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Checkov woulda been proud of this one!


Carmine’s telling me No, no, no, he ain’t got it, fuel oil high as it’s been this winter, and his own tenants are late. He’s in cloth bedroom slippers with a rope for a belt through his moldy old pants, but he owns three storefronts on this block that I know of, because he’s bragged on them to me, plus this barbershop. It’s more like a social club, some days, but not this cold one, and I get more No, no, no than he’s ever give me before, his face so sad I think maybe it’s true. He mentions his wife two or three times and his kids, often the first signs of weakness, but not today, so far. I told myself when I set out, I’m not leaving until I can make rent -- walk all the way across town in high heels is bad enough in June, let alone this slush -- but before I can even get him to sit down, it’s dusk. He won’t turn on a light. Wait, he says. The electric.
His couch is lawn furniture, black iron with a sloping seat to keep a plastic pad in place, so your rear end’s jammed back, your knees in the air. I cross mine and bounce my bare leg until he crashes down beside me like a boxer who hasn’t trained hard enough. He goggles my goodies and then up into my face, like he knows it’s all over, still going No, no, no but mumbling it now, to himself. Then he falls silent completely, with this weak-eyed look that makes me think, Well, maybe he’ll have half of it. But then the door opens, and I see even that much vanish: he’s got a customer.
    “Yes?” Carmine says, like he can’t believe it, either, but I see what it is: he can’t stand up yet, and not because of the angle of the couch, either. “Come on in, come on in, he says, the way he does when the place is full and one more buddy shows up, same way he said it to me an hour ago, though of course the customer is in.
He looks around -- one chair, nothing on the walls but a mirror and a broom and some paint flakes, a Mr. Coffee on the floor by the outlet in the corner, and us – and does a little shudder. Except for skin tone Carmine could be my father, so I know what the guy’s thinking: beautiful young black woman in tight clothes, old white man in bedroom slippers in the dark – unh hunh. Customer’s young, well dressed, and scared to death. New neighbor, I’m guessing. This whole block has had it, but all around this part of town now the old homes are selling. People fix them up and turn them over. Flipping, it’s called, but nice, not like in my neighborhood, where H.U.D. is involved and the name on the deed don’t make a difference: the gas is still off and the windows still broke. Here, it’s like a hobby for them. Carmine told me all about it last time I came by, in the summer. This time, what he told me was he’d thought I was dead. But there’s been times I’d thought so myself, this year. Like Christmas, with Aaron put in County the week before. Trying to explain that to Charrone.
Carmine does cut the lights on now and the customer hangs his bright-yellow parka up on the chrome-bar hanger, smiling big, very polite. He’s white, too, his face like a clean dish. His hair’s pretty, the color of new pennies, maybe a little shaggy. Shakes Carmine’s hand before he sits and says, “How’ve you been?”
    Carmine’s a sweet old man, which is how I knew him first. He doesn’t remember this young fellow from Adam, but fastening the sheet around the kid’s neck he says Fine, fine, then: “You? How’s the car running? What was it again? Mercedes?”
    The kid cranes around, all pleased, almost losing an ear to the scissors, but he don’t notice. “Honda!” he says, and, “Yeah, it’s still running great. I’m a believer, I’ll tell ya. I’d buy another, if this one ever goes!”
    You can tell the “ya” is kind of a stretch for him, and he means it as a courtesy to us. He gives us his exact mileage, town and highway both, dividing by the price of gas with a formula he’s proud to share, his eagle eye on the mirror the whole time now. Carmine’s snipping away, grunting and nodding, um-humming and Is-that-soing? like the pro he is, but I can tell he’s thinking about me. Every so often he looks over, and when the kid shuts up, holding his breath about what’s going on with the clippers on his neck (“Not too high! Not too high!” and Carmine has to promise he’s just cleaning it up), he resumes our conversation, only in code.
    “So, Michelle, what are you going to wear to the party tonight?”
    It’s no party. I’ve got group, all the way uptown at nine o’clock, and if I miss I have to start the whole program over, as it says on my invitation from the state. What am I going to wear means do I have to go home feed Charrone and little Aaron Junior, or is somebody with them. Carmine’s wondering can he feed me -- linguini Alfredo at Pizza Palace across the street, which I can already taste -- come back here and draw the shade over his plate glass, get me down on the black-iron couch, then get home by the time his wife sets the supper down. What’s her name? Lucia? Licia? Some name like the way Carmine talks. I know this man so well. Aaron only got ninety days this time, so he’ll be out before next rent’s due, and I will miss him -- Carmine, I mean, though it’s hard to pay attention to anything but Aaron, when he’s around. Then again considering how long that usually lasts, I’ll probably be back here again by Easter.
    “I’ll just wear what I’ve got on,” I call over, meaning, My mother’s with the kids. “Do you like it?”
    A copper-colored eyebrow cocks my way. The hair he’s lost rings the chair like needles off a tree that needs to be taken out to the curb. Carmine’s trimming around the ears with the very pointy-points of his long shears. His big humped-over back is to me, his dingy smock like plowed snow, and I stand up and give the customer a little: a little dance, a little shake, a little eye. For one thing, I’ve still got to make up whatever Carmine won’t part with. Everybody needs a friend sometimes, even a boy like this.
The other is: this is the way I do them. Don’t think it don’t hurt, cowboy, those looks like when he saw me and Carmine on the black-iron couch. “Whore!” he was thinking. “Hooker! Prostitootie!” And then: “I wonder can I get me some?” A shocked tapioca face like that, I like to turn it red as a stop sign. Radio’s playing low, but these are my words to the song:
    “Do you like it? Mmm, baby, I like it. I like it like that.”
