Thursday 22 February 2024

Final Cut by Martin Perlman, Martinelli's Sparkling Cider

His back to her, Lena approached Gabe at the refrigerated display case of the Oatsland Market. Docking alongside, she asked, ‘Looking for a pineapple kefir?’

‘You think you top-to-bottom know me, don’t you?’ answered Gabe, still boyish, trying to look serious. His eyes remained on the beverage options.

‘Don’t I?’ Lena selected an organic carrot juice and walking lightly with a hint of sashay set course for the checkout counter. Gabe followed.

‘Answer my question: Do you think it’s possible to know someone too well?’ he pressed as she made her purchase.

‘Do you?’ she tossed back after just a precipice of hesitation. He still admired Lena’s warm yet always shy smile modified for the better by a slightly off-center alignment.

Choosing silence, Gabe stepped outside while Lena paused to observe and then join him. Uncurling the thick drink’s foil top, he took in the late afternoon flow of locals’ and tourists’ cars on State Street flowing toward the beach. How does she see me now? The Gabe she’d fallen for had enjoyed a leaner body, but just the other day Jean, the magazine’s features editor, had told him he looked good in profile. 

And his eyebrows, he thought, conveyed a subtle sensuality. Drop five pounds and he’d be back to fighting weight, although he’d never physically boxed.

Side by side and close but not too close, they strolled uptown to a Lena destination, Modus del Sur. A nondyed cotton sweater from Ecuador was finally on sale, an item she said she’d coveted for weeks.

‘Tell me I don’t need it.’ The brightly colored shop carried the earthy sweet scent of straw from the floor squares, hats, and woven baskets.

‘Okay, you don’t need it,’ said Gabe on cue, and Lena, on cue, ignored his line.

A pullover, the sweater was high-collared and loose fitting. As Lena adjusted the fit along her shoulder, 

Gabe admired her frisky movements. She was almost doing the Samba, her long thick red hair dancing about her shoulder blades.

‘Well, it does look good on you,’ Gabe admitted in an even tone. ‘You could have been a model.’

‘Thanks. That would have been a career.’

‘I didn’t say you should have been, only that you could have been.’

‘Wouldn’t have happened. I’m too high-waisted,’ said Lena, hands on hips.

‘No,’ countered Gabe. ‘You’re long-legged. Like Jane Fonda. Does she still have her ranch in the mountains?’

Gabe was trying on a Panama hat, which refused to fit properly over his mass of curly light brown hair. 

‘I really shouldn’t put on hats until after my trim. I have an appointment at. . .’ He looked at his watch. ‘In fifteen minutes. Go with the sweater.’

Lena attempted to take it off. ‘I’m stuck.’ Gabe stood back; he didn’t know where the appropriate place would be to take hold of the fabric. She looked headless. ‘That is a good look,’ he said. ‘Are you sure you’re not that famous model who lives in Montecito?’

‘Pull!’ said a muffled voice.

He caught the soft cloth near her hips and the sweater rose revealing her slim contour.

‘Free!’ she said.

Gabe held the sweater, tightly woven and comfortably weighty, as Lena straightened her polo shirt, a longtime favorite.  

‘Hey, Lena, I thought you already had a boyfriend.’ Minus a puff of smoke, Phil had appeared like a wizard from the nearby pottery section. Lena glanced away, her face reddening. ‘Gabe, aren’t you supposed to be at that offshore oil symposium?’

‘That’s tomorrow.’

‘Right.’ Phil had a way of gazing upward when talking as if in silent communion with a Higher Being. 

‘How’s the feature on competing for tourists coming?’

‘Good. It’s good, Phil.’

‘So how often do you two meet like this?’ Perpetually smiling, Phil lowered his head and captured the two of them between his blue-gray, Canis lupis eyes. He always styled his blond hair just shy of long.

‘Meet like what?’ asked Lena in a tone bordering on unfriendly.

‘Practically waltzing together in the back corner of an exotic store?’ Had he raised an eyebrow?

