Oil, Lather, and Steel

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The bell rang as Alex pushed open the door to Lou’s barber shop. It rang like it had for the last forty years, a sound from a different era. Lou and Billy D were sitting in the barber chairs reading the racing forms. Like the bell, they had done this for the last four decades. Lou folded his paper when he saw Alex, a warm smile washed over his wrinkled face.

“Alex, how you doin kid? You ain’t been around here in forever. You find a better place to get a shave and a cut?”

Alex patted Billy D on his ancient shoulder as he walked over to Lou’s chair and sat down. “Now Lou, you know I’d never cheat on you. I’ve been out of town on business. Thought I’d come in for the best shave in the city.”

Lou deftly swept a white cotton bib over Alex’s dress shirt and tied it in the back. He lifted a set of wood handled tongs from a hook on the wall and pulled a steaming hot towel from the heater. In one fluid movement, honed from thousands of repetitions, he coiled it on Alex’s face.

“So, business is good?” Alex’s asked from under the towel.

“You know, good days and bad. Things aren’t what they used to be. This city’s gone to shit. These guys walking around in their girlfriend’s jeans and their faces as hairy as Billy’s asshole.” Billy laughed as he swept the already clean floor.

Lou removed the hot towel and applied some oil from a glass bottle to Alex’s face. The smell of menthol and eucalyptus filled Alex’s nose. “It’s not like the old days when your father used to come in here. Men were real back then. Not like these kids walking around glued to their cell phones.”

“I remember the first time dad brought me in here for a haircut. I think you had the same calendar on the wall.”

“You’re probably right.” Lou laughed. “You were a little shit back then, but you always sat up straight for me and never cried or nothing. Your old man brought you up right.” Lou grabbed a white mug and worked up a thick lather with a badger hair brush. When it reached the perfect consistency, he painted it on Alex’s face. “Remember how you always wanted me to shave you like your old man? I’d lather you up and use the back side of my blade. You’d walk outta here like you were ten feet tall.”

“I miss those times with dad. You know before he died, his biggest complaint was he couldn’t get a decent shave in prison.”

“It wasn’t right what they did to him. He was loyal. That fucking rat Jimmy Lucca.” Lou opened his straight razor and began running it up and down a thick leather strap attached to the back of the chair. When the edge was as sharp as he wanted, he started tracing small half circles on Alex’s cheek. He used the thumb of his other hand to keep the skin taunt.

“Yours isn’t the only business that’s changed Lou. The way dad did it, that doesn’t work anymore. We freelance now. The highest bidder. There is no loyalty.”

Lou lifted Alex’s chin with one wrinkled finger and carefully worked the razor over his throat. “Tell me about it. I heard Big Tony’s using street punks now. I mean what the fuck? Is that even a contract?”

“It’s gone all to hell Lou. There is no craftsmanship anymore. I’m one of the last to do it the old way.” Alex said.

“It’s like anything else Alex. No matter how cheap and lazy they get, quality will always be in demand. You know how I made a good livin all these years? Three things. Oil, lather, and steel. I hand made my own shave oil from my father’s recipe. I always used good English soap. Those prissy Brits know how to make a soap. And most important, I used the best steel in the business.”

Lou grabbed a damp cloth and wiped the traces of lather from Alex’s face. He then started the process all over again, applying a fresh coat of lather. “I think we’re the only shop that still does a double pass too. Back in the day that was mandatory.”

“Lou, I don’t know if he ever told you, but dad always appreciated what you did for him. The Feds would have taken all that money, and anybody else would have spent it after he went to jail.”

“Hey, it’s what real friends do. Look out for each other. Besides, I knew you’d be taking over before long and he wanted you to have it. He would be proud of how you continued the family business.” Lou finished the second pass and worked some aftershave into Alex’s smooth face. “Besides it was nice having you work out of the back of the shop just like he did. Us old guys have to get our excitement somehow. Ain’t that right Billy D?”

Billy laughed.

Alex sat up and looked at his reflection. He rubbed his hand over his chin. “Perfect as usual Lou. You never disappoint.”

Lou looked at him in the mirror from behind the chair. “Look Alex, I have to tell you, I’m closing the shop at the end of the month.”

“What, why? The landlord giving you some shit? You need some money?” Alex was shocked. He looked over at Billy D, but Billy just shrugged and kept sweeping.

