Brave Captain Harvey-It’s All About the Money, Part 2
I sat in my living room with my feet up, the dog by my side whimpering. Harvey was in the shower, slapping lather up and down his arms and gargling. The water shut off and he stomped in the tub to cast off the excess. He was true to his word, in and out in five minutes—a soldier’s shower. He came out wrapped in a dingy, grease stained towel that probably also pulled double-duty as his apron. Harvey was somehow tan across his body despite always being clad in that bomber jacket. His stomach was concave under the overhang of his broad ribcage, and his chest muscles sagged like flat pads slowly sliding towards the ground. Underneath his sparse gray chest hair over his heart was an old once-black-now-green tattoo, burned small in cursive—Nancy. He crossed the room to retrieve his rucksack then turned and exited the room. I watched his vertebrae wobble underneath his freckles and scars. The dog wanted to launch up and keep tabs on the stranger, but I held him fast by his collar.
Cristo had refused to close his barbershop up early—he kept appointments—but promised to go out with us right after six if we would bring him a couple of crawfish pies from Tee Eva’s. Brave Captain Harvey and I stood in line outside the small kitchen with its window access. When it came time to pay Eva he shook his head. I sighed and pulled out my wallet. I was down to ten dollars for the rest of the week now, which meant it was time to start rationing cigarettes.
Cristo locked the door to his shop and pulled down the blinds. His one hand alternated between holding up a pie for a bite and counting his cash, curling the bills by denomination between his fingers and setting them in piles in an old cigar box. Harvey sat in the first barber chair and watched the money pile. Cristo did eighty haircuts a week at twenty-five per. I watched Harvey do the math.
“Okay, Harvey,” Cristo said, “How much capital do we need?”
“Cass has ten dollars. I’d say just another forty should cover it.”
Cristo whistled. “Feeling confident today, huh, Cap?”
“It’s just stunt money,” Harvey replied. “A prop.” He slid a pocket knife out of his jacket, opened the blade, and started cleaning his nails, tossing grime out from under them with little flicks. Cristo grinned at me, pointed his chin at the Captain and winked like watch this.
“Yo, Harvey. We gotta set some ground rules here.”
“I said no.”
Cristo ruffled his hair with his hand. His cut-off bicep rolled by instinct inside his sleeve along with the motion. “No whiskey.”
“Yes, whiskey. Once we get rolling.”
“No whiskey, no flirting.”
“This is bullshit.”
“You want my help? No whiskey. You drink light beer, Harvey. No flirting. I want you focused. And Cassander holds the money.”
Harvey chuckled and snapped his blade closed. “If Cass holds the money he’s gotta be our bitch.”
Cristo grinned at me again, bright white teeth outlined by that faint Latino goatee. “Oh, yeah. Cass will be our little go-fer bitch.”
We walked down the street to the Lasseiz-Faire. We stepped up through the tight doorway into the loud bar, a crossroads for all kinds of people headed for all kinds of Friday nights. A few of the daytime drunks still maintained on their stools rubbing shoulders with a happy hour office set, but younger people in tighter clothing and flashier lingo with 2 a.m. goals would overcrowd them soon. The jukebox beamed miscellaneous: Michael Jackson to Stevie Ray Vaughn to Dr. John. Two pool tables occupied the center of the front room, covered in smooth, burgundy felt. One was open. The other stood fast against the slapstick play of three paralegal types. Three quarters lined up in their slots and fed into the plunger produced a loud thump in the guts of the table. The balls rolled in a roaring line and dropped into the window. Brave Captain Harvey pulled them out and dropped them into the rack, alternating stripes and solids. Cristo crossed the wall and selected the best two cue sticks available, carrying them both in his one hand. I leaned in between to separate groups at the bar.
Jackie ran back and forth, throwing laughs over her shoulder and whipping a flat silver bottle opener out of her right ass pocket to speed-shuck the caps off three bottles of Dixie. She spun the loop of the tool around her index finger once before sliding it home back in her jeans. Her long, flat black hair spun summer-skirt style when she whipped her head towards the three sides of the bar to focus on shouted orders, her skinny body always aimed the opposite way of her face. In between the execution of several orders and side-to-side trips one shot glass appeared in front of me and then another. She harassed a shaker into submission while popping olives into two martinis and placing the stems of the glasses into eager hands poking through the frontline of bodies. Finally she stopped for a moment and strained the liquid into the glasses. We touched them together then knocked their bottoms on the bar and bounced them to our lips. Cold rum, lime juice, and some secret spicy ingredient coated my mouth and throat and eased down into my belly. I felt better already.