‘Not often enough,’ said Gabe. ‘Actually, I approve of her taste in boyfriends, I’m sorry to say.’ Lena acted as though she were thoroughly focused on another sweater. Same style. She’d noticed that the first one had become unstitched in the front.

‘I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got a magazine to put out,’ said Phil. ‘See you tomorrow, Gabe.’ 

Light footed, he exited illustrating a confident physical grace that Lena noted and disparaged with a bored look she could manage if something displeased her.
She tried on the second sweater.

‘At least you can get them on by yourself,’ said Gabe.

‘How can you stand working for him? He lives on gossip and innuendo.’

‘I can stand it. I’ve never had a sane boss. I don’t think they exist. He does his job. I do mine.’
Lena turned down the collar. ‘Well?’

‘Shorter in length. Snugger in the shoulders. Shorter in the sleeve. Basically smaller. Or else you’ve grown in the past ninety seconds.’

‘It feels the same as the first one,’ she said turning to face a full-length mirror.

‘Definitely smaller,’ said Gabe. ‘Though not a bad smaller.’

When Lena had worked her way out of the sweater, again with some delicate help from Gabe, they compared the two, one pressed atop the other.

‘Looks pretty close,’ she said.   

The second one is in better shape,’ said Gabe.

‘Do I really want this?’ Lena often thought out loud.

After going back and forth for another minute, she bought the second sweater and put it on. Playing the gentleman, Gabe carried her light woolen jacket she’d been wearing. ‘A perfect addition to your collection and quite appropriate for this foggy spring day,’ he teased but didn’t tease. They walked, not in a rush but more than an amble, toward her car parked on a palm tree-lined side street.

‘I saw you earlier today, you and your beau,’ said Gabe. ‘Have to admit, you look like a happy pair, although I thought I saw you make a quick frown.’

They paused at a red light, a group of chirpy high schoolers hugging the corner.

‘Where did you see us from? Were you spying?’ She scanned the street as if searching for something.

‘I was strolling. You were in the Mexican restaurant next to the bike shop.’

‘I thought I felt someone looking at me.’

The sun was trying to peek through the bank of seasonal low clouds extending from the ocean to a half mile inland. Two more blocks past adobe-style houses and they reached the car, a red Toyota with a slightly dented bumper. Looking mounted on the hood, wings folded, stood a large black bird.

‘A crow likes your car,’ said Gabe as the creature cocked its head to observe the humans.

‘Don’t think it’s a crow.’ Lena as tilted her head birdlike. ‘It’s bigger. Could be a raven. I love those jet-black feathers.’

The visitor offered a distinct croak as if it were claiming territory.

‘Shouldn’t it be up there?’ asked Gabe as he indicated the mountains behind the city. Lena waved her hands (taking flight?) and the confident bird—she was sure it was a raven—took the hint and launched skyward.

‘Up and away,’ said Gabe.

In less than ten minutes, they arrived at her studio apartment that opened unexpectedly onto a large back yard holding a rose garden and mature flowering trees, a favorite haunt of blackbirds. The studio was attached to a large stucco mansion. For reduced rent, Lena had agreed to do some basic gardening. And they let her have access to the darkroom.

Gabe greeted Lena’s two cats, both still groggy from a late afternoon nap atop the bed. Lena put on a new Steve Reich CD, guided Gabe to the bathroom, and sat him on the covered toilet seat.
With hair pins, Lena set back the upper portions of his hair. ‘Just like trimming a hedge,’ she said, always said, as she cut away at the jungle of curls aided by her professional grade shears owned since college days. Lena had said that hedge line before, or had he? For Gabe, their conversations had long ago meshed into one tonal voice, nowadays more unspoken than spoken.

‘I don’t really need that sweater,’ she said as she clipped and combed and clipped.

‘You bought it, you keep it.’ Strands fell from Gabe like a waterfall and pooled at his feet.

‘You do have a lot of hair. Turn to the right.’

‘I lose five pounds per every trim.’ That line was also part of the standard script. Would the shearing return him to fighting weight?

The comb tugged at his back curls. How many haircuts had Lena given Gabe over the years? It bordered on ritual.

