“So meanwhile the oil spill is gettin bigger and bigger and now it’s the size of Texas,” Bobby Jo announced as she combed through the coarse thick hair of her elderly client, Maureen Holt.
“Is that right? Can that be right?” Maureen tilted her head sideways. Even though Maureen’s beehive was about four decades outdated, Bobby Jo teased and sprayed it just the same as she’d done once a week now for the past ten years, ever since her shop, Bobby Jo’s Hair Today, Hair Tomorrow, had been open. Her husband Ted had helped her paint the place her favorite shades of pink and she’d lined the walls with photos of the most fashionable men and women she could find in her copies of Celebrity Hairstyles and Allure.
Bobby Jo pulled a thick tangle of dyed auburn hair up above her head and combed down for volume. “Yes, that’s what they said on the TV just last night. Marisa’s been stayin up late to tell me ‘bout it. Me and Ted can’t hardly get her to go to sleep at night. All she does is tell us how much oil’s been spilt out.” This was a lie: Ted was sleeping just fine, exhausted from whatever he’d been doing with his afternoons apart from the paint shop. For weeks now Bobby Jo had lain awake, thinking about the dark hair she’d been finding on his shirts. She’d known Ted was seeing other women for years but had stayed with him because of their daughter, Marisa.
The radio blared “Achy Breaky Heart” so loudly that the elderly woman in the muumuu under the hair dryer kept time to the music with her slippered foot. She picked up her snuff cup mid-beat to spit a string of tobacco.
“Well,” Maureen’s eyes opened wide beneath too-thinly plucked eyebrows, “I just heard on the radio on the way here that it’s still gushing out. They tried to contain it with some big concrete block thing, but there was these ice crystals that hung on to it and somehow that made it not work right. Too damned cold down there for it to take hold or somethin.”
Bobby Jo’s mouth was pursed in concentration. Had Maureen’s hair always been this wiry? It was all in a puffed cloud, sitting atop her head like the bride of Frankenstein. She wondered how the brunette wore her hair when she was with her husband.
“It’s just like this wound that keeps bleedin and bleedin and I don’t think things’ll ever be made right after this one.”
“What?” The lady in the muumuu tipped her rollered hair out of the dryer, craning her neck around. “What’s bleedin?”
“Nothin’s bleedin, Sue,” Maureen yelled. “It’s a metaphor. It’s a damned metaphor. Put your head back in that dryer or you won’t come out. All I’ve got to say to you, Bobby Jo, is that hair thing is just the most unusual thing I have ever heard tell of. And I heard your girl Marisa on the TV last night, talkin bout how hair was the solution?”
It was true: nine-year-old Marisa was trying to save the world, one pile of hair at a time. Recently she’d been interviewed by the Abbeville local news about what her mom’s salon was doing. In fact, Bobby Jo had little belief in this solution, but it kept Marisa happy and busy; plus, it got rid of all the hair. It was summertime and Marisa was out of school, so she came in periodically throughout the day to help her mom sweep up the clippings, placing them in trash bags she would mail off in big cardboard boxes marked “Hair.”
Bobby Jo appreciated the help. It seemed she was always sweeping up hair, always more and more and then some more. When she went home at night, her wrist sore with the carpal tunnel that the doctor said she needed surgery for, she’d close her eyes, weary, and see hair—blonde, black, red, grey, yellow, orange—hair of all shades and textures—masses and masses of strands, straight, tangled, curly—in her sink, in her shower, in corners of her cabinets, tufts of hair wadded from a hairbrush. When, pregnant with Marisa, she had had morning sickness, she felt as if she were vomiting up hair. She was haunted by it. And so, when Marisa had begun this project, she was relieved. Perhaps the hair demons would slacken their pace, let her rest and watch the late night shows in peace.
As if on cue, Marisa entered with her small broom and dustpan. She was particularly plain: thin and pale with blue eyes and slightly bucked teeth. She had the self-conscious air of one who’d been listening at the door.
Mrs. Holt sat up straighter in her chair. “Well, Marisa, I declare. We was just talkin about how I seen you on the TV last night.”
