Twist and Pull
by Dan Garavuso
You stand in front of the mirror examining yourself and something is not right. There is a strand of hair that is bent in half and you will not tolerate it. You twist the strand between your thumb and forefinger, watching how it coils under pressure, and pull it out. There is a flake of white at the base of the strand you assume to be dandruff, though you cannot see any other white flakes on the rest of your hair. You wonder how this strand came to be bent and decide that you will sleep on your other side tonight.
Great-Grandpa Sam lives with you. He took your room after Great-Grandma Ida was put in a nursing home for taking a bottle of pills with her breakfast. He spends a half-hour every night coughing up phlegm in the upstairs bathroom sink. You watched him once when he left the door open; the thick globs of yellow and brown made you nauseous. When the immigrant from Russia, who escaped during the Cossack Revolution that killed most of his Jewish family, is finished with his phlegm, you will take a shower and watch your hairs rush down the drain. You learned that humans lose one hundred hairs a day in the shower and this frightens you.
You stand in front of the mirror after drying your hair and examine the damage. You find three bent hairs that must be twisted, coiled, and pulled. The snapping pain you feel when the hair separates from the scalp makes you jump up and down. You rub the spot where the damaged hair was removed as the pain spreads down your face and your eyes tear. You notice that the pain changes to something different after the next two hairs are removed; there is a cooling, a soothing sensation that follows the pain each time. You feel better. Your hair is perfect and you will sleep on your back this time because you are certain that sleeping on either of your sides causes the damage.
Grandpa Don lives with you also. Or he did, before he disappeared for a week. He stopped taking Lithium and drove his 1976 Cutlass Supreme to Long Branch, New Jersey, where he spent six thousand dollars on a new wardrobe and got engaged to an alcoholic woman he met in the hotel bar. The front desk manager of the hotel called the police when he trashed his room; the police found him lying on the bathroom floor incoherent and took him to a psychiatric hospital. After his mania was regulated with Lithium he wanted to come home.
Your father takes you to pick him up; your mother says that she cannot deal with his nonsense right now. She looks upset and you feel bad for her, but you would rather do anything than to have to ride with your father. You bring a book to read because you know that once he is done talking about Vietnam or driving a truck full of chickens for his Uncle Mike, there will be a deadly silence in the car, the one that always makes you uncomfortable to be with him.
This ride is no different. After he spends five minutes attacking ‘Hanoi Jane’ Fonda, you attempt to steer the conversation towards the Yankees. These Yankees are not his Yankees: Mantle, Ford, Rizutto, Berra, Maris. - Mantle was better than Mattingly any day, he says. You cannot argue with him. You have read the books about the Yankee glory days and besides, Mattingly has only played for two years so it is not a fair comparison.
You brought The Hobbit with you. You can read three pages at a time before you get nauseous and have to take a break. You stare at the clouds and think about God. You do not believe but you are willing to give him a chance if he can deliver the Colecovision video game system, the one with ‘Donkey Kong Jr.,’ the one all of your friends have. You see Gollum in the clouds, arguing with Bilbo. You know that Bilbo is supposed to be the hero but you feel bad for Gollum. The riddle: ‘What is in my pocket?’ That’s not a riddle. It is a trick and it is not fair. And Tolkien…what kind of name is Tolkien, anyway?
Long Branch is about one hour from Staten Island. Your father drives very fast and you arrive in forty minutes. Grandpa looks like he has gained twenty pounds in the week and is wearing a black leather trench coat that makes him look like a miscast mobster: The Last Jewish Don. There are heated discussions in the car, threats about nursing homes, general cursing because they hate each other, and promises of regular intake of medication. Grandpa also has to turn over the keys to the Cutlass when the tow-truck brings the car back.
Grandpa leans against the back door of the wagon, his face pressed against the window, his long hooked nose leaving greasy streaks. You wonder if he is looking at the clouds. You try to imagine him with anyone but your grandmother but you can't form a picture. It has only been two months since the funeral and you think that this is the funniest thing to happen to anyone in your house since then but when you see him crying you also think that this is the worst.
