PJ Underwood

Last Sons 

A year before I fin­ish col­lege, I use the last mon­ey my father leaves me to have my ears point­ed.  I sit in the back of a tat­too par­lor while a man cuts a sliv­er out of the top of each ear and stitch­es the gaps togeth­er with thick, black thread.  I regret the pro­ce­dure, but it’s irre­versible.  I grow my hair long.

When I grad­u­ate, I move home.  One morn­ing over break­fast, my moth­er tells me no one wants to hire a man with long hair.  She hands me an address writ­ten on a scrap of paper, a crum­pled twen­ty dol­lar bill, and tells me to be there at noon.

I tell her I like my hair long.

Your father would’ve agreed with me,” she says, sips her cof­fee.

*

I find the address – a white house with a pic­ture win­dow and lemon yel­low shut­ters – thir­ty min­utes late for my appoint­ment.  A red swing set sits in the front yard.  When I knock, a woman wear­ing a tank top and cut-offs with blond hair tied up in a pony­tail answers the door bare­foot­ed.  She reach­es up, runs her fin­gers through my hair.

She steps out onto the porch and stands on her tip­toes, hugs me, lets go.  “You’re late.”  She smells like cig­a­rettes and patchouli, ammo­nia.

You’re the styl­ist?”  I say.

Stylist.”  She snorts, smiles.  “That’s some­thing.”  She grabs my elbow, pulls me inside.  “I’m Lizzie.”

We go into the kitchen.  A stack of tow­els, bot­tles of hair spray, mousse, gel, oils, sham­poo and con­di­tion­er sit on a blue card table sur­round­ed by lawn chairs. A scuffed black tom­cat clock hangs on the wall, one eye frozen as the oth­er ticks sec­onds back-and-forth.

Lizzie grabs a tow­el.  “Wet your hair,” she says.  She points at the sink.

I turn on the water and bend over, smell mildew in the drain.

She spins a chair from the table so it faces the refrig­er­a­tor.  “I have anoth­er appoint­ment at one.” She pats the back of the chair.  “Sit.”

I sit, and she combs my hair back, stops.  “Your ear,” she says.

I stare at the refrig­er­a­tor door, a clot of cray­on draw­ings on con­struc­tion paper, thin strips of cropped pic­tures show­ing her and a new­born in a hos­pi­tal bed, a baby in a stroller, a curly-haired boy wear­ing Superman paja­mas.  A dis­em­bod­ied hand wear­ing a wed­ding band sits on one of the boy’s shoul­ders.

My father died.”

Lizzie looks at the clock.  “I don’t fol­low.”  She runs the comb through my hair a few more times, quick, drag­ging hard through snags.  “How would you like it cut?”

Long enough that it still cov­ers my ears.”  I look at the pic­tures again. In one, a pair of mus­cle-cord­ed fore­arms holds the infant boy up high, like he’s fly­ing.  “We nev­er talked much,” I say.

She moves around behind me, tilts my head side to side, stops. She grabs a hand­ful of hair, twists, and runs the knot through with a pen­cil. She combs a lay­er of hair down straight over one ear, holds it between two fin­gers.

It was a mis­take,” I say, point at my ear.

Everyone makes mis­takes.” The scis­sors snip once, twice, a third time, stop, snip again.  “Own yours.”

I just want­ed my father back,” I say.

The scis­sors stop and Lizzie comes around in front of me, crouch­es.  She brush­es my cheek with a knuck­le.  She pinch­es my ear­lobe, soft, looks me in the eye.  Her mouth moves, stops, like she wants to say some­thing.

A loud knock shakes the front door, rat­tles the tar­nished brass knock­er.  Lizzie jumps.  She goes over and cracks the door, asks who­ev­er it is to come back. “You’re ear­ly,” she says.

I hear a man tell her he only has his lunch break.  He push­es past her into the liv­ing room, fol­lowed by a short­er man.  Both of them wear dirty white t-shirts, blue jeans spat­tered with white paint.

The short one holds a red plas­tic cup to his mouth, spits.  He elbows the tall man and nods at me.  “Look at this ass­hole,” he says.

Lizzie looks at me, back at the tall one.  “You’re going to have to wait.”

You want to get paid?”  He points at the short one with a thumb.  “I got enough mon­ey for both of us,” he says.  He wipes his hand across his mouth..

I have to fin­ish this first,” Lizzie says.  She points at me.

He can wait,” the tall one says.  He grabs her around the top of her arm, turns her around.

I stand, clear my throat.

The short one spits into his cup.  “What’re you going to do?”  A thin line of tobac­co drib­bles down his chin.

I look at Lizzie.  She runs a hand through her hair, looks at her bare feet.

I’ll wait,” I say.

The tall one push­es her down the hall, and the short one fol­lows.

I hear a door open and shut.  I go into the liv­ing room and stand in front of the pic­ture win­dow.  I hear light foot­steps and a boy no old­er than four or five with curly brown hair and brown skin comes up next to me.  He flies a Superman toy in a fig­ure eight, stops, looks up.

I’m Hal,” he says.

I’m James.”

He looks at the knot of hair pinned up on my head, at my ear.  “Are you an elf?”

No,” I say.  “I’m just like you.”

Mom says I crash land­ed in the back­yard in a space­ship,” he says.  He puck­ers, makes a whoosh­ing sound, holds the toy up so I can see its fad­ed eyes, the chipped paint around its hair­line and wrists, lit­tle flecks all over its chest and legs.  “Just like Superman.”

In the back of the house I hear bed­springs creak, grunts and low moans.  I look at the ghost of my reflec­tion in the win­dow, notice the arc of hair trimmed high over one ear.

~

PJ Underwood teach­es com­po­si­tion and cre­ative writ­ing at Northwest Mississippi Community College, and works dili­gent­ly to fin­ish his nov­el between fits of writ­ing short fic­tion. His fic­tion has appeared recent­ly in Juked’s Year’s Best, Blip Magazine and Burnt Bridge.