In Aldama’s nightmare, Robustelli severed an ear.
They had the barbershop to themselves that afternoon—Bernal’s chair stood vacant between them—and customers crowded the benches along the window. It must have been a Saturday, because Aldama recognized several weekend regulars: Steinhoff, the florist from across the street; the twelve-year-old triplets whose mother insisted on distinct haircuts; Dr. Sucram, who gave him a case of his private-label Riesling every Christmas. More patrons waited on the sidewalk. Every man in Hager Heights, it seemed, had chosen that afternoon for a trim. Aldama focused upon the client in front of him, paying little attention to his elderly colleague, but at some point he glanced toward the old man’s corner, and to his horror, discovered the Italian running a straight razor along the lathered sideburns of the state health inspector. Robustelli’s arm shook—not a mild tremor, but the wild quake of infirmity. Aldama pleaded with the old man to be careful—the state inspector might shutter the place on a whim—but Robustelli merely laughed and kept shaving. “Finito,” he finally declared. “Perfetto.” He held a mirror behind the state inspector’s head, displaying the man’s reflection for approval, revealing the bloody socket where his ear had once been. And then, suddenly, Aldama was awake, and he was still renting a chair to Robustelli.
“Jesus, Adolfo, you’re sweating,” cried his wife. “Do you have a fever?”
He shook her hand off his forehead. The beams of the streetlight sliced through the blinds, casting horizontal bars across the duvet.
“Not a fever. A bad dream.”
The barber recognized that sharing his nightmare with Nilda could only add to his worries—his wife had a knack for using his own dreams against him—but after thirty-eight years of marriage, he also knew he’d end up telling her eventually. Besides, this time she’d be right. He did need to speak to Robustelli. Otherwise, eventually, the Italian would end up severing an ear. But he’d been meaning to act since March, when the poor fellow shattered the bottle of sterilizer. Now it was June. All he’d actually done over the course of two months was to increase his E & O insurance.
“It’s the old man, isn’t it?” demanded Nilda.
Aldama said nothing. She’d been on his case for weeks.
“Do you want me to speak to him?” she asked—and he had little doubt that she’d actually follow through on the threat, if he’d allowed her. That was the difference between them, but also the bond that held them together while all four of his brothers, even Ramón back in Havana, were now divorced. He was a dreamer trapped in the body of a suburban barber. Nilda didn’t have an ounce of sentiment in her veins.
“I’ll do it. I told you I’ll do it.”
“When? After he slits somebody’s throat?”
Nilda had flipped on her bedside lamp. That meant she wanted to hash the matter out; he wanted to return to sleep.
“Okay, Adolfo. He’s an old man. You don’t want to throw him out on the street. I understand that,” said Nilda. “But what about me? What about Gloria? How do you plan on telling your own daughter that you can’t pay for her wedding because all of her papa’s money went to fight a lawsuit?”
“I’m not disagreeing with you,” said Aldama.
“Okay, he’s an old man. The world is full of old men.” Nilda continued. “And old dogs too. And orphaned children….”
“Tomorrow,” pledged Aldama. “Now let’s get some sleep.”
But Nilda wasn’t quite done. “What does Bernal say?” she asked.
Bernal was Nilda’s cousin, her aunt’s grandson. He’d been renting the middle chair from Aldama for almost two decades, and while the young man worked hard and was perfectly responsible in every way, his good cheer grated on the barber’s nerves.
“He agrees with you.”
“See. Even Bernal agrees with me,” said Nilda. “Do you know why? Because he has his priorities straight. What’s going to happen to Bernal’s baby when that old man lops somebody’s ear off?”
Aldama closed his eyes, pretending to sleep. He knew that he wasn’t fooling his wife, of course, but she’d already had her say—at least, for the moment—and after feeling his forehead a final time, she switched off the bedside lamp.
