The slouching man with dead eyes was Ray Wherry. He mumbled when he spoke and frowned. His friend was Harold Morden, a paunchy man with weak eyesight. Both of them wore old T-shirts with names of bars painted on the front and back, faded long sleeve cotton shirts with plaid patterns of brown and black, old blue jeans, denim jackets and the kind of boots construction workers wore. They chewed gum as they waited and said nothing.
Bill kept his eyes shut. He waited and began speaking without opening them.
“My uncle is staying with Mom now, Mr. Blanchard. He got out of San Quentin last month. He was in for first degree murder, but his conviction was overturned because of a problem with the evidence. My Uncle Mike. He’s a pretty nice guy when he’s not drinking, but he has a temper. He’s Mom’s youngest brother and her favorite.”
Mr. Blanchard smiled and cut Bill’s hair.
“He killed three people, Uncle Mike. He was in a bar, and he wanted a guy to stop playing ‘Crystal Blue Persuasions’ on the jukebox. Mike hates that song. The guy refused and his girlfriend called Mike a name. Mike wanted to beat the guy up right then and there, but his friends pulled him away. He used to be a bar bouncer, you know. Anyway, when he walked out of the bar later, the same guy and his buddies were waiting for him. Mike took one look and gunned all three all them down. He used a 44 he carried in his waistband.”
Ray Wherry made a sound in his throat. He and Harold Morden moved their feet on the ground in front of their chairs.
“So he got sentenced to San Quentin,” Bill continued. “One day before too long, he was lifting weights in the yard and a big muscular guy told him his turn was over. They both got mad but didn’t fight. One day the guy caught Mike and tried to stab him, but Mike strangled him to death with his bare hands. It’s unbelievable, but the guards didn’t do anything about it, and Mike never got in trouble.”
He added: “Mike’s always had kind of a mean streak. When I talked to him on the phone last night, he asked me if anybody was bothering me.”
Bill fell silent.
Once he rode his bike to the library, years ago. He turned a corner and Ray Wherry was sitting by a gate with Harold Morden. Ray said, “Let’s box a few rounds!” to Bill, who was younger and smaller. Ray grabbed the handle bars of Bill’s bike and wouldn’t let go. Ray said, “Just a few rounds! Come on!” and pushed Bill back to make him fall down. Harold watched with no expression. Bill said he didn’t want to fight and he wanted to go to the library. When he stood up, Ray grabbed his shoulders and tripped him. No one was around to see. Bill stood again and tried to hold his bike. Ray spat in his face and pushed the bike against him, hard. Bill avoided the neighborhood where Ray and Harold lived after that.
Local boys were supposed to fight back if someone did something like that to them. The boys who got in fights sooner or later got in trouble, though, sometimes expelled from school, sometimes sent to the California Youth Authority.
Bill’s haircut was almost finished. There was the sound of a big Zippo lighter opening and the scratch to make a flame, along with the smell of lighter fluid. Then there was cigarette smoke.
“How long do you like your sideburns, Billy? About here?” Mr. Blanchard asked him.
There was the sound of the door opening and footsteps walking out.
“Sure!” Bill told the old barber.
While Mr. Blanchard worked in close to finish his job, he told Bill, “Those guys are no good. A while back Ray got a mentally retarded woman pregnant, and he didn’t even help her. I heard he laughed about it.”
“That’s about their speed,” Bill agreed.
“Anyway, how’s your mom, Bill? I haven’t seen her in ages. Does she live alone now?” the old barber asked him.
“Yeah, she does. As soon as I start making some money, I’m going to buy her a condo, maybe down toward the beach.”
“Good idea,” Mr. Blanchard said.
Bill paid him with a twenty dollar bill and told him keep the change. They shook hands, and Bill went outside to drive the half mile to his mom’s place.
He passed a block where an orange grove had been, last time he was here. A ways further, another orange grove had been removed.
When Bill’s mom saw him, she hugged him and inspected his haircut.
“It’s a good one, Billy. Have you had dinner?”
“No, Mom. Let’s eat,” he said and took her hand to walk into the kitchen.
By the next morning, no more orange groves were missing, not until the following Monday.