By MARIETTA BALL
FICTION PRIZE WINNER
Judge: Charles Dodd White,
author of A Shelter of Others and Lambs of Men
“‘Bald Man’ is an understated story about assumption and unexpected intimacy. In practiced and incisive prose, the author manages to look inside the secret lives of people, showing the reader what it means to expose those secrets in the search for deeper human connection. It is the work of a talented writer with much wisdom to offer.”
Although everyone else at Blair and Associates seemed to assume Andrew was bald, I realized, looking back, I had never thought of him that way. This was before baldness became a style, with men shaving their heads for the Michael Jordan effect. Even when a man was bald on top he usually had a fringe of neckline hair, so that, with a hat, his baldness might not be apparent.
I was vaguely aware of a margin of brown hair along the back of Andrew’s neck, but I’d had no reason to give any actual thought to it until the day I first saw him without the cap. However, there is usually something about a man with a full head of hair making the condition obvious even when his head is covered, subtle clues leading us to assume he is not bald, something in the relaxed furrows of his forehead or the lack of tension in the ears. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps it is obvious when a man has lost his hair, in the touch of hesitancy in his shoulders or the rigidity of his neck. Although the other men in the office treated Andrew in a way that could have led him to feel less than confident, any lack of assurance he reflected seemed to have nothing to do with his hair. All in all, he actually seemed to be pretty comfortable with himself in spite of some irritating personality quirks, and I think I had subconsciously assumed that the confident tilt of his head and easy set of his chin belied the grief enfolding a man who is mourning the hair that once announced his direction like the set of a sail. He did not hold himself like a man who has lost control of his physical image. The surprise for me was not that he had all his hair; the surprise was his reason for covering it. He insisted on telling me that reason.
It was, of course, a penance he had assigned himself, a penance for not being the one who was losing his hair. What else could push a man to hide the symbol of his strength? I squirmed in distaste when he started telling me about it, and was filled with self-reproach for my reluctance to simply stand and walk away. His reason was not repulsive in itself, but the way he forced the story on me was. The quaint little sidewalk cafe table where we sat was no more than a filthy, rusting piece of germ-laden tin where other people’s trash blew around my ankles while he spoke as though he thought his words should hold me like those of the ancient mariner.
It was like he assumed I’d had no choice from the moment he said my name. I was shopping alone in Logansville where antique shops lined seven or eight square blocks of pre-Civil War buildings once housing a mundane population. When I had asked my niece what she wanted me to bring for her graduation gift, she requested a little antique, bowed-top trunk. I knew I’d find it in Logansville, but I was quickly overwhelmed by the kind of fatigue brought on, not from being unable to find what you’re looking for, but from having too many options.
As I neared the cafe, I considered stopping for the fortification of a cup of tea, but decided instead to forge ahead and get my decision made before I ended up spending the entire day in the search. I wanted to take one more look at the first trunk I had seriously considered. It was in a shop about a block past the cafe. If the paper lining was in the good shape I remembered, I was going to buy it. A similar one I’d seen in another shop had more detail on the outside, but its browning, flaking lining was peeling off in ragged strips. As I made my way past the tables, I felt a hand on my elbow and heard my name. I did not know him for a moment without his hat. He’d left it on the table. His hair was thick and well cut, a rich chestnut brown with no gray. He said, “I ordered two coffees when I saw you coming this way. The waitress is on her way to our table with them right now.”
The audacity of the gesture froze my tongue. I was afraid I’d say things I’d regret if I said anything at all. The nerve of the guy to assume I’d join him. And to order for me! Lowering myself into the rickety metal chair, I tried to laugh about it, telling myself I was overreacting like those women who are such vigilant feminists they will not let themselves enjoy anything a man does for them.
In his blunt way, he started right in. “Most people can’t keep from commenting when they see me without my cap for the first time. You’re very reserved.” That was the kind of ingenuous remark I’d heard him make at work, remarks that threw you off balance with their awkward, childlike lack of subterfuge.
He stirred three packets of sugar and three little containers of cream into his coffee, making me think he was not a regular coffee drinker. He was slim and fit looking. If he drank coffee gussied up like that on a regular basis, he’d surely have some flab on him.
I never drank coffee at work, but the pot was in view of my desk, and I couldn’t recall ever seeing him there. I’m sure there were times when I went days without seeing him at all, but sometimes we ended up eating lunch at the same time, joining the crowd at the big table in the break room.
The atmosphere at work was super-relaxed. Shorts and sweat pants were about the only forbidden items of dress. That’s why he could wear his cap around the clock. There were several other men who never took off their caps—mostly Reds caps like his—so, although some co-workers felt compelled to belittle him for it, they could find nothing about it making him any different from the other cap wearers.
Andrew was a man that a certain other kind of man likes to tease. When these men could not find a way to tease him about his cap, they made attempts to tease him about other things. They never stopped trying to find a way to make fun of his lunch when he ordered in with the rest of us, another area where there was actually little room for razzing since he ordered the same salad we all ordered, and I’m sure we all looked pretty ridiculous stabbing with ineffective plastic forks at hard Iceberg lettuce chunks, slippery carrot shreds, and tough-skinned little tomatoes. But just one day this week, somebody managed to single out Andrew and make a crack about how he looked like a bird scratching for worms. I don’t recall how he responded to the worm bit or any other teasing, but I do recall that the men doing the teasing usually ended up looking as inept as Andrew. I think he just didn’t respond in any way, neither going along with their ribbing nor attempting to deflect it.
