from the collection of: d. heidel
I have seen them riding seaward on the wavesT. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
There is a place where Fred Mulligan sits in the corner of the Andrew Myers Outdoor Amphitheater in Saukaunee Park, waiting for customers. He sits on a cheap plastic chair, the orange back beaten by the sun, and the steel legs covered with lesions of rust. You can tell it’s Fred Mulligan’s spot because, over the years, the legs of the chair have scuffed four white spots on the concrete platform: two faint white spots that mark where the front legs of his chair hardly ever touch the ground; and, under the incessant rocking of the back legs, two bright white spots that stare like eyes carved into the platform of the bandstand.
This is a place where Fred Mulligan sits and waits – rain or shine, from March through December – for his customers.
Long ago, it used to be that customers would see their barbers for any necessary physical adjustment – haircut, root canal, leaching, and the occasional amputation. And, not quite as long ago, it used to be that barbers had their own shops – sunshiny establishments where men smoked cigars and talked smart amidst the occasional mechanical chit-chat of clippers. Ooh, and it smelled like Barbacide – fresh, fragrant… Fred Mulligan would lean back in his chair and remember the shop he kept on Clairmont Street.
That was gone, though. So, as a citizen who paid the taxes that kept up Saukaunee Park, he set up shop there on the bandstand – the amphitheater that, these days, sat mostly empty. Swallows had built nests in the small alcoves that used to house speakers. Cracks had formed along the base on the southerly side where the rainwater tended to gather in pools, weakening the concrete. SGT Trumbull had come and kicked Mulligan out every day of his first week at the Amphitheater; but, after a very emotional editorial in the Saukaunee Tribune, SGT Trumbull had been told to leave Mulligan well enough alone.
And so, Fred Mulligan sat there, watching the clouds roll by, listening to the birds in the woods off to the East of the amphitheater, and waiting for customers. Mostly, the customers would come and wait patiently, penitently almost, on the benches that sat like pews in this outdoor cathedral. One at a time, they would climb the steps to Fred and, one at a time, they would sit in the barber’s chair that he had lugged up to where the trumpet section used to be. You could tell the trumpets used to sit there because, here and there, the faint glimmer of brass rings could be seen where an instrument had been momentarily set down upon the concrete. Fred would drop them back, lather and shave, trim and coif. After the cutting of the hair and trimming of the beard, he would hand the customer a mirror for inspection and, like a dutiful servant of the people, Fred Mulligan would hold a second mirror behind the customer’s head so that, by way of a double reflection, the individual could see the nooks and crannies of the spaces behind ears and the frontier of the back of the neck.
“To your liking?” Fred would ask. The customer would nod, smile, and hand over a wad of bills, stepping down from the platform feeling a few pounds lighter.
What did the hair carry with it? Fred would ask himself. Why do they seem so joyful having been freed from maybe an ounce of hair? Certainly it can’t weigh down the head that much?
But customer after customer, they would run their fingers over their newly-discovered scalp, sometimes shiver at the feel of Aqua Velva on their naked necks, and jump down from the otherwise-empty stage as if they were kids again – fifty-, sixty-, seventy-years-old; it didn’t matter: children, all of them, freed from the tangles of the past month of their lives.
Fred would watch them go and smile a little himself – just the hint of a smile on the right side of his mouth – then, he’d wipe down the seat, shake out the cape, and yell out: “Next.”
The hair was then swept up and disposed of in a garbage bag that dangled from a snaggle-toothed old nail in the back of the bandstand. Later in the evening, the bag itself would be taken away…
Fred would be there, business hours, rain or shine, May through September, and (even now), SGT Trumbull would walk by the park, stand along the street, look out to where the bandstand nestled into the woods, and shake his head. What kinda barber doesn’t have his own shop? and Why don’t he just follow the damn law? and then, Where’s all the hair go?
Fred Mulligan worked in the park. And in the park, there were no dumpsters, no real trash service at all other than a few groundskeepers who’d dart through once every other week, pick up a few stray cans and collect the otherwise-empty trash bags that flapped inside the steel mesh cans.
Where was all the hair? Trumbull needed to know. Where did all the hair go?
SGT Trumbull stayed awake at nights, rolling that question through his head until it started to leak out of his mouth, the consonants and vowels dark and liquid at three in the morning. Wair wuz awl thuh hair. Dark, liquid, no longer sensible words but rather just uttered sounds that carved the night air into meaningless prattle. Invariably, a shutter would rattle in the wind against his bedroom window or the house would settle a little with an exhausted moan. And then, SGT Trumbull would drift off to terrifying dreams laced with the yeasty old-man-breath-stink of nonsense that continued to leak from his mouth.