“I’m going to need your help tonight.”
She looked over my shoulder. “All right, just let me know when.”
“Let me get three Dos Equis for right now.”
“You got it, sugar. Just tell those two to quit when they’re ahead.”
I returned to the table and handed the men their drinks. “Jackie says play it cool.”
Harvey swallowed half of his bottle at once. “He’s the hotshot,” he said, pointing at Cristo.
“Calle te.” Cristo set his drink down on a ledge, reclaimed his cue, and zoned in on the three ball. He laid the stick across the edge of the table, sliding it across the border of felt, digging an imperceptible groove. He leaned down low, sighting along the stick. Finally he stabbed the stick forward, turning his torso almost ninety degrees while keeping his feet planted like he was thrusting a rapier. The cue ball clacked the three and stopped dead. The three ball hit the back wall of the corner pocket and dropped down the chute. Instead of drawing the stick back like those with two arms, he always lifted the tip up rapidly towards the lamp right after impact then brought his arm down to his side and let the stick slide between his fingers until the butt hit the floor. Cristo smiled and looked for his next target. I cleared empty cigarette boxes and bottles off of a booth table and snugged up lengthwise with my beer.
Cristo and Brave Captain Harvey played through a few games. The barber always won. He celebrated with woops while Cap shook his head and gritted his teeth. He play-paid Cristo with his own ten-dollar bills. Stunt money. Lasseiz-Faire started to fill up. The back room opened up with its own bartender and a competing jukebox. The doors clapped thick every other minute with new arrivals. People and noise compiled, and Harvey stepped up the drama to compensate. Some people started to notice and even actively watch the one-armed man dressed neatly in slacks and a crisp gray shirt with pearl buttons cracking his stick and putting the old able-bodied man in chinos and a v-neck down every time. I fetched beer, dawdling at the bar when I felt it was necessary to slow Cap’s action.
“I give up!” he yelled after a handful of games. “Who’s my partner? Who’s my partner? Who’s gonna help me take this freak down?” He leaned in between two buddies, thirty-ish post-punks past their prime. “You guys want to play? I’ll put up the money.” The two guys shrugged and fetched sticks for themselves. They shared names and handshakes over the table. The two old punks pitched balls down the table to decide the break. Harvey’s partner bounced his back smooth and clean, an inch from the bumper.
“Rock and roll,” Cap said, and broke.
Cristo’s talent suddenly dropped off. He spazzed a few bank shots, came up short on straight lines. His punk tried to pick up the slack. Harvey’s punk became serious as soon as it was his turn. He played solid, kissing balls into the side pockets and stranding the cue ball in tough spots when he had to. Harvey started in on his stories: he escaped from Cambodia. He trucked dead bodies from UN sites in Bosnia. The punks urged him on, “Really, brah?” Harvey’s team won a game, then handed the money right back to Cristo’s team the next. I got up to fetch beers. Jackie still ran hot behind the bar, pinballing from the cooler to the ice bunker, hitting a row of cups with soda from the fountain gun.
“How’s it going?”
“I think we just finished Act One,” I said. “Now comes the Ol’ Switcheroo.”
Everyone around the table laughed and pushed off of each other now. Cristo and Brave Captain Harvey had joined forces against the punks. Cristo’s cheeks were pink, but he kept his composure, seeing openings the others couldn’t and twisting his body in hard power shots and just barely lifting the stick forward with the delicate ones. He rang in three or four balls in a row. The punks made shots but kept shaking their heads—they couldn’t keep up. Harvey kept them distracted, jawing and jawing. Before they knew it they were out seventy bucks.
I was getting drunk. I saw people outside on the sidewalk milling around or waiting in line. The entrance was a bottleneck now, and the room was hot. Girls kept pushing dollars into the jukebox unaware that it held a fifty song backlog. Still, amidst all the separate cliques and groups, Cristo and Harvey had attracted enough attention.
