“I’m telling you I don’t always feel good. And you kick me.” “And what do I say?” “You say, ‘Get laid.’ ‘Have something good to eat.’ ‘Go to a movie.’ ‘Buy land.’ ‘Do this, do that.’ ‘I don’t care,’ is what you say. Ever since you began to lose your hair, you’re like a big shot.” “A barber who’s losing his hair has to… he has to give extra. He has to give an extra…” “…Crack. An extra crack at it,” interjected Rhonda. Sal and Sal both looked at her and paused. Then Big Sal spoke. “You’re a good barber, Sal, with or without hair.” “I know that, Sal, you taught me a lot.” Big Sal affectionately placed his index finger on the lower lid of his left eye as a silent gesture of thanks. “No, I mean it,” said The Other Sal. “You were always a good barber,” said Big Sal.
“Yeah, but I think I was a better man… back then….” “Why, ‘cause you had hair?”
“You can say that. You have a full thick head of hair to match your thick brain, and your thick face and your thick lips to match your full thick body.” “You’re saying I’m fat?” “I’m always saying you’re fat.” “At least I don’t sleep with the coloreds.” “Oh. That’s right.” A pestering silence crept among their feet like an unwanted cat. Who would be the first to knock it away with his foot? “When’s Bruno Smokes coming?” Big Sal asked.
“Said he’d be here by eleven.” “It’s almost eleven now.” “Alright, alright, but it’s not eleven, is it?” “Almost.” “He probably has to find parking.”
“You make excuses for him all the time.” “You love him as much as I do,” smiled The Other Sal. “Naturally. He brings us the lobsters.” “And the shrimp.” “And the fish.” “And he cooks, too,” continued The Other Sal. “His wife, I don’t know if she cooks, ‘cause he never talks about it. But he cooks good.” “That’s why we love him.” “That’s right.” “What d’you think?” Big Sal asked Rhonda.
“He’s probably right,” she replied cautiously, and then looked at The Other Sal: “But you’re still missing the point of his feelings.” “What feelings?” “How you kick him,” she exhaled. “In a symbolic way.” The two Sals looked at each other and then each cut another piece from the frittata. “Oooh, ow,” Rhonda whispered loudly and quickly opened and closed her legs at the knees, like an accordion. “What? Rhonda. You have to use the bathroom?” “No.” “What’s wrong?” “I can’t say.” “Your pussy itches?” said The Other Sal. “Mmm bah,” gasped Big Sal. He held his plate extended away from him, and turned to gaze across the street. “You didn’t wash?” asked The Other Sal, smiling. “Hey, I’m clean. You know I’m clean. I’m like dessert, I’m so clean. And you of all people, talking to me that way.” “I’m concerned.” “Doesn’t mean a thing when you accuse me. How you say it disrespects me.” “You said you liked that.” “I did. I do. Excuse me,” she stood up. “But Mr. DiMattia is here.” Mr. DiMattia, paunchy, sixtyish, and with the eager eyes of a happy dog and slicked-back curly gray hair, was tie-less in a gray suit. Sal and Sal greeted him with a welcome reserved for the diseased. Rhonda, ever the shop steward, took his elbow and led him inside. “You hurt her feelings.” “No, I didn’t.” “You said she—“ “Basta!” While Sal and Sal remained outside, Mr. DiMattia sat contentedly, his hands soaking in a green soapy solution. On the counter behind him and to the right, the small espresso machine purred in a sleepy attendance upon the next demitasse to be taken. It exhorted hisses with self-reverence as if to say: “I am not just a coffee machine in a barbershop. I am culture.” Rhonda sat down before him, her steno pad tucked inside her armpit. She clasped her knees together, wagging again like an accordion, and gasped “Oooh” and “Ow.” “Something wrong?” asked Mr. DiMattia.
