He said, “I used to have really long arm hair. Really. I could comb it.”
“I don’t know. I mean, I know. When I hit puberty, it started falling out. It fell out and the regular hair grew in. I mean I don’t know why.”
“That’s a bit –”
“Weird. Yeah. I was just so relieved at the time though. I felt like a freak.”
“Did kids tease you?”
“Well, your arms look pretty good now.”
“Do they?” He paused. “Thanks.”
That’s the last conversation I remember having with Ted. I’ve told it so often, I’m sick of his words in my mouth. They kept asking, as if they hadn’t heard it over and over. Four times I’ve gone with them, into the little room with the ficus tree, and the fluorescent light that makes my eyes feel swollen with blood. They wanted to know what that bit with the arm hair was all about; I told them it was just about arm hair, that it was just Ted, but that wasn’t what they wanted to hear.
Now sometimes I wonder if it was a code. What does arm hair mean, other than arm hair? What does anyone mean? Ted just had a way of talking. When I served him a pint of Coors Light, he’d launch into stories about people I didn’t know. “That woman,” he would say. “Now she had some fingers. They could go up my nose and out this ear.” Sometimes his mouth went soft, got that spread-out look that comes when you’re about to throw up, but instead he would just say something like “How’s the wings today,” or, “Hang in there.”
I liked to listen to him after I’d moved up north. The Toronto accent sounded cold to me, a goose’s honk turned way down low on the stereo. He would sit in the bar and come out with these superstitions I’d never heard of. He told me not to put my purse down on the floor. He said it was back luck, it meant I’d lose my money. He told me that if we walked on opposite sides of a lamp post, we had to walk back around and say “bread and butter.” He talked earnestly about wanting to travel to South America. The first time he stayed until the end of my shift and offered to walk me home I assumed he was propositioning me. He wasn’t a handsome man – not ugly, but with a kind of nothing face, hair and eyes and skin that all blended together. I would have to describe him later, and was shocked by how hard it was. The only thing I could remember was the back of his head: The hair was longish and unkempt at the neck, like it was a part of himself he had forgotten about.
At that time, though, he looked good to me. I grabbed onto Ted’s arm the way a drunk clutches the bar while lurching to his feet. But we just made tea at his place and talked for a while. Ted microwaved it instead of boiling, running across the kitchen after hitting the START button. He said the microwave could fry his bits so he couldn’t have children. “You’ll want to point your uterus towards the wall,” he said. “Because you never know about the future.”
I said, “Then why not just use a kettle?” and he looked at me so sad, like I was entirely missing the point.
He told me about the girl he loved in high school, how she tied her hair up on one side and had an unusually large head. She used to sit in the field behind the school and play her guitar like Joni Mitchell.
“She moved to Los Angeles, California, right after school,” he said. “She said she loved me but that she had to go. She didn’t have to say it though; one look at her and you knew she was never coming back anymore. She never got famous but I bet she’s happy in California.” It made me soft towards him, the faith he had in that big-headed girl.
“You’re nice,” I said. Ted nodded in his slow nobody way and I realized we weren’t going to bed.
“South America,” I said, again and again, and they said, “We could send you home, you know. It’s in your interest to help us out. Don’t you want to stay here?” And I said I really couldn’t give a rat’s ass.
Once there was only one of them there, a woman, and she said, not unkindly, “I’m going to ask you one more time. Do you have any idea of the current whereabouts or future plans of the man known to you as Ted Thomas?”
“I believe you,” she said. She took out a package of mints, the kind in a little roll. “I should offer you one,” she said, but she didn’t. She stored the mints away and put her purse on the linoleum tile.
I said, “You shouldn’t put your purse on the floor. You’ll lose your money.”
I shook my head. “It’s just a superstition.”
“Where did you hear that? I’ve never heard that.”
I didn’t say anything. After a moment she left and two men came into the room. They asked the same questions again and again. Arm hair. Purse on the floor. Microwaved tea.
That was the last time I heard from them. For a while I was afraid. I shouldn’t have said rat’s ass. I should have been more helpful. I could have said California. But I didn’t.
Grace O’Connell is the author of the novel Magnified World.