My father has the same hair he had when he was a little boy, which, evidently, is the same hair of many others who had the same last name in a different year. Loose little brown curls frame his head, but it only forms a ring above the top when he dreams in the shape of a semi-circle.
The first time he had those crooked hazes, he woke up with his pillow bathed in fearful sweat, and short strands that composed his curls shed unto the pillow. He called me into the darkness of the barely-dawning light and pointed at what once adorned his head, only to end rested on the soft cotton of his pillowcase.
“That,” Dad stated, “is my hair. I knew I would go bald some day, but I can tell you right now – I didn’t think it would be so soon. What am I, forty seven? I’m too young for this. My dad didn’t start to lose his hair until he was sixty, and even then, you could only tell if you glued your eyes to the skin showing on his scalp.”
Despite the frequency my father’s fears of visible age vocalized, I found myself lacking the wistful recollection of the past with days of thick curls from all degrees of the head or dreadful visions of no curls whatsoever. The present balance of his wishes and fears – the developing, bare circle in the middle of his head – comforted me. I imagined it as some hereditary hat and some lineage always present.
But I was silent; I was a girl with no disposition to balding, and at least fifteen years from it if I were a male. I allowed his complaints to continue, but bestowed upon myself silence as he spoke, his eyebrows knit and the already-established crease folding like the spine of a book. I averted my eyes to the hair on his pillow and rehearsed all the ways to reassure him my comfort in familial history was the best one to assume.
I can’t say my rehearsals translated into something audible the first days of his lamentations. Not on the first day of March – the third day he sacrificed his vanity for breaths – when he showed me a picture of himself in college. My mother mastered unnatural – she compromised her height with a pink plastic stool, and manipulated my father’s hair with a yellow balloon. She had drawn a smiling face on it, with a tongue between its dimples to catch the hair that rose in a flurry of static from his head. Dad’s teeth have the imperfections of a third-world childhood in a first-world country – a gap between the two front teeth, a crowd on the bottom row, and one small chip on one of those prominent teeth if you knew him so well to see it. I didn’t notice it until a year ago. His mouth opens widely, and he laughs without fear of wrinkle lines revealing age.
“Cowlicks,” he murmured. “Or balloon licks. Heh. She won’t ever want to do that again, not that she can. You know, since I’m old and bald and not the same body as when we met.”
Any reassurance would have supplied greater resistance, so I said nothing, and waited for him to leave the room. I lifted the photograph from the coffee table, careful to avoid the ring of water threatening to soil the memory.
They loved in the photograph; that was evident. My father’s wrinkles weren’t cut due to worry or anger, but existed from laughing too often. The laughs always originated from loving my mother. Mom told me his father would always tell him, “Ricky, you need to get serious. Stop laughing so much. Start working.” Ever his father’s child, Dad did stop with the laughing and the loving and the youth when it fit best. He so readily collected his degree for the job and the deep eyebrow creases, and eventually lost all recognition of youth until it glared at him from his pillow, right after dreams of cobblestone streets in Mexico and cattle on his father’s ranch. These dreams were his only attainable youth, when his age could fit on two hands, and the hair he had in them mocked him, taunted him, teased him when they rested on his bed.
Dad’s youth was never lost, though. He seemed to release it from hiding and the cruel responsibilities of the adult world on Thursday. Thursday nights, we clean ourselves of Tuesday’s damages and anticipate Friday’s release on responsibility. We dine on the inner west side of town, where the people are ours and dangers are only such to visitors. The food is Mexican, but the cheese is American. We ride the short distance home until Dad breaks silence with a comment on the issues NPR discussed, which he follows with a joke to lighten the blow of reality. My mother laughs, but stops so that she can make her own joke. She laughs at her humor with no restraint, and my dad looks at her with the same abandon. I watch him fall in love with her all over again, as he did in the picture, with the awe of wanting to remember an experience doomed for oblivion. I watch the bald spots on his head lessen until patches of hair disguise the skin. I watch the teeth from his childhood return after the inconvenience of adult braces and tight-lipped smiles, and all the pain of poor nourishment of neglect he cannot leave behind. I watch him pray for his Thursday love to exist for eternity silently, when he turns his back to face the dark and very slowly raises his hand to his forehead, and quickly lowers his hand to his stomach, following suit to his shoulders.