“Yes ma’am.” Marisa paused, dustpan raised, and met Mrs. Holt with an ice-blue stare. Bobby Jo knew that Marisa had always been slightly frightened by Mrs. Holt. Perhaps it was the way Mrs. Holt penciled in her eyebrows that black color, how she applied the bright red lipstick crookedly across her wrinkled mouth. And Marisa hated anyone to call her “child.”
“Child, do you mean to tell me that you believe that that there hair is gonna clean up the oil spill?”
“Yes ma’am. It’s not just me who says it; it’s a fact.” Mrs. Holt’s hair was a monstrosity.
“Well, now I just don’t see how that can be.”
Marisa was sweeping up on the far end of the salon, talking back over her shoulder. “Hair is very adsorbent, Mrs. Holt. And it attracts oil. That’s why hair gets so oily.”
“Well, now that’s just plain stupid. What makes it absorb the oil and not the water?”
“Because like I said, hair is adsorbent, not absorbent, which means that oil clings to the hair but leaves the water.” Marisa looked to her mother for support, but Bobby Jo was too busy wishing that Maureen Holt’s hair had just a drop or two of oil. This was the driest tangle of straw she’d ever seen in her ten years in the business.
By this time the lady in the muumuu had, like a turtle, poked her head completely out of the dryer and was taking in the whole conversation. “Sure, Maureen, think about Mary in the Bible wiping the oil off Jesus’ feet. I bet she had some greasy hair after that there encounter.” Bobby Jo noticed Muumuu’d forgotten (or neglected) to put her teeth in again, and that the styrofoam cup that sat beside her was streaked with snuff spittle.
Marisa had told Bobby Jo all about it: she had learned of the hair project from her third grade teacher, Mrs. Culpepper. They’d been reading about the oil spill in their Weekly Reader and Mrs. Culpepper asked, as she often did, how they could “take personal initiative,” and “respond responsibly to problems in the environment.” Then she’d shown a video about the hair. Marisa was immediately fascinated: she’d grown up around hair; hair was something she could relate to. The pretty brunette on the video explained to a male interviewer the properties of hair—how strong and adsorbent it was, how human hair was the surest way to soak up oil, though, to a lesser degree, animal fur, even feathers, were also effective. Bobby Jo could picture Marisa sitting in class glued to the monitor. She’d told Bobby Jo that the hair was made into types of dreadlocks, fashioned into mats that were akin to her mom’s shop’s welcome mat. There were also what they called “booms,” made of hair stuffed into nylon stockings. They were lifted by cranes onto the slick and then pulled up full of oil. These mats and booms were reusable: they could be squeezed out and then placed back to collect even more petroleum.
Bobby Jo looked over Maureen Holt’s hair to see Marisa quietly sweeping the floor. From the time she could hold her tiny play broom, Marisa had loved clearing away hair from the cool grey linoleum, and it calmed Bobby Jo to watch her; it gave her the feeling that things were in order, the clean freshness of accomplishment. Bobby Jo couldn’t help but notice, though, that lately she hadn’t had as many clients, and knew this was partly due to Marisa’s “causes.” Abbeville ladies like Mrs. Holt were nervous about a project as unusual as this hair thing. Last year, Marisa had donated her long mousy blonde-brown hair to Locks of Love, an organization that collected hair for children who’d lost theirs due to chemotherapy. She was the poster child for the cause, crooning on to every woman who came in about its worthiness. Women had avoided the salon, going down the street to Bobby Jo’s rival, Heather’s Hair Lair. Bobby Jo finally forbade her from visiting with customers during business hours.
Bobby Jo saw Marisa go into the break room to hang the small broom and dustpan. She returned with a manila folder labeled “Birds.” Bobby Jo took a deep breath. She’d known that her daughter had something up her sleeve. She’d been cutting and saving photographs of birds from her Weekly Reader and from Bobby Jo’s morning newspaper. There were photos of egrets, seagulls, pelicans, cranes—all of them covered in dark thick crude, their eyes closed or squinting, laden with the weight of oil. Of course, her daughter was wise enough to know that old women were especially touched by any threat to birds. Marisa knew because she had grandmothers on both sides who fed and nourished the small creatures through the changing seasons of the year; Bobby Jo had seen her daughter help her grandmother by carrying the sack of birdseed out to the feeders.
