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by Oscar Casares, AARP VIVA, August 2009
The next time Don Celestino stopped by, he brought his green-and-beige tackle box and set it on the overbed table. The extending tray held four shears, a pair of combs, and his straight razor. Down below, in the main section of the box, he kept his two clippers: one with a narrow blade for trimming sideburns and around the ears; the other with a wider blade for trimming hair in the back, either squared off or rounded, or even tapered, depending on the man’s preference. Each machine came with an attachable cord for when the batteries were running low. He kept a bottle of hair tonic sealed tight inside a plastic bag to prevent any leaking onto the shears or the black cape that was folded into a square shape at the bottom of the box.
“Why do you want to cut an old man’s hair?” Don Fidencio asked. “You cut it this morning and I could be dead later this afternoon — all that work for nothing.”
“You’re not going to die.”
“And if I do?”
“Then you still need a haircut,” Don Celestino said. “You want me to do it or somebody at the funeral home?”
The old man sat back and looked at his brother in the mirror.
“If you really wanted to help me, you would get me out before I die here with all these strangers.”
“So I can be struggling with you at the house? We would have to hire somebody to come help you, and then if you got sick on me in the middle of the night? No, you’re better off staying here.”
“It sounds like the one who would be better off is you.”
“You know what I mean.”
“It would be good for you to have company, someone to talk to.”
“I already have someone to talk to.”
“Who?” Don Fidencio asked.
“Just a friend.”
“A woman friend?”
“I don’t know,” Don Celestino said, “maybe it is a woman.”
“You haven’t checked?”
“This isn’t so you can go telling everybody.”
“Yes, like I have so many people I could tell your news to.”
Don Fidencio rubbed the bill of his cap, then shook his head.
“You didn’t waste no time, eh?”
“It just happened, without us planning it.”
“Does she have a name, or is this a secret, too?”
“Socorro,” he answered. “Now are you going to let me cut your hair or not?”
Don Fidencio removed his baseball cap and waited for his brother to snap open the black cape.
“We need to ﬁnd another chair,” Don Celestino said. “The back is too high on this one for me to reach your neck.” He turned to the resident in the next bed. “Excuse me, but can we borrow your chair?”
“TAKE IT, TAKE IT,” the old man said, ﬂinging his hand in the air. He had a couple of pillows tucked beneath him and was tilted toward the opposite wall. “IF I NEED TO GO SOMEPLACE, I CAN TELL THEM TO BRING ONE OF MY HORSES.”
But when Don Celestino pushed the wheelchair to the other side of the room, he found his brother motioning back and forth with his index ﬁnger like a tiny windshield wiper on its lowest setting.
“No to that chair.”
“Just for me to cut your hair, Fidencio.”
“For nothing. Not for a haircut, not so you can clean the wax out of my ears,” he said calmly enough and put his cap back on. “For nothing.”
“You see what I mean about struggling with you?”
“Because I refuse to sit in a wheelchair, for that reason you want to leave me here?”
“What is it going to hurt you to sit for a few minutes?”
“They already took my canes from me.”
When it was clear his brother wasn’t moving, Don Celestino walked to the nurses’ station and a couple of minutes later returned with a chair with a lower backrest. Once they had switched chairs, he removed his brother’s cap for the second time, draped the cape around him, and rolled the new chair closer to the mirror hanging from the back of the closet door.
The old man looked at his brother in the mirror. “So this woman, Socorro, she’s why you don’t take me to live there at your house?”
“She has her own house, Fidencio.”
“But she passes the time there with you, no?”
“She comes to clean the house.”
“A cleaning woman? You want to leave your only brother locked up in this place so you can be alone with the cleaning woman? She must have told you not to bring me around.”
“It would be the same if she wasn’t around,” Don Celestino said. “And anyway it was her idea that I go see you.”
“Only her idea?”
“I was already thinking about it,” Don Celestino said, combing back his brother’s hair. “Now tell me how you want it.”
“The usual way.”
“Ten years later, and you want me to know what the usual way is?”
Don Fidencio stared into the mirror. Tufts of wispy gray-and-white hair were bunched up around his ears, joining up with his broad and unruly sideburns. Though his hair was thin, the strands reached from the top of his forehead to beyond his crown. In the back, his hair had curled into ringlets that fell to just above his shirt collar. He wondered how he had let himself get to this point. Maybe this was why his brother didn’t want him inside his house. He should have done a better job of taking care of himself. A barber came once a week and set up in the room where The Turtles got their hair done; Don Fidencio had stopped by once or twice when he saw the other old men parked along the wall in their wheelchairs. After a while he looked up again and found his brother standing behind him in the mirror.
“Just make it look good again.”
Don Celestino started by combing the sides, just to have some idea of how much he needed to cut. The top was long, but he planned to trim just an inch so the hair maintained some of its weight. The sideburns looked worse than they really were; the trimmer would take care of them in no time. The back seemed to be the area that needed the most work. The curls reminded him of how wavy his brother’s hair had been when he was a young man.
He was surprised at how nimble his ﬁngers were after not cutting hair for a couple of years. When he sold the barbershop, he ﬁgured he would never cut hair again. He had brought his barber tools home in the tackle box and stored them in the hall closet next to his shoe-shine kit. Every time he polished his shoes, he thought about bringing out some of his tools, but he knew this would only make him miss what he had left behind. Eventually he pushed the box to the back of the closet, where it wasn’t always in the way when he was looking for something else.
Yesterday, when Socorro was over at the house, he had opened the box on the dresser so she could see his barber tools. Other than his driving her past the shop, she’d never really seen this part of his life. He pulled out the ﬁrst pair of shears from its velvet sheath and let her hold it for a second. Then he took back the shears and, after placing her hand over his, showed her just how rapidly he was still able to move his ﬁngers, all while his little ﬁnger remained delicately unfurled as if he were sipping tea in the middle of the afternoon. Later he told her a story about when he was in barber school and how one night four pachucos cornered him, wanting to rob him or worse. This happened in an alley downtown, near the cathedral, where he had to either ﬁght or try to outrun them in the opposite direction.