When we get home, I lie between my mother and father on the bed too large for the two of them together – hell, even too large for the three of us – and remember what I’ll tell my children or readers or listeners of their eulogies. I do not forget Dad’s fluttering eyelashes as he enters the crooked slumbers that leave him missing hair in the morning. I do not forget the rise and fall of his chest I check every couple of minutes I remember they exist to ensure he is alive. I do not forget the soft rhythm of snores my mother establishes after she too knows my father lives. After I note all observations of the present to become memories, I retreat to the warmth of my Thursday bed and write them down on a tissue with a ballpoint pen. I look at them on Friday as the dread for Monday commences.
I always want to forget later in the week, want to shred my tissue with my fingers when my father combs what remains of his hair in the mirror. He corrects each spot youth once occupied, and doesn’t bother to count the hours Jesus will revoke in heaven for arriving late to Mass.
“Dad? Are you almost ready?” I ask him. My voice falters as it reaches its second question mark.
“God! In a minute. Will you sit or something? You’re late all the time, and I never say anything to you – I just wait. Quit hounding me,” Dad huffs, and for eleven minutes, I can’t look at him without wanting to hate him. We leave as his hair still dries from the rushed kitchen sink’s water, trying desperately to express dominion over Dad’s hair.
It took four minutes to leave our house, and I have seven minutes left to rescue myself from the frustration of unnecessary berating. I use every second, and face my back to my father as I try to recognize landscapes I find hideous – a dead rabbit whose resting place is between two cars twenty miles over the speed limit, a homeless person’s tent inexpertly hidden among dead bushes, a broken-down car from the eighties stranded on a roadside. Everything was in some tone of gray, as if it were dirty despite community service workers contributing some quality elbow grease every Sunday. The evidence of damaged potential leaves me with no other choice but to close my eyes, and I squeeze them tightly until black cloaks my eyes, and sleep takes precedence.
I regain the colors of alertness only a few minutes later, and witness a new scenery on a side of the highway I’ve never seen before.
“We’re taking a detour,” my father says to me. He can’t look at me, either. “We can always go to Mass later, and we can pray anytime. I already told your mom. She’ll be pissed alright, but it’s important that you see this.”
“See what? A dead body? The site of my conception? I think I can die not knowing.”
“Well, I can’t. And you’ll be glad once you see it.” He says this with finality in his voice, as if he can enunciate the period that ends his sentence. I know he’s not to be contested – not that he ever was.
We fall into some uncomfortable silence, save for the radio that blares an American’s anxiety about whatever impending nuclear war our country is to enter, but we eventually enter an area no antenna can reach. We sit amid static and listen for a moment, neither of us thinking, but both of us not wanting to think, either. Thinking implies speaking, and although my eleven minutes were over, I had enough reasons for anger (deprived from Jesus, separated from my mother, etc.).
But Dad breaks, and lifts his hand, ready to lower the volume of the radio. He stares at it for a moment, as if registering the speakers release no content, and lowers his hand, but he clears his throat again and spins the volume knob to lower it anyway.
“What – what are you doing? In school?” he asks.
“Um. You know. Not that much. The only thing that’s changed since you were in it is history, and that’s bound to change again once I leave,” I reply.
“Huh. And you’re in what, tenth grade?”
“I know you aren’t a freshman, right? Because I remember your first day of school, and it wasn’t this year.”
“Oh,” my father muses, and then, after some silence and awe about the wonders of aging, he adds, “So that means you’re in your senior year?”
“No,” I snap. I try to occupy myself with the hideous landscape, and think that perhaps if I focus on all of its imperfections, I could overlook my father’s: his hair loss, his vanity, and his neglect of information about his daughter (except for when she does something absolutely brag-worthy – the kind of thing that is worth writing home about). But it only concludes in me acknowledging my own flaws: my insensitivity to his aging, my lack of understanding, and my predisposition to dismiss information about myself to my father (unless it warrants him writing home about something).
Because of my father’s instinct, not even static exists to entertain, and I am left with few options: conversation, land-watching, or sleep. I have tried to my greatest extent, and failed without another try at two, so I let my body mimic the rhythms of sleep. My chest rises and falls and my eyelids snap shut, but my mind’s weeping of flaws cannot be quelled until three minutes later, when my father approaches me timidly to say, “We’re here.”
