The wisps that allow us to retain our humanity are sometimes no wider than a single strand of hair.
Racino oversleeps; he did not finish the Marguerite plait until late, and now already it is time to go to work. Of all days to be tired. He will be on his feet for ten hours, and probably both ways on the Transit as well. By tonight he will be exhausted when she arrives. It will not be the way he wants it, he can tell already. Not that it ever is.
He skips hiding the tube--too tired, and too much else on his mind anyway. He doesn't realize it's raining until he steps out the door of his apartment, and goes back inside to get his hat. Standing in the drizzle at the Transit stop, Racino feels his body wanting to sag back into sleep, back into bed, back into the darkness. The brim on his hat begins to droop, and it does not do much to keep his head dry, either. He should buy a new one, he knows; someone might ask why he hasn't, and what can he tell them. Sorry, but what little extra money I have is going toward plastic and thread? Hardly. It's one of the smaller chances he takes, and if he's caught a warped brim will be the least of his problems.
Inside the Transit he moves as far down the aisle as he can, reaches for the plastic bar above him and removes his hat. Small drops of water cling to the short fuzz on the top of his head; he'd like to run a hand over it, to dry it off and, while he's at it, check its length, something else he forgot to do this morning. It's been ten days since his last cut, and only four remaining until he must go again, though length is more important than the interval, they all know. Nothing longer than a half centimeter; a cut every fourteen days, regardless. It hardly seems frightening anymore.
Soon the Transit is stuffed full, and Racino is pushed further back. It's hot and stuffy, and the mood is hushed, like the weather. Looking down at his chest, he counts the stops. At four he begins to get excited; at five, he begins to get aroused. Suddenly at six he has a thought: what if she doesn't show up, what if she's changed her mind, or, worse than anything, what if she's been caught since yesterday? Racino's heart beats faster; his face grows warm. At her stop, seven, he hears nothing, like a vacuum--but then, he sees the side of her face as she comes aboard. By the time the Transit is moving again he's calming down, and she is standing sideways in the aisle near the front of the vehicle, wet people crowded around her, but in Racino's line of sight. A minute later--Racino wonders if she too counts to herself--she turns her head slightly and his brown eyes meet her blue. Neither of them smile, and their faces remain blank. How are you this morning, Peter, he imagines her asking; fine, thank you, and you, he imagines asking her in return. Then, to confirm yesterday's signal and tonight's meeting, he brings his hand to his mouth and coughs into his fist, watching her carefully. She reaches up to remove something from the corner of her right eye, and he coughs again.
After clearing security he walks for five minutes, down long concrete halls that the rain will never reach. It's only 8:15; he's already weary, and has to force himself to walk fast. At his closet he puts on his work smock; while tying it in back Jones comes along and, as if Racino wouldn't notice him anyway, taps him heavily on the shoulder.
"Big haul out in the desert last night," Jones says, grinning widely. "Six of 'em, holed up in some commune or something. Came in early this morning."
"Good morning to you too, Jonesie," Racino says, straightening his outfit.
"Yeah, yeah," Jones says, his head jerking to look down the hall.
"So where are they at now?" Racino asks, as if he doesn't care.
"Huh? Yeah. The women, four of 'em, they're done already, shaved slick as a baboon's ass." Jones' head jerks to the right, to look down the hall in the other direction. "The guys, two of 'em, big as bulls. They just strapped the last one down a few minutes ago."
"That so?" Racino says, reaching inside for his broom.
"Yeah, huge mothers." Jones continues to look over his shoulder while scratching at his ear. "Derelicts, probably."
"Probably," Racino says, bending over for his dustpan. "Or worse."
"Were, anyway. Gettin' theirs now." Jones laughs quickly, and his head wavers back to look at Racino.
"So where they cuttin' em?" he asks.
"Two-twelve," Jones says, and starts to walk away.
Racino is disappointed--his area stops at Two-ten, and Two-twelve might have already been swept by the time he can get there. He calls out after Jones, moving away down the hall.
Jones' head jerks back around, nervously.
"Jonesie, have a good day, huh?" Racino tells him.
"Worthless derelicts," Jones mumbles, turning back around.
