The sign at Vince’s Barbershop read: “Wear it long but let us shape it!” It was surrounded by yellowing photos of men sporting those late-70s helmet-haircuts, all ear-flaps and kick stands in back. Because I liked Vince, and believed in the institution of the small town barber—as opposed to big city stylists with names like Fekkai—I couldn’t imagine that he had ever performed hair atrocities like those. I preferred to see the pictures as reminders of the excesses of “style,” and “trendiness.” This was what other barbers were doing, while Vince adhered to the time-honored razor cut.
Along with his barber’s license, Vince had photos stuck in a corner of his mirror, including one of an exceptionally plain little girl in communion white. My mind wandered. “Most girls look adorable in their tiny bride dresses, but not this one.” “It’s a shame,” I thought, “because for the Catholic girls at least, it’s at this moment—even more than their weddings—that they must be at their most perfect.” I didn’t like thinking this much about little girls in communion outfits, so I looked back at the sign: “Let us shape it!”
I had a lot of time to ponder this sign, because aside from browsing old Time Magazines and new issues of the The South Bergenite, this was the only mental activity I indulged in while sitting in Vince’s lime green shop on Ames Avenue in Rutherford, not far from the college.
My barber and I hadn’t exchanged nine words in ten years. And that’s the way I liked it. I only knew his name was Vince because it was painted on the window. I went there with the absolute certainty that no inquiries would be made. No conversation pursued. No need for jokes or merriment. Just silent, manly, businesslike camaraderie. In fact, our verbal relationship was confined to the following questions and answer:
“Round the back?”
I wasn’t completely sure what this meant at first, but if I asked, it might provoke a conversation—and I’d rather have a round back (whatever that was) than risk a square back if it came at the price of a verbal exchange.
“Sides short?” he might ask as he angled the scissors.
Those were six of the nine words. The other three were “Hello Vince” and “thanks.”
About a month ago, Vince broke his usual routine to observe, “Tony. She’s no here.” I was surprised not only by his pronoun choice, but by the fact that he was broaching a topic that had neither to do with the shape of my head nor the hair attached to it. I looked to my right, and sure enough, the guy who once in a while worked at the second chair, or sat in the far corner reading a paper, wasn’t there. I took this guy to be Vince’s sometime-assistant. Okay, so she, was no here. A few questions suggested themselves. Among them: was Tony his assistant barber’s name? It wasn’t on the window, so I had no way of knowing. Was there such a thing as an assistant barber, or was Tony just the guy who swept the floor-hair, and took Vince’s spillover until something better came along?
These questions ran through my mind, but didn’t pass through my lips. I let the conversation end with a “what are you going to do?” expression. As a graduate student who studies Victorian detective fiction but has surprisingly little interest in detecting things, I was not eager to pursue this mystery. In a previous life, I had been a journalism student with very little native curiosity, and therefore little inclination to pursue leads or circumstances. The fact was that “Tony, she’s no here,” really didn’t intrigue me on the face of it. I said to Vince, “Hmmm . . .” and waited for Vince to return to the roundness or squareness of my hair.
After a lapse of three minutes it became apparent that Vince was not going to broach the usual conversation. I waited three more minutes. Silent clipping, staring, looking at the back of my head through the multiple mirrors. The absent-minded turnings of my head were gently corrected by Vince’s finger, redirecting my chin to a “face-forward” position. The silence underlined the painful fact that Vince had broached a topic, and I had not pursued it.
“She’s been gone since Monday.”
“Gone where?” I said, forcing myself to ask the question.
“I dunno,” he said, shaking his head.
“Hmmmmm.” I said.
“. . . but I have my suspicion.” He pressed his eyes into a squint and stared at himself, or maybe at me, in the mirror.
“Hmmmm,” I ventured once more. And in an effort to move the conversation on, or rather back, I raised my eyebrows and playfully suggested, “Round the back?” hoping to return him to our well-worn path.
Vince’s Barbershop was a haven. A place of order and Barbicide cleanliness, of lilac aftershave and Clubman talc. A place where justice prevailed: “if you leave the shop, you lose your turn,” a wrinkled sign warned. And it was true; I had seen it happen. Customers might grumble, but Vince’s serious mien, his polished bald head and stern profile cut short any protests. He was maybe 65-years-old, but he had an intimidating stare.
