Chapter Three—Windy Day For A Haircut

          It was a little after 6 when I left The Four Aces. I decided I wanted a bath and haircut, the former especially, and I spied a barber shop down the street. I walked over to it, but it was closed. Had a sign that said “Open 9 A.M. sharp. Close 6 P.M. sharp.” I liked that. Punctuality. The world would be better off if everybody would be on time.
          But that left me nothing to do for the evening. So I went back to the hotel, and stayed out of trouble for the rest of the night. I’d find plenty the next day, although I didn’t know it yet, of course.

          The next morning, I wanted to see just how punctual that barber was, so I arrived at his place about 10 till 9. It was chilly, overcast, and…windy. Not cold enough to snow by any means, but cold enough for a jacket.
          While I was standing outside the barber shop, a man walked by and glanced at me. “You the fella that saved the bank yestiddy, ain’t ye.”
          “Yeah,” I said. I was a star.
           “Welcome.” I changed the subject. “Is the barber as punctual as his sign says?”
          “Yeah, but I don’t know why. Hardly gets no business.”
          “You’ll find out when he gets here,” and he walked off.
          I pulled a face and waited, thinking the barber might be a wild-eyed, mad scientist ready to lop my ears off and use them in some magic potion. A man showed up at 9:00, glanced at me, and opened the shop. Without a word, he went inside. And I think I knew what the fellow meant when he said the barber got little business.
          It wasn’t his laconic behavior. I followed him into the shop. Standing behind the barber’s chair, getting his materials ready for the day, was a black man. He glanced up when I came in and our eyes met. This fellow was different. His eyes were dark brown, sharp, and full of intelligence. He had some white blood in him because his lips were thinner than the typical African and his nose was not as big and round, either. He did have the kinky hair, but it was close-cropped. He was wearing a clean white T-shirt and gray slacks. He was solid and well-proportioned, maybe a couple of inches shorter than my 6 feet, but he might have outweighed me by 10 pounds or so. All muscle. He even intimidated me a little bit.
          But he was black.
          And obviously intelligent.
          Two things whites of that day didn’t especially like.
          “Haircut,” I said to him, matching his laconic attitude.
          “Shave?” he asked.
          I rubbed my whiskers. I didn’t like to shave every day, but I usually did. I’d let him do it. “Yeah.”
          “Two bits.” I nodded.
          I sat in the only chair in the place and he draped a sheet over me. Neither of us said a word while he did his job, and he did a good job. Didn’t cut my throat or ears.
          When I got out of the chair and scratched the back of my neck, he asked me, “You gonna pay?”
          I gave him a perplexed look. “Of course, I am.” I pulled 30 cents out of my pocket and handed it to him. “Two bits, plus a nickel for doing a good job.”
          He returned the nickel. “Don’t want the nickel. Just what you owe me.”
          I took the nickel back, not wanting to offend him. “What made you think I wouldn’t pay?”
          He grunted. “Most of the people in Windy think I’m still a slave, so I work for a slave’s wages. I ain’t the most popular fellow in town, if you’ll pardon the understatement.”
          I nodded my understanding. I hadn’t been around too many Negroes in my life, a few cowboys, mostly, and they tended to be good men, hard workers. I didn’t have any problem with the color of a man’s skin as long as he held up his end of the deal. “How do you stay in business?”
          “Men still have to have their hair cut, some want a bath and a shave. A few of them even pay, but, like I said, most don’t, and I’m outnumbered so there’s nothing I can do about it. I get by, but I’m not going to be living on Snob Hill anytime soon.”
          I shook my head, a bit disgusted, but that he had described the feeling of the age. “I’m sorry to hear that. You did a good job on my head.” Our eyes met again. On impulse, I said, “I’m headed down to the restaurant for some breakfast. Want to join me?”
          He grunted again, this time a slight chuckle going with it. “You’re out of your mind.”
          “I’ve been told that. Doesn’t look like you’ve got a line waiting. Close up, I’ll wait for you outside.”
          “They won’t serve me.”
           I looked him up and down. “Yes, they will.”
          He narrowed his eyes at me. “You’re that fellow that stopped the bank robbery yesterday, aren’t you.”
