Character: Police station clerk
Action: Tightening a knot
Setting: A meeting for a subversive group
Prop: Decorative songbirds made from vinyl records
Blue Hair and Songbirds
by Joaquin Lowe
Seamus Mcaffey was an ordinary cop. Actually, he was a station clerk—a secretary—but he was the son of an ordinary cop. He kept his desk immaculate and sparse: coffee mug of sharpened number 2 pencils, stacks of forms, organized by frequency of use and color, a keyboard, and a monitor that always showed a half finished game of minesweeper, the timer stuck at “99”.
Seamus could never be an ordinary cop like his father, or his father before him. He was tall, wide shouldered; yoga made him lean and strong. The female officers cat-called him to show off his stomach—perfect even with the constellation of dangerous looking moles—and he blushed a deep shade of red that made the women laugh amongst themselves as they walked away. Seamus looked the part of the beat cop; in a different time he may have even been a strong-jawed detective who played by his own rules but always got his man. Seamus looked the part except for one thing. Seamus had blue hair.
Like all the children in his family, Seamus was born light blonde, but as he got older, instead of growing red like his father’s cross-Atlantic homeland dictated, his hair became dark and blue, the same color as a policeman’s uniform. He tried on his father’s uniform once, feeling that same excitement and shame he would feel years later in college when he tried on a girlfriend’s skirt and underwear, but in his father’s clothes his hair made him look ridiculous, like a clown playing dress up. He folded his father’s clothes back in the drawer and never tried them on again.
Seamus knocked on the front door before letting himself him. He had been living with his parents for the last few months, after his landlord kicked him out on suspicion of hooliganism. Another consequence of blue hair. He put his coat on the hook and his change in the bowl with his father’s. His mother stood in the hallway, her left hand folded over her right at her waist; she thoroughly failed to subdue her smile.
“What have you done?” Asked Seamus, feeling mortification before the fact.
“Don’t be mad, honey,” said his mother. “I’ve made you a date. She’s a lovely girl.”
“You haven’t told her about my blue hair.”
His mother had made many of these dates before, all of which ended before dessert when they found out his blue hair was natural—something he couldn’t change.
“That’s just the thing! She loves blue hair. She said she heard men with blue hair have big dicks.”
“What? That’s what she said.”
The woman, who went by Theta, wasn’t as lovely as she was intimidating. She snarled while she ate her food. She snarled when she spoke. She snarled when she laughed. Her hair was a wasted rainbow of magentas and purples. In her flower printed skirt, probably purchased at a high-end vintage shop, leggings and frilly blouse doused in irony, she downright scared Seamus. He sat across from her in the restaurant and saw the studded leather jacket and steel tipped boots by the door in her apartment. He imagined the tattoos living beneath her clothes. Sleeves of alien vines that produced black flowers. Illustrations that ran down her front and back cupped her breasts and made parabolas of her butt cheeks. He unfolded his napkin and laid it across his lap to hide his erection.
Theta took a petite bite of her salad, dabbed her mouth and said, “So why did you decide to dye your hair? You don’t look the type.”
“I was born this way,” he said, forecasting the rest of the conversation, how she would laugh, and then stare, and then grow silent, and then excuse herself to the bathroom and never come back.
“By your voice, you make it sound like it’s the worst thing in the world.”
“It’s caused a lot of problems.”
“Like my landlord kicking me out. Like the fact that it means I’ll never be a police officer. Like no girl will date me unless they have a bullring through their nose.”
“I used to have a bullring,” Theta said flatly.
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”
She smiled, or snarled—Seamus couldn’t tell.
“Why don’t you just get it dyed a normal color?”
“I’ve tried, but hairdressers won’t touch it. Some say it’s a miracle. Some say it’s the mark of the devil. Hairdressers are very ideological and stubborn.”
Seamus hardly touched his food. Theta finished her salad with another tiny bite and dabbed her mouth.
“I know some hairdressers,” she said, “I’m sure they’d be happy to help you. They’re very practical.”
“You really think they would?” Seamus’ heart played jump rope.
“For a price of course.”
“The other hairdressers charged around a hundred for coloring.”
“I’ll let them name their price.”
Theta led Seamus to the far side of town, where no one replaced the burned out or shattered streetlights and graffiti subverted every traffic sign. They got out of the cab at an unmarked intersection.
“We walk from here,” she said.
