Marianne with Fred Chappell puppet. Photo by Deborah Seabrooke.

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Pandemic Hair

WEEK FIVE: The longer I am on hiatus from my normal life, the more disheveled I look. I wear the same old clothes, day after day. Easier just to peel out of them, a human banana stripping its skin, and drop them in a pile. There they are, in the morning, all picked out and ready for me to slouch back into. On the days I’m not teaching on Zoom, I’m in my bathrobe until after lunch when I finally take stock of the slob I am bent on becoming and shower, dress, finally brush my teeth, and comb my hair. Oh, the ghastly hair.

The hair was bad to begin with. I inherited my mother’s corn silk hair, as flimsy and weightless as cobwebs. Its natural color? Foggy see-through invisible no-color, though I am philosophically blond. I was bald as a baby, bright blonde as a child, caramel blonde as a younger adult, streaky blonde as an elder. Twice a year, I’ve been in the habit of driving down to Wilmington, North Carolina, from my home in the piedmont (a three and a half hour trip) to visit Mike’s salon where he “yellowed” my mist up a bit. “Make it a little more yellow,” I’d say, and Mike would do his damnedest, color-weaving sunlight into its drear. Mike understood my hair. Lifting a wispy handful, he discussed his ambitions for it as respectfully as if I were Lady Godiva, not an oldster whose mop might whoosh from her scalp like dandelion fluff with the first blast of his blow dryer. Mike and his wife had started the hair salon together. I had a brother living in Wilmington at the time who was a patron and turned me on to Mike. I don’t know why I ended up seeing Mike and not Heather (the wife). But I liked Mike. He was scrappy and resourceful and had emerged triumphant from a number of challenges. He and Heather had two little boys before the marriage went south. But both of them were resilient types, and they’d stayed business partners. In spite of the divorce, the salon had prospered.

WEEK EIGHT: Another day in the limbo world of a coronavirus homebody. Time is as stretchy as Laffy Taffy. Only there’s not much laffy. I can spend all morning deciding glumly what to do next: get dressed or not, pull more weeds in my yard or not, vacuum up the dunes of cat hair that have accumulated over the weeks, comb my hair, finally start to read Proust or go back to Woody Allen’s gabby, gossipy autobiography (no doubt some readers will want to burn me at the stake for reading it). So many choices and so much time! Yesterday I made a spoofy movie about solving a fake murder mystery in my own backyard. I made another movie about a runaway carrot that I had started to peel. And another, using vegetables mostly, about the president’s Tulsa rally during COVID! Two potatoes with dark glasses are Secret Service agents and escort an eggplant with a protest sign out of the gathering. I must be going crazy.

Each and every morning, gazing into the horror mirror, there I am: older, duller, crowned with my pandemic hair. It needs to be cut; it needs to have the gray “yellowed” out; it needs major conditioning. My whole stressed-out face needs conditioning. My heart. My soul. Where is Mike when I need him? How is Mike? What’s happened to the salon? Does Wilmington even exist anymore?

It’s one of those days when I can tell I’m going to feel sorry for myself in a way that will start a contagion of sorry. There’s me. But there’s Mike. There’s my friend, the writer and cosmic conversationalist, Daphne Athas, in a nursing home where sixty cases of COVID have been reported. There’s Sherra, my favorite grocery store cashier who’s on the front lines of this crisis and has an immuno-compromised husband at home. There’s my brother who has diabetes and emphysema and says he’s toast if he gets this thing. And on top of everything, now there’s the chipmunk.

My cat brought him in yesterday morning. I was just getting up when I heard a thump in the living room and then a tussle of animal life. The chipmunk got away, skittered under the sofa, and then, because the cat squeezed under the sofa, too, the chipmunk origamied himself beneath the fins of the radiator. I fetched a flashlight and could see him, a half-inch from being boiled alive by the heat—which was on. I turned down the thermostat. For a couple of hours, the cat and I double-teamed the critter, trying to rout him out, but he seemed to have gone into a meditative paralysis and wouldn’t be budged. He was still there in the evening, his beady little eye blinking. I slid a few almonds and blueberries and a cherry under the radiator and filled a jar lid with water.

This morning, I get down on my stomach with the flashlight and scan under the radiator. There’s the food I left out for him, untouched as far as I can tell. I crawl around for a while looking under all the furniture and all the other downstairs radiators. Nada. Where could he be? I can’t stand to think of a wild creature trapped in my house with ISIS the cat slinking about. It makes me annoyed with the cat who’s just doing his pest control job. Poor little hapless chipmunk. Chip and Dale!

A couple of days into his disappearance and noting the cat’s disinterest, I’m hopeful that against all odds the little Houdini escaped. He could have slithered out the cat door that leads into the basement. Better yet, he could have escaped out the chimney. Chipmunks are ground squirrels. As burrowers they have more in common with prairie dogs than climbers like squirrels. But they can climb for short spurts. And as I examine the fireplace, I discover that I left the damper open and there’s a pull chain that runs a few feet up the chimney. If there are chinks in the mortar of the chimney—and why wouldn’t there be in a house built in 1917?—the chippy might have gotten a good toehold or two and belayed upward toward daylight.

Nope, I’m wrong. Sometime during the chipmunk’s second night of captivity, the cat snags him. He doesn’t maul him. When I find his little body on the living room rug, he looks resolutely succumbed, as if Dr. Kevorkian had paid a house call while I slept.

