Dad didn't tell me it was going to be my last haircut, even though, it seems, he must've known. I sat anxiously inside Dad's barber chair, set before a mirror down in the dark basement of our house. Behind me Dad stood underneath the basement's sole flickering light bulb. It hung from the ceiling on the end of an extension cord. Across from me I saw Dad's reflection in the mirror. Still in his work clothes he wore a pit-stained button down shirt and wrinkled khaki pants. Dad's posture had been ruined from twenty-five years in the barber business. Thousands of long days spent on his feet, cutting hair. Amidst his pale, ghostly complexion, a pair of spiritless brown eyes were cast inside dark shadowy circles. The Winston cigarette suspended between his lips burned dangerously low on the filter but I didn't have the courage to say anything. Through the mirror I could see him, looking up, through the smoky fog to a dusty crucifix, nailed to the wall above the mirror. Dad stubbed his cigarette, lit another, and then stumbled towards the crucifix. Holding his hand up to the crucifix, he used his fingernail to peel away a layer of dust.
"This cross was a gift from my Mother," Dad said. "Just before she died, she gave it to me and said 'non perdere questa.' Don't lose this." His fluttering eyes appeared to be traveling-time. "And look. Look at what I've done with it."
Dad turned his back on the cross. Bumping his elbow on the corner of his black tool case. Four pairs of scissors, three black combs, a wooden handled brush, clean razors, two uncoiled extension cords, and little pieces of dark hair—my hair—littered the concrete floor.
I tried to stand up and help him, but Dad's big hands prevented me, pushing my shoulders back down into the chair.
"Forget it, son." He said. "Forget it."
The raw, popping sound of knee caps crackled through the basement like a dying flame. Jumping out of the chair I knelt down next to Dad and got right to work, organizing a handful of combs.
"Capadosta!" He said. "Come suo padre." Dad spoke Italian when he was thinking about his mother—Nona, as I had called her. She passed away nearly eight years earlier but at that moment in the dim basement, her presence seemed very much alive and with us.
"Now that's an Italian mother for ya," he said. "Even ten feet under they can still make you feel guilty about not going to church." Dad said before taking a long drag on his cigarette.
"Why did you start smoking, again?" I asked.
"What's it like?"
"What's what like—smoking?"
"No," I said. "Being stressed."
"Listen, son." Dad spoke through a foggy pane of smoke. "I'm going to tell you the truth. Do you understand?"
I nodded but at fifteen years old I didn't understand the truth.
I didn't understand why Dad had changed so much over the last six months. He gained thirty pounds. A yellow jaundice illuminated his chubby face, glazing his cheeks and nose. The swelling stain seemed to manifest deep within his skin and it turned his teeth, fingernails, and the whites of his eyes pee yellow. Hidden underneath his cuff links, an irritated rash gathered in patchy red smears at his forearms and elbows. Mother told him not to scratch them, but he couldn't help it. The cracked skin had become so delicate. It flaked off at the slightest touch, falling to the floor amongst hair clippings.
Between nervous pulls on the cigarette, Dad thrust his index fingernail underneath the frayed cuticles of dead skin around his thumbnail. He scraped the edge of his fingernail back and fourth, until strips of skin began to curl up and peel away from his thumb. In their wake the skin pieces left behind small drops of blood trickling delicately down the sides of his thumb. Dad flicked tiny pieces of dead skin into the darkness. My eyes followed each piece through the air, hoping to add to my collection of Dad's skin. But dead skin is elusive, you know, and I lost track. Each piece seemed to be swallowed up by darkness.
If I ate pieces of Dad's skin, I wondered, would I grow up to be more like him?
Dad's shaky hand clutched a pair of scissors just above the tip of my right ear. I closed my eyes. I didn't move. I welcomed the needle sharp pain, a chilling shudder rolled down my spine. Opening my eyes, I pretended not to notice the blood trickling down the edge of my earlobe.
"Ahhh, managia lo cuccio," Dad cursed, dropping the scissors on the concrete floor, he snatched a towel out of his black tool case. "It's nothing, Danny. Just nicked ya that's all."
I'd always considered Dad an artist. Wake up, Dad. I thought, staring into his reflection in the mirror. Wake up. Practice the art of barbering.
"Don't look at me while I say this." I looked down at the rough concrete floor. "I—I have skin cancer." He paused, clearing his throat. "It's called T-Cell Lymphoma." I couldn't take it anymore and I looked up at his reflection. His eyes were fixed on the crucifix as he spoke. "But please don't worry because there's nothing to worry about. I'll get better, I promise." He said, gripping my bloody ear with one edge of the towel, veiling my face from his reflection with the other. The sounds of his words piled up. A traffic jam in my head. I tried to turn around and look at his face instead of his reflection so that I could be sure I wasn't dreaming. But his big trembling hands clamped my jawbone like a gentle set of vice grips and kept my head straight. I heard crying, men don't cry.
The only thing I knew about cancer was that it killed people. Cancer was a death sentence. It seemed unfair to me. Why Dad? Why not a criminal or a murderer or some evil person? For what then did Dad sacrifice so much of his life if only to die an early, painful death?
Suddenly, I wanted to know everything about Dad. Like a puzzle missing pieces, I wanted them all. At that moment Dad stood so close to me, so why then did there seem to be some much between us?
Dad gave my last haircut in silence. He moved clumsily about my head, as though he forgot how to cut hair. He trimmed my sideburns, unevenly, and cut the top too short on the left side. A crooked version of the flat top. He pulled the apron off my body and dark brown hair clippings fell to the concrete basement floor. At the sight of my hair, he paused. Staring down at the basement floor, he must've known.
Dad sauntered upstairs while I waited in silence for the smoke to clear. Then, as always, I cleaned his tools one by one. Soaking combs and scissors in disinfectant, coiling extension cords, neatly replacing buzzers, a small container of itch powder, a spray bottle, and a wooden handle brush inside Dad's tool case. I found the broom and dust pan on a hook to the left of the basement stairs. That day, I couldn't wait to brush the floor clean. I couldn't wait to dump the hair in the trashcan. To get rid of every piece of hair. To pretend that haircut never happened.
BIO: Daniel Joseph Giovinazzo received a BA from Hartwick College and an MFA from Lesley University. He has worked as a mason tender, line cook, house-painter, landscaper, and teacher. Currently, he lives in Waltham, Massachusetts.