Long Hair Matters
by Arlo Hennings(excerpt from the book Guitarlo)
Once I’d regained my strength, I returned to the road. But before making it to the end of the parking lot, I started sweating. My underwear felt heavy and damp again, sticking to my legs like soggy swimsuit trunks. With the hot summer winds swirling around my body, each step was heavy and laborious, like walking through chest-deep water in a river current that pulled and pushed me at the same time. I heaved my suitcase up over my right shoulder onto my back, gripped the guitar in my left hand, and kept trudging on toward my goal... New York.
I climbed a long, long hill into another kind of country. The fences had old boots on the posts. No bushes or trees, just a vast blue-green ocean of grass and corn, maybe seven feet tall. After an hour of walking, I reached a bullet-holed sign with worn dented letters on it forming the words, Buffalo Grass. I just could not drag my suitcase another inch and decided to take a breather, while doubling my suitcase for a chair. I’m sure glad I ordered ice water to go from the diner I passed, I thought, as I sipped the cool liquid through the straw poking out the top of plastic covered waxed paper cup.
The two streets of the town were broad, much broader than they needed to be, I pondered, watching tumbleweeds roll through empty lots between the buildings. I heard a continuous squeaking sound, which I followed with my eyes to its source where I found a sheet-metal grocery store billboard and the single-pump gas station sign, rusted and weather-torn each blowing gently back and forth in unison joined in song upon the evening breeze.
A derelict tractor sat in front of me. The wheels were missing, the motor picked clean by metal-eating buzzards. Between its broken headlights was a symbol of a golden bull with man-like legs. I sat on the tractor’s skeleton and fumbled with a series of levers. A humid, static-charged wind toyed with my hair. A thick pallor of dust hung in the air, wrapping the remains of daylight in smoky amber hues that moved through the street like curtains of silk. My vision blurred, while twilight was upon me, and the distant sunset over the hills on the horizon beyond the empty country road.
I did not hear any people moving about — just the sound of some random bird tweets, and the constant squeak, squeak, squeak of the rusted signs moving on the breeze, which also made rustling sounds come from a few trees that surrounded the buildings. I looked to my right past dark mounds of farming refuse, piled up in the backfield of what looked like the remnants of an old grain elevator, long since retired. The last hour of daylight coming to a close was starting to be swallowed up by thickening clouds that were suddenly looming overhead. When a lightning bolt struck the ground, the air-popped like a broken bulb. A horse whinnied, and then bolted across a field toward a barn. Birds, the last to act, jumped from telephone wires and disappeared in the tall corn.
The clouds boiled in black smoke.
“Just a little rain,” I prayed.
I saw a car coming. The shipwreck trick — hurry. I made a barricade out of the suitcase. When the car got close enough I jumped up and down behind the suitcase. A pink colored car with whitewall tires slowed until its o-shaped headlights stopped at my suitcase. I approached the passenger’s side and waved at the black glass. The window came down, and the smell of beer came out.
“Hi, where are you going?” said a young, pretty, blonde girl all flirty-like. Then the girl quickly rolled up the window and returned to the car’s dark interior. I stood there expecting a door to open. A wiper flipped intermittently, taking a moth with its swipe. The engine idled. Nothing happened.
I grabbed my suitcase, knocked at the car window. “Can I get in the back?” I inquired while pushing on the door handle.
The back window came down again. “Do you believe in God?” a voice heavily soaked with liquor asked.
I tried to peer inside.
“I asked you a question, boy,” the voice came at me again, as the dome light ignited, and a middle-aged man wearing a brown cowboy hat stuck his large square chin out.
“Do you believe in God?” he repeated, with a big fat dirty grin.
In the back seat, two other men could barely keep their cowboy hats from falling off. It was extremely funny.
“Yes, sir, I believe in God,” I answered, thinking yes was the correct answer.
One of the other men from the back seat leaned forward, straightening the large silver cabochon clip on his necktie while rubbing his face covered in stubble. “Look at that long hair... oh my, aren’t we pretty,” he said, and looking over to the man who spoke first, he added, “I think what we have here, Roy...is a faggot.” The man called Roy displayed a row of snuff-stained teeth and sprayed a brown stream of spit across my sneakers. “Is that right?” he asked, looking at me, “You like to suck cock, boy?”
The question made the girl giggle.
“I’m a hitchhiker, just passing through guys,” I told them, “on my way to upstate New York.”
“So you’re some kind of little hippie wannabe or something,” stubble-face chortled, “a sex drugs and rock n’ roll addict... eh?”
“What’s wrong with that?” I retorted innocently.
“I’ll bet you five bucks,” said a dirty whisker-faced man, as he switched places at the window with the man they called Roy. He made extra fine use of his left eye- sort of pirate-like, while he slammed his eyelid open and shut as if I was a dumb animal under his hypnosis.