Bob Satterfield had goaded him just yesterday about his shoes. “A little early in the season for white shoes, isn’t it, Bo-Peep?” Andrew’s last name was Botroff. “Aren’t you supposed to wait till Memorial Day to start wearing white shoes?” His shoes were white Reeboks, like at least half of the other men wore year-round.
You would think I would have developed a certain respect for him, in light of his refusal to be demeaned by their petty efforts, but I must admit that his annoying idiosyncrasies made it hard for me to be sympathetic. The constancy of the cap left me with an edge of exasperation, the cap and the awkward remarks and the tendency to do things like ordering coffee for me and presuming I would join him. Resentment is what I was feeling as he guided me to the cafe chair with such a proprietary air I could imagine how people sitting at tables around us were assuming we were a couple.
I left my cup untouched as he doctored his coffee, and I had raised one foot up on bent toes under the edge of my chair, ready for an unceremonious takeoff, when he said, “I started covering my hair when a woman I loved lost hers to chemotherapy before she died.”
Even after that pronouncement, I was still considering getting up and walking away. Maybe even more so. I wavered between doubting his honesty and being offended by the naked manipulation inherent in the statement if it were the truth.
“She’s been gone a couple of years now, and it’s time I move on. I have a new girlfriend. But it’s become a habit. The hat. Why I ended up wearing a hat, anyway, instead of shaving my head, I don’t know. The whole thing wasn’t something I planned. It just happened.
“We lived together,” he went on, “but nobody at work ever met her.” He sipped at the china cup before adding another sugar and cream as he talked “I didn’t want my coworkers to meet her until I’d figured out how to get them to stop picking at me. I was afraid it would make her feel bad to see how I let them treat me.
“‘My mother said maybe seeing her with me would bring on their respect, but I didn’t want it to happen that way or to risk her disappointment if it didn’t.
“She was beautiful and intelligent and had a way with people. It would definitely have changed some attitudes if I’d brought her to one of the office parties, especially the summer pool party. She brought gasps in her bikini.”
I kept expecting him to stop for a breath, but he forged ahead.
“I never figured out how I’d won her heart, but that was not what I thought about when we were together. We had so much in common, and fit with each other so naturally, I didn’t dwell on the fact that she was in a different class, so much more graceful and better looking than me.”
I picked up my cup and took a sip. The sidewalk setting was beginning to take on a bit of charm. I was still angry with him for the rude way he thoughtlessly disregarded my circumstances by waylaying me, but I was feeling in control again and knew I could get up and walk away in an instant. I still was not absolutely sure he was not making up the story.
“I realize you might doubt my honesty,” he went on. “I can see it in your eyes. It’s the same kind of look I see in your eyes when the fellows at work are going on about their bowling scores or their prowess with women.
“I like the way you aren’t protesting just now and the way you haven’t asked me any questions. I’ve noticed that quality in you, too. It’s why I’ve hoped I’d have a chance to tell you a little about myself.”
I thought he was getting ready to hit on me. I started to rise from my chair.
“No, no,” he soothed, “don’t worry. I’m not moving in on you. My girl will be picking me up just any minute now.”
I eased the grip on my purse strap.
“I just mean I’ve wished I could change the way you look at me when I don’t do anything to resist their teasing. I wanted you to know it’s because I don’t feel any need to. What they do is meaningless in the long run. It doesn’t affect the way they work with me. They’re aware of my capabilities. They have their ways of letting me know they respect my proficiency. They come to me for help.
“But I hate the way you look at me. It’s started to gnaw at me. When I saw you coming down the sidewalk just now, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to fill you in with just the right amount of information.”
He looked at his watch. “I wouldn’t have stopped you if there had been time enough for things to get awkward.” He began to stand, with one hand on the table and the other on the back of his chair.
At this point, I did not know what to think. I’d never experienced anything like this.
Just as I pulled my purse strap snug against my shoulder and once again started to rise from my chair, a red Miata slid up to the curb. “Andrew!” the driver trilled as she leaned toward him, beaming up into his face. She was a gorgeous woman with flowing red hair and glowing skin.
He stepped to the curb and took hold of the door handle, then retraced his steps and reached across the table to wordlessly pat my hand while he locked his eyes into mine. I was rendered speechless. Returning to the car, he tossed our names between us in an abridged introduction before easing into the passenger seat. She acknowledged me with a wave of a hand behind her head as she turned her full attention back to her driving.
As she nosed into the trickling flow of traffic, my eyes lit on the ball cap he had left on the table. When I grabbed it and took a step in his direction, he was looking back at me over his shoulder. Then he twisted all the way around in his seat as he pantomimed for me to put the cap on my own head. To my surprise, I did.
Marietta Ball lives in Xenia, Ohio, where she writes fiction and poetry. Her novel, Horses Can See in the Dark, is available on Amazon and other online sources, and which of a wind will be available in January 2015. Her short stories have appeared in Kentucky Her Story, M Magazine, The Dayton Daily News, and MOTA 3: Courage. Her poems have been published in The Journal of Kentucky Studies, CALLIOPE,; Coal: A Poetry Anthology, Motif V4: Seeking Its Own Level; The Poet Speaks: The Troy-Hayner Cultural Center’s Third Annual Poetry Competition publication; and Everything Stops and Listens: an anthology of poems by members and friends of Ohio Poetry Association. Ball’s poetry is sometimes featured on Conrad’s Corner, a poetry spot hosted by Conrad Balliet on WYSO Radio out of Yellow Springs, Ohio.