Even the swivel barber chair, red leather and chrome with a reversible foot rest, reassured in its solidity and comfort. Red on one side, stripped metal on the other. The snap of the leather strop. The two-inch strip of tissue around my neck. The yellowing textured instamatic pictures of Vince’s family members, even the awful, but still familiar W-P-A-T muzak. WPAT, a Paterson, New Jersey radio station, played one-thousand-and-one string versions of Beatles songs so stale that Jack Jones’ original version of “Wives and Lovers,” was a relief. But most reassuring of all was the absolute absence of chit chat.
I quickly ascertained (although this makes me sound more actively interested than I was, and Vince more expansive than he cared to be) that Tony had been gone for a few days, that Vince didn’t know where “she” was, that no notice had been given, and that subsequently, no word was received about “her” whereabouts.
All of this was conveyed by the terse statement, “She was happy, and then, gone. No sign. No warning, you know?” It was, in short, an absolute and utter mystery as to where she—or he—might have gone. He mumbled something about a place called “The Waverly,” but then trailed off and looked out the window, abstractedly. I had never seen Vince like this before. I have to admit, I was beginning to be curious.
After paying for my haircut, which, by the way, seemed not to have suffered from all the conversation, I promised myself that I would “look into it.” I didn’t promise Vince this, yet, because I had no idea how I would begin to look into it. The apartment building he mentioned, “The Waverly” on Union Avenue, was a place to start. It was the only named apartment building in the whole town, something I always thought of as a pre-War affectation, like phone numbers that began with names: “Waverly 5-5555” or “Pennsylvania 6- 5 Oh, Oh, Oh!”
I thought a stake-out would be glamorous, and perhaps even help me with my stalled dissertation on Wilkie Collins and his inheritors. Of course, this was probably just another way to procrastinate. I was twenty-four and felt my time in graduate school could be seen as structured time-wasting. Maybe I could think of this as community service. Sadly, it was the closest I have ever come to community service.
No, it wasn’t the humanitarian angle that attracted me. What I liked about the stake-out was, I admit, the chance to engage in the hardboiled activity that Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler wrote about. Yeah, I had a few questions I’d like to ask the coffee jockey next door to the Waverly.
When I entered the Dunkin’ Donuts, I fired out in a guttural staccato:
“Give me a large iced-coffee and a sprinkly chocolate-frosted donut to go.” I was nervous, so I spat out my questions for the coffee jockey: “What kind of filling does the jelly donut have? Wait on the iced coffee. Do you have Hazelnut? Does a free donut come with the large hot hazelnut, because if it does I would rather that than the iced coffee.” I was sure that from a hard-boiled point of view, I was too interested in Dunkin’ Donuts money-saving promotions.
The assistant manager, Eugene (the name tag clued me) was a sphinx. Or, maybe he couldn’t speak English. I began again, slowly.
“What kind of filling does the jelly donut have?”
“Grape,” he said.
“And the French Crullers?”
“And the French Crullers, what?” he said in what sounded like Russian accent and a confrontational tone.
Was this accent suspicious? I wondered. During the Cold War, maybe. If Tony were a missing nuclear physicist, definitely. But he was a missing assistant barber. Maybe. Plenty of foreign nationals owned small businesses and franchises, 7-11s, corner stores, groceries, bodegas, what have you. Why not Russians? I calculated all this in less time it takes to say it. Clearly, this wasn’t going to be easy with such an unwilling witness. I tried again.
“What’s the difference between a French Cruller and a regular cruller?”
“Shape and cream.”
“Shape and cream?”
“The French Crullers is round,” he said, reaching behind and picking one up with embossed waxed paper. “The regular is like a twisted steck.” He didn’t bother picking up the regular, but jerked a thumb towards the empty wire bin.
“Like a twisted steak?” Was he trying to confuse me?
“Like a twisted steck, a steck!” he said brandishing a straw.
“Oh, a stick.”
“And,” he said, calming down now, “like I said, cream, I think.”
“You think?” I said quickly. Perhaps I had caught him in a lie.
“Listen, mister, I don’t make the donuts. They come in truck in morning.” There was an edge in his voice now. Was this suspicious? No, in my quest to seem like an ordinary customer, all I had done was make him angry. I’d have to go somewhere else for my donuts from now on. A shame, because I really love Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. I’d have to wrap this up pretty quickly to forestall any further embarrassment.
“Wrap them up.” Then, unfortunately, the Dunkin’ Donuts plastic travel mug caught my eye.
“If I bought one of those travel mugs, would the coffee be cheaper?”
