Only the Wicked
By Gary Phillips
A MysteriousPress.com Copyright © 2000 Gary Phillips
All rights reserved.
"I can't think of anything better'n pussy."
"You can't think of anything better, unfortunately, it just don't think of you too much."
"Now, Willie," Johnny Patterson responded paternally, "you know you doin' good if you manage to stay awake past them Sanford and Son reruns you watch on BET. Let alone be out at night doing any shark hunting."
"Yeah Willie," Kelvon Ulysses Little chimed in. "You ain't even sniffed none since that chick you was seeing was managing the bowling alley over on Gage." Little, co-owner of the Abyssinia Barber Shop and Shine Parlor on South Broadway, adjusted the blinds to shunt some of the morning sun beaming through his dingy picture window.
Globules of sweat gathered on Willie Brant's hairless head. He closed the Jet magazine he'd been looking at, careful to keep his thumb on the page where the tender young thing in the bikini could be found. "Look here, that Doris could make a stuttering man speechify like James Earl Jones. You know she had some Spanish blood," he leered.
"Nobody's arguing that, Willie," Abe Carson added. The rangy carpenter had his long legs stretched out as he leafed through a back issue of Car Craft. "The point was, when was the last time you got up close to some?"
"That is if you can remember what it looks like," Patterson chuckled.
Brant snorted like a cornered ram. "I've turned down more pussy you silly motherfuckahs would sell your mama's gold teeth for."
"Nigga, please." Little's laugh melded with the others for several moments.
Old Man Spears ambled out of the restroom in the back, hitching up his slacks. He did a final adjustment with his suspenders and took up his usual position next to the Trumanera Philco radio. He passed a callused hand over the curvature of its peeling walnut veneer as if it were an ever-constant pet. He'd turned it on before going to the bathroom, so in the five minutes it took him to return, the instrument was sufficiently warmed up to receive a signal.
The shop contained a TV plugged into cable, which perched overhead in one corner. The device was handy for the basketball games, tractor pulls and the other pursuits of mass entertainment afforded on such venues as the Speed channel and the various incarnations of ESPN. But something about Saturdays and Old Man Spears made the use of the reliable Philco the right combination of sound and imagination, the TV too distracting at times to the conversational flow of subjects of import to the mind, and lesser regions of the body.
"What about you, Abe?" Little winked to the gathered men as Darsey Wiles sat in the chair to get his haircut. "Didn't I see you in a three-piece going into The Hightop the other week? Try'n to be all GQ-like you don't work with your hands."
"You wouldn't see me where I go, good brother," Carson drawled in his baritone. "I keep my business on the quiet-like."
"You mean in your dreams," Brant needled. He leaned forward to look down the row of seats. "What about you, Monk? You ain't got nothing to offer?"
Ivan Monk was browsing through a copy of the Watts Times, a neighborhood free paper that carried news from an angle the white press often missed. He'd been perusing an ad for an upcoming blues show at the Olympic Auditorium. The event featured some local talent he wanted to see. "I'm just a man who tries to keep the lawn trim, and the grout clean."
"You had all kinds of pussy when you was in the merchants, didn't you, Monk?" Patterson inquired sincerely, his Kool dangling up and down as he spoke.
Monk turned a page. "I don't like to be so crude, Johnny."
The men all made noises of disbelief.
Spears looked at Monk. His deep-set eyes were steady and clear, the years of living and the years of could-have-beens evident in their depths. "You scared your Japanese honey has got this place wired, huh?" The old man smiled, revealing dull-colored false teeth. He leaned toward the Philco's speaker, tuning in on the baseball game with the precision of a safe cracker.
"Yeah, man," Brant went on, "how come you don't never brag about all that Turkish and French pussy you got overseas? You know, I had me a French girl once," Brant gloated.
Little pushed out his bottom lip with his tongue, but said nothing as he clipped Wiles' hair. His current customer, a beer truck driver, questioned Brant's veracity.
"Willie, the only thing you ever had that was from France is that super-size order of fries you get at McDonald's."
"Just 'cause you got a ball and chain, Darsey, you ain't got to take your jealousy out on the rest of us," Brant cajoled.
"You know Monk's a circumspect dude," Carson said, steering the attention back to the private detective.
"'Cept we talkin' 'bout the past, man," Patterson exclaimed. He held his smoke in one hand and drank from a bottle of orange juice with the other. "Now, what you trying to hide, Virgil Tibbs?"
"I don't want to embarrass you fellas with my—how shall I say it?—my achievements. 'Cause I know how fragile your egos are."
"Shee-it," Brant exhaled. "That must mean your sorry ass never got off them tubs you was a grease monkey on."
Another raucous chorus preened through the warm air of the barber shop. Spears abruptly stopped laughing as he all but shoved his ear into the Philco.
"I'll be goddamned with grandma's hogs," he said.
Monk peered at the older man curiously. "What is it?"
