Thanks to the media, the whole state is having a big laugh over Gunther’s Revenge and what happened here in Oakcrest. But they wouldn’t be taking it so lightly if they had the slightest clue about the bugging, the blackmail, the break-ins, the kidnapping, and the bomb that were part of the real story.
I think it’s time the whole thing should be told, even though some of it may incriminate me. Most of it, though, will incriminate my friend Jerry Bollinger who started it all. He was the instigator even though he wasn’t actually the villain. I was just the innocent bystander.
The only mistake I made—if, in the end, you still want to call it a mistake—was to get my hair cut at a beauty salon. It seemed innocent enough at the time.
I had always gone to a barber, beginning with my first haircut at age two and a half. Getting a hair-do was never on my list of things I wanted to do, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to find out about it. I was so preoccupied with the possibility that one of my students would see me going to the beauty salon, I nearly ran into the Toyota Corolla parked along the side of Windermere Drive.
As it turned out, it wasn’t parked. It was dead. There was a very large African-American woman fiddling under hood. I pulled over and asked her if she needed help.
"I never paid much attention to cars," she said. "I always left this sort of thing to my husband, God rest his soul."
She sighed. "Stroke."
I sighed. "I meant your car."
She pulled her head out from just above the radiator hose. "I was driving just fine when suddenly the damn thing rolled to a stop."
"Were you listening to the radio at the time?"
"Yes, I was." She looked at me through the tops of her half-glasses. "The Morning Show with Go-Go Goforth."
I can’t claim to be much of an expert on car mechanics, but I’ve learned a few things from experience. I had a similar thing happen to a Toyota Corolla of mine when I was in college. "You can close the hood," I said. "Do you mind if I look inside?"
"Inside the car?" she asked. "It’s a little messy."
Messy wasn’t half of it. I’ve seen the inside of dumpsters cleaner than her car. Some of the things that had risen to the surface of the disaster were a ruby-red glass doorknob, an Aladdin’s lamp, a coil of rope, a clock that looked like Felix the Cat, and a metallic silver high-heeled shoe the size of a bowling ball. I pushed them aside and took a look under the dash. "You’re in luck," I said. "It’s a blown fuse."
"A fuse? In a car?"
"Sure," I said. "Do you smoke?"
"Of course not."
"Good. Then we can take out the fuse from your cigarette lighter and pop it in place of the blown one."
"Well, all right!" she said, fishing in her pocket book. "Let me give you something for your trouble."
"No trouble at all. Glad to help out."
She shoved a substantial hand at me. "Thank you very much, Mister, ah …"
"Charlie," I said.
"Thank you, Mister Charlie."
"No, not so much Mister Charlie as Mister Haverstraw. Or rather just Charlie to everybody but my students."
"I’m the shop teacher at Oakcrest High."
"Frieda Martin," she said. "I’m the director of the Oakcrest Players." I gave her a blank look. "Oakcrest Community Theater. We’re the ones who put on plays in the old Weathervane Barn."
"Ah," I said.
She squeezed into the driver’s seat. "Have you ever thought about getting involved in community theater, Mister Charlie?"
I couldn’t say that I had.
She pulled a business card out of the glove box. It had two facemasks on it, one looking like it had taken drugs, and the other looking like it needed to. OAKCREST PLAYERS, it said. THERE ARE NO BIG PARTS, ONLY BIG DIRECTORS. FRIEDA MARTIN and her phone number. "We’re getting ready to put on a major production, and I could sure use somebody who knew what he was doing to help build sets. Think it over and give me a call." She said it more like an order than an offer.
"I’ll think it over," I said, crumpling the card.
She turned the key and the Toyota started right up. The voice of Go-Go Goforth blared out from the radio. "And once again, congratulations to today’s big winner, Charles Haverstraw of Oakcrest."
"Hey!" she said. "Is that you?"
"Yeah." My cheeks flushed. "But hardly anyone but the Social Security people ever call me Charles."
"Right. You’re Mister Charlie."
"Just Charlie is fine."
"Thanks again, Mister Charlie," she said. She was a woman who was definitely used to getting her way.
Why I was so embarrassed to have my name on the radio was this. The night before, I had let myself be talked into staying out late at the Maison Dixie, the local nightclub that’s behind the new post office. The occasion was the birthday of Francis Butterford who teaches chemistry at Oakcrest High. I’ve never been too fond of Francis since he’s said on more than one occasion that it doesn’t require any brains to teach Industrial Arts. It’s too bad he thinks so, as there’s a bit of chemistry involved in shop—glues and solvents and that sort of thing. If he’d take the time I think he would find it interesting. But I’m already getting off the point, which is that I had a little more to drink than I’m used to and got home a little later than I’d wished. I fell asleep right off the bat, forgetting to turn off my clock-radio alarm.
So, at exactly 6:00 a.m. the radio came on, and I was shocked wide-awake by the voice of Go-Go Goforth. It was WYOY’s daily contest. Go-Go plays a second and a half of a song, and if you can identify it and the musician you win a prize. I was half asleep and without really thinking I picked up the phone and dialed the station. Since there is hardly any one in Oakcrest who is awake and listening to the radio at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, I got through on the first ring. I told Go-Go and his other three listeners the song was Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears. I doubt if even Francis Butterford would have known that. It just goes to show.
The prize turned out to be a free hairdo at the Oakcrest Beauty Salon. I didn’t even know that there was such a place. When I said that to Go-Go he laughed, said I was a real joker, and launched into a commercial explaining how they did tints, perms, streaks, weaves, and about twelve other things for which I had absolutely no use.
