By John Thomas Tuft

It is a nondescript barber shop in a nondescript strip mall on the corner of a busy intersection in a nondescript old mill town along the Ohio River. Wedged in between a paint store on one side and a vape shop on the other, sits Ray and Bruno’s Olde Italy Barbers. Both Ray and Bruno hailed from the Salerno region of southern Italy. Their mothers were sisters from a family that went back generations. The cousins played together, exploring the grounds of the great cathedral on the hill, going down to the shore on adventures. Early on they discovered the joys of playing mumblety peg and spent hours with their friends in childish abandon. In the mid- 1960s both of their families decided to immigrate to the United States. Ray and Bruno were 6 and 8 at the time. Life in America soon settled into a routine. Both of their Papa’s getting up to go work in the J&L mill on rotating shifts. Attending school and trying to master the weird intricacies of English. They soon learned that in America, around a city like Pittsburgh, there was always of community of Italians to remind them of where they came from. As it should be.

Neither of Ray or Bruno’s fathers wanted them to follow them into the mills or mines. College was not an option, so after high school both of them decided to enroll in the Barber School of Pittsburgh. The hope and dream was to one day save enough to open a shop together. They passed through the school, found jobs and saved toward their dream. Meanwhile, in the mill town things prospered and it spread up the hills and out along Brodhead Road. New housing developments sprang up and with them the soon to be ubiquitous strip mall/shopping center as the family car became the main mode of transportation. Ray and Bruno met the loves of their lives, married them, and moved into one of those new housing plans not too far up Brodhead Road from the space they had leased to open Ray and Bruno’s Olde Italy Barbers. One fine day in 1980 they had their grand opening. They even chipped out part of the parking lot in the rear so they could invite their friends and customers to a game of mumblety peg in the soft clay.

Ray and Bruno’s soon became a destination for the men of the area. The mills were struggling, and guys needed somewhere to gather and share the news and share the pain. Ray and Bruno had three chairs in a two man shop, various odds and ends of furniture along the walls for waiting, and half the surface of the mirrors became covered with newspaper clippings. Stories about the Pirates, the Steelers, the mills coming back, the dashed hopes for the mills coming back. Lots and lots of local high school sports stories, as well, decorated the various mirrors and pale green walls. Ray and Bruno took turns bringing in big pans of Italian cooking at its finest, homemade. To the uninitiated, it might have seemed a bit strange, walking into this community in a shop for the first time and being offered a meatball sub with Salerno’s best marinara sauce while he waited for a straight razor shave and trim. Or to be immediately questioned about whether or not he carried a worthwhile pocketknife to try on the clay out back. If he dared…and if he wasn’t wearing his best shoes, all the saints be praised. Loser bought the wine, as it should be.

The memories of good times can help us survive the sure to come bad times. Men being boys and boys trying to be men is one of nature’s reliable cycles and calculations. Shouts of competition and cries of loss, learning to play and playing to win don’t always agree. Life is for fully living never negates the obvious that life only moves in one direction, towards its end. Even our inventing of Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter cannot change any of that, but only underscores the fact that cradling life in our own hands like precious water in the desert and offering sips to those who thirst, serves to make every week holy. Such it was that both Ray and Bruno discovered as they aged that they shared a degenerative heart condition. Since they came from the same blood line, they matched up pretty closely in the transplant registry. Both had equally good lives, good families, good memories, equal need for the life-saving potential of receiving a new heart.

And it came to pass that a young man was killed in an automobile accident, a young man who registered to be an organ donor. His heart was healthy and matched the requirements for Ray to receive as his new heart. Or Bruno’s, as well, for that matter. Only one could receive the heart. The doctors and nurses on the transplant committee were at an impasse. Precious minutes were ticking by. A decision was needed. Two phone calls went out. Two phone calls were answered….

Ray opened the door to the Olde Italy Barbers and slipped inside. Bruno waited there, a fancy wooden box in his hands. The two face each other in silence, as two kindred souls can do. One would receive salvation wrapped up as more years of life, not without risk. The other faced certain death in short order. Ray shrugged and smiled. Bruno laughed and opened the box. Inside were two brand new knives. They each selected one and then, arms flung over each other’s shoulders, they stepped through the back door, to play of game of mumblety peg. And accept their sure and certain resurrection. For what it’s worth. As it should be.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.