A hundred times the Colonel had walked into Rip’s barber shop and nobody had ever stared at him until now. The Colonel felt the tattooed kid’s eyes tracking him as he walked to the chair wearing his Army uniform.the
Rip sat the Colonel in the chair and fastened the cape over the medals and pressed blue cloth.
“Haven’t seen you in uniform in a while,” Rip said. He ruffled the Colonel’s hair with his fingers, taking scissors and a comb from the counter under the mirror.
“Reserves. Guys trying to remember their best days,” the Colonel said.
Rip pulled the comb up the left side and worked the scissors around the Colonel’s ear.
“Your best day, you weren’t even in uniform,” Rip said, nudging the Colonel’s head to the right.
“These days,” the Colonel said, “Reserves is like a social club. Old roosters drinking coffee and forgetting the pain.”
The punk kid said something into his cell phone, talking about some military freak just walking in. The Colonel didn’t like that tone, sneering as he said it while he looked the Colonel in the eye.
The Colonel rose and faced the tattooed kid. The ink was dark and fresh on the winged serpents and snakes coiling from his arms to his neck.
“Keep your mouth shut when I’m in the shop,” the Colonel said. The kid had no reaction. “Respect the uniform.” The Colonel thought the kid had the dead eyes of a boy who didn’t care much about anything.
“The Army fought for your freedom and men died in faraway jungle swamps and drowned and sank in the middle of the Pacific.”
The kid didn’t blink, staring at the Colonel. Drugs, the Colonel figured. Some kind of indifference that separated youth from the tortuous process of growing up, and he fought the urge to slap the kid but finally got back in the chair.
Rip put the cape back on, trimmed the sides and layered a little on the top even though there wasn’t much hair up there. Rip put the scissors away and switched on the electric clippers.
“Trim up that neck, and a little menthol after shave.” Rip buzzed the Colonel’s neck and finished up with the comb and some tonic.
The Colonel rose and slipped a twenty into Rip’s hands and waited for the kid to go sit in the chair. The kid lingered but the Colonel stood there. The punk kid climbed into the chair. The Colonel stood to the side of the kid.
“You want to talk about wars?” the punk said. “What kind? Gang wars?” One side of his mouth curled into an ugly sneer. The Colonel thought about hitting him in the face, knuckles on chin.
“Don’t ever compare a gang to the United States Army,” the Colonel said.
The kid rose and moved toward the Colonel, standing right in front of him.
“Get near me again, I fucking blast you,” the kid said. “Come up when you’re not looking. Pop your cracker ass.”
The Colonel didn’t respond well to threats, never had, and he said, “Come on, you scum,” and grabbed a pair of scissors from the blue jar of alcohol and pressed the sharp point against the punk’s tattooed neck until Rip yelled and grabbed his arm and made him drop the scissors.
For days afterward the confrontation kept the Colonel up at night replaying how the argument went beyond anything he’d imagined it would be.
Two weeks later the Colonel sat in the barber chair under the cape asking Rip for a new hair style, Rip clanking scissors in the sterilizing bath.
Rip thumbed through a men’s magazine, found a photo and showed it to the Colonel.
“The fuck is that?” the Colonel said, stabbing a fat finger at the picture.
“Dude’s twenty years old.”
“Ain’t a lotta choices with hair like you got.”
“One time I’m trying for a different look and you flash some punk with a fade and a tat.”
“Come on,” Rip said. “Let’s go with the usual. Little talc and tonic, you as good as a sailor in Hong Kong.”
Scanning the magazine photos, contour fades and too much pomade wasn’t what the Colonel had in mind. He needed a nod and a word from Rip that everything was cool, his hair wasn’t thinning out too much. Not too bad Colonel, it ain’t that thin, seen less hair on thirty year olds. If he said something like that, it would be good, the Colonel thought.
The Colonel watched Rip in the mirror looking him over, Rip saying, “Relax, just ease on down, nice trim and some menthol, go down to Freddy’s and have a cold beer around five and I’ll meet you for a drink.”
“You remind me of a barber I had in the Philippines,” the Colonel said,
“thought slapping menthol on a dude solved everything.”
