Belly Man waited in the auto tag line and checked the manilla
envelope again for his new driver's license, plus the insurance
card and title for his Lincoln he had managed to keep. He was
starting fresh, starting legal. He had been standing 40 minutes
and still had twelve people in front of him. Only two of the
eight windows were staffed.
The line behind him curved out of the door into the hallway.
This was a new building, constructed in the year Belly Man was
inside. It was an open, marble place with tall leafy trees growing
in the wide lobby. As the man directly behind him was saying,
they had all this beautiful marble and shit and no clerks to sell
the licenses. The man was talking to a buddy. They were young,
and from what Belly was able to overhear, they worked in a night
club as bartenders or bouncers, maybe one of each. They wore
stiff, baggy, brown and black denim clothes and heavy shoes.
They had high-and-tight haircuts and one wore oval lens, black-wire
glasses. With their thick necks they looked like the young inmates
who sweated out their time in the weight room.
Their talk was mostly about people who came into the club. Everybody
had a nickname.
"Asphalt hitting on Rooster's wife."
"Yeah, but she too old."
"You see me put him out the other night? For his own good."
"Clock tried to sneak in. He still hasn't grown up."
"Clock? Pig's brother?"
"Yeah. I hadn't seen Clock since last summer on Smiley street.
We were in True Boy's watching the game when we took it outside.
True Boy will let Clock drink, and Clock was so happy he wanted
to wrestle. We were bumping our heads against curbs under cars
until the police rolled up. By then Clock had gotten mad and
was trying to hurt me, and I had to wedge him up against a tire
or he would have choked me. He's a nut."
"You going to Skate's cookout?"
"Don't eat meat anymore, you know that."
"Since Tuney. She won't let me. Man, she won't buy a package
of bread without reading the ingredients. Like what's new in
bread? That woman lives right."
"Yeah, well, how you living? You can't eat no more ribs."
"That's all right. Your girl likes it when my mouth ain't
Belly Man chuckled. The men went on talking about people named
Goosebump, Street Light, Chaos and Brick.
But Belly Man was patient. He had learned patience while spending
a year and a half of a five year sentence. Manslaughter. An
accident, really, but a violent one just the same. It had been
his fault. He knew that now. Quick temper. But he had learned
to count to ten, as they say, count to whatever it took. With
good behavior, he hadn't had to count the full five years.
His credentials bore his real name, Byron Isaac Mason. In prison
he had been either Mason or his number. Early on, he told the
cons to call him Ike, but that didn't stick. Just a week before
he was paroled, a guy who knew him came on the block calling him
Belly Man, and in no time the rest of the crowd picked it up,
even the guards. He had a big gut. So what? He was proud of
being big. He liked a big car and he liked a big reputation.
But changing his life might be hard. He couldn't even change
Belly thought about people he knew but hadn't seen in a while.
He'd been on parole for the last year, laying real low, watching
cartoons, working two jobs at the mental hospital--in the kitchen
by day and mopping halls by night. Thankfully, he'd come across
none of his acquaintances at the hospital--he'd expected at least
a couple of drug rehabs--and he could never think of anyone he
really wanted to see from the old days. Safer that way, judge's
orders, even. The only straight-up guy he thought about now and
then was Grim Power who had dumped his moronic street rodeo act,
it seemed, and who now was towing cars. He wondered what Grim's
real name was.
Belly Man had seen Grim hitching up a van in the hospital parking
lot, actually the drop-off lane at the front door. A kid had
come barreling up one night to commit himself and plowed into
the back of a car that had gotten there first. Nobody was hurt,
but the police came, and then Grim on the tow truck with "Power"
professionally painted on the door. Maybe, Belly Man thought,
he'd check Grim out now that he was through with parole, now that
he had saved some money and was ready to make a deal.
Two weeks later Belly Man had another afternoon off, and he decided
to go downtown to his old barbershop for a haircut and shave.
Since he'd been out, he had been cutting his hair himself using
scissors and two mirrors. His head usually looked it, crooked
and plucked, though he had gotten better. But he'd decided that
he was coming back--Belly Man but different, gentler. He wanted
his own business again; he didn't know what kind, and getting
groomed seemed a good first step. People needed to know he was
back; he needed to know what people were doing.