“No, it’s nothing like that. I…I’m having some medical issues.”

“What kind of issues? I know some good doctors I could…”

“Stage four cancer. They say there’s nothing they can do.”

Alex leaned forward and pulled the bib from around his neck. “You gotta be kidding me. You need a second opinion, the things they can do these days Lou.”

“The thing is kid, I don’t want to fight it. The world has moved on and left me behind. Left this shop behind. Nobody cares about a good shave anymore. Besides who wants to be strung up to a bunch of tubes and shit? No, Billy D’s pushin ninety and there ain’t nobody to take over, so it’s time to throw in the towel. I just wish I didn’t have to leave you hangin. Where you gonna set up shop now?”

Alex spun the barber chair around to face Lou. “Don’t you worry about that for a minute. Between dad and me, we’ve run a hell of a lot of contracts through that back office. Remember that hit on Pavel Fedorov? That was one for the books. We had a good run. I want you to know that you’ll want for nothing for the rest of your days. Dad wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Lou put his hand on Alex’s shoulder. “You Westcott boys were always true blue.” He turned to Billyy D, and gave him a salute. “Why don’t you head on home Billy, we’ll close up early today.” Billy shook his head and put the broom back in the corner. He grabbed his hat and gave Alex a wink as he shuffled out the door. The bell echoed through the empty shop.

“Here’s the thing Alex, I was hoping you’d do me one last solid.” Lou said as he took a seat in Billy’s chair.

“Anything, just ask.”

“I want to take out a contract.”

Alex leaned forward and looked Lou firmly in the eyes. “Not a problem Lou. Just give me a name.”

“It’s me kid. I want you to take me out.” Lou’s hard gray eyes went misty and he looked down at the floor embarrassed.

“Lou, I…I can’t. I mean, you’re like family.”

“I can’t do it goddammit! I can’t bear to watch myself wither away. I thought about doing it myself, but the insurance won’t pay. Can you believe that? They have some fine print that says they won’t pay if I off myself. My granddaughter needs that money Alex.”

Alex stood up and ran his fingers through his hair. “Lou, if its money, let me take care of her. I’ve got more than enough.”

“No Alex, I want to know before I go, that I was able provide for her. It’s what a man like me needs to do. The policy will pay two hundred grand if it looks like an accident. Would you do that for me?”

“You’re putting me in a hard spot here Lou. I mean fuck.” Alex said pacing around the narrow shop.

“The doctor gave me two months. You know what happens at the end Alex? It ain’t pretty. There’s a lot of pain. You start shittin yourself and forgettin you own name. Your dad would’ve done for me. You know he would.”

Alex stopped pacing and looked at Lou. “You’re right, he would’ve. But this is huge Lou. Can you give me a few days to think about it?”

Lou stood up and grabbed Alex’s hand. Alex could feel how weak his grip had become. “Thank you Alex. You are a true friend.”

Alex hugged Lou and dropped two twenties on the counter. “Thanks for the shave.” Lou tried to give the money back, like he did every time, but Alex wouldn’t have it. “I’ll call you soon.” He said as he left the shop. The sound of the bell stayed with him most of the way down the block.

***

Alex walked down Lexington toward the subway station on 77th. He hadn’t been back in the city for 2 hours yet and he already wanted to leave again. He looked around at the boutiques and restaurants that lined the street. Lou was right, things had changed. Alex wasn’t an old man by any stretch, but even at forty one, he could see how the city had grown soft. It was all organic and fair trade now. The punks and bums from his youth had turned into hipsters and techies. He could understand how a guy like Lou would want to go out on his own terms. He only hoped he could be that lucky himself one day. Alex hooked at right at the bagel shop and disappeared down the stairs behind the green railing.

As the train crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, Alex looked out onto the water. He had spent the entire ride turning over Lou’s words in his head. He had disposed of a lot of men, bad men. Men who deserved to die for one reason or another, but he never had to kill a friend. He wondered if he even had the stones to attempt it. When the train rolled to a stop at DeKalb, Alex had an idea. It was just a glimmer of a thought, but it gave him hope that Lou’s wishes could be honored properly.