Gingerly, Marisa approached the chair. Bobby Jo had just spritzed Mrs. Holt’s hair for the final time and spun the old woman around, giving her a hand-held mirror so that she could approve the piled-up production.
“Mrs. Holt.” Marisa stared her square in the face. Bobby Jo shot her a warning glance venomous enough to murder had Marisa been paying her the least attention.
“Yes, child?” Mrs. Holt was digging in her pocketbook, fishing for her billfold.
“May I show you something?” Before she could answer, Marisa held up a photo of a petrol-soaked egret washed ashore; seaweed and debris clung to his blackened feathers.
“Oh, merciful heavens!” Mrs. Holt covered her hand with her mouth.
In an effort to get Marisa’s attention, Bobby Jo made snipping sounds with her scissors.
Marisa ignored her. “That’s not even the tip of the iceberg, Mrs. Holt. Thousands of birds and fish are dying every day, not to mention the effects the oil spill will soon have on the human population.” She held up a photo of an oil-drenched pelican trying, unsuccessfully, to flap his wings and fly away from the beach. “We must take action, Mrs. Holt. We must take personal initiative,” Marisa drew a breath, “and respond responsibly to problems in the environment.”
“Well, child, what do you want me to do about it?” Bobby Jo saw that she’d forgotten about the money in her purse.
“Mrs. Holt, every person must do her part. Look at all the hair you have. If every person in this town of Abbeville, in this state of Alabama, in the nation, donated her hair for the cause, we could clean up this oil spill in no time.”
Mrs. Holt looked critically in the mirror at her bouffant hairstyle.
“Your hair will grow back, Mrs. Holt. But we’ll never have another earth.”
Her mother sighed loudly, pointed Marisa towards the door.
“Heavenly day,” Mrs. Holt was saying. “Well, I guess I could take a little off for the cause. Now Bobby Jo, I know you spent so much time doin this and it looks lovely, but I wonder if you might just, you know, wash it out and take off a little, for those poor birds?”
Marisa met her mother’s eyes, then slunk back to the break room. She came back, timidly, with another folder labeled “Beautiful Bald Women.” Bobby Jo hadn’t yet seen this one. When did the child do these things?
Tucking the folder to her side, out of her mother’s line of vision, Marisa returned to the room, fishing for change in her pockets as if occupied in buying a Coke. Her mother glared at her over the sink where she stood washing Mrs. Holt’s hair. Bobby Jo would have to use half a bottle of conditioner to get a comb through this mess. Mrs. Holt’s turkey neck stretched out from the sink. The old woman’s eyes were shut as in meditation.
Marisa opened her glass bottle Coke, sat in the chair next to Muumuu and grabbed last month’s issue of People.
“Child, look here. Now are you happy?” Mrs. Holt’s black eyebrows were running ever so slightly. Her lipstick was even more askew.
“Mrs. Holt, you won’t regret it. When you turn on the news this evening, you can rest easy knowing you’ve done your part.”
Actually, Bobby Jo had wanted to take some scissors to Mrs. Holt’s hair for years. It was a crime for a woman her age to have such a thick unmanageable mess. She combed through the tangles, Mrs. Holt squirming and yowling intermittently. “Bobby Jo! Careful now. You’re gonna scalp me bald.”
Marisa glanced up. “Now that you mention it, Mrs. Holt, you are one of the rare women who could pull that off.”
“Marisa.” Bobby Jo’s voice was calm, menacing, but Marisa pretended not to hear.
“Certain people have nicely-shaped heads, and I could tell when your hair was wet that you are one of them.”
“Child, what on earth are you talking about?”
“Mrs. Holt, I don’t mean to criticize, but have you ever thought of updating your hairstyle? Just look at these women, all of whom have similar features as you.” Marisa stepped forward, pulling out photographs of Persis Khambatta, Sigourney Weaver, Sinead O’Connor, Demi Moore, Kylie Minogue, Natalie Portman.
