December 05, 2010
I live in the same neighborhood as Phil’s brothers. My embarrassment about this comes from an idea I got into my head when I was a student at the SSTD: Grayson (all of America, actually, perhaps even all of Earth) is separated into two halves. One half, the real half, is the north side. That’s where the artists, workers, and minorities live. Honest people. The south side is where all the white people with information jobs live. They are by definition dishonest. The south side is therefore not real; satellite televisions and hybrid, Bluetooth-wired vehicles work in concert to create the simulacra, occupy the space where reality is supposed to be. Inside of here, we are all dying. We don’t even bother to get out. We don’t know. I occupy this space, too.
It sounds like something someone at college would think up. A person with not enough income, which is what I was for the first half of my life. But after the final book in the trilogy was published (mixed reviews), and I was through with the conventions and the readings and the honestly hot sex with girls dressed like Vyborgs (ask me some time about the underworld of softcore SF porn—I will tell you the truth), I got it in my head to move back to Grayson to relax, recharge my *creative batteries*, escape the east coast, and escape city life. Besides, I was not respected in the New York literary community. I knew one writer of self-help books, Chester Chalky, a diabetic man who chewed Nicorette Gum and wore only UnderArmor athletic clothing, and whenever we got together for a drink, he could not keep himself from chuckling and drawing attention to bad sentences I had long ago written.
So. When I was 38, looking for something new, I moved back to Grayson, my hometown, and bought a palace on the south shore of the river. Very cheap, considering the size and the waterfront. Such are the economics of a dying Midwestern town in the midst of ongoing, postindustrial collapse. There was a long pier. There were two large, rectangular, useless brick pillars on either side of the driveway. These were beautiful pillars.
I remain comfortable with this decision. Except when I see Phil’s brothers on their evening strolls.
I don’t think that it was an idea in the traditional sense. Anthropologists tell us that cultural rituals like these strolls simply evolve; at first, they are functional. For example, someone needs to walk the dog. But they begin to take on a significance of their own, and have a meaning of their own, and pretty soon, the dog isn’t even there.
Every evening, you see, Phil’s brothers walk down the street together. One of them—Henry—smokes a pipe. Usually they talk. If you live anywhere near them and wait quietly on your porch sometime around dusk, you will probably be able to hear the soft murmurings of their disturbingly sophisticated conversations carried on the evening breeze. I often see them from my kitchen: four stout, hearty silhouettes, strolling, each with a strong puff of thick, curly hair surrounding their heads, the silhouettes of their hair glowing beneath the pink light of sunset. I once saw them with their arms interlocked at the elbows. Discussing the family. Discussing their marriages. The International Monetary Fund. Their kids. Tiers of String Theory. Life. And of course Phil is not, nor has he ever been, with them.
Phil’s much younger. He’s much, much less successful.
He has much less hair.
And yet you can tell, when you see them, that they are nevertheless a complete unit, cohesive and fully-formed. Phil’s absence is unimportant.
It’s hard not to shake the feeling that this exclusion is at the root of my old friend’s troubles. I want to help him, I really do, but tonight, as I again stand in my kitchen and watch them go by, dishtowel in my hands, I realize that they are much too intimidating to confront, even for someone successful like me, and that it would be best to leave them to their walk. These are large, physically fit, overpowering men we’re talking about. People who have never failed in life.
No matter how I try, I’m only ever at ease amongst the skinny and the weak, those with emaciated quadriceps and hamstrings. I like people with bad hair who are hunched over, not people who have never felt the tendrils of neurotic anxiety first tickle, then clamp. (Who also don’t have emaciated quadriceps and hamstrings.)
I look down at my dog and tell him that I’ll have to find another way to get Phil inserted into the group. Then I go out back to light up the citronella candles.
Phil wants to undergo a dangerous experimental follicle procedure at a place called Hair University. The risk, he says, is full-body disintegration. I’m against it.
He’s sitting across from me, staring down at a translucent red cup full of what I believe is orange soda. I have trouble not looking at the top of his head, which is, of course, the subject of our current conversation. Yes, I can see a little bit of whitish scalp, it’s true, but I would not go so far as to call him bald. Yet.