Racino carries his broom and pan down the hall and looks into each of his five rooms. None has been used yet this morning, and probably won't be for another half-hour, before the regular Cutters arrive at nine o'clock. He wants to linger in each room, if only a minute, to grab a sort of mobile nap. What he wants most is to crawl up onto one of the tables and let himself sink away. It would be so easy. But the conversation with Jones is pressing on his mind.
From 210 he can hear cursing in the next room, and the sound of electric razors--Jonesie was right. Racino leaves the room and turns right instead of left, and goes slowly past the doorway of 212, carrying his broom on his side, trying to make it conspicuous.
"You!" someone yells from inside the brightly lit room, just as he had hoped. Racino stops quickly and steps in.
"You. Where the hell have you been?"
He vaguely recognizes the Cutter who is shouting at him--Bursley, or Bursty, something like that. He has on a blue smock, a surgical mask and cap, and thin white rubber gloves on his hands. He's holding a pair of electric shears, the heavy ones, Racino can tell, and standing in front of the strapping table--all Racino can see are the man's boots, heavy and dirty, with a buckle on the side. The rest of him--"Patients," they're called officially--is obscured by Bursley's assistant, but he's there in the room, on the table, like a stone.
Racino acts taken aback by the sharpness of the question, and looks down. He begins to mumble an answer. He won't explain that this isn't his room unless he's asked. "Sorry," he says.
"I'd hope so," Bursley spits out. "Get in here and clean this filth up."
Racino quickly begins to sweep. It is as good as he suspected. Long hair covers the floor beneath the table, curly blond locks and some straight, long brown. He could use it, certainly--for another plait, or the pin curl he has been thinking about. If only he had his tube. These days he can fill it in five seconds, and be in and out of the toilet before anyone could possibly suspect anything. The yellow curls, especially, would lay beautifully in a small postiche. He has to find a way to keep them from going to waste. If only he'd put the tube up inside him this morning.
His fatigue has been pushed away, and Racino's eyes roam across the floor. He is careful not to look too far up, careful to act dumb. Then, twisting his neck slightly in order to look underneath the second table, he sees long, black strands, lying scattered on top of itself like coiled string, one cutting after another. His heart jumps. Pure black is rare, jet black, and now there it is, waiting for him. Exactly what he wants.
He works quickly, sweeping around the first table, underneath where they are cutting. By being thorough and fastidious he tries to ensure that they will finish before he does. The Head Cutter curses continuously, and Racino is able to sneak a few glances at the Patient, grounded like a captured whale.
"What a mangy bastard," the Cutter says, throwing down a clump of brown hair. Racino sees that the Patient's beard has already been shaved away, and is relieved. His face is cut and bloody, and it must have been a long, difficult job. Usually they anesthetized them first, but sometimes they lash them down, thick straps across the head and neck that they tighten pneumatically, and rough them up for fun. Then they knock them out in order to shave the head. Racino has found teeth beneath the tables, chipped and bloody, and once even a piece of an ear. This one they should be finished with soon.
A few minutes later the Head Cutter turns off his shears. He peels off his rubber gloves, snapping them from his fingers one at a time, and says to his assistant, "Why don't you finish this dog and then come down to 220--Roach said there's a whore they're bringin' down from Booking."
"We'll make her up nice and pretty," the other one says.
As the Head Cutter walks away he adds, "Ought to be a good time for everyone."
Ten minutes later, just as Racino is scooping a large pile of the blond and brown hair into a numbered bag, the second Cutter shuts off his shears and steps away from the table.
"Have someone take him down to Cleanup," he says without looking at Racino.
"Yes sir," Racino says, standing up.
He leaves the room and Racino is alone with the drugged Patient. His heart suddenly begins to pound so he can feel it in his chest, harder than on the Transit this morning, and even before he has done anything he feels guilty. He rushes to finish the first table, reaching all the way under where the Cutters had been standing, and quickly bags up what he has. He would like to keep it too, smuggle it out one day at a time, but there is more at stake. There is not enough to fill the bag--he'll probably get a reprimand for turning it in low, but separating the black hair would be impossible if he put it in too. Taking out a new bag, one number higher in sequence, he moves to the second table and begins to scoop up the black hair. It is smooth and fine, and longer than he's seen in months, undoubtedly from someone young. He places it in the new bag, then sweeps up the scraps and dust, scooping it into the other bag and tying it shut. He tries not to think of what he is about to do.
