He sat on the couch with his arms crossed around his middle like he was hiding something precious from some malevolent authority.
“I think I might have gone,” he said.
In a moment the water stopped to a drip in the kitchen sink.
“I’m coming,” she said.
She went to him compressed by the years. Shrunken like wool in the dryer. Her shoulders pushed down from holding all the clouds above the world.
She helped him to the bathroom.
“Bend over, you’ve got it all over you,” she said.
He bent over with crackles and pops, his joints a firework display of knots and knobs. The sound of the war between pride and shame. In these moments, he flew high above the clouds, never looking down, only up into the stars and sky, far away from himself.
She drove carefully. Thick glasses magnifying her eyes. Her head cocked at the sound of something or like she was sniffing the wind. She was tough and nimble, and he found her beautiful, and even with little money she always managed to cook something special for Friday. Or they’d dip old donuts in their Sanka.
She turned into the circle drive. The design of the VA hospital came from the pure soul of a prison architect with a hatred for the sky. The grounds were kept in a way that seemed agreed upon by a committee that met in a smoky room with cork bulletin boards.
The automatic doors swished open and the two heavy-set orderlies stepped out pushing a wheelchair. Both were fat, but one was a little taller. Their white uniforms were crisp, like enameled appliances. They had the same tiny pig eyes like brothers.
“Afternoon, Mr. K,” the shorter one said. His voice cracked like a teenager.
“Afternoon… Charlie?” he said, squinting at the name badge. “Which way to the butcher?”
They moved him to the chair like a doll.
For dinner she warmed a can of noodle soup and day-old bread. He ate slowly and little, careful on his teeth.
“They have to take more out,” he said. He didn’t look up. The box fan in the corner hummed and pushed the air around the room like a ghost.
“And they have to put a bag on me. Sew it up in my guts,” he said.
Her eyes made an expression, but her face was still. She put her spoon down on the tablecloth. Something inside her began to hum. Like low voices beginning to sing.
“I think we should take you to another doctor.”
He smiled. “Sure, then we’ll take a blimp to Monte Carlo and drink diamond champagne.”
That night as she slept, he found his campaign box. Faded photos of ghosts and machines. Burned hillsides. Burned things poking out everywhere like insect hair. The overcorrected contrast of war.
In the box he found his garrison cap. It smelled like old books and wool. It was the only thing he’d kept for himself. The rest went to his mother. Newspaper clippings. Snipped off insignia. Letters full of fading pencil put down by what seemed like a stranger’s steady hand. By habit he shook the pack of flattened Lucky Strikes.
At the bottom, the weight of his service pistol. He unwrapped the oily newspaper, gone soft and opaque as pioneer windows. The high points in the metal polished in a way that can only be earned with use. How he mailed it home in pieces. His sergeant’s pinched red face when he told him it was lost.
In the wig shop she picked and fluffed at a customer’s head. Her clientele was equally old and sick. Time and fate have a cruel appetite for anything beautiful. When she finished a fitting, she had a breathy way of saying there that carried the bent-up vowels of the south.
In the storeroom the Styrofoam heads used for displaying the wigs watched as she ate her lunch. Thin ham and Miracle Whip on white bread. Dry crackers. Diet soda. Today all the heads were talking about Mrs. Gurnsey. How she had withered away just like her husband.
“It’s a sympathetic atrophy,” they murmured.
“They all get so thin, it happens to all the dried-up old coots,” they said.
One from the top shelf said, “Just like people start to look like their dogs!” and at that, the white heads nodded and laughed like a chorus of crazies.
Chewing her sandwich, the woman lifted her eyebrows and nodded in unconscious agreement.
When they finally shipped him home, they would go to the diner. Steaks and coffee. Her strappy white shoes on the tile. His square shoulders. The thin, ginger waitress always smiling. How she would fill the coffee cups smacking her gum. The immortal clink and scrape of silverware on plates. Chandelier sound of ice stirring in glasses. A hundred conversations over the tables rolling like the slap and wash of the sea. A girl’s high theatrical laugh from behind them skipped across the top of it all. Her red lipstick bending the laugh a bit sharp over natural.
“Slice of apple pie?”
“Yes, please, and ice cream, two spoons.”
On the way home they would stop for a bottle of wine. He liked one with a screw top and she allowed it. Their shadows in the bug-swirled streetlights. They felt it both. A wish to be ever unfixed. To fly together like some new bird with no name.
Then the record player in the living room. And then they’d be together and after, the feel of cool white sheets in the morning as the sun lit the world the same way it had done since the very first dawn.
He held his gut as he walked to the corner grocery. His belt sinched to the last hole. In his mind he hung on a string somewhere far away like a Halloween decoration. Behind his eyes, he felt the gray skies of autumn begin to tumble over him and by some trick of their moving, he began to fade.
Small red basket crooked in his arm, he shuffled the aisles. The bounty of it all folding down in him, smaller and flatter until he couldn’t see it any longer, and the world was one final quiet moment so near to him he couldn’t tell it from a dream.
