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The boy sitting opposite him was his enemy.

The boy sitting opposite him was called Tigo, and he wore a green silk jacket with an orange stripe on each sleeve. The jacket told Danny that Tigo was his enemy. The jacket shrieked, “Enemy, enemy!”

“This is a good piece,” Tigo said, indicating the gun on the table.” This runs you close to forty-five bucks, you try to buy it in a store. That’s a lot of money.”

The gun on the table was a Smith & Wesson .38 Police Special.

It rested exactly in the center of the table, its sawed-off, two-inch barrel abruptly terminating the otherwise lethal grace of the weapon. There was a checked walnut stock on the gun, and the gun was finished in a flat blue. Alongside the gun were three .38 Special cartridges.

Danny looked at the gun disinterestedly. He was nervous and apprehensive, but he kept tight control of his face. He could not show Tigo what he was feeling. Tigo was the enemy, and so he presented a mask to the enemy, cocking one eyebrow and saying, “I seen pieces before. There’s nothing special about this one.” “Except what we got to do with it,” Tigo said. Tigo was studying him with large brown eyes. The eyes were moist-looking. He was not a bad-looking kid, Tigo, with thick black hair and maybe nose that was too long, but his mouth and chin were good. You could usually tell a cat by his mouth and his chin. Tigo would not turkey out of this particular rumble. Of that, Danny was sure. “Why don’t we start?” Danny asked. He wet his lips and looked across at Tigo.

“You understand,” Tigo said, “I got no bad blood for you.” “I understand.”

“This is what the club said. This is how the club said we should settle it. Without a big street diddlebop, you dig? But I want you to know I don’t know you from a hole in the wall-except you wear a blue and gold jacket.”

“And you wear a green and orange one,” Danny said,” and that’s enough for me.”

“Sure, but what I was trying to say…”

“We going to sit and talk all night, or we going to get this thing rolling?” Danny asked.

“What I’m tryin to say,” Tigo went on, “is that I just happened to be picked for this, you know? Like to settle this thing that’s between the two clubs I mean, you got to admit your boys shouldn’t have come in our territory last night.”

“I got to admit nothing,” Danny said flatly.

“Well, anyway, they shot at the candy store. That wasn’t right. There’s supposed to be a truce on.”

“Okay, okay,” Danny said.

“So like… like this is the way we agreed to settle it. I mean, one of us and… and one of you. Fair and square. Without any street boppin’, and without any law trouble.”

“Let’s get on with it,” Danny said.

“I’m trying to say, I never even seen you on the street before this. So this ain’t nothin’ personal with me. Whichever way it turns out, like…”

“I never seen you neither,” Danny said.

Tigo stared at him for a long time. “That’s cause you’re new around here. Where you from originally?”

“My people come down from the Bronx.”

“You got a big family?”

“A sister and two brothers, that’s all.”

“Yeah, I only got a sister.” Tigo shrugged. “Well.” He sighed. “So.” He sighed again. “Let’s make it, huh?”

“I’m waitin’,” Danny said.

Tigo picked up the gun, and then he took one of the cartridges from the table top. He broke open the gun, slid the cartridge into the cylinder, and then snapped the gun shut and twirled the cylinder. “Round and round she goes,” he said, “and where she stops, nobody knows. There’s six chambers in the cylinder and only one cartridge. That makes the odds five-to-one that the cartridge’ll be in firing position when the cylinder stops whirling. You dig?”

“I dig.”

“I’ll go first,” Tigo said.

Danny looked at him suspiciously. “Why?”

“You want to go first?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m giving you a break.” Tigo grinned. “I may blow my head off first time out.”

“Why you giving me a break?” Danny asked.

Tigo shrugged. “What the hell’s the difference?” He gave the cylinder a fast twirl.

“The Russians invented this, huh?” Danny asked.

“Yeah.”

“I always said they was crazy bastards.”

“Yeah, I always…” Tigo stopped talking. The cylinder was stopped now. He took a deep breath, put the barrel of the .38 to his temple, and then squeezed the trigger.

The firing pin clicked on an empty chamber.

“Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?” he asked. He shoved the gun across the table. “Your turn, Danny.”

Danny reached for the gun. It was cold in the basement room, but he was sweating now. He pulled the gun toward him, then left it on the table while he dried his palms on his trousers. He picked up the gun then and stared at it.

“It’s a nifty piece,” Tigo said. “I like a good piece.”

“Yeah, I do too,” Danny said. “You can tell a good piece just by the way it feels in your hand.”

Tigo looked surprised. “I mentioned that to one of the guys yesterday, and he thought I was nuts.

“Lots of guys don’t know about pieces,” Danny said, shrugging. “I was thinking,” Tigo, said, “when I get old enough, I’ll join the Army, you know? I’d like to work around pieces.”

“I thought of that, too. I’d join now only my old lady won’t give me permission. She’s got to sign if I join now.”

