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.
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.