“No, just trying to get comfortable. I think it might be the heat.” “Maybe you need some cream.” “Don’t be a pig. Just soak.” “You know, you make my hands look so young, I almost want to cry. It reminds me of my childhood.” “Shhh. I have to listen to what they’re saying. I have to take note of everything I can.” “Why?” “Because they are writing their autobiography.” “Who?” “Sal and Sal.” “Sal and Sal? Them?” “Yes.” “What’s it going to be called?” “Sal and Sal: An Autobiography.” “Ooh, that’s good. I like that,” he said. She grabbed her steno pad and wrote: “For two men who have known each other since Confirmation, they never cease to argue about the obvious.” She placed her pad down on her lap as the two barbers walked in. The Other Sal stepped inside first and held the screen door for Big Sal, who slowed to a hover. “And why don’t we have coke?” asked Big Sal, picking up a stray terrycloth rag. Rhonda massaged her customer’s fingers and watched Sal and Sal attentively. She noticed the near bursting stomach button from Big Sal’s white shirt and then, like a river, her eyes drifted to the proud erections of dark hair that reached out from the nape of The Other Sal’s neck. Those hairs gave nest to his silver cornicello pendant, his “little horn” guarding that open space of his embroidered gray camp shirt. “Soda?” The Other Sal looked up from the barber chair in which he’d found the objects of his search: his cigarettes and lighter. He followed Big Sal back outside to their respective lawn chairs. The morning was beginning to feel like a headache. “No, coke,” repeated Big Sal. “Coke! Co-ca-yeen!” “It’s still morning, Sal.” “If we had some coke, we wouldn’t need coffee and donuts.” “Since when do you care?”
“I’m gaining too much weight,” confessed Big Sal. “It’s not the donuts.” “Hm,” grunted Big Sal. He stared across the street to the adult movie theater, and listened as the elevated Number 7 train squeaked and rumbled into the 74th Street station. “But he’s got a good wife, though,” said Big Sal, still looking away. “Who? Mr. DiMattia?” asked The Other Sal, helping himself to yet a third slice of the frittata that he did not like. “Bruno Smokes.” “Oh, yeah, I suppose, a good woman, yes, that’s what he tells us.” “You don’t believe him?” “I don’t think he knows himself how good a woman he has.” “Where’d we go wrong?” sighed Big Sal.
“With what?” “With our wives.” “We were impatient.” “I think we still are.” “Speak for yourself.” “I speak for both of us.” “Why, because I’m losing my hair? I don’t have a voice? My nose not good enough?”
“Lost your hair.” “Lost my hair.” “Bruno Smokes thinks you’re the better barber,” quipped Big Sal. “Yeah, but you treat him better than I do,” said The Other Sal. “You kiss his ass.” “I do what I do. It’s respect.” “It’s gratitude.” “For the lobsters.” “Don’t show him any more rings this time. Keep the jewelry in the drawer.” “I have to get rid of them. They’re hot, Sal.” “Yeah, but not to Bruno. And besides, . . .I know they’re hot, è vero, but who said you had to buy them? Besides, his wife will bust his balls about it when he comes home wearing another pinky ring.” “So, he buys her something, too.” “And no more talk about your daughter’s condo.” “What am I supposed to do with that fucking thing?” “You tell your daughter to take care of it herself. It’s hers.” “She has no real estate head. No business head.” “Mmf. No head at all, if you ask me.”
“Keep that to yourself.” “It’d be different if she kept it to herself, Sal.” “Bruno Smokes is here.” “Finally.” Although a generation behind them, Bruno “Smokes” Orsso was one of their oldest and most trusted friends. Bruno got his name from stealing cartons of cigarettes as a kid and then smoking them religiously until he had no voice left. It was Big Sal who’d one day christened him with the name Smokes, because the smell of nicotine and sulfur had hung about Smokes Orsso like a dusty velvet curtain. The young man’s teeth-grinding odor was more pronounced than his abilities to lie, to curse, to inspire, to predict, and to cheat; and that was saying something, because Smokes was admired for all of those traits. However, after landing a job at the Fulton Fish Market, the sound of his name didn’t fit with the culture of the fish handlers and the loaders and the cutters, not to mention the men who stood around and authoritatively smoked their cigarettes. Smokes Orsso sounded like the name of a black jazz musician from New Orleans. He couldn’t have that, even if he had soul. He became Bruno Smokes, and left out the “Orsso” for the sake of the Market. “This street not ugly enough without you two mopes sitting outside? Somebody call the sanitation department. Man, this block is fucking depressing.” “Somebody call a priest for your filthy mouth,” Big Sal said as he hugged Bruno Smokes. The Other Sal hugged and kissed Bruno on the cheek and said “Come stai?” “These are for you,” said Bruno, handing him a burlap sack. “Thanks, where’s Sal’s bag?” the man asked, grabbing Bruno’s crotch and smiling through the smoke of his cigarette.
“Don’t push it old man,” said Bruno Smokes. “Let’s go inside,” said The Other Sal, holding the door open. “You want a hair cut?” “It was on my mind, yes,” said Bruno as he stepped into the shop and smiled and nodded at Rhonda. Big Sal took the sack of seafood from The Other Sal and walked across the room to deposit it into a small refrigerator. “I got a coupla girls downstairs,” continued The Other Sal. “Friends of…” “I know who they are.” “Nice.”
