I blame my father for my having gone to Shepard’s in the first place. Dad always told me that if he had to beat me every day of my life to get me to turn out like he expected, he was up for it. Luckily for me, he died when I was eleven.
Dad died as he lived, as he continually admonished me to act, “like a white man.” He was putting up a clothesline on a pulley from the upstairs window to the garage. I was supposedly helping. I think he just liked to have an audience. We had already affixed one end to the garage, and Dad was on the top of the ladder using a nut driver to put carriage bolts into the sill of the window. I was handing him the bolts using a bathroom plumber’s helper for reach because I wasn’t very tall at eleven. The plunger was Dad’s idea. “Smarter than the average bear,” he chortled, quoting a cartoon character.
He was about finished when the ladder slipped, and for some reason he had his neck between the cords. The tough, rubber coated rope held him long enough for something to snap.
He landed badly, too, on the plunger which adhered itself to his bald head. After he came to rest, I prodded the white tufts of chest hair poking from his open melon-colored bowling shirt. “Dad?” I asked, gently. I wasn’t completely sure that the fall wasn’t just the proper dismount after putting up a clothesline. Dad was full of odd ideas.
When some time had gone by and he didn’t get up, I called the cops using the number I had memorized.
“Has he gotten to her yet, or is she just cornered in the bedroom?” the dispatcher asked when he heard my voice.
“She’s not home. I think he’s dead. He was hanging the clothesline, and it returned the favor.” Short as I was at eleven, I was already glib.
They couldn’t get the plunger off his head so they had to saw the handle to get him in the ambulance.
My Uncle Dukey took an interest in me after Dad died. Dukey teaches piano at the high school. Duke is his first name. His full name is Duke Of Windsor Jameson. His mother was very impressed that the Duke abdicated his throne for the woman he loved. Uncle Dukey awoke in me a great feeling for music that wouldn’t have happened if Dad had lived. Dad had always despised Dukey and all musicians except maybe Charley Pride.
Uncle Dukey made me a competent musician. While I like playing to small groups like in bars, I don’t have whatever it takes to play on a stage or, frankly, the interest to be there. I wrote songs and hoped someday to make it big selling them. However, average bar pianists don’t make enough money to live comfortably, so long before I left home I looked for a trade that I could learn quickly that would afford me a living while I waited to strike it rich.
During my junior year in high school I happened to be thinking along these lines while having my hair cut. I asked my barber how long it took him to become one. He said about nine months, but if he could start over he would become a hairdresser. They made three times as much money for a cut, did expensive chemical stuff like perms and colors, and got paid to just dry hair. “Besides,” he pointed out, “you get to hang around women.”
So, based on this suggestion and perhaps to avoid dying like a white man, I decided to attend Shepard’s Academy in Lewiston.
After Dad died, Mom changed my role from an ally to a stand-in for Dad. Physically I resemble him when she first met him. We both are of average height, thick-chested with broad shoulders. He had my shock of dark hair and high forehead, my square face and broken looking pug nose. I’ve seen the wedding pictures when he was at his best, looking trim and confident, and felt the jolt of recognition. My Aunt Joan, Dukey’s wife and Dad’s sister, tells me that while I’m alive Dad is never truly gone. It all scares me. I always fear that his anger, his rage, his penchant for violence, and, yes, even his dark, secret pain may live within me. Though I was often a trial during adolescence, I was never like Dad. I was rebellious to Mom, continually testing her, fearful that she would convert to the way he acted and yet prodding her to it. We were both locked into our sour memories of him, me cursing her for being so strong only after he was gone, and her searching me for the shadow of him. Then, I blamed her for the world. Now, I can understand that her ability to judge men could have been seriously impaired by fourteen years of living with a man whose favorite line was “If I killed you after he was born, I’d be out by now.”
Life at home for the last six years had been so . . . loud, that three days after I graduated from high school, I packed what I owned in my old yellow Buick Apollo and left to seek my fortune. Mom said she was sad to see me go, but I felt her relief, verbally echoed by my much younger sister, Opal.
After leaving home, I took a small room in a boarding house and found work playing piano in a lounge for the summer and waited for autumn when I would begin beauty school.
That is when my nine months of lessons in truth and beauty began. But I learned far more than I was taught in school. I did more than grow up, I became so changed that I can never look back on that time without wondering how it all happened, how I became a man without becoming my father.
On my first day of school I sat in a room with about twenty other would-be cosmetologists, painfully aware that I was the only guy. The room, forty feet square with cheap wood paneling and duct tape on the worn spots in the carpeting, was stuffy. In Maine the first week of September is sometimes the hottest of the year. Sticky, twitching, but silent, we all waited for a teacher to arrive. Finally, Ted, the manager of the school who modestly used the title “Director of Admissions,” came in and opened the window. Ted was a very calm man whose every facial expression reminded me of an elderly basset hound. Whenever he smiled it looked like a mistake. He was middle-aged with short cropped gray Brillo for hair. He mostly liked to wear argyle knit vests.
“This will be the quietest day of the year.” Ted predicted with a slight Acadian-French accent. “Relax. Your faces are as white as your uniforms.” This sparked nervous titters. “Welcome to Shepard’s. We expect you to dress as if every day is your state board exam. Women must wear tan hose, not white. White is for nurses. We do not allow gum. Smoke only in the basement break room or outdoors. You will be in class in the mornings on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday this week. In the afternoons you will be in the practical application room upstairs. Next week we switch. After you know what you are doing, you will alternate class/practical with the clinic out front. We do this by your name tag color. Half are blue, half are red.” Everyone looked to see what group she or I was in. I was blue. “Once you have covered the whole book you will be in the clinic full time until you graduate at the end of fifteen-hundred hours.” He covered the handbook and answered questions about parking and the like.
Halfway through the morning there was a knock at the door. It was the rest of the faculty, one man and two women. The younger of the two women was about thirty. She was heavy set and had bottle-blonde, medium-length, heavily lacquered hair which projected off one side of her head. Her mandrill makeup caked her cheeks. She wore a taupe and cherry colored scarf around her thick neck accenting her teepee of a beige uniform. In direct contravention to the handbook, she had bracelets from her wrists to her elbow.
“This is Anna,” Ted stated. “Her father bought the school from Mr. Shepard five years ago. She’s my boss, but I tell her what to do.”
“I have to get back to class.” Anna sniffed. I felt like she was staring at me, but I often thought that of people.
“I’m George,” the man said. George was slender with a sandy mustache and thinning hair. He was dressed in flashy slacks and shirt. “I need to get back to the clinic. We lose more ears when I am absent,” he clucked. “I look forward to working with you all.”
“And this is Mrs. Pononnaleu. We call her Mrs. P. She’ll be your teacher for the first two weeks. Good luck.” Ted said as he left.
“Poe-non-na-loo.” we all said in our heads. Mrs. P. must have been a former fashion model. She looked like she was in her late thirties-early forties. She wore a tasteful rose uniform and a stylish hairdo. A student hairdresser for almost an hour and already I felt sure that I knew what was stylish. During the summer I had studied the hair magazines.
Mrs. P. spied something out the window and barked, “FAT TRUCK!” cheerfully. I looked out the window and saw Anna already marching purposefully out to a van that was opening into a snack cart. “The first person who sights it gives the call,” Mrs. P. explained. “Anyone who missed breakfast, now is the time. We’re taking a break.” She left the room followed by several students.
A blonde girl with a smile that was so broad it could set her earrings swinging tapped my shoulder. “I’m Jenny Lou Colby from here, Lewiston.” She had dimples on both cheeks of her heart-shaped face.
“I’m Forrest Cone. I come from Putnam,” I gasped, with undue emphasis on my first name. My Dad always called me Percy. It became the name most people used except my Uncle Dukey and a few other teachers. Most people thought it was what my middle initial P. stood for. I resolved to put up with Percy to hide the even more horrible truth that my mother had named me “Forrest Pine Cone.” The blue Shepard’s name tag on my white uniform said “Forrest.” I was pathetically happy about it.
“I was studying to be a nurse, but it got too much for me, so I quit. I can’t seem to shake the white uniform, though. This is my roommate, Linda Lentil.” Jenny continued.
“Pleased to meet you.” I said. “I’m Forrest,” I repeated. Linda had lovely brown eyes. Looking into them was like gazing into deep water sluicing wildly under a bridge in the hot summer. She had very long, dark hair combed back. Little wisps curled at her hairline. She smiled. I smiled.
“Linda’s from Vermont.” Jenny Lou continued. “Middlebury.”
“Middlebury. My girlfriend is going to school there.” I said. Wendy really wasn’t my girl friend in the traditional sense. I deeply wished she were. She’s my first cousin, but Wendy confided to me that she was adopted when I objected to playing doctor with her when we were six. From six to eighteen I daydreamed she was mine and waited until she was finished toying with lesser men before declaring my intentions.
“Oh, small world,” Jenny Lou said.
“Yes.” I agreed.
Mrs. Pononnaleu came back, and we all settled in to learn something. The first chapter of the text book covered personality, ethics, and poise. Mrs. P. rushed through personality, took a little more time with ethics (gossiping is bad!) and moved right to poise. I could tell it was her favorite. We all practiced poise which meant standing with your right foot facing forward, putting your left foot at an angle with your left knee bent slightly like it said in the book.
“Feels weird, dunnit?” Mrs. P. asked.
We agreed, and she continued. “You are all starting out, so now is the time to learn to stand correctly. This angle stuff is so much silliness. You aren’t modeling for a magazine. This is a job where you’ll spend all your time on your feet.” She showed us how to stand, straight with weight on both feet. Then she said, “Forrest, you can relax a bit. This isn’t the army.”
I felt the burn as my ears flushed with my cheeks. My Dad had made me stand at attention so often it was my nature to act like I had a plunger for a spine. I hated being singled out.
We all sat down and learned not to behave like every stereotypical movie hairdresser. “Beware the current popular image,” Mrs. P. warned. “We are like doctors, lawyers, and college professors. If we all act that way, cosmetologists will become just as respected. Don’t think of yourselves as hairdressers or . . .” she cringed, “beauticians.” With this grim advice we broke for lunch. Mrs. P. reminded us that we would meet upstairs in practical in the afternoon.
I got my ham sandwich from the fridge in the basement and brought it back to the classroom. Jenny Lou, Linda, and a few other girls drew their chairs in a circle. Linda told me to join them. I am always squeamish around new people so I shook my head.
“Hey-boy, get over here.” Linda said. We glared at each other for a minute. I stayed put because I felt it would be awkward to obey, or at least on the first day. I gulped my food and hurried to the practical room to get a spot in the back.
I carried my case filled with rollers, rods, and other equipment from the basement and got my head from the rack. We all were issued a mannequin with hair from poor, I guess newly bald women in the orient. I named mine “Harriet.” I clamped her to the table. The big room was full of tables. Chairs lined the walls. The windows along the two outside walls had plastic over them. On the third wall there were very old posters depicting cranial nerves.
Ted, whose office had a picture window looking into the practical room, saw me and came to sit beside me. “Feeling out of place?” he asked, crossing his fingers in his lap.
“Well,” he said, “I learned a different way. Mr. Shepard took me on when I was a little older than you. All I did for years was shampoo patrons and hand him clips, rollers, rods, and end papers.” Ted made passing motions in the air. “I watched him do hair. I watched his fingers do magic. He never did two women’s hair the same. That’s why they loved him. After he became famous, he started this school. At first he loved having so many people to show off to. But as the years went by the rules, they piled up, and he proved to be a lousy businessman, so he slowly sold out to Anna’s father. Her father sells supplies to salons. He wants you to learn to use his products.
“Forrest, there are two kinds of hairdressers, pardon, cosmetologists: artists and mechanics. The artist, like Mr. Shepard, makes the look happen. The mechanic like me can be taught steps to achieve it. I never did figure out the secret that was in Mr. Shepard’s fingers and went into the business side of it. He had me run the day to day stuff but never asked me about the big things.”
“Where is Mr. Shepard now?” I asked.
“He’s in Tennessee. He started another school.”
“You didn’t go with him?”
“Our . . . relationship was over by then, and I was very hurt when he sold this place, that we both had worked to build up, without telling me.” Ted said. “I think now it was just because he was embarrassed about having it slip away. He was a proud man.”
“Why have you told me all this?” I asked.
“You looked very miserable.” I must have seemed uncomfortable then because Ted said, “Don’t worry. I am not looking for anything from you.” He showed me his wedding band. “I have been married for six happy years. I just feel like I’d like to have a protégé.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’d like to be one.”
“Okay. First lesson: Twenty percent of all cosmetologists are men, and they make eighty percent of the money. So, learn to enjoy being in the minority.”
He left, and I stared at Harriet until lunch was over. My fellow students came up the stairs giggling, already friends. I was disappointed when Linda and Jenny Lou went to a table across the room.
A slender ash blonde set up beside me. She had a very dark tan and long fingernails. “Karrie Honniger,” she said, “with a K.” when I told her my name. She was very pretty but seemed annoyed.
Mrs. P. had us wet down our heads using the spray bottles from our kits. The hair became tangled and knotted immediately. The oriental hair had been bleached white and colored Caucasian with a brown dye that bled onto our white uniforms. We had to use lots of crème rinse that looked like chicken fat.
Karrie started to complain, “Are these cheap mannequins? I paid a lot for it. This hair is a rat’s nest, and this icky brown stuff is all over me.”
“It washes out,” Mrs. P. comforted. “Don’t worry, the first time is always the hardest. It’s what we have to do to practice on real hair.”
She counseled us to learn to never put down our combs. “Make it a part of you,” she said. “Eat, study, read with your combs. Make it feel comfortable in your hand.”
At that point I was ready to throw my comb through Harriet. I had already lost one in the snagged hair and was pulling strands out by the roots. Mrs. P. showed me how to start at the ends to work snarls out.
After we all had the miserable hair combed out we learned to part hair and section it in bunches about the head. That was easy. I got too much of a kick out of my big plastic butterfly clips. I’d never seen the like before. I had Senor Wenchez talks with the big toothed mouth.
After we had the heads sectioned Mrs. P had us comb the hair out and redo the parting. Over and over. We learned the Shepards’ philosophy. If you do an operation ten times you are better off than if you did it once, one hundred was better than ten, one thousand and so on. You were there to comb, standing straight.
“The biggest thing you must learn is confidence.” Mrs. P. said. “You learn confidence by having done something over and over until it becomes second nature. You will be surprised at the number of times you will part hair if you are to be cosmetologists. Much of what we do are things we do over and over. If you’re to be successful it will be doing Mrs. So-and-so’s hair the same way every Tuesday at ten.”
The afternoon, like the morning, parted in a neat line on a plastic scalp. I soon was on the way home with eight of my fifteen hundred hours completed.
The room I had gotten at the boarding house was very small but it was all I could afford at the time. It had a desk and a bed and not much else. There was only a narrow tunnel where you could stand up straight, as it was under the eaves. The landlady was a crusty oldster who charged extra for every little thing like parking and use of the communal kitchen. I had given up the latter privilege a few days after moving in. The first time I used it was enough.
On the wall of the kitchen were two fly specked crayon signs: OVEN OUT OF ORDER and DO NOT USE KITCHEN AFTER NINE. There were three people sitting at a table pushed against the wall. The woman at the end of the table had a tonsured haircut. She was wearing a baggy black sweat shirt and double knit stretch pants with an elastic waist. She had been eating a pigeon. Raw. Feathers formed a semicircle on the table and drifted in the air about her head. On the opposite side of the table was a short muscular man with frizzy hair. He had a huge tattoo on his arm that depicted an unspeakably gruesome act that would be considered obscene in most countries. He was eating a steak sandwich with one hand. It looked cooked anyway. In the middle was a guy about my age with a dark thin mustache and a sneaky look on his face. He was dressed in white. He was slurping soup, which I later found out was all he knew how to cook. I went to the sink to make an ice tea when the woman yanked her nose up, glared at me and returned to her once statue- perching repast. The guy with the tattoo pulled his arm up like he was going to shake hands, but I noticed his hand was closed around a gun.
“You from out of state?” he demanded.
“No, I’m from Aroostook.” I said.
“Cain’t be too careful.” he grunted.
“I agree,” I swallowed.
The woman said “Whenrooburn?” staring at me again.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“August, so you’re a Leo,” she cackled, spraying feathers. She grandly licked each finger, wiped her mouth on her sleeve, and dry washed her hands. She wrapped the bird in the foil it lay on, put it in the refrigerator and minced to the sink where I stood.
“I’m Pat, and you are in my way.” Her eyes glittered wildly as she elbowed me in the ribs.
I said, “You could have asked. I’d’ve moved.”
“You’re a Leo, so go lie-on something.” She sniggered and slapped her thigh.
I thought she was done at the table so I sat down. She turned to me and said with greasy umbrage, “You are sitting in my seat.”
“You didn’t use the sink.” I mentioned, as I got up. She tripped me, and I landed heavily on the floor.
Pat shrieked, “This will teach you to leave other’s things alone, you young scum.”
Instantly the landlady appeared. “Who make dis racket?” she spat. She had a shotgun in her hand. Good gravy, I thought, what is this, the NRA chapter house?
Pat put on an angelic expression and pointed to me and said, “J’ accuse!”
The other two men ignored the whole thing. “How’s the soup?” Tattoo asked. “Luke warm. How long do you heat it?” Sneaky Mustache replied.
The landlady glared out of one eye and said, “One more racket and you sleep in de streets!” She wheeled, ignoring my apologies. Pat followed her.
I got up from the floor and sat at the table. “I’m Forrest.” I offered.
“Rory,” Tattoo said.
“Tony,” Sneaky Mustache said.
Pat came back in the kitchen, and I got up and skipped to a corner. She eased up to me and handed me a clipping. “This will enrich your life,” she bubbled. I read it. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.” it said. “You want my pigeon,” she asserted edging closer.
“No, I don’t.” I answered truthfully.
“Okay, I’ll sleep with you.” she cooed.
“You must be joking.” I said aghast.
“Faggot!” she screamed, and neatly hooked my legs out from under me. I nearly brained myself on the counter on the way back to the floor. The landlady was back as if by magic. “Rough House Fine! Five dollar or you sleep in the street.” Pat stalked off happily. I paid, grabbed a peanut butter sandwich and my ice tea, and slunk to my room. When I got there I found a feather in my glass.
After that I usually ate at the bar where I worked. I got a dorm fridge which cost extra to have in my room. I drew water from the bathroom sink.
Shepard’s matched students with roommates so they could get apartments, but I had to wait until another guy started school that needed a place to live.
The next morning we were back in practical. I was late getting to school because Pat was chanting in the bathroom, but found I needn’t have rushed because Mrs. Pononnaleu hadn’t arrived either. My place next to Karrie was open, so I clamped Harriet to the table there. I started to wet Harriet down and the rest followed my lead. Anna came in the room and smiled.
“You are all so industrious!” she burbled. She walked over to me. “Forrest,” she read. “That doesn’t suit you. Why don’t we all call you . . . Studly?”
“Uh, no, let’s not.” I pleaded.
“Why?” she smiled brightly, cocking her head to one side.
“FAT TRUCK,” came the call from downstairs. Anna left hurriedly.
“Studly?” asked Karrie, looking querulous.
“Forrest.” I affirmed. “Forrest.” I said to the room at large, though I could tell the damage had been done. A new hateful name had been embedded in all of their minds like dentures in a caramel apple.
Mrs. P. finally arrived. She had a flat tire. She praised us for jumping right in. That morning we were to learn to be gentle with our patrons. The way we learned this is a medieval torture called a frosting cap.
One student, the victim, would put a tight rubber cap on her or my head. Then another student, the tormentor, would take a crochet hook, six inches of pointed steel, and poke it into the cap and hook some hair and pull it out the tiny hole. Karrie agreed to be my partner. I was capped first. The hook entered what felt like my right frontal lobe, and I bellowed. Everyone looked at me.