With the room clean--he glances back from the doorway to be certain, and takes one last look at the table--he carries his broom, pan and the two bags back down the hall. This biker, the hippy--was he stupid, or just unlucky? Racino drops the filled bag at the Disposal Station; Kurnicki, fat and oily, his own shaved head shaped like a squashed cone, hands Racino a receipt and asks about the other bag.
"I'll have it here before the end of the day," Racino says, forcing himself to sound calm.
"Better," Kurnicki says. "No fuckin' around in this sector."
"I know," Racino says. He didn't notice the bag wasn't completely full. "There's one in 212 ready to ship." Who turned them in, Racino wonders, and what did they get for it?
Kurnicki pulls phlegm up his throat and spits. "How fuckin' wonderful."
Kurnicki inspects the closets every other afternoon, so he can't stash it there. The floors are all concrete, the ceilings like a warehouse. Kurnicki's room? He doesn't know if they inspect there or not--probably they do. Everyone is inspected, sometime, aren't they? No one hides anything anymore. Racino wants this, has been looking for it for months, since he started sweeping here, it seems, and now he has to find a place to hide it, somewhere he can get at it once a day and steal it away, one tube up his ass after the other. He has to find a place for this bag in his hand. Has to. He can't carry around a partially-filled bag forever.
Suddenly he thinks: or can he? Maybe it would work. He has to hand the bags over to Kurnicki in sequence--the bastard checks, every time--but what if every time he got a new one, he transferred the black hair to the new bag, and filled up the one he already had? He'd have to carry one bag around with him at all times, keep it in his closet at night, but it might work. It might, and he can't think of anything else that will. Maybe he's too tired. Maybe when he's fresh he'll think of something.
But for now he tightens his grip on bag 1018 and walks back to see if the regular Cutters have started yet, feeling, for a moment, full of light and air.
Back at his apartment it's nearly dark, never soon enough on nights like this. It was raining still on the way home, and Racino is past weariness and dripping into fatigue. He'd skip dinner and go straight to bed if she weren't coming. A cough, something in the eye, another cough. He doesn't know who chose it, or who she works for. What if he's caught? All he knows is what he wants.
Drops run down the plastic windows, as if to wash away the murky view they offer of the world. When the light is gone he's aware of the sound of rain, and nervousness begins to bore into his mood. Probably another hour, at least. Will she come in the rain? How will she keep the plait dry? He's hungry but can't eat. What a day this has been. The black hair, and now she's coming over. There's a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, a table, a bed and a picture. The bed, nothing but a cot, really, is about twice the size of the table, and, when he's home, the picture hangs above it. That's all, except for a sink and a toilet and what he keeps inside it. The picture is of his parents, fading more every year, hanging on the gray wall--his mother's long hair is slowly turning the color of dirty water, and his father's teeth are a chalky, yellow gap in the middle of his face. He remembers the way her hair fell down around her neck, how his father's was long and neat, swept across his forehead from left to right. That, he's found, is the best way to try and remember them.
Ten o'clock. She's right on time, but still the bumps on the door make him jump. Two, then a pause, then three. Bumps, that's all they are, like it's her shoulder. Still it makes him jump, just like the other two times.
When he opens it she hurries in without waiting to be asked. Racino steps back, out of her way. She's his height, in a long, dark coat, dripping wet, and a hat that comes over her face. She removes her gloves before she looks at him with the blue eyes.
"Some weather," he says.
"Can I take your coat and hat?" he says, trying a small smile.
She looks right into him. "No." Nothing on her face.
"It's good to see you again."
"What do you have for me?" she asks, glancing quickly around his apartment.
He watches her for just a few seconds, then turns into the bathroom. "In here."
She stands at the door while he lifts the lid off the top of his toilet and pulls a dark green plastic bag from inside.
"How the hell do you ever flush that thing?"
"I don't," he answers. "I try to only go at work."
She huffs, but he ignores her. He unwraps the plastic and pulls out what's inside.
"Yes, that's it," he says defensively. He hands the Margeurite plait to her, one simple braid of brownish-blond hair, about thirty centimeters long. There's a clip on top, and it tapers off on the bottom, just like in his book, except it's only one braid, not two. Racino is especially proud of the clip, which he was able to form from a plastic fork. She holds it in front of her like a dead animal and inspects it.