Robustelli had appeared one evening the previous summer. He’d knocked on the plate glass after hours, while Aldama was sweeping the linoleum, and initially the barber had mistaken him for a customer and shaken his head. Only when the old man’s fingers mimicked a scissors did Aldama understand that he’d come about the open chair. That had been about a month after Enriqué, who’d shared the workspace with Aldama for nearly three decades, had retired to Orlando. In the interim, he’d interviewed an overweight Black woman named Birdie and an effeminate guy in his twenties, fresh out of training, who described himself as a “stylist.” Neither seemed promising. Aldama liked both applicants well enough personally—more than he liked his wife’s cousin, in truth—but they didn’t fit the Old World ambience that attracted his clientele. Besides, Bernal refused to work alongside a homosexual. Yet now the chair had sat empty for almost five weeks, earning nothing, like cash buried under a rock.
“I couldn’t find the darn place,” said the newcomer, as though his arrival had been expected. “They said ten minutes’ walk from the train. It’s more like thirty.”
The old man—he looked to be beyond seventy, even pushing eighty—sported a bowtie, a vest and a Homburg hat; he’d draped his jacket over his arm as a concession to the August heat. In his opposite hand, he carried a well-worn Gladstone bag, which he set down with a thud. “I hear you’re looking for a barber,” said Robustelli. “And I’m a barber.” He extended his hand.
“Vittorio Robustelli, at your service.”
Aldama introduced himself. The Italian’s manner seemed so dramatic, so contrived, that for a moment, he feared that he was being mocked. “Do you have an up-to-date New York state license? References?”
“A license, yes,” answered Robustelli. “I’ve been cutting hair longer than most men have been alive. I’ve had my brushes with history, too. When I owned my place across from the United Nations, I shaved Eisenhower and Khrushchev during the same week.”
“And references?” asked Aldama.
“You don’t believe me? No matter. It is true,” said Robustelli. He stooped over his bag and removed his framed license; a jagged crack bisected the glass shield. “When Clark Gable was asked to cut off his mustache for Mutiny on the Bounty, who clipped his whiskers? Robustelli, that’s who.” The old man set his license on the countertop alongside Bernal’s; as a young man, Aldama noted, he’d been strikingly handsome.
“Gable brought along a felt-lined jewelry box from Tiffany’s,” said Robustelli, dusting off his chair with a rag of his own supply. “He had me set his whiskers in the box like I was laying an infant in a casket. That I will never forget.”
“References?” repeated Aldama.
The Italian said nothing, his eyes focused on his bag.
“I owned my own shop,” he said. “How should I get references?”
Aldama knew he ought to make further inquiries: How had Robustelli learned of the open chair? What had become of his shop? Had he ever injured a client? That’s what Nilda would have done. Or Bernal. But he liked what he saw of the old man—his energy, his formal dress—and he sensed, deep down, that he was better off not knowing what had led Robustelli to his door.
Aldama seated himself in the spare chair and tucked his sunglasses into his breast pocket.
“All right. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Robustelli grinned. He reached into his bag, which contained a vast assortment of sprays and powders, and removed a pair of shears. Soon he was pruning Aldama’s skull while relating the details of his tonsorial encounter with Sir Anthony Eden. The man snipped more air than hair—and he wasn’t going to win any prizes for speed. Yet the final product appeared competent enough. “We take customers in order,” said Aldama. “No reservations. I’m not running a motel.” And that was that.
At first, the Italian proved a good fit for the shop. He worked long hours, never complained and kept his workspace immaculate. Even Bernal, who’d resented not being consulted on Aldama’s decision, conceded that the newcomer added “a certain charm” to the establishment. Most important, the customers like Robustelli. The old man knew a story for every occasion, a tale that always involved a bygone celebrity or statesman and a heroic barber by the name of Robustelli.
“One time, Groucho Marx’s regular barber came down with tuberculosis, and he called for a stand-in,” began a typical morning. Or, “When Bob Denver needed his goatee shaped for the Dobie Gillis show….” Many of the stories repeated themselves too. By the end of the summer, Aldama could recount the Italian’s meetings with Clark Gable and Lucky Luciano as though he’d witnessed them firsthand. Some of these encounters seemed more plausible than others—and a few, downright unlikely. When a teenage customer pointed out that Mutiny on the Bounty had been filmed in the mid-1930s, which meant that Robustelli was either over ninety-five or lying, the barber laughed and said, “Scoff, young man. Go ahead. See if Robustelli cares.” He shook his head, as though disappointed in the youth. “I know the truth and that is what matters.”