He dressed in his trademark burgundy clothes, including a short-billed
straw cap, and parked around the corner from the shop. He hesitated
before coming upon the shop window, and he walked away angry at
himself toward the downtown park, trying to pump up his purpose.
The park was a medium pie of grass and trees for office workers
and vagrants, two blocks behind town. Belly Man sat on a bench
bordering one of the narrow, paved paths and looked out on the
oak and magnolia trees in the short distance. He thought people
sat up in the trees, but as his mind cleared of the image of his
recent meekness, he saw that there were sheets and blankets stuffed
in the crook of the branches, the bedding of the vagrants and
homeless. He thought of The Lost Boys of the Peter Pan story,
and as he scanned the park, he noticed a city maintenance man
picking up trash around a stone water fountain.
The man wore drab green shirt and pants. He pulled along a trash
barrel on wheels. As he got closer, he was the best looking trash
man Belly Man had seen, neat thick hair shot with gray, matching
well-groomed beard, shirttail in, absorbed in his work, self-motivated.
He looked like somebody famous, a singer. Belly Man could picture
him working in his business, whatever it might be, attractive,
hardworking, a good guy for customers to see, a money-maker.
"`Minute by Minute,'" Belly Man called out. "You
look just like that Doobie Brother, man. Anybody ever tell you
The man glanced up but went back to work.
In prison, a lot of guys looked like somebody else. On the yard,
Belly Man whiled away a lot of time making those connections.
One guy looked like a short, strung-out Abraham Lincoln--moustacheless
beard, hollow cheeks, rock-edge bones--and another had the soft,
scruffy face of Yassar Arafat. The con that ran the library did
everything he could to look like Malcom X, except he didn't have
red hair. Belly Man's barber inside was a dead ringer for Levi
Stubbs of The Four Tops. For a month, Belly was afraid he was
Levi Stubbs, until he found out the guy already had done twelve
years of a life sentence for kidnaping and murder, and Belly thought
he would have known if Levi had been locked down in this state
for that crime. A lot of those look-alikes were in for murder,
though Abraham Lincoln and Yassar Arafat claimed innocence. All
the murderers and manslaughterers were known as "The Deadly
Killers." The drug dealers and counterfeiters called them
The park janitor got close enough. "I know you're not deaf.
Look, I'm trying to get something together. You might want to
get in on it," Belly Man said.
The guy kept silent, spearing paper cups and burger wrappers.
Belly Man figured, what the hell. He might recruit this guy
to work for him, or he might not. He said, "It's true, I
did kill somebody and I was incarcerated. But I'm a good boss.
I mean," he chuckled, "the guy I killed didn't work
for me." Belly Man watched the man struggle to spear a cigarette
butt that wouldn't be impaled on the nail of the stick. Finally,
the man bent to pick it up. "We got in a shoving match,
a slap fight, he tripped on something, hit his head."
The guy examined the nail on his stick, licked the tip.
"I guess," Belly Man said, "you like the job you
already got. Work at your own pace, outdoors, fresh air, nobody
telling you to hurry up."
The man said, "Look, you like this job? Let me
sit on a bench all day. These squirrels are sneaky, and somebody
out here is killing pigeons and I have to clean that up."
He didn't look like anybody when he talked. His mouth went sloppy
and loose. "I have a chemical imbalance, dammit, but they
expect me to come to work everyday. Got the nerve to ask
me why I'm late sometime. Hell, the medicine alone will mess
you up, the son of a bitches. They don't understand nothing,
you can't get along with them, the supervisor he don't want to
listen, and he expects me to pay attention. I'm sick,
dammit, and I have shown them may papers."
He stabbed the ground while he ranted. Belly Man got up, hiked
up his pants, and began walking back to the barber shop. Not
all handsome white guys would be good employees, he decided.
He knew he should have known; his cellmate at the city jail before
he was transferred to state prison was an arsonist who had eyes
and a manner like Paul Newman's.
A half block up, Belly Man looked back and somehow the park guy
had gotten all the way down under the blanket-crammed oaks. He
must have run. Maybe his chemical imbalance gave him super speed.