"Well," she says finally, "it's not what the Major had in mind, but I suppose it will do." He waits for her to go on--what else can he do? "Actually," she says slowly, "actually it's not that bad. It's not full, like I thought, but sexy, in a way." When she says it, she looks at him, and his face lightens for a moment.
"So how is a person supposed to wear it?" she asks.
"Here," he says, digging into his bag. "I made this band." He pulls out a thin strip of cloth, brown. "It clips on here," he takes the plait out of her hand, "and then you wear it around your head, like this." He brings it around his own head so the braid hangs down the back of his neck.
"Oh," she says, in a way he's dreamed about. Then she comes back. "OK, give it to me." She takes it, and opens her top to put it in her bra.
"Wait," he says, gently. She looks up at him.
"Could you wear it? Please?"
She huffs again, but then opens the cloth strap and quickly puts it around her forehead. She ignores him reaching up to help her.
"Come on," she says, agitated. "Let's get this over with."
Slowly, sheepishly, he unfastens the belt around his waist, and unzips his pants. They fall down around him, and he waits, embarrassed and still aware of it. Finally she says, nodding to his underwear, "And those?"
He places his thumbs inside the loose band and peels them off his waist. He won't look at her now. When they fall to the floor she gets down on her knees, and Racino leans back against the wall, the bare bulb prying through his eyelids. When she gets close the brim of her hat bumps up against him and falls to the floor.
She puts her hands on his hips so he can't thrust as much as he'd like. His hands come down onto her head, and he feels the tiny hairs which cover it, like felt. As he tries to push her nose bumps up against his bald, shaved groin.
When she stands up she says, "Next time, how about something bigger. Fuller. OK?" He nods. At least she does not spit into the sink, like last time. After she leaves he remains standing against the wall, pants still down, exhausted, listening to the rain on the roof.
He has to find a way to get more.
Racino is laying in bed early the next morning, thinking. The tube is only eight centimeters long, and about three in diameter--bigger than the first one, but still it took two months to get enough just for the plait, small scraps he was able to glean each day. A full wig needs more, much more. And he wants something to give her again, too, as soon as he can.
He has saved a few plastic pouches, rectangular, with a seal across the top. He's been thinking about where he can hide it--working up the nerve, really--and now seems the time to try. It seems impossible, but then the tube once did, too.
She doesn't look at him on the Transit, which is just as well, because he has other things to think about this morning. He knows how he's going to do it, where no one will walk in on him or watch from under the stall. Like the bag he carries around all day, he's learning that the best hiding places are right out in the open. So just before the end of the day, when he's returned from the toilet, he kneels down in front of his closet and casually lets part of the partial bag, a new bag two numbers higher into which he's shifted the black hair twice during the day, fall out onto the hallway floor.
When he opens the door his hands are shaking; he leans his broom against the wall and kneels forward and down on his left knee. By kneeling and appearing to reach toward the back of the closet, he can keep one foot and two hands inside long enough to remove his shoe. Quickly, frantically, he unstraps his shoe and digs out the wrinkled plastic bag. Reaching back and underneath for some hair, he wants to look down the hall but can't--it would look suspicious to anyone who glanced his way. The tube juts and pinches inside him. His hands are shaking as he fills the pouch and stuffs it back into his shoe, thinking he'd better stand up soon. He lines the bottom of his shoe with it, leveling it as best he can, and steps in. Restrapping it, Racino is up and out of the closet, breathing hard, sweat on his forehead.
It is strange walking, like it might be on water, and he tries to compensate so nothing appears strange. He's done it--at least, it's hidden. Now to get out. Will it be a simple pat down, or something more extensive?
It's been three months since they removed their clothing and searched through every pocket and seam. They're getting complacent. They're supposed to look in the mouth, too, but rarely do. And never down below. The pouch in his shoe is the equivalent of two weeks worth, or more. Three months since the last search--does that mean it's time for another one, or that the odds are on his side?
Walking toward the exit, he forces himself to regain control. Jones walks in front of him, twitching and mumbling, unaware of anyone. The tube has found a niche in which to settle, and the plastic pouch seems smaller, too, but he knows it's there. He feels like he did the day he smuggled the first tube out--his tongue is dry and his ears ring. It would be too suspicious to put his shaking hands in his pockets, so he squeezes his fingers together, and rubs them against one another. He doesn't know if it will do any good, but he doesn't know what else will. He keeps as much weight as he can on his right foot.
