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g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
The dinner had gone longer than the Captain expected. His mistake was having a third whiskey with the sirloin. The drinks, and the heavy food, had made him nostalgic and groggily loquacious, and he found himself talking much more than his usual conservative nature allowed.
Listening intently – and nodding with approval whenever the Captain’s stories reached a conclusion – were two, clean-cut young men. Each was considered a “rising star” in the Department, and each was after a coveted promotion to be decided on by the Captain. In addition to sharing this ambition, the two were similar in other ways: they were both in their early 30’s, single and never married, and physically they could have been brothers, being dark haired, light skinned, of medium height, and lean-bodied. They even sported the same style of glasses, square silver frames with razor-thin lens that matched their serious postures.
“Shall we have dessert?” the Captain asked after finishing another ramble. He made a pretense of waiting for them to answer, and satisfied after a few moments that their silence meant it was up to him to decide, told the waiter to bring apple crisp with vanilla ice cream for the table, along with three cups of coffee black.
After placing the order, the Captain realized, almost with a start, that it was time to get to work; that is, to find out which of the two men was better suited for the promotion. So far, given his lofty status in the Department and the fact he rarely interacted with less senior employees, he had only to go on performance reports from their supervisors. These, not surprisingly, identified each man as an excellent worker deserving of advancement. So the Captain had arranged the dinner to get to know them better; to find that unidentifiable intangible that would help him make an informed choice, even if the choice was based on “gut instinct.”
But at the moment, his gut was merely expanding after the large meal. He resisted the urge to unbutton his pants and let out his belt, as he often did at his home table, and with a shake of his head he rallied himself to the task at hand.
“Have either of you ever heard of Captain Leonard?” he asked, leaning back in his chair to offer some space for his stomach to digest.
“No, sir,” the two young men returned, their voices nearly enveloping each other.
“That’s too bad,” the Captain said with sincerity. “He was quite a character. Led the Department for years, and was there when I started, nearly 30 years ago to the day. He was definitely from the “old school,” if you know what I mean. He was a big, immense guy, who could hurt you with a clap on the shoulder, no matter if it was done in jest or in anger.”
The Captain eyed the two men, pleased to gauge sincerity in their listening postures.
“As you can imagine,” he continued, “everyone was always trying to make nice to the Captain, hoping to get an edge when it came to jobs and raises and such. But the Captain was not a sociable guy, not a schmoozer, and he made it clear that you better have a good reason to talk to him if you want to talk to him. But every now and then someone was able to crack the shell, so to speak, and get close to him…which is what happened with Pete O’Grady.”
The waiter came with the coffees and the apple crisp. The Captain sat back and watched as the cups and saucers, plates and forks were set out. Only after the waiter left did he continue.
“Trust me, Pete O’Grady was as Irish looking as his name. He was paler than a skinned potato, blue eyes that ran red after a few beers, and fat fingers that stuck to folded bills. He was loud in a bar and quiet in church. He obeyed orders without question, was loyal to anyone in the Department, and quick to betray anyone outside it. All in all, he was perfect for the work. But he was also ambitious, and was always looking for an angle to get the attention of those above him. And one day, thanks to his aunt, he got a real shot to shine. Basically, she asked him to take her son, his first cousin, to the barber. This wasn’t as simple as it sounds, as this cousin was in bad shape. He wasn’t much older than Pete, but he had already suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed. He was also an alcoholic and spent most of his time home and drinking beer. Pete reluctantly agreed to help, and being cheap and a sharpie, found out there was an old barber nearby the aunt’s home who took bets on the side and gave out free cuts to Department guys so they would look the other way. So after some more prodding from the aunt, Pete finally comes by one day and takes the cousin to the shop. But when he gets there, to his surprise, he finds Captain Leonard sitting in a chair getting a shave. He takes the opportunity to engage the old man in talk and they hit it off. In fact, the Captain is moved that Pete is helping his cousin, sharing that he has a crippled brother and often he feels guilty about not helping him get out of the house more and enjoy things.”