Alex’s apartment was just on the edge of the new wave of gentrification. The hipsters hadn’t quite overrun this block yet, and he could still feel the danger of old New York in the air. He took the back stairs up to his place on the third floor and slipped in quietly. He walked straight over to his couch and pushed it into the corner. He took a folding knife from his pocket and pulled up a square of floor boards. From the hole, he pulled out a plastic bag sealed with duct tape. He held the bag up to the light and could see an old revolver, a snub nosed .38 inside. He tossed the bag onto the couch and sat down beside it. He remembered a conversation he had with his dad a month before he died.

“Keep it for insurance Alex, you never know when you might need some leverage.” He had said from behind the plexi-glass. Alex thought he looked thin in his orange jumpsuit. Too thin. “You and I both know I didn’t pull that trigger. Jimmy just needed somebody to take the fall. He’s a coward.”

Alex remembered how he had gone to the warehouse and found the pistol just where his dad said it would be. He had pulled it out of the drain with gloves and put it in a plastic bag, the same bag he was looking at now. His dad had said that Jimmy was too stupid to wipe the prints off, that because he had a man in the department he wasn’t being careful. Alex got up and went to the bar to pour a whiskey. On his way back to the couch he grabbed a pair of black latex gloves.

***

Jimmy Lucca was a creature of habit. When he wasn’t in the Hamptons with his trophy wife, he stayed in the city alone. He got up every morning and went down to the café on the corner for coffee and a cigar. Alex sat in the park across the street and watched him. Lucca would order an egg white omelet and pick at it while he discussed business with any number of muscle heads that dropped in. After breakfast, his driver would pull up in a black Lincoln and take him to his office in midtown. Alex easily broke into his condo while he was gone and looked at his calendar. He found just what he was looking for. Jimmy Lucca had a personal barber come to his office twice a week to give him a shave and trim. Perfect.

When Alex finished at the condo, he called Lou and asked to meet at the café near Conservatory water in Central Park. When Alex showed up Lou was already there.

“They charged me three bucks for a goddamned cup of black coffee you believe that?” Lou said incensed. Alex laughed and sat down at the table facing the water.

“About that favor you needed done.” Alex said. “When is the best time? You need to make some arrangements first?” Lou leaned in, his expression as grave as Alex had ever seen it.

“I’m ready Alex. I’ve been ready since the doctor gave me the news. You just tell me what I need to do.”

Alex looked around and hesitated before he spoke. He knew that once the words left his mouth, there was no going back. “Meet me at this address tomorrow morning at eight. Bring a shave kit.” Alex slid a scrap of paper across the table. Lou picked it up. A puzzled look briefly crossed his face, but quickly changed to a smile.

“I knew you’d come through Alex. Just like your old man.” Lou got up and walked off toward 72nd street without another word. Alex watched as he walked away, he looked so out of place with his tweed fedora contrasting against the bright backpacks and jogging shoes around him.

***

When 8 o’clock rolled around, Alex was waiting across the street from Lucca’s office. Lou hadn’t shown up yet, and Alex was starting to wonder if the old man had bailed out. Before he could complete that thought, Lou came shuffling up the sidewalk in his best suit. “Sorry I’m running a little late Alex, I had to go back to the shop to get Lucille.” He produced a pearl handled straight razor from his pocket. “She’s a one of kind, kid. Sheffield steel. Made in 1862.”

Alex nodded and looked over to the office building. “You recognize this place?” Lou looked it over but didn’t seem to register anything. “Dad used to work out of there, for Jimmy.”

“That’s right, I remember now. Tony ran a numbers operation outta here years back.”

“Jimmy Lucca runs it now. He has the top floor to himself.” Alex turned to Lou and put his hand on his shoulder. “You sure you want to do this? There’s no shame in backing out now.” Lou puffed up his old chest and adjusted his hat.

“I’ve never been more sure about anything Alex.”

“Alright then, Jimmy gets a shave a couple times a week from a Spaniard who’s gotta shop over in Hoboken. He has the guy come over and do it on the balcony. I arranged for that guy to be out sick today. You’re his replacement. You think you can walk in there like you don’t know anything?”

“Hell, I don’t know anything Alex. I’m not sure what’s happening here, but I trust you. I’ll give old Jimmy the rat the shave of his life if you want. No big deal.”