Every day, SGT Trumbull would rise at 9 a.m. Not terribly early, but early enough considering the fact that his shift ended every night at 1 a.m. and he would only be getting to bed at 2 a.m. And so, at 9 a.m., he would pull his naked body out from his sheets, and move through his routine: shit, shower, shave. Shit out the filth, shower off the filth, and shave off the excrement that grew from his face and head.
Yes, the hair was deemed excrement. It was excess, unnecessary, and impeded the useful performance of an otherwise clean body. He lathered Barbasol, layered it judiciously along his jaws, chin, and up over the dome of his pate. Every day, a fresh blade; and every day, that blade would get its due mileage over the curves of SGT Trumbull’s skin. By the end of the process, SGT Trumbull would rinse his face and head and watch the last remnants of grey hairs eddy down the drain.
Like the filth of the world, and Trumbull would think about the other things that swirled away into nothingness.
Cockroaches when he turned on the lights in the kitchen.
Dead leaves when he revved up the blower to send them to the woods that skirted his backyard.
The nose-ringed freaks at Queen’s Club when he busted the place last fall: glass everywhere, bodies flying like wraiths away from his searchlight.
Trumbull pulled his palm over his scalp and stared for a moment at the striations that radiated from his own grey irises.
Whiskers down the drain – a fluid whorl of grey filth. Cockroaches. Leaves. Freaks.
Trumbull picked himself up out of bed, ran his hand over his head. He could feel the nubs of hair beginning to sprout again. He looked at the clock: 3:00 a.m. The air moving through his bedroom between open windows had turned chill. He pulled on sweatpants, a black sweatshirt, and a black stocking cap, grabbed the flashlight from the nightstand, and walked out to the backyard. From where he stood at the top of the wooded slope, he could see the single mercury bulb that glowed blue above the bandstand off in the distance.
He stepped down the slope, his legs simply unfolding themselves as the terrain took him down, down, into the dark.
Hair grew from the scalp of the dead. He’d seen it before: Jones McTanner, a normally well-groomed man, was found strangulated along South Hornsby Lane, his body mingled with the cattails. “Been there a week – maybe two,” the coroner had said. And, sure enough, McTanner’s head was a mess of shaggy sideburns, unkempt neckline, and an excess of auburn plumage at the top. Beneath the August sun, the summer storms, and the flooded river, his face had remained frozen for two weeks – frozen in a sort of existential undoing. His eyes (eaten by bugs) still bore the contours of a man confused by the strange feeling of whole-sale anxiety woven into a gut that was quickly becoming irrelevant (an irrelevance evidenced by the evacuation of his own bowels that had crusted into the seat of his britches). His mouth gaped maybe for breath but more likely for mercy – a strange thing that, even in the face of dogged death, the condemned still want for human embrace – even if it is in the arms of a killer. For two weeks, his eyes, his mouth gaped and froze into an eternal confoundedness that would only be undone by a slow process of decay. His entire body, in fact, was rigid – frozen in its last torture – except for his hair. Auburn shag had continued to sprout and tangle from the head that had normally sported the flattop of an aging football star.
Why does the hair continue to grow? No one knows, but it does.
Trumbull strode down the wooded slope behind his house until the wooded slope behind his house was no longer the wooded slope behind his house so much as it was a tangle of trees, vines, Spanish moss, chirping insects and peeping frogs, the occasional grunt from a gator.
He walked on through the dark, his sneakers squelching coldly has he pulled each foot up from the marsh. Trees sprout up, the marsh sucks down. The living must rise, the darkness pulls down.
Jones McTanner had been found face-down in the cattails. His head hadn’t been the only place the hair had continued to grow. His jowls had two weeks’ worth of beard on them – grey beard, soft after two weeks submerged in that summer’s flood. His arms, too, had an extraordinary amount of hair – shifting in the soft currents of the muddy water. His thighs, his back – all covered in downy hair.
As he stumbled through the marsh, Trumbull caught the flicker of lamplight once or twice through the gnarled arms of the cypress and tupelo.
The further Trumbull tromped through the dark, the heavier his shoes felt. They were waterlogged; he could feel mud between his toes; the marsh sucked each foot down as he tried to lift it in a never-ending succession of steps. How did they get heavier? At some point, his shoes should have been completely waterlogged – at maximum capacity – and so should have not gotten any heavier. Each step though was heavier than the last: the land, the water, the roots of trees, the dark – something – pulled his feet down and down and down.
