Just a trim, he tells his barber, as he walks through the door. A little off the top, the old man answers. Their little joke. He’s been giving him the same bad haircut for thirty years, while they both eat bad baklava and sip small cups of bad coffee the old man brews on a hotplate. Very little has changed since he arrived in the promised land, except they both speak bad English now.
The old man sharpens the scissors. There are no customers waiting in the uncomfortable metal chairs. He sometimes wonders if he is the only thing keeping the old man in business. The shop was built in the shadows of East Harlem under the shade of an oak. They cut it down to build an overpass. They have always been in darkness.
No, nothing much has changed. Only these few things. Rearrangements of facts, like flies, brushed away only to resettle. Enough for the edges of the familiar to feel strange. The old man spins him in the chair, the white sheet pulled up to his chin. The mirror needs to be cleaned.
The old man used to shave him bald, now he’s bald to begin with. So he snips at the tufts of hair around his ears, sometimes cutting only air. It draws out their time together. He’s not sure which of them is lonelier.
There was a time, after a fight, when strangers would become unstrange to him. People wanted to shake his hand. What power, they’d say. Some would touch him, running their hands over his skull. My barber doesn’t know when to quit, he’d joke. But now he is the one going back into the ring at sixty-six years old.
The old man likes to reminisce about old things. Who was that shmuck? he says, You ran right over him. He demonstrates, two fingers hooked above his head while he paws the ground with one foot. They both laugh. Neither of them can remember the name.
He doesn’t know the name of the one he’s fighting tonight, either. They came to his house in their suits. They crowded into his old furniture, crowed about his old photos. They clawed at his old hands. What power, they said. But they stayed strange. It’s not their money he cares about. There’s no title to win anymore. Not for him.
He wonders if this fighter’s future is bigger than his own past.
He points at his moustache with a finger. The old man clucks his tongue. Salt and pepper, he says jabbing at him with his comb, Is distinguished. The word, distinguished, another one of those passwords into the promised land. There is no pepper in his moustache. One hair at a time, it’s become strange to him.
He points at his moustache again. Reckless to fight time, the old man says, clucking his tongue again, but he combs a black substance, smelling of tar, into the hair over his lip.
The old man pretends to cut some more hair. They drink more bad coffee, eat another wedge of bad baklava. They speak badly. Overhead the sun is moving, but they’re still in shadow down here, getting older. Stranger.