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The Widow's Lovers

Erich Sysak

A widow yearns for love in a Cuban barbershop.

Richard is everything my dead husband was not. You will see. Richard has Garcia in the barber’s chair. Garcia is heavy and dark, a Cuban with a handlebar moustache, a mid-part in his wet hair, wrinkled, colorful shirt, white socks, and patent leather loafers. Richard and Garcia talk about horses. They say a trotter is better than a walker. They say their horses will never dog trot with a man in the saddle. Garcia’s laugh explodes into the room. Other men turn to look.

My son Derek plays in the storage room beyond the four barber’s chairs, the horse photographs, the waiting men. I should call him to me at once and make him sit quietly. He would listen if I were stern. But when I’m here, it is Richard who interests me. I can’t stop watching his mouth, his working arms and elbows, his eyes as they follow the comb and scissors.

His face is tanned and clean, and as he pauses to inspect his work, wrinkles form beneath his eyes. It is the look of a scholar. Yet he wears leather boots and chinos with a smart crease. His thighs flex beneath the smooth cotton when he steps up and around the chair. I know Richard would never give up like my husband. Richard is strong from the inside, in all the ways a man must be.

Then I hear this muffled noise like books falling from a shelf. The television is loud. The men talk all at once. I realize Derek is crying. Tossing the magazine down, I run through the piles of cut hair, the men and chairs and photographs and find Derek pinned to the floor by the saddle Richard keeps in the back. It’s on his chest and arm, and I can’t lift it.

He’s breathing hard. I tell him it’s OK and try to pull the heavy thing off. His little face is red and swollen from tears. And when I turn to ask for help, Richard is there. He lifts the saddle, slings it back on the post, then pulls Derek from the floor. Derek stops crying as Richard hoists him into his arms. Hair falls into his eyes and I brush it away. The room, a sea of faces, laughs, then applauds. I feel like a princess. Like a flower, it swells up inside me.

Richard’s shirt is stretched across his broad back. A light sweat glitters on the dark skin of his neck. He holds Derek in one arm, but gently. Garcia gets up from Richard’s chair. Garcia’s hair is half-cut and lopsided. But he grabs the black booster from the shelf anyway. He is a gentleman. Then Richard sits Derek on top of the booster, grabs a fresh, sky blue apron and snaps it around him. Because Derek is huffing and curling his lip, I know he is embarrassed. Everyone is watching, and I smile without trying.

Richard is the first barber, closest to the door and the sofa. There are the black and white pictures of his horses on the walls and the door and the counter. I wonder how Richard can afford so many horses. Is it because he has no family? He has never mentioned a wife. I wonder if he would give up the horses.

I wouldn’t want him to. He pulls a dripping comb from the glass jar. I stand next to the chair and watch. Derek is quiet, listening as Richard hums, gently tugging at Derek’s hair with the comb. The comb and Richard’s gold ring clack together like hooves on cobblestones. I close my eyes.

When I was a girl I rode a horse the stable boy called a plater. The stable boy was straw-colored, thin, tall. He punched the horses when they didn’t walk through the gate fast enough. I watched him and my mother from the window of my mother’s car. He shoveled the manure into a silver wheelbarrow, then dumped it into a hole at the foot of the track where I rode. Standing next to the stable owner, my mother looked small, a frail negotiator.

At the stable door, I saw the bumps and thick hairs on the horse’s chin. I watched his lips curl and chew sideways, the pink tongue brighter than anything in the doubled up shadows of that damp barn.

The stable owner taught me to sit in the saddle and buck up when the horse walked. I wasn’t scared. Somehow I knew the horse wouldn’t hurt me. He nibbled hay from my own hand and sugar. I remember his warm tongue filling my palm while I squeezed my eyes shut and trembled inside.

The stable owner pointed and barked orders at me while smoking cigarettes. The horse’s flank quivered when he talked. My mother waited in the car with a magazine, uninterested in my emprise. I remember the rancid smell of the stable owner’s breath and the way his fingers hurt my sides when I came down.

Later, I could ride on my own in circles on a small, sandy track. The flies followed us in the air around my head. The stable boy pushed his wheelbarrow back and forth; one trip around the circle and he’d be back. “How’s that plater feel,” he shouted at me and laughed, but I didn’t answer.

I gripped my horse’s mane tighter and squeezed my thighs against his warm flanks, thinking he’d bolt if the stable boy came closer. Besides, the stable boy limped. He couldn’t catch us.

Suddenly he clapped and clucked and the horse bolted sideways. I lunged back against the force of him as wind rushed into my ears. But I held. I couldn’t help but hold because the reins tied my hands. And I couldn’t shout because my breath kept breaking up, and my jaw snapped up and down.

The boy was there again, panting, sweaty, red faced. He pulled the horse to a stop.

“See what I can do.” His eyes flashed.

The stable owner jogged toward us, flicking his cigarette into the grass where the horse stood, waving his arms, my mother behind him somewhere in the brightness.

