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The One Condition (Final Cut) by Barberian


The sun’s last light had splintered over Venice, CA, and Il Bambino Trattoria was sloping toward bedlam.

For the last hour, word had been making its way around the kitchen that one Emmanuel Paez, perhaps the single most influential food critic in the greater Los Angeles area, had called in a 7:00 reservation. This opportunity, upper management was only too aware, held the future of the establishment in the balance: either providing the Trattoria with the publicity boost it so desperately needed or else putting the proverbial nail in the slowing business’s proverbial coffin.

While the head chef and his team were hard at work making drastic menu alterations, devising new specials, and sampling the amuse-bouche, the headwaiter—a fastidious, graying Frenchman named Henri—had hastily assembled his staff in the larger of the restaurant’s two refrigerated pantries for one of his infamous inspections. Every last employee’s gait, manner, and appearance would be scrutinized before Mr. Paez arrived, and those who failed to meet Henri’s rigorous standards would end up on the bistro’s chopping block (still bloody, as it were, from a string of recent fires under the same tyrannical floor manager).

Searching every nervous face for the least sign of shabbiness or bad taste, Henri noted with dissatisfaction a tattooed sleeve that Marcus, Bambino’s heavy-set sommelier, had not hidden beneath the real sleeve of his stiffly starched uniform. With a scowl and a jerky shuffle, Henri forcibly unrolled the silk over the surly man’s right bicep and secured the cuff tight around his oversized wrist—covering, in the process, a large Movado watch. It was obvious to everyone but Henri that this was a serious breach of poor Marcus’s personal space, but the pantry’s awkward silence resisted penetration.

Unimpressed but satisfied with the rest of his somm’s appearance, Henri turned his attention on the prettier of his two hostesses, the green-eyed and russet-headed Lucia, who did a little catwalk turn for his benefit. Henri, despite his best efforts, found nothing to criticize in the girl’s appearance, which transcended perfection into frankly otherworldly territory. The goddess Lucia smiled, baring two even rows of porcelain mirth. Henri’s eyes passed over the remaining team like a copyeditor at work on a high priority memorandum: not so much gazing at as scanning his underlings for the minutest of errata.

He had all but finished his examination when Noah, the latest addition to the Trattoria’s forward-facing staff, stepped in through the pantry door and quietly joined his colleagues’ terrorized ranks. Everyone but Lucia avoided his eyes, not wanting to be caught in the undertow of the young waiter’s reprehensible tardiness. Even Lucia, protected by her aura of superhuman wholesomeness, ventured little more than a small curtsy before falling back in line. Henri, who for some unknown reason had developed an uncharacteristically permissive attitude toward the young waiter, shook his head but made no further comment. The tension in the air subsided some.

Noah was a college-aged surfer type of average height and build, handsome beyond words and, thanks to a recent incident with a stick of butter and a female saucier, quickly gaining a reputation as the bistro’s most incorrigible flirt. His long-lashed eyes gave one the impression they’d somehow absorbed the color of the surf itself, while his shoulder-length, wavy golden hair impressed upon one that it had likewise captured the brilliant essence of California noon. If it could be said that Lucia possessed the graceful lines of the modern Aphrodite, it could as easily be said that Noah had all a New World Apollo’s gleaming charms.

"Tonaht eez a very impotant naht," Henri at last began in his thick Parisian inflections. It was rumored amongst the wait staff that he spoke this way on purpose to bestow upon himself a superficial air of continental refinement. "Monsieur Paez eez a vairy impotant mahn, and what ‘e writes about our leetle establishment weehl no doubt ‘aunt us for ze rest of our lives. Evairytheng must be pairf. Abzolutely pairf." Henri emphasized "pairf," each time, with a decidedly Italian hand gesture that clashed badly with his francophone English. The staff was finally dismissed, excepting Noah, whose bowtie Henri adjusted with almost fatherly attentiveness.

