>>> The Lady's Shave
By staff writer NG Hatfield
April 10, 2008

The rooftops were all the same. Gray, coarse, faded by streaks of rust descending from their old chimneys. It seemed like the only difference among them was the varying angles of their slopes. Some of them—particularly the roofs covering the German stucco-and-brown cottages to the east—were peaked very sharply like those of massive, quaint gingerbread houses. Ivy grew up these houses’ facades in mass, covering whole walls with a lively green that shimmered with the wind.

“This is fucking beautiful,” McCoy said. He unscrewed the cap of his Miller High Life forty and sat down.

“Sure is.” I twisted the cap of my forty and the carbonation foamed through the opening. I slurped up as much as I could, but a little got on my hand. I wicked it off with a few snaps of my wrist. “Almost makes paying rent worth it.”

My roof was at a slight angle that allowed me the pleasure to sit, think, drink, smoke a cigarette, without fear of stumbling off. I only had to crawl out my apartment’s window and there it was: a twenty foot long strip of grainy shingles. I had brought other friends up to enjoy the place, make my place seem a little bit more worthy of hosting our poker night.

“I hadn’t been laid in six months and they knew it. It was keeping me from any real luck with women.”

McCoy nodded and took a sip. He pulled back his cheeks and breathed through his teeth. The beer was probably skunked; it had been in my fridge’s fruit container since my birthday in November.

“Think we should get some new beer?” I asked.

“No. This is fine dude. I’ve just got to numb my taste buds.”

I looked down into the valley. The other houses, those that were much closer to Decker’s Creek, had many more flat roofs. They were known throughout most of the city as the crackhouses. I’d only walk at the center of the street, there, with a knife in my pocket and my eyes very alert for approaching shadows. I wasn’t ever much on believing the hype, but I’d been harassed there, once before. I was high and walking home from my buddy Dylan’s place and some skinny black guys were on a porch about three feet from the roat. I walked by, accidentally staring at them as they lit a rock. “What the fuck you lookin’ at, Whiteboy?” one asked. I began running. A few of them chased me to my porch, excited and happy that I was running so quickly, so Caucasian. After that, I bought the knife at a pawn shop from some old, freethinking militant who asked me if I could buy him a sandwich, for a good deal on the knife. My buddies told me not to get a knife unless I was ready and willing to use it. After the night with the crackheads, I was.

“I don’t know, though,” I said to McCoy, “it’s goddamned depressing.”

“But it’s finally summer,” McCoy said, “that’s got to count for something.”

I looked at my beer, read the label. The sun was setting through the amber; it was invisible. No worries. Nothing was depending on it now; it had given its warmth for the day. The sky was a bright yellow behind a collection wispy gray clouds, molten gold around their linings.

A cat’s bell jingled below. In my part of town, they roamed all day, mewed in heat all night. It was the first day of summer and those cats gave me something to think about.

“Remember that little girl. What was her name? Madeline?” McCoy asked. He was staring out, unblinking, unfocused, into the city.

“Yeah.” We’d seen a little, fat retarded girl down by the crackhouses earlier that day, on the rocks that lined the creek, flopping a hula hoop around her spherical belly. Some country song blared from a pink, plastic boom box behind her and she tried like hell to keep that heliotrope ring up. Her mother, equally fat and maybe just as retarded, clapped and sang to the song. It was some song about honky-tonk women. Some song that made it all very heartbreaking. “But I’ve figured this out as I’ve gotten older. Sometimes, summer just isn’t enough.”

“Summer’s always enough,” McCoy said. He looked to me, assured me that we were going to have a helluva time that night.

“I’ll try to keep an open mind,” I said.

“Do more than that,” he said. “Dabble in disaster.” He smiled and emptied out his beer in the rain spouting. It smelled raw, mixing, wetting the dead leaves that had clogged it all since autumn. “Let’s get some more. I’ll buy.”

“I’ll chip in.” I dumped my beer out after another sip, then angled my legs back into my apartment.

We walked down the small hill that lead into town, across a bridge over the creek that had a black, semi-circle chain-link fence arching above it. McCoy had rolled a meager joint before our walk and after twenty steps or so, we traded it back and forth.

