Decapitated mannequin heads, mainly female, stare ahead lifeless hanging from hooks attached to the beams of the building roof. Some sway slightly and each wears a stylized hairpiece of differing design and colour. Beneath them, arranged on regimented rows of aluminum benches along the uneven floor, stand more of the same, but many of these skulls are bald or sport partially weaved hairpieces.
Father lets his arms drop in disappointment. "Specialty hairpieces, not ordinary wigs. Natural human or horse hair, synthetic, you name it. A lot of these babies retail at well over five hundred bucks a pop."
Perfectly groomed as I remember him, James Vernon Spencer stands dapper in his chocolate colored flannel suit and trademark beige handkerchief poking from the breast pocket. His full head of mahogany hair, greying tastefully at the temples, is styled with such precision that if I didn't know him better, I'd believe he was modeling one of his more expensive toupees.
When Willy hobbles across and stands next to him they make an unlikely pair. "It's a thriving wholesale business, laddie," says Willy. "Jim and I've some major stars on our books."
Above their heads, I recognize Madonna, Gwen, Barbra, Brittany, Taylor, Katie, and Cher, gazing blankly ahead like the closing moments of a cross-generational Christmas Special. Father follows my line of vision.
"The Diva collection," he says, the voice of a seasoned salesman. "Popular with drag queens."
Exasperated, I pick on Willy. "Why the fuck didn't you tell me? I thought you were doing something illegal, smuggling guns or drugs or people. Or—worse."
Willy tips his head back and laughs aloud, but my father, his gaze still on me, smiles and shakes his head slowly.
"Surely you know me better," he says.
“I’m not sure I know you at all these days.”
"We're not gun-running, laddie," says Willy, before adding a furtive, sidelong glance at my father, "although what we're doing is not entirely above—"
My father coughs into his fist and flashes an admonishing look Uncle Willy's way. His smile pasted back in place, he ambles over to me, puts an arm around my shoulders and squeezes.
"Come into the back office. You and I have a lot of catching up to do."
Together, we move toward the small room but before he's taken a couple of paces, he stops and turns back to Willy.
"Will. I've booked a table at Las Carmelitas for nine." He darts a glance at his sparkling wristwatch. "It's gone that now, so we'd better get going soon. Can you go fetch the—uh—item in question?"
I'm about to quiz him when a digital Bee Gees song ring-tones from my jacket pocket. I pull out my cell, forgetting I'd switched it on during the car ride to the warehouse, and read 'Amanda' on the display. Pulling away from my father, I thumb the green button to accept the call and talk quickly, before she can speak.
"Sorry honey. I tried to phone you from—"
"I've left you like a zillion messages. What the hell's going on?" Ahead, standing out from a political celebrity collection, a Melania hairpiece glares down at me in judgment.
"That's what I'm trying to find out. Jim—dad—says it's urgent; he's got some kind of trouble he needs my help with. A family thing, you know?"
"Well, you'd better be back before Saturday."
"Trust me, I'm out of here tomorrow." I glance up at my father who shrugs a smile and then nods. "Look, my cell's almost dead. I'll call from the motel tomorrow."
"What's with your family? I'm beginning to wonder what I've let myself in for."
"I know, I know." I say, and can't help but agree. I notice my father studying his Rolex again before he turns and saunters off toward the office. "Sorry Amanda, I got to go now, we're having dinner soon and we're already late."
"Oh," she says, taking a deep breath. Her voice becomes quieter, her tone tense, drained of annoyance. "That reminds me. There's something I needed to tell you this morning."
"What?" I ask, a little irritated, my gaze following my father's retreating figure. With everything else going on, the last thing I need from her right now is something else to add to my part of the party shopping list. As my cell phones beeps with a sound like 'uh-oh', indicating the battery is about to give out, I just manage to catch her parting words.
“Don’t blow a fuse, Trout. But I’m late, too. I think I might be pregnant.”