Spears didn't respond. He sat tensed and hunched in front of the radio's speaker like an athlete whose prowess had long since faded, but who still knew the moves. The old man was rigid and his face a map of contradictory emotions. Everyone stared at him as a voice came from the radio.
"... Yeah, yeah, I guess you could xsay we made the way for these youngsters today. These million-dollar stars who got to have their face upside every boxa Wheaties or name slapped on a tennis shoe. When I played for the Black Barons, we was doin' good to get four, four and a quarter a month, you hear me? And man, we played some ball in those days. Didn't have no massager, none of that spinning water bath thing for sore muscles. What liniment couldn't take care of, you better hope sleep did."
"You know who that is?" Monk asked Spears.
Spears' dentures clacked in his mouth as he worked his jaw. "Kennesaw," he said, barely audibly. "Kennesaw Riles."
The name rolled around in Monk's head. Something vague tickled at the edges of his memory but he couldn't form a picture to go with the name.
"You knew him when he played ball? Did you play, Spears?" Brant jumped in.
Monk got up and walked toward Spears, who was lost again in Riles' words. He gently touched the older man's arm. "Did you play in black ball?"
"Southern League, Negro Nationals," Spears rasped, locked in another realm. His long, knotted fingers turned up the volume.
Monk reflected on the old man's words. Riles was his mother's family name, and he was sure this Kennesaw was related to him, that it wasn't just a coincidence Riles had the same name. The more he concentrated on it, the more he was convinced that as a child he'd met this Kennesaw once or twice. Visualizing, he reconstructed Wrigley Field as it had once existed at 41st and Avalon. A band playing on a platform, and his father taking him and his sister there to see Kennesaw play? No, he wasn't certain. He still couldn't conjure up a physical characteristic or a memory of a voice to flesh out the amorphous concept of this supposed relative.
"You played ball with this guy on the radio?" Monk prompted again.
Spears was breathing through his mouth. He attempted to wet his lips with a dry tongue. "Sure did. We was even roommates on the road."
Wiles stepped out of the chair, running a hand over his close cut. "Had me a play uncle who was on the Kansas City Monarchs with Satchel Paige. Said Satchel threw so hard his balls streaked like little meteors." Wiles paid and tipped Little.
Carson unlimbered his tall frame and ambled over to take his place in the barber chair. Little let the chair down.
"I promised the kids I'd take them to Knotts Berry Farm today," Wiles continued. "Some damn new ride that goes straight up, loop-the-loop, then curves back around like a big-ass snake." He mimicked the action with the flat of his hand. "I'll see y'all later."
The men said their goodbyes as the driver left.
"How come you never told us about your playing days?" Carson asked Spears.
Spears didn't answer. He dug a faded blue handkerchief out of his pocket and worked at his face. He got up and went over to the Ramona water cooler. The ex-barnstormer poured himself a cup and gulped it down. He was working on a second one as Riles began to stammer on the radio.
"... Ah, that's not what really happened. Y'all press boys get the story wrong all the time. I ain't saying I didn't do it. But there was reasons. See, what I'm saying is, soon I'm going to set it to right, and you'll see."
"He's still lying, mostly to himself." Spears shook his head in indignation. He was standing at the cooler. The old man had one hand on the top of the plastic bottle, the other holding his cup at chest level. "What he better be doing is lookin' out for Malachi. Kennesaw's train is comin' back to the station."
Monk hadn't caught what the question was mat Kennesaw was responding to, and definitely was lost as to what Spears was referring to about Malachi. "What do you mean, the chapter in the Bible?" he asked as Spears returned to his seat. Wasn't the older man moving slower? Maybe it was the temperature. Despite the door to the shop being open, and some movement of air, it had gotten stuffier.
"What about an answer, Monk?" Brant chimed in again.
"I believe we've moved off that topic, Willie," Monk said wearily.
"Not me," the retired postman said. "Ain't too many things hold my attention the way women and what they do to a man do."
"It would seem," Carson commiserated. "Here we have some living history, and all you can go on about is sex."
"What can a black man call his own, Abe?" Brant pleaded. We ain't got no say in who runs the country, the foreigners got our jobs, and none of you cats in here can rub three quarters together to call his own."
"Abe's a contractor," Patterson said, lighting another cigarette in defiance of state law. "You sittin' in Kelvon's business, and Monk's got a donut shop," he added.
"You know what I mean," Brant said icily. "We can't put up one of those big-ass high-rises like them Ko-reans do up and down Olympic. So what do men like us have? What makes us the same as men like Michael Jordan and Denzel Washington?"
"They can get any woman they want if they had a mind to," Little advised.
"All right," Brant allowed. "But under the right circumstances, so can any of us. You'd be surprised what I experienced when I had a route on the west side."