Rip didn’t say anything, just smoothed the Colonels hair with his hand like he was petting a cat.
The Colonel said, “Ah, man. Didn’t mean to sound like I don’t respect you and your place. Come in, get a good cut, you listen to all my war stories and bullshit.”
The Colonel looked at himself in the mirror. Age comes quietly.
“You guys use pomade back in those days?” the Colonel said.
“Anything greasy, we used it.”
“Shit, back then it was 57 Chevys and girls, taking it all downtown. Dean Martin on the box singing Sway I’d be dancing and getting lucky. It’s different now.”
I’m different now. You don’t want to notice the little things that are happening to you. It was hard for him to think that way, and he didn’t want to say it out loud. He knew Rip knew it too. But Rip’s job was to make men feel good without lying to them, without exposing too much about what he knew, gently letting on where the thin patches were and if you had a big mole on the back of the neck or something ugly growing where it shouldn’t be.
The door swung open and street sounds flooded in, horns and engines and the punk kid came in and walked past the chair, earphones plugged in and he hummed and stared at the Colonel in the mirror.
Rip clicked on the trimmer and the low buzz whined around the Colonels’ ear. The Colonel felt the tickle of the clippers shearing off his little hairs, and the stare of the punk in the mirror.
“Get you looking real good there, Colonel,” Rip said. He put the mirror in the Colonel’s hand. In the mirror the Colonel saw the punk measuring him. He told Rip to swing the chair around. Rip took a bottle of tonic off the counter and opened it, spread it through his hair with his fingers, but he didn’t swing the chair around. The kid, reflected in the big mirror on the wall, was scratching his side, standing, watching the Colonel. Rip rubbed some more tonic through the Colonel’s gray hair and the back of his neck.
The punk shifted his weight and the Colonel caught a flash of something, a knife maybe, along his belt line. The Colonel put his thumb through a lock of hair and smelled the tart citrus of the hair product.
“Nice head of hair.” Rip drew the comb through the Colonel’s hair. “Some of this juice make it grow a little faster.”
The Colonel felt Rip’s hand touch the top of his fingers of his left hand.
“You want,” Rip said, “I’ll call Vicky. Have her come over and do a manicure. These fingers look a little rough.”
“Maybe some other time.”
The punk turned and walked out.
The Colonel paid Rip twenty and went outside. He didn’t see the kid anywhere, like he disappeared down the drain into the sewer and out to sea. Seeing the kid set off the mechanism the Colonel still hadn’t gotten rid of, triggering his defenses, setting him on high alert.
The air was thick with fumes from cars and buses passing on the street. A church bell chimed as the Colonel settled into his Chrysler and started the ignition, checked around the car and in the mirrors.
The Chrysler’s tank was almost full but the Colonel wanted to park under the gas station overhang in the shade next to the pumps so he could watch the intersection. Two buses and a motorcycle with a rider wearing a red helmet and leather jacket roared past him. It was something he did, inspecting the moving traffic as if he had a duty to do so.
Inside the trunk, the Colonel found the small canvas pouch, unsnapped the fasteners and found a squeeze bottle of peroxide and some bandages. He got the key from the attendant and unlocked the restroom out back. The cold water hurt the cuticles of his fingers, bloodied and curled from the Colonel pulling the skin from the nails, his nervous habit. The peroxide burned. He stood with his back to the mirror and attached small bandages to the tips of two fingers on his left hand. His ring finger, where he used to wear the wedding ring, was badly chewed and he poured more peroxide on that one until the bleeding stopped. He’d put the ring away five years ago, six years after the divorce.
A couple of years ago he’d go to the barber shop and talk to Rip and other men even when he didn’t get his hair cut. His stories seemed from another era, and he sensed when other men tuned him out, reading their newspapers or changing the subject. The Colonel wanted some place to go and talk with other men, nothing fancy or anything, just a place to go and be with people. Driving around occupied his days now but it gave him too much time to think and be alone. The kid had gotten under his skin and made him uneasy, the way he felt when clothes didn’t fit right or he’d forgotten to do something.