“Not really.” “Hair and nails, please,” said Bruno as he plopped onto the barber chair while The Other Sal draped a deep red seersucker cloth across his great chest. “Bruno! I don’t like the fish last time,” said Big Sal from across the room. He was preparing a demitasse of espresso for Bruno. “The grouper.” “What was wrong with it?” “No taste.” “No taste because it wasn’t any good? Or no taste because you don’t know what you’re doing?” “I can cook, Bruno, I can cook.” “You cook like an old blind woman.” “I told him that,” laughed The Other Sal. “I tell him that all the time.” “He tells me because he can’t cook himself,” said Big Sal, sauntering up to the chair. He handed Bruno his espresso and began to comb out his hair. “Stop.” The Other Sal looked at Bruno. “How’s your wife?” he asked. “How do I know?” “Not speaking?” The Other Sal settled into the empty barber’s chair beside them. He lit up two cigarettes and handed one to Bruno. “Don’t you talk?” The Other Sal wore a smile that reeked of sedition, it stood for the flimsy mechanics of broken machinery and wine-soaked labor, from which he came out of Salerno. It was that new Italian smile that had made him famous in the neighborhood, especially among the women. “Who’s got the time?” answered Bruno Smokes. “I gotta work. I gotta bring lobsters to you two mooks. I gotta get cigarettes. I got business to take care of. So, I see her on the weekend. We catch up. You know, they called me for jury duty. What a fucking joke.” Big Sal stopped snipping at Bruno’s hair and opened a towel cabinet behind the chair. He reached in under the towels and removed a felt-lined handkerchief box displaying sixteen rings, three necklaces, and two watches. Like a waiter with the wine list, he formally presented it to Bruno Smokes. Bruno examined the presentation with controlled delight. They were all gold, several had precious stones embedded in them, and the necklaces had single pearls. “Where’d you get these?” “Jimmy Eyes.” “You know Jimmy?” “Hmm. Yeah.” Jimmy Eyes, whose real name was Polish and very difficult to pronounce, had an eye ball condition called cranial nerve palsy; that is, each eye ball faced a different direction, which gave Jimmy a freaky look that none of his friends could bear, except Bruno Smokes, who was his chum from high school. Jimmy could always be depended upon to make a room full of men feel uncomfortable, gassy, and self-conscious. The Other Sal stood up and out of his barber chair and, from another towel cabinet, extracted a bottle of Macallan scotch whiskey and three shot glasses. He poured full splashes into the glasses and brought them around to Bruno and Big Sal. With imperfect unison, they raised their glasses, grunted, and drank. “Bruno, what d’you think?” asked Big Sal. “What? About the rings?” “No, what about the whiskey?” “It’s not whiskey. It’s scotch,” said The Other Sal. “It’s forty years old.” As Bruno was about to grab for the felt rack of rings, and as his fingers barely touched upon one that he wanted, Big Sal swung the tray aside and silently replaced it into the towel cabinet. He stooped low to open another cabinet and, with pride, he brought out three more bottles of aged scotch. “Whoa, where’d you get those?” Bruno Smokes smiled.
“You gotta know?” “No, I don’t. What do you have? Bell’s? Laphroaig? How much?” “He wants to tell you about them first,” said The Other Sal. “Okay.” “If only people would let me talk for myself,” said the bruised Big Sal. “I only want what’s best for me. Make an offer.” “Could I get one of them?” asked Mr. DiMattia from across the room. Big Sal and Bruno Smokes turned to look at him. They stared as if he’d interrupted a baptism with a belch. Then Big Sal exhaled and resumed his concentration on Bruno’s possible offer. The Other Sal doused his cigarette and languidly stuck his scissors into his hand, one loop slipped around his ring-finger and the comb placed smoothly between his index finger, middle finger, and thumb. He picked up on Bruno’s hair where Big Sal left off. “Okay. I got ‘em from Jimmy Eyes.” “Jimmy Eyes again?” “Bruno, don’t you worry. I’ll take thirty for each.” As soon as The Other Sal stopped cutting and combing, and Big Sal had skirted around to the other side of the barber chair, Bruno Smokes knew something else would now be made available, something else would now be revealed. He looked at The Other Sal to confirm that Big Sal had one more pitch to go. “I’ll give you a hundred for all three,” said Mr. DiMattia tenuously. “You like video games, Bruno?” Big Sal smiled, ignored Mr. DiMattia, and ran another thick comb through Bruno’s hair. “Do you mean do I want to have a relationship with them?” “No, no, no, no, you’re crazy, Bruno. I mean I got thirty-two Goldstar Z-Boxes. I bought ‘em for fifty a piece.” “And?” “I got to move ‘em before Tuesday.” “Why? What’s Tuesday? Jimmy Eyes coming back