If anything, “balding” seems more appropriate.
But even that might be going too far. He’s got a lot of strong, sandy-brown hairs up there. Thick ones.
Quite a bit of swirl, too, and it will probably last. I’ve just got a feeling.
And don’t even get me started about the thickness around the sides.
Overall, I think that there’s great hair-fortitude here, and I have just said as much to him, and he has denied it emphatically, and now things are tense.
We stare at one another.
We are in a booth at Paco and Paco’s Fine Dining and Fish Fry, a ragged place that has been in Grayson longer than I have been on Earth, and one that will (I hope) be here long after I’m gone. Paco the Younger is a fine-looking man with the musculature of a Belgian cow who is not at all Mexican and looks pretty white to me, but I have no problem calling him what he wants to be called, because I like to think of myself as a liberal person, and maybe it’s really his name anyway. I have never seen Paco the Elder.
“In life we must take dramatic steps,” Phil finally says, but to his soda. There is failed dignity lurking in the background of his voice.
“This is not a dramatic step,” I say, talking as calmly as possible.
The dark table is made up of parallel wood planks of different hues, enthusiastically varnished, and, of course, covered in today’s layer of grease and granules of salt, so it takes me a few tries to find a comfortable place to rest my elbows before I make my point. The whole restaurant smells like a combination of the South Street Seaport and a donut factory.
“You’ve misunderstood the idea of drama,” I say. “You’re not going bald.”
He looks up and holds on to me with his blue eyes. He’s not blinking, and I am uncomfortable. His face shares a remarkable resemblance to his brother’s faces, even though he’s going bald.
“Mutability is the first source of drama,” he says. “We must do what we can to corral it. Wordsworth. Have you heard of a man named Wordsworth?”
“Please,” I say. “Listen to yourself.”
“Wordsworth the poet.”
“Everyone knows that. You’re a writer. You know that.”
“Phil,” I say. “I’m not that kind of writer.”
He shakes his head, looks over his shoulder for his fish sandwich, which has not arrived. Paco the Younger has disappeared into the back room. I look around impatiently, too. Some of his interesting hot sauce knowledge could really break the tension right now.
“How is it you could be accidentally disintegrated at this place?”
He rolls his eyes. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Don’t you think you should?”
“Anyway,” Phil says, “that’s not even the biggest risk. I haven’t even told you about the Hair Monster.”
“I don’t even want to hear about the Hair Monster.”
I wonder to myself what the fuck the Hair Monster is. For the moment, all we have to cut through the atmosphere is the music coming from the black rectangular speaker haphazardly mounted in one of the ceiling’s corners. I feel as though the old woman sitting beneath it is in danger, but I say nothing. The music—it’s not salsa. I can hear toms but then again they might be something else completely.
“Listen,” I say, thinking about Phil’s whole body lighting up like the phosphorous in a light-bulb, then turning to dust. “It sounds too dangerous.” Or would Hair Monster be down in some maze, lurking like a Minotaur? But I’m getting tired, and I don’t sound convincing. I’m also starting to wonder what he would look like with his hair back. He’d probably look pretty good.
“That’s because I just told you it was dangerous,” Phil says. “Hair University cannot guarantee my safety. Hair University is not subject to FDA or ATF restrictions. That’s why it’s on a small Caribbean island.”
I can tell now that he’s mimicking something he’s read in the literature. I saw it all over at his apartment: a pile of papers, workbooks, DVDs, and charts more substantial than my own current research project, which has to do with the vaginas of extraterrestrials. (Whether or not they’re there.) This I noted with extra attention that last time I paid him a visit. Phil is not much of a researcher, or a reader, or someone who thinks anything through. For him to be preparing is a meaningful development. It’s like a horse reading The Celestine Prophecy.
“So why would you choose to do something so dangerous? Actually choose it?”
“I’m a Norwood Six, Danny. Six.” He sips his soda dramatically. “Don’t talk to me about dangerous.”
