The Monster Barber
– Nonfiction by Jerry Il’Giovine –
Honorable Mention in the Dreamers Flash Fiction and Nonfiction Contest.
My father left his barbershop to work in construction years before I was born, yet he never stopped cutting hair. If you knew Gennaro well enough to visit his Italian home in the inner city of Cleveland, it entitled you to free kitchen haircuts for life. Try finding that in any book on proper hosting etiquette. In any case, it was one helluva perk for his family, friends, and one improbable guest in our ethnic neighborhood known as Clark and Fulton.
I returned home from playing outside one Saturday afternoon in 1963, just eleven years old, to an all-too-familiar sight. Someone seated in the middle of our kitchen draped in a pinstriped barbershop cape receiving the royal treatment. Two empty coffee mugs and an open pastry box from Hough Bakeries were sitting on the table. Pop stood behind the swaddled figure, positioning the man’s head downward about to groom the back of his neck. I naturally glanced to see who it was as I made my way toward the living room.
At first, my young mind grappled with identifying the daunting face. It caused me to slow down for a closer look, until a cold shiver shot down my spine, with the worst of my fears confirmed. This was no friend and most definitely not family. It was Marteen, our neighborhood’s equivalent to Frankenstein’s monster – minus the neck bolts.
This village monster roamed our streets, muttering uncontrollably with intermittent outbursts to scold nothing more than pure air. He also practiced the bizarre ritual of tossing litter from the sidewalk to the curb, dressed permanently in a tweed coat, drooping pants, and worn-out boots. Adults passing him on the street sheltered their eyes and quickened their pace. Children my age just shamelessly ran the other way.
When he wasn’t patrolling for litter, chances were you’d find Marteen in front of our local parish, St. Rocco. There, he made a real spectacle of himself by kneeling on the concrete steps, while passionately crossing himself in a rapid, repeated succession. He spewed fire and brimstone at no one in particular or worse, to unsuspecting passersby caught in his crosshairs. At Sunday masses, he was always first to the altar for communion, then would wave the congregation forward with both hands. Grown-ups used words like demented and deranged to describe him. No one knew for sure if he was homeless. Rumor had it he took refuge in the cellar of one of the church buildings.
So you see, there was never any justification for engaging our monster. Yet, for some ungodly reason, he’s in my kitchen in the middle of a shave and haircut no less. Pop was a kind, quiet man and my hero. He had a way of teaching me things without saying much. Strong too, but really, what the hell was he thinking inviting Marteen into our home? Now he’s snipping away as if it were cousins Freddy or Joe, Uncle Rico, or my godfather Chucky sitting there. Even our old watchdog Rusty slept on the floor with one eye on him. I stopped to gawk. Hell, I’d never been this close to him before, close enough to touch – and smell.
I lapsed into a spellbound trance standing there as Marteen kept his chin glued to his chest. I noticed the wiry hair on his head was peppered gray, but his eyes and brow were jet-black. So were the wild hairs budding from his nostrils and ears. And that look of contempt chiseled on his haggard facade remained fixed even as he sat still.
Suddenly, there was movement from our monster, startling me out of my hypnotic gaze. Marteen began contorting his forehead, shifting his face my way while straining to keep his head down. I felt another shiver as our eyes made contact through his bushy eyebrows, and would have fled, but was unable to move my arms or legs. I was literally scared stiff.
But what happened next in that frozen moment was the damnedest thing I could never have imagined as a child. A half-crooked grin rose tenderly up the side of his cheek. Marteen was smiling at me! Then his face dropped back to the floor before I could wipe the repulsion off of mine. I regained the feeling in my limbs enough to dash to the living room, now more confused than afraid.
Turning on the television, I tried watching my favorite cowboy show starring Roy Rogers, yet my bewilderment lingered. Later that hour, I crept to the kitchen archway for a little covert surveillance. My father was alone in the room sweeping the floor. Then from the bathroom off of the kitchen, I heard the toilet flush and the door opening. My kneejerk reaction was a beeline back to the television, but eventually, curiosity got the best of me. I tiptoed back, carefully peering into the kitchen only to find them sipping wine at the table, sharing a relaxed conversation like two old paesans. If that wasn’t already odd enough, Marteen’s appearance gave me another surprise. He never looked better. I ducked around the corner as he glanced my way, only this time, I wasn’t as frightened. How peculiar.
Finally, I returned for one last peek when I heard them leaving the table. Pop helped Marteen with his coat and even offered him a couple of dollars, which the improbable guest agonizingly refused to accept.
“Go on, take it. It’s okay,” Pop said, and Marteen reluctantly obliged him.
“Grazie,” Marteen said, nodding awkwardly. “Tante grazie.”
“Prego,” Pop replied, “you’re welcome.”
Marteen silently left our home. As always, Pop methodically cleaned his barber tools and carefully put them back into the black case he kept stored in the closet.
And in this simple act of kindness, my quiet hero delivered yet another one of his subtle life lessons. Then I understood my earlier confusion. Pop never saw a monster. All he saw was a needy man and offered a hand. Now, I don’t see monsters anymore.
About the Author – Jerry Il’Giovine
Jerry Il’Giovine is an Italian-American born and raised in a colorful, ethnic neighborhood on the near west side of Cleveland, which set the course for an interesting, fun, and profound look back. He is presently writing a series of creative short stories based on his memoirs with plans to publish upon completion. This story is one of the chapters. He is a retired teacher, IT Analyst, soccer coach, and currently resides with his wife Judith on the east side of town. They enjoy spending time with their children and their spouses, the dogs, but most of all the newest addition to their family, grandson Luca Joseph.
**This story by Jerry Il’Giovine received an honorable mention in the 2019 Flash Fiction and Nonfiction Contest.
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