          I walked over to him and held out my hand. “Yep. Rob Conners.”
          He took my hand. “Ben Baker. You’re the first man who’s shaken my hand since I’ve been here.” Then he smiled coyly. “Wait outside, I’ll go with you. I’m interested in seeing what happens.”
          I nodded and left the shop. I was hungry and wanted some breakfast, and Ben Baker intrigued me. Then I smiled to myself. I’m kinda interested in finding out what happens at the restaurant, too…
          It didn’t take him long to close up. I chuckled at the sign he hung up: “Gone to lunch. Be back noon sharp.” “Early lunch,” he said. “Or maybe a brief one.”
          “A little early for lunch,” I said.
          “I don’t have a ‘Gone to breakfast’ sign. I’ve already eaten, but I’m curious to see what you do in that restaurant when they throw me out.”
          “I am, too.” I spied a restaurant across the street and down aways; I figured that would do. I pointed. “That place ok?”
          “As good as any to get kicked out of.”
          I grinned at him. “This might be fun.”
          He grinned back. “Yeah, it might.”
          We started across the street and about half way, I glanced to my left and saw a man on a horse speed up and head towards us, acting like he was going to run us down. I figured he was probably just trying to scare us, intimidate Ben, but I wasn’t having any of it. I put my arm in front of Ben and we backed up. The fellow on the horse came by and I reached up and grabbed him and, in one smooth motion, tossed him over my head into a nearby water trough. He hollered the whole way, but he got a bath anyway.
          Ben laughed. “You got guts, Conners, I’ll say that for you. And thanks. That’s the first good laugh I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
          We continued on across the road. The fellow in the trough stood up and called me every name in the book, but I ignored him. “Do you have any friends at all in this town?”
          He glanced at me. “Well, some of the women are pretty nice to me. When their husbands aren’t around.”
          I could understand that. Black or not, Ben was handsome man. He continued, “You’re not going to have any friends, either, if you’re seen with me for very long.”
          “You know what, Ben?”
          “I don’t give a rat’s rear if anybody in this town likes me or not.”
          He laughed again.
          “You already ate, you said?” I asked him.
          “Yeah, but not much. I’ll eat again—if they’ll serve me.” Then he cast me a sharp look. “I don’t want any charity, though.”
          “I’m not offering any. You pay your own way around me.” Ben just nodded. “Unless you’re female,” I added. And he smiled at that. “And then you pay my way, too,” I finished. And he chuckled again.
          “You ain’t got many girlfriends, I’ll bet.”
          I started to say something about my two wives, but decided against it. So I just said, “Not at the moment.”
          We entered the restaurant—“Blacky’s,” it was called, and I thought that was a bit paradoxical. When we stepped inside, everybody looked up at us and the place went deathly silent. There was a counter to the left, and then about 10 tables, covered with blue and white checkered tablecloths. The place was about two-thirds full and didn’t look terribly friendly.
          I glanced at Ben and caught his eye. I motioned with my head for us to go find a seat. I started walking towards an empty table near the back, Ben behind me.
          As Ben passed the first table a man grabbed his arm. “Nigger, you know you ain’t welcome in here. Now, git.” Then he looked at me. “An’ if you’re with him, you git, too.”
          I figured we’d better get this settled right then and there. And I didn’t figure words would do it. So I turned to the fellow, grabbed him by his shirt, and pulled him out of his chair. “Open the door, Ben, I’m going to take out the trash.”
          Ben hid a grin, and did as I asked. The slimeball I was holding was squawking and squirming but I threw him outside anyway. Then I turned to the rest of the people inside the restaurant.
          “Anybody else want to find out who’s going to stay and who’s not?”
          Nobody spoke.
          I looked over at the man behind the counter. “You’re going to serve this man or I’ll tear the place up. You understand?”
          He had a dumb expression on his face, and nodded his head. “S-sure, mister, whatever you say.”
          I nodded to Ben and we went and found a table at the back. I sat where I could watch the masses, just in case. I could hear some grumbling, but everybody went back to their meal.
