Ernest Dolnay had been married for eighteen years to the same woman, and had been faithful to her with a faithfulness that might mean little to some, considering how often he enjoyed going to parties, choosing a woman he found attractive, and telling her how special and sexy she was. These women were never angry with him, simply because he insisted his main intention was to confirm the facts of life and not to take them to bed. Besides, he lived in Manchester, England, and not in the United States, where this kind of talk would qualify as harassment. Often, while he was praising them, the women would stare insistently at his head. When those looks lasted too long, he would picked up his drink nervously and go to the bathroom to arrange his hair. As you must know by now, Ernest Dolnay wore a toupee.
He was convinced that nobody noticed. He slept with it and woke up often during the night to put it back on. Sometimes he found the toupee resting on the pillow next to his head and not on top of it, and was afraid his wife, Kathleen, would discover his secret.
The truth was there was nothing for her to discover. She knew. Before he started wearing a toupee, long before his hair started falling out, Kathleen had been telling him how attractive bald men were. In a magazine, a model had praised them as the most attractive men of all, commenting that she always imagined their heads between her legs.
"What magazine was that?" Ernest asked.
Kathleen couldn't remember.
When they married, of course, he was young and he wasn't bald. The loss, as it usually happens, occurred gradually. One day, Kathleen entered the bathroom and saw him kneeling, picking up his hairs one by one from the floor and putting them in a little box.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Collecting my hairs. What do you expect? I'm not going to throw them away. No, I'm going to keep the ones that still have the pylorus bulb intact, and store them in the icebox, because hopefully, one day, I can have them transplanted."
From then on, his box of hairs was a constant source of worry to him. Each time the entire family was leaving for a vacation, he wondered whether to take the hairs with him or not, and every morning he looked at the little box with the same tender smile with which he had looked at every one of his four children when they were born.
The first day that a new cleaning lady started working at the Dolnays' house, she decided to clean the kitchen thoroughly. At dawn the next day, Kathleen remembered the frozen hairs. They weren't in the icebox anymore and the rubbish bin was empty. Looking out the kitchen window, she noticed that the garbage truck already had passed.
"I didn't see anything inside the little box," the cleaning lady said. "This is why I threw it away."
Imagining her husband's reaction when he didn't find his hairs with their supposedly healthy bulbs, Kathleen started plucking out her own. In the beginning, it didn't hurt, because she was so concerned about parts of her husband being thrown into the garbage. But after a while it became painful. Anyway, how many hairs had he been keeping, and what was the length of each one? Did he count hair by hair? Hers were thicker and darker than his, but she reasoned what he would reason, that his should have been like that many years ago. She took a pair of scissors and cut her hairs short. Luckily, she found a similar little box in her daughters' room.
The next time her husband opened the icebox, she couldn't swallow her toast until she saw the grateful smile on his face, the same smile he'd had after they made love for the first time.
Some months later, on an evening darker than usual, he came back home with a toupee. She looked at him and didn't dare say anything. Later on, she would rehearse in her head the moment when, caught by surprise, she could have spoken candidly. He was standing next to her, pretending that nothing had changed, and she lacked the courage, the cruelty to ask, "Hey, what are you wearing on your head?" Instead, because she loved him—above all she loved his kindness and found his vanity only a minor defect—she simply asked in her typical British way: "Went the day well?" Yet when she asked this, she noticed for the first time how badly his suit fit him.
At night, when she saw her husband coming to bed with his ridiculous wig askew, she almost said, "Hey, you' re not going to sleep with that, are you?" Instead, when he started kissing her, she bluntly asked, "Are we going to shag?"
Kathleen was the sort of woman who doesn't seem to exist anymore, assuming they ever existed at all. Her two main interests, making love and having children, were so closely related that they became one. Every night she prayed for that unexpected child who arrives miraculously to a woman in her forties. This meant she had to pray first for her husband's erections. But, for once, her prayers were answered.
When Ernest started kissing her, she completely forgot about his toupee. Only at a certain point, when she caressed his head and he moved it away brusquely, did she remember.
The morning after, when she woke up, Ernest had already taken the kids to school. He was eating his breakfast and telling her that fall was his favorite season because his hair grew stronger. "Like the seals," he said, "when they lose their hair, it's called molting, but what is it called when it grows back?"
As she did every morning when her husband was eating his breakfast, she kissed him on the top of his head. When her lips touched the texture of his hair, he stood up.
"I've never told you, but I don't like kisses there. I'm always thinking that my hair, my scalp, may be oily."
Kathleen decided she was going to stop all that nonsense immediately. "Take that off," she would say, "people are going to laugh at you." Wasn't the meaning of love to shelter the loved person, as much as possible, from the blows of life? Then she started doubting. Meanwhile, Ernest went to the kitchen to bring her tea and toast. But what if love was meant to sustain the fantasy that keeps every one of us going, to be the accomplice and not the judge?
Once they were in bed, she tried to talk seriously with her husband. But the same thing happened as the night before, and, when her husband started kissing her, Kathleen closed her eyes to avoid looking at the toupee. After eighteen years of marriage, making love two nights in a row was not something she could interrupt just for a little talk.
This happened night after night. During the day she couldn't stand the acrylic fibers on her husband's head, but as soon as they were in bed she almost felt the urge to caress and kiss the toupee.
One Sunday afternoon, while they were walking on the street with their children, their eldest son asked: "Hey, Dad, how come your hair never moves with the wind?"
Ernest answered, without any hesitation or sign of embarrassment, "Because I've always had heavy hair."