But the Security search is a simple pat-down, and unenthusiastic. Kurnicki seems not to even recognize him. Before he knows it Racino is out the door, like air coming out of a balloon, a smooth, bald balloon, like his head, like all of their heads.
He's excited again, and this time it's fresh. At home he takes the pouch out of his shoe and removes the hair; it's mashed and dirty, but still long, black and magical. Before anything else he sits in his chair, puts his head back and dangles the hair over his face, letting it lightly touch his nose, his cheeks, and finally his lips. For a moment it feels like electricity running across his mouth, like sucking on metal. He's aroused; confused; wants to cry; doesn't want to care.
Racino leans forward and begins to comb out the dust and dirt with his fingers, then with a fork. He fills his bowl with hot water and adds detergent, and works small sections of the hair in the water, then rinses. He lays the hair out on a towel and looks at it. It still shines. It will be dry tomorrow and he can begin.
He wants more.
The next day he puts a pouch in both shoes. If he's going to get caught two won't matter any more than one, and already he cares less, and wants what he wants more. Today she looks at him, briefly, but he looks away. He wonders how she looked when she had hair--blond, probably, but she's the type to have had brown at the roots.
Every day he avoids her and clenches the bag of black hair with a fist. His face is flush when he rushes to fill each pouch, but soon for other reasons. Risk is beginning to elevate anger over his fear. At the pat downs he plays dumb, and feels hatred. He seethes at his twice-monthly cut; they shave it away, but now he believes that he's letting them, that it's his idea. In the Transit what he wants to do most of all is punch out a window, or smack the driver across the side of his fat head, or punch a hole in the sky and jump away into cold, black freedom of space. It's only been a week.
Each day he stuffs away as much as he can, and each night he's up late, blankets and towels over the windows, washing and combing and drying, the picture brought out and placed on the wall. Halfheartedly he also works on another plait; he wants what it can get, but it's not enough. Racino has a mane of black hair now, like the tail of a horse. Often he dangles it over his face, lets it drag lightly over his skin, sometimes playing with himself at the same time. Sometimes he opens his eyes for a second and glances at the picture, a simple mat in a plastic frame, and his hatred for them climbs another step.
He's reading, too, the book she gave him. History of Ladies' Hairdressing, by Mallemont, translated 1904. He has no idea how it's survived, or where she obtained it. She brought it over the first night she knocked on his door, the first time he'd ever met her, the first time she showed him what he could get for what they wanted. It's old, its pages yellow--they tear away if he's not careful as he handles them. He's read it many times, always at night, and now he reads it again, more intently than ever. He's trying to weave scraps of string into a wig net, experimenting. It will not cling to a head the way elastic might, but it is the best he can do for now. He'll put a thin tie on it, to go under the chin.
She signals him on the Transit with coughs and dramatic wipes at her eye, and he ignores her. He ignores her! He wonders about her breasts, and about her name. He wonders where she takes the plaits, if she gets more for them than he does. Once the side door of their Transit jammed, and he had to exit through the front. She bumped into him when he tried to pass. "Not yet," he whispered through clenched teeth, and dared to bump back.
Racino spends two nights trying to fashion a knotting hook from a plastic fork, holding it over a candle, warming, bending carefully, warming again. He has four tines to get it right, but each breaks under the stress. Frustrated, he kicks at the table, stubs his big toe, and has an idea. He cuts his biggest toenail down to the quick, carves it into a hook with the clippers, and melts the fork handle around it. It works, if he's careful, if he's gentle.
Single knots are quicker. Double knots and point knots are more secure, he learns, but difficult without a solid hook. He works half the night, knotting the black hair to the net, until his eyes feel like rocks. He glances up at the picture above him, at his mother's dark hair, and tries to recapture the way it lays, the way it fell from above. The coughs each morning are beginning to sound menacing, but he looks right back at her without blinking, not yet ready, enjoying the small defiance. One day Kurnicki searches everyones' pockets on the way out, but doesn't think to look in the shoes. One night there is a knock on the door. Racino sits at his table, everything laid out before him, his heart jumping up his collapsed throat. He waits, thinking suddenly about the straps, the razors, about what they can do if you're caught. But it goes away. When he's sure he sets the black wig aside and resumes work to finish the plait. The weave is loose and the end is ragged, but the next morning when she glares at him he brings his fist to his mouth and coughs.