“Yeah, they’re all the same,” Tigo said smiling. “Your old lady born here or the old country?”

“The old country,” Danny said.

“Yeah, well you know they got these old-fashioned ideas.”

“I better spin,” Danny said.

“Yeah,” Tigo agreed.

Danny slapped the cylinder with his left hand. The cylinder whirled, whirled, and then stopped. Slowly, Danny put the gun to his head. He wanted to close his eyes, but he didn’t dare. Tigo, the enemy, was watching him. He returned Tigo’s stare, and then he squeezed the trigger.

His heart skipped a beat, and then over the roar of his blood he heard the empty click. Hastily, he put the gun down on the table.

“Makes you sweat, don’t it?” Tigo said.

Danny nodded, saying nothing. He watched Tigo. Tigo was looking at the gun.

“Me now, huh?” Tigo said. He took a deep breath, then picked up the .38. He twirled the cylinder, waited for it to stop, and then put the gun to his head.

“Bang!” Tigo said, and then he squeezed the trigger. Again the firing pin clicked on an empty chamber. Tigo let out his breath and put the gun down.

“I thought I was dead that time,” he said.

“I could hear the harps,” Danny said.

“This is a good way to lose weight, you know that?” Tigo laughed nervously, and then his laugh became honest when he saw Danny was laughing with him. “Ain’t it the truth?” You could lose ten pounds this way.”

“My old lady’s like a house,” Danny said laughing. “She ought to try this kind of a diet.” He laughed at his own humor, pleased when Tigo joined him.

“That’s the trouble,” Tigo said. “You see a nice deb in the street, you think it’s crazy, you know? Then they get to be our people’s age, and they turn to fat.” He shook his head.

“You got a chick?” Danny asked.

“Yeah, I got one.”

“What’s her name?”

“Aw, you don’t know her.”

“Maybe I do,” Danny said.

“Her name is Juana.” Tigo watched him. “She’s about five-two, got these brown eyes…”

“I think I know her,” Danny said. He nodded. “Yeah, I think I know her.”

“She’s nice, ain’t she?” Tigo asked. He leaned forward, as if Danny’s answer was of great importance to him.

“Yeah she’s nice,” Danny said.

“Yeah. Hey maybe sometime we could…” Tigo cut himself short. He looked down at the gun, and his sudden enthusiasm seemed to ebb completely. “It’s you turn,” he said.

“Here goes nothing,” Danny said. He twirled the cylinder, sucked in his breath, and then fired.

The emptily click was loud in the stillness of the room.

“Man!” Danny said.

“We’re pretty lucky, you know?” Tigo said.

“So far.”

“We better lower the odds. The boys won’t like it if we…” He stopped himself again, and then reached for one of the cartridges on the table. He broke open the gun again, slipped in the second cartridge into the cylinder. “Now we got two cartridges in here,” he said. “Two cartridges, six chambers. That’s four-to-two. Divide it, and you get two-to-two.” He paused. “You game?”

“That’s… that’s what we’re here for, ain’t it?”

“Sure.”

“Okay then.”

“Gone,” Tigo said, nodding his head. “You got courage, Danny.”

“You’re the one needs the courage,” Danny said gently. “It’s your spin.”

“Tigo lifted the gun. Idly, he began spinning the cylinder.

“You live on the next block, don’t you?” Danny asked.

“Yeah.” Tigo kept slapping the cylinder. It spun with a gently whirring sound.

“That’s how come we never crossed paths, I guess. Also, I’m new on the scene.”

“Yeah, well you know, you get hooked up with one club, that’s the way it is.”

“You like the guys on you club?” Danny asked, wondering why he was asking such a stupid question, listening to the whirring of the cylinder at the same time.

“They’re okay.” Tigo shrugged. “None of them really send me, but that’s the club on my block, so what’re you gonna do, huh?” His hand left the cylinder. It stopped spinning. He put the gun to his head.

“Wait!” Danny said.

Tigo looked puzzled. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. I just wanted to say… I mean…” Danny frowned. “I don’t dig too many of the guys on my club, either.”

Tigo nodded. For a moment, their eyes locked. Then Tigo shrugged, and fired.

The empty click filled the basement room.

“Phew,” Tigo said.

“Man, you can say that again.”

Tigo slid the gun across the table.

Danny hesitated an instant. He did not want to pick up the gun. He felt sure that this time the firing pin would strike the percussion cap of one of the cartridges. He was sure that this time he would shoot himself.

“Sometimes I think I’m turkey,” he said to Tigo, surprised that his thoughts had found voice.

“I feel that way sometimes, too,” Tigo said.

“I never told that to nobody,” Danny said. “The guys on my club would laugh at me, I ever told them that.”

“Some things you got to keep to yourself. There ain’t nobody you can trust in this world.”

“There should be somebody you can trust,” Danny said. “Hell, you can’t tell nothing to your people. They don’t understand.” Tigo laughed. “That’s an old story. But that’s the way things are. What’re you gonna do?”

