Hair Club for Men and the Peacock Lady (July 2012 Story of the Month)
by Kristen Forbes
I was afraid he was a cop. Wouldn't that just be my luck? I'm sure he could find a reason to arrest me. Disturbing the peace or something. I shouldn't have screamed as loud as I did. But if he was a cop, he was off duty. His shirt was red and plaid, like a cowboy's, and his jeans were faded and frayed at the edges. I watched him in the rearview mirror as he approached my Honda. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, bare thick forearms covered in splotchy freckles. A line of sweat dripped down his temple and he wiped at it with the back of his hand. Did he think I was being murdered?
It took a while for him to trek the incline from his car to mine. Maybe he was really out of shape. You know how some men collect their fat in their stomachs, giving them the resemblance of pregnant bellies? That was the case here. His plaid red cowboy shirt stretched over his gut, straining at the buttons. He wiped at more sweat on his face. His blond hair was thin near the top of his head and thicker on the sides.
It seemed like guys in my generation were losing their hair faster. Wasn't that unfair? For anything else, there were always options. Work out if you wanted to lose weight. Get a pair of glasses if you wanted to look more bookish. But balding? Short of joining the Hair Club for Men, what could you do? You could accept it; that was it.
As he neared the car, I decided his name must be Doug. I'm not proud of how I came up with this, but here it is: there was a kid named Doug Porter in my third grade class. Everyone called him Pug Portly. He was a round kid with big cheeks and auburn hair. There was something so Doug Porter – so Pug Portly – about this grownup man: I decided he must be a reincarnation of the third grader I knew.
I worried about Doug. He sweated a lot and looked lonely. Maybe that was a projection. Maybe he was just tired from the walk, but I swear his eyes looked defeated. He looked like he had given up. Maybe he had a wife at home who made him feel like less than a man. Maybe he never had a wife. Maybe he was 44 and living alone with three cats.
I'm not one to judge. I was well on my way to becoming a single cat lady. The only problem: I hated cats. I planned, instead, on becoming a peacock lady. That felt more regal, more majestic. If I was going to be alone forever, I at least wanted something to show for myself.
Doug, I bet, was a groomsmen in a lot of his friends' weddings after college. He probably wrote a lot of toasts about faith and fidelity, honesty and compassion. Maybe he even slept with a few bridesmaids. But now he's 44 and he goes home to this three cats: Romper, Sydney and Tasha.
Doug had fat fingers. He used them to tap on my driver's side window. I couldn't roll down the window without starting the car, so I opened the door instead, giving him a revealing view of the pile of candy wrappers and discarded sunflower seeds on my passenger seat. I caught a glance of myself in the mirror as I opened the door and saw that my mascara was streaked down my cheeks. Was I crying already or did I start crying for Doug? I couldn't keep track of my tears anymore.
"Are you okay?" Doug looked beyond me to my passenger seat and backseat, scanning to determine if anyone else was in the car. He smelled like fresh sweat as his eyes darted all over, searching for the source of his fear.
"I'm fine," I said, rubbing at my face to try and conceal the streams of mascara.
My heart was breaking for Doug and his three cats. I wondered about his childhood. Did his father ever thwack him with a belt? Would he burrow his face into the folds of his mom's dress, hiding from his old man and seeking comfort from her? Was he always told he wasn't good enough? Was he cut from the football team in high school?
"Are you alone?" Doug said.
"I'm fine," I said again.
My car was perched high on a hill. From there, we could look down and see the entire city. A breeze picked up and I felt chilled, but Doug was still breathing hard from his adrenaline walk, sweating through his shirt. The buildings lacked depth from this height and everything looked the same size. Church buildings, offices and houses all looked the same. They even seemed the same color, with little variation. The further I looked, the further out into space the buildings stretched. There didn't seem to be an end.
"I could watch this forever," I said.
Doug was starting to catch his breath. "Is that why you came up here?" he said, the doubt in his voice apparent.