He took a pint of ice cream; a single packaged slice of pie; and, from the open cooler by the card aisle, a bundle of daisies in its noisy pink plastic. A child in line stared at him with the colossal innocence present only in the young. The child’s mother stood oblivious and transfixed by a celebrity magazine.
The cashier rang and bagged his items.
She asked him something or told him something or commented on the weather.
Sunday and the shop was closed. The wig heads asleep on the shelves. The one on the top row dreamed for all of them. A long pony tail hanging down her back. The wind that topped the trees blew bangs into her eyes, and she brushed them away with long, delicate fingers. She looked on as the fiery disc of sun rose above a plain that stretched off and away into space, then finally into nothing, and images like that swirled behind all their eyes when she dreamt. And if any one of them had their heart crushed by dreams of stars and cool rivers, drifting butterflies and campfire sparks rising in the night, from one to the next, they would never know.
They would never say.
Since she had taken over the driving, he had missed church only twice. Once when his sister died, and now. He saw her eyes when he said he’d rather stay in.
Lying in bed, he heard her in the bathroom. The sounds of her dressing. Zippers and shoes. Water running as she scrubbed her teeth in the glass, a tinkling like New Year’s Eve. Hiss of hairspray, rattle of brushes and combs. The secret sounds of a woman’s grooming. Strange as the pyramids.
“I’ll see you soon,” she said. Her mouth a little down.
“Before you know it,” he said.
Time had created a knowing between them.
When she was gone, he wiped the counter and put away the towel. He straightened the impossible number of pill bottles on the counter. On the table he put the flowers, and a little note he tied with string. He straightened and ordered his socks in the top drawer. In the bedroom he smoothed the bedspread. He closed the window on the sound of traffic.
He sat quietly on the bed to rest. His life floated all around him. All his days present and adrift with him here. Right now.
Then he put the pistol to his ear.
And the world became quieter still.
In the storeroom the heads gossiped.
“It’s the coward’s way,” one said, and the others murmured. Their painted-on eyes shifting. Weighing one another’s judgment.
The quiet one on the end blushed as the old woman passed and turned out the light. She locked the door and stepped out into the night where the wind touched her face the way a doctor might, empty of affection, where the streetlights etched the world into a place where she found herself only visiting.
He was so frail, was the weight she carried with her.
She did not believe this would be the horizon into which her sun would drop.
When they were done, the bedroom smelled like bleach. She opened the windows and moved to the couch, a pillow up between her knees. Outside the crickets sang and cried all night.
And then she caught them one day. All down from the shelves, rolling and hopping all over the storeroom floor and lunch table. A few of them balancing drunkenly on top of each other like clowns, trying at the emergency exit door. They tumbled and rolled as she came in and crossed her arms.
“He was proud,” she told them.
The Styrofoam heads rolled and glanced at one another, whispering. Guilty. They assured her, as she began to pick them up one by one and stuff them into a bag, that she was mistaken. They would never think or say such a thing, that she was being unreasonable and please, God, please stop.
She looked at her manager’s fingernails as she asked her to please go home. Rest. She was very sorry about everything. Honey, they were all so sorry.
Call when she was feeling better.
And feeling better takes a long time.
And after a long time, he found himself once again opening the screw-top wine. He caught her eyes when he pulled it from the basket.
The field where they sat was vast and fine with a mat of tiny flowers, blue as butterfly wings. They stretched themselves on the blanket and laughed together. Their voices stretching up to the sun like a prayer.
Far away, the field vanished in a gray line at the foot of the hills which rose gold and brown as folded tobacco. Their crags lifting always higher and away and finally fading to something soft like an echo.
He poured more wine and they drank, and they felt the breeze come up slowly. Deliberately.
Like one season’s end hinting at the coming of the next.
A hint at something approaching forever.
Above, the birds found their thermals and rose, mixing with the sky, their long blue tails trailing them like ribbons on a kite string.
7 thoughts on “Wig Shop by Jon Fotch”
Centering this sad tale around the wig shop was a master stroke. It grounded the piece and allowed the story to become something more than just another missive about about age and death. Very well done.
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Brilliant control and pace.
Excellent imagery mixed with an acute perception and realism.
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I totally agree with Leila that the setting really anchored this piece. A lot of gorgeous and rich description of scene too.
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Very moving. A bit bizarre yet ultimately realistic. Nicely done.
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Oh my goodness- this actually brought tears to my eyes. That line ‘ the world was one final quiet moment so near to him he couldn’t tell it from a dream.’ – absolutely stunning!
Why many of us want the quick heart attack rather than the protracted, miserable decline. Why I want to go first, she can handle it on her own better than I could.
A dark fairy tale, yet very real….wistfully yet not wistfully happy ever after…. The two main characters caught in the world together, something heroic about their struggle and separation which comes to every couple one way or another. The descriptions are also striking, observations on the strangeness and uniqueness of the world and our perceptions of it.