“Well, I’ve never even thought of such a thing. Bobby Jo, would you look at that? The child’s right—they are beautiful. But I don’t think I could ever be brave enough…and they’re so young!”
“Mrs. Holt, trust me. You will be a trendsetter here in Abbeville.”
Bobby Jo’s mouth was agape. Here we go, she thought. She began mentally searching for her clippers, even before Mrs. Holt announced, “Well, I suppose women going through chemo do it all the time…okay, let’s do it.” Mrs. Holt sat erect, chin poised.
“Maureen, are you sure?” Bobby Jo’s hands trembled as she held the clippers she usually reserved for men’s haircuts.
Locks of thick overly-processed hair fell to the floor. Bobby Jo distracted herself by imagining that she was shaving the head of every woman with whom Ted had slept: each section of hair left her feeling lighter, freer. Her heart beat faster as the weight of the hair fell to the floor.
Bobby Jo could see Marisa’s eyes adding up the hair, making calculations, the falling hair being shaped into a potholder-sized piece of the mat, then two potholders, then three, until Mrs. Holt’s hair stretched into a braided rug the size of the room.
In a matter of minutes, Mrs. Holt sat like a fat plucked bird. When Bobby Jo reluctantly wheeled her around to the mirror, she softly touched her razed head. She seemed on the verge of tears.
“Beautiful.” Marisa pronounced, nodding her approval. “And Mrs. Holt, you’ve just saved at least three birds. One pelican and two egrets will now survive because of your valiant efforts.” “Valiant,” Bobby Jo knew, was another word Mrs. Culpepper loved to trot out.
Meanwhile, Muumuu had fallen asleep under the dryer, her head knocking against the sides of it with a thud. Bobby Jo finally realized Muumuu’s state and rushed over to straighten the toppled drooling woman. Muumuu shook awake, collected herself. “You can come out from under that now,” Bobby Jo assured her.
Muumuu smacked her toothless mouth and jerked up straight, looking, suddenly, at Mrs. Holt. “Ahhhh! Ahahahahahahaha!” Muumuu pointed at Maureen’s head, laughing like a loon. “Ahahahahahhahaha!”
“Are you quite all right?” Mrs. Holt puffed out her chest like a pigeon showing off her feathers.
“Mrs. Holt has shaved her head in order to help with the oil spill in the Gulf Coast. It is a very sacrificial thing to do.” Marisa’s face shone in recognition of Mrs. Holt’s near-martyrdom.
Muumuu’s jaw fell open. “You shittin me, girl?”
“No, ma’am. Not at all. Look at these birds.” She pulled out the photos, holding each one up long enough for the gravity of the situation to sink in.
An hour later, all four of them were bald. After Muumuu’s razing, Marisa and Bobby Jo had, giddy and giggling, taken turns shaving one another’s heads. Bobby Jo’s long blonde hair had been her glory for years. It was the feature Ted loved best about her. Before they’d married, he’d spend time running his fingers through her thick silky mane. These days, though, she cringed when he touched it, imagining how many other women’s hair he’d caressed. Bobby Jo had goose bumps as she freed herself from the golden weight of hair.
They were ecstatic. It was as if they were all caught up in a frenzy of shearing. The perimeter of the imaginary rug grew until it covered the floor of the entire building and extended out into the town. Mrs. Holt and Muumuu danced about together, hugging and congratulating one another. No one seemed to care that Muumuu kicked over her spit cup in the excitement of it all.
“We did it, didn’t we?” Muumuu asked, her mouth loose and gummy.
“We’re walking advertisements for the cause!” Marisa’s voice was high-pitched with delight.
Two weeks later, the town was ablaze with baldness. In the salon’s sign Hair Today, Hair Tomorrow, the second “Hair” had been scratched out and replaced with the word “Gone.” Inside, the photographs on the wall were taken down; in their place hung Marisa’s photos of Birds and Beautiful Bald Women. In addition to the images, Marisa and Bobby Jo painted on birds courtesy of stencils donated to them by the local craft store. Real pigeons, sparrows, and crows perched on the windowsills, looking inside the shop at the stencils as if bringing their blessings.
