He looks up and says me and my brother are getting a haircut on the front porch after dessert. Three days before summer, and he’s going to cut our hair.
I ask him, Can we wait till school’s over?
No, he says, we can’t.
I say, Please, but he says, No, tonight’s the night.
I say, Dad, can’t we just wait three days? and he says, What difference does it make?
I say, It makes a big difference.
He says, Why?
Because it does.
My little crap brother says, Oooh, oooh, you got a girlfriend, you got a girlfriend.
I say, No I don’t.
Oooh, oooh, he says, you got a girlfriend, you got a girlfriend. He’s got a girlfriend, he’s got a girlfriend.
Shut up, butthole, I say.
They’re laughing now, even my sister, who’s too small to get it. Oh ho, says my father, so that’s it. Well —
It is not, I say. I just don’t want to look like a loser with one of your army cuts.
Well, he says, and he’s smiling, if you’ve got a girlfriend, why don’t you tell us who she is?
I don’t, I say. I don’t — but my throat’s lumping up. I never had a girlfriend.
My mother says, Don’t let them get to you, just laugh it off.
But my father says, You better not start your goddamned crying, for Christ’s sake.
My eyes fill. My brother is laughing and whooping.
God almighty, my father says, I have never seen such a goddamned sissy in my life.
I say, Oh yeah? Well, Charlie D’Amato said it was OK to cry, and my father says, Who’s he? and I say, My French teacher, and he says, He lets you call him Charlie? What is he, new? and I say, Yes, he is and he’s excellent, and my father says, Yeah? Well, he sounds like a fruit to me, and I say, You don’t even know him. You don’t even know anything about me. You don’t even care.
I could hear my loser voice lumping up on me and my eyes filling again, so I got up and went to my room. I could hear them laughing behind my back. I slammed my door.
I lay on the bed and plugged my ears and listened to my heart beating. I could still feel them pressing down on me like deep water, trying to make me nothing. I got my black comb out of my back pocket — which was not my comb but Chris Sanford’s, who gave it to me because I lost mine. I combed my hair right down over my eyes where my dad hated it.
I got to thinking about his gun. I knew where it was. I had held it black and heavy in my hand before. I could go right back down there and get them all on their knees, crying and bawling themselves, begging me not to do something stupid. I had worked it all out plenty of times. My dad would have to say, We’re sorry, son, it’s our fault. I’d make him say it again. Twice. But I’d still wave the gun all around at them like a lunatic. I’d say, I don’t think you’re sorry enough for what you did. Then I’d go in the living room and pretend to blow my head off, put a slug right through the floor. That would be pretty sweet, watching them run in, wide-eyed and wailing. I saw myself in my mirror, smiling about it.
Then I remembered the haircut and got to thinking again. What if Holly Hayward invites me to her end-of-the-year party? What if I get a note in my locker with hearts from Holly Hayward, and it says come to her party? What if one of her friends at lunch says, Holly likes you, she wants you to come to her party? I couldn’t go to a party like that with one of my dad’s haircuts, no way no how.
Plus I couldn’t smoke for squat yet. I had taken four puffs of Mrs. Beech’s ragged, lipstick-covered cigarette butt in her kitchen where I fed her dog. I was coughing like a pussy. You can’t go to a party if you can’t take a good hit — says Chris Sanford.
Then I got to thinking about it again, lying there. I was sitting next to Chris when it happened — the Holly incident. Sanford and I are in every class together. He has long hair and silky-like shirts with very intense patterns that my mother will never get me because they give you bad BO, according to her. Chris Sanford’s name is written on desks with heart-shaped vowels. Girls give me notes for him. I only ever got one note in my whole life. It was from Marlene Markowski, who was the only girl in peewee league and who hit my first pitch ever for a triple. She is a scary sight.
The Holly incident happened in English. Miss Rothstein was talking like a robot. She was saying, As flies to the won-ton gods. Saying, Two roads diverged on a darkling plane blah blah. The wine-dark sea was going over some crazy cliff blah blah blah.
Sanford and I were in the back row because in our English class there are no major back-rowers of the type who will hang in the bathrooms and stick your head down the toilet or set fire to your hair if you look at them.