    Boy’s eyes about to pop out and bounce all over the floor like some kind of horny marbles. Carmine can’t see me, snipping away, intent on those little hairs around the rims, his nose wrinkled up in that way he’ll deny even if you catch him and show him in the mirror. He thinks I’m the radio.
    “Baby. Baby. Mmmm, baby!”
But when he does look around I’ve turned away, fingers locked over my head as I shake my bootie, yeah-yeah!, singing not even for the kid anymore but for me, because everybody’s got to sing some time, and then I come around and see Carmine’s face very disappointed in me. His split scissors have stopped in mid-air, like he’s lost the will to snip.
So there, dammit, after all this work, goes any small part of my rent. By now it’s full dark out, the plate glass like lacquer, and I don’t even have bus fare uptown. Carmine begins barbering like a house afire, stropping his razor, working up a lather in his cup, loosening the sheet around the kid’s neck to shave it. He stands back, shaves the sideburns, stands back to squint, leans in again to touch up below the collar, stands back again. The kid keeps thinking he’s done, his palms on the arms of the chair and his elbows up, going, “Wonderful! Thanks so much!” and “What a craftsman!” Carmine says nothing at all until he pulls the sheet off, careful not to spread the hair, and the kid stands up, grinning to beat the band and tight as the bass drum in it. But it’s me Carmine’s looking at, in his eyes a kind of tragic blaze. Outside it’s begun to sleet: I can hear little crackles on the plate glass.
    “Michelle. I’m sorry,” he says in a voice that’s anything but. “It’s like I’m always telling you. You need to learn how to stick to a budget.”
Not even bothering to code anymore, but his customer starts getting into his yellow jacket before he pays, so Carmine has to clean his razor, fuss with the sheet, then grab a broom so it doesn’t look like he’s just standing there waiting for his money and watching to make sure the guy don’t run out. A marble-sized muscle in his jaw, Carmine’s, starts to bubble. Won’t be my problem, but I pity his wife and kids tonight.
    Not until he’s good and ready does the customer turn around, smile and hood both securely in place, all set for his walk down the block, or wherever. “How much?” he wants to know, though the prices are taped up in three-inch letters on the mirror he’s been staring at for twenty minutes.
    “Ten only today,” Carmine says, doing his best to smile back. He leans the broom against the wall and holds his shoulders back, his hands lightly clasped below his belt buckle, but I see one of them twitch, ready to come up and out.
    Kid pulls out a wallet the size of an overnight bag, pulls out three bills I can tell  from here are a ten and ones, says, “There you go, my good man. Keep it.”
    My good man. Can you believe that? I’d be laughing, if it weren’t for Carmine’s face. How much insult can one man in one night take? You see, in his book a two-dollar tip’s too much. It’s something we argued about once. He owns the shop, “Carmine’s Come On In” by the sign outside, hand lettered by his daughter when she was in junior high school -- so if he wanted twelve dollars for a haircut, he would charge twelve dollars. Matter of honor, he said. I understand honor but I understand money, too, what life is without either and which you can live on with least of. So does Carmine, who has not always owned this shop or anything at all, but still we disagreed. There’s honor and there’s rent, I said. Of course, now he’s a landlord himself, isn’t he? Rope belt and all.
Customer, though, is not even in this argument, beaming at us both now with gentle eyes full of love and joy for the harmony we’ve established here tonight. For all its pudding-like qualities his face is as expressive as the news, just like when he saw us on the black-iron couch. Carmine’s jaw muscles ripples like boiling spaghetti sauce.
Then his hand shoots down into a pocket of his baggy old trousers -- and out comes a wad as big as his fist!
As his fist! I mean, this is a man who can hold both my goodies in one hand when he wants to, so you can imagine the size of that roll he’s casually wrapping his new bills around to set this kid back a notch, this honor-preaching budget-sticking-to sonofabitch who’s been holding out on me ever since I high-heel walked all the way over here in the slush to see him! With his No no noes and his own tenants late and all the while money like a head of cabbage in his pants!
“You razor-stropping bastard!” I shout and take it up – the razor, I mean, not the cash, which he re-buries in his pocket, his eyes like headlights on me for about an eighteenth of a second before he two-steps to the door and on out, slamming it.
He knows me as well, you see.
But I don’t follow him. I take some anger-management breaths and watch him slide across the street in his slippers to his big old Buick and slide away, gripping the wheel with both hands, hunched over it like he’s ducking shots. No coat, which is lying on the floor where he knocked it off the rack pitching himself out the door, and I don’t know what he’ll tell Licia. I set the razor back in its dish, slightly ashamed of myself. Then I notice the just-plucked redhead wedged into the corner by the Mr. Coffee like a strip of clay to keep the wind from whistling through the crack.
“Aw, baby.” I smile at him, all tired and soft, but you know what? I don’t really have to pry him out of that corner. In a matter of minutes his yellow coat is off again and I’ve lowered the shade, raised my arms, and shaken him some. “Hey, baby. Hey, baby!”
 I don’t get rent from this baby too cautious to take his pants off, but everybody’s got to worry sometime, and he does leave me enough for a cab uptown, if I wanted.
Instead, though, I budget: on my cell I call my friend Katrice, which, it’s almost exactly a fifteen-minute walk to the Sunoco where she works, and she’s got almost exactly fifteen minutes left in her shift, so it’s almost as if I hadn’t thought of this before: she’s got her car, and she’ll get me to group just in time (you can be ten minutes late). Carmine’s lock is one of those brass knobs with the tab that you turn when you leave, but first I hang up his coat and reach under the shade to flip his Open sign to Closed, though he doesn’t generally remember to change it himself. It’ll probably still say Closed next time I happen past, even if he’s sitting on the black-iron couch waiting for whoever it might be to Come on in, come on in, even if it’s me.
But who says I will?

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