Aldama didn’t care whose hair the Italian had cut or when—any more than he gave a damn about Bernal claiming to have a college degree, or Gloria insisting that their ancestors had been Spanish nobility. Everybody had white lies they told themselves to get through the day, and if some people shared these minor falsehoods with others, what harm was done? Clearly, the Italian relished cutting hair, which was more than could be said for a lot of men in their trade. With his daughter getting married and his mother-in-law in the hospital, Robustelli’s embellishments were the least of Aldama’s concerns.
The trouble arose when Robustelli started to shake. At first, Aldama hadn’t noticed anything amiss, so it was difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when the old man’s grip grew unsteady—if such a precise moment had even existed. All the barber knew for certain was that one March afternoon Robustelli had lost his hold on a thirty-two ounce bottle of sterilizer, splattering a balding dentist with glass shards and alcohol. The dentist, Dr. Kimball, had shown considerable understanding; he’d refused to send them his dry-cleaning bill and even over-tipped on his haircut. But ever since that incident, Aldama had become keenly aware of his colleague’s worsening tremor.
“You should get that checked out,” he urged Robustelli.
The Italian shrugged. “It’s nothing. Hardly a twitch.”
Eight weeks later, the “twitch” looked more like an earthquake or an epileptic fit, and customers had started to avoid the Italian’s chair. When Aldama arrived at the shop, on the morning following his nightmare, three patrons were already waiting for service, while Bernal tended to a fourth. The Italian perched in his own chair, unwanted, reading the Daily News and wearing a stoic expression. His tremor rendered even turning the pages of the newspaper a time-consuming struggle.
Aldama tended to the men in line. Around ten o’clock, one of the managers from the vegan café around the corner came in—obviously in a hurry—and he let Robustelli run the electric razor over his scalp. An hour later, a scruffy college student asked to have his locks pared “to chin level” for a job interview. Every time the Italian raised his clippers above the level of the kid’s chin, Aldama feared the youth might lose an eye. Eventually, when the line was down to one customer, a regular of Bernal’s, Aldama turned to the old man and suggested, “Let’s grab some food, you and me.”
“What if it gets busy again?” asked Robustelli.
“Bernal can handle it. Can’t you, Bernal?”
Aldama threw his wife’s cousin a pointed look. Bernal had already spoken to him twice about the old man’s shakes. “Bring me back a regular coffee,” said Bernal.
The Italian busied himself adjusting bottles on his work shelf.
“Let’s get going,” said Aldama. “Before the lunch crowd.”
“Not today,” pleaded Robustelli. “I don’t have my wallet.”
“On me,” said Aldama. “I insist.”
So the old man accompanied him to the boxcar diner that shared a shopping plaza with Steinhoff’s Blossoms and Laurendale Tile & Marble. At the center of the pavilion stood the bare showroom that had until recently served an upscale furniture importer named Borrelli’s. Before that, the site had housed a carpet dealer—and earlier, back in the 1980s, a video game arcade. According to one longtime barbershop customer, a retired accountant who’d lived in Hager Heights since the 1940s, a live poultry marked had occupied the location during his childhood. An egg candling facility had once operated on the spot where Aldama’s barbershop now stood.
In the diner—a musty, low-slung firetrap—they settled down at a booth beside the door. As soon as they’d ordered, Robustelli launched into a story about a chophouse owner in Midtown Manhattan who used to trade haircuts for steaks. Aldama toyed with his cutlery and let the old man talk. Eventually, when their meals arrived, Robustelli paused long enough to taste-check his soup for salt, creating the opening that Aldama both sought and dreaded.
“I’m worried about you, Vittorio,” he said.
“That makes one of us. What is there to worry about?”
Aldama drew a deep breath and thought of his wife. “That shaking of yours,” he said. “I’m sorry, but you have to see a doctor. You could hurt somebody.”
The Italian didn’t make eye contact. He added more salt to his soup.
“What’s the big deal about going to a doctor? Maybe he could help you,” pressed Aldama. “If it’s about the cost, I can even contribute something….”
Robustelli tucked a paper napkin into his collar.
“I’ve been to a doctor. A specialist in neurology. It cannot be fixed.”
“Are you sure? Maybe a second opinion….”