Dotted around the walls of the cluttered office are photographs of my father or Uncle Willy or both, grinning with lesser known celebrities. Three or four grey-and-white dappled polystyrene mannequin heads lie discarded on the floor and one sits pride of place on his desk, next to the telephone. My father's face pops up from behind his bulky, antiquated desktop computer monitor. I throw myself in the leather chair opposite, lean back and stare up at the ceiling. Out the corner of my eye, I notice him toss a glossy magazine over the table at me.
"Outfit's been up and running for over two years. We picked Chihuahua because labor's cheap and there's no shortage of horse hair suppliers. And human hair too, come to that. Whole catalog's on www.topcelebthatch.com. Got those babies made up for mail drops to..."
Babies? Of late, I've found myself stuttering over the word fiancée, haven't even brought myself to face the title of husband yet, even if just for a short while. Am I going to have to add father to this new and menacing vocabulary? And if so, what’s it going to look like when I announce our separation? Moreover, how am I ever going to get laid again?
"Willy found a local guy to design and manage the site for us. Done a pretty neat job, too. Took around nine months to get up and running, but online sales now make up about..."
Nine months? A vision flares up, of me as one of those shuffling, downtrodden dudes, skulking beside a stroller as she pushes junior through the mall; a family looking at things they can no longer afford. Not sure I even wanted kids with another guy, should the getting-less-likely-by-the-second eventually of ever finding a longterm partner befall me.
"Not the best domain name but all the good ones were taken. Internet business keeps us steady though. Willy's idea, would you believe? I wanted to keep it simple but Willy arranged a demo. Minimal capital outlay and a simple case of people being able to recognize instantly whose it is and order right away.”
Whose is it? Isn’t that the question I should be asking? Cause it sure as hell isn’t mine. That bastard Greenwell, probably. But then Amanda has had her weekend’s away, so it could be anyone. And how is this going to affect us signing the fidelity agreement, if she’s already knock up?
"You okay, son? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Yeah, the ghost of Christmas future," I reply, biting at a cuticle. Maybe panic is a normal male reaction to parenthood. “Tell me, how did you feel when you found out Mom was expecting me?"
"What?" he says, a crinkle forming between his eyebrows. "Where's this coming from?"
"Just tell me."
He pushes back in his chair, holding his palms out in front of him. "Okay, look. I'm sorry I haven't been around lately. I'm not exactly welcome in the Big Apple any more, but I still care about—"
"Answer the goddamn question!"
Forefinger tips pressed together beneath his nose, he studies me a moment before speaking.
"I've only ever passed out cold twice in this life, once during the first couple of days on a tour of duty in Phuoc Vinh Province, hauling a full pack in the heat of the midday sun. The other was the day your mother told me she was carrying you. Not proud of myself either time."
"But what were you feeling?"
"Terrified, of course," he says. "You could never tell where those sneaky little bastards—"
He leans forward, grinning. “When I came to, I was overjoyed, okay? I already had everything I ever wanted and then God tossed me a bonus. How do you think I felt? Now are you going to tell me what this is all about?"
With my palms pressed into my eyes, I exhale heavily and explain.
“Dad, contrary to what Uncle Willy told you, I’m marrying a woman. Amanda. It’s kind of a marriage of mutual convenience.” Which is turning out to be anything but convenient. “Not to a guy, as nature intended. And now she thinks she might be pregnant. Not mine, of course.”
“I have no idea.”
“But you’re worried everyone’s going to think it’s yours?”
“Not the people who really know me. But some of those who matter, yes.”
"I see," he says, and of all people in this world, he's one of the few who probably does. “Hell, chances are she's just late. No point getting worked up. And if not, I kinda like the idea of being called Grandpa Jim."
“Not helping, dad.”
"More to the point," he continues. “You wanna tell me about this woman who’s got your boxers in a wad? Amanda, is it?”