“Geeze, Studly, get a grip.” Linda said.
Karrie popped me on the ear with her knuckles. “You are making me look bad,” she snarled. I bit my lip, and she went for more hair. After I resembled a porcupine, and the cap felt like it was adhered to my scalp with my own blood, Karrie yanked the cap off. “Your turn.” she said.
I tried so carefully not to hurt her, that I couldn’t get the hook through the hole. Finally I did. Her hair was very fine and I had to swirl it around like a fork in spaghetti to catch some. I eased her hair out through the hole, and she asked me, “What was so bad about that?”
“I’m ticklish, I guess.” I said.
At home I had used Mom’s washer and dryer so I had never been to a Laundromat. Saturday, after the first week, I loaded a duffel with my soiled stuff and hiked the familiar trail down to the nearest one. I was amazed at the seediness of the place. The walls were gray fiber board and all the machines were dented and rusty.
The freaks who were hanging out there looked like they were waiting for a half decent excuse to get in a violent argument. There was a really smelly red-headed-and-bearded giant slouching on the laundry folding table. His leather coat said “Slick Sammy.” He was showing off a new toy to two rough friends. It was a nine inch long black cylinder. When he pushed a stud on the side it elongated out to two feet in length. He grinned showing his nicotined teeth and cackled in bursts. He then started to slam it against the palm of his hand to get it to close. It didn’t, and he rammed his paw a good one. He dropped his plaything and started to jump around like the wounded animal he was. Unfortunately he landed on the thing, which, being round, rolled, spilling Sammy to the floor. The gadget shot over and bounced off of my sneaker.
I picked it up, pressed the stud on the side and closed the thing up with one finger. Then it hit me that that may have been a foolish thing to do. “It was stuck.” I said sheepishly.
I offered my hand to Sammy to help him up. He looked at me as if deciding whether honor dictated that he fold me, but he took my hand and got to his feet. “This is a neat weapon.” I said. “How do you get an enemy to use it?”
“You’re all right, buddy.” Sammy guffawed, swatting my back. He dug out his wallet and pulled a card from it. “You are now an honorary member of the N.K.S.S.”
“National Knights of the Silver Stallions” I read, feigning awe. I tucked it in my own wallet. We shook hands.
I resolved to find another place to do my laundry.
The rest of the month was just as much fun. I got a 96 on my personality, ethics, and poise test. I missed the trick question asking what the name of the publisher of our text book was. Hairdresser humor.
Anna taught us permanent waving. She made a lot of mistakes in the class part, and while the others didn’t notice whenever she said something wrong, Karrie and I made the mistake of correcting her. When I got my perm test back I was surprised to see I had gotten a perfect score. Anna had, however, written a note to the effect that she “would appreciate your (my) keeping my work as unadorned as possible.” I had doodled some notes and a treble clef while thinking. It was an old habit.
We learned to cut. I hacked my knuckles so bad the flesh on them looked like rice.
At noon of the last day of the month I scurried up to practical after eating. Linda Lentil followed me up.
“What do you do up here all by yourself?” she whispered. Her husky voice sounded sensuous when she talked quietly, which wasn’t often.
“I think.” I said. “And I part hair. It was the last thing I was good at.”
She frowned and seem to be considering something. “You’re weird.” She paused a moment like she was considering something important. “Hey-boy, Columbus Day weekend I am going home. If you want to visit your girlfriend, I can give you a ride. I could use the company. If you can stand to be with someone for that long.”
“I would be delighted to go.” I said.
Before long it was October.
After I first moved to Lewiston I experienced quite a bit of disorientation. Putnam, the town I grew up in, the place on Earth I hate the most, is a very small, mean little town of about six-thousand, continually declining into the potato dirt on which it rests. As my Dad always said, “A great place to be from.” Lewiston, when I lived there, had about twenty-four thousand people. I had to adjust to not saying “hello” to people on the street, to witnessing embarrassing public displays of very personal moments, to the smells of the bread and shoe factories, to the raucous come-ons of the hookers that hung outside the French clubs on lower Lisbon Street, and to the constant grunt and bleat of cars passing day and night in front of the house in which I lived.
What bothered me most was that there was no place to go where I could be alone in the evening when the claustrophobia of my tiny room became too intense. I hiked the streets forlornly seeking a respite from the aural elbows of my fellow city dwellers. I thought I might find it among the barkless trees, mud, and dandelions of JFK Park in the center of the city, but a librarian warned me not to find myself there after dark.
Finally, after weeks of seeking stillness, I happened upon St. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church on Ash Street. I was living on Pine just a block away and had passed it dozens of times on my perambulations. However, I was raised as a Protestant, though no specific denomination. I think Mom and Dad were married in the armory because the Methodist Church had recently burned down. What I knew of Catholics was given to me by my grandmother who had two strange prejudices, both relating to death. One was that Catholics were all rich but never spent any money except on lavish, gaudy tombstones, and, second, that they stood their dead up in a corner at all night drunken wakes.
I took it almost as a divine gift when on a melancholy whim I climbed the two tiers of worn stone steps to the peace of the upper balcony. The church is built on the side of a hill and the added forty or so feet the steps ascended put the balcony even with the roof of the four story apartment house across the street. The stone parapet crushed down the clamorous garble of city sounds to whispers and muted echoes. I would sit there, my back to high carved doors, joined by two blind statues hanging overhead, and stare down on the city through the short granite balustrade, at the bloody yellow light of the clock on city hall, the dirty plumes of smoke, rising like grisly, escaping dreams, and the jagged roofs of the boxy, gray tenements. I would carefully, quietly listen to myself think. I could always find calm no matter how swaddled I was with my troubles. It was the closest to God I have ever felt. I saw a Smile in clouds crossing in front of the stars far above the twin spires curving from where I sat to the heavens. I never understood why the parish never used the upper doors during the time I lived in Lewiston. They just used the lower ones under the balcony.
We had been asked to bring in a friend on Tuesday of the first week of October to give us a break from mannequins. I asked around the bar where I played piano but got no takers. The kindest response I got was “Like fun.” I ruled out the people at the boarding house. Jenny Lou brought two of her cousins for herself and Linda. Karrie introduced me to Mom Honniger. All the other students had found someone so George, the current teacher, asked Anna if she would be my guinea pig. Anna had her hair colored auburn by then. I wanted to part her hair, and if I couldn’t just part, I wanted to do a very minor trim.
“I want a frosting.” Anna said. I noticed then that she was rather muscular. I wondered if I had enough experience being gentle.
George looked at the kinky, thick hair damaged from too many color choices and told me to do a glinting. Frostings are two processes, a bleach down to white and a color on top of that. Glintings are a one process high lift tint. “Her hair is pretty beat up. I think you’d get too much breakage with a frosting.” George said.
It sounded good to me. I discussed it with Anna. She told me to go ahead. I had a hard time finding a cap large enough. I finally ended up using a plastic shower cap like hotels give out. Shepard’s used them to cover hair when giving facials. I had to make my own holes and fretted over spacing. I was glad that I used the thin plastic because I don’t think I could have pulled the coarse hair through the small holes in the thick rubber frosting caps. I gingerly drew the hemp-like stuff out, and Anna grumbled and lifted a heavy arm if the hair snagged for a second going through the hole.
I applied the tint and carefully timed it. George looked at the color and agreed with me that it was done. I rinsed her off.
Her hair was still wet so I offered to dry it with my airwaver. At Shepard’s we called them airwavers because some elderly matrons kept calling blow dryers “blow jobs”. I think they knew what they were saying and got a sly kick out of it. Mrs. Pononnaleu was mortified. She came up with the name “airwaver.”
Anna thought it over and said, “I always have it set by Ted, but you need the practice, so go ahead.” I think she enjoyed being worked on, and then again she’d taught me to set.
I was never very good with an airwaver. Basically all the women students did their own hair and had some experience before starting school. I hate to admit it but my own hair hadn’t much involvement with a comb before I started at Shepard’s. I definitely needed the practice, so I stuck my brush into her mop and started to dry the hair.
The hair seemed to grow. It got bigger and bigger until it looked like the Bride of Frankenstein but all around her head. I frowned and calmly asked her, “Does your hair usually get this big?”
Anna picked her hand up to touch it, and her hand hit hair a good foot from her head. She looked in the mirror and simmered for five, six seconds before exploding with long, fairly graphic curses. Her eyes bulged. “Come here so I can hurt you.” she snarled. I gamely stuck out my arm and choked, “If it will make you feel better . . . ”
She shoved me, said, “Get away from me!” and went for the door. My fellow students looked on in horror.
Anna ran into George coming back in after having stepped out for a smoke. “My God, what happened to you?” he said, blanching.
She bellowed and wheeled back to me. She grabbed my shears, backed me to the wall, and lunged. Crazy as this may sound, I was wondering if Sassoon had started that way as I ducked. The shears bent as they tore a piece of cement from the wall the size of a walnut. She fell over from the force of her blow, and somehow I managed not to be under her.
I ran for Ted’s office, slammed the door, and leaned against it. “Hide me.” I pleaded.
“What did you do?” Ted asked. “You have to be a gentlemen around these young ladies. You go apologize, and I am sure everything will be just fine.”
Anna’s fist burst through the door a scant space to the right of my head, and I said, “I don’t think so.”
I darted for under Ted’s desk, and he opened the door. He calmly examined Anna’s hair, and told her to go wet it down and he would set it for her. She screaming that she was going to twist parts of me off. From under the desk I could see her eyes weren’t even focused, she was so enraged. Ted kept talking in a soothing voice that her hair was fine.
She meekly complied. I watched from his office though the picture window, sure I had ruined her hair. Ted threw the rollers in. I have never seen someone work so fast. Of course the other teachers showed us how to be slow and careful. After Ted combed her out she looked fine. The glinting added softening highlights to her face. She thanked me. She even had her father give me a discount on new shears.
Ted told me, “Second Lesson: As long as there is hair, you can fix it, but you must stay in control.”
At the bar where I work I play mostly show tunes. Occasionally when it’s up to me, I play Jackson Brown, Warren Zevon, or Jimmy Buffet. I wasn’t old enough to drink, but my boss, Jerry, a transplant from the sunny south with a horrid toupee and a handle bar mustache, would slip some gin in my tonic now and then. He called me “Bo.” “Have un on the house, Bo,” he’d say, smiling, “I dunno what that-all song is, but it’s pree-dee. Sounds like thirsty work, though.” When I had a couple or if it was slow, I felt brave enough to play one of my own songs. Once a guy said I made him cry and gave me a twenty in the tip jar. I told Jerry to cut him off.
The bar, which was also a restaurant, was in Auburn the city just across the bridge over the Androscogin River. On various occasions during the summer before I had started school I had also served as a sort of utility infielder. I cooked, waited tables, washed dishes, ran the cash register, and, when we were sure the liquor inspector wouldn’t be around, tended bar. I had filled in some on weekends since starting school.
Thursday evening I was playing piano when I espied a tall, heavy guy with red hair and a beard. He was neatly dressed in a gray pin-striped suit and sitting at the bar with a thin, balding man. The red-head looked a lot like Slick Sammy but his bearing was completely different. I didn’t think anything other than the old saw about everyone having a double in the world until Red saw me looking at him questioningly. His eyes widened in panic, and he almost spilled his drink on his friend. They left as soon as their table had been called.
Red soon came up to me and said, “You’re the gentleman from the Laundromat, are you not?”
“Ah, yes,” I said. “You’re Slick Sammy?” His diction was much changed.
“Sometimes. Please pretend you don’t know me.”
“I don’t know you.” I said.
“Good.” he said as he hurried back to his table.
Later after the man with him had left, Sammy came back in and bought me a drink. “Thanks for not exposing me.”
“Who are you to be exposed?” I asked.
“I work in a bank. Personal loan department. That was my boss.”
“Oh. Is your name really Sammy?”
“No. It’s Walter. Walter Butterfield. Sammy is my alter ego.”
“I’m Forrest Cone. I play piano by night and attend beauty school by day. You should have seen how ugly I was when I started.” We shook hands and chatted awhile. I thanked him for the drink. He seemed really formal, like someone who would wear a three piece, double-breasted suit. He had a slight British accent. His movements were gentle for such a big man.
“I was raised to be very proper, very controlled, but sometimes, deep inside, I have undeniable needs that Walter can’t fill, and I let Sammy loose.” he explained. “But the Walter side always fears that Sammy will be connected to him.”
“Wow,” I said. “I thought I had problems.”
“Sammy is that, a problem, but also a solution.” he said. “Thank you. It felt good to talk to someone about my dual nature. I appreciate it.” He smiled and left.
Columbus Day weekend came sooner than I would have liked. I was trapped by my overstatement that Wendy was my girlfriend and would welcome a pre-conjugal visit. I could have mayhap crafted another fib to explain to Linda why I was disinclined to accompany her to Middlebury. But I had finally grown sick of stale lies and fey imaginings. I resolved to tell Wendy how I felt. She had welcomed me so often in my interior dramas it seemed to me to be axiomatic that she would echo my unvoiced infatuation. I considered writing or calling to tell her I was coming, but lacked the nerve. I convinced myself I needed to see her face, feel her arms as what smoldered, splendidly ignited.
Wendy had always been my best friend. We wrote each other more or less daily. I knew all of her classes, her friends, the way around a campus I had never visited. I knew her every petty disappointment, all her sublime aspirations. It didn’t seem a far reach to expect, to crave, more. Heck, I had seen her naked a mere decade earlier.
Friday evening after school let out, I followed Linda to the parking lot. I had been walking to school because I liked the two mile stroll and hated to drive in downtown Lewiston. So I was surprised by her car, a Delorean. I put my duffel in the boot, and opened Linda’s gull-wing door for her. She looked at me with a frown.
“You’re not one of those radical feminists that punch well meaning gentleman are you?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I just thought only my daddy did stuff like that.”
“My grandmother taught me to be a gentleman.” I explained. “After my grandfather died, my grandmother didn’t like to be alone, so I would visit her in the early evenings. We watched the news together, and she’d lecture me on things she observed when she was a waitress at resort hotels during the depression. She met John Kennedy when he was young. Well, not met, she brought him a malted milk.”
Linda got in the car, smoothing her white uniform dress under her buttocks before sitting. I think she smiled when she caught me looking. It was hard to tell with Linda.
I closed the door and walked around. When I had eased into the leather seat I gushed, “Wow.”
“Isn’t it neat?” she said. “It was my big graduation present.
“I take it your dad’s rich.”
“He owns a lot of the gas stations, car washes, and convenience stores around New England. I think he’s into fuel oil, too. When I moved here I got in terrible trouble because I just drove away after they pumped my gas. When I was growing up I never had to pay. Geeze, was I embarrassed.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yes, really.” she said.
I must have hurt her feelings because she didn’t speak again until we were in New Hampshire. “Really that I didn’t have to pay, or really that I was embarrassed.” she said quietly.
“I didn’t mean anything by it. I was trying to make conversation. I’m not good at it. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“Let’s start over.” she said. “Why do you want to be a cosmetologist?”
“It is just a means to end. I kind of fell into it.” I told her about my haircut and then, in a rush, about my music.
“Sing something for me.” she said.
“I don’t sing. I never write the words, just the music. It’s how I express myself. Come by the bar where I work, and I’ll play something for you.”
“You have a job and go to school, too? How do you find the time to study.”
“I do it on breaks.”
“I suppose I should feel lazy, but I never have had a job. Sometimes Daddy would have me roll quarters from the car washes, but only when my allowance ran out, to teach me the value of money.”
“I’ve worked since I was eight.” I said.
“What did you do at eight?”
“In the fall I picked potatoes. Year around I delivered newspapers. We had a three acre garden to weed in the summer. Sometimes I shined shoes door to door.”
“Geeze, did you play harmonica while your little monkey danced, too?”
That hurt. I was beginning to really dislike Linda. “No, I did it for clothes, to help with the mortgage, and to buy groceries. Money was tight even before . . . ” I paused. I had never talked about Dad’s death to an outsider before.
“My dad died. It was an accident. He was hanging a clothesline and . . .” My old joke seemed so silly I didn’t want to tell it to her. “. . . he died.” If I had been able to cry at that time I probably would have. I certainly felt like it. Remembered fear . . . relief . . . guilt seized me in waves. I turned my face to the window, deeply embarrassed.
“You must have loved him.” she whispered.
“No, I hated him.” I hissed, wishing she would stop talking.
“How could you hate your own father?” she asked.
I looked at her. “It was easy. Look, can we just listen to the radio.”
“Fine by me.” she said grimly.
She dropped me off outside Wendy’s dorm. We agreed to meet there again at two on Monday.
I was wicked light-headed looking at the dormitory. It was three stories tall, made of brick and had lots of big windows. I knew which one was Wendy’s. I couldn’t tell if she was home. Her light was on. I wished I had a piano so I could serenade her. Choosing a heavy instrument kept me from being corny, so I walked into the lobby.
There was a brunette with long hair in her face reading a Harlequin romance seated at a desk. She looked up with just her eyes, her jaw slack. She was very pale.
“Help yooo?” she sighed.
“Barney Google.” I said. It was the password for friends for that month. There were two. The other was for pizza delivery men. The dorm was run with a kiddy club attitude that Wendy found too precious.
“Huh?” she said.
“It’s the password.” I explained.
She looked under the desk blotter. “Oh. Yeah. You want me to buzz someone, or do you know the way?”
“I know the way.” I said and started up the hall.
“Wait a minute.” she called. “You forgot the secret handshake.”
“I don’t know any handshake.” I said.
“Just kidding.” she grinned.
I ambled up the hallway. The further I walked the blurrier my vision seemed to get. Finally I came to her door. The cardboard dial beside her door had the various places that she went. As she had said in her letters, there was a position labeled, “Writing Forrest, Do Not Disturb.” That is where it was turned to, a good portent. I hoped I would find my way to her heart as easily as I did to her room. It was about nine-thirty. I could hear her humming inside. I decided to go for the big effect. I had visions of playing something beyond doctor. Forrest, the Flesh Surgeon, that was me. I wanted to go right from Band-Aids to a Nobel Prize for medicine. I twisted the knob; it wasn’t locked. “Heh, heh,” I thought as I threw open the door. “Surprise!” I chortled with glee I did not feel.
I watched in morbid fascination as a creek of sweat rippled down her face. Time had compressed, and I found that I was really concentrating on the dewy trickle as it formed drops on her chin and on a curl of hair stuck to her cheek. Then I noticed her lipstick was smeared all over her lower face like she had been kissing a newly painted barber pole. I had never seen such shock in her eyes, or for that matter on the face of the guy she was already operating on.
“I’ll be going now.” I mentioned, pulling the door closed. I staggered up the hall promptly getting literally lost. In my state all the walls and halls looked the same. Finally a resident assistant, bellowed crisply, “Excuse me. Who are you? What are you doing here?” I guess I looked a mite deranged.
“Barney Google.” I said wishing I could go back to last time I said it.
“Who plays third base for the Dodgers?” she asked. I guess it was the floor password.
“You’ve caught me. I am a German spy. Have me shot at dawn.” I said.
“What do you want?” she asked, looking concerned, thinking no doubt that I was on something instead of off something.
“I can’t find my way out.” I said.
She took me to the lobby. Wendy was there, hurriedly dressed. “Oh, Forrest,” she said.
“Oh, Wendy.” I answered.
She took my arm and said, “Let’s go for a walk.”
We went out into the chilly air. On the maples around the dorm some leaves had turned, on the grass some had fallen, but in the yellow light of the flood lamps, they all looked gray.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” she asked.