He’s recently explained the Norwood Scale to me. Basically—and I’m assuming this was all thought up by a man named Norwood—there are varying degrees of baldness, and along the continuum are Norwoods 1 through 8. There’s even a 3A, which denotes, I believe, a very specific pattern of hairline-regression combined with crown-thinning. Different enough from Norwood 3 to get its own subcategory. Not unlike how you might measure cancer. What are you? I’m a Norwood 4. I don’t know whether this Norwood hung, shot, or drowned himself.
“Your life will never be endangered by this condition. Yet it will be endangered by this procedure,” I say. “Analyze the logic.”
“What you say depends on your definitions of several terms.”
“It’s not worth it,” I tell him. “And you don’t exactly have the money, either.”
“You have the money coming out of your ears,” he says. “And <i>you</i> care about me. And you can’t not give it to me.”
“No I can’t. You have a family. They can help you.”
“I have four brothers who don’t talk to me and they all live on the same block on the other side of town.”
“That’s a family.”
“That’s a fraternity.”
“I don’t have a family like you have a family.”
“I don’t have a family like you think I have a family.”
“You’re a part of that fraternity.”
“I’m not,” he says. Glistening eyes. “They don’t let bald people into that one.” I swear that I see a full tear forming, but he rubs it too fast for me to actually tell.
“You are superficial,” I say.
This conversation is coming to a close.
It’s true, all of Phil’s brothers have quite a bit of hair. Fine. As did his father. Fine. As did his mother, and all of the grandparents, and all of the ancestors, all the way back to Homo Habilis. Phil’s thinning is a genetic anomaly; to him it is tragic precisely for this reason. He says that had it not been an anomaly, had it been expected, he would have been able to deal. But there is something “extra-stingy”—his words—about rolling the dice and losing. Especially since he didn’t even get to literally roll, it was done instead by chromosome arms wrapping around one other. I have been spending the last forty minutes—first in the aisles of the hardware store, and now here—trying to convince him that nobody in the whole town has ever noticed a thing about it, and even if he was completely bald, nobody would care, because deep, deep, down, nobody cares about baldness but bald people. Women, in particular, only care about bald people who care about their own baldness. They don’t like them.
He shot a terrified look at me and said, “Liar,” when I said that, back when we were getting some keys copied. “It’s the ultimate untrue nice thing to say.”
When Paco the Younger finally shows up with the fish sandwiches he sets down the plates, wipes his hands on his white apron, and pats Phil on the shoulder. I am being intimidated by the veins on his forearms as he asks Phil how things are.
Phil tells him about Hair University.
We wait, and Paco nods his head to the unidentifiable music. I imagine that he is thinking about fish.
“What?” says Paco.
“Some college or something, bro?”
“I just told you,” says Phil patiently. “It’s an institute for the study of hair and all of its materializations. It’s the twenty-first century. It’s time for baldness to be eliminated outright. What the fuck is technology for, you know? If not this?” Phil is fired up.
Paco must be ten years younger than us, but you can tell that he looks at Phil and me like little brothers, lost and wayward people who don’t understand that the world is not a complicated place. He believes (I admit that he might be on to something here) that it’s impossible to be as stupid as we are as long as you don’t think.
“You do look a little thin up there, buddy,” says Paco, grinning. And then, to my horror, I see him actually touching Phil’s hair, moving around individual pieces as though he’s looking for a lost button in a shag carpet.
“The thing about H.U.,” Phil says to me casually, as he’s being examined, “is that it’s a place where people understand that something like this hurts. Emotionally. In many ways, that’s more important than the technology. AIDS, death, terrorists, hairlessness. It all leads to the same thing. It all leads to emotional problems.”
“Well,” Phil says. “For other people. Who don’t die.”
I don’t understand why he isn’t freaking out and slapping Paco’s hand away. He is usually most neurotic about touching.
“Why are you so comfortable?” I ask.
Phil shrugs. “I’ve come to terms with some things. Your characters aren’t the only people who have stupid-ass epiphanies.”
“Yeah,” says Paco as he finishes his examination.
He again pats Phil on the shoulder, and this time squeezes the muscle beside his neck. He leans real close to my face. “He’s come to terms with some things. Leave him be.” Then he turns his neck and stares right into Phil’s eyes. “You guys want any hot sauce, or are you gonna be assholes about that, too?”