Freddy’s place was dark. Two fellows sat at the bar. Two years ago, Freddy slumped behind the bar and stopped breathing just as the Colonel was finishing a beer, about to order another. The Colonel thumped on Freddy’s chest for five minutes like he knew CPR or something but he got him ticking again. When he came back to work Freddy said he didn’t want to talk about it so they shared long silent glances at each other. The Colonel had seen blank stares like that in the war, when boys saw things they shouldn’t have to see and looked for answers that never came.
The Colonel took a seat and Freddy gave a nod and poured a beer and set it down. After a few moments Freddy was back with a towel to wipe down the wooden bar. He asked the Colonel how things were.
“Like they always are, Freddy.” They talked, saying nothing, back and forth, the weather, the heat, the slump of all the establishments along the street. If Freddy couldn’t stand talking about his health, how he was feeling and getting along, the Colonel couldn’t see bringing up the punk kid and the threat he was feeling. You didn’t go places with some men when they signal off limits to certain things in the past. The conversation faded after they concluded that the neighborhood joints were losing to the national brands and baseball season was just too long.
Freddy nodded and turned away to service some customers. Bartenders did that, the Colonel knew, indulging in small talk until it seemed appropriate to move on down the bar. There were always things to do behind the bar, and the Colonel was relieved when Freddy moved away. The Colonel took a seat in a back booth, finished his beer and went out the door to the alley where a man stood hunched over with his hand down inside of a shopping cart.
It was almost five o’clock. Rip might be coming by soon.
Too much thinking, that was the Colonel’s problem. He knew it but he couldn’t stop watching for signs of the kid walking past the thrift shop, the taco joints, the used musical instrument store and the other cheap storefront businesses. Like a compass needle swinging north, his thoughts veered back to the kid.
He’d turn and look down the brick alley; the kid’s image filled his brain. Look out toward the street with the popping and the siren fading now in the distance; there was the kid in his mind committing a crime, a burglary, robbing a convenience store and the cops chasing his ass into an alley with a slice of blue sky overhead where an old man sat with his cart and a used up old war veteran stood immobilized thinking too much about what things should have been like and never having the courage or desperate self-realization to tell someone that he was alone and he’d be alone and he wanted to be alone but he knew it was pulling him into a dark, dark place where he’d fade away and nobody would know and nobody would care.
When Betty left him, he tried to come to terms with his demons and she listened for an hour but it was too late, she said, too late and she’d grown weary of his self-imposed solitude that gnawed the guts of their marriage.
Haircuts now and once in a while a beer and a word or two with someone paid to wait on him or cut his hair and, hell, the stare-down with a punk while he was gripping a pair of scissors was the strongest human interaction he’d had all year and he hated it, but he needed it.
The sky was going grey. The Colonel waited on the corner watching lights go green-yellow-red and the crosswalks filling with people filing through glass doors onto sidewalks laughing and chatting softly in low dull noise, blind to the Colonel’s vigil.
A woman with two canvas tote bags holding a cell phone got off the bus and stepped around the kiosk and faced the Colonel, looking down at the phone and back at the Colonel.
“Is this the place to get the good churros?” she said, pointing at the cell phone screen. Her red head scarf was tied off in the back. Her hands were thick and dark.
The Colonel didn’t know anything about churros, what they were or where to get something like that, some Mexican dish he’d never heard of.
“Is that Mexican food?” he said.
“Hablas Espanol?” the woman said.
“Yes, it’s at the bakery. La panaderia.”
“La panaderia.” The Colonel repeated the word, trying to say it the way the woman had said it.
“Tu ves? Tu hablas Espanol.” She laughed. “My daughter is home now and she ask for los churros. Only los churros, Mama.”
“The only bakery I know is around the corner.” He pointed to the right where the bus turned down the boulevard.
“Would you mind, por favor,” the woman said, “walking with me. No se este barrio.”
They walked together toward the bakery.
The woman asked the Colonel about the neighborhood. “Is it safe at night?”
“Most of the time.”
“Every place has problems,” she said.
“Keep an eye out for your surroundings. Do you have a good flashlight?”
The woman didn’t know the word.
“A light. Something to use in the dark.”
“Oh, la luz. No, I don’t have one.”
“They have them at hardware stores,” the Colonel said. “Get a good one. Twenty or thirty dollars but worth the money.”