Miss Rothstein was talking, but we were looking out the window to the hill — where kids go to smoke drugs because Fliegle the big-butt principal can’t get up the hill fast enough — and Holly Hayward was coming down the hill with Ingrid Bentley, the two of them laughing, faded T-shirts and tight bluejeans, flicking their blond hair back, until they went out of sight below. My brain was veering off course. Miss Rothstein said, Chris, would you tell us what Bartleby likes to say, and Chris said, I’d prefer not to, and Miss Rothstein beamed at him like Mrs. Cleaver, the dude was so smart. A minute later Holly and Ingrid walked past our classroom windows and waved at Chris. I was between Chris and the window — so they could have been waving at me — but I only smiled back, since the dumbest thing you can do, besides having to go to the blackboard with a boner, is wave back at someone who is waving at the person behind you.
Holly’s cheeks were bright red with something. Miss Rothstein was talking blah blah about the meaning of silence and didn’t see Holly and Ingrid laughing and making hand signs at Chris, didn’t see me in the middle, tipping back against the wall in my chair, trying not to let the legs slip out from under, since that is also boneheaded in the extreme.
Holly stuck her laughing head in the back window and said in her throaty voice, Hey. She looked over toward Miss Rothstein, who was still blah blah blahing, and said, Hey, Chris. Who’s your friend? He’s cute.
The sky was pale blue and her cheeks red and her hair wispy blond and she said, Hey, Chris. Who’s your friend? He’s cute.
Tall Holly, swaying, smiling, playing hooky and probably stoned.
I was looking at my desk thinking, Do something do something do something, then Sanford held up his notebook with my name in big letters, and I turned back to see them gone.
Leaving class, Miss Rothstein gave Chris her toothpaste smile, and we floated into the corridor swarm, everything moving away slow like we were on a new planet. The floors were all tilted and I had to lean with the slope a bit just to walk upright.
He was coming to get me. I could hear him thumping up the stairs to my room. The door opened. He said, Get downstairs and eat your dinner.
I didn’t get up. I was starving. He stared at me like he was going to put me through the wall again, so I sat up. I swung my feet to the floor and sat on the edge of the bed. I looked right at him, thinking, I am so sick of his crap every day.
He said, What the hell’s the matter with you, anyway?
I said, Nothing, what’s the matter with you? But I said the second part real quiet.
What’s that, smart guy? he said, his lip coming up in the corner. He looked at me some more that way, but I wouldn’t say. He said, I’m going to cut your brother’s hair first. I better not have to come back up here and get you.
He left and I lay back down on the bed. I heard the porch door open and shut, open and shut, open and shut, and then I could hear the whine of the clippers. I thought, I’ll jerk my head and make him cut my ear off like Picasso. That would be sweet, him dropping to his knees, blubbering how he never meant to hurt me so bad.
I could already see it: I’d have a pale white skull, my hair sticking up so short. I was thinking the places I could go free period to avoid haircut jokes and Holly.
I couldn’t go to Holly’s party now, but at least the Ricky Konicky problem was solved. At least I wouldn’t get killed at the party in a repeat of the bathroom incident — me standing there saying nothing, fumbling with my zipper and having trouble pissing, all because we were in there alone, midperiod, and Konicky said, What the fuck are you doing, faggot, beating off in there? Hey, fatso, you beating it? His gang had cut a kid up in the locker room and he’d beat a kid half to death in the shitters one day, and he was looking at me twisted. I had never seen his bad skin up so close before.
I should have said, Yeah, I’m taking a piss, what’s it to you, gear-head? and just let him kill my ass. I could have turned and pissed on him and said, That answer your question, clutch-mouth? — instead of swallowing and getting all clenched up with stage fright so that he could finish first, zip up, and thump me in the back of the head and say, Well? I asked what you’re doing, faggot. Are you giving me shit? I should have spin-dropped and shoulder-kicked him right in the face, and then pulled my dad’s piece on him and said, How about I blow a big chunk of your brain right through the wall, ass-wipe? — instead of letting him smack my head again and say, You come in here again and I’ll kick your fucking ass, and being so shook up that now I only use the faculty bathrooms and do a special swimming class with Ted Ludwig so I don’t have to use the regular locker room.