“Go in and give this note to the receptionist. She’ll have somebody come down and escort you up to Jimmy’s office. Just shave the man.” Lou took the note and crossed the street to the office. Alex walked around the back of the building and waited by the loading dock. Soon a black man in gray overalls opened the door and let him in. Alex slipped him a wad of hundred dollar bills.

The lady at the front desk didn’t bat an eye when Lou walked in. She barely looked at the note before calling upstairs. The guy on the phone didn’t sound as relaxed about the last minute replacement, but said he would be down in a minute. Soon a large goon in a suit a size too small came out of the elevator and eyeballed Lou.

“Who the fuck are you, and where is Antonio?”

Lou put on a big smile and shrugged. “He got the runs from some bad Korean barbeque, said he wouldn’t be in today. I’m the pinch hitter.” The big man looked Lou over again and seeing how elderly he was, grunted and waved him toward the elevator. “Jimmy won’t like this, but he’ll be more pissed if he don’t get his shave.” On the way up, he gave Lou a thorough frisking.

Jimmy was sitting in a leather chair on the balcony, smoking a cigar when Lou walked in. “Louis Salvatore Castella. What the fuck are you doing here?” he said through a cloud of smoke.

Lou took off his hat and looked as humble as he could. “Hey Jimmy, how ya doin?”

Jimmy cocked an eyebrow. “You working outta Hoboken now?”

“No, not exactly. I owe some money to Antonio, and he said I could work it off by helping him out.”

Jimmy stubbed his cigar in a silver plate next to the chair. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that you’s fallen on hard times Lou. I mean you’re a neighborhood guy. You need a loan or something?”

“No thank you, that’s awful big of you Jimmy, but I can work this out. You want me to get started?” Lou held up his shave kit. Jimmy looked at the big goon.

“He’s clean boss. Only has his shave gear.”

“Alright Lou, just like old times. You were always the best you know.”

Lou took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He sat his kit on the table and went to work. “Hey Jimmy, can your man take this towel and put it in a microwave for a minute?”

Jimmy waved the big guy over. “Go heat this up, and not too fucking hot you got it?” While the big man was gone, Lou worked his lather up with the badger hair brush. Jimmy sat back in the chair and stared at him.

“Funny seeing you here Lou. You were always so close to that fucking medigan Jack Westcott.” Jimmy looked at the straight razor lying on the table. “You wouldn’t be thinkin of settling any old scores now would you?”

Lou looked at Jimmy and then down at the straight razor and laughed. “Jimmy, look at me, I can’t even take a piss on schedule. I ain’t lookin to hurt nobody. And what happened back in the day is long past. I’m just trying to get by.” The big goon came back with the hot towel and handed it to Lou. Jimmy motioned for the body guard to stay close as Lou rolled the towel and placed it on Jimmy’s face.

The sound of Alex entering the room was drowned out by the steady hum of traffic wafting up from the street below. With one quick blow, the body guard fell over, his head open like a busted jar. Jimmy sat up and reached for a pistol he kept behind his chair, but it was too late. Alex had the .38 buried between his eyes. “Hey Jimmy, good to see you.”

“Fucking Alex Westcott. I knew something stunk about all this. Fuck you Lou. You fucking trader.” Jimmy said without taking his eyes off the gun.

Alex pressed the barrel deeper into the fat flesh between Jimmy’s eyes. “You’re the fucking sell out Jimmy, My dad was loyal. You fucked him over. You remember this gun?” Jimmy put his hands up like he was being robbed.

“Look Alex, I get it, your sore about all that, but surely we can come to some kind of understanding?”

Alex picked up the straight razor in his gloved hand and flipped it open. He briefly admired the way it gleamed in the morning sun, and then quickly, and unceremoniously slit Jimmy’s throat. Jimmy wheezed and gurgled. His eyes bulging for a moment and then he slumped over. Alex turned to Lou. “We don’t have much time now Lou. The lab guys have ways of telling who died first.” Alex put the .38 in Jimmy’s limp hand and fired a shot into the big goon’s head. He then turned and aimed it at Lou. “This is it old friend, you ready?”

Lou stood up straight and put on his jacket. He looked out at the morning sky for a moment and then focused on the barrel of the gun. “Take Stella with you alright? Keep her oiled and clean and she’ll do right by you. Only the best steel Alex. Remember that.” Alex nodded and pulled the trigger.

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