He catches me off guard. Typical, he has always had a knack of seeing through me. Although he has been largely absent from my life, he still appears unannounced from time to time and, more frequently, keeps in touch by phone. And every time, by the end of one of our inevitably lengthy discourses, he has always managed to make me feel like a shelled prawn.
I pick up the magazine and flick through the glossy pages.
"She's plenty cool," I answer. "Organized and dependable, you know?"
"Yeah? So’s a well-stocked Frigidaire. Why you marrying her? She knows you’re gay?“
I toss the catalog back onto the desk and shrug. “Of course. But we make a good team. We work well together."
"So do Will and I, but we're not about to get hitched."
"Look," I add, eager to get past the interrogation. “Can we drop this—?”
“No, Peter, we cannot. What the hell is going on with you? When you first came out to me, I was fine. Yeah, sure, took a bit of time because I was worried for you. It’s still a tough world out there. But with the help of your stepmom and June, we dealt okay, yes?”
“And in time, I thought you’d settle down with someone and announce to the world who you really are. Instead, June tells me you’re either trying to get into the pants of every hunk with junk and a pulse, and now this—this—fake marriage. So why don’t you tell your old man, nice and slow, so he can understand. What in God’s name—?”
Fortunately for me, at that moment, Willy bursts into the room, struggling with what appears to be a hatbox. As he thumps the package down onto the desk, the computer monitor trembles.
"Careful Will. That’s expensive stuff there.” Dad stands then and peers over at me. "We're not finished yet, Peter. We'll continue this over dinner."
With some effort, Willy prizes the top from the box and reveals something glistening inside. He and my father reach in and, together, holding the neck of a black porcelain bust, pull out an ornate wig of golden thread, sparkling in the light of the desk lamp. Gently, they lower the glittering prize onto the desktop.
"Voilà," says Willy, with undisclosed pride. "Cleopatra. 24 carat, solid gold wig. Damned heavy. A special commission by an undisclosed A-List celeb." Willy scoops up a handful of gleaming hair and lets go, each strand tinkling perfectly back into place.
"This is it?" I say, unable to contain my annoyance. "This is what you flew me all the way here for? Why can't you just FedEx it?"
"We'd never get it by customs," says Jim. "And duty on this baby would be through the roof."
"What about Uncle Willy? Why can't he take it?"
I notice Uncle Willy's gaze drop to the floor as Dad turns to him. "Will would have done the drop himself but last month we had a run-in with the Mexican border officials in the old pick-up, and now we get turned over every time. Willy’s hard to miss. That's why he collected Delilah from a lock-up in Paso for the drive down. No, we're on their radar now, but with you, they probably won't blink an eye."
"So here's an idea," I say, as though speaking to children. "How about Willy flies the thing back from here? Rumor has it they have airports in Mexico now."
With a nod to each other, Dad and Willy settle the treasure back into the box. Once returned, Jim closes the top and says, "Do you read the news? TSA is red hot and would be all over this. No, she has to go back by car. You and Delilah across the border at Ciudad Juarez. Our contact will be waiting in El Paso in the airport car park. Hand the goods over and then hop on your plane.“
"How will I recognize him?" I ask.
Dad smiles and pats the top of the box. "So you'll do it, then?"
"I didn't say that. Answer the question."
"Don't worry," says my father, with a smug grin. "Even if they don't recognize you, Delilah's hard to miss."
Squashed comfortably into a booth against the window next to Willy inside the half empty Las Carmelitas, I lean against the cool glass and study a menu. A young waitress tosses a basket of freshly made tortillas onto the table before reaching into her apron and pulling out a notepad. She folds a handful of black wavy hair over one ear and scans us carefully one by one, until her gaze settles upon my father.
"Okay, handsome, what'll you have?"
Her voice vibrates with deep sensuality, and moreover, there's something encouraging to learn that your father, twenty-eight years your senior, can still conjure this kind of reaction from such a youthful and alluring beauty.
Without consulting us, he offers her his menu and says, "Tres cervezas por favor. And how about a kiss for a lonely old man, Rosy?"