He ducked and weaved like a boxer through the jabs and harried whacks of the woods. A branch scuffed his cheek while another popped him in the eye. He ducked and came up, feeling about ten pounds of what felt like Spanish moss settle on his shoulders, oddly snarling itself around the pullstrings of his hood before sliding, limp into the darkness.
Like a boxer, Trumbull began to keep his paws up on either side of his face, ready to deflect any of the forest’s hands that mauled or groped for a shot at this strange, clean-cut alien.
The blue of electrified mercury sputtered a little closer, twinkling like a guiding star as Trumbull swayed through the brambles. A patch of cattails came up out of nowhere and, stumbling in the pitch shadow on the night-side of an enormous beech, his boots hanging up momentarily in the webbed feet of the cattail patch, Trumbull paused to regain his balance. In the silence that came with the steadying of his feet, Trumbull was sure he heard a kind of serpentine sliding like the sound of a water moccasin moving through the marsh. Sluff. The sound reminded Trumbull of Jones McTanner and how, when Trumbull had tried to free McTanner’s body of the brown-and-gold tangle that had grown up around the dead man’s legs, the finely-haired skin of the arm had let go of the rotten muscle beneath and had come sliding off like a soggy glove. Sluff. Right off. Skin woven by the body, worn by the body, and now no longer needed in this final undressing.
The sound came again. Serpentine. Sliding. Sluff. The movement of musculature through fluid. Scales in water. Dead flesh against dead muscle.
Maybe a carnivorous plant, Trumbull thought. The marsh was thick, after all – too thick with plant matter, living and dead, to allow the air to mix with the water. Too thick to allow the hummocks and small dirt mounds to collect any kind of nitrogen. Trumbull remembered walking through this woods as a child and watching as a pair of green jaws (growing from the top of a earthbound stalk) snapped shut on a drunk fly, slowly absorbing the animal chemistry into its botanical anatomy, sucking the exoskeleton and its aqueous innards of all the nitrogen that could be had.
Slow movement. Wet. Sluff.
Trumbull had regained his balance and, in the process, realized the overarching fingers of the beech had settled a fine veil of – again – what felt like Spanish moss about his shoulders. He brushed the hairy mane away from his face and began forward again – or tried to. His feet, having settled into the morass, were heavy with mud and tangled in what felt like the tendrilled toes of the cattails.
Filth here. These woods were a place of filth. Spanish moss – everywhere, the goddam moss. He could feel it brushing his arms, tangling into his fingers, pulling at his cap and even wrapping fine wisps around his ears.
More than that, though, the trees grew up like the earth’s own thick hairs – unkempt, unfettered. Cattails like whiskers filled in the low areas. And from every direction, the rot of the earth’s flesh puckered his nostrils.
This is the place where cockroaches came from.
This is a place of dead leaves and used-up yard refuse.
This is a place for the privations of the entire goddammed rot of humanity, the resting place for the world’s grizzled whiskers after they were flushed down a drain. Cockroaches. Leaves. Freaks. Whiskers.
Trumbull pulled his hand again over the bristling growth on his head. It was longer than usual – longer than it seemed like it could have grown in a single day.
I need a fresh razor. Trumbull shook his head and pulled his right boot free of the undergrowth.
Leaning to the left, he caught a brief glimpse of the bulb hanging over the amphitheater. Its glow was certainly blue – it reminded Trumbull of certain stars (were they the hot ones or the cool ones?) and the older neons that hanged outside of Ricky’s down on Forrest Street.
Trumbull could go for a Bush right about now.
Trumbull leaned a little further to his left and squinted. Somehow, the glow made the park, the amphitheater, the benches all seem farther away. It was the light of dream. Or the light of memory. Gentle, fading, uncertain.
With his left boot still stuck in the morass, Trumbull lost his balance and swung his arms wildly, looking for a branch, a stick, anything—
He went down and landed in the dark of the forest floor. Again, Trumbull’s eyes strained to see. But from where he was positioned, behind scattered troupes of cattails that, like lepers or unemployed actors, made their home in this place of outcasts, he couldn’t see a damn thing.
Not a damn thing.
He lifted his head and felt (impossible!) a moving trail of Spanish moss fingers cross his neck, his ears.
A few of the tendrils wrapped themselves around his right ear. Trumbull brushed but the threads of growth held tight. He reached and grabbed and, expecting to find the wet bulk of moss, he was almost startled when the fronds slipped through his hands like delicate strands of gossamer.