Look at that one-armed guy shoot. Jesus, that’s weird.
Yeah, but…He’s saddled with that old, drunk vet.
We could take ‘em.
Harvey hit the john. He nodded me to join him. Inside the tiny closet he handed me the cash and washed his hands. “Go get us some food.”
I jostled my way against the people pushing inside and went down the block to the Pop-n-Go, embraced bags of chips and pretzels. Harvey broke them open when I returned, wiped salt and oil on his shirt. They were playing two construction workers flush with Friday cash now, a lean bald guy with a Dallas drawl and this tough-titty girl in a wife beater and cargo pants. She was the dead shot of the two, almost running the table the first game. Cristo quickly caught up. Dallas fudged on the eight ball and Cap clipped it in quick. The two of them exchanged smirks below the trundle lamp.
“Double or nuthin’,” Dallas dared.
It hit eleven o’clock, see and be seen time. A swampy rock band started up in the back room. Jackie rolled the volume up on the jukebox on her side, but their drums still beat through the loose slatted walls. The room was tilting now, not so much in celebration than partaking in a hyperactive cooperation against sobriety.
I zoned in on Cristo. He had started limiting himself to little sips from his beer. His back was getting to him, I could tell, but he fought on, enjoying the ride. He’d never try and pull a stunt like this on his own, even though he probably could. The art of his swing was just second nature now, hard-won through practice but too exact to be a challenge or delight anymore. He needed Harvey to make it look like fun, to spread his chatter like covering fire over his own awesome accuracy.
Crack! Cristo hit the eleven in the side with enough spin to carry the cue ball straight down the side and shoulder the thirteen in. I couldn’t tell if he’d meant to do that or if his subconscious and body had seen the pattern and latched onto it out of habit and ability. The girl got smart. Cristo popped a light, moist sheen.
“Come on, honey, he’s a fucking barber,” Harvey said. “He relies on good hands and good luck.”
She wasn’t quite convinced. Luckily she took it to heart and went on a frenzy, popping in four balls in a row. She took a bead on the eight ball where it sat three or four inches from a corner. She tapped and sent the cue ball down just a little too fast. It hit the eight ball into the pocket then rolled right in after it.
I sat up straight and signaled to Jackie.
Dallas put his hand on her back. “We don’t pay out on scratches.”
Harvey chalked his cue. He glanced at Cristo, then back at Dallas. “You lost.”
“C’mon, man, that’s bullshit.”
“Okay, not double for that game. Just toss us a twenty.”
“That’s fair, man. We bet, you lost.”
Dallas and the big girl frowned at each other.
Jackie poked up behind Cristo with a tray of shots of Jaeger. “Here you go, guys, on the house. Don’t sweat too hard, okay?”
The group all took a glass and shot the sticky stuff. Cristo looked like his eyes were going to pop, but he held on. His opponents beat their chests together and whooped. “I love New Orleans!” Dallas cackled. “Okay, twenty. Now double or nothing.”
“On fifty or on seventy?” Cap asked.
“I’m asking, son, if you want to go double or nothing on the original fifty or the whole enchilada here.”
The girl threw shadow boxer punches. “We can do it. Come on. That scratch was a fluke.”
Dallas looked to the barber. Cristo burped and covered his mouth. “It’s up to you. We’re just trying to have a little fun. It’s not like we do this for a living.”
Dallas laughed and shook hands. “Okay, seventy.”
Cristo and Harvey went to work. Harvey popped in two solids off the break, then made a convincing miss on the six. Dallas’ broad was seeing double now, but still hitting clean shots with one eye closed. She missed a bank shot by inches and gave over, cursing. Cristo took a chance and let a clean-up shot at the corner come up short, but still left it there to block the pocket. Dallas was nodding along with the music this whole time, letting it get ahold of him and rile up his confidence. He was a rock star now. He took an easy straight shot then tried to jump the cue ball over a row of solids. He miscalculated and split them apart. The girl hit him with a hard jab right in the bicep, almost tottering him into the booth with me. They all hit one and none after that. The game got tense as the table cleared. Cristo’s turn came up. Both teams had one ball left on the felt an the eight ball sat square in the middle. Cristo looked over at Harvey. The captain nodded. Cristo looked at me, nervous. I shrugged, not seeing what angle he was after. The barber leaned in tight, drawing the stick across the bumper like a violin bow on a droning note. He stabbed, his tip flew up clear, and the cue ball flew across the table, sideswiped the last solid into a corner pocket then hit the rail hard. It deflected straight back and clipped the eight, sending it straight into the side.