“It is important to feel safe.”
Yes, the Colonel thought, it is important to be safe. Giving the woman some helpful advice felt good to him.
People didn’t ask him things like that anymore. He’d be in the uniform and people would say, ‘Thank you for your service’ sometimes, but no one ever asked him in a store, for instance, what you need to have in an emergency, or how to protect a home from burglars. A whole day in uniform, walking around, eating in a café, drinking at Freddy’s and not once would a stranger engage in conversation about a first aid kit.
The woman walked next to him with long strides, pointing at pink and white blossoms in the wooden planter in front of a dress shop, tugging on his arm as they stopped to look in the store window display filled with beauty products, crème rinse bottles and plastic combs and she sighed as a woman inside primped in front of the large mirror. The woman was staring now at the beautiful woman inside spraying her sleek black hair and the stylist behind her smoothing the shoulders of her blue shirt.
Inside the panaderia cases were filled with pastries, cakes and cookies. Women and men swarmed around eating and drinking coffee, laughing and chatting in Spanish. It smelled the way it did when his wife, Betty, used to bake oatmeal raisin cookies and apple pies. Cinnamon, fresh coffee and warm frosting.
The women took the Colonel’s arm and pointed to the churros, dusted with powdered sugar and said she would like to buy him something for helping her find the bakery.
“That’s not necessary,” the Colonel said, thanking the woman. “My pleasure.”
She ordered churros and sugar cookies. The counter man wrapped the baked goods in waxed paper. They went outside to the cool air. It was dark. The woman opened the bag and took out a length of churro wrapped in paper and handed it to the Colonel, who took it and thanked her.
“I can walk you back to the bus stop,” he said, “and then I have to go.”
They started down the block, walking slowly, stepping aside as men and women passed them on the sidewalk in the early evening. It had been a long time since he’d walked with a woman, maybe years, but he couldn’t remember exactly how long. He’d called Betty a few years after they’d divorced to ask her if she’d meet for coffee, take a walk around town, just to see how each other was doing, nothing intimate or leading. She’d agreed, and they set a time and place. When the time came the Colonel dressed in a new white shirt and blue sport coat and waited at the museum where they were supposed to meet. He waited two hours before he got in his car and went home.
The tattooed kid and the threat was in the back of the Colonel’s mind now, still there, but not so pronounced.
The Colonel stopped and said, “There’s a Surplus Store around the corner a couple of blocks. We can get you a good flashlight.”
“I don’t have much money.”
“Come on, I’ll buy you one.”
She agreed, saying over and over she didn’t want to take charity. She used another word, something in Spanish. The Colonel looked at her as she was talking. She was smiling and nodding the whole time.
The Colonel found her a small penlight that would be perfect for a purse. Not too big. Small enough to conceal in her hand but enough light to stop a man from seeing anything when the light was shined into the eyes. He purchased the light for thirty-five dollars and unboxed the light and inserted batteries. They went outside. The Colonel clicked the light and showed the woman it had three levels of brightness. He had her click on the light a few times. People were coming down the sidewalk, so he handed it to her and told her to use it whenever she needed to.
The woman slowed down as they approached the bus stop, rearranging the bag under her arm. The Colonel wanted to ask if she needed a ride, and he almost said it but he didn’t and the bus came and the woman thanked him. He watched her go up the steps into the bus and wave at him as the bus began to move. He knew there wasn’t a way that he could have made the short encounter with the woman mean anything more than what it was, but he wished it had lasted a little longer. He had handled himself with dignity, he told himself, and he felt a little foolish thinking that he wanted to make something more, when the woman only wanted some protection when she didn’t know the neighborhood.
The amber street lamps threw a soft glow on the sidewalk casting shadows behind trash cans outside the stores and reflections of golden light sparkled in windows and the eyes of people and off of their shiny shoes. The Colonel walked in the direction of the parking lot where his Chrysler was under a tree in the third row. It was a few blocks away.
The churro she’d given him felt warm in the bag. He peeled back the wax paper and took a bite of the soft doughy bread. He could have been a criminal on the street, but the woman had trusted him and had chosen him from the people standing at the bus stop.