If any concept of time had eluded me, I would open my eyes to expect border control right before we enter the homeland of Mexico (even though neither of us have ever been). But my count of minutes does not surpass the number forty, and the sign I see that reads “LA LUZ RANCH” tells me we have yet to venture into unfamiliar territory with regards to national borders.
Dad opens the door on my side of the truck after he steps out, and offers his hand for assistance. I climb down from the truck with my hands by my side, one curled in a fist in annoyance, the other with an open palm in case I have a fall I must break. He still reaches his arm in my direction when my feet hit the cracked earth on which he already stands.
“So where are we?” I finally ask, breaking my fast from words. My tone oozes hurt.
“You didn’t recognize the name? I talk about it often,” he answers, effects of neglect laced in his own voice.
“You didn’t know my age,” I mutter. My mouth releases what I intended to stay in my mind, and he looks at me, eyes narrowed into slits.
“You didn’t tell me!” he yells.
“It’s my age! Why the hell should I have to tell you? That’s your own damn fault for not knowing.”
Dad only plunks himself on the ground without cares towards the dirt that is sure to outline his butt upon rising or snakes, made by mind or made my God, fitting the curve of his ankles. He mumbles something inaudible, something that doesn’t prompt any requests of repetition from me.
“I grew up on this ranch,” he says loudly. His voice is cold, distant, as if I am an undeserving observer of his conversations with God. “My dad left it to me in his will. I remember being a teenager. Seventeen.” He pauses, faces me. “Just like you,” he adds.
“He told me he would leave it to me if I took good care of it. If I made something of it, and something of myself. Go to business school and really learn the labor of nature, along with the labor of the artificial world. I was only in high school. I knew no better than to trust my old man, and I still think he was right. A little bit. He knew the instructions for success, and he recognized human beings thrive off of achievement. But I can’t trust that fully.”
“Oh,” I muse. He is crying, only a little.
“I didn’t want the ranch because I wanted to make it greater than what it already was – transform it into a powerful force to make all others fear it. I wanted it for my selfish needs. It had all of my memories of being young before I traded youth with the devil. I would chase birds around here - where I’m sitting right now, actually. Sometimes they were Mexican eagles. Our dog had some understanding with it. He would bring it a rat if he found one, as long as the eagle and all its companions avoided us. I liked the cardinals, too. Some of my cats died. It’s like they transcended their limitations of nine lives through those vessels.
“Dad would comb my hair after I washed our dog or his truck. Regardless of what it was, it was a mess. He wet the little piece of plastic – it was smaller than you’d ever seen, Elena – placed a hand on my neck, and used the other to smooth my hair down so it’d look presentable for my mother after she came home from work. After he finished grooming me, he crouched down on a stool so I could comb his. His was always curly, as if the wind wanted revenge for not being able to take his dirt in even the worst of storms. I spent at least half an hour each day trying to perfect it. My mother liked to joke – she’d say my father and I spent more time taking care of our hair in a day than she did a year.
“I haven’t been here since my father left the ranch to me.”
“I know,” I finally speak. “Why?”
“I fear failing my father. My hair goes away, and so does my father, but the fright of inducing disappointment never will. Learn that now while you’re still young.”
“And why am I here?” I ask.
“Because God wants you to be. Because I want you to be, and your mom wants you to be. But that’s only on Earth. You’re on this ranch to have memories of your own, so maybe I won’t be so selfish and do something with the land,” he responds.
When I lower myself to the ground, I am careful not to touch it, and take note of my surroundings: my balding father with eyes glistening from the threat of tears, a broken plastic tooth of a comb protruding from hard earth unwilling to release a grip, and an abandoned piece of metal that may have passed for a truck forty years ago with evidence of a child’s labor smeared across its windshield. My memories consist of nothing more than seeing his – the first time he lost his hair, the love he shares with my mom on Thursday, and the comb that bound him to failure and terror thereof.
But I take it in stride. I know they can never belong to me, and that I can distort a lens well enough to limit myself to only my perspective.
As a Mexican eagle soars above us, I wonder about his vision concerning the beings below it – whether we are insignificant specks in the aerial views, or looming found figures fated to catalyze something.