When the old man came up to the bathroom to shave, I crept down to the kitchen for some breakfast. I listened hard for him as I poured those Shreddies, spilling the sugar and quickly tidying up to hide the evidence. “Ears of a sneak,” the old man liked to say, “small and sharp.” Maybe so, but I made it back — balancing two bowls of cereal — without running into him.
It was Saturday, and Ma had gone to work, leaving the old man and me home by ourselves. Everybody said stepmothers were the evil ones, but, if you asked me, these guys who married your mother and then thought they owned you were just as bad. Once, the old man had even tried to adopt my brother Greggie and me, so we’d have the same last name as him and his son, Max, and Ma. We’d told him we were pretty happy with the name we had. As far as I was concerned, your father’s your father, even if he’s a no-show. End of story.
I spent the rest of the morning in various positions on my bedroom floor, jerking off, listening to a stack of 45s, and trying to do my homework upside down. Four hours later, hunger drove me out again.
Every step of the old wood staircase creaked like it was auditioning for a place in the House of Ghouls. Gray light seeped through the dinky round window in the hallway. Outside, a storm threatened. Before turning the corner to the living room, I muttered a request to the Almighty. (God’s not having helped Greggie had left a nasty hole in my faith, but I was desperate.) I prayed like an altar boy to make it past the old man, fill my complaining belly, and get back upstairs “without incident,” as Mr. Mulrosey, the junior-high principal, liked to say. I’d never gotten around to telling Ma and the old man that I’d turned agnostic; it’d just make one more stink. Maybe I was being two-faced — another of the old man’s pet names for me.
The old man was sitting in his blue easy chair, reading the newspaper, with Willie, his dachshund, on his lap. I started out across the long stretch of living room between me and the kitchen. He turned a page. Willie darted off the chair, then settled down again with the tip of his nose at the edge of the heating vent. Greggie used to draw pictures of that mutt. My favorite was of Willie dressed in an SS uniform, guarding his bone with a submachine gun. That pretty much summed up Willie’s personality. When Greggie was alive and people still talked to each other in our house, the old man used to tell us about dachshunds. They were so vicious, he’d say, that hunters in Germany used them to flush badgers out of their burrows — dachshunds being the only twerp dogs willing to do the job. Or maybe they were just suicidal, a quality Willie unfortunately lacked. He tended more toward the vicious. One of his favorite activities was to run over and bite me when a quarrel got real bad between Ma and the old man. Anyhow, Willie and the old man were pretty well suited.
“What’s for lunch?”
I jumped at the sound of his voice, then glared at the carpet. What am I, the butler? His legs were crossed, and the blue veins showed between his pant cuff and the top of his sock. I stole a look at his face, which appeared half friendly, like maybe he was testing things out. His steel-colored hair was combed back smartly and held in place with old man’s goop. He wore a crisp-looking wool shirt, the brown-plaid one Ma had given him two Christmases ago, before she’d given up on his ever getting another job. He did his own ironing now.
Last weekend, I’d complained about having to put up storm windows all by myself, and the old man’s shoulders had gotten huge, his eyes had turned black, and he’d roared so loud even Willie had run for cover. He chewed me out for a good ten minutes, then summed up by saying I wasn’t worth Greggie’s or Max’s big toenail. The worst part was how it almost made me cry, and then he accused me of “sniveling.” I gritted my teeth. Six days of icy silence followed.
Now the baby part of me wanted for us to talk like regular people. He could probably have gone either way. I shrugged and sucked on my cheek, pulling my lip into a fake smile. Not trusting myself to be “civil,” as Ma would say, I stalked silently past him. In the kitchen, I yanked open the fridge door, stuck my head in, and pretended to look for something to eat while I listened: The newspaper crackled and hit the floor with a smack. His chair squeaked. Slippers brushed the floor.
“Anything good in there?” he asked, standing behind me.
He actually helped make lunch. The sound of the opener punching into the lid of the soup can reverberated in the quiet of the kitchen. Willie clackety-clacked his nails across the floor, looking for handouts. The mood was so edgy, the mutt shot straight up in the air when I accidentally whacked the frying pan down on the stove. I honked into my hankie and wondered exactly when my nose was going to disintegrate.
“Got a mean cold there, Son.”
Son? I figured he must be real hungry for a tasty meal. I’d only had the cold a week.
“What’s in the paper today?” I asked. As if I cared.
“They put the police detective on the stand in the Stephen Lehman case.”
