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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2010

Fiction: “Toupée” by Michelle Winters

Michelle Winters

Cassette Tape

I saw him on the subway for the first time the day I brought the meat bomb to work. He wore the most glorious toupée. It was the colour of a fox with the front curled under in a Prince Valiant thing that continued on around the sides and back of his head. It didn’t blend in whatsoever with the rest of his real hair, which was a wispy greyish brown. The toupée had a side part that didn’t so much part the hair as simply create a break in the bangs to indicate where a real part would be. The hair itself was just like a helmet or a cushion molded to his head.

We were on the same packed car and I had to stand on my toes to reach the hand strap, which gave me a better view down the train. I saw him appear when a man and a woman standing close together moved their heads to opposite edges of my field of vision just enough to reveal him. He was reading the paper and looked genuinely happy. He was actually smiling. He didn’t look crazy or simple, only like he was having a nice time finding out the news. He wore a dark green suit from an indefinable era.

You could tell that as a young man he had been extremely handsome. Like a film star. Even though he wasn’t looking up from his paper, it was clear that he knew he was being watched. A man as handsome as he would once have been is always aware of being watched. He had all the confidence of a man with a head of lush, flowing hair all his own.

As his eyes reached the bottom of the paper and he was shaking it out to turn the page, he looked right up, directly at me, and winked.

The doors opened at my stop and I shuffled out with everybody else, looking back to see if he was still there. He wasn’t.

Nobody winks at me. People rarely look at me. Obviously, he knew about the bomb. I almost backed out of the whole thing then and there.

But then I thought about Glenn.

When I got to work that morning, I planted the bomb in the hole behind the stereo cabinet. Then I put on a pot of coffee and started peeling eight pounds of potatoes to stick in a bucket of cold water for the day. Glenn wouldn’t be in for another half hour, so I didn’t even have to sneak around. I have opened up the restaurant every morning for the past four years. To peel potatoes. Working with Glenn makes me want to set things on fire. I hate him for employing me, I hate him for being who he is and I hate him for imposing his flaccid proximity on me. But when I think of leaving, I don’t see another job, another boss, another life. I see only his pasty face. And it makes me hate him more.

I had found the hole in the cabinet a few weeks earlier when I was dusting. It looked like someone had kicked it or possibly termites had eaten through it. It was jagged and in a spot down by the baseboard that was impossible for Glenn to see because it would require bending over and he’s a million years old with a bad back. If he has to reach his fingertips further down than his knees to get something, he asks someone to get it for him. He should really be in a nursing home, or a museum, but as the owner he feels he has to be present at the restaurant as an ambassador to the clientele, who can’t stand him. Whenever he musters up the generosity to send a very weak drink to the table of some important patron and minces over to shake their hand, trying to look magnanimous, you can see the mild distaste forming on their faces as he approaches. Then his weedy handshake seals their revulsion. You don’t need to know Glenn to hate him; you only have to see him.

I had been thinking about the bomb for a while, but when I found the hole in the stereo case, I figured it must be a sign.

The thing about the stereo is that Glenn worked in radio 40 years ago and feels he still has his finger on the pulse of what’s hip and hot with the kids. He programs the music for the evening in the restaurant, then locks up the stereo in the cupboard and takes home the key. Even though he knows we can’t get at the stereo and have to languish for the entire shift, listening to instrumental covers of the Beach Boys, he still calls in the middle of the night and demands that we hold the phone up to the speakers so he can hear for sure that the rotation hasn’t been tampered with. Everybody hates the music there. Everybody has complained to him about it and he smiles his insipid smile, nods calmly and says, “Well, I’ll look into that.” He’ll never look into that.

The next week on my way to work, I saw the man again. This time he wasn’t reading anything; he was just sitting with his hands folded in his lap.

I was standing facing the doors, and since he was sitting sideways in his seat, he was staring right at my back. As I looked at my own reflection in the darkened window of the train, I noticed him behind me, also looking at my reflection.

He saw me see him. I unintentionally raised my eyebrows. He intentionally raised his eyebrows back. I averted my gaze because the last thing I wanted to do was play the mirror game with a psycho on the subway, only to have him follow me to work and be sitting outside at the end of the night, ready to follow me home. This would invariably be the thing that would happen.

I unfocused my eyes to avoid his gaze and as I did, in my peripheral vision, I saw his hand slowly move up toward his face and touch the edge of his rug at me like a cowboy tipping his hat.

I couldn’t think of how to respond. He saw me see him again, so I nodded just barely in return. Then he shook his head sternly at me and smiled almost paternally, as though I had done something that wasn’t really bad, and he kind of approved in a way, but he trusted that I would take care of it because I knew right from wrong. Then he nodded to himself, folding his arms and resting his chin on his chest.