‘Does that hurt?’

‘Not appreciably. I can take it.’ 


She deftly snipped close to his ears. ‘Don’t move,’ she said.

'Am I in danger?’

 Lena didn’t answer as she tilted back to see how the project was coming. She was studying him not as Gabe but as her target. ‘A little more off the top. Hold still.’

They shared a moment of silence. ‘You know good friends don’t have to always talk,’ said Gabe. ‘Non-talking can be comfortable. Course I’m negating that by talking about it.’
Lena changed the subject. ‘So, Michael just got a new job with a—what did he call it? A startup. In the computer industry and something called The Internet. And a real salary.’

‘I didn’t know he knew much about computers,’ said Gabe.

‘He doesn’t. The job description and terms are all new to me—like designer, website or something designer. He’s excited. Michael thinks there could be a future in it. And, of course, he still intends to play his music.’

‘It is the ’90s after all,’ said Gabe, who felt an itch near his ear but refrained from scratching. ‘I still remember when Phil brought in a half dozen personal computers, Tandys, into our office back around ’87. Suddenly all the ratatat of everyone typing—the action sound of newspaper rooms just disappeared.’ He paused and exhaled slowly. ‘Now all you hear is a soft series of clicks. People also tend to shout less. There’s nothing to shout over. I miss the creative tumult.’   

They opted for quiet again. Gabe could hear an electrical hum from somewhere deeper in the house.

‘So how do you really feel when you see me with Michael?’

‘Great. Fine. Actually, I’m insanely jealous, though mostly only in my sleep.’

‘You dream about me?’ Lena pulled back a moment.

‘I take the Fifth. Look, we each have our own lives,’ said Gabe. ‘Right?’

She paused in her cutting. ‘Right.’

Lena evened out the sides, working steadily and precisely. She was hoping for a decent shaping. Mere inches from each other, they could taste one another’s breath.

‘Hold still,’ she cautioned. ‘You always have some part of you in motion.’

‘Not true. I’m a statue.’

‘Hmm, there’s a gray hair.’

‘Where?’ asked Gabe, his hand automatically reaching toward his head.

‘Lower that hand. Just kidding, although one of these days. . .’ Even in her frivolity, Lena emitted a low vibration of wistfulness. Gabe found it part of her charm.

Alone with Lena in the tight quarters of her bathroom, Gabe yanked himself back from some intimate memories. ‘Whoa, stallion’ she said. ‘Let me know if you’re going to bolt.’

‘Sorry. I had an itch.’ Gabe heard the unexpected thrust of wind at the door. ‘Is there a storm coming in?’ he asked.

‘I don’t think so. Morning and early afternoon fog, yes, storm no.’ 

He listened for more wind yet now heard none. ‘Are you still jogging?’ asked Gabe.

‘Yes. Are you still hiking?’

‘Went up to the falls last weekend. It was more a trickle than a cascade. We haven’t had enough rain this spring,’ he said. ‘You know what you notice after you’ve been out of town for a while, especially if you go up in the foothills?’

‘How high the cost of living is here?’ she asked.

‘Yes, that, but like when I came back from the Bay Area last month...’

‘To visit what’s-her-name.’

‘Elaine. Hey, that’s not the point. Anyway, I came back, took the hike, and was overwhelmed by the scent, that mix of ocean air, jacaranda, and mountain chaparral. Intoxicating.’

She nodded. ‘Speaking of mountains, do you remember when we got lost in Kings Canyon?’ Lena paused, the scissors almost dangling from her hand.

‘Sure,’ said Gabe. ‘We broke every rule backpackers are supposed to follow.’  

‘Luckily that had a happy ending,’ said Lena. ‘Those crazy mountain bikers happened to be in the right place at the right time. For us.’

‘For days afterward I blamed you. You blamed me,’ Gabe said.  

‘Eventually we stopped blaming one another.’ She let out one of her signature sighs. ‘And now here we are today, me as your personal stylist and you as a loyal customer.’

Gabe cocked his head; Lena had to make an instantaneous adjustment in response to his movement. ‘Is someone tapping at your door?’