He drove home and entered his apartment, closed and locked the door and waited in the dark for a moment before turning on the light. Listening for any unusual sounds, he found everything quiet and amused himself when he realized the only sound he heard was his breathing. He turned on the light, went to his small record collection and pulled out Dean Martin’s Greatest Hits and set the vinyl disc on the turntable.
Two days went by. The Colonel drove his Chrysler around, watching, waiting. On the third day he made coffee and cleaned up and dressed and went out to the car port to the Chrysler, not knowing where he would go. There was no place in particular he had to be, or anyone he had to meet with. The metal covering on the car port was heating up with morning sunlight and a dog barked on the other side of the fence of an old two-story manor house where kids played in the back yard sometimes, but not now, not on this weekday.
The dog growled and barked again, near the fence, and the Colonel heard him rustling around, digging possibly, digging for his bone or trying to make a tunnel under the fence and get out of the backyard and face the neighborhood and see the sights and be a dog who once in a while escaped his confines and made his way out for a walk among the wonderful creatures of the world.
The Colonel heard a scrape of shoe behind him just before he took his keys out of his pocket. He turned around. Two punks behind him, and he heard a third in front of him now. They’d converged as he’d listened to the dog tilling the soil at the fence. He could only see the two at one time, or look at the one who’d appeared from the other angle. He was surrounded on two sides, and on the other side were the Chrysler and the fence. It wasn’t the same punk kid from the barber shop. None of them were familiar to him. Both kids were coming straight at him and the Colonel turned just enough to see the third kid stepping toward him.
They closed in and stood a few feet from the Colonel at the back of the Chrysler. The dog was barking very loud. The Colonel didn’t say anything, looking at the two who stood together to his right. On his left, he could feel the cold stare of the third boy in his sleeveless white t‑shirt and shaved head. The Colonel had his right hand in his pocket and activated his phone to call 911.
“Don’t turn around now,” the Colonel said. “See that camera up there?” He pointed over his shoulder at the upper eaves of the apartment building. “And you hear that dog?”
White T‑shirt sniffed but the Colonel focused on the boys on his right. They both looked up at the eave.
The fat one on his right wore a red hoodie and pulled the hood over his head and tightened the string. The other stood still. White T‑shirt stepped in front of the Colonel as if he thought he could hide from the camera. The cameras were just for effect. They weren’t functional. The Colonel had the phone in his hand now, out from his pocket.
A female dispatcher responded. “911…what is your emergency?”
“What the fuck is that?” White T‑shirt said, whipping a small switchblade out and up in front of the Colonel’s nose.
The Colonel responded. “Three men assaulting a citizen at 866 Alvarado Drive.”
“Are you in danger?” The dispatcher kept calm.
The Colonel held the phone out in front of him and the fat one in the hoodie said, “Drop the phone. Now.”
“Sending a patrol car,” the dispatcher said. The Colonel dropped the phone on the pavement at the foot of Hoodie.
“Two minutes to kill me. Is that enough time?” The Colonel stared at Hoodies eyes, black and shaded under the hood.
“Edward fucking ScissorHands. You like that old barber shop, get that scissor cut, yeah?”
These were the goons, the Colonel knew now, homies assigned to the kill squad by the punk in the barber shop. He only had a few moments now to twist things a little to see if the boys were ready to do the job. Make them examine their qualifications and get them to think about what was going to happen. Other thoughts came to mind too, the same ones he thought about at home at night, the familiar cycle of solitude, being alone, and new ones that just appeared as if from nowhere. Would there be a news article? What page would it be on? Where they were going to bury him?
“Let’s talk about death,” the Colonel said.
“Talk about yours.” Hoodie pulled out a knife and flipped open the blade, four inches of serrated steel.
The Colonel said, “You know what a judge tells you when he sends you up?”
Hoodie said, “Been there, old man.”
The Colonel looked at White T‑Shirt. “You’re gonna have a lot of friends in the joint. Real close personal friends.”
“Just do it,” White T‑shirt said to Hoodie.
Slowly the Colonel moved his right hand, showing his hands to the thugs. “Take my wallet, the cash, you’re gonna do it anyway. Take the bills.” He continued, moving his hand to his wallet.