again with more crap?” “The pigs are coming in,” said The Other Sal. “What do you mean?” “Pigs, Bruno, pigs. Bacon, ham, ribs. Baby pigs, Bruno, coming in on a ship.” “Where do they come from?” asked Bruno. “North Carolina,” said The Other Sal. “North Carolina is a beautiful state,” said Big Sal. “How do you know? You ever been there?” asked Bruno. “No.” “Then how do you know?” “It’s in my head. I must have read about it somewhere.” Bruno Smokes looked at The Other Sal. “Great, now he’s Encyclopedia Brown.” Big Sal smiled broadly and nodded his head, having no clue who Encyclopedia Brown was or could possibly be. “I’ll give you eighty bucks each for the Z-Boxes.” “How about a hundred?” “Eighty-five.” ‘Ninety-five.” “Ninety.” “Nope.” “You’re a ball buster, Sal.” “Hey, Sal and me, we’re entrepreneurs, Bruno.” “I thought you were barbers.” “We are, of course. But Sal says he knows somebody and so we make the deal.” “Who does Sal know?” said Bruno Smokes. The Other Sal looked up. Big Sal tapped his index finger to his thumb twice. “Okay,” agreed Bruno Smokes. “Ninety-five. And then I want some of the Pig.” “Deal.” “I also want the ring on the left and the bracelet on the right.” “How can I afford that, Bruno?” “How can you afford my lobsters, you cheap guinea bastard?” Their collective laughter abruptly halted when the screen door opened and in walked Mr. Chen from the dry cleaners next door. He was short, balding, wore wire-rim glasses, and his mouth was always open and gave his face the look of constant worry. He might be in the midst of telling a funny and bawdy joke, yet his jowls and raised eyebrows resembled the anxiety and timidity of a Chihuahua too close to the oven. He walked silently up to The Other Sal and handed him a folded five-dollar bill intertwined with a piece of white scratch paper. Sal quickly pocketed it. Mr. Chen then turned to Big Sal, nodded, and walked out. Rhonda–who had been watching the men and intermittently writing in her steno pad, sprayed Mr. DiMattia’s fingernails with a cool finisher–took up the pad and wrote: “They have pride of place. Yet there is something between them that no one understands.” What she couldn’t explain was why the two Sals had not been speaking to each other for seven days. No one besides the two Sals knew really. The two men enjoyed a common center of mass: it was actually the space between their barber chairs. They orbited the chairs and each other like binary stars, like a carefully choreographed dance. Big Sal cut his customer’s hair starting from the left, The Other Sal started from the right. They never intersected. The space, however, did not expand; it was constant; and it has always been the ground over which the two men fought. It was their disputed territory. It was their Kashmir. And like the Kashmir, once intersected, once bumped, there is the skirmish. And seven days ago, they bumped. When it happened, Big Sal looked accusingly at The Other Sal–his lips tight and ugly. Then The Other Sal returned the accusing look, holding his comb and scissors aloft. But it was not the bump that caused the silence, it was the accusatory Look, the scowl, and the wrinkled brow. The Look was the mortar blast. Rhonda put the steno pad down and gave Mr. DiMattia’s hands the once-over. “You’re done, Mr. D.,” she said. “I tell you, Bruno,” said Big Sal as he trimmed Bruno’s nose hairs. “I don’t know how I lasted this long.” “You lasted this long because you have pride of place,” said The Other Sal, avoiding Rhonda’s eyes. “You know where you are, Sal.” “Yeah, because I’m just like you,” replied Big Sal. “Not like Bruno Smokes, here. You, Bruno, you’re like a son to me.” “Hey, Sal, I’m too young, I’m too good looking to be your son.” “Oh. How come I feel so much older?” “’Cause you’d rather be angry than anything else.” “It’s a choice, Bruno.” “Easy choice for you, Sal. You do it with your hand around your prick and your mouth over a bottle of Crown Royal. Who’re you kidding?” “You hurt me,” said Big Sal. “How can I hurt you? I’m your friend.” “No, really, I think all this time that we’re friends, you’ve been lying to me.” “You’re an idiot.” “I don’t think so.” “I’ve been getting my hair cut by you and Sal since I was 17 years old. I tell all my friends to come to you. I tell my family to come to you. I even sent my mother to you.” “She did come here once,” said Big Sal. “Beautiful woman,” said The Other Sal. “She’s seventy-three,” expelled Bruno Smokes. “Still.” “Still. What else is there?” said Big Sal, staring out the front door. “What does that mean?” Bruno Smokes asked. “Do you understand what the fuck he’s talking about?” “No, but I trust him,” said The Other Sal. “You see, Bruno, I don’t try to change him, all these years. He is who he is. He looks at people, he sees their heads and–” “I see more than their heads,” said Big Sal. “Oh yeah? What d’you see? Their livers?”