She stopped to listen. ‘I didn’t hear anything. No one ever knocks at that door.’ 

“Nevermore.” Gabe’s words snuck out with a release of breath.

Either ignoring his comment or having not heard, Lena returned to her work on the back line of Gabe’s hair. He could feel her tense up as if suddenly spooked by a stranger.


‘Actually, I do have some news.’ She took in a breath. Gabe was staring out past the bathroom’s open door where the angle afforded him a partial view through the bedroom’s window of backyard greenery. 

‘We’re going to get married. I mean Michael and me.’

A pause as her scissors touched his scalp, rested on the crown of his head.

‘Well congratulations!’ Gabe felt immobile, the air thick around him. Is this what shock feels like? 

Avoiding the scissors, he willed himself to rise and give Lena an awkward hug. She smelled of Dr. Bonner’s soap. ‘I mean, that’s good. It’s about time. We’re not, as they say, getting any younger. He’s good for you.’

‘He’s got his good points and things that drive me batty, though far more good than bad.’

Gabe nodded. ‘As it should be.’

‘Sit,’ she commanded.

‘Set a date yet for the big day?’

Her scissors nestled in her palm. ‘No. It will be a small family wedding. Nothing fancy for us.’

‘That’s good. Less expensive. Course there’s a trade off because you won’t get as many presents.’

They both retreated into silence as she finished up.

‘Hey, if this were a Hollywood romantic comedy a la the ’30s, I’d concoct some zany way to win you back.’

She pierced him with her deep blue eyes, eyes that would admit no fancy. ‘It’s not a movie, Gabe. This is real. I know we’ve discussed our history before, and I’ll say it one last time: You and I are more like brother and sister.’

‘Yes, and as you’ve said, we helped raise each other through young adulthood,’ finished Gabe. The air around him felt denser, a fog moving in.

The hypnotic Reich CD had ended.

Lena made a few last snips at a wayward hair or two. ‘Well, that’s a nice trim, if I say so myself,’ she boasted. ‘Use this mirror to check out the back and sides.’

Gabe surveyed his neckline. ‘Nice and even.’ A slight twist of the mirror and he saw her reflection gazing at his. Forward and back.

Gabe returned the mirror to Lena. For a moment they both held it. ‘So, you know just the other day as my appointment neared, I was thinking that maybe it’s time to bring this noble tradition to a quiet end.’ 

He spoke quickly so that Lena could not interrupt. ‘I mean your photography career is really taking off. 

And I think your time would be better spent in your professional capacity.’

She nodded. ‘Sure, if that’s what you want.’

‘I do.’ He bowed, more a slight nod.

With the back of her hand, Lena wiped at his arms and shoulder. ‘Here, let me brush off those loose hairs.’

Gabe stood up. ‘I should clean up my fallen fur. It’s like a carpet down there.’

‘No, I can take care of it later.’

He turned to face her. ‘Okay, thanks,’ said Gabe. He couldn’t get his legs to move.

‘Are you okay?’ She tilted her head slightly, studying him.

‘Of course I’m okay,’ said Gabe. ‘I’m happy for you. Someday I may even follow suit.’ He forced his muscles to obey the command to walk.

Lena followed Gabe to the studio’s entrance, a door more of glass than wood. ‘Can I give you a ride home?’ Was that a tear on her cheek?

‘It’s not that far. I feel like walking. Need the exercise.’ He managed to lock into her eyes and cast away at the same time.

They hugged, chests barely touching. She flicked at his hair as if to give it one last shaping.

He eased back. ‘Good job, Lena,’ Gabe said softly as he opened the door and back-stepped into the yard. ‘Good cut.’ 

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘It is a good cut.’

About the author 

Martin Perlman is a writer living in Seattle, USA. Previous published work has been included in Rosebud Magazine, Catamaran Literary Reader, 34th Parallel, The Ravens Perch, Red Noise Collective, and other magazines. He wrote a whimsical novel, Thinks Out Loud, A Blog at First (Marrow Press). 

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