The captain winked at the two young men.
“Now Pete had an opening. He found out that the Captain went every week for a shave on the same day and at the same time, and so he made sure to bring his cousin there at that time as well. Pete’s aunt was beside herself with gratitude that he was taking such an interest in her son, and the Captain was equally impressed, making remarks to others in the Department that he had never before seen such familial devotion. Soon Pete’s peers, seeing that he had a good thing going, and wanting their own access to the Captain, also began showing up for haircuts when he brought in his cousin. The poor barber was beside himself to keep up with the demand. It was a three-chair shop, and he usually worked alone. But on the day when the Department boys flooded in, he employed another stylist, and even a shampoo lady, who was young and sexy and had all the guys bothered and wanting their hair rinsed.”
The Captain took a moment to sip his coffee. It was still very hot and stung his lips and tongue. He set the cup down with some disgust.
“So Pete kept up the weekly visits to this barber for about a year,” he said, “and in that time he carved out a really nice identity at work as a giving family man, a dependable, caring sort, which, really, he was nothing like. And gradually, thanks to the Captain’s high praise and recommendations, Pete began to rise up the. And I imagine he would have kept climbing, maybe even to the top, if it wasn’t for something that happened with the cousin.”
The Captain winked again. He had gotten to the point of the story that made a difference to him, that would help him decide which of the two men was right for the job.
“What do you think happened?”
The young man on the right leaned forward, the frames of his glasses catching light from the centerpiece candle.
“The cousin killed Pete,” he said confidently and with clarity, as if reading an account from a newspaper. “He never wanted to go to the barbershop in the first place, let alone every week. He knew Pete was using him and had enough. So he murdered him. I imagine with scissors or a straight edge razor, in revenge for the emotional the pain Pete had put him through.”
“Interesting.” The Captain picked up his fork and pointed at the others young man. “And what do you think?”
“The cousin killed himself,” the young man said, almost in an identical clipped tone as his rival. “He was depressed and had enough of the visits to the barber, the humiliation. The death brought to light Pete’s callousness, his cruel self-interest, leading to his fall in the Department.”
The Captain titled his head upward, as if playing out both scenarios in his mind.
“Both are creative answers,” he said, “but neither is realistic. Murders are usually simple affairs, a case of one person standing in the way of another person getting something – money, sex, or money and sex. And rarely does someone with a physical handicap kill anyone; either they’re not strong enough for the work, or they don’t have the right kind of anger. Suicide is also rare when it comes to alcoholics. Unless of course you take away their drinks.”
The Captain looked down at his apple crisp, saw that the ice cream was just beginning to melt into the crust.
“Let me tell you what really happened. You see, Pete’s cousin, despite his limitations, fell madly in love with the shampoo lady. He found out where she lived and managed to go to her house one day to give her flowers and express his ardor. But when got to the door, who should come out at the same moment but Captain Leonard. He had also taken a shine to her, but a more aggressive one, meaning he had been screwing her for weeks. The Captain didn’t like the idea of the cousin saying anything to Pete about this, given that he, the Captain, was a married man, and that his wife was pretty popular with the other wives in the Department, so he made sure he never would.”
“He killed him?”
It was the young man on the right, the one who had guessed first. The Captain smiled gratefully, as this answer solidified his forming opinion on who to select for the job. The young man’s eagerness to guess first, and now this quick outburst, was based more on excitement than boldness, revealing that he was caught up in the moment, when the right thing to do was let the moment catch you. Clearly, of the two, the one who had held his tongue, who had willingly gone second, had the best chance to one day be first.
“No,” he said, “the Captain did not kill him. He merely asked the cousin what it would take to keep his mouth shut. And the cousin told him.”
The Captain saw that the ice cream was more liquid than solid, the way he liked it. He set his fork into the middle and pushed down. And with a hoist up toward his mouth, said, as if an afterthought:
“And the next day the Captain arrested the old barber for bookmaking and closed down the shop for good.”
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