Racino is pretending to work on the black wig when she knocks. Two, then three. He's managed to fill in most of the net; there are gaps, but only in the back, nothing he can't imagine his way around. When he lets her in she is livid, shouting at him in whispers.
"What the hell has been going on?" Spit flies when she speaks.
"Nothing," he says. He is calm--he's getting good at it, at masking what's underneath. But it's there, even more now. "I just wasn't ready, that's all."
"Well, I was," she says, glaring at him.
Racino refuses to respond. Finally, she asks, "So what do you have for me?"
"Can I take your coat and hat?"
"No. What do you have?"
He stands as straight as he can and looks at her. After his jaw tightens he says, "Not until I take your coat and hat."
Something narrows around her eyes, until she says, "Oh, all right. Here."
"Thank you," he says, reaching for them.
She is slimmer than he thought. Her shoulders slope gracefully away from her neck, and the brown button-down fits her perfectly. Heavy pants and leather shoes with a strap. The same thing everyone wears, but he sees them on her in a different way, as a costume, as something she wore just for him.
"Now," she says, impatiently, "can I see it?"
He glances at the small, brown ridge across her chest. "Sure. In here."
Racino steps back into the bathroom, watching her over his shoulder. He waits before removing the ceramic lid and pulling out what's inside, but as he steps back to the hallway she's already moving away from the door, toward the table, toward the wig. Just as he hoped.
"What's this?" she asks, like a window has suddenly opened, like unused air is flushing through the room.
"Oh, that." He follows her, slowly. "Something new I've been working on."
"It's beautiful," she says, drawing out the word.
He steps behind her, and looks over her shoulder. "It's not quite finished yet, of course."
She picks it up. "But it's beautiful already," she says, holding it like it's electricity. "It looks finished to me."
"Thank you," Racino says. "Tonight, though, I have this for you." He holds out the plait for her to see, which she looks at only for a second. She returns to the black wig, which she's kneading softly, massaging in her hands. She rubs it against her face.
"But I want this." She looks at him. "Please, Peter."
His face flushes. They've never used names before, let alone the first. He didn't even know she knew it. He didn't know anyone did.
"I'm sorry," he says after a pause. "I'm flattered, but I want to keep that one for myself."
"Oh, Peter, please," she coos, and begins to kneel down before him. No, he tries to say, but already she's digging into his pants.
"No," he says again. "For this," and again tries to show her the small, brown plait.
"I've had those," she says, glancing up at him with big eyes. "I want the wig." By now his pants are open and he's already hard, unable to control it.
"No!" he says, throwing her hands off his legs.
She looks back up at him, hurt. "No," he says, quietly.
"What then?" she whispers. "What?"
He's looking down at her but doesn't know how to say it. His pants have fallen down around his ankles, and he suddenly feels guilty.
Before he says anything she reaches down and unfastens her own pants, and quickly peels them down around her knees. She moves away just a bit and turns around, still on her knees. Then she puts her head down to the floor and says softly, back and to the side, "Go ahead."
Racino looks down at her, a vacuum again filling his ears, like a dream. His jaw is unclenched now. His knees are weak. Everything seems reduced to what's right in front of him. One quick step and he could be behind her. And then in. Go ahead, she said to him.
Straining. Throbbing. Resisting. "No."
"Please," she moans, deeply.
"No," he says again, and begins to pull up his pants.
She waits, but finally gets up on her knees, slowly, and then stands. Without a word she pulls up her pants and then looks at him, her lips pressed tightly together.
Racino looks at her, right in her face, and says, "That's not what I want."
"Well then, what?"
"Here," he says, quietly. "Sit over here." He points to his other chair.
Her face is tight again, her eyes again small. Just for an instant she shakes her head, but then sits behind his table.
Racino picks up the black wig and opens it from the bottom. Spreading the flimsy string net, he lowers it over her bony-white scalp. His hands are shaking, and his erection rubs up against her through his pants.
It fits about as well as he expected, but that doesn't matter. When it's in place he untucks the tie strings and, from behind her, reaches down around her neck and under her chin, and ties them in a bow. Finally he picks at the dry hair, rearranging it and covering the gaps. He moves from behind her and sits on the other side of the table.