There were two things that tipped me over into actually accepting the prize. First was the fact that I hadn’t won anything since getting first place for Best Clay Ashtray In The Third Grade. And for that I only received a piece of paper and a handshake from the principal. The second thing was that I actually needed a haircut. I decided that any beauty shop that could "do" hair could cut hair. And if it was a woman who cut my hair, it didn’t really matter, since I would be saving the fifteen dollars it usually cost me down at the barbershop.
I had no idea what that decision would really cost me.
"May I help you?" The woman who sat behind the desk at the Oakcrest Beauty Salon had the longest fingernails I had ever seen, and that’s including Sharonette who used to introduce the late night horror movies on Channel 21.
"Yes," I said. "I’m here for the free hairdo."
"You want a hairdo?"
"Well, not really," I said. "I only need a haircut."
She waved her claws toward a sign on the wall. "Men’s haircuts are fifteen dollars."
"No, you don’t understand. I’m Charles Haverstraw."
She shoved the fingernails toward me. "Good for you," she said. "Haircuts are still fifteen bucks."
"No," I said, backing away from the claws. "I won the contest on WYOY this morning for a free hairdo."
"Tracey!" she shouted. "Do you know anything about a contest for a free hairdo?"
A voice bounced from the back. "Never heard of it. Chrissie is the one who does the advertising."
"You’ll have to come back when Chrissie’s here," said the claw-woman.
"When’s that going to be?"
"Monday about noon."
"Yeah, that’s right. That’s the day that usually comes after Sunday."
"But I work Monday."
"Good for you, Clarence. I do, too."
I looked through the glass front door at my truck parked right out in front for all the world to see. Any damage that was going to be done had already been done.
"Oh, hell," I said. "Just give me the haircut, and I’ll pay the fifteen dollars."
"Can you take a walk-in, Tracey?" she shouted.
"I’m up to my goddamn elbows in a tint job. Give him to Emily."
"Okay, Clarence. You can go back. Emily is the little blonde. She’ll give you your hairdo."
"Just a regular haircut will be fine," I said, grateful that she wasn’t going to get her fingernails anywhere near my head.
Once, in my first year of teaching, I made the mistake of asking a couple of sophomores to lift a twelve-foot, two-by-ten girder to the top of two eight-foot posts. They thought it would be funny to toss the thing around, which it wasn’t. I told them if they weren’t careful they would drop it on someone’s head, which they did. Mine.
Walking to the back of that beauty parlor I had the same sensation of the world suddenly going bright, then dark, then bright again. One look at the pretty young woman with the scissors in her hand and all the girls I had ever thought romantically about before dissolved like cheap paint in turpentine. I knew in a second my days as a Player were over for good. Not that they had ever begun.
"Hello," I said. "Are you the one who’s going to cut my hair?"
"Pleased to meet you," she said, reaching out for a shake. I noticed that not only were her fingernails normal human length, but her hand felt warm and delicate in mine. "I’m Emily Upchurch."
"Charlie Haverstraw," I said, and I’m not sure that I didn’t swallow hard.
"You’re a little shaggy over the collar, Charlie. I’m surprised your wife would let you go so long without a haircut."
My cheeks went hot. "I’m not married," I said. She put a gown over me and snapped it around my neck. I asked her if she made sure her husband got his hair cut on time.
"No," she said.
"I mean I don’t have a husband."
"Ah," I said very much matter-of-factly. Let me tell you, it’s darn difficult to come up with clever conversation when you’re feeling as if a two-by-ten has just been dropped on your head. I began to wish I were more like my friend Jerry Bollinger. He teaches junior and senior Honors English. He always seems to have something to say and usually can get women to listen to him. Most of the time he can get them laughing, although sometimes I’m not sure if he’s actually trying to be funny.
It’s an odd thing about getting your hair cut. In all the years I’ve gone to the barber, I never thought much about it being anything in the way of an intimate experience. But there in the Oakcrest Beauty Salon, I began to notice how close Emily came to brushing up against me as she worked her way around my noggin. She had the largest eyes, either that or very long eyelashes, but either way they were beautiful.
Then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, they did. The radio was on somewhere playing The Theme from The Titanic. Emily started at first to hum and then to sing. It was very soft but, as her mouth was only a few inches from my ear, I couldn’t help but hear it. She had the voice of an angel—the way an angel would sound if she were clipping away with a scissors. My heart started pounding.
"So, tell me Emily," I said. Actually, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted her to tell me. I think I might have asked her what exactly was the difference between a haircut and a hairdo. But then something extraordinary happened. It was one of those events that make you realize that things in this world are not as simple as they seem, and there are powers behind the scenes that are shaping our lives like we are so many pieces of wood on a lathe.
"Hey, Emily," called the woman in the front. "You got a phone call."
"Can you take a message?" I noticed that Emily’s voice had just a hint of a Southern accent.
"It’s some lady named Frieda."
"She said she wants you to come to the auditions Monday night. Seven o’clock."
I trembled. "Oh," I said. "Are you thinking about getting involved in community theater?"
"I don’t know," she said, "Maybe."
When she was done and took the hospital gown off me, I gave her a twenty and told her to keep the change. It might have been a little too much, especially for a free haircut. I thought about it later on, but at the time I didn’t care. It was a good haircut.
I drove straight home, got out the phone book, and started looking through the Martins for one named Frieda.