Plus I couldn’t go to Holly’s party anyway, even if I got invited, because I’m a doomed liar and when I would tell my parents I wanted to go to a party at Holly’s, they would say, Whose parents are supervising the party? and I would lie and say, I don’t know, I think Holly’s, and then my mom would call up the Haywards and say, What’s this about a party at your house on Saturday? and the Haywards would say, Saturday? We’re going away on Saturday, We don’t know of any party, and my mom would say, Well, our son just told us there’s to be a party there and that you will be supervising it, and they would say, Well, isn’t that interesting, We’ll have to look into that, Thank you very much for calling, and my mom would say, No trouble, you’d do the same for us, and the Haywards would say, We would. And then they’d all become friends and have bridge parties together, and my dad would whale the Christ out of me, and Holly would call Konicky and Konicky would be waiting behind some dumpster to crush my skull in with a bat.
All I wanted was one of those laughs when I said something to her, slow motion, head back, hair floating through space, everything layered under it, the other guys looking at me, everything rolling under me like the sea.
My mother called my name.
I waited a bit, then got up and went downstairs. My father looked through the screen door at my mother and they smiled smug little smiles at each other, and I put my head down and ate as fast as I could. When my brother was done he came in looking retarded and gloating at me. He got my sister to sing with him: Hey, Tubby Tuba, why don’t you cry, why don’t you cry, why don’t you cry? — a special song just for me.
My mother said, Now kids, but my father allowed it, which made me almost start up again. He didn’t like me crying. But I wasn’t ashamed.
That’s when he really did it, got me out on the porch in front of the whole neighborhood and buzzed me good with Grandpa’s clippers. He buzzed me real good. I just sat there stony faced and let him do it. The clumps of hair fell on my lap and down onto the concrete porch.
My brother did the song out the porch window until my father turned around and growled, All right, that’s enough. But a minute later my brother came back and whistled the tune.
I clamped my teeth together and stared at my father when he got in front of me to look at my hair and try to make it level. He’d raise the clippers to try to cut a straight line but his hands would shake like Grandpa’s and I’d jerk my head just a little so he’d get it wrong. But he couldn’t admit he’d got it wrong so he’d go and do some little bullshit with the clippers as if there was more to be done, and then he’d come back to the front again and look at it like he was really going to do it and I’d jerk it again, and after a while the front wasn’t an issue because it was gone.
All right, he said, there you go.
Thanks a lot, I said. Great job.
He grabbed my shirt. You better watch your goddamned mouth, he said. You’ve got no appreciation for anything your mother and I do around here.
I made my face go blank till he let go, then I went upstairs.
My scalp looked like a giant fish belly in my mirror.
I got to thinking about how to get out of school. But then I’d flunk my finals and he’d whale me good for that. The next day was third-period lunch and Holly would stop on the balcony to talk to Chris and me before going up the hill to hang out with Konicky’s people. Everything was pretty much wrecked.
I was lying there for a long time and eventually I got an idea how to get them all back. I would set my alarm for 3:00 A.M. I would go into the basement and get Grandpa’s clippers. In the dead of night I would take the rest of my hair off — take it right down to the bone and make it like sandpaper.
In the morning, I could just see it. My brother’s eyes would be out of his head. Whoa, he’d say. Radical.
I would stare at him with an ugly look.
My mother would walk into the kitchen and say, Oh my God! Oh my God! What happened?
I wouldn’t say a word.
My dad would be grinding his molars seeing his handiwork down the tube.
Hoo-eee, my brother would say. Holy jeez. Hoo-eee.
My mother would follow me around and say, Do you want to talk? This isn’t like you. What’s happened to you? You’re frightening us.
I’d walk to the door and shut it behind me.
Outside, the sun would be warm and the dew would be burning off. My brother would come out behind me and say, Dad’s going to kill you.
With the bus grinding down the street, he would say, Hey, the bus is coming. Where are you going? Hey, he would say, the bus is coming.