“I really made an ass of myself.” I whined. She didn’t say anything. We sat on a bench near a small pond twenty yards from the dorm. The weeds around the edge bubbled in the dark. “Ever since I have known you, I have been in love with you.” I said. It was so easy to talk about after it was no longer an issue. “Tonight, I decided to tell you. I saw the sign on the door and . . .”
“It’s a code.” Wendy said.
“I figured that out.” I replied tartly.
“Forrest,” she said, “we’re cousins.”
“You said you were adopted. Plenty of times.”
“I lied.” Wendy said. “You know my mom. You would lie, too.”
“You must have known. I mean, I look so much like her.”
“I hadn’t wanted to believe it.” I said, picking at some loose wood on the bench. The air smelled like rust.
“Me, too. You looked like you were having a good time.” I said. She punched my arm and then hugged me.
“You’re my best friend. I don’t want to lose what we have, but I just don’t feel that way about you. I couldn’t.” she whispered.
I flicked the wood into the pond. It made slow, creeping circles. “It’s probably just my hormones.” I said. “It’s all sex for guys my age.”
She smirked in her sly way and shook her head. I grinned and kissed her still damp cheek. I got up feeling so light, so free of an unvoiced promise, that I could no longer sit. I started to walk away.
“Where are you going?” she called after me. “I’ll write you about it. You go back to writing me. Write me about that. See you at Thanksgiving.” I said. I wandered into the night.
Where do you go at ten on a Friday night in a strange town when you need a piano? I couldn’t think of a place. Then, as before, I happened on a Catholic church. It was one of those modern jobbies that they slapped together in the sixties with strange geometric shapes and big panes of stained glass, St. Anne of Something. The door was unlocked, my night for them. There was an elderly priest praying near the sanctuary. The priest was taller than me and in his fifties. He had thick, black glasses. He was bald on top except for a black cotton ball of a curl in the middle of his forehead. He smiled in the middle of his heavy ten o’clock shadow and asked if he could help me. I told him I wanted to borrow his piano or organ for a bit and briefly explained why. His name was Father Labbe, and he took it well. “It’s late.” he said. “I was traveling today and just popped in to say my office. I’ll be going to bed right off.”
Right then, I felt exhausted, but didn’t have money for a motel room. I had gone for broke and found it. I considered asking for a pew, too. He must have understood because he took my arm and said, “Come with me. You can play in the morning.” He took me to a guest room with my duffel dragging on the floor all the way. I slept more soundly that night than I had since leaving home in June.
In the morning I awoke to the smell of coffee. Father Labbe brought me a tray the housekeeper had made up. I gratefully ate the shirred eggs and toast points. After breakfast and a shower, Father Labbe said, “Perhaps before you start playing the piano you would like to help me rake some leaves. Our sextant is ill and the cemetery looks dreadful.” He handed me some gloves and a wicker rake. I smiled and told him I would be delighted.
We raked through the morning, and at noon the housekeeper called us to lunch. I told him a version of my odd relationship with Wendy. We agreed I probably hadn’t been in love, just in love with the idea of being in love. He was easy to talk to. I also told him about hairdressing and writing music. When I mentioned my ride, Linda, Father Labbe recognized his wealthiest parishioner. “Roland Lentil’s daughter.” he said. “Pretty girl. I think she is to be engaged soon to a young man in the military.” I hadn’t known Linda was attached. Father Labbe must have gotten the impression that I was unhappy about that, because he said, “I don’t know if that’s definite. It is something Roland told me. Now you wanted to use our organ . . over the baptismal and the mother’s room.
I sat on the bench and flexed my fingers. “Nothing too racy, now, and if you see a small elderly woman with a plaid coat and small oval glasses come in the church leave as quickly as you can.” Father Labbe said enigmatically. He left, and I played through the afternoon. The organ was one of those big electronic ones. I can’t remember what I played. About three I walked downstairs to go to the bathroom and saw Father Labbe sitting in the last pew. He grinned sheepishly. “I wanted to listen to you. I hope you don’t mind.” he said. “You are very good. It will be time for Saturday evening service soon. You are welcome to join us, but our organist will insist on playing.”
“Can I sit in the gallery with the organist?” I asked. “I have never been to a mass and don’t know when to sit and kneel and what all. I don’t know Latin.”
“That would be fine,” Father Labbe said. “And we do the mass in English now.”
When the lady Father Labbe described entered the gallery she looked at me sitting in the choir and sniffed, “You sing?” I told her no, I just wanted to watch.
“You going to learn something from Ol’ Eleanor?” she snickered. She was tiny and elfin. Her eyebrows were drawn in with a pencil.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said.
She practiced, her head thrown back, swaying, her eyes closed like she was playing Carnage Hall in a movie. She was a very bad organist. During the mass she kept smiling at me like she was Liberace. I looked for Linda, but didn’t see her.
After the mass I asked Father Labbe why they had such a poor organist. “She bought the organ for us years ago with the stipulation that she be the organist until she decided to retire. She was already retired from teaching so the pastor at the time agreed.”
That night he and I played cribbage. He could have beaten me easily but didn’t.
The next day at eight I watched another mass with Eleanor. She was emboldened enough to start to sway like Ray Charles. If I had hung around a little longer she may have made it up to Jerry Lee Lewis. I could just see her with her black, thick-heeled pumps banging on the keys.
Early in the eleven o’clock service I saw Linda sitting up front between a short bullet-shaped man and a tall guy in dress whites. It was the first time I had seen Linda out of uniform. She had a green velvet dress that looked nice with her dark hair and eyes. She wore white gloves. She didn’t seem that affectionate to the soldier, but then again she was in church, a Catholic one at that. Eleanor noticed my inattention and asked me to take over for a spell.
“I have never played a mass before.” I whispered.
“Play the notes.” she said. “I’ll coach you. I used to teach piano.” she whispered. She talked like her teeth were clenched. I guess something was supposed to have happened because Father Labbe cleared his throat over his microphone. I sat down and played. Luckily, the hymns were set up to be easy. I hit the keys, my eyes on the black beetle notes, my ear full of Eleanor’s murmurs, and my mind in the first pew. After the service Eleanor took Father Labbe and I out to brunch. “The boy isn’t bad, Father.” she said. “You from around here?”
“Just visiting for the weekend.” I said.
“Too bad. A few more weeks and I could have sharpened you right up.”
After lunch I helped the sextant clean up the church. He was feeling better. During my shellacking at cribbage that night I told Father Labbe that I thought Linda had looked very nice that day. He looked at me sorrowfully. “I find it silly that one of my functions is to give council on matters of the heart, but I have grown fond of you these past few days. If you do decide that you care for Linda Lentil, remember to tell her in fewer than ten years.”
I laughed and said there was little chance that either case would happen.
The next morning I thanked Father Labbe for all his kindness and promised to write. I walked anxiously back to Wendy’s dorm and arrived forty-five minutes early. Linda was already there. “Where were you coming from?” she asked.
“I caught Wendy with another guy, and we broke up.” I said. I briefly explained my adventures with Father Labbe.
“That was you playing at mass? We wondered what had gotten into Miss Ribbagee.”
“Eleanor?” I said. “She knows her stuff. I think she has arthritis.”
“Did you see me?”
“No. Of course, I was busy playing. Who all is we?”
“Oh, just my mom and dad.” she said. “Studly . . .”
“Forrest.” I corrected.
“Forrest, I am sorry for whatever I said that made you mad on the way here.” she said. “I’m surprised I didn’t suggest you eat cake.”
She looked at me seriously, “I’d like it if we could be friends.”
I was taken aback. I had thought of her giving me a ride as a kindness to a fellow student. I hadn’t many friends growing up. I had either been too shy or too busy. “I’m not sure what that means.” I said.
“I’d just like to get to know you. Would that be so hard?”
“I won’t join your group.” I said. “But I’ll give it some thought.”
She did most of the talking on the rest of the way back to Lewiston. She cheerfully told me about growing up with her brother and two sisters doted on by her happily married parents. It sounded incredible to me though every once in a while I had to remind myself that what she experienced was normal and my life its cold shadow. I was suffused with jealousy and scorn.
I saw her as a frivolous, vapid little thing that would never fully know life as anything but a reflection of her inner ego. I couldn’t see how we could ever be friends.
And yet, the glimpse of her in her green dress between the two men haunted me. She had seemed oddly vulnerable. I don’t know why, but I wanted to protect her from them. That really made me feel foolish. I resolved to put her off until she forgot that I existed.
For myself, I had to learn how to live life by myself without a fantasy woman in my thoughts.
Tuesday morning I walked into the classroom, and a new student was in my usual seat. The girl’s blue name tag said “Joy.” She had reddish hair in a bouffant and freckles. I frowned. I am an creature of extreme habit and hate to have my routine broken. It bothered me that she was in my seat. Karrie came in, looked at the girl, and sat down.
Joy saw me still standing there staring at her and misinterpreted my agitation. “You’re Studly, right? I’m supposed to watch out for you.” Joy said. I hurriedly, but grudgingly, sat in another chair. A different new girl opened the door and said, “Joy, we’re supposed to be upstairs this morning.”
Joy got up. The other girl asked, “Is that the famous Studly?”
“I guess so, he’s the only guy I’ve seen.”
They left, giggling up the hallway.
I had hoped that the “Studly” name would die out but apparently it had an obscene life of its own. I quickly recaptured my seat. “Forrest,” I told Karrie. “My name is Forrest.”
“I know,” she said, but Anna has been giving new students orientation tours. I heard her talking to them about you and me. She has a low opinion of us."
We were supposed to have Mrs. Pononnaleu that morning, but every six weeks, except for four in August when George and Mrs. P took their vacations, Shepard’s started a new class. Ted liked to have Mrs. P. break in the new students. So we ended up with Anna.
After all of my fellow classmates had arrived, Anna started teaching the theory of hair-styling. I raised my hand to ask a question, and Anna said, “Studly, I don’t want to hear from you. Just put your hand down.”
Karrie spoke up quickly, “Anna, his name is Forrest. You aren’t his mother. I don’t see why you insist on naming him. I can’t see why the rest of you are so childish and keep calling him something that he obviously dislikes. We’re paying your father for you to teach us. If Forrest has a question, please answer it.”
Anna glared at me and sneered, “Forrest?,”
I was shocked. All I could say was, “I forgot my question.”
The rest of the class laughed. Anna steamed out of the classroom, slamming the door behind her. It was as quiet as the first day of school.
“Nice going,” an older woman named Janice grumbled.
“What I want to know,” Linda said, “is if the size of the rod determines the size of the curl, why can’t the size of a guy’s curl tell you the size of his rod.”
“Ol’ Forrest’d get a body wave using soup cans,” Jenny Lou chuckled.
They laughed, and I felt blush-branded.
Anna was gone a half an hour. When she came back, she returned to her lesson as if nothing happened. But she looked at Karrie and me with the heavy lidded eyes of a predator.
Every Tuesday Ted and I walked up the street to the burger place for lunch. It was our weekly bull session away from the shop. Ted said to me as we walked, “’I’m afraid you’ve made rather a bad enemy of the wicked witch of the west’. You and the other one had better find some way of making it up to her, or else she’ll get even in a nasty way.”
“What could I do except buy her her own fat truck?” I asked.
“You could develop a respectful attitude. She is your teacher.” he replied.
“I guess so,” I said, “but shouldn’t respect be earned?”
“That depends on whether your father owns the school. She wanted you both kicked out.”
“We didn’t do anything to deserve that.” I said.
“No, but while you may not think much of her, the other students like her. She and they could interpret situations differently.”
He had a point. Anna was popular with some students, particularly those far from home for the first time in their lives because of her mother hen attitude. If a problem was about school, my classmates went to Mrs. P., but if it was personal, they went to Anna.
“Think about it.” Ted suggested. “It wouldn’t hurt you to make up with her. I really think she means well. She may even have a crush on you.”
“How pleasant. How nice.” I said.
We arrived at the restaurant and ordered our usual. Ted liked a cheeseburger with no pickles, fries, and a Coke. I got the same except I liked pickles but couldn’t abide catsup. After we slipped into a plastic booth, Ted took a big bite from his burger and then checked to see if they got the order right. Ted loved it when they made a mistake. He would take his sales slip and the bitten burger to the counter to get a new one. I felt like telling him that the counter people may err on purpose to make him happy — I had seen one wink at me — but I knew it would ruin eating out for him. Ted encouraged me to do the same as he, but I wouldn’t eat the catsup even for a free bite of burger.
I have hated catsup since I was seven. That was the year Dad took the family to a public park named Burnt Brow. It was beautiful place beside a very deep lake. The trees, tall hardwoods with limbs beginning thirty feet over our heads, were spaced close enough together to make you feel as if you were in a huge room with a thick and soft nut-brown carpet of roots and packed leaves. It was thoroughly quiet except for an occasional distant yodel of a loon. The sun polished the indigo waters of the lake.
Dad and Aunt Joan must not have been feuding then because she, Dukey, and Wendy had come along. It was Father’s Day. I remember Dad as he cooked, his pink stomach hanging out from under his new blue bowling shirt with little black pin patterns, his few hairs stuck to his smooth scalp when he took off his cloth hat to wipe away the sweat, his white legs poking out from his frayed, cut-off khaki dickeys, and his left eye squinting out the smoke from the cigarette clenched in his reptilian lips. He made steaks for the adults and red hot dogs for Wendy and me. I ate three with lots of catsup.
I remember what happened after we had eaten as if I had watched it instead of lived it. Wendy was bored. She and I had drank our allotted two cans of grape soda, and she wanted some of the ginger ale from the four half-gallons that Dad called mixer. She tried to convince Dad that soda should be divided evenly. She argued with him until he looked at her sourly. “Take a hike.” he growled, menace in his tone.
We didn’t want to go for a walk because the woods were too buggy once you left the area where the breeze blew in off the lake. Wendy decided she wanted to go wading in the chilly water. I remember the little me, dressed in a broad-striped tee-shirt with a dark crew cut, waving my tiny arms trying to get her not to ask to go swimming. “Shoosh, shoosh, shoosh.” I pleaded excitedly, jumping up and down. Wendy asked anyway. Mom and Aunt Joan agreed that we couldn’t go until an hour was up, so we decided to play cards. I was relieved and hoped Wendy would forget about wading. My terror of the water sang within me, bright and sharp.
Mom was playing with my two-year-old sister, Opal, who Dad called Peggy, making funny noises and waving Opal around. Aunt Joan looked on, cooing harmony. Uncle Dukey had gone to take a nap in the back seat of his car.
Suddenly, Dad grabbed me; his thick arm surrounded my chest so it was hard to breath. He informed me as he strode across the picnic area that no son of his was going to be scared of water. He took me to the end of the rotting gray wharf. I looked down into the murky-blue water, saw the depth crush the light, and struggled for the first time ever against Dad’s will. He swatted my head and threw me off the wharf.
I didn’t flail or whatever I was supposed to do. Stunned, I sank, looking up at the bubbles coming out of my mouth impacting with Dad’s shadow on the sunny surface of the water. I don’t know why, but fear left me. I expected to drift under the water to the far shore across the lake. Once there, I planned to walk slowly back around the shore, arriving back at the campsite in time to go home. The water was so cold it burned. After I descended so far that I couldn’t see Dad’s shadow, I felt safe. It was new experience, and didn’t last long as I lost consciousness.
Dad realized that I wasn’t learning to swim, so he ripped off his Father’s Day present, the bowling shirt, and dived in after me. I remember his trashing the water and grabbing my shirt only in a vague, dreamy way. On shore he pounded angrily on my back. I coughed and puked up my lunch. I couldn’t get the taste of catsup out of my mouth. Later, as I snuffled in exile in the back of Dad’s pickup, Wendy snuck me some ginger ale. I had bruises on my back for days. They healed, but from then on the thought of catsup always made me nauseous.
Ted’s burger had no pickles. He frowned. “Next time.” I said checking both buns carefully for tomato corruption. “If you want you can have my pickles to trick’em.”
“That wouldn’t be fair.” he said. “Why won’t you eat catsup?”
“Ah . . . the acids in it cause canker sores on my tongue.” I replied, munching the pickle I had offered Ted.
“So, what happened on your trip to see your girlfriend?” Ted asked.
“Well, Wendy decided we should see other people, so after a farewell frolic, we called it quits.” I explained.
“You don’t seem too depressed about it.”
Up until then I hadn’t thought over how I felt about losing all hope of Wendy’s affection, a love I had coveted for over a decade. Maybe I never really believed that she would ever be mine. Maybe I was a cold S.O.B. All weekend it had never occurred to me that I should be blue. I was strangely happy.
During this thinking I must have blanked out on Ted because he expanded on his comment. “Good for you. My theory is ‘Tint Removes Tint’.” Ted referred to the strange fact that the only thing that could clean permanent hair dye spilled on something was more dye.
“I am going to stay color free for a while.” I said.
“Hah!” Ted said. “I bet that you’re ‘dyeing’ for some girl by Christmas.” “Lunch?” I said.
“Catsup.” he said.
“You tell me before Christmas break that you haven’t been mooning for some woman, and I’ll buy you lunch for the month of January, but if you are then you have to eat a burger with extra catsup.”
“Catsup.” I said, aghast.
“Not so sure, huh?”
“Ho-kay, you’re on.” I gulped.
While I was in Vermont Rory had been kicked out of the boarding house for bringing women to his room for well, you know. The landlady didn’t mind so much the immoral aspects, but it really bothered her when a female guest would flush or shower using more of her water. Rory didn’t want to stop, so he took the invitation to “sleep in the streets.” Actually he moved in with one of his many paramours.
The landlady had a porch over her garage where she hung her laundry out to dry. She was out there the Wednesday evening after Rory left. Someone snuck back into the house with a big dog he had stolen. Someone had sprayed the dog’s muzzle with shaving cream and pushed it out on the porch, slamming the door behind him. Someone cruelly kicked the dog in a tender spot, and it was yipping and dancing around.
I was reading upstairs and heard the landlady scream, “He killing me! He killing me! HALP!”
The landlady had a thing about animals.
I ran downstairs to the pay phone and called the cops. It was kinda nostalgic in a sick way. The policeman, Pete Belanger, a short guy with huge biceps and one very dark eyebrow, quickly arrived in his squad car. He took a look at the dog asked me to get something to make the dog friendly.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Food.” he said.
I got a pigeon from the refrigerator and handed it to him.
“What the hell is this?” he asked.
“All there is except soup.” I explained.
He threw the bird, and the dog wagged its tail and nuzzled it. Officer Belanger used his belt as a leash. The landlady quickly got up and went for her shotgun.
“Did you do this?” he asked me.
“Nope. I was studying when I heard her yelling. If I was the type to do this kind of nasty trick, would I call you?”
“I guess not,” Officer Belanger said, making his eyebrow darker.
The landlady ran up the stairs and made ready to shoot the dog, but Officer Belanger talked her out of it. Then she wanted to shoot me, thinking I had put the dog on the porch. He had a harder time talking her out of that idea.
After she had been calmed down, Officer Belanger took the dog to the home on the tag on its collar where its owner was frantic.
Pat chased me around the halls waving the used pigeon. She got me a good one with it to the noggin before I got to my room. She vowed revenge.
Even though I was banned from the kitchen, Tony constantly begged me to teach him to cook. Tony, an X-ray tech trainee, had this annoying habit of coming up to my room and talking shop while I ate supper. He delighted in describing in glowing detail patients who couldn’t hold their barium enemas and spattered the walls with radioactive fecal matter. The patterns always fascinated him.
All in all I was pretty nonplused with my living arrangements. But, worse was to come. On Thursday I arrived at the boarding house exhausted. I hoped the shower was free. I wanted a hot one and a nap before going to work.