Robustelli struggled to lift his soupspoon to his lips, but the tremor got in his way. After several attempts, which soaked the napkin, he pushed the bowl to the center of the table. Then he looked up into Aldama’s eyes, and for the first since they’d met, Aldama sensed that the man across from him was not putting on a show.
“When my wife became ill, we went to a fancy doctor on Park Avenue for a second opinion,” said Robustelli. “And then a third. And a fourth. But none of that changed anything. Vera’s heart was still malato. Kaput.” The Italian sighed. “In any event, I did obtain a second opinion. Last month.” He shook his head.
“I can’t let you hurt someone,” said Aldama. “You have to understand….”
The Italian grimaced. “I have been cutting hair for more than half a century. When I lost my lease, I told myself: Robustelli, you still have your trade. As long as you have a trade, you can do anything….But now….” The old man removed the napkin from his shirt collar and set it on the tabletop. “How will I support myself? Tell me that, if you’re so worried about Vittorio Robustelli. How will I earn my bread?”
“You must have family,” said Aldama. “What about Social Security?”
Robustelli frowned. “I have nothing,” he said. “But you will do what you have to do and I will do what I have to do. So there we have it. I thank you for lunch.”
When they returned to the shop, Robustelli invited the next waiting customer into his chair. Bernal glowered at Aldama. “If you’ll lock up for me, Bernal,” said Aldama, removing his cap from the peg, “I’d appreciate it. I’m not feeling very well.”
He went home early to brace himself for Nilda’s wrath.
Aldama’s wife spent weekday afternoons with her ninety-four year old mother, who’d been transferred to a nursing home in Yonkers. Nilda took the bus, because if Mama Freda had a rough day, she liked to stay at the home through dinner—and she no longer felt comfortable driving after dark. Later, when Aldama tried to reconstruct events in his mind, he remembered returning to the house, after picking up cigarettes at a convenience store, and watching the four o’clock news. At some point, he must have gone down to the cellar—he had no recollection of why—because that was where Nilda found him, shortly after seven o’clock, sprawled on the concrete. He’d suffered a stroke, fallen, and hit his head against the frame of the boiler. That was why the right side of his brain had been damaged, but the left side of his head throbbed. Or that, at least, was what the fast-talking doctor explained while testing his muscle tone.
He drifted off multiple times, a combination of the concussion and the morphine and the blood thinners, and finally awoke surrounded by his daughter, future son-in-law and three of his four brothers. As he was adjusting to the hospital room, his wife entered, carrying a stack of bedding. “If you want something done well,” she said to the ceiling, “do it yourself.” But then she caught sight of Aldama, blinking against the unforgiving light, and declared, “It’s about time you’re awake.” Her matter-of-fact tone couldn’t conceal the swelling around her eyes.
“My head hurts,” said Aldama. “Jesus Christ.”
Hector, his oldest brother, echoed what the doctor had said earlier, through the haze, about the stroke and the fall. “Press this button for morphine,” his brother said, sliding the PCA device into Aldama’s right hand.
The barber opened and closed his fingers around the apparatus, relieved to find his muscles still worked. He lifted his arm from the bed with ease. He still had a trade, thank God—the Italian’s words popped into his head. Only when he tried to elevate his left arm did it feel as though a heavy weight held down the limb. Nothing moved.
“You’re going to be fine,” said Nilda. “Now tell everybody you love them, so they can get home for supper and you can get some rest.”
That was when he realized it was already the next evening—a full day was lost.
He hugged each of his brothers with his functional arm. Gloria kissed him on the forehead. Yet he was glad when they’d departed, upset that they’d seen him like this with tubes poking out of his neck and chest.
“I could have died,” said Aldama. “And what about the business? Bernal won’t know how to pay the bills.”
“Don’t think twice about the business,” warned Nilda, fluffing his pillows. “Bernal has everything under control. He’s family, remember. You can trust him.”
Aldama trusted Bernal’s honesty without question; his judgment was another matter entirely.
“He wanted to visit, but I wouldn’t let him,” added his wife. “You’re not going to think about that shop again until you’re done with rehab. I’ve already called about temporary disability. It’s not much—and you should only be out six weeks—but you might as well get everything that you’re entitled to.”