“Yeah. Still, sometimes I think I’m turkey.”

“Sure, sure,” Tigo said. “It ain’t only that, though. Like sometimes… well, don’t you wonder what you’re doing stomping some guy in the street? Like … you know what I mean? Like … who’s the guy to you? What you got to beat him up for? ‘Cause he messed with somebody else’s girl?” Tigo shook his head. “It gets complicated sometimes.”

“Yeah, but …” Danny frowned again. “You got to stick with the club. Don’t you?”

“Sure, sure … hell yes.” Again, their eyes locked.

“Well, here goes.” Danny said. He lifted the gun. “It’s just …” He shook his head, and then twirled the cylinder. The cylinder spun, and then stopped. He studied the gun, wondering if one of the cartridges would roar from the barrel when he squeezed the trigger.

Then he fired.

Click.

“I didn’t think you was going through with it,” Tigo said.

“I didn’t neither.”

“You got heart, Danny,” Tigo said. He looked at the gun. He picked it up and broke it open.

“What you doing?” Danny asked.

“Another cartridge,” Tigo said. “Six chambers, three cartridges. That makes it even money. You game?”

“You?” “The boys said… ” Tigo stopped talking. “Yeah, I’m game,” he added, his voice curiously low.

“It’s your turn, you know.”

“I know,” Danny watched as Tigo picked up the gun.

“You ever been rowboating on the lake?”

Tigo looked across the table at Danny, his eyes wide. “Once,” he said. “I went with Juana.”

“Is it … is it any kicks?”

“Yeah. Yeah, its grand kicks. You mean you never been?”

“No,” Danny said.

“Hey, you got to tryin, man,” Tigo said excitedly. “You’ll like it. Hey, you try it.”

“Yeah, I was thinking maybe this Sunday I’d … ” He did not complete the sentence.

“My spin,” Tigo said wearily. He twirled the cylinder. “Here goes a good man,” he said, and he put the revolver to his head and squeezed the trigger.

Click.

Danny smiled nervously. “No rest for the weary,” he said. “But Jesus you’ve got the heart. I don’t know if I can go through with it.”

Sure, you can,” Tigo assured him. “Listen, what’s there to be afraid of?” He slid the gun across the table.

“We keep this up all night?” Danny asked.

“They said … you know … ”

“Well, it ain’t so bad. I mean, hell, we didn’t have this operation, we wouldn’ta got a chance to talk, huh?” He grinned feebly.

“Yeah,” Tigo said, his face splitting in a wide grin. “It ain’t been so bad, huh?”

“No, it’s been … well, you know, these guys on the club, who can talk to them?”

He picked up the gun. “We could …” Tigo started.

“What?”

“We could say … well … like we kept shootin’ an’ nothing happened, so …” Tigo shrugged. “What the hell! We can’t do this all night, can we?”

“I don’t know.”

“Let’s make this the last spin. Listen, they don’t like it, they can take a flying leap, you know?”

“I don’t think they’ll like it. We’re supposed to settle this for the clubs.”

“Screw the clubs!” Tigo said. “Can’t we pick our own …” The word was hard coming. When it came, his eyes did not leave Danny’s face. “… friends?”

“Sure we can,” Danny said vehemently. “Sure we can! Why not?”

“The last spin,” Tigo said. “Come on, the last spin.”

“Gone,” Danny said. “Hey you know, I’m glad they got this idea. You know that? I’m actually glad!” He twirled the cylinder. “Look, you want to go on the lake this Sunday? I mean with your girl and mine? We could get two boats. Or even one if you want.” “Yeah, one boat,” Tigo Said. “Hey, your girl’ll like Juana, I mean it. She’s a swell chick.”

The cylinder stopped. Danny put the gun to his head quickly.

“Here’s to Sunday,” he said. He grinned at Tigo, and Tigo grinned back, and then Danny fired.

The explosion rocked the small basement room, ripping away half of Danny’s head, shattering his face. A small cry escaped Tigo’s throat, and a look of incredulous shock knifed his eyes. Then he put his head on the table and began weeping.

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One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing left to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the look-out for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard. To-morrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honour of being owned by Jim.
There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.
Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its colour within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out of the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.
On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she cluttered out of the door and down the stairs to the street.
Where she stopped the sign read: “Mme Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One Eight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”
“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.
“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”
Down rippled the brown cascade.
“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.
“Give it to me quick” said Della.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.
She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value–the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 78 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.
When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task dear friends–a mammoth task.
Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”
At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.
Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit of saying little silent prayers about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please, God, make him think I am still pretty.”
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.
Jim stepped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Della wriggled off the table and went for him.
“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold it because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice-what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”
“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet, even after the hardest mental labour.
“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”
Jim looked about the room curiously.
“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with a sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”
White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped for long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise-shell, with jewelled rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”
And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy Your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”
The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men-who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
(Ack:classicshorts.com)

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