I shivered. "Do you ever feel like you're so small and the world is so big that we don't even have a chance?" I said to Doug.
Doug bent down and touched his hands to his knees. He was either really trying to catch his breath or really exasperated from talking to me. Maybe both. Probably both.
"Look, lady, can you just tell me what's wrong with you?" he said.
I could see my high school from this vantage point. Every day at lunch I'd get in my car and drive to a Plaid Pantry five blocks from the school. I'd sit in the parking lot and eat my food alone. If anyone saw me, I'd duck my head and pretend to search for a CD on the floor.
"Do you want to sit down?" I said to Doug. He eyed my littered passenger seat and looked at me like I was crazy. "No, there's a place over there," I said, pointing.
Doug looked up at the bench. He looked down toward his car. He looked at the silvery watch on his broad wrist.
"Will you tell me why you were screaming if I do?"
I nodded and we walked to the bench, a slab of concrete dedicated to the memory of someone long gone. Richard Yullman, to be exact. Richard Yullman was dead years before Doug or I were born. Was he a polite man with a penchant for top hats? Or was he gruff? Did he gamble late into the evening? Did he cheat on his wife?
Doug and I sat next to each other, but he left a considerable space between us. Maybe he knew he reeked of B.O. Maybe he was still afraid of me. Maybe he just didn't think it was right to sit at the top of this hill on Richard Yullman's bench, a strange man and a woman who moments before had let out a blood-curdling scream.
"You must have strong lungs," Doug said. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Are you from around here?" I asked.
"No," Doug said. "I'm from the Midwest."
I always thought it should be called the Mideast. There's nothing western about the Midwest. Those states practically touch New York and Boston.
"How long have you been here?" I said to Doug.
"Less than a year," he said.
"I moved out the day after I graduated from high school," I said. "I wasn't planning on ever coming back. I went to college in Boston. I lived in Hawaii for a year. Georgia for nine months. I moved to Vermont for a while."
The wind picked up, snarling against branches in the trees hanging overhead. The temperature felt like it dropped twenty degrees in twenty seconds. I shivered again and Doug instinctively reached his arm out toward me, then stopped.
"But you came back," he said, putting his arm awkwardly back by his side.
"I came back," I said, now shivering uncontrollably.
"Do you need to go back to your car?"
I hugged my arms around myself. I brought my feet off the ground and tucked my knees into my chest. I rocked back and forth and told Doug I'd be fine.
"Why were you screaming?"
I wondered if my mascara was still smeared all over my face. I wondered if Doug would get bored and leave me soon. I wondered if I'd ever be able to retrieve any of the things I lost recently, or if they were gone to me forever.
"I thought I was alone," I said.
Doug nodded slowly, as if this answer would suffice. As if it made all the sense in the world.
"My name is John," he said.
"No it's not."
Doug scratched at the thin patch on the top of his head. "I think I know my own name," he said.
"It should be Doug. You seem like a Doug."
Doug thought about this for a moment. His fingers were tracing the outline of Richard Yullman's date of death.
"Fine," he said. "Then I get to name you too."
"My name is Colleen," I said.
"Your name is Katie."
We were so unoriginal. He could have been Lance or Mason and I could have been Geneva or Rashida. But there we sat, plain old Doug and Katie. Katie and Doug.
I didn't warn him it was going to happen but I guess he already knew. This time when I let out the guttural yell, he joined right in. We screamed like our lives depended on it, listening to our frantic cries fall onto the hillside below.
BIO: Kristen Forbes is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon whose work has been published in Down in the Dirt Magazine, Wavelength Magazine, Aspens Magazine, Stork Magazine, Portland Tribune, Lake Oswego Review, West Linn Tidings, Pause: Journal of Dramatic Writing, the Stand Up To Cancer website, and other publications. She holds a BFA in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. She writes at krissymick.blogspot.com.