And that’s when the barber remembered Robustelli. In fact, Aldama recalled watching the four o’clock news the previous afternoon and wondering why the Italian wasn’t eligible for Social Security payments: How had the hapless old man failed to earn even these most basic of protections? If he’d died, Aldama realized, his final thoughts would not have been about Nilda, or Gloria, but about the elderly Italian.
“I must tell you about Robustelli,” he said.
Nilda held her finger to her lips. “Bernal told me already. It’s not important,” she said. “That’s the problem with you, Adolfo. Mistaken priorities.”
Nilda proved true to her word. Over the next five weeks—both in the hospital and at the acute rehab facility—she refused to permit any mention of the barbershop. “You regain your strength,” she said. “Right now, you let Bernal do the worrying.” So it wasn’t until the Sunday the barber returned home, able to walk aided only by a cane, that she even allowed her aunt’s grandson to visit. Bernal had brought along his wife, baby daughter, and his parents, all crowded into Aldama’s living room.
“So have you gone bankrupt yet?” Aldama asked.
“We’re doing fine,” the young man assured him. “I think you’ll be very pleased with the receipts.”
“I also hired someone on a temporary basis. Do you remember that heavy Black woman from Queens? She’s not half bad.”
“So you’ve given away my chair already?” Aldama said, making the matter a joke for the benefit of the family. Secretly, he was annoyed. “I’m only gone six weeks, and I’ve already been replaced.”
“Not your chair,” Bernal corrected him. “Robustelli’s.”
Aldama felt a pang in his chest. “Don’t tell me…?”
“I didn’t have a choice,” said Bernal. “I discussed it with Auntie Nilda. He was going to scar somebody for life….”
“Godammit,” snapped Aldama. “You had no right.”
He had wanted to say more, but his anger evaporated in a fit of coughing, and when he recovered, Nilda steered them all into the dining room for lunch.
The next morning marked Aldama’s return to the barbershop. All day long, he received well wishes, both from longtime customers and from local merchants. Get well cards lined the countertop. Steinhoff sent an arrangement of lilies. Yet the old Italian’s absence—the harsh silence that replaced his colorful tales of Gable and Luciano—left the barber feeling his own age. He agreed with Bernal’s assessment: Birdie wasn’t half bad. But her semi-conscious humming of show tunes made a poor substitute for regular encounters with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn. By midday, Aldama decided that he had to find Robustelli. Maybe he could pay the old man to look after the shop and to tell stories, he reflected—conjuring up a compromise that might both keep the Italian fed and the public safe. It was a crazy idea, true. And Nilda would accuse him of squandering their grandchildren’s inheritance. But he would do it anyway, he decided. Because he wanted to—and because it was the right thing to do.
Tracking down Robustelli proved far more difficult than he’d anticipated. His first thought was to phone the old man, but he quickly realized he didn’t know his phone number. Nor did he have a mailing address: they’d done all of their transactions in cash. Although he guessed the barber still lived in New York City, he couldn’t even be sure which borough he inhabited. Ultimately, Aldama phoned both V. Robustelli’s in the telephone directory—one in The Bronx, the other on Staten Island—but neither number was correct. In desperation, he called other Robustelli’s—dozens of them—in the hope of locating a relative who might direct him to the missing barber. Alas, nobody had ever heard of the elderly Italian. His ads in Barbers Only Magazine and Against The Grain went unanswered. If I could just apologize, Aldama found himself thinking, even that would be enough.…
The less hopeful he became of contacting Robustelli, the more Aldama found himself talking about the old man. “I used to work with another barber,” he told a new customer one afternoon, “who’d clipped Clark Gable’s mustache so he could play Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty.” Aldama thought of Robustelli while he spoke—not the old man with the quaking arms, but the handsome youth smiling in the license photo. “And imagine this: Gable brought along a felt-lined jewelry box from Tiffany’s to store the whiskers in. Just like setting an infant inside a casket. Now that’s a story I’ll never forget.” Aldama told the story again the next morning, and others the following week. Eventually, he knew, he would leave out the part about another barber. Soon enough, one by one, the stories would all become his own.
Return to table of contents for Issue 9 Summer 2015.