Bobby Jo and Marisa’s hair by now had grown into soft buzz cuts. They were virtual celebrities in Abbeville. Mrs. Culpepper asked Marisa to do a special presentation on the effort of her mother’s salon. The local newspaper did a front-page feature on them. The mayor and then the governor phoned to thank them and to invite them to a dinner where they would be honored.
In the beginning Bobby Jo worried about her business. After she’d shaven the heads of practically all of her clients, it would, of course, be weeks before their hair grew enough to need her again. However, her fears were allayed when clients of Heather’s Hair Lair began coming to her salon. It was trendy. You were cutting edge only if you were bald. Soon, even people from out of town were driving the distance. With the help of Mrs. Culpepper, Marisa enlisted several of her classmates to help bag up the hair.
Strangely, Bobby Jo was no longer haunted by hair. The act of shearing her clients made her heart feel light. So much simpler than trying to keep up with the latest styles, than trying to appease even her hardest-to-please clients, shaving off their hair made her feel deliriously happy. At home, instead of seeing hair, she saw things as they were, and felt a calm quietness grow deep within her.
Ted continued to stare at her in disbelief, his eyes angry and punishing. He no longer touched her. “What in the hell were you thinking?” he asked, looking at her as if she’d been a collaborator caught with a Nazi. She was still finding long dark hairs on Ted’s shirt, but she was no longer bothered by them. Long hair to her had become a sign of weakness, a covering of cowardice and shame. Now, when she regarded herself in the mirror, she appreciated her elfish features: round blue eyes, small upturned nose, ears that stuck out ever so slightly.
One night, Ted came home even later than usual. His pants were paint-splotched. He smelled of beer and sex. She watched as he walked around the trailer, his eyes following the family photographs covering the paneled walls. In the pictures of him and Bobby Jo, she had long hair flowing down to her waist. His eyes paused on her head. “I need a change.”
One Saturday morning in October, Bobby Jo stood trimming an elderly grey-haired man. The smell of his aftershave reminded her of her husband’s – one he’d mysteriously adopted over the last few years. She had been expecting Ted to leave her for weeks. She was surprised that she didn’t feel any sadness, only a flat acceptance, even relief. Her hands were light and quick as birds’ wings as she cut and shaved her client’s hair and mustache. All the pain from years of Ted’s betrayal had drained her dry – she felt as if she had been cut open and slowly bled, nearly to death. The slow agony of continual rejection had poured out of her for years, moment by moment, and she had nothing left to be rid of. She hoped he would leave her, take his stuff and move in with his latest long-haired trophy.
As Bobby Jo’s neck brusher swept away the elderly man’s stray hair, Mrs. Holt brisked in, Muumuu lolling along behind. Mrs. Holt beamed at her, holding with both hands a thick manila envelope. “Well, now, honey, you can thank us later.”
Muumuu grinned too, and spat out of the side of her mouth into her Dixie cup. The two of them had thrown themselves into raising money to help clean up the oil spill. Not only had they spread the word, enlisting women of all ages and dimensions to donate their hair, they had also taken to collecting nylon panty hose to build the booms. Muumuu, in fact, dragged in a trash bag full of stockings. When the elderly client looked perplexed, Muumuu nodded her head to him: “Them’s what the hair’s stuffed into, dontcha know.” For emphasis, she spat into her cup.
In addition to the panty hose, the two had also been recycling aluminum cans, scrap metal, tin foil, glass bottles, and various plastics. They’d organized bingo nights, bake sales, and auctions. Muumuu’s energy rose to a pitch the town had never before seen. She was the one calling out the numbers at bingo. Hers was the slack-jawed face of the cause.
Mrs. Holt placed the money in Bobby Jo’s hands. “We got eighteen hundred ninety-seven dollars and thirty-two cent.”
