Another installment of my writing on my author friend Luis Alberto Urrea’s prompt “What Your Hands Remember.”
The Crunchy Feel of a Fresh “Taper” Haircut
My dad was retired Navy by the time I was born. So not only could we shop on-base at the Exchange and the Commissary, but I also had the questionable privilege of getting really cheap haircuts on base. Wow. A Navy haircut without having to enlist.
We went to the barber shop at Balboa Naval Hospital, where I had been born. My regular barber was named Tatu. Well, I’m not sure how to spell it, but that’s how it sounded. As a kid, I never stopped to think what kind of name that was.
And of course, in the early- and mid-1960s, short hair was still the norm. The Beatle’s “long” hair was still scandalous, even in California. I wouldn’t be allowed to grow my hair long until years later, when my dad realized that it annoyed his mother-in-law. So a proper haircut in my childhood was short. Very short and “tapered” in the back, and slathered with Brilliantine, which my hands are still trying to forget.
My hands remember being trapped under the barber’s cape. They hated that. But once they were free, they enjoyed the crispy-crunchy sharp feel of the short hairs at the nape of my neck. Shampooing that night and all the next day, I’d run my fingers up my neck, going against the grain, feeling the delicious roughness of the bristly short hairs.
Pocket Knife Wound Outside a Piano Lesson
Pain and piano, together in my mind this time. My hands didn’t want me to tell this story. They remember, but it was their fault. Actually, they claim my foolish boy’s mind was to blame; my hands say that they were only doing my bidding. I’ll let you decide who’s at fault, but either way, my hands certainly do remember.
My mom drove me to my weekly piano lesson. We were early and she went on in to sit in the parents’ waiting area and read the magazines. To this day, I’m not sure why I stayed in the car. Not even my hands remember that, but here’s what happened. Little boys do foolish things. For example, that day, I had taped my left index finger up with first aid tape. (“Hush!” my hands are already saying, trying to stop my narrative to shift the blame. “See? It was his fault…”)
Anyway, there was no wound, just a bandage, for some inexplicable little boy’s reason, covering my entire finger. So I had to remove this bandage before going in to my lesson so I could bend my finger and play scales. To do this, I had my pocket knife, whetted to razor sharpness by my dad. (Shh, you guys! No, it’s not my dad’s fault, either!) I was even doing it right, if there is such a thing as correctly cutting an unneeded bandage off a finger at a piano lesson. I was cutting away from myself.
In my head, I could hear my dad’s voice repeating that mantra: “Cut away from yourself.” He had taught me about knives before giving one to me, one that he had sharpened himself. But it still happened, as my hands remember so well. Even while cutting away from myself, when the knife suddenly cut through the tape, somehow it suddenly embedded itself to the hilt in my left palm, right at the base of my thumb.
My hands remember the pain and the spurting blood, and the loud grown-up voices when I stepped into my teacher’s front door to yell at my mom, telling her what I’d done. My hands remember. And they can never forget, since half of the pad of my left thumb is numb to this day.
So, whose fault do you think it was?
Picking Up a Hot Elbow for the Plumber
My hands remember the sudden searing pain of a serious burn. I was watching the plumber install a new water heater in the area we called the “service porch.” Billy, the precocious, friendly little guy asking a million questions. The plumber, whether friendly or just patient (I don’t know), answering each inquiry as he used his little gas torch to braze pipe fittings together.
Plink! One small brass elbow fell to the linoleum floor. In slo-mo, I enthusiastically bent over to pick it up and help my new friend even as he stared wide-eyed the word “DON’T!!” forming on his lips. I heard his warning at the same instant in which my fingers screamed back at my brain, “It’s HOT! Drop it!!” I dropped it immediately. Or rather, I tried to drop it, shaking my hand frantically as the metal stuck to the melted flesh of my fingertips. Pain, surprise, panic, and embarrassment short-circuiting my brain.
Yes, I was embarrassed, feeling silly for making such a mistake. I was trying to help! Now I was just a dumb kid. Funny, my hands remember the pain. But I don’t remember what the adults said or did. I don’t even remember when my mom learned of my injury. I know for sure she didn’t bandage it right away. She never had the chance. Billy, the embarrassed, injured little dog ran outside into the front yard and crawled under the bushes to hide. In the planter with the sow bugs, but I wasn’t there to play this time. I think I stayed there a couple hours, but I don’t remember. My hands don’t remember either. They just remember the pain.