I rolled my eyes so hard it made my head hurt. The nights he made any conversation at dinner, it’d be “That Lehman’s a scapegoat,” or “Poor kid’s going to grow up in jail.” I squished the bread with the spatula till the cheese bulged out like my math teacher’s hyperthyroid eyeballs and the bread turned a golden color underneath. My mouth watered. I buttered two more pieces, slapped some cheese between them, and threw the second sandwich in the pan. As far as I was concerned, Stephen Lehman stunk.
“Any other news?”
“On Monday they begin with the character witnesses. I feel for that boy.”
So adopt him. Who could figure the old man out? Here he was, taking some stranger’s side, when he mostly hated everybody in the world — except hockey players, the queen of Denmark, and of course Max, his real son.
At least this was better than when he talked about the war. I once clocked him; he kept me at the table for an hour and forty-three minutes before I could be excused. The old man loved all that army business about living on hardtack, which was some sort of fake food you couldn’t eat unless you drowned it in a cup of coffee for a few days. Sometimes he’d tell about the church in France that blew up and landed on him. He had to get dug out and have skin grafts and everything. Then there was the part about having only one piece of toilet paper a day — unlike the navy wimps, who had toilet paper to squander. If I managed to steer him away from the war, he’d move on to the time he saw hippos mate, or the stallion with a wang longer than a baseball bat. Once, he told me how he ran into a guy watching two lesbians through binoculars. The old man said he took a look, too, but the story ended there, and he stared into space, leaving out all the good parts.
As I set the table, he got his own personal box of Ritz crackers from the top shelf in the pantry. “Want some?” he offered, like I was company.
I accepted, even though I knew he’d probably call me an ungrateful pig later. It was dumb, but I liked Ritz, because they’re circles, and because they taste great with tomato soup. Things were starting to brighten. When the old man plunked down his bread-and-butter pickles in front of me, I knew it was open bribery. What if he and I were actually getting along when Ma came home from work? Six o’clock seemed like years away, though. And anyway, if it came to choosing between Ma and him, it was over before it started.
I shoved my worries aside and decorated my sandwich with pickle slices. He turned the saltshaker upside down over his soup till its surface started to look like snow. I stuffed a forkful of sandwich into my mouth, gasped from the heat, and had to chug-a-lug a tumbler of milk.
“How’s school?” he asked.
“Fine,” I lied. I knew I needed to say something more, or he’d keep asking questions, so I said forlornly, “You know, exam time soon.” I hoped the impending doom of exams would cover any strangeness on my part.
The old man kept two Ritz crackers on his plate at all times and offered me more whenever I ran out. I thought he must have taken a happy pill, but I took the crackers anyway, like a hungry lab rat rewarded with food pellets for good behavior. Greggie used to be the big eater in the family. The regular dinner-table joke was that he had a hollow leg — until the cancer made it true. Then Greggie was the only one who’d say it anymore.
The old man took off his glasses, which always left two red craters on his nose. He rubbed the dents with his forefingers. I wondered if they were as sore as they looked. Usually, I would’ve hoped that they were, but today they seemed to bother me. As he shook out his handkerchief and began polishing his specs, my mind scrambled for something to talk about. Not work — nope, we sure didn’t want to talk about that. Since he lost the garage, Ma had been trying to sell houses while he collected a monthly check from the government. He didn’t bowl or golf, like my pals’ dads. It’d be too easy to mention Max and get the old man started on his favorite topic — his boy. Max had been stationed in Alaska for more than six months, and I’d recently found a letter from him on the old man’s dresser. Max joked that he’d painted the night sky on his window so he could sleep, because it was still light at 2 A.M. He wrote that the only action on the base was at the commissary. Maybe the letter was the old man’s happy pill.
Thunder rumbled faintly, followed by a longer crack close by. I thought about how it had been when the five of us were together and the weather was crummy. On a good day, when there wasn’t a plate-smashing, table-thumping fight, Ma would make fudge. Max and Greggie would take turns playing cribbage with the old man, and I’d sit on his lap and move the pegs for him. Of course, I was just a little kid then.
I pushed away the memory, cursing myself for being sappy, and started planning my escape. “Guess I have to wash my hair,” I moaned. I figured if I whined enough, pretty soon he’d tell me to shut my trap and get out of his sight; the old man hated whining more than the thought of a Chinese invasion. I held up a dirty strand with two fingers. Gina’s giving me the kiss-off five days ago had kind of killed my urge to practice hair hygiene. “It’s so oily, I feel like a grease-ball.”
When the old man laughed, I figured some creature from outer space had taken over his body. “I don’t know about a grease-ball,” he said, “but you sure could use a haircut.”