“We’re out of mug.”
“What if I had my own?”
“Do you have your own?”
“No. I don’t. Not a new one like that, and not with me. But I have an older one. Would you fill that?”
“I’d have to see it.”
“Fair enough.” I grabbed my bag, and turned toward the door. “Let me ask you this. Have you seen a guy named Tony hanging around? A barber. Might be wearing a smock?”
Eugene just stared at me, waiting for me to leave. I did.
Sleuthing involved a lot of inter-personal contact, apparently, and it was making me uncomfortable. I was out of practice. From now on, I decided, I would make my own coffee. It was a shame because I did have a lot of Dunkin’ Donut coupons, and I make lousy coffee.
I crossed the street to the park across from the Waverly. I was looking forward to the stake out. Summertime, and the surveillance is easy. I sat on a park bench with a view of the apartment building, reading The Long Goodbye, that classic of gumshoery and waiting for Tony to come out. I can’t say I ever took notice of Tony’s face when he worked at Vince’s so I didn’t know exactly who I was looking for. I imagined that he was one of those helmet-headed guys displayed on Vince’s walls, with the mutton-chop sideburns. So this is what I looked for. Because it was not the late-seventies, I looked for a long time. In fact, I made it through The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep within the first week.
Gradually, I managed to note the habits of many of the building’s occupants: the overweight man in a ski-cap (even in 90-degree heat) who mumbled to himself and bopped his head to a small transistor radio he held to his ear. Obviously he was disturbed, but I still wondered, “Why not an iPod?” There was the usual parade of men in suits and women in ballerina flats making their way down to the train station for their morning commute to New York. And, then there was a long-legged brunette who dressed in fascinating baby-doll sun dresses (fascinating because they were short) or short-shorts and wedged espadrilles or high heels—never flats or flip-flops—who walked a small beagle several times a day. She made me wish a dame was at the bottom of all of this.
In the crime novels, a dame usually was. But I had a sinking suspicion that with my luck, a dame wouldn’t be at the bottom of this. That didn’t make Marguerite’s movements less interesting—I had given her a name for easy note-taking—which would be a good idea in case I had to present the facts of the case to Vince, eventually. Marguerite would sometimes shoot me a side-long glance as she strode by. I would look quickly back down at my novel, either because it was good police policy to do so, or because I was shy.
She walked the dog three times a day. Sometimes she’d stay on her side of the street, but once a day, she’d walk right by my bench. She would pull her long dark hair to one side of her neck. I was conscious of following her with my eyes, of looking from the spiked heels up her long, tanned, legs right up to those abbreviated shorts or tiny dresses. I held my breath as she passed, pretending to read whatever novel was in my hands. When she was safely by, I’d watch her rear end rock and sway, and squint for traces of the thong through the sheer sun dress. She was a lush spectacle.
After years spent in a climate-controlled library, I found myself unsuited to the outdoors. But her appearances kept me on that bench. I used sunscreen, of course, but the sun beat down and gave me headaches. I tried a fedora, but with my madras shorts, I just looked silly. When a cloud glided in front of the sun for more than ten seconds, I shivered. Little green bugs swarmed around me. Maybe not swarmed, but to a bug-scaredy-cat, one bug is annoying and two’s a swarm. I inherited much of my low insect tolerance from my Uncle Tommy who went AWOL from the National Guard because his recruiting officer never told him about the bugs. Uncle Tommy was so afraid of bugs that after going AWOL from the Guard, he joined the Navy, even though he couldn’t swim. No bugs in the Navy. Despite the potential court-martial and drowning, my bug-fearing family applauded his choice as showing great good sense.
So the bugs swarmed. The squirrels kept crawling over and then falling into the metal hooded-garbage can next to me. They would then begin scratching furiously to get out. Every time a squirrel crashed to the bottom and scrambled his way back up, I jerked and startled. My routine was this: slapping away green bugs, switching benches, and alternately sweating, shivering and goose-pimpling. And all this in temperate June weather. I decided that late June, when temperatures could reach into the sticky 90s, and bees and possibly even dragonflies appeared, things could only get worse. I knew from experience that those diving dragonflies would send me into a slapping, side-wheeling, Jerry Lewis imitation. I began to think that if being a detective required this much outdoor activity, it was a fairly unattractive line of work.
