Randall

This is a short piece I wrote for The Story Laboratory, a monthly storytelling event in Providence.

In 9th grade, I brought a record to the barber shop. I pulled out the dust sleeve and pointed at a picture.

“Make my hair look like that,” I said.

There were three guys in the photo, each one had a unique perspective on what constituted a stylish barnet.

I had thick hair, in the sense that I had a lot of it, but the strands, themselves, were fine and wispy. Cornered flattops were out.

I left the establishment with a prickly, punky ‘do that resembled a pelt.

I experimented a great deal, in those years when I had hair. Skewed buzz cuts. Floppity mop tops. A long depressed black shroud that hung past my shoulders.

Amazing what your hair tells people when you’re not around.

_____

“Why does your hair do that in the back?”

We are playing flag football behind the school. This particular edition of gym class includes the kids who take concert band electives in the afternoon in company with the wood shop celebrities. Defenseless trombone players alongside flinty-eyed terrors who conceal buck knives in denim jackets.

The only thing the two groups may have in common is a lack of enthusiasm for organized sports.

I have sculpted a short spiky pompadour on top. I use REDKEN For Men, a transparent green guck that, over the course of the school day, hardens and then starts to flake.

In the back, however, my hair is long and unpasteurized. Classmates note that you can clearly see the point of demarkation in my ‘do between where I have applied the green shit and where I haven’t. As well defined as the line on map separating Haiti from The Dominican Republic.

_____

Back to the action on the field.

“Why does your hair do that in the back?”

Kyle is a muscular kid with a protruding jaw. A primitivist wooden crucifix on a leather strap, the kind monks wear, swings incompatibly from around his neck. Sitting on the top of his skull is a supertight blonde permanent; he’s into breakdancing and, on weekends, carries a boombox and a big piece of cardboard around the neighborhood, in case the spirit moves him.

“Do what?” I ask.

Turns out Kyle is referencing how my long hair naturally falls over the front of my shoulders, leaving the back of my neck totally exposed. I’m going for sort of a European effect, but instead it appears that I am wearing a stole.

_____

Back to the action on the field.

Kyle’s foil is a villainous young man named Beady.

Beady is a definitive example of the failure of the American public educational system, 1980s-style, capped with a dirty blonde bowl haircut so immobile it could be carved from pine. He is loud, argumentative, unyieldingly sarcastic and openly involved in petty crime both on and off school premises. He is a wiry goon biding his time before the inevitability of his first stint in jail. The absolute best thing you can say about him is that he is a mild improvement over his older brothers.

At some point, a teacher or group of teachers, likely inspired by the rapidly deflating Human Potential Movement balloon of the 1970s, had elected to rehabilitate Beady by encouraging him to freely express himself. The obvious intention was to find the cowering, frightened, native genius at the core of this determinedly belligerent young man. The result of their efforts was that the newly-enlightened Beady now swore almost Tourettecally, often bringing classes to a halt with torrents of profanity.

Back to the action on the field!

Out of perversity or maybe even scientific interest, Mr. Paige, our phys ed teacher, has deputized Beady as our quarterback. Beady doesn’t do well in ‘take one for the team situations.’ They baffle his natural inclinations towards disarray and incoherence. In the huddle, Beady drops his purple sweatpants around his ankles and threatens to take a shit on the 30 yard line. It’s a strong bit, so he repeats it about four times throughout the game, but never actually follows through.

During the first quarter, to his credit, Beady actually goes to the trouble of shouting out non-existent plays for his linemen (“Fifty-one! Sixteen! Twenty-two! Hike!”)

The novelty quickly evaporates and Beady replaces this tactic with short bursts of filthy language: (“Hairy pussy! Cocksucker! Your mother is a fucking whore!” Hike!”)

In a million years, I would never have thought to do that.

Mr. Paige observes his social experiment like BF Skinner, but with a whistle around his neck. Years later, we discover Mr. Paige is an arch-conservative hippie hater with a dark sense of humor. Yet, somehow, he digs The Yardbirds and Donovan and loved going to Andy Warhol movies at art theaters, back in the 1960s. In my senior year, he and I have a conversation about Joe Dellasandro in the library during study hall.

Back to the action on the field.

I played in the marching back for two years in junior high and four years in high school. My all time favorite thing about football is that they used to wear leather helmets. I am terribly uncoordinated, but I am strong and fast. My secret weapon move is to bushwack the opposing player by running headlong into him like a blind man colliding with a revolving door. I keep incurring penalties for late hits.

Kyle, a genuine, 24-carat jock, is getting steamed up over Beady’s misbehavior. In between plays, instead of huddling up, Kyle walks along the sidelines, hands on his hips, glowering at the turf. He’s pissed. He’s pissed at losing and, worse, he’s pissed at having to babysit a loser.

In an inspired moment of ill will, Beady takes the snap and then launches the pigskin straight up into the air. No-one can catch it, and the thing winds up bouncing across the grass and settling near the chain link fence. It’s as if the ball, itself, is embarrassed.

“Yaaaaaaayyyyy!” peals Beady, swinging his arms over his head grotesquely.

I approach him.

His face is red and his eyes are swollen from the sweat dripping off his filthy bangs.

“Why don’t we let someone else QB for a while, Beady,” I suggest. I feel dishonest; I barely understand the game, and here I am using all these sophisticated terms.

“What’s that fucking thing on your head?” asks Beady.

“You should talk. You should start listening to some new music, too. That hippie stuff is over. You know that.”

Kyle senses a opportunity; whether it’s an opportunity to change the tide of a high school flag football game or the opportunity to unscrew Beady’s neck from his shoulders is a mystery lost to time.

Kyle is jumpy enough to momentarily forget Beady’s name.

“Hey, Randall,” he barks at Beady, “gimmie the ball.”

Beady turns to Kyle and his previously guarded eyes simply radiate malice.

“Randall? Who the fuck is Randall?”

“Gimmie the ball, man.”

“Naaaaahhh…”

“Gimmie.”

“Naaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh…”

Kyle swats the ball out of Beady’s hand and reaches down to pick it up. With his options limited, Beady jumps on Kyle’s back and starts, kind of… cuffing him.

Kyle elbows Beady in the mouth.

By now, a circle has formed around Kyle and Beady; a circle of obedient woodwind players and kids who started ‘driving lessons’ when they were twelve.

A circle of young men who really have nothing in common.

Mr. Paige breaks ranks by elbowing though. He looks down at Beady.

“Beady,” he says, “Remember, it’s very important not to mix drugs.”

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