"Rosamar," she says, snatching the menu with one hand and waving the eraser end of her pencil at him with the other. "I tell you before, don't call me Rosy. And you are not lonely, you naughty man, every time you here you have different girl on your arm.”
"Hush," he says, and while still looking at her, tilts his head to me and says, "este es mi Hijo."
For the first time, she takes me in and smiles.
"You are his son? Ah yes, I see the same eyes. I hope you better behave than your father." With a flourish, she twirls around and bounces away. My father watches her go, a grin on his face that's too open and affectionate to be labeled lecherous.
"What happened to Topaz?" I ask.
Topaz is Dad's latest flame, a wild-child from Hastings, Nebraska, almost my age. I only met her once at the family ranch in Connecticut, slouched in the passenger seat of Dad's Mercedes rental, bare feet shoved up onto the leather dash, her ankles adorned with twinkling bracelets. When introduced, she offered me a bored glance and flashed a forced, over-happy smile; all gums and gold teeth.
For the first time during my visit, I see his face darken, a brief but unmistakable grimace that reveals the age lines in his face. Uncle Willy, furrowing into his menu, snaps a look up at Dad and speaks for him.
"She—she took off, laddie. Family problems back in—"
Jim reaches out, clasps Uncle Willy's arm and quickly shakes his head.
"No Will, no more stories," he says, before turning full on to me. "Topaz took your old man for a prize idiot. A million dollar fool."
There are times when a son be sympathetic, not disparage a father for his weaknesses, and perhaps this should have been one such moment. However, citing the laws of absent parentage, I felt fully absolved at voicing my opinion.
"And you have the goddam nerve to question my life? So Topaz blew you off? What an absolute gem she turned out to be and why am I not surprised? No wonder I’ve never settled down, having such a fantastic role model. Jeez, dad, that makes about ten errors of judgment since Helen, by my reckoning. You going for some kind of record?"
During our exchange, I notice Rosamar approach the table, three bottles of beer dangling professionally between the slender fingers of one hand, a bottle opener attached by string to her apron held in the other. Without looking, she pops the cap of each bottle in turn, all the while glancing between my father and me as though umpiring a tennis match.
"Topaz was only ever companionship, nothing more. Don't get all sanctimonious on me, son. You spend every opportunity promoting the virtues of gay bachelorhood. Now suddenly you're getting married to a woman? What's that all about, anyway?"
Where the art of deflection is concerned, my father is a Grand Master.
“I’m doing her a favor,” I reply, simmering. “Helping out a friend. Who needs a Green Card—“
"Bull. Shit.” he says, as Rosamar slams a beer down in front of him.What? “You think I don't speak with June and your grandma?"
"Jim!" Uncle Willy glares at my father as his bottle thumps down, spitting froth from the mouth. “We need a favor. Don't ruin this—"
I feel my neck glow hot with fury. "You mean you've known all along? About everything that happened since grandma's party, the one you couldn't be bothered to attend?"
"And what else I know is you don't up and marry the first broad that comes along just ‘cause the star prize is a luxury home. Marriage isn't a game show, Peter. It’s a Venus fly trap. Once you’re sucked in, you’re gonna suffer trying to get out. If I taught you anything, I taught you that!"
I should know better than to attempt standing in outrage at a booth where the bench and seats are fixed to the floor. I succeed only in banging my knees against the underside of the table and falling back down again.
"Fuck you! When have you even been around to teach me anything? And I can't believe you honestly think I'm only doing all this to get my hands on grandma's money? Is that what June told you?"
“Enlighten your old man, then. Why are you doing this?”
“None of your fucking business!”
A final brew is thumped down in front of me, but this time the slender fingers of the fist are still clenched around the neck of the bottle. Rosamar pulls herself across the table to me, her lips and ample cleavage about a foot from my face. She smells faintly of lavender and garlic and fearlessness.