Belly wondered where the keepers of the bundles in the trees
were, probably on street corners holding hand-scrawled signs that
begged for food money. He was glad he wasn't one of them. He
could have been. There came a time in prison when, if he could
have gotten a gallon jug of wine to cradle against a dumpster
in an alley, he would have gratefully drunk himself to death every
But those months passed, plus he still had a house, though his
little sister and Dot, his ex-old lady, had sold most of the furniture
and kept the money. At least he had sold his rental inventory
himself, mostly to Grim Power, for legal bills. He had stocked
only a couple of mini-vans, two Cadillac limos, and four Corollas
he had bought from Hertz, and a back hoe.
Grim had bought the Corollas, a van and the back hoe. Belly guessed
that he turned around and sold them for profit, probably how he
had managed to get the big pretty tow truck. Grim had probably
sold that old horse he used to ride, too. Grim was one of the
few to visit him in prison, but like the others had dropped off
after the first year. Belly didn't mind; he wouldn't have visited
He pulled open the barbershop door and bells jingled with his
entry. His barber, Ed, still had the first chair. Ed wore a
black barber's smock, and a white mask over his mouth and nose
as he worked on a customer. He was allergic to hair. But he
pulled down the mask and grinned after he looked up to see Belly
Man standing in the door.
"I don't believe anything, anymore," Ed said. "You're
"Who asked you?" Belly said.
"I'm glad," Ed said. "But, uh-ruh-huh, things
are different around here. You need an appointment now."
Belly Man glanced around. The other three barbers were busy cutting
hair. They were younger guys whom he didn't recognize from before.
Instead of smocks, they wore linen shorts and silk print shirts.
Five or six other young men waited, reading magazines or looking
up at a television mounted in the corner over Belly Man's head.
"I need what?"
"You don't really need one, you know. We encourage them,
that's all. Hold up." Ed switched off the clippers he was
using to trim his customer's neck and consulted his appointment
book. "I can sign you in now. You can be next."
"Shit," Belly Man said. "I guess you need
"Appointments don't do you no good," the man in the
chair said. He had a white goatee. His black shoes were highly
glossed, and his black socks were ribbed and see-through, the
style Belly Man wore. "I been waiting a hour for one of
those boys down there, and finally had to let old Ed take over.
I got to get back to work."
"Old Ed, my butt," Ed said.
"That's Mr. Ed," said the barber at the next
chair. "Say it with respect."
"That's a talking horse, Chief," Ed said.
Belly Man sat down under a framed pencil-drawing of a teary-eyed
boy having his hair cut by a kindly old man. Other pictures on
the wall showed barber scenes, too--barbers tending to their customers
draped in white, hair on the floor; men in suits and ties waiting
their turns. Before, all Ed had up were photos of heads modeling
different haircuts, which a guy was supposed to come in and point
to as the one he'd like. But as far as Belly could remember,
nobody ever asked for one of those prissy v-neck or pompadour
styles. Ed always cut people's hair to look just like his, a
little full on top and combed back, narrow on the sides, fading
out in the back at the neck.
The television showed a movie about a town invaded by giant rabbits,
and every few seconds Ed would glance up at it, neglecting the
job he was doing. Ed said, "Uh-ruh, wonder what would happen
if those big rabbits came here." The screen showed a terrified
woman hiding under a coffee table while a rabbit's eye filled
"I'd get my shotgun and kick some rabbit ass," said
a man sitting near Belly Man.
"Them rabbits there are on drugs," one of the barbers
said. That's how they got like that. To them, we'd look like
a bunch wild carrots running around."
"I bet the National Guard would get rolling," said Ed.
"There'd be tanks and rabbits squaring off on the highways."
"I know one thing," said one of the customers on the
other side of Belly Man. "I'd steal me a Jaguar and get
the hell out of here. I'd steal two Jags, one for me and
one for Gladys Knight, who I'd save from rabbit fury and then
Belly Man said, "There won't be no giant rabbits coming here.
So don't worry about it."
"I know that," Ed said. "But what if?"
"Damn," Belly Man said. He picked up a magazine from
a chair next to him. Every page was of a black woman in a swimsuit.
He looked back at the cover but it was half torn away, the magazine's
A man came in the door wearing a red, white and gray leather cycle-racing
suit and carrying a matching helmet. "I'm up next, right,
Ed?" he said cheerfully, standing wide-legged, his hands
on his hips under the short, zipped jacket.