Somewhere in the night, past the low buildings whose second floors looked as though they’d collapsed into the ground floor and whose ground floors looked half collapsed into basements, Seamus heard the deep bellow of a foghorn. They must be near the docks. When he closed his eyes he heard the icy white peaks of waves crashing against cement pylons.
“Where are we going?” he asked, catching up.
“It’s not far,” she said.
They walked on, their faces pressed into wind that picked up as they approached the water. Seamus offered his jacket and Theta laughed and didn’t say anything. The sidewalk turned to boardwalk and Seamus said: “You know, the boardwalk is actually built on landfill. Garbage has significantly changed the coastline. Francis Drake wouldn’t recognize it if he landed here again.”
Theta smirked, or snarled.
They stopped in front of an old music store. Dusty vinyl’s pressed against the window, bleached white by decades of facing west. The sign above the door said: Songbird’s Cage. And in smaller letters: Music and Café. Orange stickers, one on top of the other, plastered the front door and shouted Cease and Desist and Condemned. One hand written note asked passive aggressively if whoever was squatting in the building could please not play their music so loud, early in the morning. Someone had written ‘Fuck Off!’ in jagged sharpie, like the name of an L.A. punk band. Theta rapped on the door in Morse code and gave a series of coos and tweets that sounded like the most beautiful bird call and was impossible for Seamus to repeat.
“Who goes there?” a voice came from within.
“Whatever,” Theta said.
The door opened, exhaling salt damp and dust.
“C’mon,” Theta said, ducking into the darkness past the door.
There were no lights inside. Seamus reached one hand in front of him and kept the other pressed against the wall to steady himself. It felt like he was walking down a long and circuitous hallway. The wall curved left and right. He closed his eyes to better focus on the sound of Theta’s shoes click-clacking a few steps in front of him.
Seamus opened his eyes as the hallway brightened, opening up into a large room with an arched, painted ceiling. Gold trimmed pillars held up the domed roof, advertising a mural of longhaired nymphs gaily cutting, coloring and perming each other’s hair while others waited on grassy bluffs, reading magazines and chatting.
“Seamus,” Theta said, showing him into the middle of the room where three women stood, waiting. “Let me introduce you to Alpha, Beta and Kappa. They’re the hairdressers I told you about.”
“We’re the Songbirds,” Kappa said.
“Is this the guy?” Asked Beta.
Alpha said nothing, or snarled. She could have been Theta’s sister.
“This is him,” said Theta.
“Theta said you might be able to help me.”
“We might,” said Alpha. “Take a seat.” The line of barber’s chairs went from fore to aft and ran parallel to the far wall, which was a single, unblemished sheet of glass, polished to a perfect reflection. Alpha directed him to sit in the first chair. She draped a smock over him and ran her fingers through the blue curls of his hair in a way that Seamus thought was not completely unlike how a lover might, first thing in the morning after a night of very good sex.
“Yes, this shouldn’t be a problem,” she said. “It’s a shame though. Your hair is such a nice shade of blue. What color would you like?”
“Red. All the men in my family have red hair.”
The water was cold and smelled like the ocean. House of Pain came over the boom box. Seamus blinked away drops of water, like blood from a boxer’s cut. Alpha laid a warm, damp towel over his face.
“Relax,” she said. “Let’s talk about payment.”
“Do you accept credit card? If you tell me where an ATM is I can pay cash.” The warmth of the towel made him drowsy; his voice lingered on the ends of his words.
“No money is required. When advantageous, the Songbirds prefer to deal in the exchange of goods and services. The Songbirds are very practical.”
A knot formed in his stomach. Alpha’s fingers turned up the strands of his hair like tilling soil.
“Here’s the deal,” Alpha said. “We give you hair coloring, gratis, for life. All you have to do is act as a middleman for the Songbirds. Deliver parcels from A to B.”
“What kind of parcels?” The towel on his face grew chill and he shivered. The knot in his stomach tightened.
“Drugs, of course. Cocaine, to be exact.”
Seamus sat straight up in his chair. The towel fell on the ground with a splat. “I can’t do that—” he said, but just then he caught his reflection in the mirror: his hair, every curlicue and cowlick was the perfect simulacrum of his father’s and his father’s father. He felt his Irish lineage as a lump in his throat. “I’ll do it,” he said.