Instead he took off his jacket, wrapped it tightly around his forearm to protect himself, and ﬂipped open the straight razor he had started carrying in the front pocket of his shirt. He stood up from the bed to show her exactly how he had held the straight razor above his head, in plain sight for all of them to see. “So who’s going to be my ﬁrst customer?” he had called out. It took only a few convincing slashes for the pachucos to move aside and for him to continue on his way home.
“And you weren’t afraid?” Socorro asked.
“What was there to be afraid of, if none of them were barbers?” he said.
She seemed impressed with his daringness, and he took the opportunity to recount some of his other adventures as a young man, hoping she would trust that he still possessed the same courage today. If for no other reason than to share this part of his life with her, he was thankful there had been an excuse to bring out his barbering equipment. When they ﬁnally went to bed, he felt more conﬁdent than he could remember being since they had started spending afternoons at the house.
Now he wanted to tell his brother the story about his ﬁght with the pachucos, but the old man had fallen asleep with his head tilted forward. Don Celestino turned off the clippers and tapped him on the shoulder.
“I ﬁnished with the back part. You need to keep your head up now.”
Don Fidencio glanced down at the clumps of silver-and-white hair on the ﬂoor. “Are you sure you’re not cutting it too short?”
“Since when did you get so particular about your hair?”
“My ears already stick out too much.”
“Stop worrying,” he said. “You act like this is your ﬁrst time ever getting a haircut.”
Don Fidencio stayed quiet for some time, looking into the mirror and watching his brother work, though later he seemed to be gazing at something more distant. Then his brother came around to the front so he could check how far some of the longer hairs reached onto his forehead. When Don Celestino moved again, the old man was still staring into the mirror.
“I can remember some of it.”
“Some of what?” Don Celestino asked, brushing the hair off his brother’s shoulder.
“My ﬁrst haircut.”
“You barely remember that I called you on the phone last night.”
“It was a tiny barbershop in Reynosa, only one chair in the whole place. This barber’s chair was made of wood and the arms were carved with different ﬁgures — with horses and bulls, and on the other one, a rooster. The footrest I remember had the name of the barbershop carved on it — Primos. But there was only one other place to sit if you were waiting to get a haircut, and that was on a wooden crate. Papá Grande told the barber exactly how he wanted his hair, and later he did the same when it was my turn.”
“You were maybe only four or ﬁve years old, Fidencio.”
“Did he take you for your ﬁrst haircut?”
“He could barely walk by the time I was old enough to go.”
“Then you see why — you weren’t born yet,” Don Fidencio said. “I was there. I was the one named after him, I was the one he would take everywhere with him, I was the one who was there with him when he died. Me, not you.” He kept staring at his brother until the other ﬁnally turned away.
“This ﬁrst time he took me was when we lived on the ranchito up the river, close to Hidalgo. We went in the wagon and I sat next to him all the way there, just me and him. The only time we got off was when we reached the ferryboat so we could cross to the other side. One of the boys pulling the ropes was too young to be working, maybe only twelve years old, and I remember Papá Grande got behind him and helped him pull.”
“Are you sure that wasn’t our father?” Don Celestino asked. “I remember we used to cross that way sometimes.”
“You think I would confuse him with my grandfather?”
“Just because they named you after him doesn’t make him only your grandfather.”
“I know what we used to do together, what me and him talked about.”
“I was just saying, if he was really helping to pull.”
“Already I told you it was Papá Grande,” he said, and brought his hand out from under the gown and made a tight ﬁst. “He was still strong in those days.”
Don Celestino held his brother’s thin hair and trimmed the very tips, then whisked away the remains with his comb. There was no point in arguing with him. He came around the chair to get a better look from the front. The left sideburn needed a little more adjusting. He cupped his brother’s chin and turned his head a few degrees to the left, then back toward the center, and then ever so slightly to the right. The only thing left to do was snip some of the hairs along the rims of his ears and growing out from his nostrils. After he ﬁnished he reached into the bottom of his tackle box for a small oval mirror. Then he swiveled the chair around so the old man would have his back to the larger mirror hanging from the closet door.
“Tell me if the back looks good, the way you like it.” He handed him the oval mirror but ended up holding it himself when his brother had trouble keeping his hand steady enough.
Don Fidencio peered into the small mirror, trying to make his eyes focus on the reﬂection of his image. He felt conﬁdent that his brother had done a good job with the back, the same as he had with the front and sides, but he wanted to see this for himself. He stared into the mirror and turned his head this way and that way, as if he were really examining the ﬁner details of his brother’s work and not the cloudy image of what appeared to be the back of a man’s head, though not necessarily his own.
“So, what do you think?” Don Celestino turned the chair back to its original position. “Is it good that way or you want me to cut a little more?”
“IF IT WAS ME, I WOULDN’T LET HIM TOUCH ANOTHER HAIR.”
They turned around to ﬁnd The One With The Hole In His Back sitting up in bed. The Gringo With The Ugly Finger and two nurse’s aides were also watching from the doorway.
“¡Qué guapo!” The One With The Flat Face said. “Mr. Phillips, don’t you think he looks handsome with his new haircut?”
“It might surprise you ladies to know, but I had a very similar haircut when I was working for Pan Am,” The Gringo With The Ugly Finger answered. “Back then, I was what they used to call ‘a looker.’ ”
Don Fidencio turned toward the larger mirror again and kept gazing into it until he could see the faint traces of a face he had almost forgotten.
Reprinted with permission.
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