Marisa brought in a fresh stack of towels from the break room. Mrs. Holt beamed down at her. “Well, look who the cat drug in. If it ain’t the child who started this whole thing.”
“Eighteen hundred ninety-seven dollars and thirty-two cent.” Muumuu said, gesturing to the envelope in her mom’s hands.
Marisa beamed up at them, clapping her hands together. “You two are valiant.”
“Them birds is proud.” Muumuu stretched her hand out to the windowsill. “Look at them birds.”
Mrs. Holt cleared her throat. “Well, ladies, we must be off. Good day to ya.” Marisa watched out the window as they disappeared around the corner, Muumuu throwing the birds crumbs of bread.
The elderly client paid and left.
“We’ve worked hard today.” Bobby Jo placed her hand on Marisa’s shoulder, her eyes grave. “We’ve worked hard, the two of us.”
Marisa stared into her mother’s eyes. Her daughter’s face was tired, fragile. Bobby Jo knew that Marisa heard the sounds of her parents’ unhappiness: the slamming doors, the angry voices, the heavy sounds of silence.
They straightened up the salon. Fifteen minutes until quitting time, Bobby Jo was just about to take off her apron when the bell on the door jingled and she looked up and saw Ted. “Shit,” she whispered. His white overalls were smeared with black paint; he removed his cap upon entering.
The expression on his face was that of a small, lost boy. “Bobby Jo,” he stammered, “I want to get a haircut. Please.”
“What’s goin on with you? Your hair ain’t that bad.” It was true that his dark brown hair was slightly shaggy, poking out from behind his ears, but she’d seen it much worse. Normally she had to drag him in for a haircut.
He cleared his throat. “I want to join the cause.”
“Please. Shave it all off.”
Bobby Jo dusted imaginary hair from her apron. “Well, sit down. If you want your head shaved, I’ll shave it.”
Marisa sat on the couch, pretending to read.
He sank into the chair, sighing as if his body were unburdening itself. “I been listening to all this you and Marisa’s been doing about the oil spill. Tell you the truth I hadn’t thought much about it. In fact, I thought y’all was a little unhinged.”
Bobby Jo shaved precisely, making perfect neat rows, the same as when she mowed their lawn at home.
“But I heard something last night at the bar that made me see things differently. “ He paused, took a deep breath. “There was this program on the television about the families of those men who died on the platform when the oil rig exploded. There was one woman, looked a little bit like you in fact.” His voice cracked on the last two words.
Bobby Jo saw Marisa busy herself by fanning magazines by the couch at the far end of the room, feigning disinterest.
“The woman was crying, talking about how much her husband meant to her and their son, how much they were gonna miss him…I got to thinkin about how you’d feel if somethin happened to me, how I’d feel if somethin happened to you. I’d been drinkin quite a bit, but all of a sudden things got real clear. I realized I want to make things right.”
Time seemed to expand as thick brown hair fell to the floor. Bobby Jo put down her scissors, dusted his neck. “All done.”
He stared straight ahead, his eyes grazing his reflection but resting on Bobby Jo’s face. Her hair was only slightly longer than his. “Please forgive me,” he said. His eyes found in the mirror Marisa’s small face peering up over her magazine. “Marisa, I’m sorry.” Marisa stared back at him.
“It’s not that easy,” Bobby Jo said. They spoke not directly to one another but to their reflections.
“I’ll change.” He turned his head around, seeking her eyes.
She searched his, yet felt nothing. She almost wished she did. “We’ll see. What you’ve done runs deep. Sorry and a haircut don’t quite cover it.”
Their voices were low but Bobby Jo could feel Marisa straining to hear every word.
Ted ran his fingers over his newly-shaven head. “I understand. You don’t have to decide right now. You don’t even have to forgive me.”
Bobby Jo opened a drawer, put the scissors away, then rifled through as if looking for something else. He reached out, placed his hand on hers. “Just say that you won’t shut me completely out of your heart. Please.”
Bobby Jo removed Ted’s smock and shook out the hair clippings. Sweeping the small amount of hair into her dustpan, Bobby Jo thought of how very little oil this would cover.