A chill rose along Trumbull’s spine like the tiny feet of a thousand spiders scuttling to find their wisping webs.
As Trumbull twisted and maneuvered his body to free his left foot, the strands wrapped tighter around his right ear until it felt like he was five years old again and Ma was pulling him out back to get his ass paddled.
A wind rose in the trees above him and, through his left ear, he heard a howl that ranged through the branches like a great despair. An unfettered despair, raw with unwanted freedom, cut loose from its hellish source.
Trumbull reached for his left foot – it was more than just mired. With his weight on his ass, Trumbull could feel a twitching series of infinitesimal tugs that were bringing his left foot deeper and deeper into the morass. He sat, dumbfounded, unable to comprehend what was happening, attentive to the tiny vibrations that skittered and scattered across the leather of his boot until the water of the marsh poured over the top and, only then did Trumbull become a flurry of motion. He reached to untie the boot, to free his foot. But, groping for that end of his body, there was a quick flash of pain in his right ear as he came to the limit of his motion.
Left foot, caught, right ear caught, he was a child in the hands of an angry and ancient force.
“Goddammit!” this time aloud. And, along with it, a wrenching jerk on his right ear that gave off an audible snap as the eardrum gave way to the twisting pull. Trumbull freed the Leatherman from its pouch on his beltline, flipped open the blade, and raked it deep enough across the tendrils that held his ear that, along with the gossamer wisps, he wound up slicing his own scalp. He heard a shriek in the forest all around him. As the blood ran hot down the back of his neck, the shriek rose as if it was a voice made of many voices, each one thin as hair, but the collective chorus as thick as a tangled knot.
With the strands cut free of his ear, Trumbull again made a grab at his boot. As soon as his fingertips brushed the submerged leather, he was pulled back again by a sliding, grasping tension that had draped itself down over his head and wrapped itself past his ear, past his jaw, and around the main trunk of his own life, tightening on his neck.
“Goddummng!” and this time the word was cut short as his airway was kinked like a garden hose.
Trumbull brought the Leatherman again up to the writhing mass of gossamer and cut, slashed, but only found that with every strand he cut, two more took its place.
He kicked at his left boot, but as soon as his right foot made contact with the left, his right foot was suddenly snared by whatever it was that held the other.
Gungg! GUNGG! No words came out and the gossamer wrapped tighter still around his throat and moved him until, feet mired beneath the marsh, and neck tied tight by the snare, his body rose like a scarecrow lost in the forest. He slashed and cut, the blade making errant slices into his own cheeks and jaw, until (his own fingers made dumb by the dwindling oxygen), the knife fell from his hand.
Then, his fingers (now fat and blueing) were left to claw at what felt like hair, looking for any purchase against it, searching along his collar bones for a way up into the slithering mass; and then, groping along his own (now bearded?!) jowls, searching, searching for a way down into the hairy filth.
The hair grows. The hair grows. Jones McTanner had been found face-down in the cattails. His head hadn’t been the only place the hair had continued to grow. His jowls had two weeks’ worth of beard on them – grey beard, soft after two weeks submerged in that summer’s flood. His arms, too, had an extraordinary amount of hair – shifting in the soft currents of the muddy water. His thighs, his back – all covered in downy hair.
Convulsing like an animated scarecrow, Trumbull rose up into the night, stretched by the strands that flowed down from the trees, his feet held tight by the strands that wrapped thick through the mud. In the distance, he could once again see the blue glow of the mercury bulb. Beneath the glow, the amphitheater. Beneath the shell of amphitheater, the single chair of Fred Mulligan’s barbering operation. The chair was empty. The concrete floor beneath it was clean. And there in the woods, as Trumbull’s eyes felt like they were ready to pop from their sockets, as blood vessels slowly and intermittently erupted around his grey irises so that the whites would appear red when his own cops found his body two weeks from now, Trumbull looked up into the branches of the enormous beech and saw a spinning, twining, living mass of brown-and-gold-and-silver gossamer: wisps of hair reached down in the moonlight to wrap themselves around the neck of this man who, even now, had his own beard and uncut locks dropping down in front of his eyes. There would be no more haircuts for Trumbull. And there would be no more air. His feet were gone, deadened by unaerated blood; his hands were useless, drunk on his muscles’ own carbon dioxide; and, as he watched the fluttering hair above him, his eyes, too, grew dark and he was lost beneath the weight of the world’s clippings.