A short story about race, anger, friendship, and loyalty.
“Don’t we pay you enough to get a decent haircut?” He spoke to me as though I was his sex slave. The words were on the tip of my tongue and about to explode across the conference table, but I thought better of it, just as I felt Angela’s three-inch spikes imprint my leather loafers. The answer was “no,” but I would have had to get fired to say it, or at the very least arrested. I also wanted to say that how I spent my money was my business, but instead, dry tears of rage just reddened my eyes. I laughed, spun my chair around, got up, and left. Some people couldn’t take a joke and that chump would have had to take a bullet. I managed to wink a grateful glance at Angela as I left. It was the reason we always sat next to one another in meetings. She needed to know someone else weighed the sexist comments and I needed to act like every comment wasn’t color-referenced, even if it was. Angela was my pal. We had tried to get cozy once before, but ended up laughing, and well, laughter is better than sex as far as I’m concerned; and far rarer.
As I got back to my office, I tried to figure out why I got so angry. I knew that jerk was a stupid Tom-racist that would have to have his hooded robe bloodied as I whipped his ass with the white cross he was burning on my lawn, while he confusedly swore to God he was just trying to help the poor darkies. I’d met his type before. Hell, I was surrounded by them. He was just the type of guy to stare blankly in my face for sympathy as he tells me how unfair life has been for the White people since they started educating the Negroes. He still called us Negroes. What century is he living in? I had imagined him dead, so many times, and in so many ways.
I spent the next few hours busily typing into my computer and answering some of the most mundane legal questions from clients, but that’s what they paid me the big bucks for. Keeping busy also managed to quell my anger. By the time six-thirty came around, I felt half-way normal. I knew lawyers on the fast=track to partner were supposed to stay until seven or so, but you know, “screw ‘em with a greasy black fat one if they can’t take a joke,” I mumbled to myself. The things we had to do to try and rescue our sanity; leaving on time occasionally was one of them.
It had been three weeks since Bernie got laid up, so I was more than in need of a haircut. I missed our conversations and the gentle advice of an old man who had been around. He’d been cutting hair on the wrong side of town since the early eighties when he had finally saved up enough cash, opened his own shop, and told his boss to go to hell. He was the only Jewish guy I knew who served in the war. He once remarked to me that he was the only Jew he knew who fought in the war. He was also the only Jew still in the old neighborhood and he was known for rescuing more than one little Black kid sitting on the sharp uncomfortable precipice between boredom and a jail sentence.
When I was a kid, Bernie always had a jar of hard candy sitting on the counter. I thought I was being sneaky and taking advantage of the Jewish guy asleep in the back of his shop. I’d grab one piece, then two, and later three. I did this for a couple of weeks when one day he said, “the next time you come in, grab a broom and sweep up a bit. Nothing’s for free, son.” I was so scared to have some White guy talking to me that I dropped the candy and bolted out the door. I thought I was about to get shot. I didn’t expect to ever return, but over the next few days, it was all I could think about. Eventually, I went back in, grabbed the broom and swept up. It was the first time I realized I could be seen. I didn’t even know I needed to make amends, but there it was. I never stole again. I also started going back to school.
He loved being the man, but was quick to remind me that we all worked for somebody and if we had to write a check, chances are we weren’t the boss or making enough money. I had tried to say that I got a check, so didn’t that make me the boss? He’d just laugh and say, “No baby. You don’t get a check, you get a stub. You don’t even get to feel the wad of cash as they steal it from you.” It was true. I rarely had two dimes to rub together. Bernie’s insistence on cash was the only reason I had a few bills in my pocket every two weeks. He thought it best I sprinkle a little around the neighborhood.
At Bernie’s suggestion, I had stopped driving my Beemer to his shop. I had practically moth-balled the thing anyway. He’d asked me, “Who you showing off for, boy, me or you? Nobody else cares. Unnecessary attention is unnecessary. It doesn’t make you bigger, it makes you smaller.” There really was very little need for a car in the city.
Anyway, the trains were running a little late, so I had been spending my last few moments perfecting my apology to Bernie and hadn’t immediately noticed I was being followed. When I did notice, I did what I always did; I turned around and walked straight toward the guy. I didn’t blink, look to the side, or any of that. I stared him in the face and let my hand slip inside my trench. Most of the time, the glint in my eye and the slight smile across my face was enough to send the guy in the other direction. Nobody likes the prospect of running into someone more dangerous than they are, especially on these streets. The guy made a sharp detour and I did the same, but not before taking one last look over my shoulder, just to make sure. It was clear, so I continued on my journey. The things we go through for a decent haircut. I told myself the only reason I came back to the neighborhood was for the haircut, but of course, I bought my groceries here also.
I was planning how to embellish the story for Bernie when I saw a young man slip out the door of his shop. In and of itself, it shouldn’t have caught my attention and it probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been primed by the other guy. This kid walked too fast, limped, and kept his head too low to be up to any good. I quickened my pace. I didn’t have a good feeling. The kid’s hair was too long.
Bernie was lying on the floor. I hoped he was unconscious as I quickly surveyed the place. There was no one else in there, so I bolted the door before I knelt at his side. Guys have been known to scavenge when they think somebody is down. Then I saw the blood. I immediately pushed my fist into the wound in his stomach, grabbed a towel off the chair, and spun around for a phone. I had stopped carrying a cell-phone; also because of Bernie. He’d asked, “Why be so available?” Since I couldn’t come up with a good enough answer, I left the phone at the office. As I hung there in-between where I needed to be and where I was, Bernie stirred. He looked at me and all he could say was, “I’ve been in two wars and I get shot in my own house by some young punk with an itty bitty gun. Wait ‘til I tell his mom.” That was a good sign and he held enough strength to put pressure on his wound. I dialed 911.
I’ll get my haircut when I’m good and ready. Bernie will hook me up. When I told Angela the story, she showed up the next day with a nappy Afro. She said her stylist went into labor with her fourth child and Angela just wanted to show some support. I had to remind Angela that she was a white girl. “Yeah?” She said. “And not all of us can be blond.”