Starting in fourth grade I had a condition where my hair fell out in these clumps, the exposed portions of my scalp resembling the skin of a reptile, if you sliced it up with a razor, the abrasions going so far as to feature the olive-brown coloring of the spadefoot.
At first I thought this wasn’t automatically the end of my personal world because the clumps and circles of friable flesh first became apparent in the summer while we stayed with my grandparents at their cottage on a salt marsh far from kids my age. The stillness of the place—the moisture that was in the air—was an effective dampener of panic. They were booning it, my grandmother said. Out in the wilds. The briny boonies. You didn’t even see other houses. Only trees, reeds, saltwater river beds, a sky that looked even flatter than the surrounding low-level water which seemed to exude a desire to become concave and bend bottomward.
My grandparents didn’t say anything about the exposed, oozing skin atop my head, meaning that my parents must have coached them to act a certain way, given that they were free speakers, the kind of people who’d comment on added weight and irregularities of body because they thought they were interesting features and developments, not for shaming. They termed themselves “zestful,” a word I thought they’d invented until I got to college.
My grandfather liked to bellow about how the time had come for a swim in the marsh, which seemed implausible to me, like surfing across a puddle, and then he’d race for the door in a bathing suit that more resembled a diver’s cap, and it was a miracle and a mercy that a testicle hadn’t slipped out one of the sides.
I wouldn’t swim with him because the salt would sting the cuts in my head, but I’d go down to the bank to watch, which wasn’t a bank as in a beach. More like a place for reeds to grow and spread at what seemed like the rate of three-cubic feet per day.
In school this creepy speaker had come in to talk about bamboo of all things, and he said there was this one kind that grew three feet per twenty-four hours. Captured enemy soldiers were tied to stakes, then the bamboo would be planted between their feet, and it’d grow up through their bodies. My friend Cort had turned to me at the assembly and said, “that first night must be the worst,” like the prisoner wouldn’t die until the bamboo broke through the top of the skull.
I thought of the reeds as at least equally driven in their mindset. God knows what was in there. If you had told me I could find twisted, vicious little elf people who wore periwinkle helmets and rode bog toads while eating spiders and bags of plump ticks as if they were chips, I’d have believed you without requiring any proof from a Golden Guide.
My grandfather wasn’t old, but I thought he was. It was only later that I realized he’d been this fit guy in his fifties. Gordie Howe played hockey up to about the same age and my grandfather even looked a little like him. He’d let me carry this sickle I’d found in the shed down to the reeds near the spot where, sure enough, he plunged into the salt marsh as if the horseshoe crabs had clacked their spiny tales to summon him in, grand marshal of their waterway parade. I’d clear enough room with the blade to make a seat on the ground where I had sufficient perimeter on all sides of me so that I’d be able to see the elves on the toads if they mounted an attack, and I’d watch my grandfather splash about.
He couldn’t swim—the water was two feet deep—but he would sort of roll around. It was simultaneously pathetic and glorious. Come the end of his dip, he stilled himself and sat in the marsh, streaks of mud the color of blast furnace slag oozing down his shoulders, and he’d go, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, what do we have here?” with his hand under his ass, like it was up in the damn thing. Then he’d shoot his fist out towards the sky and there’d be one or two marsh eels in it wiggling about, hair from a hydra’s head, which made me think of my clumps and my reptile skin because the backs of eels always look scarred with knife slices. He’d wade out to the bank that was barely a bank, and crack the eels on a rock embedded in the ground that I called the blood rock, as if they were whips the length of a child’s belt. It was always the same rock and you could see the old blood from the eels that had their heads dashed here before, and he’d say, “them’s eating eels.”
I’d want to ask him what the other kinds were and did they know the elves, could I feed them the toads, divide and conquer by whatever grisly means it took, but I didn’t care to officially acknowledge that the eels he had were themselves eating eels, though I did eat them, so long as I didn’t have to see their backs in the pan, which made me think of having my own striated, rotting skin in my mouth, and I could get them under a lot of butter and noodles on my plate after my mom had cut the heads off for me. I hoped the wet scabs in the open patches on top of my head where the clumps had come out didn’t look like eel skin, which was slimy, with the veins visible, the way you think the skin of a snake is, until you’re up close to one in a terrarium and you see how dry they are.
My dad and my grandfather were both the sort of person who believed all of the crucial lessons of life could be encompassed by either fishing analogies or baseball stories. They were Yankees fans. The former told me about Roger Maris, despite the Bronx Bomber being before my dad’s time, and how when he was chasing Babe Ruth’s record of sixty home runs in a single season, Maris’s hair fell out in clumps. Because it was such an important record and Roger Maris was on such an important mission to break it, which was anything but easy. And he was a hero to people, my dad said, that Roger Maris, this being my dad’s version of a “don’t take it too, bad, son” line of comforting, whereas my grandfather, left uncensored, might have said, “And he didn’t have no eel head in the end.”