The scam was pretty easy. Especially with his new ginger locks. Every week an accomplice of the Songbirds would get “busted” with the drugs. That parcel would be put into evidence and before it could be destroyed, Seamus made sure it went missing. He delivered all over the city.
No one suspected Seamus, of course. Now that he was free of his blue hair, the world opened before him. He passed the police exam with flying colors; he was the apple of his father’s eye; he even managed to acquire the numbers of three very pretty and very blonde girls, and two of the numbers turned out to be real. Even a ginger can’t bat a thousand.
Every week, even before his roots began showing, Seamus went down to the boardwalk, to the Songbird’s Cage, did his best impression of the password, and let Alpha color his hair. Each visit, he came away smelling a little more like the ocean. Salt and brine, and of those small white crabs that zigzag sideways up the beach and are little more than skeletons. He washed his clothes, he doused himself in perfumes and colognes, but the smell of the ocean stayed with him.
At the dinner table, his father, so proud when Seamus first came home with his red hair like a heavenly corona that he hugged him for the first time Seamus could remember and left the saliva and beer bubbles of a kiss on his cheek, now looked at him sideways and made a show of sniffing the air.
“Rather salty smelling in here,” he said to his peas and potatoes.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Seamus said, bringing his unfinished plate into the kitchen and scraping it off into the trash. “I’m going out!” he called from the other room.
“If you’re going to see that Theta girl, just forget it! You’ve seen her hair! She’s a hooligan!”
Seamus slammed the door behind him as he left. His father’s yelling spilled out into the front yard and chased him down the street.
Theta sat down across from Seamus at the all night diner. Seamus was on his third cup of coffee that was so thick and black that the roots of his hair turned a suffocated blue.
“You don’t look too good,” she said with a sympathetic snarl.
“It’s this damn smell, I can’t get it off me. My father’s suspicious, I can tell.”
Theta shrugged and ordered a coffee.
“What should I do?”
Theta sipped the black sludge and snarled. “Why don’t you just stop coloring your hair?”
“I can’t! I’ll lose everything.”
“Well, why don’t you just color it yourself?”
Seamus pulled out a handful of bills and shoved them under his mug. He didn’t look at Theta as he stomped across the black and white tiles of the diner’s floor.
Seamus sang the password as best he could, a shrill series of coo’s that curdled in his throat.
No one answered.
“Whatever!” he yelled at the door.
The officers standing in the wind behind him clung to their battering ram with white knuckles. Their feet tapped the rotted wood of the boardwalk in the hope of charging the door.
“Where did you get this info, again?” said his father, coming up beside him, the policeman blue lapels of his jacket turned up around his neck.
His father raised his nose and sniffed the air. Seamus tried the doorknob and the door creaked open. They alighted the hallway with the rays of a dozen steel flashlights. Police boots shuffled down the passage. When the hallway opened into the main room, they turned off their lights. It was deserted. Secured by fishing line, hundreds of Vinyl records, melted and glued into the shapes of birds, dangled from the ceiling. They hung like origami cranes. Light passing through the transparent blue and red vinyl threw melted color onto the walls and looked like the wasted mishmash of Theta’s hair.
“There’s no one here,” his father said, sniffing the air. The men holding the battering ram let the front-end fall, cracking the concrete floor and sending a CLANG through the room that rattled and shook the birds at the end of their lines.
At his parent’s house, Seamus smuggled the unmarked paper bag into the bathroom and locked the door. He took the box out of the bag and read it, sitting on the shut toilet seat. For Men, it stated on the box. Make sure your hair is well conditioned, allergy warning, test on a strand before dying everything. Mix, apply, wear gloves. Leave in, wash out. He opened the box and the instructions unfolded like a road map, in English, Chinese, and Dutch. Seamus took a deep breath and pulled on the purple nitrile glove. It snapped to his wrist and puffed a cloud of white smoke.
In the mirror, his blue roots mocked him. He mixed and applied. He held his breath. He cursed as the red coloring dripped down his forehead.
“You okay in there, honey?” His mother shouted.
“God mom, can’t I have a little privacy!” he shouted back.
His hair didn’t turn red; it rejected the color like a donor organ. Seamus sat on the toilet seat, his face red from frustration and running dye, his hair hanging in limp, multicolored strands. He sighed and thought of Theta. He wondered if Theta was her real name; whether she had absconded with the rest of The Songbirds; and if her hair was this same bleeding of colors because she was the same as him.
© 2012 Joaquin Lowe