It was the summer of 1946. I was just an awkward and curious young lad driving my mother batty as only children can do when school is not in session. It was still the first month of summer break and I had already completed the books on my reading list, plus two of my own choosing. My mother had refused to give me anymore money to buy more books; instead she referred me, jokingly I had hoped, to her collection of quivering harlequin roman novels that had been given to her by the unloved widow down the street with the intention of warding off those lonely nights while father was away fighting in the war. Mother never talked about it, but both my sisters and I knew her greatest fear was that father would never come home and that she would grow old, alone, just like the unloved widow down the street, a woman who though she befriended publicly, mostly out of convenience, she didn’t care for very much. I suppose that’s human nature, to hate that which we fear we may become.
Mother would often dispatch me to the library for additional books; she never did understand my disdain for borrowing. To this day I still prefer to own books, proudly displaying them on my bookshelves as trophies: conquests of literature for all the world to see. Anyone can check out library books. However, not everyone is as considerate or hygienic when it comes to proper book handling procedures. I remember the time I borrowed To Kill A Mockingbird from the Brookline Library; there, on page 85, in the whitespace between chapters nine and ten, was a tiny brownish crimson blotch that could only have been oxidized blood. Blood. On a book. It was unmistakable. There were even a few microscopic traces from where the drop of blood had splattered onto the page. Based on the size and shape of the blotch, it was likely the result of a nosebleed. Nose blood. On a book. Perish the thought.
Explaining this to my mother in meticulous detail was yet another reason she wanted me out of the house. She was running out of excuses and reasons to ward me off. She so desperately wanted me to get a haircut but knew that if she gave me money for a haircut that I would spend it on books, like the previous times. She vehemently opposed my proposed summer of long hair. “Boys shouldn’t have long hair, Emory,” she said on numerous occasions.
My twin sister Josephine had managed to convince our mother to give her money for her own haircut, however she left out the part about her desire for boyishly short hair. Mother had always turned a blind eye to the disparaging news that her oldest daughter was a tomboy, and thus not very lady like.
Joe clued me in that she planned to have most of her hair chopped off. It took some time, but I eventually convinced her to let me cut it for her. “No use throwing money away for something I can easily do at home for free,” I said.
“But it’s not for free, Emory,” Josephine said. “You only volunteered so that you could have my haircut money to go buy another book that you could get for free from the library.”
She wasn’t wrong. We split the money.
Mother had fallen asleep reading one of her romance novels on the front porch swing. Our younger sister, Ruthie, was holding a fancy tea party up in her bedroom with the stuffed plush penguin ambassador from the Arctic and his colleagues of bears, both polar and grizzly, and a purple elephant. Our other sisters were in various places around the house. The combined allotted the perfect amount of time for Joe and I to execute our plan in full, without pesky motherly or sisterly interference.
I liberated father’s hair clippers deep from the back of the cabinet below the sink in our parents’ bathroom and met Joe in the backyard. She was cartwheeling around barefoot in the grass. That was the first time I truly realized just how different from normal girls Joe was. She was special. Original.
Joe was not at all concerned that I had never used clippers before. In fact, she seemed to know more about them than I did. I had forgotten to bring the blade attachments; actually, I hadn’t really forgotten them because I didn’t know there were attachments or that I needed to bring them, and so I didn’t really forget them.
“That’s OK,” Joe said. “We won’t need them for as short as we’re going.” She cartwheeled one more time and then flumped Indian style onto the second to last step on the back porch. She licked her index finger and tested the wind. “Perfect, most of the hair should blow towards the neighbor’s yard. If you like, I can do you after. Mom will be so pleased.”
“We can’t have that now, can we?” I studied Joe’s head for more than a few noticeable minutes.
“Do you know what you’re doing?”
“Of course I do.” I didn’t.
One of Ruthie’s toy dolls with long, flowing blonde hair lay atop one of the white wicker rockers that lined the back porch. “Gimme,” Joe said. I handed her the doll hesitantly and watched as she demonstrated the proper clipping procedure. “You want to keep it at an angle. Start at the top and work your way against the grain. Now you try.” She handed me the doll and clippers. By the time we both had a go at it, Ruthie’s poor doll was bald.
I got behind Joe, clippers at the ready. “What if I hurt you?”
“You’re not going to hurt me, ninny. Now hurry up before we get caught.”
“Welp,” I said, steadying the clippers with my unsteady hand, “hair today, gone tomorrow.” I had never noticed how much long, beautiful blonde hair Joe had until I zipped the first patch right off the top of her lumpy head. Light as a feather, hair slowly drifted to the ground; it almost seemed to make a thud upon impact—the impending sound of looming doom.
When I finished, Joe sat there rubbing her hand back and forth across her fuzzy head. “Now you try,” she said.
I rubbed her head. “It feels like a peach.”
“I like peaches.”
“My stars and heavens!” Mother flipped at the sight of her freshly buzzed-head daughter holding an equally buzzed-head doll. The resemblance was uncanny. “Josephine, what have you done?”
“Emory did it,” Joe said like a bratty tattletale. I bit my lower lip and stomped my foot. “What? It’s true. You did do it.”
“Your hair! Your hair!”
“She made me do it.”
“I made him do it.”
“Your hair. Your hair!” Mother was running in circles, like a cartoon character on fire, screaming over and over again. “Your beautiful hair!” You’d think I had decapitated my sister. “My God. My God!”
“My God, too,” Joe said.
“I like it,” I said, rubbing Joe’s head back and forth. “Try it, mom. It feels like a peach.”
“I like peaches,” Joe said. I had never seen my twin sister so defiant, so confident before. She was cool as a cucumber. It was awesome to behold. Even father would have been impressed.
“Emory,” mother said. She now seemed slightly less erratic. “Go.”
“Yes, go. Go now.”
“Just go! Now! Go and stay there and don’t come back until suppertime.”
“Just go, Emory. Get out of mom’s hair.”
Mother swallowed a gasp and slapped Josephine across the face.
They stood there silent, in shock. Mother tried to gather her composer. She looked like she was trying to figure out if she had indeed slapped her daughter. She tried to speak, still riddled with uncertainty, but only a murmur came out. She had never struck one of us before. She had never even remotely raised her hand in outrage. Not even father had ever done that.
“No pun intended,” Josephine said almost apologetically and with the driest hint of sarcasm. She had a stone-cold stunned look across her now half-rosy face, yet she seemed impressed. Deep down I think she always purposely pushed mother’s buttons in the hopes of generating that type of response. Joe had always said, “Mother doesn’t feel.” Maybe she was right.
I ran into the kitchen to grab a banana for the road. I could still hear them outside.
“Just like Emory,“ Joe was saying. “Hair today, gone tomorrow.”
“Do you think you’re funny, Josephine?”
“Not especially. It’s Emory’s joke. Do you?”
“Of course, you’re very clever. Bright as a tack.”
“Go get your sister.”
“All of them!”
“We’re going to church.”
“Church? It’s not Sunday.”
“It will be today.”
“You can’t just change what day it is.”
“I’m your mother, Josephine. I can move Heaven and Earth if I want to. Now go!”
When I stepped out of the front door and onto the front porch, I heard Ruthie start to cry. She had found her bald baby doll.