"You want to hear what I think?" she says in a voice both husky and assertive, "I think you do not speak bad words like this in our family restaurant. And definitely not to a man who is your father.“ She smiles and taps a finger on the end of my nose before standing and addressing the whole table. "Now, we close in forty-five minute, so, you want to eat or not? I recommend shrimp a las Carmelitas, nopal salad, molecajete sauce and rice. I make the sauce myself, so you better like it."
With my anger dissembled by her manner, I figure if my father is the Master of Deflection, then Rosamar must be the Queen of Diffusion. We all settle back in our respective corners and take a swig or two of the sweet brew.
My father is the first to break the silence.
"Okay. I didn't mean it to come out that way. I know you're doing this for your grandma, her last wish, so to speak. I'm only thinking about you, about your feelings."
"Your father," Uncle Willy says, with a wink, "could write volumes about mistakes of the heart."
"Not helping, Willy," says dad. "And I think we're all on the same page." After glaring at Willy for moment, Jim turns his attention back to me, "Are we okay, son?"
"Sure." Despite myself, and especially when he calls me 'son', my anger all but dissolves.
"You okay for money?" he asks, after a short pause, and I feel another guilt string being pulled. Since his absence, generous deposits of money have appeared in the credit column of my bank statement on a reassuringly regular basis.
"Fine. The job's good and Amanda pays her way."
My father grunts and says nothing.
"Look," I say, after another pause. "Try and get along to the party Saturday. You ought to meet her and give the whole thing your blessing. You owe me that much."
He reaches over and clasps my arm, a comical moment of doubt crossing his face. Willy looks out the window with a barely discernible shake of his head.
"I'll do my best, okay?” he says. "No hard feelings, son.”
"Course not. Life's too short," I reply, dipping a fork into the pot of gooey guacamole.
Before popping the mound into my mouth, I hesitate a moment and quickly remark.
"But if you think I'm smuggling that precious fucking hairdo across the border, then you'd better think again."
There can be little in life more exhilarating than an early morning solo drive through the dry and dusty freeways of Mexico letting carefree music written for just such an occasion wash over you. Willy helped fix the convertible top and after a couple of faltering starts, demonstrated how to assemble the framework. Despite a cloudless horizon and my good mood, the top remains up.
Ten miles from the Mexican border, the joy of driving Delilah is lost amidst the icy guilt gripping the pit of my stomach. Even Christopher Cross' falsetto urging me to ride like the wind can't lift my spirits or take my mind off the little box of delights presently crammed into the corner of the trunk.
What's keeping me in this state of anxiety is the advice Willy gave me, while I revved the engine ready for the off and as he leant into the passenger's window.
"Mexican customs is all about technique. Appear calm, but not too calm, smile but not too much, watch what's going on but don't make eye contact. Sit patiently and you should get through fine."
"Really helpful, Uncle Willy," I say. "And if I get stopped?"
"You won't, laddie."
"Ah, well. That was bad luck. And even then, they only retained me for two or three days."
"Or two. Don't sweat it, laddie. You won't get stopped."
"But what if I do?"
"Just...play it by ear."
Worst of all, I keep visualizing the angry faces of a saggy-mustached border official and Amanda glowering at me. I'm not sure which one frightens me more.
As I begin to slow Delilah along with the other cars in my lane, I realize that Willy hadn't prepared me for the complete absence of dusty tin hut, tobacco-chewing, machine-gun-toting, mournful-harp-soundtrack scene at the border patrol crossing that I had come to expect.
Instead, I join a queue of other cars, and with unexpected efficiency, my vehicle import permit is issued and I am crawling in line toward a distant automated system randomly selecting vehicles to be scrutinized.
Lights turn green for all-clear and when one in the lane next to mine turns red, the car is immediately directed to an inspection area. An old couple is already there, looking bemused, a black Labrador barking silently through the rear window of their Volvo as they open up the trunk for a closer examination.
Before long, my turn comes and I am hypnotized by the dormant lights, fully expecting a flash of red.Instead, a green light illuminates with the word 'PASE' and it's all I can do not to punch the air with joy.