I winced. Now I’d done it. What an idiot I was to draw attention to my hair. Greggie and Max would never have gotten away with growing theirs past their collars, like me.
“It’s those limey punks you’re all trying to copy,” he said grimly.
Here it comes.
But he just laughed some more. He was spoofing me. I felt kind of confused. Things weren’t going their usual shitty way. Maybe I’d settle in and have another Ritz. Wind rattled the glass in the storm door. The kitchen darkened. Rain pelted the windows. The old man watched the rain for a few minutes, then turned to me and raised his eyebrows. “Whew,” he said, blowing out his cheeks and making the kind of face you make around your buddies.
“Maybe I’ll make cinnamon rolls instead,” I said. “You shouldn’t wash your hair when you have a cold, anyway — right, Dad?” I snuck it in. Hadn’t said it for months. It was like I’d just called a girl “darling.” Goose bumps peppered my arms.
“That’s just another of those old wives’ tales your mother fills your head with.” Then he added quietly, “I could do it for you.”
“What? Make cinnamon rolls?” I said.
“No, wash your hair.”
I stared at him. “What for?” hung so heavily at the end of my tongue, I thought I’d actually said it. Was Mr. Army turning into a fairy before my eyes? No way could I even tell the guys at school that I sometimes baked cinnamon rolls. They’d all think I was like Stevie Stanley, who wore ski pants without a fly.
“I’ll towel it so dry, you could go outside and not even feel a chill.”
“You want to wash my hair?” I asked incredulously.
“I could do it right here in the sink. Remember that time your mother slipped on the ice and broke her collarbone? Who do you think washed her hair? She said I was better than her hairdresser.”
I was trying to keep from falling over dead. The way he usually said “your mother” had more acid in it than a car battery, but not today.
“After we’re done, you could make us those cinnamon rolls.”
Us? “But,” I stammered, “guys don’t wash other guys’ hair, do they?”
A shadow crossed his face. “You want to go upstairs and stick your head under the faucet in the tub, be my guest, but you’re not going to church tomorrow with that filthy mop.”
Damn. In a minute, he’d be escorting me down to Tappy Phillips’s for a crew cut. Why couldn’t I have just stayed in my room and starved to death? Last time I’d disagreed with one of his fun ideas, it had ended with him raising his hand at me and screaming threats about military school. Not that he hit me much — just a slap here and there. That was the funny thing: his boy, Max, was the only one who ever found himself on the wrong end of the old man’s sledgehammer fists. Then again, Max had a mouth on him.
“Thing is,” the old man said, “I’ve seen you let your mother put your dainty head in the sink when you were too lazy to wrinkle your little pussy hands.”
My face got hot. Now I didn’t care anymore. I’d tell him I hated his slimy guts, that he was a dried-up old fart living off my mother, and that I prayed he’d die a slow, painful death. My eyes bored into his, trying to drill holes straight through to their sockets. And that was when I saw it: he was miserable.
My anger slid away, unable to compete. I turned to look out the window. Rain fell steadily. I wished I were outside walking in it, hearing it patter on the trees and sidewalks, seeing it bounce off the hoods of cars.
The old man’s eyes were lowered. I wondered if he felt bad about what he’d said. For once, I seemed to have the upper hand.
“OK,” I said, like a parent giving in to a kid. “OK.”
His eyes lightened. “Run upstairs and get the towels and the shampoo.”
Second thoughts nagged me as I headed up the stairs, dragging my fingertips along the wall, feeling for the chip in the plaster halfway up on the left side. If anyone found out about this at school, my life would be over. They’d have a special Weird Award for me at commencement. Had another guy’s dad ever washed his hair in the whole history of the world? I sighed. Like it or not, I was committed. Well, maybe — just maybe — it was better than being screamed at or ignored.
“Bring lots of towels!” he called from the bottom of the stairs.
My nose dripped, and snot fell to the floor; I smeared it with my sock. A lousy feeling settled in my gut. I sat on my bed with the towels draped over my head. After what he’d said to me, why should I let him get near my head? He was nothing to me — not my dad, not anyone, just some nasty, old-fart stepguy. Now he was waiting to do me “a favor,” the son of a bitch.
But the look I’d seen in his eyes chewed at me. Did he miss the way things used to be, too? He’d always kept his Esso station spick-and-span. It wasn’t his fault they’d built the interstate way outside town, so that now people whizzed by without stopping. My stomach cramped. Then it came to me: He’d loved that garage. And Greggie.
What the hell. If the old man wanted to play hairdresser, who was I to stand in his way? What was in it for him, except the chance to show off his drying skills? Why not give the old grump a break? I ran back downstairs with the towels still over my head, to make him laugh.
