FICTION: The Barber’s Spy

The Barber's Spy

I chose my barber shop for its brick storefront and the model train set that chugged along an electric rail in the window. You don’t see that kind of thing anymore. I’m a young guy, so I appreciate a bit of history.

My barbers knew what I liked: high in the back, swept across the sides, wavy on top. Angelo, Carlo, and Vito. They were brothers, I think. Although Vito carried his weight differently, like a sack of laundry clutched to his stomach, and he didn’t have the same arched forehead and wispy moustache as the others. So maybe they weren’t brothers. But they could have been. They tousled my hair, and dusted a washcloth with baby powder to wipe behind my ears. You don’t see that kind of care and affection among men anymore. Unless they grew up together, like a litter of puppies, always shadowboxing. I loved my barbers. But I never spoke more than six words to them, and they never asked my name.

The bell clanged.

A chubby guy in sneakers walked in, his sleeveless blue T-shirt stained with sweat. “You hear Domino’s bought the corner lot?”

Angelo stopped snipping my hair. His scissors clicked behind my head. “Who’s Dominoes?”

“Don’t tell me you never heard of Domino’s,” said Chubby. “Big pizza chain? You call up, they bake a whole pie, anything you want, and deliver it to your door. With the red and blue baseball caps.”

Angelo dropped his wrist on my shoulder. “You can’t just sit down and order a slice?”

Chubby spread his hands. “It’s not that kind of place.”

Vito, reclining in a chair next to me with a Sports Illustrated, said, “Never last. I don’t care how big they are. People want to sit down and order a slice. They move in now, they’re gone by Christmas.” Vito had this way of shrugging and chuckling at once. “What corner did you say?”

“Fifth and twelfth.”

Angelo laughed from his belly. “That’s practically Gowanus!” Scissors grazed the back of my head.

Chubby didn’t say anything. Leaning on the door frame, he stretched his quads. He glanced out the window, over the tiny steeples and plastic trees of the electric train set. On his way out, he saluted Vito.

“Bambini,” Angelo muttered, even though I was right in front of him, and I’m a young guy, too. But I’m shy, and terrible at making conversation. I always tried not to laugh when Vito told Angelo to shut the fuck up, and I never tipped so big that anyone would notice.

Sitting in the barber’s chair, I made up stories. Like how the medicine cabinet was a relic from the Red Cross in World War II, and the reason Carlo sang along with the jazz tunes on the radio was because he used to play the clarinet in a traveling band, until his lungs gave out from smoking.

Vito said, “Where’s Carlo?”

Angelo said, “In the back. On the phone.”

Vito said, “What about?”

Angelo shrugged.

A moment later the coat rack lurched as Carlo stumbled out of the back room. “I’m going to kill that guy, I fucking swear to God.” He untucked his brown shirt and fanned the tails to get some air. His face was pale. “You spend your whole life trying to raise your kids, and then some fucking…”

Carlo collapsed in Vito’s chair. Vito rubbed his shoulders. Angelo poured a glass of cold water from the sink.

I waited, hands folded in my lap, beneath a blue sheet, as Carlo told them, for what must have been the millionth time, about his daughter, Isabella, and how she had married the wrong man. Isabella lived in Chicago. She called home every night, to cry about her husband and what a mistake she’d made. He cheated on her. Screamed at her. Wouldn’t share his money. They had been married in a fit of passion, and now their passion was ripping Isabella apart.

When my barbers put their heads together, they sounded like a gang of street kids. Like they were deciding whether to break out the slingshots and take a run at the local bully. Angelo said Isabella should run away from this asshole. Vito said Isabella should take a butcher knife to the asshole’s balls. Carlo wanted her to move back home. I loved my barbers because sometimes they were so perfect I didn’t even have to make up stories about them.

Last night the asshole nearly broke Isabella’s skull with a golf club. She called her father to say she was leaving him. She had thrown him out. She had taken off her ring and changed the locks.

Carlo wasn’t so sure. He didn’t trust the asshole to stay away, and he didn’t trust his daughter not to have a change of heart. So it was killing him: how long before the asshole comes back and ruins Isabella’s life?

If only he could sit on a stoop, across from the house in Chicago, and see his daughter with his own eyes.

Angelo said, “What’s a plane to Chicago cost?”

Carlo scratched his neck. “Too much, too much.”

“I’m going to Chicago in a few weeks,” said a voice I recognized as my own. “For a business trip. They’re giving me a hotel, a rental car, the whole thing. I could stop by the house, if you want. See who shows up.”

Seconds later we were all talking about Chicago: where to find a decent slice of deep dish, and how to stake out a house. Carlo looked at me with moist eyes, like I would be a great son-in-law. He wrote the address on a scrap of receipt paper from his pocket. When I left, each of my barbers shook my hand, embracing me up to the elbow.

“Let us know what you find,” Vito said. “Your next haircut is on me.”

***

At the airport I realized my hair was growing faster than usual. I felt it swish against my neck as I strode toward the departure gate. I should have gotten another haircut before I left. But I was afraid my barbers would think I was cashing in before I had finished the job. Or worse—that I never intended to help in the first place. Going to another barber shop was out of the question. So I had no choice. I let my hair grow long and scraggly.

***

Each night after the conference, I drove to Isabella’s house. She lived on a block lined with sycamore trees. I parked under their broad leaves, in the shadows of the street lamps. Snacking on Funyons and dried apple chips and coffee, I listened to an Oldies station and kept the volume low.

