leaving only the vessel of an unremarkable, medium-height barber in its wake.
“Good for you. Russian Jewish girls expect to be treated with respect. OK?”
“OK, OK, chill. My bad. I love the ladies. Much respect to your people, you know?”
Respect. What the fuck did he know about respect? Did it matter to Misha at that moment that his daughter’s name was Bella, not Nadya? Clearly it was enough to snap him back from an unfamiliar and dangerous precipice to the safe and stable ground of his barber shop. Did it matter that while yes, she was proficient at math, winning a handful of awards in the 7th grade, Bella had long since abandoned its cold elegance and precision for the schizophrenic charms of fashion design? What did it matter to him that his daughter wasn’t fucking this lame-brained loser, when this lame-brained loser had just shown him the capacity for horrendous choices and self-destruction of another smart, pretty, dad-despising daughter who probably lived a few blocks away, crossing paths with Bella every day on her way to school? How many of these guys were out there, offering the cheap confidence and charismatic arrogance that millions of middling dads couldn’t provide? And Bella, quiet, headstrong Bella, out there with her best friend Ella—chuckling at what a loser her dad was, how bad his taste in music, how light his wallet, how stupidly moralistic and intellectually hollow his bedtime stories were. He still read bedtime stories to me when I was 13! As if his little inventions are supposed to make me forget that he can’t buy me a pair of shoes I really want.
Misha stared at the back of the kid’s neck, which he could so easily snap with a quick twist he’d learned back in his infantry days. He saw scrawled on it reproaches from his dear daughter—each one an indictment against his fatherhood, his ambitions, his tastes, his own unquenchable thirst for her love: Loh (sucker); kozyol (loser);
“Hey, we good?” the boy asked, sheepishly.
Misha’s gaze, fixed on the mirror a bit too long, now switched back to the boy.
“Yeah’ we’re fine, boss,” he said, in the most chilly impersonal tone he could muster without sounding like a bad horror movie antagonist.