As I climbed the third flight of stairs to my room I heard a clinking noise. I started to peek above the landing, and a hunting knife flew over my head into the wall. I hustled down to tell the landlady, but she wasn’t home. Our relations had been tense after the dog incident. I hadn’t quite convinced her that I had nothing to do with it. I wondered if it was her on the third floor, but decided her tastes ran more to firearms. Some nights I had gotten in late, and she had met me with a jacklight mounted on her shotgun.
I went to Tony and told him. He wanted to check my story. He suspected me of drinking. He wouldn’t believe that I just worked in the bar.
As we crept up the stairway I noticed the knife was gone. “She’s reloaded!” I gasped.
“Look, Forrest,” Tony said with the false calm of a health professional, “I believe your story about how the knife hole got in the wall, but I think you should embellish the truth for the landlady.”
The clinking sound started again along with gentle murmuring. Tony poked his head up, ducking immediately as the knife flew again. It hit the same hole in he wall. Tony looked at it, his mouth open. “There’s a woman up there with a pile of knives,” he said.
“And she’s good at it.” I said.
Fifteen minutes later the landlady came home. She read the note I’d left and trudged up the stairs. She saw the knife and said, “You vandal! You sleep in the streets.”
Some threat, I thought.
Tony explained the situation to her. After she heard some clinking she called the police.
Officer Belanger arrived and asked if there was another way to the third floor. “Yes,” I said, “There is a fire escape on the far side of the building.”
“Does it open easily from the outside?” he asked.
“Yes,” I admitted as the landlady glared at me. I used it when I was really late and wanted to avoid a muzzle in my direction.
Officer Belanger gave me his hat to put on a broom. Then he snuck around to the fire escape. He whistled a prearranged beer jingle, and I raised the target. A knife hit the hat in the center of the brim. Officer Belanger rushed the thrower. He called that it was safe to come up.
“After you, Tony,” I said, looking at the punctured cap.
The knife thrower, whose name was Jill, was a former girlfriend of Rory. She had just gotten out of prison and wanted to hurt Rory for dumping her. Pat had given her the knives, and directed her to my room. Jill broke into my room and busted into my Kool-Aid Action Bank. The clinking sounds were my copper life-savings.
Instead of pressing charges the landlady took pity on the two hundred and fifty pound waif and offered her Rory’s room.
Officer Belanger mentioned to me that Lewiston had 911 service and gave me a police first aid booklet that told how to self-treat sucking chest wounds before he left.
That night Walter came in again without his boss. He was in his suit, which was good because we wouldn’t have let him in dressed in his other getup. He bought us both drinks. I noticed that he was glum.
“Rough day at the bank?” I asked.
“Yes. They all look so needy when they’re after a loan. One gets depressed.” he sighed. “And most of them make the same stupid loan arranger joke. But I am really upset because of my roommate. Norman’s a successful writer.”
“Bummer.” I said.
“He writes pornography. Nasty fake little missives that they print in magazines.”
“Long hours of research?” I guessed.
“No, he feels that his craft insists that he must sound out the onomatopoeia for veracity. He only works at night. He’s very loud. I am sure he indulges in drugs. Oh, and he’s a terrible slob.”
“Is it your apartment or his?”
“Mine, but I can’t afford the rent alone.”
I told him about my living situation and asked how much his rent was. It was only a little more than I paid at the boarding house once I added what I paid for parking. Walter’s place had a free lot. Walter happily agreed to give me a look at his place after I got off at ten. Smiling, I played the William Tell Overture.
Walter got really loaded. We left his car in the restaurant lot, and I drove him home.
As Walter had said, Norman was making noises in his room that sounded like the cast recording from three porn movies played at once. The wet noises were particularly gruesome.
Walter’s apartment was huge compared to my room. There were two twelve-foot-square bedrooms in the back. A short hallway with a foyer on one side and the compact bath and kitchen on the other connected the bedrooms to the open dining room/living room area in the front. Some of the walls were brick, others plaster painted off-white. It was on the third floor of the building across the street from St. Peter and Paul’s. “Wow, Walt,” I said, “I think I could be happy here.”
“Walt,” he said. “I like that.” We sat in the living room sipping gin. Walt took a really big gulp of his drink and mumbled that there was something I should know first. He was pretty bleary.
“Maybe you’d like to wait until tomorrow when you are a little more cautious?” I said.
“I’m gay.” he whispered.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m not. But it doesn’t bother me. I think one of my teachers is that way too.” It came out rather too quickly.
“That way?” he asked.
“Didn’t sound too good, did it?” I frowned. “I’m sorry. I’m a small town hick, so I guess I have some stickiness in my world view. I am trying to slough it off. Actually, it’s the biker part that troubles me.”
“That. I keep the clothes at the bus station. It is nothing I want connected to where I live.” Sam said. “And to alleviate your unspoken concerns, you aren’t my type. So, would you like to live here?”
I put out my hand and said, “Delighted.”
I agreed to move in as soon as we could displace Norman. Walt swiftly got up, threw open Norm’s door and shouted at Norm that he was to be gone by noon the next day.
Cowering Norm stammered, “But where would I go?”
“I don’t know but I can’t abide your caterwauling anymore.” Walt said.
I suggested that Norm might want to switch rooms with me, until he found a new roommate. He agreed. We both moved the next afternoon. I didn’t own much stuff, but I had to clean the rest of the day. Sam helped and bought me a new mattress for Norman’s old bed. The old one was in such a state that even after all this time I don’t want to tell about it.
The bar where I work had a costume we used for radio promotions, sort of a bar mascot. It was a brown and black leotard and the obscene shoulder wings. It had a huge mosquito head for a mask that was a trial to wear. It was set up like a periscope. You looked into mirrors to see out of the eyes six inches above your head. I had been cashiered into wearing it a couple of times over the summer. I borrowed it for the Shepard’s Halloween party.
Mrs. Pononnaleu dressed as “Miss Beautician” complete with all modes of dress she warned us to avoid (including lots of bracelets and makeup). Jenny Lou wore falsies on her back. Most women went the cowgirl route. There were three Groucho Marxes and a Raggedy Anna. Ted came as a clown. Linda wore a thin body suit, thigh reaching boots, a tail, and whiskers. She looked great. I could stare at her surreptitiously, but had to limit my observance because my costume didn’t hide much.
As I promised I handed out Jerry’s cards.
“Barf-ly,” Linda read. “Is this where you work. I still am going to come by some night.”
“Bar-fly.” I corrected. “I’ll save you a seat tonight.” I said. I couldn’t see her when she was close, but I greedily inhaled her perfume. I must have made a lot of noise because she asked, “You okay in there?”
“Just fine.” I said, worried that I really wasn’t.
Linda didn’t come to listen to me play. I admit I was disappointed. Not enough so I would eat catsup, though. I did play Dixie more than usual. The song usually made Jerry think piano playing was thirsty work, “look away, look away, sweet Dixie land.”
Whether October was a trick or a treat, hours later it became November.
Three Weeks in November
On the first school day of November I wore a tie. The teachers were planning to announce who was skilled enough to work in the clinic. If I was selected I wanted to be prepared to strike a dapper, but poised pose. Forrest Astaire, that was me. It was a fairly quiet tie, one of my late father’s. His collection of twenty or so silk cravats were all of him that I kept.
Dad was an insurance salesman. He carried reminders of capricious mortality door to door in a brown leather zippered bag full of actuary tables. Sadly, Dad didn’t buy his own product. Maybe he couldn’t afford it. He was good at what he did, but the more he sold, the further the local arm of the company he worked for cut his commission rate. When I think about it now, I see that he was trapped, hanging on to his lousy job because he was afraid to leave all the customers he knew for possibly withered pastures and because he had a family that he could have despised because they needed food and shelter and clothing. There were lots of reasons for his actions if you wanted to give him some slack. I didn’t.
Dad was at his best when he wore his tie. He might drink with it on, say, if he were entertaining a large commercial account, but he never got drunk. I don’t remember him ever hitting anyone while wearing a tie, but then he always took them off on the way home, and he did die when I was quite young.
The tie I chose was dove gray. It set off my grayish eyes. The day that the selections were to be announced we were all in Practical, seated in folding chairs against the walls. The new students were there with us. Those from my class who were left behind would be combining with them until up to speed.
Ted walked in to the room and once again we were all silent. Ted smiled and said, “Re-lax, already. It isn’t that bigga deal.” He pointed to Karrie and I, and I was happy until he said, “You two, please stay; the rest report to the clinic.”
I was relieved. Really. After what happened with Anna’s hair I sincerely did not wish to work on live people. I was considering becoming a wig specialist or a cosmetologist to the dead. I could be content giving frostings to the recently expired. Their hair would probably part easily. Supposedly there’s big money in working for undertakers.
I could tell that Karrie was livid because the skin was taut over her knuckles.
“How is the decision made about who stays or goes?” she calmly asked Ted before everyone left.
“Together the teachers review the students. If any of three feels that a student is not ready for the clinic then that student is allowed more time to progress.” Ted answered in a level tone, looking at me.
“Any one of the teachers . . . ” Karrie said.
“Oh.” Karrie sounded triumphant. Her hands had relaxed.
After the last of the clinic-bound students had gone, Anna sidled into Practical managing to look like she could open her mouth and have both a cool pat of butter and a canary feather on her tongue at the same time. “Now you two work very hard, and maybe next time you might make it.”
“Thank you for that ray of hope.” Karrie said.
We settled in to practice shampoo/sets. Anna was our teacher.
“Nice tie.” Karrie said.
“Thanks, it was my Dad’s” I said.
Karrie and I made friends with Joy Dubay, the one who sparked Karrie’s speech to end “Studly.” Joy’s partner was a blonde woman with short straight hair named Sheila Lendley. Sheila wore glasses that magnified her already wide blue eyes. Sheila was older than the rest of us, probably the same age as Anna.
“You are taking it well.” Sheila said of our spate of sarcastic jokes. “No offense, but if it had happened to me, I don’t know what I would have done.”
“Me, either.” Joy said, “I’ve wanted to become a hairdresser all my life. If I wasn’t good at it, it would kill me.”
Much later I would recall that moment for its horrible irony, but then I smiled as Karrie quipped, “You could always teach.”
With all my extra practice I could set Harriet three times as quickly as the new students.
“Wow, how did you get that fast?” Joy asked.
“He practices at lunch,” Karrie said. “Except Tuesdays.”
“May I join you?” Joy asked.
“Sure,” I said, unsure whether I was more disturbed to lose my time alone or glad that I wouldn’t be lonely anymore.
Even now I really hate to admit this next part. That afternoon during break I was having a drink of water at the cooler outside of Practical. I had brought a glass to school because I dislike waxy paper cups. Linda walked serenely up the stairs. Jenny Lou had cut Linda’s hair to shoulder length and curled it.
I was distracted and clutched my glass so tightly that it shattered in my hand. I stared at Linda as she preened. She looked thoroughly beautiful. Then she noticed my blood dripping on the floor. I looked down at the shards of glass sticking in the ball of my thumb wondering why it didn’t hurt. Then it did.
Linda fetched Ted who gulped, “Get in my car. I’m taking you to the emergency ward.” He eased out a glass shard and gave me a towel. We rushed to the hospital.
I got four stitches. The Novocain didn’t hurt as bad as the sewing for some reason. The doctor told me I wouldn’t lose any use of my hand which considering both my schooling and my night job was welcome news.
On the way back to school Ted said, “Ready to eat catsup?”
“No just clotheslined by a pretty face, purely hormonal. Probably a weak glass too.” I replied. To me clotheslined meant something.
Ted muttered a bit and then said, “I tried to warn you about Anna. I didn’t say this, but she is why you and the other one didn’t get on the floor.”
“I guessed as much, but I didn’t think she would so lack subtlety.”
“I can’t help you, you realize.” he said apologetically.
“I understand your position, but why don’t the other teachers argue with her?”
“None of them see all of what you have learned. Mrs. Pononnaleu and George think she saw something they didn’t when it was her turn to teach you. The system is biased to keep the untrained from working on our customers. Besides George is kinda spooked from your blow-drying Anna’s hair.” Ted said, grinning.
“So am I.” I said, grinning back.
Soon after that, on a day when we were all together in the classroom, Ted came in and asked, “Anyone want to volunteer for a special job?”
“What?” asked Sheila.
“The only way to find out is to volunteer.” Ted said.
I raised my hand. Curiosity tugged at my finger tips. I looked at Karrie, but she shook her head.
“Okay, you two, come to my office.” Ted said, turning to go. I looked to see who else volunteered, and Linda Lentil smiled at me.
“Hey,” said Joyce, “what did they volunteer for?”
“They might tell you the day after tomorrow.” Ted said.
When we had gotten to Ted’s office, he slid behind his cluttered desk. I don’t think I ever saw what the top of Ted’s desk looked like. I don’t think Ted knew.
“Oboy, have I got you two.” He rubbed his thick fingers together. “I could get you to do all sorts of icky things like clean dryers or sort perm records. Heh, heh, heh.” he chortled.
“But you’re not.” Linda said, slipping passed me into a chair in front of Ted’s desk.
Ted frowned, his game cut short. “How do you know?” he asked.
Linda looked at her kicking foot, one of her nervous habits. She either kicked or rocked, depending on her excitement level. “Because you don’t ask for volunteers for that stuff. You show everyone how to do it in class. This is something good.”
Ted and I looked at her, impressed. She smiled out of the side of her mouth and started rocking. “So whatcha got?”
Ted shrugged. All the fun was out of it for him. He picked a paper out of a pile on his desk. “You two are to attend a class on coloring tomorrow at ‘Style Aisle’ in the mall. A tint salesperson is giving a seminar. Some of the Style Aisle employees are sick, so they need warm bodies.”
I looked at Linda and said, “Are you a warm body?”
“You’ll never find out,” she retorted.
“I guess we fit the bill.” I told Ted.
“Do we hafta wear our uniforms?” Linda asked.
“No, don’t, but dress nicely. You are representing our school.” Ted said. “And tell the others that you are cleaning dryers.”
“Okay,” Linda said.
Outside the office I said, “No sense taking both our cars, how about I pick you up? It’s my turn to drive.”
“Can you drive with that hand?” she asked.
She gave me the address of her and Jenny Lou’s apartment.
The next day I wore my best jeans, a gray tweed jacket, a blue shirt, and Dad’s maroon tie. I pulled up in front of her place. Linda came out wearing a baggy men’s suit. Her hair was pulled back and tied with a bow. Again I froze. She looked fantastic.
“Are you on drugs?” she snarled. I snapped alert and opened the door for her. It creaked on it’s hinges. She looked at my front seat, brushed off some invisible dust, and sat down, scowling.
“You look nice today.” I said evenly.
She gave me a sidelong glance. “Whaddya mean by that?”
“Nothing.” I said. “Just expressing an opinion.”
“Are you sure this thing will start?” she asked after I had gotten in the car. I cranked my Apollo and wondered the same thing until it did. I drove to the mall. The woman at the salon said the sales rep would be an hour late, so I suggested to Linda that she and I should get a cup of coffee in the department store cafe. “Dutch treat.” she warned.
“Fine.” I agreed.
I slid into an orange plastic booth. She settled across from me. The walls were decorated with faded pictures of ice cream sundaes, banana splits, and cheeseburgers. The signs were lettered in the style of late sixties pop. When the cackling elderly waitress visited, Linda asked for coffee with cream but no sugar, and I ordered a cup, black.
“Why do you keep staring at me that way?” Linda asked.
“I’m sorry.” I said slowly. “You’re very pretty.”
“With this nose? Bill hates it. As soon as I’m twenty, Daddy is going to let me lop it off.” Linda blanched. She had inadvertently told me her darkest secret, one she hadn’t even told Jenny Lou.
“You don’t want to do that.” I said, unmindful of her consternation. “They break it with a hammer and chisel while you are awake. And you develop big black eyes for a month. It’s horrible.” I had read a book about it.
She grabbed the end of her nose and said, “Better than this.”
“Who’s Bill?” I asked.
She got up quickly. “I’m going back to the salon. I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”
I paid the check and left lots of change. My time in the restaurant trade had made me a big tipper. I hurried after her. She was sitting, rocking in the waiting area. I sat beside her.
“Jenny Lou has a crush on you,” Linda said, “so you can just leave me alone.” I hadn’t noticed and said as such.
“Guys are so blind.” she sighed.
“Why hasn’t she said anything?” I asked.
“Well, first you were going with Wendy, then you moved in with a guy. But she’s gone on you, boy.”
“Walt and I are just roommates.”
“So you’ll ask her out?” she said.
“I suppose, if you’d like me to.”
“Why do I have anything to do with it.”
“I’d rather go out with you, if Bill wouldn’t mind.”
“You’re back to Bill.” she said, her eyes narrowing.
“You never mentioned him before. I think it’s an odd boyfriend that asks you to have facial surgery.”
“Bill could be my brother.”
“No, he’s my guy.”
“Is it serious?”
“What is so complicated? It’s yes or it’s no.”
“A lot you know.” she said, moving across the room.
I didn’t follow her. I read Time until the rep arrived. The rep, whose name was Angel, was attractive as Mrs. Pononnaleu was attractive. They both had a sort of sculpted beauty. I told Angel that she looked nice.
“Thank you,” she said smoothly. “My husband thinks so.”
“That’s how to take a compliment,” I told Linda.
“Get . . . off . . . my . . . back.” she spelled out.
“What part would you like me on?” I asked sweetly. “Let’s color some hair,” Angel refereed. I don’t remember what she taught us, but I took pages of notes.
At lunch time Linda and I went back to the cafe. “Just don’t start anything.” she growled.
Linda had a tuna on whole wheat and milk. I had a cheeseburger, still without catsup, and a Coke. I found it an effort to force my eyes from Linda’s face.
“What. The hell. Do you. Keep. Looking at?” she asked.
“I am just trying to imagine how you would look with a part of your face gone. I’d hate to meet you years from now and not recognize you.”
“You never let up, do you?” With a disgusted air she snapped a bite of her sandwich. She glared at the bits of bread in her milk and swallowed. “What do want from me?” she whispered. The food had gone down hard, the words came even harder.
I started to squeeze my Coke glass with my good hand, but hearing the ice rattle, Linda grabbed my fingers. The contact jolted me far more than I expected. I let go of the glass, and Linda pushed my fingers away. I realized that I frightened her. I had also frightened me. I couldn’t even count on my own motor skills.
“I’d like to be your friend.” I said stupidly.
“I wanted to be friends with you after our trip, but you pretty much ignored me. Now you make me uncomfortable.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You’re so full of numb questions.”
“If I stop asking numb questions can we be friends?”
“Oh, all right. Will you take Jenny Lou out?”
“Good.” She tossed the rest of her sandwich at her plate. That settled, she relaxed.
“We’re friends?” I asked. I can be obtuse at times.
“Yes.” she said.
“So, you can tell me about Bill.”
She smiled, shook her freshly cut hair, but spoke. “Bill and I started going together in high school. He’s the first boy that Daddy really liked. I was a freshman, Bill was a senior. Now he’s starting his last year at Maine Maritime Academy. I don’t know how I feel about him. He’s changed a lot, and . . . he’s still Bill. He isn’t forcing me to get a nose job. He just calls me his little toucan.” She looked so miserable.
It could have been earlier, but I think that is exactly when I fell in love with Linda Lentil. It isn’t very romantic but I always associate the taste of hamburger grease with that moment. I felt myself slide into her sad eyes, desperate to make them glow with happiness. I eyed the dread catsup bottle but decided to wait until what I felt was reciprocated. It was only fair.
I finished my burger and carefully picked up my glass to drain the Coke. We split the check and headed back to the salon. I saw a photo booth, and cajoled Linda into getting our pictures taken. She relented after I promised her some of me alone for Jenny Lou.
In the narrow box I felt Linda squashed against me and drowned with secret jubilation. “Get over there” she said. “There’s plenty of room.” But there wasn’t, and I loved it.