I wouldn’t be going on the bus. I would have all my money and my dad’s piece in my pocket and I would not be going on the bus.
I woke up. It was morning. My father’s head was in the door. Get up, he said, You’re going to miss school. My hair was the same way he had butchered it. I could see it in the mirror when he shut the door. I got dressed and sat on my floor.
My mom called up about the bus coming. I waited, then got up and went downstairs.
My brother said, Later, Buzzy, and hid behind her so I couldn’t thump him.
On the bus the older kids were pinging the back of my head, making lawn-mower and army and male-pattern-baldness jokes. I could hear them in the back. I was trying to laugh like I thought it was funny. You couldn’t say anything to kids like them.
All day long Sanford was dogging on me, rubbing my head and laughing. After a while I didn’t care so much.
But at lunch, Holly came up and stood next to Sanford and me on the balcony, her long yellow hair and throaty laugh, the smell of tobacco. My tongue was thick as steak. She was looking down on the parking-lot dumpsters.
I knew what she was thinking: what a total doink I was, that I must have wanted my hair this way, like I went to a barber and asked for it because it’s my idea of a good haircut. Inside she was barfing. My only chance was to explain what he did to me. I was shaking. I said, My father cut my hair. I’m so bummed.
I could hear myself talking like a spaz. She wasn’t even looking.
I said, It looks like total shit. There was nothing I could do. Can you believe it? What a nightmare.
She looked at me like she just realized I was there. She said, Huh, I didn’t notice.
Just like that. Huh, I didn’t notice. It hit me with a soft thud in the solar plextum.
We stood there looking out over the dumpsters where kids were throwing milk cartons at each other. I was fighting the feeling, but it kept getting bigger. The whole shape of life was crushing down flat into nothing. I could feel it shoving me right out of view until I was nowhere, I was so squashed.
Down below, a kid got pelted with an exploding milk. It happened in a movie-ish way. Holly laughed and squeezed Chris’s arm. Everyone was laughing except me. A couple of motorheads who were hill-hauling a seventh-grader to grass-stain his shirt let him go and came down to see what would happen. The milk kid was trying to smile, but you could see him swallowing. He knew he just became the kid who got hit with an exploding milk. For maybe three days that’s who he would be. He would go home tonight and his mother would say, Where’d you get all that mess on your shirt? and he’d say, It wasn’t my fault, a kid threw it at me, and his father would say, Did you punch him out? and he’d say, You can’t just punch kids out, and the father would say, I would have punched his lights right out for him, and the kid would be thinking, Sure, I’ll bet.
I was holding my teeth together. The feeling was getting bigger than me. Holly stood up tall to see over the dumpster edge. I was a midget next to her.
The exploding-milk kid walked up to a little seventh-grader, who was laughing, and said something to him. You could see the littler kid saying he didn’t throw the milk and looking toward two other big kids who had been throwing milks. But the exploding-milk kid was already in the little kid’s face, pushing him. The milk kid’s friend walked up behind the littler kid. He pulled a can out of his pocket and pointed it at him.
Whoa, Sanford said, he’s macing him. Awesome.
The seventh-grader walked backward, holding his face. He tripped on the curb. The milk kid pushed him all the way down and started kicking him in his face and in the stomach.
Oh my God, Holly said. She put her hand to her mouth, watching. I could see her face. She was half smiling, watching the blood pouring out his face. She grabbed Chris’s arm.
This is major, Sanford said.
Everyone stopped to watch. You could see Konicky’s people starting down the hill. I kept waiting for the teachers to run out and stop it before the little kid got hurt any worse. The milk kid was still kicking him. There was blood on his sneaker. The other kid wasn’t moving at all or grunting like before.
Jesus, said Sanford.
The milk kid kicked him one more time in the back, then stopped. He licked his lips and looked around. His friend grabbed his sleeve and they started toward the hill.
I couldn’t help it. I was crying right there in front of everyone. I took a step backward and turned toward the wall.
I could see Holly looking at me when I sat down. I was crying hard and I knew Sanford and her were staring at me. But there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t stop it anymore.