It wasn’t long before I realized my continued presence on a bench outside Marguerite’s building would hardly inspire confidence. At best, it suggested that I was unemployed and, at worst, that I was a stalker, and a bug-fearing, squealing, stalker at that. If I were to continue surveillance, I would have to find some way to divert suspicion or convince her that my intentions were good—odd, but good. And graduate school courses in literary theory, up until this point at least, didn’t prepare me for this.
In fact, I had made it through graduate school having only two long relationships under my belt, and in both cases they were with women who had been “around” so long as study-group friends that the romantic phase naturally evolved without the painful necessity of meeting them, trying out “pick up” lines, or making nerve-wracking phone calls. The last time my fancy lighted on an unsuspecting waitress, I ate lunch six days in a row at the “Stuff Yer Face” where she worked, hoping to catch her eye. Faced with the prospect of eating my seventh stuffed stromboli sandwich in as many days, I bypassed lunch, and pursued her through the crowded dining room. I was on her heels when she turned on me suddenly, and asked if she could help me. I blurted out in a barely audible whisper “Can I, can I, ahhh . . . can I have your number?” When she finally figured out what I was mumbling, she just shook her head and said in a soothing, pained voice, “I’m sorry, no.” I recognized the phrase. It was the same dispassionate one she used when I asked if I could have asparagus in my turkey and cheese “boli”: “I’m sorry, no.”
No. Meeting people, and meeting women in particular, was not something I did easily or well, or all that often. But still, as Marguerite passed me on my bench, I raised my eyebrows from my book, hoping that this would be enough. When she looked at the cover of Double Indemnity, rather than hold her gaze I looked quickly back down at page thirty-four. Her dog chose that moment to become curious about the post box, and the war memorial to my left, and finally about me. I smiled my best reassuring, understanding smile, but it probably looked like a queasy grimace.
“She likes you,” she said.
I was paying a teeth-grinding, pie-eyed attention, to her and her dog; it was more attention than I’ve ever paid to a dog, or to films I’ve loved, or to chess games I’d won, or even to exams I’d passed with flying colors. But still, I said “who?” perhaps a little too absent-mindedly, considering I was staring at the dog’s quizzical brown eyes.
“She does,” she said pulling the leash, “My dog.”
“Oh, I thought the dog was a he. In fact, I think all dogs are ‘he,’ and all cats ‘she.’”
“No. It’s not smart enough to be sexist. It’s more like childish.”
“Okay, I’ll go along with that,” she said as though this was a normal track for a first conversation.
“You went along with that pretty quickly,” I said.
“Well, you are wearing shorts and a baseball cap,” she said.
“That makes me a child?”
“You’ll do till somebody else comes along,” she said.
“You know there’s a speed limit in this state. I’d say you’re speeding,” I said.
“How fast was I going, officer . . .”
“I’d say around 90.”
“Suppose you get down off you motorcycle and give me a ticket . . .”
“Suppose I whack you over the knuckles . . .”
“Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.”
I looked at her glossy lips and her high cheekbones. Sure, I thought, this could be a noir movie. And I could be the sap. But she was much prettier than Barbara Stanwyck, and I was sure she wasn’t evil. Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff was almost sure too, but I’m not some dim-witted insurance salesman. In a matter of minutes, I had forgotten all about Tony, all about the detecting, and was in danger of plunging into a dark netherworld of sin and corruption, the dank, rain-slicked streets of a nocturnal city of night. She was an intimidating woman, and all I had to offer her was my baby-faced innocence and plenty of free time. Women, I knew, tended to find neither of these attractive. Certainly, no woman who looked like this had ever paid any attention to me.
Laura would only agree to see me in the daytime in the park, when she walked her dog. She wouldn’t give me her phone number. She didn’t want mine. We fell into a formal routine: she would walk past me, as if she didn’t know who I was. Out of the side of her mouth she’d say, “round the back.” I would wait a minute and follow her behind the band shell and we would makeout right there on the stairs, the dog panting on the grass. She said her name was Laura, and that suited me because of the Otto Preminger movie. I even liked the secret quality of our assignations. She told me which of the front windows were hers and when she was held up and likely to be late, she would open her blinds, a signal for me to wait longer than usual. When there was no hope, she’d close them.
Did I think there was a boyfriend, or husband. Maybe. Did I interrogate her or look into that? Absolutely not. The way she kissed me was hungry, and aggressive. Like we could be caught at any moment.