I can’t really say what went on that afternoon as even my notes are sketchy.
The Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving weekend Wendy arrived at my apartment. We hugged, I introduced her to Walt, and she inspected the place. “Wow, these are the digs.” she said. Wendy had ditched her Wednesday morning class to help me out for the dreaded second “Bring in a Friend Day.”
“Are you sure that my hair is safe?” she asked. She had long red hair that she prized. She had encouraged me to go to beauty school so I could get her wholesale hair care products.
“Perfectly.” I said. “But to make sure let’s do a shampoo/set.”
“You mean I am going to have one of those high hairdos like in Mother’s graduation picture?”
“Yes — if it’s cool by you?”
“Why not? It would be a hoot to go home looking funny.”
“So,” Walt said to me, “do you need extra bedding for the couch?”
“We can bunk together.” I said nonchalantly. “We always have before.” Wendy and I had shared a bed many times growing up. When we were very young and our parents weren’t fighting they always tucked us in together on trips and such. After Dad died, Dukey and Joan took Mom, Opal, and me on trips with them and they usually put us in the same bunk in the trailer. Dukey bought a camp when I was sixteen. During our rebellious years Wendy and I would often escape to it overnight. We’d use the same bed because it seemed natural. We never did anything interesting. The most passionate we ever got was fighting over covers.
“I thought you broke up.” Walt said.
Wendy looked at me. “Broke up? Is that what you told him? Percy gives his famous half nod at the truth.”
“Percy?” Walt asked.
“Pet name for my shlong.” I said, ushering Wendy into the bedroom.
“You said that name!” I hissed after closing the door.
“Sorry, it slipped out. You told people we were going together?”
“I had my hopes.”
“Okay, okay. We have been over this before. Pretend for me, will you? Make me sound virile, particularly tomorrow at school.”
“It’s weird. But . . . I guess. It would be a role.” Wendy was a drama major.
“Yes, think of it that way.” I encouraged her.
We rejoined Walt. “Cozy looking bed, Studly.” Wendy cooed.
I glared at her.
“Forrest,” she giggled. “No, Walt, I haven’t gotten used to the fact that Forrest has dumped me over my little lapse. Darling, let’s say good night to Walter and play under the covers.” We went into my bedroom. I looked the other way, and she put on her flannel nightgown. She looked the other way, and I put on my jammies. Wendy looked at me and said, “I don’t know. This feels funny.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know if I can sleep with you knowing you feel . . . that way. It’s aberrant.”
“No, it isn’t.” I said. “It’ll be like always.”
“No, it won’t.” Wendy said. “You better sleep on the floor.” She gave me a pillow and a blanket.
“That’s silly.” I implored. “I won’t do anything; I promise.”
“I know, but just the same,” she said, “g’night.”
So I slept on the floor. It wasn’t comfortable at all.
The next morning she dressed like a prom date/hooker from hell. She wore a push-up bra that made her breasts into a chin rest and makeup that looked like if you rolled her face on paper it would print the Sunday funnies.
“Subtle costume, Wen.” I said.
“You like it, man o’ mine?” she cooed.
We wished Walt a happy Thanksgiving as we would be heading for Putnam directly from school.
“You, too,” he said. On Thanksgiving, Walt was going to a biker party as Sammy.
When we arrived at school Wendy glued herself to my arm. Wendy is taller than I am and extremely beautiful. She has won every pageant she has deigned to enter, and more than once I have seen eating men drop food out of their mouths when she walked by. Because of her beauty she is the most self-assured person I have ever met. Actually I realize now that I had always been her sidekick, her itch of a cousin, handy to have around to do the errands. But I still enjoy being her best friend.
The reaction was all that I hoped. My fellow students stared at us, Princess Beautiful and Troll-Boy, as we glided up to Practical. Karrie had brought Mom Honniger. Jenny Lou and Linda once again had Jenny Lou’s cousins from the skating rink. Mrs. Pononnaleu was our teacher. Mrs. P. admired Wendy’s hair. “You aren’t doing a frosting, right?” she asked.
“We thought a shampoo/set would be nice for the holiday.” I said. Mrs. P. agreed.
Somehow, Linda, Jenny Lou, and her cousins ended up crowded next to us forcing Karrie to move across the room with Joy, Sheila, and the friends they had brought in.
“So, you’re Forrest’s ex-girlfriend?” Linda asked bluntly.
“Yes.” Wendy said, slipping into her Marilyn accent, “Forrest addicted me to sex. While I was away from him, well, a girl gets lonely, I foolishly strayed for the briefest bit, and I lost him. As he said to me, ‘All that really matters in a relationship is honesty and truth.’ Those are the words he lives by. I swear someday I’ll get him back, but now I just am so grateful he’ll still allow me to feel his glowing Percy inside.”
“His Percy?” Linda gulped.
“That’s what we call it.” Wendy continued. “Last night was so wonderful, on the bed, on the floor . . . ” she gasped, seemingly unable to continue.
“You were together last night?” Jenny Lou said, sounding altogether crushed.
“I begged him for one last time,” Wendy sniffled, “until I can win him back.”
I listened to all of this in a stunned state, holding my comb like a knife over Wendy’s dampened head, unable to talk. Then my hours of practice took over, and I mechanically started to set Wendy’s hair. Wendy continued, “Do you know what the really unfortunate thing is?”
“No, what?” asked Linda. “His roommate was home, and so we couldn’t fill the tub with Jell-O. It’s his favorite.”
“His favorite.” Linda said.
“Yes, you take thirty packs of Jell and some boiling water and put it in the tub, then add a couple bags of ice and forty minutes later, Ooo-la-la.”
“Ooo-la-la?” prompted Linda.
“God, yes.” Wendy said. “Of course it helps if you have a really big tub.”
I was really tossing the rollers into Wendy’s hair. I made Ted look like a novice. Sparks must have been flying from my comb. By the time Linda and Wendy got to the end of an in-depth discussion of tub sizes, Wendy was ready to go under the dryer. I escorted her away from the others.
“Are you crazy?” I snarled. “What’s with the Jell-O bit, and the I hope we can get back together riff?”
“Women love men with imagination, and all women like men that other women want. Trust me.” she giggled.
“Do I have a choice?” I asked.
“Nope.” she said.
I manicured her nails while she dried. She smiled at Anna who came into the room to get a look at her. Wendy pointed at me and then at herself and mouthed, “Mine.” to Anna. Anna scurried away.
“You’re enjoying this.” I said, letting her out of the dryer.
“Yup.” she said, snapping her gum.
We walked back to my place near Linda and Jenny Lou. I took the rollers out of Wendy’s hair and started to brush.
“You grew up with Forrest,” Linda said. “tell us something he did that he wouldn’t want us to know about.”
Wendy looked at me and smiled wickedly.
“I don’t think I ever did anything funny.” I said to Wendy.
“There is the time we were in the tree house.” Wendy said, and I dropped my brush and turned very pale.
“Must be a good story.” Linda said. “Go on, tell us.”
“Forrest and I built a tree house when we were nine or ten in a big maple on the property line that was next to the neighbor’s pasture. We would fill our dads’ National Guard canteens with grape Kool-Aid and take a bunch of comic books and peanut butter sandwiches and Oreos and climb up to get away from them.”
“Who’s them?” asked Jenny Lou.
“My mom, Forrest’s dad, his whiny little sister, Peggy.”
“I thought your sister’s name was Opal?” Linda asked.
“Peggy is her nickname.” I said.
“What’s yours?” Linda asked.
“I don’t have one.” I said.
Wendy continued. “We liked to pretend we were Jane and Tarzan in the trees, though at the time I usually insisted that Forrest was Cheetah to piss him off. We would imagine the cows below us were lions or elephants. Mr. Fitzpatrick, the man who owned the cows, didn’t like us in the tree, but what could he do?
“Forrest had guzzled most of the Kool-Aid one day and was feeling pretty macho. He said it was too bad that I was a girl and had to climb down out of the tree house and squat on the ground to pee whereas he could just let fly from the edge of the tree house. He hauled out his Percy, started to pee, and made contact with the electric fence below us. Mr. Fitzpatrick had turned up the power because he’d caught us putting grass on the wire to get a tingle. I remember the blue spark ran right up Forrest’s pee, and he yelped and jumped back out of the tree house and fell fifteen feet to the ground. He caught the nail we hung the canteens on in his thigh on the way out. He got up crying, but without the wind to bawl and hobbled back to his house with the nail sticking out of his thigh and his Percy hanging out the front. His dad was working in the yard saw Forrest waving his arms and hopping forward and walked over to meet him. His dad yanked the nail out of Forrest’s thigh. Forrest didn’t know that he had picked up the nail and thought his dad had ripped off his Percy. He passed out. His dad gently put Forrest’s Percy away, and took Forrest to the hospital.
“Forrest limped for a while but he was okay. I always teased him from then on that his Percy was electrified.”
Wendy opened her purse and took out the nail. I forgot she had kept it. It was a great prop to her favorite story.
“That’s the nail?” Linda asked.
“Yup. It had some meat on it but it fell off.” Wendy said.
Mrs. P. walked over because I had finished Wendy’s hair. “Outstanding!” she said.
“You think so?” I asked nervously. I had been concentrating on the hair to block out Wendy. “It’s a little rough, isn’t it.”
“Forrest, you must believe that you have the capability to create beauty. This is a marvelous job. Maybe, since you have time, you would like to redo your patron’s makeup.”
After I did that Mrs. P. got everyone in the school to look at what I had done to Wendy. Ted took pictures. It was embarrassing.
Mrs. P. took me aside. “I am surprised you aren’t in the clinic. How is your attitude?”
“Fine, I guess.” I said.
“Then it must be someone else’s,” she said, “but we can’t discuss it.” I said I understood.
Not much later Wendy and I left for home. I was sullen until Wendy said, “I had a good reason for telling that story.”
“What ever could that be?” I asked.
“Did you notice that Linda asked for it?”
“She craftily wanted me to get on your bad side, to make a wedge between us. I told the story to help you out. I had to seem horrible to you, so Linda could feel justified in stealing you away.”
“She did it for Jenny Lou.”
“I don’t think so. It seemed personal.”
That cheered me up enough to forgive Wendy. Hours later I was again in Putnam, the place I no longer wanted to call home.
Thanksgiving and the Last Week of November
Wendy chortled a good deal more than necessary on the way home. It was a long trip, too, five hours of bumpy highway with just car-exhaust- rusted pine trees to look at. Wendy played the same bubble gum rock cassette all the way. Her car’s tape deck had an auto-reverse function so the only peace I had were the forty or so seconds of blank tape at the ends before the little thump when the tape head flipped. The songs on Wendy’s cassette sounded like they were being sung by thirteen-year-olds standing on their parent’s rec room couches with slotted spoons in front of their mouths making up different saccharine ditties as they went along. Things like that used to annoy me back when I dreamed of our eventual union, but since my trip to Vermont they magnified to intolerable aggravations.
I could tell that I had truly bothered Wendy by disclosing my feelings for her. She wasn’t as intimate with me as she had been in the past. She stopped in mid-sentence sometimes, and, unlike before, I couldn’t fill in the missing phrases. I wondered if it ever again would be like it was. I guess by my shocking revelation she finally saw me as my own person with thoughts and emotions that didn’t echo her own.
Wendy was one year older than I, though we graduated from high school together. Her mother made her repeat eighth grade not because of scholastic underachievement but because my Aunt Joan didn’t feel Wendy was emotionally ready for high school. Vilified by her former friends for matters beyond her control and contemptuous of girls younger than she, Wendy sought me, her next door neighbor and relative, as her only society. I had no other, being shy and bookish. I welcomed her company and the attention and ready acceptance her blossoming beauty afforded her and by extension me. As she started dating I was the one she turned to express her sticky joy and her salty but seldom disappointment.
She liked to play practical jokes on me and exulted in my embarrassment, but maybe all young people do that to their friends. Her performance that afternoon was a perfect example of how, in her mind for my own good, she made me her fool. With Wendy, I would always be in the same skit, her smiling mischievously, contemplating deviltry, while I waved my arms trying to change her mind.
It was a heady feeling to have disconcerted her aplomb, though it hurt to have put the distance between us. By finally seeing her as my cousin and wrenching her from her puppy love pedestal, I began to really understand her as she was and not a fantasy figure who’s “true” attitudes supposedly were temporarily covered by a nasty, vain, demanding, but beautiful young woman.
In short, we both, caught up in our own private little worlds, thought we knew one another and were disappointed to find the reality of the other’s views differed from the cassette automatically continuously playing to our inner ears. Suddenly we would have to work to remain friends. While she was at Middlebury, Wendy had joined a sorority and nearly had had a serious love affair. I had become much less important to her, and she wasn’t going to be the mother of my children. And yet I remembered the awful moments in the dorm lobby when she had tenderly said, “Oh, Forrest” and how gently she had led me outside to talk, and I felt deep affection for her in an appropriate manner.
Strangely, Wendy was thinking similarly because she pulled the car to the side of the road and turned off the engine.
“I have been really mean to you.” Wendy said, hugging me. “If you weren’t my cousin you would be exactly the kind of man I would be happy to marry. I should have been flattered, but I got angry. I hope I didn’t embarrass you with your new friends.”
“Less than I did to one of yours.” I said. She kissed my cheek and giggled.
“Let’s always be friends,” she said. “And from now on be honest with me.”
I laughed and threw her tape out the window. “I hate that group.” I said. Of course she made me get it before she would start the car, but she did play it at a lower volume.
We pulled into her driveway around six. Putnam was weeks ahead of Lewiston diving into Winter. The ground was covered with over a foot of frozen slush. The air was a good deal colder, too. I shivered when I opened the car door.
Joan ran out of the house and embraced Wendy. Oddly enough, she liked Wendy’s hairdo. Dukey joined Joan a half a minute later. He pumped my hand after picking his daughter off the ground in a bear hug.
I walked across the street to Mom’s house. Opal was on the couch painting her toe nails. “Oh,” she sighed, “you’re home. Mom’s gone some where. She said to tell you the food in the fridge is for tomorrow, and you better stay out of it.”
I went up to my former room, now the guest/storage room. Mom had re-wallpapered in a jungle motif. Mom liked to buy things on sale. Opal and I always joked while growing up that Mom would buy salted bat wings if she could get a coupon for them. It looked like she hit a remnant clearance. The walls had eight or so different patterns, each with a different wild animal, except one strip with chickens. Mom had put bamboo pattern contact paper on my bed’s headboard. The drapes were a leaf print in a strange faded green.
“Drapes look like they are covered with boogers, don’t they?” Opal said from over my shoulder.
“Yup.” I said.
“Can you braid yet?”
“Simple braids.” I answered.
“Could you do mine?” she asked.
“Sure.” I braided her long dark hair and relished a surprising ten full minutes with my sister without strife.
“What is it like being on your own?” Opal asked after I finished one side.
“Fun. It’s nice to be able to do just what you want when you want.” I paused and asked, “How’s Mom been?”
“Don’t start on her. She’s not even here.”
“I’m not starting on her, Opal. I just asked how she’s been.”
“I told you to call me Peggy like Daddy wanted. Mom’s been fine. If you wanted to know you should have written or called. She’s been worried sick about you.”
Mom hadn’t contacted me either, but I didn’t want to start anything. “I’ve been busy, Peggy.” I answered gently. I missed her. During the time I had been away I had developed a viable affection for my scrappy little sister. I reached to hug her, but we had fought too often and too hard in the past for such a gesture to have more than meaning. She thought I was going to hit her. When I was younger, angrier, more sullen and resentful, I had often slapped my little sister for being willful while I baby-sat her. When I had been in high school my physical domination of her seemed different than what my father and mother had done to me. That night with Opal, seeing the fear in her eyes without rank fury to cloud mine, I realized my failure to be better than them. If I was surprised at her reaction, I had no right to be.
“I’ll tell Mom if you hit me.” Opal said in a terrible, desperate whisper. “It won’t be like when you were home and could always get me for telling.”
I felt electric shame from bone to skin and became fleetingly angry at Opal because of it. She saw my face and dashed from the room with the ragged clots of unfinished braid trailing behind her. From downstairs I heard the exterior door slam. I shut my door, collapsed on the splotchy green bed spread, and blinked at the ceiling. Mom had painted it blue with cartoon clouds, rimed with silver.
All at once I wanted to cry real tears, to let out the deep, gnawing guilt that I truly believed I should have felt upon realizing how corrupt my actions had been in my past. But there was nothing in me save sour fatigue. Over and over in my mind I beseeched poor Opal to forgive me for the sad evils I had inflicted upon her, but knew I would never have the courage to embarrass myself to my little sister by saying the words for real.
I fell asleep as dusk settled like a petulant dog. I didn’t hear Mom or Opal return home.
The next morning Opal opened my door and gasped, “Hurry down or you’ll miss the start of the parades.”
It was a family tradition. We would have doughnuts and cocoa, sit on the lumpy couch, and watch sitcom stars pretend to enjoy watching corporate floats wobble up the littered city streets. Call me cynical, but I hate a TV parade.
Mom wetly kissed my cheek, and I caught that smell on her breath and from her cocoa.
“It’s a holiday.” she said to my expression of reproach. I took my doughnut, scooped the plastic marshmallows out of my cocoa onto my napkin, and grimly took my seat on the left. Opal sat on the other side, and Mom wriggled between us. Mom never just sat down; she always had to move side to side as if polishing the seat. Mom was forty then, but looked older. I remember in kindergarten an art exercise in which we put blobs of water color on paper and used a straw to blow the liquid in thin lines like roots. Mom’s face looked like that done in pink. Her eyes were watery and clouded. Her lower lip was often relaxed so you could see the pool of spittle at the base of her gray teeth. Her torso wasn’t obese, but her limbs were puffy as the balloons dipping like ships in uncalm seas on the television. Mom’s dirty blonde and gray hair was matted to one side of her head while the other side spiked out as if it were an exit wound.
“What do you want for Christmas.” Mom asked. She’d asked the same question each of the three times we had talked over the five months I had been away.
“Wool socks.” I said. I pointed at her mug. “Hey, can I have some too?” I figured Opal could drive later.
“Certainly not. You have five months until you are old enough to drink in this state. While you are under my roof, you will not break the law.” (Later, when we went to Joan and Dukey’s for Thanksgiving dinner, I could drink all I wanted in front of Mom because it wasn’t her house. Go figure.)
“Look at Bulwinkle.” Opal commanded. Like always in our family, our failings with each other were always forgotten by morning. Apparently Opal forgave me for posing a threat to her. I was very grateful because I hadn’t meant to, or at least hoped I hadn’t. It started me thinking.
I sipped my cocoa; Mom gulped her’s contentedly.
Opal cheerfully enumerated all the different years we had watched the parades. Like the year we had the dog who ate the doughnuts (including the plastic bag they came in so we hunted futilely for them for an hour), or how we guessed what color the floats were before we bought a color TV, and the year Grandmother Cone had sent us homemade doughnuts that tasted good but chewed like hockey pucks. I realized that all the memories that came to my mind were of bickering and hurt feelings. Some of Opal’s examples of familial bliss, like our treating black and white TV as an adventure, predated her being old enough to talk and had been told to Opal by Mom in previous years.
After the parades got boring, which took a good deal longer for Mom than Opal or I, we took turns showering in preparation for the grand visitation.
Every year on Thanksgiving we went to visit Dad’s grave. I never understood Mom’s reason for choosing Thanksgiving except for the obvious, yet ironic one. I never asked. We piled in Mom’s Maverick, and I drove us to the cemetery. Behind the high Catholic statuary depicting angels, Mary, Jesus or combinations thereof, Dad’s flat, iron marker was nestled beneath the crusted snow. It was hard to find under the cover. Once I located it, we all brushed the snow and leaves off of it. Mom mumbled some words that sounded like the Pledge of Allegiance followed by Grace while Opal wept. I tentatively put an arm around Opal’s narrow shoulders. At first she started to shrug my arm off but gratefully snuffled against my chest. It felt good.