***

Emmanuel Paez, to no one’s particular surprise, had made a name for himself in recent months as something of a gay Don Juan. Even if he hadn’t, years ago, been embroiled in a handful of small celebrity scandals with this or that dilettantish actor—the young, beautiful, and completely artless kind always eager to duck under the wing of an established personality—the out-and-out cattiness of Paez’s critical style would have promptly outed him to anyone but the densest reader of the Los Angeles Times. It was thus no coincidence, when the long-awaited critic finally sauntered in, that astute Henri assigned Noah to his table. Noah, who was generally hardworking but naïve in a way common to beautiful youth, approached the critic’s table without the least suspicion of Henri’s ulterior machinations.

"Welcome to Il Bambino Trattoria," he said, gliding effortlessly into a series of routinized gestures and drawing his blue eyes into a tried-and-true, tip-winning smile. On the table in front of his customer, he placed a small plate, a half-loaf of fresh bread, a roll of silverware, and a complicated system of menus covering everything from wine to antipasti to daily specials. "My name is Noah, and I’ll be taking care of you this evening. Is this your first time dining with us?"

Paez, who was clean-shaven and pumpkinish and wearing a blue and green ascot over a velveteen mauve blazer, lowered his narrow readers onto the tip of his nose and admitted an uncomfortable stillness before addressing his handsome attendant.

"I thuppose it is." Paez’s pronounced lisp—a perplexing amalgam of San Franciscan and Castilian sounds—lent a splash of color to his otherwise flat affect. He hit Noah with one of those I-know-you-know-who-I-am kinds of smiles, which Noah pretended not to notice.

"And will you be dining alone tonight?"

"Yes, just me." Expending not a moment more than necessary on the social niceties of upscale dining, Paez lowered his eyes and began reading over the menu, attending to each line sequentially, like a novel or a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room.

"Can I interest you in a glass of wine to start? Our sommelier would also be happy to suggest some entrée pairings, if you prefer."

"No need. I’ll take a bottle of the houth Chianti. I jutht adore Chianti."

"An excellent choice. Please, feel free to look over the menu while I—."

"Yes, fine."

Noah bowed and fled the eccentric man’s company, running his fingers through his lustrous mane, which had fallen into his eyes when he bent to hand Paez his menu. His hair was especially soft and bright tonight, bleached and conditioned by the elements while he spent the morning chasing waves. Henri, gliding past him in the opposite direction, lit the small candle on Paez’s table and presented him with the amuse-bouche. Passing Noah yet again on his way back to the kitchen, the headwaiter blew him a little European kiss.

When Noah returned with Marcus and the best vintage Chianti they could find, Paez ordered a plate of stuffed calamari and a beetroot risotto—two of the most exceptional dishes on the already superlative menu.

Just as Noah had bent over Paez’s table to collect the stack of menus and the empty espresso cup in which the bouche had been served, he felt a little thwack on his right buttock—an open-handed slap he realized with horror had been administered by Paez himself. Deciding to feign ignorance and not upset the imposing reviewer (Henri’s spectral presence could be felt close by), Noah nevertheless sickened as he felt Paez’s fingers crawl up his lower back. Much to the handsome server’s anxiety, Henri’s treachery was unfolding as planned.

***

By the time the main course arrived, filling the room with a strong aroma of genuine saffron, Paez had already finished his first glass of wine and most of his sizeable appetizer. His spirits had also visibly improved, in no small part because of the spanking he’d given Noah through his slacks. Noah poured the plump little man another glass of Chianti, attempting to keep his distance without rousing too much suspicion. He stepped back still further as Paez took his first bite.

"How is everything?" he dared to ask after another long silence.

"Simply wonderful," said the critic, although more or less in a monotone. Shoveling another forkful of risotto into his mouth, he turned to Noah and rolled back his eyes in a parody of sexual excess. Noah endeavored what he hoped was an ambiguous, kittenish expression—once more catching Henri’s eyes out of the corner of his own.

It was then that tragedy struck. No sooner had Paez plunged a third bite of the purplish risotto into his puckered maw than he pulled from between his lips a long, dazzling gold hair.

"Funny. I don’t recall my meal coming with angel hair."

Panning his eyes over the room in a kind of dazed silence, Noah realized the hair must be his.