The girl looked like she was going to shit. Dallas spat, grabbed their lonely fifteen ball and wound up like a pitcher aiming towards the window. I shot up in the booth, standing on the bench and spread my arms out.
I was going to say, “Whoa, buddy,” but the ball had already hit me square in the sternum and my eyes popped, staring at Dallas holding his follow-through pose, slack-jawed and broadcasting Oh shit.
The girl threw her stick across the table and fled into the back room, disappearing into the mass of nodding blues aficionados. Cristo slid into the booth opposite me and held out his hand. I passed out for a few seconds, my lungs struggling to refill. When I got hold of consciousness again Harvey had Dallas pinned on the ground with his knee pressing into his balls, yelling, “The money, the money, the money!”
The crowd around us gawked for a few moments but kept on churning. Two girls popped up on the abandoned pool table, twisting their boots into the felt, pumping their plastic cups with sloshing pink liquid, shagging along to the chorus of “Paradise City.” My chest felt like reverberating cast iron. Overstimulated and malnourished I passed out for good.
The world felt close and hot and suffocating when I woke up. My chest still felt cratered, but I was relaxed, stretched out, elevated. Soft jazz wandered into my ear canals. I lifted my hand and felt calm pressure easing it back down.
Cristo spoke to me, “Relax, Cass.”
He unwound a hot shave towel from around my jaw and mouth, then unpeeled the one covering my forehead and eyes. His shop was low-lit and warm.
“You want a beer?”
“What happened?” I asked.
“We made out like Turkish bandits.” Harvey’s voice, smoke-rimmed and soft somewhere behind me.
“Technically,” Cristo said, “I should have called that shot.”
“Fuck,” Cap said. “What is this, Victorian England? You made the shot, and that’s what counts.”
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Almost four,” Cristo said. “Almost time to kick you guys out. I gotta open up in five hours.”
“Four, you’re shitting me,” I said. “I wasn’t out that long.”
“Not the first time, kid,” Harvey said. “But we’ve been around the block and back. Took that cowboy’s money and turned it into a real cache at Dos Jefes. You don’t remember? You were talking to that nurse at the bar for, like, two hours.”
“What happened to her?”
“You started repeating yourself.”
Harvey stood and walked over, bowed his head in reverse over mine. “Never repeat yourself, kid. It gives them a chance to catch you in the lies. Anyway, here’s your share, minus expenses.”
He let a flat stack of tens fall onto my chest. I couldn’t count it, but it was enough to get through the week, at least.
Cristo took off down the street in his rumbling Beetle convertible. I walked Harvey back to Brothers Three. He put his hand on the door instead of heading around back to the stairs up to his room.
“Cap. Come on, take it easy,” I said.
The door swung open and Johnny Cash’s voice swept out alongside dust and cooped-up air seeking to escape. Joe was huddled up against the bar, toothpick in his mouth, waiting for the early morning to send him the stragglers he depended on.
“Just a nightcap,” Cap said. “Joe and I got things to talk about.”
I tried to stare him down, wondering if that roll in his pocket could survive til the next evening, whether it would ever make its way into the hand of the man he owed. There were a lot of ways to spend seven hundred dollars in this town before dawn.
Brave Captain Harvey nodded along as if I’d spoken aloud. He patted me on the shoulder. “Guess what, kid? I’m going to have occasion to explain this night to someone, somewhere. And you’ll get an honorable mention.”
I smiled. A clean wave of new energy dislodged itself somewhere inside of me and reanimated my limbs and re-corrected my sight. I stepped through the door after him. “Maybe I need a night cap, too,” I said, “but you’re buying.”
We sat down and Joe reached down for two ten ounce glasses. “Cash only right now,” he said. “Machine is down.”
Harvey lit a cigarette and smiled, “Not a problem tonight, boss.”