“You think anybody’s ever jumped off this bridge?”

“Probably,” I said. “And I doubt if they wanted to, this fucking fence wouldn’t stop them.”

“You think anybody’s been pushed off?”

That’s probably the reason they have it, I realized, and said, “Yeah.”

“That’s a shitty way to die.”

I knew what McCoy meant. It was not only shitty because of death itself—the end of any possible joy, experience, etc.—but because the creek was the final resting place. It was a shallow, dirty creek that smelled of human waste during the day and cooled down the air around it at night. “Yes it would be,” I said. I imagined my body soaked and bloody, being towed out of the shallow water, leaches stuck to my pallid face and arms. My mother identifying me, crying.

I then wondered if I’d ever make it as a writer, like I had promised her I would during our family Christmas dinner. She told me to get a good job and forget about it. I wanted to prove her wrong and make her proud at the same time.

“So what kind of beer you want to get?” McCoy asked.

“I don’t care. Something better than skunked High Life.” I said.

McCoy laughed. “Don’t set the bar very high, do you?”

“Not tonight.”

“I’m going to kick your ass if you don’t get happy.”

I believed him. Though my best friend, McCoy was a hardass in general. I had him teach me how to hit a guy and it helped me a few times in McCaughey’s. I’d seen him set records on punching machines at arcades and flocks of boys and teenagers give up their allowance money to see his attempts. Just to see him hit the scarred-up punching bag that was suspended from the big, gaudy machine, they paid out handsomely.

“We should start stealing money from kids,” I said. “They only spend it on fucking candy necklaces and Frisbees.”

He laughed. “That’s better.”

We ended the poker game early, decided to just put all the money in for liquor and head down to The Paintstone, a hotspot gambling joint in the heart of the crackhouses on Pennsylvania Avenue. I disagreed, but because I’d been acting irritable during our poker game—a game I didn’t win a fucking hand in—my opinion was taken for naught. We got in Kent’s truck and gunned down my street.

“A Roland for your Oliver?” Nate, in a British accent, asked. He offered a tablet up on an open palm from the backseat of the cab. He was high on a few different drugs. Candy-flipping, as he called it.

“Good heavens!” McCoy called from the backseat. We all enjoyed getting high and a little drunk, then using British accents and slang for most of it.

“Acid.” The truck bumped along gently. We were on an old brick street called Arch Ave. A brilliant set of houses, a Knights of Columbus building and a lodge of some sort were there. A few trees that were split down their middle branches unfolded along some power lines. They looked better that way, I thought, for some reason.

“I’ll stick to the weed,” I said. The cards were all face-up on Kent‘s truck‘s floor, beside the long, bony shifter. I began swiping them across the navy carpet into a pile with my feet.

Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” turned on. It became loud on the stereo.

“Jesus!” I yelled. “Christ! Turn it down!”

“Hey!” Kent whipped the dial counter-clockwise, to mute the music. “I like this song.” He thrashed the dial back, laughing a little at my anger. Kent wasn’t the type to ever confront a guy unless he really deserved it, and I took his annoyance as my own fault. I then remembered that Kent played the song on guitar with his girlfriend, Kendall, singing along at parties. It probably reminded him of her and I couldn’t exactly take that away from him. She was somewhere in Asia, doing a photojournalism report on prostitution rings, and wouldn’t be back in town for another few weeks.

It seemed like all the girls were gone for the summer, off to their home cities, off to jobs at the beach, or off to photojournalism reports in the Philippines or whatever. I hadn’t seen a woman—a single, attractive woman—at a bar for weeks. I’d given up the idea of finding love, getting laid, anything. It had been about two weeks and I was tired of looking at empty stools and hairy, well-meaning barkeeps.

I looked up, through the moon roof. The sky was brilliant with stars. One good thing about the students being home was that the light pollution was much less pronounced. The orange cloud that bubbled over the city at night was now nearly gone. I could see many constellations that I didn’t know the name of because I hadn’t seen them before. They sat stationary, little shiny tacks on the big black corkboard of the sky, as we moved towards the hotspot.

Bowie’s song ended and Kent pushed the eject button on his stereo. In the new silence, I could finally hear Nate and McCoy talking about some obscure videogame in the backseat.