I drive through calmly, unhurried but not too slowly like Willy told me even though my heart is pumping like a piston and my foot is aching to stamp on the gas. The mantra repeating in my head is 'take your time, nice and slow' and works its magic.
As Delilah rolls forward with El Paso beckoning, a sigh of relief escapes me just as a large grinning customs official steps from the final concrete building directly into my path and holds up a hand, beckoning me over with a short wave. Three others appear behind him, all carrying clearly visible firearms.
Unlike my father, my command of any language other than English is non-existent. The four of them huddle nearby sharing gravelly words, frowning, occasionally nodding my way. Although I am beginning to sweat in places a person shouldn't, I sit quietly, waiting for something to happen but all the while feigning disinterest. Finally, after having consulted with the rest, the largest of them steps over, walks once around the car and then stops by the driver's window.
"How much?" he asks, his voice startlingly high-pitched for such a large man.
"I beg your pardon?"
"How much you want for it?"
All the time I have been staring ahead not daring to make eye contact. Only now as I take him in and notice his adoring gaze, do I realize that he's referring to Delilah.
"Oh. The car? She's not mine to sell, she belongs to my father. He lets me ride her back home every once in a while."
He reaches toward his gun holster and flips out a card.
"Well, give your father my details. I will be happy to add this little belleza to my automobile collection."
He walks around the front again, stands for a moment smiling a toothy grin, and then finally pats the hood and steps to one side.
"Have a safe trip."
At midday, El Paso airport is buzzing with commuters. As instructed, I roll Delilah to a stop in the long term parking area and wait. My flight is not until three so, with some difficulty, I lever back the seat to rest my eyes.
Some time later, a coin tapped against the window brings me back to myself. I blink through the glass and see a shadow standing by the door, too tall to see the face. When I roll the creaky pane down, it's no better; the figure is smartly dressed but has a large brimmed hat shading the face.
"Do you have it?" The voice is female, and despite the poor attempt at a disguise, sounds oddly familiar.
"In the trunk," I reply.
"Okay, I'll take it from here. Get out now, dear, you have an airplane to catch." Again, there's a word or inflection that hints at familiarity. "I don't suppose the idiot remembered to include the invoice?"
"Of course." My stepmother, Helen, pulls back her hat and scowls at me. "Who else would be insane enough to get involved in this little charade?"
As instructed, I step out into the daylight and slap the car keys into her gloved hand.
"I can't believe you of all people are in on this," I say, genuinely taken aback.
"And I could say the same for you," she says, before taking her hat off completely and shaking out her hair. "Personally, I have a vested interest. Who do you think provides the liaison between your father and his private clients here in the States?" From her pocket, she pulls a pack of cigarettes and lights up." Well he can't, can he? If he puts one toe over the border, the IRS will be all over him like a BP spill."
"He's—what?" I ask, as I watch her take a deep toke of the cigarette. Realizing her blunder, she puts a gloved hand over her mouth, then tilts her face to the sky and puffs out a smoky, chesty laugh.
"Oops, I forgot you didn't know. Why do you think he's tucked himself away in that godforsaken hell-hole in Mexico? It's not for the cuisine, dear."
"But he told me..." I begin, and then realize he told me nothing. While I stand there, Helen climbs into the car, clicks the door closed and leans out of the window.
"He told you nothing, of course. Because what you don't know can't hurt you," she says, reaching forward and starting up Delilah with practiced ease. "And now, my dear, we've both got things to do. I have a delivery to make and you've got a party to help organize."
I'm more than a little dazed as I ask, "You going to be there?"
"Of course," she says, crunching Delilah into gear and rolling her slowly out of the parking lot. A few feet on, she stops the car, leans out of the window and calls back, "but I wouldn't hold out too much hope for your father being present, dear."
Dysfunctional. You bet. But a family nonetheless.
As always, please leave any comments, suggestions, and/or reactions.