She reaches up and pulls the side of the wig so it falls down her neck and in front of her shoulders. Then she looks at him and smiles.
After he stares at her for several minutes he says, very quietly, "What's your name?"
"What do you want it to be?"
"No," he says. "What's your name?"
She smiles again, and then says, softly, "Brenda."
"Brenda," Racino says softly. He looks at her, studies her, for a long time. She lets him, smiling back occasionally, fingering the hair on her head, holding it to her nose and lips, letting it rub against her cheeks.
Finally she says, slowly, "I need to get going, Peter."
"Yes," he says, breaking his gaze. "I guess you do."
She stands up with the wig on. "Thank you," she says, beginning to untie the bow under her chin.
"Yes," he replies softly. She slides the wig off her head as he reaches out to take it; suddenly her face changes and she tries to lurch away. Racino gets a hand on the wig, but she's already pulling.
"What are you doing?" he says. "You're going to damage it!"
"No!" she says, her voice suddenly loud. "It's mine."
"No it's not," he says, shocked.
"I did what you wanted."
"No, that's yours." He nods toward the plait. "This stays here."
"No!" she says, pulling more, shaking her head. She pulls harder, and the string net rips out of Racino's hands. He's left clutching a handful of hair, and she's left holding the broken net, gasping.
She throws her piece back at him. "Fix it!" she spits. "Fix it by tomorrow!" She glares at him. "Or else."
"Or else what?" He glares back at her, for the first time ever.
She pauses and says, suddenly calm and quiet, "Or else we'll find someone else, Racino. Like we found you. It's that simple."
He's clenching his fists; his arms drop slowly. A piece of the wig tumbles to the floor. The room is drifting away, and his vision begins to cloud over, without a fight, like a loosening, like the way plastic windows look instead of glass, like the way they took away their pictures, their reflections, their very selves. It's too much, all his anger with no place to go, nothing to strike at, nothing to hold on to but a plastic bag, ten hours a day. Brenda. That's not what he had guessed. Jennifer, maybe, or Melanie. He should have gotten a new hat. He remembers the sound of rain on his roof, the way it feels to walk on water.
"Good night, Racino," she says flatly, picking up her coat and hat. "I will see you tomorrow night."
He stands there after she leaves, until he picks up the two pieces of the black postiche. He sets them on his table and sits in his chair, staring at them until he falls asleep.
On the Transit the next morning she gets on and stands backward, looking right at him. Racino is in back, staring through her when she brings her finger to her eye, when she coughs, even when she wets her lips. She tries them each again, one more time, but he keeps her out of focus, looking beyond her, to what's after her. She turns around, shakes her head, and stays that way. At his stop she departs ahead of him. It's never happened before, always she stays on and rides away. He sees it, but he's back in a vacuum, separated from the world, the sound of nothing ringing in his ears.
At the entrance she breaks away to the left. The metal detector quietly clicks; in the corner he sees her speak to Kurnicki, and then he's swallowed into the long hallway. Of all people, he knows what they can do to you. He arrives at his closet; by now a Security team will already be knocking down his apartment door. He ties his smock, nodding nervously to Jones; they'll be into the plumbing, probing spigots and drains. Racino closes his closet door and starts to walk again down the hall; he imagines a sledge making the first hole in his gray plaster wall, shaking the building. When he rounds the corner Kurnicki is coming toward him; Racino clutches the partially-filled bag and stops, thinking of the illicit picture of his parents that would now be bouncing up off its hook. His veins puff up as he makes a fist and clenches his jaw. "Racino," Kurnicki barks in a gruff, ugly voice, dark hair twisting around and around in its frame, falling down, tumbling toward Racino's mind. He knows exactly what they can do, sees it all the time, wakes up at night thinking about it. "There's a holy mess in two twenty-six." Kurnicki allows a thin, quick grin. "Make sure you get it all, huh?"
David Appell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer determined to exist outside the corporate paradigm. His work has appeared in Audubon, The Seattle Review, Sycamore Review, Hawaii Review, and other magazines. He currently lives in central New Hampshire.
InterText stories written by David Appell: "Understanding Green" (v7n2), "Baby Glenn" (v9n1), "The Posticheur" (v9n4).
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 9, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1999 David Appell.