***

"Ai am tairribly sairry, Monsieur," pleaded Henri for the fourth or fifth time. His persnickety little mustache rose and fell with every imploring intonation. Noah, meanwhile, had begun developing his own theory regarding the unfortunate development. Just after Paez had given him that little swat on his left ass cheek, which had given him such a jolt, he’d also fingered his way up the small of Noah’s back. Was it possible that Paez had collected a hair from Noah’s back, with the premeditated intention to sabotage his meal? Certainly, nothing like this had ever happened before. More certainly still, Paez was a nasty piece of work who had already shown a willingness, perhaps even an eagerness, to abuse what power he possessed. His suspicions were more or less confirmed when Paez pulled out a chair and beckoned Noah to join him at his table.

"Now, young man. You’ve put me in a rather precarious position," he began with an almost jolly lilt. "On one hand, my meal was simply exquisite, and I would hate to write anything less than a simply rave review of this establishment." He licked his lips, then scrawled something in a little moleskin he’d drawn from his blazer’s inside pocket. "At the same time, what has just transpired is simply unacceptable."

"Please, sir. It was clearly an accident, a fluke. It’s never happened before. I’m sure my manager will be happy to pay for your meal, or have a fresh plate made u—."

"I’m afraid I’ve quite lotht my appetite. But, as I was just telling your supervisor—Henri, was it?—as I was jutht telling Henri, I do have another, less conventional, solution. I think we’ll all find my suggestion very agreeable."

Chills rushed up Noah’s spine. If Paez’s perverse behavior thus far was any indication of what was yet to come, tonight was about to take a turn for the nasty.

"You thee, I’ve agreed to let this little incident slide on one condition. Very generous, I think. Anyway. Henri hath already been so kind as to agree to my terms, but the final outcome, well, that will depend on you."

"With all due—."

"Let me finish. We’ve sent one of your bus boys out on a little errand. When he gets back, you, your supervisor, and I are going to head into the bathroom and thee that something is done about all that hair."

Noah’s heart sank into his bowels. This impudent little man wanted to submit him to a haircut. Here, in the bistro. Tonight.

"Please, sir. There must be some other—."

"I can assure you, there isn’t. You can still say no, of course. Just, don’t be surprithed when—."

"I end up unemployed. I follow. Honestly, though, if it means getting away from customers like you, it might be worth cutting my losses."

"Somehow, I get the imprethion you’ll be cutting… other losses tonight."

Noah reached up and grabbed a generous handful of his hair, as if making sure it hadn’t already abandoned him. What he discovered there, still hanging down over his shoulders, was so fine and so soft and bountiful that he found himself running his fingers through it even as he pondered the feasibility of quitting his job. He knew he couldn’t afford to cost of living in Venice on anything like minimum wage, and knew that finding a comparable position in this besieged economy would prove a long shot at best. He wouldn’t be able to get out of his lease for at least six months, and after dropping out of college two years earlier—the same time, it turns out, that he’d started growing out his flowing golden tresses—his relationship with his parents had been all but completely disenfranchised. His mind raced, but came up empty-handed.

He was pulled from his trance by the sound of the front door opening. Swiveling in his chair, he turned to find Adam, a close friend he’d helped land his position as a bus boy, standing in the vestibule with a shopping bag under his arm.

***

The heartrending scene that followed was well-attended by members of the restaurant staff. The doors were shut promptly at 8:00, and a throng of employees—including several women—marched into the men’s room to see Noah’s fate play out. Among the crowd of onlookers, Noah was disheartened to see Lucia, on whom he’d harbored a kind of long-term workplace crush. She, it is worth mentioning, was likewise infatuated, and was now growing visibly flustered at the thought of Noah’s brutal sentence.

At Henri’s behest, Adam ceremoniously unpacked the Oster clippers, first from the Walgreens bag in which he’d been carrying them, then from their many layers of manufacturer packaging. Noah, realizing now what had been in the bag, grew increasingly nervous as he pondered just how short this haircut was going to be.

The clippers, when they finally emerged from their mesh of cardboard and see-through plastic, seemed massive and downright unwieldy in Adam’s hands. For a while it was debated among the assembled staff exactly who should do the honors of Noah’s depilation. When at last Henri agreed to do the dirty deed himself, Noah’s hesitance blossomed into genuine terror. Surveying the crowded restroom for an opening through which he might yet be able to escape this humiliating spectacle, he settled on a cleft between Marcus and Lucia and attempted to force his way through.