“No no. Song two is fucking better,” Nate said.

“I can’t arrange blocks with that shit going on. It sounds like I’m in an Islamic castle.”

“Islamic? It’s Russian.”

“No. No way. It’s Islamic.”

I turned around. “What the fuck are you two talking about?”

“Tetris,” McCoy said, “the game of skill and gnarly music.”

“Never played.”

“You haven’t done a lot of things,” Nate said. “At least, in the last six months.” A joke.

“Hey, shut the fuck up.” I hadn’t been laid in six months and they knew it. I was in a definite slump and it was keeping me from any real luck with women. I’d talked to at least one every night, but was too nervous or something. They shrugged me off for some popped collar frat fag or some foreign kid with a fat wallet. I’d sit there, get pissed thinking about it and then go home to sleep. It wasn’t much on my love life, I thought, but at least it was making morning much more pleasant.

“You’ll come around,” McCoy said, “just quit talking so damned much.”

“Great advice.” I spun around, asked Kent what he was going to play.

“Something rockin’, of course,” he laughed.

The new CD was in and another Bowie song played. “Young Americans.” We pulled into the lot and Kent left his truck running. We stayed in our seats and listened.

In some moment, McCoy sang along, then Kent. Then Nate and I were singing along, too. By the end of the song, we were clapping, smacking the dashboard to the beat, using our seatbelts as impromptu guitars, the cool summer air around of our chests as invisible saxophones.

“Can I see your boys’ IDs?” The bartender was a slender, middle-aged black woman. She had a hazy grace about her; her shoulders were squared and her chin lifted very high. She could’ve been a princess or a debutante or a jazz musician’s muse or something like that. Instead, she was the only one manning the place. I wondered if she carried a knife too. It would’ve been smart, considering the locale.

We got out or wallets and snapped our plastic on the bartop. She spread her arms out and peered down into each, examining them for a long time. “Great. Now what can I get you?”

We all ordered shots of whiskey—the first order of business on a night like that—and waited for them to show. It was the first time I’d been at The Paintstone but I’d heard that the drinks were cheap and the atmosphere pleasant. I looked around to verify this. The ceiling was painted black and its inset lights were almost nonexistent. The only light in the whole joint came from four places: the Keno television, the light under the top shelf liquor, the red, swinging, conical light above the pool table, and the neon brilliance radiating from the video poker machines.

“I’m buying,” Kent said. He leaned against the bar with his stomach.

“Like hell you are,” Nate said back. “I’ve got money.”

“Then you can buy later.”

“Fair enough.” He laughed and began looking around the place. From what I could tell, his pupils were three times their normal circumferences.

Kent reached into his pocket and pulled out a twenty. He paid for the shots, and we all made our way to the pool table. He held his change in his hand, a big wad of ones. The shots were cheap, apparently. It was going to be a better night than I had expected.

The stick cracked against the cue ball; a blaze of white zipped across the table and punched the eight ball into the called hole. McCoy and Kent had won.

I, in my infinite wisdom, decided to pick Nate, the druggie, for my partner, and then run my mouth about the winner buying two rounds of shots. Nate was laughing about it.

“You’re buying the first round, then, asshole,” I said.

He shrugged and walked over to the black woman. I saw him signal for four shots and felt satisfied that he hadn’t argued with me about our debts. I figured they all knew I was in a bad mood and the whiskey wasn’t helping like I had thought. I was getting a little angry.

“Hey, hey, hey,” McCoy said. He was looking over my shoulder. “Would you look at that…”

I turned and saw three girls taking off their jackets and placing them on the black stools at the farthest end of the bar. They were all very blonde. Two of them were cute, skinny, almost twins. The other was a little chubby, but she dressed well—classy almost.

McCoy called one of the girls—the one in pink, he said, confidently.

Nate looked over at me from the new shots and pointed across the bar at the other one in green. She looked over to him, then to me, insulted and confused.

“Guess you get the one with the…how do I say this…most volume,” Kent said. He patted my chest, hunched down and put four quarters into the shiny arm that jutted out from the pooltable. He pushed in the arm and I heard the loud, driving sound of pool balls turning inside the table.

