Sweat crept down his back as he stepped off the rumbling bus and stood at attention with the other recruits. He’d used a cheap comb to part his hair with what he thought was military precision — on the right, in a thin straight line. But he couldn’t control that one strand growing out of his cowlick. He liked the idea of a wide-eyed cow licking his left temple but he did value order in those days, so he tried hard to control his unruly lock. He tried everything short of hair spray, which struck him as girly and he didn’t like the smell. Nothing did the trick so, as he stood there in the Texas sun, that one strand drew a proud arc and flopped right into his eyes.
A tall guy with clippers sliced off his hair and for one hellish year of jungle warfare the strand lay stifled under a buzz cut. It never arced quite as high after that. He left the Army with his honor intact and his confidence demolished. Still, he got into Berkeley with the GI bill, grew his hair out and learned to roll a joint.
He cultivated a taste for disorder and came to enjoy the simple act of dropping his dirty clothes on the dorm room floor. He made a few gestures towards revolution but he never hurt anyone. A newspaper reporter in a roiling street asked why he was protesting the war. Tears flowed from his stinging eyes and he yelled, “Why the hell aren’t you?”
The next day, his picture was in the newspaper with a caption: “campus radical.”
“I’m no radical!” he yelled and kicked a bike that was locked to a power pole.
When they shot those kids in Ohio his mom cried. She kept saying, “It could have been you!” She wanted him to come home but he hated her when she cried. By then, the strand hung loose down his hollow cheek and people stared at him when he loped down the street.
He majored in sociology because he heard it was easy. They let him graduate, much to his surprise. Then he applied for job after job and they told him he needed skills; more skills; different skills. He figured he needed camouflage so he got a buzz cut and a new shirt. Rubbing his scalp reminded him how much he disliked taking orders.
“But,” Pop said, “you do like to eat, don’t you?”
So he kept looking.
Then he met Debbie in a crowded pub. She and another girl sat at the bar drinking wine and laughing loud, their t-shirts so tight he could make out all four nipples pert and ready. Debbie thought he was square with that buzz cut and Oxford shirt but later she said he had a poetic face, “Sweet, in a sad kind of way.”
He nearly passed out when she reached up to rub the fuzz on his scalp and pressed her nipple into his shoulder. Later he would tell her the first thing he noticed in that bar was her tinkling laugh. He came to believe it was true.
At the wedding, the errant strand once again strayed into his eyes. There’s a picture of him in his tux and her in her gown reaching up to tuck the lock back from his face with her fingertips. He closed his eyes and leaned into her touch.
She tucked that hair back thousands of times. Even after their daughters were born and things got hectic, she always picked him up at work, always leaned across to tuck back his strand with her fingertips. But there’s only that one picture.
Debbie collected travel brochures. She taped a postcard of the Forbidden City to the bathroom mirror. His company moved to China. His unemployment ran out. She threw the postcard away.
By the time leukemia took her, their girls were grown and gone. They came back for the funeral and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t squeeze out a single tear.
“To hell with them,” he muttered. “To hell with everything.” He sold the house, threw all those damn brochures in the trash, and signed up for Social Security. He kept his grey hair stretched in a ponytail at the back of his neck and started smoking pot again.
“Hey! It’s legal!” he exclaimed with a cough.
He met a biker woman from Nevada in a bar. She thought the strand made him look like Elvis and she never did tuck it back from his face. Joleen wasn’t the tucking back type, with her brown leather skin and unfiltered Camels, but she didn’t mind his mess and she had a good laugh. He liked to rest his head on her flat, little tummy.
Joleen persuaded him to move to Elko and buy a twelve-foot skiff. He found winters cold but the summer fishing made up for it. She loved to angle for trout and he liked to putter with the boat. He found a measure of pride in being a veteran and joined the Rotary. On Saturdays, they drove a pickup to town to drink beer and gossip at The Star Hotel. A quiet contentment snuck up on him.
The afternoon he passed was the hottest of the year. They were out on Ruby Marsh drinking beer with a few bass in the bucket.
“Damn! I wish I’d brought my hat.”
Those were his last words before, as Joleen explained to all who’d listen, “He just leaned over and died right there in the boat.”
No drama and very little mess but Joleen was haunted nonetheless. She kept remembering his head in her lap, how after he died that lock of hair fell into his eyes and how she tucked it back with her fingertips.
Amanda Barusch lives in the American West. She spends as much time as possible either barefoot or on horseback and has an abiding disdain for boundaries. The Errant Strand was inspired by her father’s life. Her work has appeared in Crack the Spine, Stone Path Review, The Legendary, and various academic journals. She is working on a short story collection titled, “Everyone is Singular.”