Ringlets: A Horror Story

Ringlets: A Horror Story

My mother’s habit of showing strangers my penis probably ought to have raised more eyebrows than it did. In her purse, she kept a photo of me as a toddler in one of those knee-high plastic swimming pools you could find in the backyard of every other suburban ranch house back in the seventies. I was naked in that picture.

“Just look at his hair!” she’d exclaim, whipping out the photo.

I’m not sure that’s what people looked at first. She was still telling this story when I was in college. Sometime during my freshman year, after she started showing the picture to my friends, I stole it and threw it away. She sulked for a week. I let her go on thinking she’d lost it.

My adventures in involuntary exhibitionism actually started much earlier. Beaming like a model from the days of radium toothpaste, Mom would say, “When you were a baby, strangers would come up to me in the grocery store and say ‘What a beautiful little girl!’ It was your hair. All those blond curls. They’d say you were too pretty to be a boy. So you know what I’d do? I’d pull down your diaper and show them your little dingaling!” If you looked closely enough, you could almost see the spirals in her eyes.

Old ladies would exclaim, “I just love his Shirley Temple curls!” in supermarkets and other public places before grabbing a handful of my irresistible golden corkscrews as my mother looked on, ecstatic. It’s hard to pull away from squealing crones when you’re like four and they’ve got you by the hair. I might have been slapped a few times for trying. Don’t be rude, I was told. It’s a compliment.

“Where did you get that hair?” the ladies would ask, still clutching.

Someone taught me to reply, “From Granny’s wig.” Shrieking with laughter, my assailants would sometimes let go of me and sometimes not. They usually didn’t pull too much hair out.

At the barber shop, my father would say, “Take a little off the sides” after seating himself in the chair. The barber would then snip and trim and my father would get up afterward looking tidier above the ears but more or less the same. When it was my turn, I’d say, “Take a little off the sides” too, to the amusement of all. I didn’t know how to say, “I don’t like having big hair” and “Kids at school make racist afro jokes” and “Can’t you straighten it?” but I wanted to.

My classmates would ask where I got my hair permed. So would their parents, and strangers. The thing is, white people in eastern North Carolina in the seventies all looked more or less alike. I stood out. People assumed I must have wanted a big mop of hair like that—it couldn’t be natural. I must have begged my parents to take me to a salon. I must love the attention. At that age I wasn’t even sure what permanents were, other than something ladies did at the beauty shop. They’d sit in chairs with those buzzing metal beehive contraptions over their heads and read magazines, and voila, curls. No, whatever a permanent was, I wanted the opposite.

My parents’ undiscussed battle royale over my hair went on for years because my mother craved attention. She felt stymied in other areas of her life, and my exotic gender-bending prettiness gave her something people could envy. To that end, my nimbus of curls sometimes reached stratocumulus volume and height. There seemed to be an embargo on cutting it, too, which compounded a problem: my father wanted me to look male. So did I, not that anyone asked.

Having a mad tangle of blond girlycurls when you’re a boy and those first telltale gay characteristics are starting to show makes things difficult fast. The bullying was fierce and relentless. When I got older, there were actual attempts on my life, but it was the South and this was not unexpected. In the early eighties when everyone had big feathered hair, it took me a year or two to realize I couldn’t look like everyone else, no matter how much I wanted to fit in. To compensate, I focused on what I could fix. I practiced walking and not swinging my ass. I became my own speech therapist and talked into a tape recorder to suppress as much lilting gay Southernness as I could. I had the barber cut my hair short enough to make it look straight. The curls were still there, though, always lurking.

My teenage rebellion took the form of eighties New Wave synthpop hair, buzzed almost to the scalp on the sides and around back, and topped with a generous dollop of peroxided ringlets. I wore dangly earrings. Purple paisley shirts and green socks. Newly embrazened by MTV’s color violence, I craved agency over my extremes. The members of most English bands I liked—Depeche Mode, the Thompson Twins, A Flock of Seagulls, and so on—rocked whorled immensities of hair in pictures and videos. If Martin Gore could get away with it, then I was determined to, regardless of who I pissed off. Seeing me like that, older men in my life—my father, my mother’s boss, a couple of my teachers—would sometimes hide their contempt and sometimes not. Rebelling feels great until you get bored with the consequences.

Tired equally of enduring adult male disdain and maintaining the public playground attached to my scalp, I started having it cut short again. When the husband of a colleague at my college job opened a barbershop, she suggested I visit. A light bulb came on. Of course a Black barber would know what to do with tightly curled hair, would know which guard to use on the clippers, and wouldn’t squeal and fawn and suggest I think twice about cutting all that gorgeousness off. Being a white Southerner, I had a certain inbred cultural propensity to overlook the obvious if race was involved. I went to that barbershop once a month until graduation.

Unlike many new graduates that year, I found a job right away. Instead of looking for a new barbershop in my new city, I bought a cheap hair clipper. It cost the same as four buzz cuts. On the kind of salary that covers three weeks of modest eating and a fourth of anxiety, canned tuna, and instant noodles, I had to economize. I didn’t mind the expense, though—not where my hair was concerned. The 2-guard buzz got me mistaken for military now and then instead of run off empty country roads if I was on my bike and the local rednecks needed entertainment. A little bit sometimes does go a long way.