“I see everything. You’re too small to understand. You’re mind is too small.” The grinding teeth and flaring nostrils were once again changing the tone of the shop. Exasperation had poured out before they knew it. “They’re getting obstreperous with each other,” Rhonda said through gritted teeth, as she helped Mr. DiMattia to stand. He walked over to The Other Sal’s empty chair and sat down. “Jesus. Jesus Christ, I cut hair next to this guy and he tells me I’m small minded,” laughed The Other Sal. “Bruno, shoot me with morfina. I need something.” “I need a drink,” said Bruno Smokes. “I need a lay.” “You know Sal,” began Mr. DiMattia. “It is the third Friday of the month.” “And do you want to go downstairs?” The Other Sal asked him, as he gently combed Mr. DiMattia’s curly gray hair. “Well, ….” Mr. DiMattia said, his palms up in a gesture of culpability. “Well, if you’re going downstairs I want to see the Z-Boxes,” Bruno said. With the seersucker cape still wrapped around him, Bruno joined Sal and Sal, and Mr. DiMattia, as they negotiated the space between the chairs, put down their combs and scissors, and walked past Rhonda, who sat sipping her coffee, beneath the framed portrait of President Kennedy. “Thank God my hands are clean,” mumbled Mr. DiMattia as they passed the espresso machine, which rested beneath a framed photo of Pope John the 23rd. “What’s this old man talking about? Bruno Smokes turned to Big Sal, as he bumped into a moveable wash basin and then a canvas hamper for dirty towels. “It’s because of the past, Bruno,” The Other Sal laughed as he paused by a picture of Perry Como. “Women are slaves at the hands of men.” “But my hands are clean,” mused Mr. DiMattia, lightly fingering the deep green leaves of three potted philodendron plants. “My mother used to work like a slave,” pronounced Big Sal. “Here we go,” said The Other Sal, pausing beside their faux-Tiffany lamp, from which was suspended a fist-sized cornicello, its red chili pepper shape topped by a golden tassel. “È vero?!” “No, Sal. No one was a slave in Salerno,” said The Other Sal. “I felt like I was.” “Until you met me.” “Maybe.” “Until we moved to New York.” “Maybe.” The sound of the men’s shuffle, their feet burning with an expectancy that desire makes of a desert, made their journey to the wooden door in the corner of the shop as deep and as long as Death Valley itself. “Sal, this is the only place on earth for us,” The Other Sal said as he opened the door and descended the stairs. “We can’t go nowhere else. We are here. We are friends since the Bishop slaps us on our face and says go in peace you soldier of God. We are our own slaves, Sal.” Big Sal paused on a step, looking backward from Bruno Smokes to The Other Sal. Bruno nudged Big Sal to keep going. In the basement, walls paneled, floor carpeted, with furnishings that made one feel at home–except for the presence of two prostitutes, there were two piles of stacked boxes that took up nearly a third of the room. “Plasma TVs?” exclaimed Bruno Smokes. “You didn’t tell me about PLASMA TVs!” Mr. DiMattia walked over to the younger of the two women. She greeted him kissing him once on both cheeks. “I can’t do my business with all of you here,” she smiled, standing in front of a sheet hung from a clothesline. “That’s where we’re going to hang the pigs,” said Big Sal, pointing to the clothesline. “Right,” said Bruno. He turned with a fluidity and breeze that lifted his red seersucker cape, and began the return upstairs. Like an emperor followed by his train, Big Sal and The Other Sal fell into line and climbed the stairs as well. “I didn’t think the girl would mind,” said Big Sal naively. “You see, that’s the way you are,” said The Other Sal. “You never understand. You’re like the carrots in the frittata. They didn’t belong there ‘cause sweet carrots make a conflict with the savory of the frittata. Don’t you know that? And you thought I was trying to kick you. You’ll never understand.” “I’ll never understand.” Rhonda, leaning against the wall in the shadows behind one of the stacks of plasma TVs, her steno book in hand, wrote down every word. She watched the girl lead the old man behind the sheet, and then she continued writing: “Sal and Sal degrade themselves daily. They decry themselves,” she scribbled furiously, “believing themselves martyrs, and go on, each day, cutting hair….” She stopped. “How I love them both,” she whispered to the empty stairs.