Richard tells Derek about the sorrel gelding that can not be ridden. Derek laughs, and Richard tells him girls are like that too. I let it pass. Derek’s eyes are bright green. He is very pale. But he is a huge boy. His bones swell in his skin. He does not look anything like his father. For a long time I hoped he would. But his father was dwarfish, bald, long-nosed. Now I wish Derek only to look handsome and strong, to know what he wants from life and to take it. Derek’s father did not know. He swallowed a pistol shot in the kitchen on a Saturday morning. He left only a stew of brain and skin.

Garcia lights a cigar and leans back in his chair, blows smoke. He still wears the apron and his hair is definitely lopsided. His arm is pressed against my side. He is too large to sit in just one chair, and I don’t pull away.

“He is such a handsome boy,” Garcia bellows and gestures with his cigar.

“Thank you,” I say as if I am responsible. I still have no idea what he will look like. “He doesn’t look like his father.” I don’t know why I say it. Perhaps only because it is on my mind. Derek looks up and stares through me. Garcia shrugs, then pulls a magazine from the rack. Richard and Garcia look at each other briefly, as men do.

“How much?” Richard holds a clump of Derek’s hair in his fingers.

“Just a little.” I wink at Derek. He has forgotten about the saddle.

Richard glances quickly at my legs, then cuts. Derek watches him through the mirror in front of the chair. Everywhere I look there is a mirror with someone in it. Two ceiling fans circle above, blinking through the light. I cross my legs. The barbers chat, snip, glance at the television, then seem to remember where they are and go back to cutting.

Richard moves around the chair with the confidence of an athlete. Now he must be slower, but he hasn’t let time take away his grace. His skin is coffee brown. His black hair and beard are combed, scented. His shirt is open at the neck and there is a nest of black curls.

On the counter behind him two glass bottles are filled with combs in a blue liquid. When he is finished cutting Derek’s hair, he will spin the chair around and Derek will point to the jars of peppermint and butterscotch. Richard will act surprised and offer him the electric clippers or the phone book, but Derek will shake his head, no, and giggle.

Finally Richard will lower his dark eyes and give him one piece of the candy. He will make Derek hold the candy with the wrapper to keep his fingers clean. People waiting will cough loudly or clear their throats or sigh because they are in a hurry. When Richard has Derek in the chair, others must be patient.

Richard has always been kind to us. Have I even told him that I live alone, that I am just a secretary in a small, private school, and that I am lonely? It is easy to see that I am lonely. There are other places I could take Derek, but I love the men here. I love the newspapers tossed on the floor, the smoke and colognes. To Richard, I think, I am a small prize. I am not beautiful. I am only a change in the long Saturday of his week.

The new barber on the end swings the apron from his customer and, even though there are people watching, picks up a broom and sweeps hair from the floor. He seems younger than the other men, though his hair is graying and his body is swollen and heavy. Maybe it is because he’s ready with a good joke or story about something strange, about hiking or California. He pushes the broom across the floor. I hear quiet laughter from the other side of the shop, but do not hear the best part of the joke.

I prefer the way Richard moves. I prefer hearing about horses and fishing. I am here for that. But maybe Richard needs the new people. Maybe he likes the strangeness and youth. I can see Richard watching girls in a school hallway, watching horses through a window in a small, unfamiliar room. I do not see him playing football or running hurdles. Did he ride when he was young?

“Excuse me.” The new man sweeps past my feet. Derek and Richard talk about ferrets. I hear Derek say how much he wants one, then Richard saying we’ll have to talk to your mother.

“They stink like hell,” Garcia says and raises his chin. “I shoot them around my house with a pistol.” He aims his cigar.

“I can’t take care of a rat.” I lift my hair from my eyes and look at Richard who squints as if wondering when he will have me. I haven’t decided, maybe soon, maybe if he would just let me know, so there is no doubt. If he would only say my name, which he has never done, though he must know it.

“Not a rat.” The new man stops sweeping at looks at me. He smiles quickly, then stands up straight, holding the broom handle before him. “Ferrets are usually descented.” He starts to say something more to Garcia, but stops. Garcia stares at the new man as if he has made Garcia out to be a fool.

I am watching the new man sweep his way back to the other side of the shop and Derek screams like I have never heard him scream before. It is an animal scream. Garcia drops the magazine.

I look up. Derek’s back is to me. He screams harder and louder. Tears come to my eyes. On the mirror in front of me is a light spray of blood. The fine drops thin as I rise from the chair. Richard staggers away from Derek’s head. His face contorts, shudders. Darkness fills it.

He holds up the chrome scissors, and they are covered with blood. The blood runs between his fingers. He holds them up in disbelief. I whip the chair around. Derek screams even louder when he sees me. “Momma, momma,” he screams. His tiny hands grip the chair and will not let go. His left ear is hidden by blood, and long strands of black hair are stuck in it.