But even that night, Kathleen was unable to confront him. From that day on, she could see, in restaurants or on the street, people's sarcastic or malicious glances directed at her husband's wig, and while she did feel sorry for him, she also felt enraged. Which was the physical trait that transmitted a good heart?
Five days after missing her period, certain she was pregnant, she found enough courage in the good news to talk with her husband.
"My dear, please, read this article about this doctor in Miami who does hair implants. It seems he is the best around."
While she was saying this, she envisioned the strange possibility of bringing a child into this world thanks to a toupee. Perhaps she would have to keep it in a box to show it to her newborn in adulthood. "Here, if it weren't for this wig, you wouldn't be alive." But of course, she would never say something like that to one of her kids.
In the beginning, Ernest pretended he didn't understand, but when he learned that he was a man still able to impregnate his wife, he definitely thought he deserved the prize of a head full of hair. The time had come for him to take his little box to the doctor and have his hairs implanted.
"You won't need that," Kathleen said, perhaps a little too quickly. "This doctor uses a sort of very compatible material, very natural, that looks like hair."
Once on the plane to Miami, for a few minutes Ernest couldn't make sense of anything anymore. He was flying across the Atlantic Ocean from London to Miami to have some hair added to his head? He had taken with him the little box of hair just in case. The complete nonsense of the whole enterprise made him anxious. What if the plane crashed? He would leave behind a pregnant wife and four children, all of them needing his financial support. What would they tell their friends? "My dad died in a plane crash while going to Miami to have hair implanted." A terrible way to be remembered, especially if, after years of working on the investigation of a crashed plane, the people in charge sent to his family the little box of hair as his only remains.
He anguished so much during the entire crossing of the Atlantic, that when the plane landed in Miami he forgot completely about the prospect of new hair. He reasoned that he already had hair. The only thing he wanted at that point was to go back to Manchester. Luckily enough, he caught a flight back to London. When fastening his seat belt, he felt so much relief about making the right decision that he fell asleep immediately.
From the outside, the hotel was perfectly fine, as it was from the inside. The reception area was cheerful, with white walls and light wood floors. It was a place where Ernest would feel comfortable enough to bring his family. Except that he was alone, in Miami, in a highway motel where he had made a reservation without knowing almost anything about it.
From behind a curtain appeared a tall, pale woman, very thin but with enormous breasts, who could have played the role of a blonde Morticia Addams. On her blouse she had a tag with the name "Linda." She walked with her tight skirt and extremely high heels toward the check-in counter. Because she was taller than Ernest, she gave the top of his head the look he hated. He knew that what gave his toupee away was that his part showed no scalp. This was why he avoided tall people, especially women taller than he.
Linda confirmed his room reservation, asked if he wanted the special service, and explained to him that almost all of their clients requested it. It was only fifty dollars more. Lately he had become accustomed to measuring every expense in relation to the price of an implanted hair. How many hairs could fifty dollars buy? Why not add the special service, whatever this was? He didn't dare ask, because the woman seemed to assume he knew, and nothing could be more embarrassing to him than not knowing what he was supposed to know. Accepting the offer, whatever it was, he thought that Linda's breasts were too huge to be real. Instead of cozy fat and glands, they might be made of aggressive silicone.
Linda walked with him through the corridors. Why was she leaving the check-in counter unattended? He found this peculiar. The United States was a strange country indeed. Once they reached his room, Linda opened the door and turned the light on. Then, after seeing the circular bed in the middle of the room, under what seemed to be an enormous mirror on the ceiling, Ernest saw the purple hairy rug.
Shag carpets were something he couldn't even look at. Because they were less and less common, he had almost forgotten they still existed. The thought of walking on the purple rug was so overwhelming— he couldn't even look at it, much less walk on it—that he started hyperventilating.
"What's the matter?" Linda asked.
"Isn't there a room without…without…" he stammered, signaling the floor with his eyes closed.
"What? You mean shag carpeting?"
He nodded, careful not to open his eyes.
"I agree, it's awful, but it's what the management has decided to keep. You know, before, this was a motel for trucks drivers."
Immediately, Ernest imagined them walking on the hairy rug in bare feet. With his eyes still closed, gesturing at the rug with his finger, he said, "I can't walk on that. I can't even look at it."
Everything happened so fast after this confession. Linda Morticia took him in her arms as if he were a bride passing the threshold to her nuptial bed. Then, she proceeded to let him fall on the bed without any precaution for his back. With horror he discovered in the mirror on the ceiling how awful he looked. When had he become so ugly?
While he was arranging his hair, she pulled down his pants. What was she doing? Stupidly Monica Lewinsky came to his mind. "Poor girl, she'll be remembered only for that," Kathleen used to say. Was this the American dream? He begged her to stop. He explained that he was tired, exhausted. It was very nice of her, thank you very much, but he needed some rest. Instead of stopping, she applied even more enthusiasm to her deed.
He tried to pull her hair back, without result, until he pulled harshly.
"Oh yeah, yeah," she said, and, returning his gesture, she pulled his hair. More humiliating than seeing his bald head in the mirror was noting how, without even looking at the wig she held in her hand, she threw it like an unloved kitten on the rug. He would never be able to rescue it if he had to walk on that rug!
Fortunately, Kathleen existed somewhere to save him and bring him back to the protective womb where, anyway, all babies were bald.
Flaminia Ocampo has an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School. Her work has been published in Web Del Sol and Inkwell Magazine (second prize, 2000).
Top photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
Bottom photo from the Sears catalogue, 1900.