All three nights, I heard raised voices in the house. The front door would burst open, and a young woman ran down the brick steps. She hit the sidewalk and turned right. She had the same arched forehead as her uncles, but she was curvy and blessed with a cascade of black satin hair. Her heels stabbed the pavement as she rushed past the sycamore trees. But each night she slowed down. She never got farther than the sixth tree before a voice shouted from the house.

“Isabella, come back!”

On the first night, she spun around.

The second night, she paused near a black iron fence.

Third night, she took out a cigarette and smoked.

Eventually she obeyed the voice and sauntered back to the house.

I never saw the man inside—only a curtain blowing in the open window.

The story I made up about Isabella and her husband—whose name, I far as I cared, was Ronny—went like this. Ronny had some friends in prison, including a felon named Angel Cabrera. Angel called in a favor. He asked Ronny to track down the names and addresses of his prison guards. For insurance, Angel said.

Ronny didn’t want to know what Angel planned to do. But Isabella wasn’t going to stick around and find out. She said Ronny could either tell Angel to burn in hell, or give back his wedding ring.

But every time they fought about it, Ronny told her how much trouble he’d be in if Angel ever made parole, and Isabella’s love for her husband won out. She couldn’t ask him to put himself in danger.

On the third night, as she was stubbing out her cigarette, Isabella caught my eye through the windshield.

***

After the conference, some of my coworkers decided to stay in Chicago until Sunday, and I did the same. But instead of going to the Magnificent Mile or a boozy dance club, I drove to Isabella’s house. I brought some Thai food from a takeout place, and a cold six-pack. It was Saturday night. I cranked up the Oldies station. I wondered what I would say if Isabella came outside and talked to me.

A door slammed. Isabella ran down the steps. I didn’t hear what she was screaming, because I was blasting the #4 Billboard hit from 1967, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” by Tommy James & the Shondells. She picked up speed, racing past the last sycamore tree.

I fumbled for the door. Thai food spilled over my lap. By the time Isabella rounded the corner, she was flying.

I chased her.

Chicago is a broad, majestic city, and I liked what I saw of it. In particular I liked Isabella’s neighborhood, with its sycamore trees, its vaulted fire stations, and a barber’s pole spinning in the distance, red white and blue. But I saw most of this in a blur. I tailed Isabella for about a mile before she pulled up, wheezing, in front of a hardware store.

Sucking down every breath, I said, “Don’t go back there. It’s not safe. I’ll drive you to the airport. You catch a redeye. Stay with your father for a while. He loves you very much.” A strap had fallen loose on Isabella’s burgundy tank top, exposing her soft left shoulder. She must be using a special lotion for her skin, I thought. Something in a tall green bottle that smelled like cream and honey. It rested on the edge of her bathtub, and caught a spray when she showered.

She backed into the entrance of the hardware store, which was closed. “Tell me who you are, right now.”

“Okay,” I said. “My hair grows, right? I need a haircut every now and then. Who doesn’t? I wanted a barber shop that felt like the Old World, you know? A place with a sense of history.”

“Stop!” Isabella scanned the cars on the road. “You have five seconds.” She stuffed a fist inside her jeans pocket, and I watched her fingers tighten around a ring of sharp keys.

“Your uncles run my barber shop,” I said.

Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t have any uncles.”

“What?”

She pulled out the keys and slashed the air between us. “Get away from me, right now!”

***

When I returned to my car, there was a big man, as broad as a mailbox, shining a flashlight on the driver’s seat. The domestic beer and the pad thai had congealed into a sticky mess on the rented fabric.

“Hey,” I said. Because, really, there was nothing else to say. “Hey, you!”

The silver badge he flashed me looked real. “License?”

I sat on the curb and fumed about my barbers—how they misled me into thinking they were brothers, and how Isabella couldn’t see that I was only trying to help her. The cop beamed a light in my face. “We’ve heard about a stalker in the area. Business man, dressed for work, but with crazy hair. Sits in a black car all night and spies on people. That wouldn’t be you, would it?”

“Not me.” I touched my scalp. “It’s just a bit long, is all.”

As the cop holstered the flashlight and raised the handcuffs, I studied his hair. It was the color of roasted almonds. He wore a full moustache beneath a pair of aviator glasses, and his leather jacket was scuffed in all the right places.

“I hope you don’t have a flight to catch,” he said. “Because you’re not making it. And I’m impounding this car.”

A good story would have gotten me off the hook. But the best story, for why I was staking out a stranger’s house in a city where I had never been before, was the truth. And I knew the truth would sound like the worst kind of lie. So I smoothed my hair and shut my mouth.

Still holding my wallet, the cop fingered my cash. “Unless you want to work this out now.”

At first I didn’t realize what he was saying. Then I wanted to vomit on the asphalt. That’s how disgusting it was. “You want money?”

The cop looked away, and his bouncy hair trembled.

“And this is how you ask for it? Are you fucking kidding me?”

The cop fixed me with an aviator stare.

I said, “What’s next—are you going to introduce me to your wise-cracking sidekick? Are you going to start munching a doughnut? Are you going to call the Chief and say to hell with your badge?”

“All right.” The cop exhaled, running his fingers through his luxurious hair. “What do you wanna do, here?”

***

Riding back to the airport on a city bus, knowing I couldn’t afford any magazines or candy because I had maxed out the company credit card and given all my cash to the cop, I wasn’t angry at my barbers, or Isabella, or even at the cop, really. But I was angry that he played his part so predictably. Anyone could have made up that shit. Why are people such hacks?

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