“If your nose wasn’t red as a drunk’s, you’d look like you were about to take holy orders,” he said with a chuckle.
Willie was asleep in his basket. The old man had moved the kitchen table and placed a chair in front of the sink. As I knelt on the vinyl-cushioned seat, I realized the balance of power had tipped back, giving him the upper hand again. He could knight or behead me, whichever tickled his fancy. He tested the water. “Bend over,” he said.
“It makes my nose run when I do that.”
He stuck a wad of tissues in my face and tipped my head forward: “OK . . . a little more. . . . That’s it.”
As I hung my head over the edge of the sink, he tucked the towel around my neck and under my shirt. He was careful around my zit, which I was afraid might burst and mutilate us both. I held my breath, thinking I was nuts to trust him. He’d ruin this for sure. But when the warm water soaked my hair, it felt so good I forgot for a moment who was running it. Then the cold shampoo froze my scalp, and I squealed.
He deftly caught a clump of suds before it ran into my mouth. His hands felt as soft as a worn wallet. Forming a crown on my head with his fingers, he massaged my scalp. My shoulders relaxed. A part of me wanted to lean against his arm and tell him things I couldn’t share with Ma.
“Andy Robinson hates me.”
“Isn’t he your best friend?”
“He’s . . .” I tried to stop myself, but the part of me that wanted to talk won out. “He’s mad because I put gum in his combination lock.”
I’d said too much. Jerk. Goofball. “It was supposed to be funny.”
“No one laughed, huh?”
“He wants money for it. Says he could report me to the principal’s office.”
“How much is that?”
I told him: four times my allowance — which I wanted the old man to raise, but this wasn’t exactly a good time to bring that up.
His hands left my head. I squeezed my eyes shut so they wouldn’t do something that’d make me look like a homo. Have to wreck every fucking thing, don’t you? I was afraid to look at him.
“That is a lot of money.” His tone was low, heavy.
I braced myself for the shouting and ugly names, the silence that would follow, the old mossy hatred that would cover everything in the house. Ma would know as soon as she walked in the door — and this after she’d reminded me to lie low, too. Suds crackled in my ears. My head grew chilly. Soap seeped into my mouth. Can’t do anything right. Isn’t that what he always said?
But then his hands were back, scrubbing harder than before. “Money’s on the table,” he said gruffly. “Maybe now you can hold your head up at school again.”
How did he know? For a week, everywhere Andy had been, I’d made myself scarce. That meant a lot of lonely lunches. Now my debt would be paid. I wouldn’t give him the money, either. I’d just march into the school office, buy a brand-new lock, and hand it to him, casual as hell.
The old man rinsed and soaped my hair again before I got out a thank-you. Suddenly, it felt crappy how Ma and I talked about him whenever we were alone. Sometimes she’d say how he’d always favored Max over Greggie. She’d say the old man had let Greggie work hard at the garage after school because her sons liked to do a job well, while Max, who was lazy as a dead sloth, loafed and got away with it. Then, when she was warmed up, she’d throw in how the old man hadn’t earned enough to buy Greggie a new leg, and how she’d had to go begging to the Kiwanis. It got so she almost blamed him for the weather — and I was right in there with her. Now, though, I let myself be on his side for a second. I imagined protesting, telling her it wasn’t all his fault. But I knew what was happening was just for today; tomorrow, this would all fade away like a dream.
“Want a cold rinse?” the old man asked. “Makes your hair shiny.”
“How do you know?”
“Told you: I’m an expert.”
“OK . . . maybe a little.”
After running the water hot and then cool, he sat me down and squeezed my hair out like a sweater. Then he dried it — three towels’ worth. Neither of us said anything. The quiet was different from before.
“Take a look.”
He gave me one of the mirrors from my mother’s dresser, the fancy one with the handle. He held another so I could see the back of my head. My hair was soft like feathers.
“Didn’t believe me when I told you how dry I could get it, did you?”
I shook my head. My stomach burned with things I couldn’t let out. The rain stopped. The bark of the oak in the Cullens’ yard looked black and slick.
Not knowing what else to do, I stood up awkwardly and stuck out my hand. The old man looked puzzled, then shook it. Just when I was about to let go, he pulled me toward him. I hoped he was just horsing around. Then his arms folded around my shoulders, and I realized he was hugging me. My face bumped against his cheek, grazing a tiny patch of stubble his razor had missed. Our hips popped apart like same-pole magnets, and I gave his back a squeeze so quick I didn’t know if he even felt it. When I stepped back, I saw that my nose had left a little wet mark by his ear.