"Uh-ruh, not unless you got an appointment."
"I have one."
"Well, this current time right here, Ed. Don't you know
your own schedule?"
"I got somebody ahead of you," he said, pointing his
clippers at Belly Man.
"Oh yeah?" He took off his leather jacket, revealing
a red t-shirt. He didn't seem to need either a haircut or a shave.
Belly figured he was one of those guys who couldn't let himself
get that far. "Maybe we can work something out," the
man said. He sat beside Belly Man in the chair where the swimsuit
book had been, and hung the jacket casually over the chair back.
He placed his helmet on the floor by his feet. His boots were
of the same colorful leather as his pants and jacket.
"You must have a pretty good lead to have time to stop for
a haircut," Belly Man said.
"Oh," the man laughed. "I wear this when I ride
lately. Some other guys and I are in a club. The fact is I'm
in pretty much of a hurry. How about letting me go first. Ed's
always messing up this appointment business. I swear to you I
called for this half-hour, too."
"I can't think you'd lie for a haircut. But we used to have
a rule about first come, first served. And if that ain't good
enough no more, then my name is on Ed's book where yours ain't."
"My name is Jerry, by the way. What's yours?"
Belly Man shook the man's hand and considered what name to give.
"It's Byron Belly Man Mason," he said.
"Duh-uh-ruh," said Ed, "Byron?"
"Belly Man? What are you, a wrestler?" Jerry asked.
"O.K. But you're famous aren't you? I heard that name somewhere."
"You ever been at state prison?"
"I've been by there. But that's not where I know the name.
You an inmate or you work there? Are you on work release?"
"We on a game show here?"
"I know something about, you know, law and crime. So I don't
want to presume, but you must have done some time recently. I
must have read about you. I used to work in the D.A.'s office
but now I'm for the defense." Jerry reached back for his
jacket and pulled a business card from the pocket.
Belly Man took it, scissored it between two fingers. "So
you for the people now. Thanks, but I'm without those troubles
for a while. Where were you three years ago? Probably writing
up arguments to send me away."
"What are you into these days? Got anything going? It's
usually rough just getting out. You on parole?"
Belly Man didn't respond. He frowned at Ed as if to say, Who
is this guy? Ed finished brushing the loose hair off his customer's
shoulders and let the man up. "Jerry," Ed said. "Belly
Man used to have the only black-owned car rental business in town.
He's a business man."
Jerry crossed one leather leg over the other leather knee. "Me
too," he said to Belly Man. "I got a few investments
besides my law practice. There's Thompson's Lawn Care, Cookman's
Cleaners. I do a little with Power Towing--you know Grim Power?"
Belly Man nodded. He knew all of them.
"I've been thinking about the food business lately. You'd
look good as a restaurant man yourself. Belly Man's Barbecue,
maybe. Of course, you'd eat all the inventory wouldn't you?"
Ed laughed as he swept out the seat of the barber chair. Belly
Man took a deep breath and started counting to ten. He went on
to twelve and then got up. "Too bad you ain't got no barber
shop. Maybe then you could get waited on." He stepped over
and sat down in the chair.
"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Jerry looked at Ed
"Ah shit," Belly Man said. "You got a piece of
this place, too. I bet this appointment stuff was your idea,
wasn't it?" He climbed down and with a wave of his arm presented
the chair to Jerry. "You go ahead then, boss man. I ain't
in a hurry."
"Thanks," Jerry said. "I really have to get somewhere."
Ed shook out the barber's cape and floated it down around Jerry.
He fastened it around Jerry's neck and busied himself at the
counter behind the chair, sorting through combs and clipper guards.
"You know what I thought you were when you walked in here
in that outfit?" Belly Man said. "A Power Ranger."
Everybody in the shop laughed at that. Jerry said, "O.K.
"That's right on time," said the barber down at the
last chair. "I see them Power Rangers every day on TV.
I knew Jerry reminded me of something."
"Yeah," Belly said, "I bet old Jerry sees them,
"Hey, I've been trying to get Grim to join the bike club
like me and Ed," Jerry said. "We could change our name
to the Rangers, and Grim really would be a Power Ranger."