He pulled his wallet out and handed it to the kid next to Hoodie. “Take the cash. Go to the Panaderia on Second Street. Buy all the churros and give ‘em to kids. Think you can do that?” Sirens howled a few blocks away and the dog barked and slammed against the fence. “Kill me now, buy some treats.”
Hoodie was sweating and his eyes shined and White T‑Shirt twitched and the third kid walked in tight little circles pounding a fist in his palm.
Hoodie showed the gun, a shiny large caliber pistol.
“And one more thing,” the Colonel said, looking down the barrel of the .45 semi-auto.
Hoodie sneered, “You had your last meal.”
“I’m not hungry,” the Colonel said.
“They’re coming,” Red Hoodie said.
The Colonel said, “My last song.”
“Shoot him, Ese,” White T‑shirt said. His words had force, the dog barked and slammed the fence.
Sirens getting closer, the Colonel turned slowly toward the camera mounted on the eave and began to sing.
“When marimba rhythms start to play, dance with me, make me sway.” Voice cracking, trembling, he kept singing with his eyes to the camera, the camera that wasn’t recording anything but the Colonel hoped its blind eye would see and hear his spirit.
White T‑shirt was screaming in Spanish and Hoodie cocked his pistol and put it to the Colonel’s ear as sirens whooped and rose in pitch, near now.
“Hold me close, sway me more…”
The Colonel felt the steel barrel in his ear.
“When we dance you have a way with me…Stay with me, sway…”
The blast was very loud and it silenced the dog and the Colonel slumped to the pavement with a thick crunch of skull on asphalt. Hoodie slipped the gun in his sweatshirt pouch and shouted something and they ran down the parking lot and found a locked gate at the end.
Patrol cars rounded the corner down the alley alongside the covered parking area and screeched to a stop, sirens raging up and down and car doors opened, both patrol cars, and the officers rushed out guns up and heard the single bark of the dog. Two officers ran toward the bangers who had jumped the fence, calling in for backup.
All units, shut Alvarado between 2nd and 3rd, all units.
The first officer to get to the Colonel touched his neck and shook his head. The other one radioed for the coroner and a crime scene unit. The first officer, a lean man in his early thirties, reached into the Colonel’s pockets for identification, but found nothing except a folded piece of paper.
He unfolded the paper and glanced at it and handed it to the lead officer in charge.
The lead officer read out loud.
To Rip, many thanks, safe travels. Freddy, I should’ve said more. The woman at the bus stop, I’ll see you someday. Sway with me. And Betty, Betty, Oh, Betty…I could have done better. For all the rest of you, I’m nobody. Nobody then, nobody now. God bless the soldiers.”
Blood leaked out of the hole in his head and the Colonel’s mouth was open as if his teeth were gnawing the ground. The pavement was getting hot and the blood dried and smelled of iron filings like an auto shop garage.
The tall officer spoke first. “Sway with me. What’s that?”
The lead officer said, “It’s an old Dean Martin song.”
“The shit you know.”
“My mom’s a fan.”
“For sure I’ll put that in the report. John Doe Dean Martin fan killed in a parking lot.
The two pursuit officers jogged back from the locked gate at the end of the parking lot, breathing heavily and wet with perspiration. They removed their hats when the approached the body and said they lost pursuit at the gate and neither got a look at the assailants.
They all stood in the hot sun and the dog let out a howl and scraped along the back side of the wooden fence.
“Know a Rip, or Freddie?” the lean officer in charge asked.
The officer looked at his watch. “I’ll check around.”
The lead officer scanned the note again. “Betty. Sounds like some old business.”
The pursuit officers squinted in the sun. The tall officer turned and walked to the patrol car, opened the door and sat down in the driver’s seat, leaving the door open. He keyed the radio and spoke. The blue and red lights on top of the cruiser stopped flashing and he sat looking out the front window before he closed the door.
Kurt Taylor has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside, and spends his time searching for Mojave Desert vistas to photograph and enjoy. His writing has appeared in NOHO>LA, his blog Indian Hill, and he wrote and appeared on numerous television shows in Southern California including Inside Dodgers Baseball, and Interactive LA.
Kurt lives in Southern California.