“Fuck it,” I finally said, “I’ll take the most volume. I was told to dabble in disaster, you know?”

“Good outlook,” Kent said. He began carefully racking the pool balls, placing the black one on a set of three behind a gap he had made, then rolling the whole triangle forward so that it fell snugly into the gap. “Now go on and get you some.”

Her name was Aggie and she was much fatter up close. Something about these lights, I thought, and bought her a round anyway. Her face would’ve been very cute, if she lost forty pounds. She had very nice, big green eyes. I would’ve called them Tiger eyes, maybe.

We were the only two people sitting at the bar.

“So what do you do?” she asked me. It was a question I hadn’t heard before, a question older women ask men who have careers and shit. It wasn’t What’s your major? or What dorm do you live in?

“I write,” I finally said. I figured that women fell for writers often and that was the best answer. Short and sweet.

“For what?” She hadn’t hesitated, only looked down into her lap, her purse, fished out a pack of Newports and began whapping them against her wrists. Her forearms jiggled, time slowed.

“For…myself, I guess.”

“Oh.” She looked down, pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

The bartender came over with our shots and I asked her if I could buy three more.

“Sure,” she said.

“And send them over to those assholes talking to those girls,” I said.

Everything was going well for Nate and McCoy. Both of their chosen fates were laughing, touching their arms and backs gently. Each had her legs crossed in the direction of each guy. I read somewhere that that was a good sign.

I thought for a minute, then became frustrated. They weren’t that goddamned smooth, my friends, but they did know how to pick the right girl. The willing one.

I had been stuck with Mother Hen. Fortunately, shortly after her inquisition, I had left her bitter, fatass alone in the dim light of the farthest end of the bar.

Kent was playing pool, alone, but talking on his cell phone with Kendall. The time difference between Southeast Asia and Morgantown made 2AM an ideal time to talk with her, I guessed.

I was sitting at the bar, though, about ten stools down from Aggie, Mother Hen. With nobody between us, there was an ugly tension that only felt better when my tongue was stinging. I bought three doubles and lined them up in front of me. I called them all my row of pawns and dubbed myself their king. “You must protect me,” I said, “from her.”

“Bad night, huh?” the bartender asked. She was wiping a shot glass clean at a very small, dull-looking sink in front of me. She had heard me, thought the chess reference was cute, she said.

For some reason, I decided to tell her no, that I was happy for my friends and that I enjoyed a little quiet time alone once in awhile. She took it as some hint that I didn’t mean, nodded and then walked, back straight, down the bar to talk to Aggie.

“All men are kings or pawns, Dantes,” I recited, and downed them all in a row.

The girls left. It was a major victory for me, somehow, to see them leaving without McCoy or Nate in their arms. And it was all because I had ignored Mother Hen. She had lassoed the cute ones with a guilt trip and they all headed somewhere else. Home or a bar, it didn’t really matter. Nobody was getting ass.

“Nice job,” Kent said to Nate and McCoy. We were all on stools now, our arms crossed on the bar. The night was still young; we had two hours left until last call.

“It’s not our fault,” Nate said. He had come down from the trip. He had better posture and was making complete sense. “He,” he pointed to me, over the top of McCoy’s and Kent‘s heads, “didn’t confuse the fat old maid for long enough.”

I laughed at him, hard, and felt my weight take me back. The stool lost its balance and I felt some inequity of gravity on my shoulders, in my gut. I smashed against the floor, the hard metal black of the backing hit me square in the kidneys.

I heard the hysterical laughter of my friends and the bartender asking if I was okay.

“I’m okay,” I said, “I think.” I got to my feet and checked down my flanks and backside for blood. There was none. “Yeah, I’ll feel it more tomorrow.”

“If it happens again, you all are out of here.”

“Yes ma’am,” Kent said. “Now how about a round for all of us?”

She brought them to us, quickly; she had them already prepared.

“Ay guvna!” McCoy said. The British accent was back.

We each grabbed a shot, raised it up to the black ceiling of The Paintstone and toasted to the Queen.

Interested in earning a living in comedy? Scott Dikkers, founding editor of The Onion, created Comedy Business School to teach you how to do it.