When, on a bright July morning, I walked into Vince’s Barbershop for my haircut, I was not at all in a hard boiled frame of mind. But as I settled into the chair I felt vaguely guilty for having failed to find Tony. Still, thinking of Laura, waiting for her, wondering about her, had taken up all my time. I stopped thinking about Tony. Now, I felt like I failed Vince. Though it wasn’t like he expected anything from me. But I promised myself I’d find Tony and I hadn’t. I couldn’t even explain to myself why I felt responsible. It was just something maybe you owed your barber, even if you didn’t talk to him.
So I looked into the mirror, into Vincent’s eyes, maybe for the very first time, and waited for the question. The question came.
“Round the Back?”
Not the question I was looking for.
“Round the back? Yes, Round the Back.”
No second question followed, so I did the unthinkable. I initiated a topic; in fact, the topic.
“Tony. Is she . . . ah . . . here?”
He looked at me in the mirror, like he didn’t know what I was talking about, and then, as if he now remembered the last time I was here, said, “Oh, Tony. She’s home.”
“Tony. She is home?”
“Oh, yes. She was hungry and came crawling back after a few days. Clawing at the door.”
This Vince does have a mean Sicilian streak in him. I quickly glanced at the scissors near my ear. Stymied, I was back to, “Hmmmmm.”
At that moment a dog, in fact Laura’s beagle, came shambling into the shop.
“See. Tony, there she is.”
Vince fixed on my eyes in the mirror. “No, she. It’s a ‘she.’ Toni with an ‘i.’ She run to my girlfriend’s house those few days,” he said and fished for the straight razor in the jar of Barbicide.
“Now, I let her stay with, sometimes. She likes it there. Lots of walks.”
A dame had been at the bottom of it. But could 29-year-old Laura be dating bald, paunchy Vince?
My hands gripped the arms of the chair. I looked up at the mirror and noticed that my hair was beginning to resemble a helmet—and, as I thought about it, it had been tending that way for a while. Now, maybe I was making a choice there, for Laura. Maybe I was making a choice to break up with Vince. Did I want the hair in those pictures? But what about Laura? Wasn’t Vince married to someone else? Those were surely his children on the wall. Did this make Laura his, what did they call it on The Sopranos? His Goomah? Why did she hold on to Vince’s beagle without even a call? Walking him—her!—up and down the hot streets without mercy. Poor Vince. Poor dog. Was it all to trap me? How long had she been watching me, learning my routine? Was I a sap?
Flustered, I said, “Vince, give me a shave.” It’d be kind of a valedictory for our relationship.
Now, Vince was slathering the hot shaving cream on my neck. The straight razor was near my throat. I held my breath. I looked in the mirror, and Vince was looking at me, with the razor poised.
“I’m glad she’s back,” he said.
Vince didn’t suspect anything, of course. I felt bad for Vince, and knew this would be the end of our haircuts. Barbicide.
The next day, I was on the bench as usual. Laura passed with the dog, shot me the side-of-the-mouth “round the back,” and I followed. Behind the bandstand I told her that Vince had tipped me about the “dog business.” I gestured at the dog. She acted confused. So I said “quit all the hooey and come clean with me, sister.” She made like she didn’t understand. “That’s his dog. He’s probably up in that apartment right now.”
She stared at me without responding. “You knew I was in a relationship. Why else would I be fooling with the blinds? Meeting you only in the afternoons?”
“But you’re seeing Vince, my barber?”
She looked at my head, like that explained a lot.
“I didn’t know he was your barber,” she said.
“But he’s so . . . old,” I said. “Doesn’t he have a wife and children?”
“Well, he takes good care of me,” she said.
“You took his dog?” I said.
“I didn’t take her. I just didn’t tell him Toni was here for a few days. Hid her at a neighbor’s. To get his attention. Believe me, Vinny has known where the dog is for a while.”
“He is up there,” I said, glancing at the window.
“You didn’t ask any questions, so you knew there was someone. I’d have given you my phone number, otherwise, wouldn’t I?” She crossed her arms and stared down at her stiletto heel. She angled it into a sidewalk crack. I was staring at her legs. She was so beautiful.
“That’s right. I don’t have your number. I was always supposed to be out here waiting for you, waiting for your signal to meet you round the back.” I looked away, across the street at the Waverly.
She reached into her purse and pulled out a pen and paper. “Here’s my number. I’m giving it to you now, okay. You decide what you want to do.”
She sounded pretty angry. I looked down at the paper, with the number written in a big loopy scrawl. She turned and walked away. I looked at her as she crossed the street, dragging Toni behind her.