But it was already too late. Before Noah could progress so much as three feet into the raucous herd, he was seized around the shoulder in Marcus’s vice-like grip and guided back over to the sink where he had previously been standing. Marcus, who in some small way felt that his own job’s security depended on satisfying Paez, forced Noah’s shoulders into a slouch over the sink and held him there, immobilized. Henri, meanwhile, had fired up the clippers, and was working his way toward his incapacitated underling with a grave, resolute expression. Noah’s screams, echoing in the basin, went unheeded.

When Henri first drove the clippers up the back of Noah’s head, into his dense forest of blond hair, the room fell completely silent. The clippers’ metal teeth, sharp and new and powerful as they were, snagged along Noah’s neckline and came away with only a few wayward strands in their jaws. After a few, equally fruitless attempts, Lucia at last pulled a small pair of scissors from her purse and handed them to Henri.

"Here, try these." If anyone had asked why she felt the sudden need to betray her handsome colleague, Lucia would have told them that the barbarous ritual had grown fascinating to her. She wanted to see if Noah’s beauty survived the cut’s disfigurement, but more than that she just wanted his attention. Whatever silent chemistry had been building between them over the last few months, tonight things would be in her control. If Noah lost his Olympian loveliness tonight, as she suspected he might, he would have no choice but to pay homage to her, the Trattoria’s last standing divinity.

The scissors, which were designed for the trimming of split ends and not for the kind of pillage in which they were now being deployed, made hardly more progress on Noah’s mane than the impotent Osters had. Henri had started with the hair over Noah’s ears, which he cut off in small chunks about an inch from the scalp. Noah, who had long grown hoarse, sobbed audibly as he watched the first glittering strands glide down into the marble sink. These first locks were almost platinum blond—touched daily, as they had been, by countless summer suns. The locks that followed, taken from his neckline, were somewhat darker in color—dishwater blond and almost brown in places. Noah strained his neck against Marcus’s weight in an attempt to check the status of his scalp in the mirror, but even his athletic physique was no match for so large an adversary. In the sink, a few of his fallen locks were now damp with sweat and tears.

When Noah’s head had been satisfactorily cropped into a kind of shabby Caesar, Henri decided to give the clippers a second shot at the action. Paez, who had been watching the assault on Noah’s head with a reserved-yet-mischievous, v-shaped smile, now slinked in close for a better view of these final touches.

The first pass of the clippers bared a long strip of pale skin just above Noah’s neckline. The color of Noah’s naked scalp, an almost ghastly paleness like the moon’s, was all the more shocking by contrast to the surfer’s bronzed face. By now Noah had been pinned in this rather uncomfortable position for close to twenty minutes, and his arms began to quake noticeably as the clippers mowed three more white stripes into the side of his head. Henri, who had never cut hair in his life, nicked his poor victim on the next pass of the shears, streaking the steel of the blades with blood. The injury wasn’t serious, but the red rivulet that ran down Noah’s face and onto the golden fleece in the sink completed the atmosphere of evil attending to the rite. Noah had stopped crying and now looked upon his own blood in shell-shocked silence.

At last, the sinister task was complete. The clippers fell silent, and Marcus released his grip on Noah’s strong shoulders. The crowd watched on in bewitched silence as Noah straightened himself up on the counter, gazing with disgust upon his vandalized reflection. Because Noah’s hair had been so fine, the glossy dome of his head was now almost perfectly smooth—any stubble rendered invisible by the play of light on the bright and downy fuzz. Noah found that his eyebrows now seemed sickeningly prevalent—the last gilded embellishments on his sweaty, florid face. Lucia tepidly approached, hoping to steal a glance at the wreckage, but she shrank away when her eyes met Noah’s reflected ones.

Noah, ashamed and contemptuous of everyone who had witnessed his humiliating forfeiture, scooped a lock of his hair from the sink and pressed it into Emmanuel Paez’s outstretched hand. Paez examined the foot-and-a-half of yellowish hair, then let it fall from his hands to the floor in featherlike slowness.

"Henri? Kindly tell your boy to clean up this f***ing mess."




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