I reach up, my hands wanting to dig through and see what has happened. But I pull them away because he screams louder. I stand motionless, stupid. I have though about this moment before, the emergency, and what I will do, but now I’ve forgotten and just stand.

The new man comes from the other side of the shop, pushes me away and grabs Derek. He presses a white towel against the ear and turns to me, ignoring Derek who writhes and fights him. “Call an ambulance or get ready to drive.”

“What?” Richard stands behind me. I feel his breath on my neck.

“Richard,” the new man yells.

Richard moves. Something has opened his mind, and he goes to the phone. I can’t look at Derek. He still cries and cries and I can only take so much. Why am I punished? I cry too. Someone grabs my shoulder. It is a man. His skin is rough, short fingers. I can’t help but look. Garcia, oh Garcia. The cigar is still clamped in his teeth. “It’s OK, little Lady.” He teases and guides me toward the back of the barber shop. I huddle in his huge body. Derek’s screams become farther and softer.

“He’ll be fine, Darling. You just sit right here.” Garcia puts me in the chair and winks. I look across the room as the new man carries Derek to the couch, puts him down and pats his shoulder. Derek is not crying. He holds the towel against his ear. He waves at me and blinks.

I am not a worthless mother. Through sickness and sutures and fear I’ve held my boy. I’m just tired. I’m tired. Garcia chuckles, then stands. I am going to say something to him, something I’ve never said to anyone, but he walks away before I do. The cigar burns in the ashtray. I lift the cigar, pinch it like a specimen, then drop it quickly, thinking of his fat, red lips.

Garcia holds his arms in the air as Richard takes off the apron and drops it to the floor. Then Garcia nods and walks away. His huge body touches both sides of the doorway. Turning, he looks at me, holding the door partly open. “They are coming,” he says.

I realize his hair is half cut. Richard comes to me with his head down. His fists are clenched. Two spots of blood glow on his silk white shirt. He sits down. My hands fumble in my lap. The old pain comes to me quickly, as if it had always been waiting just beneath the skin.

“Give me another chance, Jenny.” His voice is a slur. My name is dry and crumbles in the air between us.

He holds out his fist as if we are playing a game. He shows me both sides and I wonder if this is something he did in Cuba, some ritual I don’t understand. I open the huge palm and see a white piece of flesh flecked with hair.

I snatch the piece and stand. Richard looks at me with the saddest eyes. His shoulders sag like an old man’s, like he hasn’t the strength to hold them up, and I do not want to hurt him or forget him like I should. This comes to me as if I’ve awakened from dreaming, and the dream is full and vivid, but only for a moment, and the rest is only when you try and get it back.

I turn to Derek, clenching the piece of his ear, feeling him between my fingers. My Derek tries to get up as I walk toward him, but the new man stops him, then backs away. And then I am with him, kneeling next to the couch. His eyes are swollen, sleepy, the darkest green.

“Mother,” he whispers. “I’m not scared.”

I put my hand on his chest and feel it heave. “You’re the bravest boy I know.” My voice comes out soft. Derek smiles. The sirens come closer. I imagine the ambulance weaving through traffic, past Garcia in his yellow truck, past the graveyard where my husband is buried, and into this.

“I used to sing a song when I was a little girl.” I move Derek’s hand from the towel, replacing it with mine. The towel is stuck to his ear. I am gentle and do not let it pull.

“Would you like to hear it?”

He nods slightly and closes his eyes.

I had a little pony. . .My voice is strange, but not ugly. I don’t know where I learned the song. I haven’t thought of it in years. But now it is Derek’s. His body sags sweetly into the dark, curved cushions.

His name was Dapple-Gray

I lent him to a lady,

To ride a mile away.

The new man is just behind me. “It’s never happened. I’ve never seen it happen, never thought it would.”

“What?”

“The ear.” He unfurls a folded apron from a cabinet and covers Derek. “He’ll be fine.”

“I know.” I smell the lavender on the apron.

Derek points to one of Richard’s photographs, a dark horse running, taken from far away.

“Horses,” the new man laughs gently.

I think of the stable boy and wonder who caused him to be so cruel. Suddenly I feel heavy and my knees tingle with sleep, so I sit and stretch my legs. Derek stirs, then closes his eyes again. “The song doesn’t make sense, but I know it.”

“You sing it beautifully.”

The wailing siren collapses, and the orange truck stops in front of the shop. I dread the moment when the paramedic enters, and I must hand him the warm piece of ear. I am scared to open my fist and see it there, to realize it will never go back. A shudder crawls through me.

“He’ll want you to sing it again.” The new man stands, brushing something from the air. “He’ll want to hear it many times, I think.”

“What will I tell him about the ear?” For a moment I’m frantic, but then I know. “I’ll tell him his father keeps it.”

The new man nods. Derek rises and looks at me.

“Mother?” He blinks and squints. I rub his cheek gently and smile. “Yes, it’s me.”

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