WEEK TEN: I text Mike. In my phone contacts he’s listed as “Mike Hair.” I’ve never known his last name. It’s not that I’m writing to ask him for an appointment. Salons are still closed in North Carolina. Texting him lets me briefly imagine things are back to normal. It’s May and May’s the beautiful month in my neck of the woods and the beautification month for me. Dogwoods, azaleas, red buds, and floxx have closed their flamboyant shows for the season and we are on to roses. It’s time to plant zinnias  and impatiens and get my hair reinvigorated and colored. Hi Mike, This is Marianne, Mark’s sister, writing you from Greensboro. Just wanted to know how you are. I know you had to shut the salon and Mark and I were wondering how you were holding up. Here, we’re still alive and kicking. Stay safe, Marianne Gingher

It feels like I’ve put a message in a bottle and cast it into the sea.

I invite my brother to have supper on the front porch, our little bistro tables six feet apart. I make a comfort food supper: roasted chicken with onions, fresh carrots, small potatoes baked all around the chicken. I make gravy, fresh farmer’s market collard greens, strawberry shortcake with strawberries from the farmer’s market as well. I whip cream, light candles, pour wine. It almost feels as if nothing’s wrong with the world, sitting on that breezy porch lit with fairy lights. At least there’s the beauty of the natural world. At least the weather is finally warm. The virus cannot snuff out our spirits entirely as long as the weather behaves. We glimpse the first firefly of summer afloat in the twilight. As long as we have wonderful, balmy evenings like this, we’ll be ok, we say. As long as nature doesn’t go haywire on us, too. Hurricane season begins shortly and then all bets are off. But something’s already wrong. There’s a spindly bush beside the porch, so close I could prune it sitting down. Two mockingbirds, a male and a female, are busy building a nest there. They are trilling with happiness.

“Oh no,” I say.

“Now what?” says my brother.

“They’re trying to make a nest.”

“Leave them alone. They know what they’re doing.”

“They haven’t seen ISIS yet.”

“I’ll bet they’ve seen him and made the proper calculations.”

“Then they need to go back to bird school. They’ve messed up.” The two birds pause in their twig gathering to perch and warble. They’re singing to us. They’re singing, devil-may-care, in our faces.

 “You can’t interfere. They’ll figure it out.”

The cat makes his slithering appearance as if summoned. He sits and watches them, socially distanced by six feet, licking his paws nonchalantly. The birds just keep whistling and building away.

What’s wrong with them? The whole planet’s gone nuts.

WEEK WHATEVER: Another chipmunk’s gotten inside. What the hell? Long-legged mud dauber-type wasps keep floating down the chimney and dangling overhead in my kitchen. I’ve checked the damper, and it’s closed, but somehow they keep getting in. A neighbor phones and says he saw a raccoon on my roof this morning and since they are nocturnal creatures, she suggests it might be rabid. A red hawk has taken up residence in the neighborhood—I’m only three blocks from downtown. Someone reports having seen a coyote sculking up my driveway, but it turns out to have been a gray fox. I’m trying not to remember that chipmunks, no matter how adorable, are rodents. This new one takes up cozy residence in the insulation of my kitchen stove. The cat grins at me like Alfred E. Newman. “What? Me worry?”

Who cares about my stupid hair anymore? Who’s bothering to check on whether or not I even have hair? Do I need hair? No, I do not. I don’t go anywhere that requires hair. We’re all camouflaged behind masks, often unrecognizable. Who cares if my hair’s no longer sporting streaks of phony blonde? I’m over the pretense. After more than seven decades, I am finally turning in my blonde badge and owning the truth of my pitiful hair the non-color of sauterne—not the pearly, luminous gray or ivory piano key color I often admire on elder heads. My gray is the wan gray of sad old teeth, mouse fur, gopher guts.

Accepting my pandemic hair is only the beginning of a new life for me. Soon the pandemic will not be over. And even though we have a new president and vaccines are on the horizon, the Delta variant will curtail our celebrations. There will be more campus closings, teaching on Zoom, and, after nearly forty years of having the best job in the world, I will decide to retire. It all starts with the hair though, a reckoning with where I go from here. First, I need to try to trap that chipmunk.


Mike Hair finally texts me back. It’s late summer 2020. All bets are off about a trip to the beach for me. For elders like myself, the beach is off-limits and attracting only the reckless who feel impervious to the virus. My heart lightens when I see Mike’s name appear on my phone screen. Do I even have any hair left for him to mess with? But he’s alive! And maybe the salon still is. Am I about to go off the wagon again? This is what he writes:

I’m selling the salon. I’m pretty pumped for the push to get things done, and I’ve picked another source of income: investments/day trading. I have a mentor who is showing me the ropes so I can make money wherever I go. Let me know if y’all ever come down as I’m happy to do both y’all’s hair in my house.

Do I accept his invitation? I confess to feeling a flicker of thrill that the possibility of blonding up again exists. But deep down I know that flicker of thrill is about a hope that’s as phony as hair dye. Mike’s text has me imagining that the world is returning to what it was before the pandemic. I don’t think it is. There is no going back, just adaptation and accommodation. Nope, Mike. I’ll leave you to your gold. I’ve moved on, too.