You wake up late for school and your routine is royally screwed up. You barely have enough time to grab a Pop-Tart before racing to catch the bus. (You know what needs to be done, but you don’t have the time.) You are on time. You find a seat at the back, by yourself, and search for your reflection in the window. You can see the faint outline of your hair so you move your hand in a circle at the top of your head, feeling for strays. You find one, sink down in your booth-sized, green vinyl seat, and pull it out, examining the bent, busted hair before dropping it to the floor. You want to continue the search, but the bus stops and fills with more students. One sits next to you, ruining the rest of the ride. Adam is your friend, however. He taught you how to curse and how to play Dungeons and Dragons during lunch periods. He talks to you about the Yankees and yes, Mattingly could win the batting title, but Boggs is still ahead of him. You don’t want to talk to him, though: You want to be alone with a mirror.
The bus arrives at P.S. 54 just before homeroom. You have three girlfriends in class. They surround your table and tell you how cute you look in the class picture. They ask for the picture that you promised each of them and you apologize for forgetting it again. They scatter soon after and you wonder if they noticed your hair today. Did they like it? If so, what about it did they like best? If not, why do you suck so badly? Why can’t you get your hair to stay in one place? Why won’t the bell ring so you can go to first period, English, get a pass to the bathroom, and see for yourself what you know to be true: There have to be more hairs that are broken. And you keep changing your sleeping position but what if that’s making it worse?
You make it to English and are distracted by Adam, who talks about his level three, fighter/mage. He explains that dual-class characters need to earn more experience points than single class characters to advance. While he is talking, one of your girlfriends, Helen, gets a hall pass. Class begins and you are flushed and your hands are sweating. You will not do this in class! Instead, you fold your fingers, one over the other, from the pinky in. You try to see how long you can hold your fingers in position until Helen comes back, at which time you request and are granted the hall pass.
Adam is sitting on the sink when you walk in the bathroom. Dammit! He says hello and you wave while walking to the stall. You hide for minutes but when you get out he is still there. He tells you that his oldest brother got arrested for smoking pot. You have no idea what he means, and you couldn’t care less. You ask him why he is still in the bathroom. He says that he is failing out and will be home-tutored starting next week. You do not understand what he must have done to fail. Class is easy. The hardest thing to do is to stay calm and try not to answer too many questions. You always get ‘A’s for the subject, but Unsatisfactory for conduct because you just cannot sit still.
Adam is not going to leave anytime soon and you know that you have been gone for a while. Too long. People will think that you had to take a shit. You want to go home. You go back to class and return the hall pass, avoiding eye contact with everyone. You stare at the floor until you return to your seat in the back row. You cannot stand to have anything behind you but the wall. If anyone wants to stare at you they could get in trouble because they would have to turn around and Mrs. Biren would catch them.
The class is quietly engaged in a writing assignment that you now find on your desk. You define some words and write sentences for them while Mrs. Biren walks up and down the aisles. She stops at your desk.
- Randy, she whispers, - Can I speak to you after class?
You agree to stay after the bell rings by nodding your head. You are certain that she was looking at your hair because you saw her face twist slightly when she took your assignment.
The bell rings and the class leaves except for you. Slowly, you make your way to Mrs. Biren’s desk and she tells you to sit down.
- Randy, I want to know why you have a bald spot.
You are confused. - I have a cowlick, that’s what my barber said.
- No, you have a bald spot that you didn’t have earlier this year.
- Umm…the men in my family go bald early?
- Randy, you’re nine years old.
You can not move your mouth. You begin to cry and she hugs you while you tell her everything through a mucous-blown cloud. She calls your mother and asks her to pick you up from school. Your mother arrives and talks to Mrs. Biren while you sit in the back of the room. You hear your mother say that she never noticed; that she’s been preoccupied with her mother dying and her manic/depressive father. Your mother starts to cry and Mrs. Biren hugs her also. Your mother tells Mrs. Biren that she will take you to see somebody but that she doesn’t want to put you on medication because you are so young. Lithium?
The ride home from school is silent except for sudden sobs from your mother. You stare out the window, up at the clouds. God still hasn't gotten you the Colecovesion, and you think that he probably does not answer requests for toys, even if someone you love dies. You think about what it would be like if your mother dies, or if you had a wife and she dies. You miss your grandmother now. You join your mother in crying.