          The waitress—a pretty young blonde—came over and gave us both a menu. She had a coy smile on her face. “You didn’t make too many friends with that one, mister.”
          “You know what, lady?”
          “I don’t give a rat’s rear if I did or not. I’m not here to make friends,” I told her. “Maybe I’ll go rob the bank.”
          She and Ben both laughed. “Bacon, eggs, toast, and milk for me,” I ordered. “And a lot of all of it.” I looked at the black man.
          “I don’t think I want breakfast again,” he said. Then, to the waitress, “Fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, apple pie for dessert, with a big, cold glass of milk to drink.”
          She pulled a face, but nodded. “One big breakfast and a fried chicken lunch comin’ right up.” And she sauntered off.
          Ben looked at me with a twinkle in his eye. “And, whitey, don’ you say nuffin’ ‘bout me eatin’ chicken.”
          I laughed. “I’m just surprised you didn’t order goober peas and watermelon.”
          He laughed back. “I would have, but I didn’t figure they had any of either.”
          I looked at him carefully, changing the subject. “What are you doing out here anyway?”
          He snorted. “Nigger couldn’t get no work in the Souf, nigger couldn’t get no work in the Norf, nigger come out west.”
          I nodded. That happened a lot. Blacks weren’t any more welcomed in the North than they were in the South, regardless of Yankee propaganda. “Raised in the South?”
          “Yes. Mother was a slave, my father was…white. Plantation overseer, I think, momma never told me.” That explained some of his looks. “My mother was sold off to another plantation when I was 5 and I’ve never seen her since. That was in ’64. I was freed the next year, of course. Served as a house boy for awhile for my former ‘owner.’ Besides selling momma out from under me, he was good to me. Taught me to read and write. Said he saw something different in me, but when I was thirteen, carpetbaggers came and took his land. Left me on my own. I’ve been making it ever since.”
          “How long you been in Windy?”
          “Too long. How about you? What’s your story?”
          The food came and we dug in before I answered his question. I gave him a brief bio, Julie, Robin, drifting. I didn’t spend too long with it. “My folks were from the South. Well, my grandpa was. Owned some slaves, but freed them in the ‘40s.”
          Ben snorted again. “They all say that. You expect me to believe it?”
          I glanced at him, then took a bite of bacon. “You know what, Ben?”
          He half-smiled. I think he knew what was coming. “What?”
          “I don’t give a rat’s rear if you believe it or not.” And he laughed again.
          “Sorry,” he said. “I’m a little bitter.”
          "Understandable. Where’d you get the name Baker? Plantation owner?”
          We ate in silence for a few minutes. “How long you planning on staying?” he asked me.
          “Maybe tonight, leave tomorrow. Want to give my horse a blow, do a little shopping, take a nap, get into some more trouble, that sort of stuff.” I looked at him, gave him a slight grin. “I’d like a bath later. I’ll be by at 5:55.”
          “You’ll heat your own water, then.” I chuckled.
          We finished eating. “I need to get back to the shop. I’m sure there’s a long line waiting for me,” he said, sardonically.
          “I’ll be there later. I’m serious about the bath.”
          “It’ll be on me,” he said.
          “No, it won’t. I don’t want any charity, either.”
          I dropped some money on the table and he did, too. “That chicken any good?” I asked him.
          “Too greasy. Best place to eat in town is The Four Aces. At least that’s what I’ve heard. They won’t serve me, either.”
          I looked at him, perplexed. “Where do you eat?”
          “The grocer’s wife feels sorry for me and sells me some food.”
          We left the restaurant. “I’ll see you later,” I said.
          He just nodded and walked off.
          I watched him for a few moments, then shook my head, feeling a little sorry for him myself. Wasn’t his fault he was born with the skin color he had.
          A man spoke from behind me. “Wouldn’t be a bad feller, ‘cept for the color of his skin.”
          I glanced at him. “He’s not a bad fellow, regardless of what his skin color is. Better than anybody else I’ve met in this town.”
          He hmph’d at that, and walked off. I shook my head again. Conners, if you don’t get out of this town, they’ll hang you yet…
          And the way I felt—Julie, Robin, etc.—I didn’t really give a rat’s rear if they did or not.