We went back to the car, and I drove back to Mom’s house. We walked across the street to Joan and Dukey’s for Thanksgiving dinner.
Aunt Joan delighted in disparaging her relatives. Mom thought by going to Joan’s house for Thanksgiving she would be exempt from the litany of tut-tuts and “have you ever’s that Joan dished out to anyone she could trap into listening. What Mom didn’t realize is that Joan always took great pains to concentrate more fully on those family members with the audacity to visit her. Also, Joan had the opportunity to garner more ammunition.
Dukey, Wendy, and I went down to the rec room to get out of Mom and Joan’s way. Dukey made us both rum and Cokes. I hauled on mine with appreciation.
Opal peeped in. “Can I join you guys?” she asked.
“Sure,” Dukey said, “but you get straight Coke.” Opal sat beside me on the couch. Wendy and Dukey sat in dilapidated recliners. It was like old times.
“Missed you two.” Dukey said. Wendy and I nodded and talked about our school experiences.
We were summoned to dinner a short time later. Mom had burnt her hand on the oven and was sticking her fingers around some frozen vegetables in the freezer. “Got a lil’ clumsy.” she slurred. Joan was furiously scrawling mental notes; her face was twisted with glee.
“Maybe you should ease up a bit.” I suggested.
“Leave her alone.” Opal said. “You’re why she drinks anyway.”
“Me? I’ve been gone for six months.” I retorted.
“You’re a pig, Percy!” Opal said. “She only is like this because she was all nervous about you coming home.”
“She wasn’t there when I got home.”
“Let’s eat.” Dukey broke in. We sat in the dining room. The food looked good anyway. Joan set a mean table.
Mom shuffled in looking confused. She hadn’t been that bad in a while. She leaned on her chair and glared at me with tears and anger in her eyes. “You don’t know what it’s like, no idea.” Mom sobbed. She commenced to bawling in the mashed potatoes. The steady drips soaked into the whipped whiteness.
“Tell me, Mom. Tell me how it’s been.” I was furious and frustrated. I was tired of being blamed for my mother’s problems.
“Forrest and I will make up our plates and eat in the rec room, if that’s okay.” Wendy said.
“What about me?” Opal said.
“Take care of your mother.” I said, getting up.
Joan snarled, “If your plate gets too heavy for your limp wrists, Percy, Wendy can help you.” This last comment was really stupid because cosmetologists have strong wrists from giving shampoos and other services. Wendy and I left.
Downstairs we ate in pained silence.
Mom came down the stairs later. “I want to talk to my son.” She said with formality to Wendy. Wendy looked at me, and I indicated the stairwell with my chin. She squeezed my shoulder as she passed and took my empty plate.
Mom sat on the couch beside me. I shied away from her embrace, and she started to cry again. “I did the best I could with you, and you turned out all right. You haven’t killed anyone, or gotten anyone in trouble, so I guess I did a pretty good job. I know I did my best. Why do you hold so much against me?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You left so soon after high school and never visited until now; it looks shitty to everybody, like I was a bad mother or something. You did it on purpose.”
“Mom, you’re always so concerned about what other people think and never what I think or feel. What about me? Did I have a happy and secure childhood? Did you teach me self respect or to get along with and respect others? Do you deserve credit for how I turned out, or did I do it myself, by accident?
She, of course, slapped me, a forceful strike with most of her weight behind it. I was briefly dazed. She slapped me a second time, gibbering guttural, dark words about how I was no man and had less of a cock than my sister, spattering me with saliva with each word. I pushed her away from me to stop her slapping and immediately regretted it.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I didn’t mean it.” I cowered. Her face darkened, and she, a woman of half my size, became enraged and grabbed my ears and banged my head against the cement wall until a bloody spot formed on the concrete. I could have easily held her arms down and kept her from hurting me further, from hurting both of us, because I knew what these rages would cost her later, but I was powerless in her hands, unable even to escape. She stopped after a while when her strength deserted her. “You don’t know . . . ” she muttered before she passed out.
I looked up and saw Opal. I had no words for my sister. I raised my hands and shrugged. She glared and asked, “How could you do that to Mom?” before going to fetch Uncle Dukey.
Dukey took me to the emergency room where I received six stitches. Dukey was fascinated by the shaving procedure. While I was there I had the other stitches taken out. The doctor gave Dukey a fish-eyed glare. “Where were you when these happened?” he asked.
I quickly spoke up, “I got the wound in my hand in Lewiston squeezing a glass, and the one on my head I got by slipping against a wall.
“Multiple times?” the doctor asked.
“I am sure it just looks that way.” I said. I don’t know if he believed me, but he didn’t ask any more questions, even about my clawed ears.
The rest of the weekend Opal avoided me, and Mom, acting like nothing happened, perhaps nothing she remembered, talked about how we’d be happy at Christmas, the gambols she had planned. Sunday afternoon Wendy and I headed back to Lewiston. Wendy had me sleep on the floor again, as she spent the night in my apartment before starting out for Middlebury on Monday morning.
That Monday noon Linda cornered me in Practical. “What happened to you?” she asked looking at my bandages, bent towards me at the waist with her hands on her hips..
I hopelessly racked my poor head for a smart answer but found myself fighting back a wracking sob. I became very afraid of Linda’s ability to make me feel truths, even if I would not tell them to her. I sat on a folding chair inhaling deeply. After I had choked some control over my thoughts I answered her with a question. “Did you want something?”
She sat beside me, looking away from me to the cranial nerve posters. “You promised you would ask Jenny Lou out.” she reminded me. “Assuming you haven’t gotten back with your girlfriend.”
Not seeing how I could enjoy a date with Jenny Lou feeling as I did for Linda, I countered, “How about Jenny Lou and you going out with me and my roommate, Walter? That way we can get to know each other with less pressure. We could go bowling or something.”
She thought it over. Her brown eyes narrowed. “Would your roommate hit on me too?”
“He’s gay.” I said sotto voce. “That should keep his inescapable infatuation with you to a minimum.”
“Well-okay.” She smiled reproachfully at me, scamp that I was. “How’s Wednesday?” she said. I had the night off and said I would ask Walt.
I called him on the pay phone, and he was amenable after I begged. Jenny Lou was only too happy to agree to the plan.
Tuesday at lunch Ted said, “So, I hear you have a date.”
“Just two sets of roommates going bowling.” I said, ordering my burger without catsup. He probably would have made a bigger thing out of it, but the counter person slipped him a pickle and he was too happy to get his free bite to harass me further.
On Wednesday evening Walt was as petrified. He had never been out with girls before.
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
He just looked at me like I held his twisted intestines in my hand ready to give them another sadistic turn.
“Become someone else.” I suggested. “You could dress in the middle of the biker and the banker and pretend to be a . . ” “Yeah?” he said, brightening.
“Yes, one of those laid-back factory workers who have double-dated lots of women. You could be Wally!”
“Wally?” he said cheerfully.
“Wally.” I answered, “Besides, this isn’t a real date. It’s just four people going bowling.” I wasn’t really nervous, though I was going on the first real date of my life with the woman I currently adored. I had discovered that beyond true terror there lay an area where you don’t really give a shit. I was pleasantly constipated there.
Jenny Lou picked us up in her car because she was the only one who owned a four door. They both dressed in baggy sweatshirts, Linda in jeans, Jenny Lou in a miniskirt. They were in front. Wally and I jumped in back. We went to a restaurant first, a steak place where you walked through a cattle pen to get to the cafeteria style counter. It had been Jenny Lou’s choice.
Strangely enough, Jenny Lou and Wally were instantly attracted to each other. They flirted and cuddled and made heavy eye contact. Linda glared at me as if it were my idea. I wished it had been. When the ladies went to the rest room I told Wally that he didn’t have to pretend to like Jenny Lou, but he said he was “smitten” with her.
“Smitten,” I repeated.
“Wonderfully so.” he said.
“You said you were gay.”
“Bisexual, really. I never had the courage to ask women out.”
“Oh.” I said.
“’Oh.’” Wally mocked. “Forrest, don’t think I am only gay because I fear women. Don’t think because I have gay feelings I am representative of any movement. Sexual orientation is not a political clique. It doesn’t predicate any system of codification. I am me. I typify only myself. I find the lady interesting, so sod you.” He hissed this in his sneering soft British slur.
He looked at my dumbfounded expression and sniffed, “Well, I guess I overreacted a bit. Sorry. Sensitive area, that. Still chums, I trust?” I nodded and shook his big hand.
Linda scowled after returning from the rest room. I suppose that she had heard something similar because when we left the restaurant she drove. I sat beside her in front while Wally and Jenny Lou made wet noises in the back. Giggling, Jenny Lou couldn’t remember how to get to the bowling alley. We spent a good deal of time driving around listening to a Suck Face Concerto. Linda and I loudly made nervous chit-chat. Finally we dropped Wally, Jenny Lou, and their hormones off at Wally’s apartment.
The night wasn’t particularly cold, so I asked Linda if she wanted to see something nifty.
She looked at me suspiciously. “Nifty.” she said.
“Very nifty.” I soothed and grasped her left mitten. I guided her to the upper balcony of St. Peter and Paul’s.
We sat on the steps and enjoyed the view. A full moon bobbed over city hall. Lewiston had its Christmas lights on and the scene appeared far more magical.
“Gee, it’s chilly.” I said, easing an arm around Linda’s shoulders. She felt good there.
“What are you doing?” she asked without moving.
“Don’t you feel Fate’s palms pushing when you’re with me?” I said seriously. “I do with you.”
She looked at me solemnly. “I feel you pushing.” she said. The blue and red and yellow lights twinkled off of her long eyelashes. In the dark I couldn’t tell what was in her eyes, in her mind, or in her heart. I just hoped the magic of the scene would suffuse the yawing gap between use to weave molecule thick emotional connective tissues that would bind her tightly to me.
“Is that all you feel?” I asked and then kissed her for long, delicious moments.
She looked startled when the kiss ended. She twisted away from me and breathed deeply. She exhaled a puff of white breath still looking shocked. Wendy had trained me well.
She started to say something but stopped for another breath. I was terrified I had blown it, but felt heartened that she was still with me. What the heck, I thought, better not wait ten years, better not wait one more minute.
I told her.
She got up, walked to the balustrade, and leaned on it. I continued to sit on the edge of the cold stone.
“Did you sleep with her Monday night?” she asked.
“No, I slept on the floor. I haven’t slept with Wendy since long before I graduated from high school. Wendy likes to play games.” I wondered if I technically told a lie.
Linda looked back at me with heavy drops of moisture suspended from her brown eyes. “Do you really mean it? Do you really think you feel that way for me?”
I got up and started toward her but registered her fright at my approach. “Yes. Are you angry with me?”
She shook her head and kissed me, her tear-wet nose sliding past mine. It was an anxious, messy, testing kiss, as if she was sorting out my feelings or hers.
“Oh, Forrest, I was gone on you, boy, from the moment I saw you trembling in your seat the first day of class. Of course, then you were going with Ms. Redhead. Jenny Lou called dibs, so I had to wait for her to have a shot. She took so darn long, I thought I might never get mine. Finally, I got her a date with you and she goes ga-ga on your roommate. Honestly.”
This wasn’t a dream sequence, even though it seemed like one at the time. I did not wake up. It really happened. It was the third most incredible moment of my life. The other two we’ll get to later.
“What about Bill?” I asked.
She left me and pivoted to face the moon. “I didn’t get to see him at Thanksgiving. He was off on some drunken guy thing. I’m going to break it off with him at Christmas and can’t really start anything with you until then. Bill never said your words, but we went together for so long, I owe him that.
“It took me some time, but I figured it out. I just liked Bill because Daddy was so taken with him.”
“Would your father like me?” I asked. Close as we had been, there snapped between us an emotional distance. We were like charged magnets. We got close. We bounded apart.
Linda jolted. “Forrest, I don’t know what I feel. I’d like to get to know you but yet wouldn’t call what’s inside a name. I’m not ready for you to meet Daddy or to make future plans.”
She pointed to Wally’s apartment. “Jenny Lou is probably discussing with Wally what they’ll call their second kid. I am not that way. Please, can we, can you, take it slow? I gotta tell Bill. Oh, um, I’m not ready for . . . ”
That thought terrified me, “Uh, me, either.” I said. “I’m letting my virginity grow back.”
Linda smiled at me, relaxing, thinking me very understanding. She asked, “You really like my nose?”
“It’s pretty up here,” Linda said, “though it’s getting colder. I’m going home. What’re you going to do? Will you be okay? Do you want me to drop you at a hotel?”
“I’ll stay here for a while. Later, I’ll call Wally and see if the path to my room is clear.”
She left but stayed a moment to whisper from the shadows, “Would you mind if I asked what happened to your head?”
I started to form a lie, but it was a crisp night of risk. “Mom slammed my head against a wall.”
“I don’t know the real reason. I don’t think I did anything to deserve it.”
“You are so very different.” she whispered and slid further into the darkness.
Again, alone, I felt the pressure, the throb in my sinuses of unsluiced tears. What would it take, I wondered. Need I dig my fingers behind my eyes to pull them out? If not happiness, hope, shame, or fear, then what? I slammed the stone balustrade with my fist, mashing the skin on two knuckles. Sourly, I watched the blood well and glitter in a trickle to my wrist. I wondered it I had frightened her away. Perhaps I should have been more patient. I tormented myself with the possible unsavory ramifications of blurting every sad truth.
Later, very tired, I stumbled down the steps to the pay phone two blocks down.
Jenny Lou answered. She waited up for me after getting my call. Wally was asleep. I could come home. I trudged the distance and the stairs in a trance.
“I kinda thought . . . ” Jenny Lou said when I opened the door. She had on one of Walt’s robes.
“Maybe someday.” I smiled.
She pecked my cheek, shrugged, and glided back to Wally’s room.
I closed my door and collapsed in the bed after kicking off my pants and shoes.
December, before Christmas Break
The next morning Wally made breakfast. He baked corn muffins from scratch, humming tunes from “Grease” as he ground coffee. The appetizing aroma of the muffins had gotten me out of bed much earlier than usual. Snorting like a horse, disheveled and unshaven, I shuffled out into the kitchen in my frayed blue terry cloth bathrobe. Then I realized Wally was making Jenny Lou breakfast before he took her home to change for school. I had forgotten that she had stayed the night, and I turned to go back to bed to leave them be, hoping there would be leftovers. Wally grabbed my robe with his big red furred mitt and yanked me into the small kitchen alcove.
“Sorry,” I muttered, “I forgot. I’ll leave y’all alone.”
“No, you won’t.” Wally snarled in a quiet, crazed, pleading way. “I’ve run out of topics a baker would discuss. I need help.”
“Hrrm.” I said, rubbing my growth of peach fuzz. “You sure?”
“Did you make enough for me?”
“Four dozen. After all, I am a professional.”
“Well-okay.” I said, joining Jenny Lou.
Yawning, I slouched at the table in the not-yet-morning gloom and tried to soak some cheer out of the warm yellow lights mounted on tracks over the table. Wally’s table was glass topped with a polished wood frame. Jenny Lou’s knees were a lot cuter than mine.
“Linda says that a lot. ‘Well-okay’.” Jenny Lou mimicked.
“You’re right.” I said. “Where’d you meet Linda? If you don’t mind my noticing, she seems a tad more high-tone as my grammy would say.”
Jenny Lou beamed her impossibly wide smile and spoke rapidly, “I answered an ad in the Journal. Her dad offered room, board, and tuition to someone to share an apartment with her. He didn’t want her being lonely or sharing space with a stranger. I wasn’t all that hot in nursing school and applied. My first aid training won me the job.
“A housekeeper comes three times a week, our laundry is picked up, and we eat out a lot. We have a huge apartment filled with great rented furniture. It’s incredible. An even greater kick is that I actually enjoy hairdressing. Linda doesn’t really know how good she’s got it. She’s so used to being a princess. But what’s even weirder is that she never holds my being an employee over my head when we fight. It’s like we’re sisters.
“She’s had this . . . ” Jenny Lou waved in the air, “huge crush on you since day one. She’s been after me to go out with you to see what you’re like. I can’t see why she left you last night.”
Wally brought the muffins and coffee. He motioned for me to keep the conversation going and sat down.
Jenny Lou pulled a muffin apart letting out a fragrant puff of steam. After taking a mouthful she praised Wally’s skills and continued. “Linda is now, like, my best-friend. She so fearless and sweet. God, I hope you two get together. You seem like such a nice guy. Bill is such a jerk. I mean he just plain lords over her. He just shows up with out calling, gets, I dunno, serviced, and splits. It must be so, y’know degrading.” She looked at me with her mouth open and her eyes rolled up.
The muffins were very tasty but a little dry. The coffee should have helped that. Unfortunately, Wally is one of those sick individuals that think that coffee is supposed to be flavored with unknowable artificial “enhancements.” I gagged. The seemingly innocent liquid in my cup was probably strawberry-mint-mocha-bayleaf. “Good muffins, but may I have some coffee?” I asked. Wally smiled and got up to put real java in his whirligig.
Jenny Lou went on to enumerate my various good points that modesty will not allow me to remember. It always makes me uncomfortable when someone praises me as this was the tack Mom took when she wanted me to do something I didn’t want to do. For example, Mom would loudly ask, “Would some strong, handsome, brave, intelligent he-man scrape the maggots out of the bottom of the garbage pail?” then she and Opal would stare at me. I could see brave, strong, and he-man, but why would intelligent and handsome be appropriate job requirements? Wouldn’t the former be an opposite?
Wally exchanged the toxic-swamp-effluent for coffee. I guzzled the heated brew happily.
We talked about the second cut for the clinic. I said I didn’t want to be chosen as I wasn’t emotionally ready.
“Linda is a blue tag too. You’d get to spend more time with her.” Jenny Lou pointed out.
“There is that.” I agreed.
“Besides, figure how likely it is that you’ll get a patron like Anna.”
They left soon after. I got another cup of coffee and sat on the couch and decided to feel sorry for myself.
Jenny Lou’s speech had me bothered on several levels. Linda, clearly out of my socioeconomic league, had a psychotically concerned parent and a steady boyfriend who still got his pump primed. Not good news for the songster from Aroostook. But still, and yet, against all logic I believed that I was what Linda needed, more so than the other way around.
I readied myself for the clinic cut. I was pretty nervous that I would be passed over again. I hadn’t done anything to anger Anna except for witnessing Wendy’s antics. But I also hadn’t kissed her butt like Ted had suggested.
When Walt came back he was thoroughly pleased with himself.
“You didn’t name your second child, did you?” I asked.
“No, but we did name a dog or two.”
“Could you do me a favor and drop me off at school? I don’t want to work up a sweat in case I am chosen to go to the clinic.”
“Sweat enough there, wot?” Walt smiled.
He let me off at the door. Linda hadn’t arrived. I walked up to Practical. Joy’s class and Karrie and I were gathered there to see who the chosen were to be. Ted walked in. Joy and two other Mid-Octobers got to go. Once more Karrie and I were left behind.
I was diffident. Karrie immediately demanded to talk to Ted in his office. They were in there for two hours. Then all the teachers were called in together. Another hour went by. I busied myself in giving Sheila a perm, and she colored my sideburns gray. Sheila thought it would make me look distinguished. It didn’t. It was like having a two skunk skin cap.
Finally Karrie emerged looking triumphant. “You and I are getting a test.” she told me gaping at my hair.
“A test.” I had picked up Linda’s habit of repeating a person’s words interrogatively.
“Yes, Mrs. P. will check us to see what we have learned. It’ll be like State Boards.”
“Oboy.” I said. “I thought getting passed over was humiliating. Do I have to?”