"Uh-huh," Belly said, less loud. "That would be
Ed pumped up the chair. "I can do you in an hour, Belly.
For real. There's a guy due in right after Jerry but after that
I just got you." He went to work combing and cutting Jerry's
Jerry said, "You give me a call if you get any ideas."
Belly returned to looking at the magazine full of swimsuit models.
He had some ideas. One thing he'd noticed since he got out was
the opening of black stripper clubs. He'd been to one, all the
girls plain naked. He was thinking about getting into that, getting
some young good-looking girls like in that book. He was also
thinking about a janitorial service. He'd planned to talk with
Grim about it, but maybe this Jerry guy would be his man.
The back barber, in a shirt with large green flowers, began talking
about the death of Dinah Shore. He was shocked, just shocked
and saddened, he said, because he'd just seen her on A&E the
week before. She was so talented, and so courageous. And it
was strange how so many musicians were blind, and he wanted to
know if everybody knew she was black.
"She sounded black," one of the barbers said.
"I didn't know she was blind," another said.
"I didn't know she was dead," the second barber said.
"That woman's not dead," one of the guys waiting said.
"She'll be in concert at the civic center next week."
"She is, too, dead," said the back barber. "It
was on the news."
Belly Man stood up. "Good damn gracious," he said.
"Ya'll have got everything all mixed up. The one that's
dead is dead. The one that's blind is not. Neither one of them
is black." He headed for the door. "I been in prison
and I know more than you busters."
As he went out, he heard Ed explaining things to the other barbers:
Dinah Shore was dead; Dianne Shurr was not. "Good,"
Belly Man thought. "Somebody's got some sense, even if it's
He strolled past shops on the street and tried out names for his
new business. He had called the car rental venture Belly Man's
Rentals. But now, for the strip joint, he considered Mason's
Minxes, and Belly's Browns. For the maintenance service he thought
of using his full name: Byron Mason's Maintenance. Or B.M.'s
Janitorial Service. His initials were as bad as they could be.
He'd always hated his name, and he didn't much like his nickname.
But he'd have to use Belly Man because he wanted no mistakes.
He wanted people to know who he was, to know he was back, even
if he had to cozy up to these young money guys to get there.
There was a time when the youngsters were afraid of him. There
had been some of that in prison, but only because of his size.
Most people in prison seemed afraid of nothing, especially the
ones who had been there awhile. Belly had been afraid the whole
time, though. Afraid he'd never get out, afraid he'd forget something.
During the year of parole he realized that he had forgotten something,
all right, and at night mopping halls he often wished he had forgotten
more. He sometimes thought he should have stayed in longer, to
be as thoroughly stripped as the others. They had gotten new
hardcore selves inside--the Muslims, orthodox and otherwise; Jews;
white-supremacists; rapists; Christians; Buddhists; lawyers; revolutionaries;
angels; devils. They had gone past the fear of losing themselves
and latched firmly onto deep faith in themselves, rotten or not.
But Belly Man regretted not getting to go that far. He wondered
if he was anything like those people in the mental hospital where
he worked, at least the ones who knew where they were; he didn't
expect to get back the person he had been, but he hadn't lost
enough to be someone wholly new.
As for his new business, one thing, he wouldn't let that Jerry
name it. Anybody who rode around town in a Power Ranger suit
was used to getting his way, but Belly was used to getting his
way, too. And he wasn't about to put on a tight leather suit
and ride around with a bunch of pretty boys on motorcycles just
to get this guy's investment. He imagined it, though, cruising
along over bridges. He saw himself thinner, hunched over the
handlebars and whisking into the wind. Still, he saw himself
alone, leaving the pack behind. He couldn't hook onto to some
group, no matter who he turned out to be, not like those prisoners
who identified with some ready-made mass entity. Hell, he chuckled,
he was a mass entity unto himself.
He had a notion to drive around now, maybe swing by Grim's and
a few of the other old places. Maybe make some appointments.
He liked the idea of having his own scheduled time to get his
haircut. That was a progressive improvement, suitable to the
convenience he would prefer for his next lifestyle. But, no,
he wouldn't be caught thrumming through the streets with a bunch
of leather boys. Besides, he thought as he rounded the corner
toward his big burgundy car, he was a Lincoln man, built for comfort--rest
assured--and always would be.