“Five bucks and raise you ten,” said one of the other men, as he sized me up. “Looky here,” the man at the rear window hollered at me, removing his cowboy hat to display a bald head, “This is what a white man should look like.” All the men suddenly put their heads together in a huddle. Roy’s eyes widened with all the enthusiasm of a good lynching. The other men stopped laughing. “I have a friend I’d like you to meet,” Roy roared, “His name is knuckles,” and the car erupted into more laughter.
“The trail runs dead,” he said returning to the window, “If you’re still here when we turn around, we’re going take the sheep shears across your head.” A beer can flew out of the car window and hit me in the chest. Then he hung his bare ass out the window and mooned me. “Bye,” giggled the blonde, waving like a parade queen. The old car shook like a sputtering chainsaw, as they took off, heading east- yes, in the direction I was traveling.
I watched as their taillights disappeared over the horizon. “They’re not coming back... right?” I asked the field of corn, “Cut my hair?” I continued, trying to reassure myself, “They’re just trying to frighten me.” Touching my hair, I imagined myself with a head like a bowling ball. I decided to throw my suitcase and guitar in the ditch and hide somewhere in the cornfield. The muscles in my jaw pulled at something hard.
I stopped at three sets of wires above the ground. I touched them first- sure enough, they were hot- there was no holding it in, “E-e-e-i-i-i!” I yelped and fell back on my ass — an electric fence. The only way into the field was by climbing under the hot wires. I got on my back, inhaled, and wiggled slowly as if I was crawling under a limbo pole, and the lowest wire only gave me maybe about eighteen inches clearance. As a place marker, I dug my right foot into the dirt. It all looked the same. I yanked a fist full of grass out of the ground. It would mark the spot to find my belongings. The corn was at least eight feet high not seven as I had estimated from the road. Stumbling through the grass along the ditch bordering the crops on one side and the road on the other, I followed the field side of the fence line.
Visuals of the dark road opened up, in-between bursts of lightning, and I saw the four men fan out across the field like hunters do when flushing pheasant from the brush. The sight drove my face into the ground. I began to pray fervently, with thoughts so loud I feared they’d hear me, “They can’t get across. They’re too big to crawl under. I have a chance — I have a chance.”
My prayer ended abruptly when scattergun lightning illuminated the field. Each lightning bolt was like a searchlight. I crawled deeper into the field to hide. I imagined my voice reached out in out-of-breath gasps to the other side of the field. It was faint but recognizable, and it was me.
“Give yourself up, coward,” shouted the men, “On the count of three.”
They’d caught me, and suddenly, a pair of boots was kicking at the corn near my head. I almost kissed the leather. The man kicked angrily at the corn all around me, and I made love to the sweet dirt again and again and again- while he kept kicking at the corn. Reality jerked in stop-go lightning-made strobe action.
I remembered a story from a friend of mine who was assaulted by a group of drunken cowboys in a cornfield outside a small town in rural Nebraska. The cowboys marched him around a cattle auctioning ring with a pitchfork to his back. The game was the highest bidder won the prize to shave his hair with sheep shears. He was dumped the next day at a gas station with a bald and bleeding head.
The yelling intensified, and I imagined the worst. Moments later, four-car doors slammed. A car engine started. And then they were gone.
The storm ended and the last remaining sliver of daylight lit the puddles on the road. There was no Universal Man to look into a pothole filled with oil-colored water and sunlight. The answer lay somewhere in the sea of corn. The corn just bowed against the wind in reverence to the storm. I found my suitcase and guitar where I left them and resumed the journey.
The ordeal left me thoroughly drenched and caked in mud. The angry clouds eventually moved on, and the endless night sky became so brightly lit with stars that the road faintly glowed before me. Thoughts of my dry bed back in my parent’s basement with Darcy wrapped around me helped to comfort, but it also made me question if I was doing the right thing? I kept walking mile after mile, my shoes squishing out more water with each step. It was a damp but not a cold evening. There was no place to stop. No place to lie down. The stars, the breeze off the corn, my unknown status followed me, pushing with energy, driving onward into the depth of the night’s cricket song. Keep moving was the only logical thing I could think of. Besides, after all the adrenalin I just worked up during the last crazy leg of my journey, there’s no way I could’ve slept that night. I looked up into the night sky unobstructed by artificial lights, just in time to get a glimpse of a shooting star that landed somewhere over the horizon in the direction of Woodstock. I felt I was headed in the right direction.
The sunrise finally arrived and woke up in the countryside. As brave Helios rode across the land pouring the magic of light of dawn into all living things, a happy feeling came over me. It occurred to me that I was lucky to be alive. I survived.
“Goodbye, Mr. Moon — see you soon.”
I skipped a rock down the road. Imaginary flutes and violins played in tempo with the dripping morning dew. I pulled off a ripe ear of corn and ate it raw.
Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.
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