“Are you kidding? You’ll slam dunk this puppy. I’m the one who should be concerned.”
“When will this be, sometime next week, week after next?”
“Yours is this afternoon, mine’s tomorrow morning.”
“Yes, I convinced them that a system that relied on three separate teachers observing students was flawed because if Teacher A noticed a particular problem that might be cleared up later under Teacher B, Teacher A would keep that student out of the clinic for the wrong reasons. The school is here for the students, not the patrons. We are here to prepare for State Boards and so the experience of a mini test would be beneficial. It’s the way everyone gets on the floor from now on.”
“This afternoon?” I repeated, aghast.
“Relax, Mrs. P is giving the test because she was trained by Mr. Shepard and she trained both George and Anna.”
“Why do I go first?”
She pointed at me, “Cone,” and to herself, “Honniger. Alphabetic order. Good luck. I’m going to eat lunch.” She left for the smoking lounge.
I wandered into Ted’s office. “Wow.” Ted said. “If she’d be my lawyer I’d pay her way through college and law school. She even got Anna arguing for her toward the end.”
“I get tested after lunch?”
“Yes, but you shouldn’t have any difficulty. Just remember to slow down a bit and be careful. Fast is good for the salon but not for evaluations. Tell you what, let’s go out to lunch an extra time this week, my treat. That is, if you want to go out in public with hair like that.”
“Okay.” I agreed.
When we had gotten to the counter the clerk, a short woman with thick green plastic framed glasses named Oteen held up her hand. Oteen knew our order cold. “I’d like extra catsup.” I squeaked. Ted and Oteen looked at me, mouths agape.
“I should try it as a last meal.” I said.
We took our orders to a booth. I was hyperventilating. “I told Linda Lentil that I loved her last night.”
Ted shrugged. “You don’t have to eat that, particularly today. You look . . . wilted.” “Nope. It’s time.” I swallowed my fears and took a big bite. Much to my surprise it tasted good. I chewed the burger and delightedly gobbled more. I even went back for another with even more catsup.
“What did Linda say?” Ted asked.
“Oh, she needs to kiss off her present boyfriend at Christmas time and wants to take our relationship slow.”
“Sounds wise.” Ted said. “Has she seen your hair yet?”
“No. I’ll get it colored back as soon as I can.” I said, dipping my French fries in a puddle of catsup.
When we got back to school I dashed to the bathroom and threw up. I guess I was nervous.
“Relax,” Ted said as he handed me a Coke.
I haven’t been able to eat catsup since.
Mrs. Pononnaleu and I went into Practical and closed the door. I put Harriet’s clamp on the table. “Uh-uh,” Mrs. P. said. “We won’t be using a mannequin. I want you to give me a shampoo and set and a manicure. My hair should look exactly as it does now. Between the shampoo and the set you can put in a few pin curls, fingerwaves, and perm rods.”
I examined her hair while I brushed her before shampooing her thick reddish hair. I was shocked to find dark roots. I would have sworn in court that her hair wasn’t colored. She read my expression. “Oh, do I need a touch up? Pick the right color and do half my head.”
I checked the charts and picked a color. Mrs. P. looked at the bottle holding it close to her face. Then she took out her reading glasses. “Is this what you plan to use?” she asked.
“Yes.” I gulped.
“It’s the right one.” she smiled. “I just examined the bottle to see if you were sure of yourself. Why are you doing the color first?”
“Tint goes on dry hair.”
“What if I had spray or gel in my hair?” she pointed out, “That could block the color.”
“Not that close to the root, I thought.”
“Fair enough.” she agreed.
I colored her regrowth, shampooed out the tint, fingerwaved, perm rolled, pin curled, and set her hair. While she dried I gave her a manicure. During State Boards you have to use bright red nail polish to show any mistakes, but I used Mrs. P.’s regular color. I started to comb her out like she normally had it done but felt like trying a subtle variation. I showed her the regular look and the modification. She looked at me seriously, “Very good. Ever since you brought your friend in I have wanted an excuse to have you set my hair. You have a gift. You pass. Frankly, but confidentially, I am more than a little angry that you have been kept from the clinic for as long as you have for what I would consider unprofessional reasons. You start in the clinic Monday.”
“Really?” I said, gleefully.
“Yes. Now mums the word to Miss Honniger. No hints as to what happened in here.”
“Okay.” I said.
Karrie called me up and badgered me to tell, but I said it wouldn’t do her any good to know because Mrs. P. might change it anyway. “Besides,” I pointed out, “this is a test of doing. You can’t cram for it.” Karrie growled and hung up.
The next day she passed too. “You’re lucky. If I hadn’t I’d’ve blamed you.” Karrie said.
Monday morning in the clinic I stood by my chair and waited for a victim. I was apprehensive. Somewhat stale leftover corn muffins lay like tungsten in my tummy which nonetheless churned like a washing machine. Linda was receptionist that day. She had the duty of assigning patrons to students.
I went over to the counter. “No frostings.” I said.
“What’ll ya give me?” she grinned.
“A big kiss.” I answered as lewdly as I could.
“I’d settle for a cowflop from the fat truck.” Cowflops where what we at Shepard’s called sticky buns.
“It wouldn’t be as sweet, more calories, too.”
“Anna might need her retouch done today.”
“One cowflop. Sold.” I held out my hand. Hers floated into mine. I compressed her warm palm with my long fingers, lightly tracing the faint lines in her palm, memorizing their patterns. She blushed and pulled her hand away running the tips of her fingers slowly between mine. We shared a brief smile.
The new students beginning that day trooped past us to the classroom. They, like we had been, were very quiet.
“We are a third done.” I said. “Only six months left.”
“Plenty of time.” Linda said. “Lots.”
I nodded and sat at my station. I straightened my clips and rollers. A few minutes later an elderly woman shuffled through the door. The woman signed the waiver form in her crabbed penmanship and told Linda what she wanted. Linda beckoned me.
“Usually I do Mrs. Cossaboom, but since I’m on desk, why don’t you set her?”
I smiled weakly and led Mrs. Cossaboom to a chair. I put my cape around her neck.
“How long till you get done?” Mrs. Cossaboom sniffed as I brushed her neon blue hair. Patrons always wanted to know the answer to this basic question. The closer the graduation date, the greater the chance the student might know something and, conversely, the lesser the chance that something untoward might happen to their hair. Mrs. Cossaboom was like most of Shepard’s clientele; she liked to have her hair done very cheaply by young people who paid a hideous amount of attention to her. She tucked her purse to her chest under the cape and nodded when I said, “June.”
“Same as Linda,” she pointed out, “I haven’t seen you before. You slow?”
“I had a few difficulties.” I explained as I guided her to the shampoo sinks.
“You pretty gentle for a man beautician. You a fairy?”
“No, I just don’t want to hurt you.”
“Well, scrub hard when you shampoo. I like it a little rough, but you don’t need to rip it off.”
Her scalp was tight as an egg shell. I massaged until I got some movement. She lay there smiling like a Buddha. I rinsed and toweled her. “Not bad.” she admitted, curling her spiky mustached lip. She sat in my chair with her eyes closed, humming “Beautiful Dreamer.” I put the rollers in, trying to go slow but was soon finished. I touched her, waking her up. She blinked. “So quick? Get a teacher to check. You go too fas’. It can’t be okay.”
I signaled George to look at my work. Because it was one of her regulars, Linda came over too.
“Looks fine.” George said loudly into Mrs. Cossaboom’s ear.
“Dry me then, Speedy.” she said. I again took her arm and eased her under a hair dryer.
“You sweet on Linda? You leaned to her when she come over.” Mrs. Cossaboom shouted over the loud fan. I blushed and nodded aware that every one in the clinic had heard. “Least you not a fairy boy, not that I mind them, you know.” She groped around to feel the knob on the hood. “I like it mead-jum” she said. I set it to medium.
While Mrs. Cossaboom dried I went to the restroom. As I was leaving Joy bumped me in a hurry to get past me. Her nose was trickling blood. She was desperate to not get any on her white uniform. I slipped out of the way. She grabbed a wad of toilet paper and tamped her upper lip.
“Are you all right?” I asked. “Should I get Ted?”
“Just leave me alone.” Joy said while shutting the door.
Back in the clinic Karrie motioned to me. “I need help with a perm. Mom Honniger has a hearing aid appointment in an hour. Joy was helping, but she just deserted me.”
“Do you always use your mother’s last name?” I asked.
“I’m adopted.” she explained.
“Oh, that’s why you don’t resemble each other.” Karrie was blonde, and Mom Honniger had blue-black hair and a Arabic complexion.
“Yes, that’s right. Now toss those rods in; I need a cigarette and soon.” Karrie had premoistened Mom Honniger’s hair with a strong permanent wave solution because the elderly woman had very tough hair that was three frigs to wrap. We, well, I quickly wrapped her hair. Karrie applied more perm chemical and left for a nicotine fix.
After Mrs. Cossaboom was dry I combed her out. She licked her fingers and twisted a curl on the side of her face. “Bon.” she said after putting her own finishing touches on her hair. “You make a lot of money, you so fas’.” She tipped me two bucks, which is good because I hadn’t any money for Linda’s cowflop.
Karrie and Joy came back into the clinic at the same time from different directions. “Where’d you go?” Karrie asked.
“I’m sorry. I had terrible cramps.” Joy said, looking at me.
“Oh.” Karrie nodded. She went to take the rods out of Mom Honniger’s black needle collection.
“Sorry for being so rude.” Joy said to me.
“I only wanted to help. You ought to go to a doctor.”
“I get these from time to time. I’m just nervous.” She reached for my arm as a wave of dizziness bleached her cheeks. “You didn’t go to the doctor for upchucking did you?”
“No. Are you okay?”"
“I’m fine. I appreciated you being so concerned. If I feel there is anything wrong I’ll get checked out.”
“It’d be for your own good.” I said. “You’re such a nag.” Linda said, smiling. She’d come over to give Joy a patron who needed a hair cut.
Joy let go of my arm and followed Linda to the patron.
“Wow, is she jealous.” George whispered to me. He liked to be in the know about all of our love lives. Of course, after Mrs. Cossaboom’s announcement only the mannequins didn’t hear my romantic leanings.
“You think so?” I asked.
“Yes. She saw you talking to Joy and dashed right over here.” George said, pushing on my arm and nodding sagely.
The stitches in my scalp hurt a lot more coming out, but then I didn’t have the advantage of anesthesia. I should have learned something from the experience. But who ever does?
Wally and Jenny Lou drove me to the hospital where a half awake intern took a curved razor and nearly yanked the stitches through my healing scalp while cutting them out.
Through those remaining weeks of December before Shepard’s Christmas Party, before Christmas Break, before what I would come to refer to as my New Year’s Breaking, Jenny Lou visited Wally about once a week. She and Wally kept badgering me to take Jenny Lou’s duty of keeping Linda company. I wouldn’t have minded but felt that I needed to give Linda the space she asked for.
“What is she going to do with space?” Jenny Lou asked.
“You’d have to ask her.” I answered.
The following weekend Wally and Jenny Lou brought Linda to listen to me play. I didn’t know they were coming and so was quite astonished. Linda was sheathed in a filmy dress that was recognizable as the pale blue gossamer you see when you begin to dream. I was in my work tux and on break when they entered the bar. Jerry rushed to card them as the women were too young. Linda handed him her false ID and stepped confidently around him towards me.
“I want to dance with you.” she whispered.
“What’s stopping you?” I asked.
Jerry gave Linda’s card to Jenny Lou and took hers. I placed my hand in the middle of Linda’s bare back and guided her to the dance floor. Some tape was playing. Linda set her arms on my shoulders around my neck. I eased my arms around her back. She ran a warm hand from my neck to the top of my head and sighed. We didn’t really dance. We sort of swayed to the music. Linda smelled good. Her hair reminded me of pina colada mix. I kissed her. She’d been drinking. The tape ended.
Linda smiled. She slid her cheek along mine and whispered into my ear, “Play something for me.”
I guided her to the bar stool closest to my bench at the piano bar. I played her songs that others had written expressing what I felt. She listened and blushed. Jerry brought her the daiquiri she’d ordered.
“Play me something you wrote.” Linda said.
“I haven’t written anything good enough to play for you.”
“Well, then you should.”
“Well, then I shall.”
Jerry walked over with a beer. “Yer buddy and his lady split, Bo. He sent ya this,” he hefted the beer, “and this.” Jerry gave me a folded napkin. I opened it. “Don’t come home.” it read.
Linda took it. “What time do you get done?” she asked after a glance.
“Well you have time to drink that before you give me a ride home.”
“Okay.” I said.
I played the keys and was surprised at the rush of music that seemed to float from the open box to waft about Linda. Her bottomless brown eyes, an irresistible vortex, drew in all the light from the room. She put her elbow on the piano and her chin in her hand. “If you make me cry, I’m yours.” she said.
“What if I can’t?”
“I’m yours anyway.” she smiled, sipping her drink.
Jerry beckoned to me at the end of a song. “Bo, why’n’t cha take the rest of the night off? I cain’t have ya ruttin’ in front of alla the customers. That filly is lathered fo’ yo’ bones.”
“I’m sorry. I let it get out of hand.”
“You crazy? Go fer it, Bo. Don’t mind nuthin’.”
He just slapped me on the shoulder.
“I have the rest of the night off.” I told Linda.
“No, you don’t” she said.
“Ah.” I answered.
We got in the car. “Go to the church first.” Linda said.
“You aren’t really dressed for it.” I mentioned.
“It won’t be for long.” she explained ambiguously.
After we had walked to the balcony she kissed me. Together we huddled in the cold. “I need to say something.” she slurred.
“Don’t say it now. Wait ‘till after Christmas, or until you are a little more . . . grounded.”
“You think this is all because I’m drunk?” Linda asked.
“No, but I don’t want to . . .”
“Take advantage of me?” she laughed. “Oh, Forrest, you are so different from any guy I’ve ever met. I wanted to tell you when I was sober,” she paused to stare at the Christmas lights, “but I’m afraid.”
“Then wait until you aren’t.”
“All right, but don’t end tonight yet,” and oddly for her, she continued, “please.”
“Fine by me.” I said.
We walked back to my car, which started after a few anxious cranks. I parked in Jenny Lou’s slot.
“Would you come up for a drink?” Linda suggested. “I noticed you didn’t touch your beer.”
“I am awful thirsty.” I noticed.
Her apartment was impressive. It was very big and plush. “Wow.” I admired, looking only at Linda.
She brought me a pineapple drink. I sipped it carefully. It was potent. She kicked off her high heels. “Oh, my tootsies hurt.” she moaned as she sat on the couch. I sat beside her and massaged her feet carefully.
“This would feel better if you took your panty hose off.” I said.
“Go ahead.” she challenged. I slid my hands slowly up the outside of her hosed legs feeling the aerobics-firmed muscles beneath her dress. I eased my fingers under the elastic around her hips. Giddy, feeling dared, I slid my hands under the nylon to cup her soft bottom. She took my face in her hands and kissed me.
After that we became frantic. I was terrified, but events washed me along in a hormonal slip stream. She clawed at my belt buckle and zipper, and I only got her panties and hose as far as midway to her knees before she was pulling me to her. I tried not to notice how expertly she rolled the condom on. It wasn’t the slow, easing I had always thought myself capable of, that I always secretly prided myself that I would be like. If only all illusions faded with such sweetness. I feverishly leaned into her as she squirmed towards me on the couch.
Afterward, she giggled, “I’m a mermaid.” as she wriggled her tangled legs in the air.
“You do have an unearthly quality.” I said, laying on my back on the carpet surprised that my knees were painfully rug burned.
“May I say it now?” Linda asked.
“No.” I said. “Now you should least trust your feelings.”
“Oh. You’re a pooper.” Hopping, Linda guided me first to the bathroom where we flushed the latex appliance which I hadn’t noticed I still wore. Then I carried her into her bedroom.
It was Spartan, no wall decorations or personal stuff. There was just a bed, a nightstand, and a bare bureau.
“You don’t have anything here.” I said.
“I didn’t see the point of dragging anything all the way from Middlebury for nine months.” she explained.
On the nightstand was a lamp, a clock, and a small picture frame. I snatched the picture to see what Bill looked like and was shocked to see my own face. It was one of the ones Linda and I had taken at the photo booth.
“It’s me!” I showed her.
Linda smiled coquettishly. “I told you I was gone on you, Boy.” She reached down and slipped a finger inside herself. Carefully she unbuttoned my shirt with her free hand. Using her damp finger she drew a heart on my belly with her initials in the middle. “I’ve marked you, Boy. You’re mine.”
I took her finger and kissed it. “Forrest Cone, Love Slave.” I said.
Finally she took off her dress. I marveled at her breasts. I put my eye to one like a telescope.
“What do you see?” Linda asked.
“My future.” I said. “Our future.”
“Easy, now.” she warned. “Don’t expect too much, too quickly. I feel what I feel now. I’m not ready to promise forever.”
“Forever is made of infinite nows.” I said. I was probably pretty drunk. After our connecting I had gulped my drink.
We snuggled into bed. She reached up to switch off the light but I took her hand and guided it elsewhere, then I explored her whole body, or at least the interesting parts.
“Geeze,” she gasped, “You make a girl feel like you’ve never touched a woman before.”
“It’s a skill.” I demurred.
I saw the color of her dress again as I drifted off to a paler dream.
The Christmas Party and Christmas Break
About two in the morning Linda shook me awake. Her husky voice drew me out of a dream of flying.
“Would you mind horribly if I asked you to leave?” she whispered. “I don’t want anyone seeing you coming out of my apartment. I think my dad has spies.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “I’d like to stay on his good side.”
“Hmm-Hmph.” Linda mumbled.
I kissed her cheek. She was already back to sleep. I guess she wanted to avoid an awkward situation. I gathered up my clothes from where they haphazardly lay like deflated ghosts about the plump furniture. Linda’s apartment was a lot warmer than Walt and I kept ours in the winter. Sweating, I dressed quickly, and crept down the hall and stairs to the parking lot.
The crusts of snow crackled loudly under my boots, echoing like pistol shots down the frosty, empty avenue. The cold immediately froze the film of perspiration on the back of my neck. My car started with a choke and a loud snort. I drove blearily through the frozen streets smiling and yawning. Newly feathering snow slid in puffs over my hood. The wipers made weeping noises as they slid the specks into streaks across my slowly defrosting windshield.
When I got to Walt’s apartment, I found Jenny Lou in my bed. I yelped in surprise to feel her body there because I hadn’t turned on the lights. Jenny Lou snapped my lamp on. I quickly dropped into a ball on the floor as I was only wearing my briefs.
“Good God, it figures she’d send you home.” Jenny Lou said in a disgusted tone. “She hates anyone to see her in the morning.”
“Why are you in here?” I asked trying to cover my crotch with my tux jacket.
“You have feelings, too. You didn’t want to skulk out like a thief. I wonder where her head is at.” Jenny Lou railed in the barest of undertones.
“Why aren’t you in with Wally? His bed is more than twice the size as mine.”
“Oh. We had a tiff. I mentioned his weight problem. He’s really sensitive about that. I didn’t want to go home, so I came in here. You don’t mind, do you? I have to hang around to make up and eat his godawful muffins in the morning.”
“I’ll sleep on the couch.” I said, crawling for the door.
“If the bed were wider I’d say you could sleep here. I don’t have a problem with it.” Jenny Lou looked at my narrow bunk ruefully. She slid out from under my blankets wearing one of Wally’s shirts. The sleeves hung past her hands but her unfettered chest wasn’t well covered. I blushed.
“Oh, shoot. Are you embarrassed?” she asked.
I was curled up like a matchlit spider, neurotically averting my eyes. “No, not at all.” I squeaked.
