by Michelle Richmond
The barn had been remodeled for human habitation, but hay remained in the eaves. There was a slight, pleasant odor of farm life. We behaved, more often than not, like animals. What did they expect?
It started at the main house, the three of us lying together on the couch beneath the unattractive fluorescent lighting, his arms around both of us. He kissed my neck. Her soft brown hair fell across my shoulder. I allowed my fingers to brush the translucent skin of her inner elbow.
We approached it with full understanding, an intellectual attitude almost.
Patti Fay was only twenty-three. She said, "I've never kissed a girl before."
I, who had kissed a number of girls and a much greater number of boys, but whose experience was limited to singular liaisons, said, "There's no rule says we have to do this. We could just as easily end it right here." I was thinking about logistics. Whose room we would use, at what point we would break up and go to bed, would it be necessary to allow his penis inside me after it had gone in her.
Dan said, "As long as we've come this far."
Patti Fay said, "We should definitely do it, but we should take it down to the barn."
"Okay," I said, but I was worried from the outset that the planning would destroy it. Something that happens spontaneously can easily be wrecked by too much attention. On the walk through the clearing we watched for bears. He pointed out Sirius. She confessed that the skin below her breasts bore a splash of freckles in the shape of Orion. I said, "Is that the big dipper?" It was clear that none of us were contemplating the sky with much concentration.
The barn door thudded shut behind us. It was weighted with a red brick tied to a piece of rope. We went to my studio because I had blinking Christmas lights strung up along the ceiling. We were not averse to the setting of mood. Halfway through, with Dan's right hand inside my shirt, his left snaking down Patti Fay's unbuttoned pants, Patti Fay freaked out. She stood abruptly and said, "I'm going to bed."
The next day she wouldn't speak to either of us. I felt as though we had corrupted her. She was the same age as my sister.
Dinners can be torturous. Like tonight, we're sitting there with the hash browns and spongy quiche, the rye bread and wilted salad--because the cook doesn't like us anymore, after the incident with her remarkable shrimp roulade--and we're all looking down at our plates. My silverware, tonight as every night, has landed spectacularly on the floor. I pretend that it was intentional, that I was engaging in a spirited round of performance art.
We've been together two weeks now, except for the new guy who came in on Friday, and we've got nothing to say to one another. We make jokes about having nothing to say. We criticize with great gusto our interpersonal skills. In our minds, we're all blaming it on the new guy, who is an established and serious artist, unlike the rest of us. The rest of us, I am certain, got here by accident: applications were misplaced, glasses were not worn during the selection process, threats were made by our parents and spouses, who are understandably tired of us.
We don't feel comfortable acting silly around the new guy, because he didn't laugh when Patti Fay told the joke about the panda, who is new in the city. The panda goes into the bar, consumes an admirable quantity of beer nuts, shoots the bartender, and leaves the scene of the crime--the punch-line being, "I looked up panda in the dictionary and it said, eats shoots and leaves."
The new guy went with us to the pizza parlor in town and was a good sport about the whole thing, even the part where the caretaker drove us in circles around the war memorial while we got happily, hysterically drunk. Everything was fine until the end, when the new guy had to sit in the back seat with me and Patti Fay, who was singing the soundtrack to Footloose. The new guy became irritable. He wanted to know if we had any Wagner.
After the quiche dinner, we got together and voted to oust him. It was a painful but necessary process. He was taken into the wilds of Massachusetts at the height of the hunting season by Jim, the caretaker, who understood us perfectly. No orange vest was provided. There was a ceremony, afterward, in the clearing behind the barn. Patti Fay expressed sincere regret, weeping into the sleeve of her sweatshirt. Other than that, I'd have to say we were devoid of genuine emotion.
It wasn't long before those of us in the barn started losing our hair. Disembodied strands appeared on pillowcases, in sinks, stuck to the arms of the communal couches. Once I searched my studio and found forty-two of my long red hairs clinging to table-tops, chair backs, the pages of partially read books. Some of us had more to lose than others. Even for the thick-haired, though, rapid and inexplicable hair loss was not a comforting proposition.