This engendered another round of incredulity. Monk had tuned them out, waiting for another opportunity to talk with Spears. Here was somebody he'd known only from the barber shop for years. Just an old man, who, he figured—well, he didn't know what he figured. Spears was a fixture, someone he thought about when he occasionally reflected on Abyssinia's regulars, not somebody he socialized with or had reason to talk to outside of the camaraderie of the barber shop.
He'd been over to Patterson's place with some of the others to watch pay-per-view boxing matches a couple of times. And he and Jill Kodama, his girlfriend, had been at the Mint, once a live music club in the Pico-Fairfax section of town, and run into Carson—who'd been perched in a corner metering a Budweiser and eyeing a healthy woman in a too-tight tube top. Maybe Brant was right after all about men and the basics.
Nonetheless, Carson had spotted the couple, and they'd hung out together through two sets. Monk had also been over to Carson's house a couple of times. The last time was when the builder's pickup truck had broken down and he needed a ride home.
And some of the barber shop crew also frequented Monk's donut shop on the edge of the Crenshaw District. But Continental Donuts had its own collection of regulars and Monk realized he knew less about them than the ones in the room. Obviously those folks, like Spears, like all of them, had a life beyond these walls.
The older man was working at his brow again, leaning back in his chair. He looked tired. The interview with Kennesaw Riles had ended. A commercial for auto insurance played while Brant and Patterson continued their gentlemanly jousting.
"You saying you'd choose Halle Berry over Selma what's-her-name, the one who was in The Wild, Wild West movie?" Brant all but fell out of his chair he was so stunned.
"Ain't nothing wrong with preferring a sister, Willie," Patterson intoned, couching his prurient interests in nationalist trappings.
"That's cool, brah," Brant retorted, "but Selma's got a body, man. Halle's cute, but she's too much on the thin side for my tastes."
"For somebody who's always complaining about foreigners," Carson joined in, "you really dig women with Spanish in them, don't you, Willie?"
"Yeah, so?" Brant asked rhetorically. "I tell you what, you get rid of the men, and let their women stay. Fact, that should be our state policy."
"Open borders if you fine and got a nice booty, the Willie Brant law," Little joked.
The men started laughing again. Underneath the cackling, Monk could hear Spears hacking. The older man sat upright and the younger man reached out to him. Spears went slack and dripped to the floor like liquefied vinyl.
"Oh shit," Brant exclaimed as he erupted from his seat.
Monk kneeled beside Spears, tilting his head back. He opened his mouth, checking for any obstructions.
"I'll get an ambulance," Little shouted. He whirled and snatched the phone's handset mounted next to his picture mirror.
Carson had removed the barber's shroud and moved toward where Spears lay. "Come on, y'all, give Monk some room," he boomed.
"Hey, should you be doing that?" Brant inquired in his bothersome voice. "I worked with a dude named Fowler who gave this big-titted transvestite mouth-to-mouth at Tommy Tucker's Playroom one night and he—"
"Shut up, Willie," Carson ordered. Nobody snickered at the sight of his unevenly clipped hair, one side of his medium salt-and-pepper Afro looked like an untended hedge.
Monk pinched Spears' nose, and breathed into his mouth three times. He then forcibly pressed on the man's chest three times. Concern frosted his eyes as he repeated the CPR technique for several minutes. The men in the shop stood in a semicircle around the two on the floor. A mortal quiet gripped the gathered. Everyone could tell it was too late. They knew Monk's efforts were futile, yet he had no choice but to continue.
"Paramedics are here," Patterson said unnecessarily. The emergency vehicle's siren had been apparent for some moments. He had raised the blinds to see out into the street. The auto parts clerk stood there in sunlit relief, his ever-present cigarette unlit between his compressed lips.
Monk looked at Carson, and the contractor shook his head. The PI felt cheated. Here was a man who had stories to tell, anecdotes about his personal struggles and triumphs to relate. And none of them had known that. Who would tell them about the life of Old Man Spears? And would the men in this barber shop, like many in other parts of the city, fade away without anyone championing their accomplishments on this planet?
He stood as two paramedics rushed through the Abyssinia's front door. Patterson was holding it open for the the techs, their gurney surging forward on well-oiled wheels. Monk fumbled with the keys and wallet he'd taken off the dead man. He managed to hold onto the items behind his back.
Carson glanced at Monk, tilting his head slightly downward. He didn't hide the accusatory glare he leveled at Monk.
"So that's all you know," the paramedic declared perfunctorily. Her umber eyes, behind modified granny glasses, drifted from Carson to Monk. The woman, a Chinese-American, had done her hair short, and the strands adhered to the contours of her head. She was left-handed, and made notes on a clipboard encased in a slim, rectangular metal container.
The second paramedic was a stout blond man with a brush mustache and tawny skin from off-hours spent on the beach. As was required, even though he'd checked for a pulse, he'd placed an oxygen mask over the still man's unmoving mouth. Now he was guiding Spears toward the door on the collapsible gurney. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Only the Wicked by Gary Phillips. Copyright © 2000 Gary Phillips. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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