Jenny Lou explained, “I have four brothers, and we walk around pretty much naked at bedtime. There isn’t really anything to be ashamed of.” “Not at all.” I agreed, crimson from my scalp to my bare, ugly toes.
Jenny Lou sighed. “You sleep in your bed. I’ll go jump in with the fat grouch.” She stepped over me.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Yep. See you in the morning.” Jenny Lou whispered.
The bed was warm and smelled of perfume. I shut off the lamp and quickly fell back to sleep.
I woke up again at four-thirty from giggling and creaking from Wally’s room. They had made up, I guessed. I felt suddenly lonely and wished I still was with Linda, not necessarily to make her giggle, but just to have someone with me in the predawn gloom. I fell back asleep until six when Wally shook me awake up to take a phone call. It was Linda.
“Uh, hi.” I said. “I had a really nice . . .”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” she interrupted. “At school let’s not let anyone know we’ve . . . been intimate. I would think that they would frown on students becoming involved. We should keep what happened between the two of us.”
“Okay.” I agreed. “I guess that sounds reasonable. But can I see you again?”
Linda paused for a while. Her name, soft as a plea, slipped from my heart through my lungs.
She sighed, “After Christmas, we’ll talk. I’ve got to go now. See you at school. Remember: it’s our secret.”
“Fine, I won’t tell anyone.” I promised.
Jenny Lou was chewing on a muffin. “Clandestine affair. Oooh, how romantic.” she commented sardonically.
“Sounds juvenile to me.” Wally said from next to the oven.
“Coffee?” I asked. “Please?” I hadn’t slept much and needed a jumpstart. Wally passed me a mug. I slurped gratefully.
“Muffin?” Jenny Lou offered. “Blueberry today.”
“Maybe later.” I said, rubbing eye boogies from the bridge of my nose.
I looked down through the window at the white-washed streets. The snowfall had stopped since dawn and the pale winter sun made a warm ruby glow in the round stain glass window of the church across the street. Cars drifted by, causing white swirls in their icy tar wakes. I glanced behind me to the far left where the city’s brick and stone sweated steam and smoke in the cold.
Through the white plumes I stared at the moss green copper of the Masonic Hall’s onion shaped towers. They seemed to me to be rotted seed pods, symbols of promise gone soft and slimy, life not yet born gone to death. I could imagine smell the mildew and decay over the spice of Walt’s cinnamon-clove coffee. Morbid thoughts for a young man who had just lost his virginity I admit, but I must further concede that my life had taught me that pleasure usually brought with it a commensurate measure of pain. I didn’t trust joy as an emotion. Further, I didn’t quite feel that I deserved it. But then, my apprehension could have been caused by my lack of sleep.
Walt grasped my shoulder. “It’ll work out,” Jenny Lou whispered, “or I’ll break her neck.”
I hadn’t realized I had been crying. I touched the moisture on my chin in surprise. I rubbed the oily liquid between my thumb and forefinger. I was so happy and so frightened. I opened and closed my mouth like a baby bird, unable to articulate simple thanks. I breathed deep and exhaled to clear the block. Smiling, I nodded and drops slipped into my chest hairs. I wiped them with my bathrobe.
“I’ll have a muffin now.” I said.
Anna’s father had closed the school for the annual Christmas party. We had gathered in Practical to exchange gifts and nibble on food we’d all brought in. Ted dressed as Santa and handed out the presents. I got the same thing I had given to person who’s name I had drawn, a blackhead remover and a head band. It was the recommended gift. Anna’s dad had them on sale. After the party the school would be closed for a week. The clinic would be open for those who wanted to work the holiday traffic.
Linda had ignored me. I sat disconsolately in Ted’s office peeping at her though the window, holding a coffee in one hand and an egg nog in the other while she chatted gaily with her cronies. She waved her plastic cup of punch as she related her family’s holiday traditions. I wasn’t close enough to hear the recitation of caroling cousins and roasting chestnuts, but I got the idea. I was feeling depressed about returning to Putnam. The Cone observance of the season was to dig out the extra long, extra sharp emotional carving knives. I was driving up myself instead of going with Wendy in case I had to make a quick escape.
Ted came in and sat beside me. His stuffed belly sloshed my coffee. “Thirsty?” he asked, indicating my two beverages.
“I like the way the taste with each other.”
“Why not pour them together?”
“It wouldn’t be the same.”
He smiled mischievously. “Did you try my canapés?”
“Yes. What’s the spread on top?”
“Which, for those of us who speak English, is?”
“Lovely.” I said. “Very flavorful.”
“I don’t know why, but serving them makes me happy.” Ted’s eyes glinted like an ornament. “I never tell. Well, usually never. I can tell you. I get such a naughty boy thrill from it.” He mimed laughing behind his green gloved hand. “Christ, it’s hot in this get up.” He blew a whisker from his mouth. Abruptly, he slapped my knee. “Why are you so glum?”
“I don’t want to go home.”
“I have to.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“It would hurt my mom too much. I do that to her at Christmas.”
“You gonna come back with more stitches?”
“Gosh, I hope not.” I said. I had forgotten the events of my last visit. It was, as I have said earlier, a family trait.
“You have to look after yourself.” Ted said sternly. “You can come to my house if you’d like.”
“It was an accident. I’ll be fine. I’ll be more careful.”
“You’re such a clumsy fellow.” Ted remarked, “Always tossed about by fate.”
“I out weigh fate by a good hundred pounds.” I said feeling my sinuses tighten with shame.
“And how about that one?” Ted said, changing the subject, pointing to through the window at Linda.
“It’s a very hopeful wait and see.”
“Hope’s good.” Ted nodded. He nearly sneezed from false whiskers tickling his nose. “Be careful what you hope for; you just might get it.” he added.
“My, what a fresh platitude.” I said.
“Or maybe you already got it.”
“I just noticed you’re less tense. Depressed, but less tense. Palpably so.”
“A seasonal mood.”
“You get a Christmas gift early?”
“What are you asking?” I growled.
“You and the princess do the nasty?”
“Such a way with words.”
“It’s why I get my own office. You gonna answer?”
“Yes. We did. But don’t tell anyone. How did you know?”
“I’m Santa Claus.” He wiggled his fake eyebrows. “I have to get back to the party.” He slapped the wall above my head. “Merry Christmas.”
“Joyce Knoll.” I mispronounced to his back.
When my nog and coffee were gone I started to think about leaving. I didn’t want to begin the depressing seven hour trip, but knew if I didn’t get going it would be midnight before I arrived.
Linda came into the office. She had her coat on. “Ted said you have the secret recipe for his paté.” Her eyes were on the wall over my head.
“Did you enjoy it?” I asked carefully.
“You promised we wouldn’t talk about last night.” She glared at the floor, ready to leave.
“The paté. Did you enjoy the paté?”
“Oh. It was delicious. The best I have ever had.”
How would you have told the woman you loved that she had just eaten pig brains? I didn’t want to give away Ted’s confidence. “It’s a very good, very tender pork.” I said, “The paté.”
She sat beside me and looked again above my head. I looked up and saw the mistletoe Ted had stuck there. “Oh my.” I breathed.
Solemnly she kissed me. I kissed back. It was a great kiss. After her lips drifted away she whispered so quietly she would have had a hard time making out the words, “I love you, Forrest.” However, I heard. I understood.
Abruptly, Linda sailed out the door, down the stairs, and out the door. Through the hall window I watched her blue down jacket and stocking cap as she wafted to the parking lot behind the school.
“After Christmas.” I promised myself. “In one week.”
“A very good pork?” Ted asked.
“I wondered what you say.”
“Have a nice week.” Ted said. “Don’t hope too hard.”
I should explain further why I hate Putnam. Dad’s father was the town drunk, a big bully of a man who, when sober enough, shoveled what the Street and Road Department needed shoveled. My grandmother on my mother’s side often reminded me that if I didn’t work hard in school I would end up a ditch digger like my other granddad. I remember seeing “Granfer” Cone weaving up the streets, holding a bag with a green nipple poking out clutched in his grubby hands, and scratching a large dark, damp stain running down one leg of his dusty wool pants. The kids I went to school with called him The Piss Man. They would throw coins to see him scramble for them. They threw coins to me too, sometimes at me. I never picked them up.
Cone is a French name. Putnam is an mostly an Irish community, stuffed with smug Callahans, Belvises, and Fitzhughs. I was the outsider, the “Frog” to heap abuse on. My schoolmates had a cruel game they played called “Frog’s Lice.” If one of them accidentally touched me, he had to touch another student who didn’t have his fingers crossed to get rid of the supposed lice. In the line to go back to class after recess the pupils in front and back of me kept an arm’s length distance from me that no amount of threats from the teachers could stop. They wouldn’t let me play any reindeer games either. I read or practiced piano and kept to myself. Perhaps I chose to be a hairdresser because it is a profession that involves a lot of touching. I don’t know, me.
I do know that no matter what I become, whatever I accomplish whenever I returned to Putnam I would still be The Piss Man’s grandson covered with Frog’s Lice. Should I forget it, they all stayed, all would remember, and all waited to remind me.
But I had to go back for the holidays, or thought I had to. Somewhere above Bangor, a little less than halfway home, my heater stopped working. The defrosters kept blowing the windshield clear but the output was all very cold, in the twenties. There were no service stations open at that time of the night so I just toughed it out. In the freezing dark I cursed and pounded my dash which cracked in the cold from my punch.
I arrived home at close to eleven. I crept up the stairs to my room. The bed was missing. I curled up on the floor and fell asleep.
The next morning I went downstairs. Opal was reading the paper and eating cereal dry from the box. She said, “Hi.”
“Where’d my bed go?” I asked.
“I needed some money for something in school so we sold it.” Opal explained. “You’re never home.”
I looked in the refrigerator. “There’s nothing in there that’s not spoiled.” Opal said.
“What do you eat?” I asked.
“The pizza place takes food stamps, so we eat there mostly, except breakfast.” She held up her box.
“On a date still.”
“On Christmas Eve?”
“Better tips.” I sneered.
“Don’t start.” Opal reproached.
“Sorry. You’re right. How’s it been?” I was rummaging through the cupboards. I had done the shopping when I had lived at home. We’d eaten left-overs and doughnuts at Thanksgiving.
“Great” she said, waving her hands. I found some Cream of Wheat. It had those little white larvae that look like rice in it.
“Those bugs are in everything. They tend to float to the top when you put the stuff in water.” Opal said helpfully. “The taste’s the same.”
I tried it. I would like to think that I skimmed the worst out. I was very hungry.
“Opal, why do you always ignore the bad parts. I don’t want to argue with you. I’m just curious. I can’t see how you can live like this.”
“You only look at the bad and make stuff up to pump up your opinions. I know that maybe stuff could be better, but I don’t see the point of harping on it. I wanna be happy.”
A car rolled into the dooryard. Opal hissed, “Don’t look out. Don’t embarrass her.”
Mom burst into the house and grabbed me. She kissed my cheeks. “Forry! You’re home! Kids, This is Uncle Crib. He’s going to spend Christmas with us.” A gaunt, bald man stood in the doorway. He was wearing a baby shit brown corduroy coat. Long tufts of gray hair curled up from over his ears like Bozo. His pointy chin was clean shaven. He was grinning at Opal.
“Pleased to meet-cha. Merry X-mas!” ‘Uncle’ Crib said.
I was annoyed at being called “Forry” and so didn’t look on the bright side of having a strange man spend Christmas with us.
Opal gave Crib a big hug and said, “Merry Christmas.” She let go, but he clung to her.
“I’m Forrest.” I said, holding out my hand to Crib, trying to get him to release my sister. He grabbed my hand and squeezed until it hurt. He smiled when I winced.
Like old times, Mom gave me three twenties and told me to go shopping. “Opal, would you come with me?” I asked.
Crib took a seat at the table next to her. “She should stay here. Janice said we are going to decorate the tree.” Janice is my mom.
“She could do it when we get back. I’ll get popcorn and cranberries and we can string them like Mom always tells us she did as a kid.” I countered.
“Sounds wonderful. Go on, Opal.” Mom said.
In the car Opal played futilely with my heater controls.
“The heater broke. I’ve got to get it fixed.”
“I’ll stay home.”
“With that letch?”
“He’s, I don’t know, fifty. And he’s Mom’s date. You’re being that way again. I don’t know why you always think the worst about people.” She slammed the door noisily after she got out.
I drove to a garage first. The car had a device in the heater hose attached to a electric cord that you could plug in to keep the engine warm. I never used it, and it had rusted closed so the heat didn’t circulate. The mechanic removed it. I went to the grocery store. Most of the holiday related food was gone. I got what I could and then treated myself to lunch from the drive-through at the fast food place. It was a good trip. I didn’t see anyone I knew well.
When I got back the tree was all trimmed. No one asked for the popcorn and cranberries. I hadn’t bought any. Mom and Crib were drinking whiskey from water glasses. Andy Williams crooned through the scratches on the old stereo. Opal sat between them on the couch, talking about her great grades in an animated fashion. Domestic bliss.
I unpacked the groceries and left to visit Wendy. She was in the rec room reading.
She looked at me and I blushed. “YOU DOG!” she shrieked. She jumped up and danced around holding my hands. “Shit, I was going to have you get me a unicorn for Christmas. How does it feel to be a MAN?”
“Was it the Gas Pump Princess?”
“Such talk won’t make you Best Woman at my wedding.”
“It is almost the Eighties, you don’t hafta marry ‘em anymore, unless, you did make her show you her candy didn’t you?”
“I had it covered.”
“Wow. Neat. You would have named it for me?”
“Wouldn’t have been Percy.”
We talked for a while. She’d gotten a new boyfriend since Thanksgiving. She’d hoped she’d passed Bio Two. I did her nails. I had supper at Wendy’s. Uncle Dukey made American chop suey and whoopie pies. I went home about eight and went right to bed or, in my case, to floor.
Christmas morning we got up at nine or so. Crib watched as we three opened our gifts. I had gotten him a bottle of aftershave on my shopping trip so he would have something to open. I thought it a nice gesture. He seemed to like it. After everything was unwrapped I was surprised that neither Mom or Opal had gotten me a pair of wool socks.
I made dinner.
“Roast beef isn’t very Christmasy.” Crib pointed out.
“I’ll carve it to look like a turkey.” I said. I looked at Opal for support.
“You could have gotten chicken.” she said.
“Those who don’t do the shopping aren’t there to do the picking.”
“You got this as punishment ‘cause I wouldn’t ride in your freezer of a car?”
“They were out of turkey. I like beef. I didn’t know you didn’t. This one was on sale.”
“You mean it was old?” Opal said, aghast.
“This from a girl who picks bugs from cereal.”
“I never ate the stuff. I just told you to.”
“Cut it out.” Mom said, “We have a guest.”
“I’ll just have vegetables.” Crib said.
“Me too.” Opal said.
I made a couple of sandwiches and left for Wendy’s. The beef tasted fine to me. It beat bugs and pig brains. I stayed at Wendy’s until after ten. We played Risk with Uncle Dukey. I drank a little too much.
Crib was in the kitchen when I got home. The hair on the sides of his head was slicked back with sweat. A drink was in front of him. His greasy finger prints were smeared on the glass. He smoked a cigarette without a filter. He got up and blew smoke in my face. He was drunker and taller than me. “Where ya been. Your mom’s worried ‘bout you.” he drawled softly. He squinted at my nose. His fingers twitched.
“Across the street. Where’s my mom?”
Crib grabbed the back of my neck in his hand. He dug his long fingernails in to my skin. “Gone bed. Siddown. Talk ta me. Your Mom tells me you’re a fairy boy. I always wanted ta know, you fairy boys wack off much?”
“I’m too tired for this stuff.” I said, struggling to escape his grip.
“Sit faggot. You can think about me and beat it later.” He forced my head down and pounded it hard on the table.
I sat. He left me go. I glared defiantly at him.
“Quitcher staring.” He slapped me hard and grinned proudly. “Your mom’s a nice piece, priced right too. High enough to keep the ones with the crabs off her. Not so much a workin’ man can’t afford ta ease his tensions. What I want ta know is how you got queer with a nice thing like your sister around the house. I’m going ta go try her out after we get done talkin’. I been waitin’ on you. Bizness afore pleasure.”
“You want to fight me.” I said. My mind was so very, painfully clear.
“No, I want ta hurt you. I hate fags, specially ones that buy me perfume. You saying I stink, cocksucker?”
He picked me up — I remember being so surprised that he was strong enough to do that — and threw me into the table which crumbled under me. The sugar bowl, ash tray, and his drink glass shattered on the floor. I got to my feet in time to dodge him as he rushed me. I seized his collar, twisted the button of his flannel shirt into his throat, and yanked him to the door. I opened it and propelled him through and down the steps. He landed in the frozen mud. I leaped after him and landed beside him. He got up and curled his fingers in the air, beckoning me. He smirked but looked at me differently than before.
It was very cold. The sky was clear. I looked at the icy waterfall of stars above the trees over his shoulder. They were beautiful. I breathed the freezing air which sliced twin furrows up my nose. Crib punched me in the face. I landed on the cold ground. A frozen snow bank caught me across the back of my lungs, taking my wind.
I snarled and felt my father’s blind rage slip about my mind. I attacked Crib with a raw fierceness that encompassed all the pain I had ever felt. He was my dad; he was the part of Mom I hated; he every Irish puke who taunted me growing up; he was me. I don’t remember how I did it. When I was finished my hands were covered with his blood and snot and vomit, and he was pinned and weeping beneath me. I got up and kicked him. He crawled a ways and stumbled to his feet.
“If you touch my sister, I’ll kill you.” I said.
He ran into the night. I sat on the snow bank gasping. The stars seemed to have receded deep into the black sky. I listen to him curse as he ran up the street.
Opal, wrapped in a blanket, came out on the step.
“I heard you talking, before . . . ” she whispered.
“Is Mom still asleep?” I asked.
“Why didn’t you call the cops.”
“I don’t think he’d had’ve really . . .”
I put my soiled hand to her lips, smearing her face. “Hush, little sister.” I whispered. “Think once of me. Just once.” I was weeping. “Not because I deserve it, but as a courtesy because I beat that guy to protect you because I love you.” “LIAR!” She shrieked as she ran into house to the bathroom and locked the door. I followed repeatedly telling her I was sorry. I was sorry. I had used that cheap word “love” that Dad and Mom used so much after doing what I today would consider benign evil that to use it was to admit a lie. Opal was right, I hadn’t fought for her. I closed the kitchen door, washed in the sink, and went to bed.
I lay awake for a while. I had always felt I was better than my parents, that I wouldn’t be violent, that I’d never lose control. As penance I resolved to stop drinking forever. Little did I realize that in two weeks I would break my vow after getting the shock of my life.
I must have fallen asleep as the next thing I remember was waking up before dawn. I packed and slunk down the stairs. Opal was sitting at the table. She’d somehow fixed it .
“I’m leaving.” I said.
“You do that so well.” Opal said.
I sat beside her. “I don’t want to argue with Mom. I’m too tired. What was I supposed to do? I didn’t know he didn’t like aftershave.”
“I do love you, Opal. I love Mom. I don’t know why these things happen to us. I didn’t want this.”
“Those are words to you, Forrest. You don’t feel anything. Life is all a debate club to you. I liked Crib. He made Mom laugh. I don’t think he would have . . . touched me. You antagonized him from the moment he walked in the door. He’s was drunk last night. You should have just ignored him and gone to bed. Now after making a mess, you are taking off like you always do, and I’ll have to deal with it.”
“Well, it won’t happen again. Tell Mom I’m never coming back.” I got up and left.
Opal burst out of the house and threw the rest of the roast onto the hood of my car as I backed out of the driveway. As the meat slid to the street I wondered what she was feeling, what Mom would feel, why they never understood, and why I never saw what they did.
The drive home was a blur.