Dan claimed the culprit was the poorly filtered water, the water that ran through the orange rocks. At first I didn't believe him. But then I noticed that the girls in the main house weren't suffering the same fate. Jennie's hair retained its natural sheen, its alluring thickness. Allison's hair--practically cut, soberly styled--was not much to write home about but at least it wasn't dwindling. We put the puzzle together: the water in the main house came from the same source as the water in the barn--a new well dug a couple hundred yards behind the caretaker's cottage--but the water to the main house went through two filters, whereas the water to the barn only went through one.
Once we knew what was happening, Dan started bringing water down from the main house in milk jugs and washing his hair in that. Miraculously, some of his hair grew back. I followed suit. Still, looking in the mirror, I noticed a certain disturbing flatness, a lack of texture. I felt robbed of the former glory of what had been referred to, by drunken men on city streets, as my "fiery tresses."
One night, having sneaked over to the caretaker's house to watch television, the barn people became sidetracked by the Infomercial Channel. A guy came on with an amazing invention, a spray-can containing a substance designed to look like hair.
We'd been drinking root beer floats laced with Amaretto, prepared for us by the caretaker's wife, who mothered us in many wonderful ways. Patti Fay called the 1-800 number and read my Master Card information to a woman named Sue who was very excited to be selling spray-on hair. We put Sue on the speaker phone. She said, "My husband uses Hair Magic and I swear you can't tell it from the real thing."
I said, "What about sex?"
"I don't know what you mean," Sue said, not missing a beat.
"I mean, does the hair rub off when placed in close proximity to other human beings?"
Sue remained polite and professional. I could hear her leafing through her Hair Magic manual. "I'm not sure," she confessed. "But I can find out for you."
"Never mind. That won't be necessary." I figured there wouldn't be a whole lot of sex in the barn anyway after we started with the spray-on hair.
About two weeks later our hair arrived in the mail. Patti Fay, Dan, and I got together in the dusty attic, away from the ridicule of our peers, and sprayed it on--a metallic, ash-brown foam that did not approximate the natural hair color of any of us. We walked around like that for several days, fuzzy headed and happy, leaving ash brown stains on everything we touched.
Garth, the fourth barn-mate, who was sent as a replacement for the one who died in the wilds of Massachusetts, was bald from the beginning, from the moment he came to us, with his smooth, luminescent head reflecting various sources of light. He looked at us with consternation, a man long-accustomed to the complexities of hair loss-not understanding what all the fuss was about.
Around the eighth week, we were all tired of looking at one another's faces. We felt as though we were in exile. After dinner and two bottles of wine someone made the suggestion: "What if we were a nudist colony?"
We lasted for two days like that. Only Jennie refused to join in. She didn't mind our doing it; she just didn't want to participate. Her husband was an architect as well as a professor of architecture at a university in Seoul. Up until this point, her life had been respectable, so she had more to lose by going nude than the rest of us.
It was strange cooking dinner together, seeing the small pockets of fat, the old scars, the birthmarks and moles of people we had come to see only in terms of clothed bodies. It didn't bring us closer. You're sitting there, engaged in some ordinary activity such as the playing of Scrabble or the brewing of coffee, and you have to be very careful where your glance falls, you must maintain control of your eyes. After dinner on the third night of nudity, while we sat around discussing the hat project that Jennie was pursuing courageously, despite the animosity of various art critics, Allison said, "Maybe this should be the last evening of our little experiment."
We all agreed, relieved that she had brought it up. The next morning Allison appeared for breakfast in her jeans and button-down, Dan in his black pants and cable sweater, Patti Fay in her sweats, me in my rubber pants and tank top, Garth in his--what?-we couldn't believe Garth had the audacity to show up nude again, after we'd all agreed it was over.
Patti Fay said, "How could you?"
Meanwhile, the new guy was out there in the world somewhere, clothed and dead.
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