He didn’t look up for the rest of the ride.

When I got to work I took the bomb out of its hiding place and had a good look at it. It seemed to be working. There was an active white foam bubbling all around the chicken gizzards and guts. The meat was fermenting in milk. The pressure would overpower the glass of the jar and it would blow within a couple of weeks. The smell would be unbearable. Glenn would have to replace that wall and possibly the entire floor. He might have to abandon the restaurant, or it might have to be torn down. More than anything though, he would run around just furious, screaming like a preschooler, veins bulging through the papery, translucent skin on his temples. He might even have a heart attack. I held onto the jar for a minute, transported. Glenn would be wearing shorts, beige shorts with black socks and black shoes, as he did in the summer. I could hear the pitch of his squeal when he demanded to know who could possibly have done such a thing.

I put the bomb back in its hiding place.

Glenn has a trick he does that he thinks is really good. He finds a cigarette butt outside and picks it up, presumably with a stick with a nail through it or a really long pair of tweezers, and he puts it on the steps out front and waits to see how long it takes one of the staff members to see it and pick it up. Then he comes into the kitchen and announces how many days it’s been there with no one noticing. Glenn believes in the kind of employee loyalty that would make someone stop and pick up a cigarette butt on the stairs because it was marring the beauty of their place of work.

“You’d pick it up if this was your own house, wouldn’t you?” he whines. “Why can’t you keep my restaurant clean? Is it disdain? You can tell me.”

He keeps up the cigarette trick and we all play along now, which isn’t hard because the cigarette butt is always in the same place. We try to pick it up the second he puts it there, which makes it like a game. The whole point of his trick, Glenn doesn’t realize, is defeated now, because our picking up the cigarette butt doesn’t mean anyone

cares any more about the well-being of the restaurant, but it certainly does make him feel as though his stupid crybaby will is being obeyed, which is more important to him than even employee loyalty.

I had started dreaming about the bomb every night and getting downright giddy every time I looked at Glenn, which I had to try and conceal because smiling at him would have been so out of character as to give me away.

I hadn’t seen the man on the subway for a couple of weeks and had started to feel that I was in the clear.

Then this happened:

I was on my way to work, as usual, when I saw him. He was a few yards away, near the end of the car. He wasn’t sitting, even though there were seats available. He was standing next to the pole, but he wasn’t holding on to it. He looked bad. I had to really squint to make sure it was him, but his rug was unmistakable. Just as I was looking, not sure what to do, the front of his toupée stood up from his head, just lifted right up. He didn’t seem to notice. The rug stayed that way, looking at me for a second. Then it addressed me.

“He’s sick,” it said.

It didn’t have eyes or fangs or anything; it was just standing up, talking. It had a soft, deep voice.

“If you let this happen,” it told me, “it will kill him.”

I was frozen on the spot, staring back at the rug, which, even though it didn’t have eyes, was giving me a very serious look. We stood like this for the rest of the ride. When the doors opened at my stop, I nodded slightly and then the rug nodded back, flopping up once and coming down to rest on the man’s head.

I would get rid of the bomb. I would throw it in the river.

I walked as fast as I could to work and was almost running when I rounded the corner and the smell stopped me like a wall. It very nearly knocked me down. It was how you might imagine the smell of an open mass grave. Next to a latrine. I doubled over and gagged a few times with my hands on my knees. Then I looked down the street at the restaurant and saw Glenn on the steps.

He was sitting there with his head in his hands. He wasn’t screaming or scampering around like a gerbil; he was just sitting, looking at the ground.

With my nose buried in my arm, I made my way over. He looked up when he saw my feet in front of him, and I saw it in his eyes: the pain of a full grown child still getting his lunch money stolen every single day in the schoolyard. Glenn lied to himself a lot, but as much as he wanted to believe that as a successful restaurateur and former radio celebrity he was loved and respected by his clientele and staff, he knew that people simply didn’t like him. He knew that people made fun of him. He had heard them in the kitchen.

“What is it, Janine?” he asked. He really wanted to know. “Is it—is it disdain? Is it…” He shook his head and trailed off as his voice filled with tears.

I sat down on the steps beside him and hesitated a second before putting my arm around his frail little shoulders. This made him start crying harder. I felt something let go inside of me, put my other arm around him and pulled him close. I actually squeezed him. This made him start sobbing so hard he felt like he was breaking apart, so I squeezed him tighter, hoping my arms might hold the pieces of him together.

Michelle Winters is a translator and technical writer from Saint John, N.B. A founding member of Just in a Bowl Productions, she co-wrote and performed two plays, Unsinkable and The Hungarian Suicide Duel. She has had over 30 jobs and nearly as many apartments. “Toupée” is her first published work of fiction.

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