Being a lifelong fan of not dying, I gave North Carolina a couple more years before departing for the safer urban north. Although DC is more conservative than other major cities, it is diverse enough to offer different models of masculinity and maleness. I had at times wondered if I might be trans. These thoughts went on for years, persisting not because I felt like a woman but  I felt I’d failed at being male. I lacked a certain swagger and ease; I had emotions and hated sports; I felt uncomfortable taking up space. There was the hair. But even if I’d spent my formative years having my dick shown to strangers as proof I was male, I’d never once looked down in the shower and thought, that’s not who I am.

It therefore made no sense at all to decide to grow my hair long, or to even consider it.

It therefore became essential to try.

After you accept that no one can uphold competing, contradictory gender mandates, you can do whatever you goddamn want. I was in my mid-twenties now and could shave my head again if I got tired of the attention. I’d always wondered what it would be like to have long hair. Did I want to be on my deathbed someday with one extra regret? I did not.

I spent the first year of this experiment shellacking an increasingly unruly fucktangle of curls as close to my skull as I could get them to go. Brave soldiers all, they wouldn’t stay down. By the end of the day, my gel-coated corkscrew bangs, freed of their moorings, would be poking me in the eyes; similarly disordered tufts would flop clownlike over my ears and tickle my neck. For those last several months until my hair became long enough to tie back, I looked like I needed a trip to a dog groomer, not a barber. I almost gave up several times. I wanted to cut the whole mess off. Atavistically certain the result might be worth it, I endured.

Long, my hair felt like an asset, something I had a say in. The Venezuelan I was dating liked the corkscrews and inexplicably the rest of me, and took me to Caracas por conocer la familia. My first time on the metro, a woman raced up to me and asked me to translate a letter she’d gotten from a US university. Her son was enrolled there. She was worried something had happened to him. When she thrust the letter into my hands, my friend intervened. I was haltingly conversational in Spanish, not fluent enough to tell her what the letter said while every other passenger in the carriage stared. After that incident, we drove more. It wasn’t the hair and yet somehow it was. I stood out. The morning we left for the airport, my friend’s abuelita gave me a hug, gently grasped a lock of my hair, and said, “Me amo a tu pelo.” I had a supermarket flashback. She was kind, though. She didn’t yank out a keepsake.

My ringlet era ended with hair cascading halfway down my back in the shower. As it dried, the curls would tighten. Dry, it was shoulder-length. I’d switched from a brush to a pick because I was pulling too much of it out. My mother had always insisted I wouldn’t go bald. The men in her family had full heads of hair in old age. So would I. But like the economy toward the end of the late-nineties dotcom boom, my hairline was showing signs of recession. The gilded excesses could not be sustained. A few weeks before I moved to California, I cut it all off.

What prompted it? A sneer from an enlisted guy at one of the bases where I’d been sent for a work assignment? I could handle that. Being taken for a very tall woman at Home Depot one afternoon? That was funny, not catastrophic. No, the reason was rather mundane: I’m terrible at mornings, utterly useless. If I could shave five or ten minutes off my getting-ready routine, I’d still be late for everything but maybe not as much.

I sat on the floor to do it. Kitchen shears first, then the new clipper I’d bought for the occasion. I cut a big wodge out of my bangs so there’d be no turning back. The feel of the blades biting through the hair made me thrum with a subtle electric glee. It took half an hour to chop enough off for the clipper to work. I could have done it faster but didn’t want to slip and gouge out an eye.

The ladies at work were appalled the next day. There were gasps and a couple of “How could you?”s. A clucking of tongues, a shaking of heads. One took greater umbrage and demanded to know why I hadn’t donated the hair to a cancer charity.

“You can do that?” I asked.

“They make wigs with it for chemo patients,” she said, livid. “Hair like that… you don’t still have it, do you?”

I’d thrown it away and taken the trash out, good riddance. However worthwhile the cause, I wasn’t going to go dumpster-diving to retrieve it. I felt as if I’d been accused of stealing pain meds from a dying person’s bedside table. My colleague glared at me for the rest of the day.

I finally stopped buzzing my hair a decade later. My then-partner and I spent Christmas in Seoul that year. I forgot to put the clipper in my suitcase. Our second morning there, I had a “fuck it” moment in the shower, shaved my head, and decided I liked the dome look. As a kid I was promised I’d never go bald, but my hair has receded enough to look like a convertible top stuck halfway up. If I don’t shave it, that is. As an adult I now know I’m autistic. Grabby, invasive attention breaks every glass figurine in my head. I refuse to grow the corkscrews out again. People don’t need to see them. It’s not a loss. Baldness suits me. I’m the anti-Medusa. Best of all, no one pulls my pants down in the grocery store these days.


About the Author

Marshall Moore is an American author, publisher, and academic based in Cornwall, England. He is the author of a number of books, the most recent of which is a short-story collection titled Love Is a Poisonous Color (Rebel Satori Press, 2023). His short fiction and essays have been published in The Southern Review, Eclectica, Pithead Chapel, Trampset, Asia Literary Review, and many other magazines and journals. He holds a PhD in creative writing from Aberystwyth University, and he teaches at Falmouth University. For more information or to stalk him online, please visit linktr.ee/marshallsmoore.


Photo by Ron Lach : https://www.pexels.com/photo/teenager-resting-in-green-boat-floating-on-calm-waters-10418943/