The Walrus

Fortress of Care

- By Laura Ritland

A respectabl­e, wood-panelled apartment-as-business barbershop, five-spice powder and spray-on gel, the backroom busy with old women baring their highlights

to the avocado-green hair dryers. Fake red finches in a fake tree, Cantonese radio, canaries calling on the rear patio. Bonsai halted in a weekend’s half-curtained noonlight.

Was I afraid? I was afraid of the five-foot photo of Marilyn Monroe enshrined above the washstand in the shop corner. Among the other kept things—

starfruit, Bibles, a silent clock turning in a glass dome—white porcelain dolls on the upstairs shelves rolled forget-me-not eyes at me when I lifted them

closer. Strange, sad clown over whose bare head we threw plastic hoops for a game while we waited. It moved with a secret logic it knew alone.

Nights, rafts of lights mapping the ocean in the back window.

Chance fables of Hong Kong in the ’50s, decoding the manufactur­ing labels: Montreal, Toronto,

San Francisco, Vancouver. Eastward lie good fortune and a future naming you grandparen­t, young and impatient on a floral brown couch.

Every time, I’d glower over the smock, despising my looks, this place, the mirrors reflecting our faces in dizzying hallways of descent, as my grandmothe­r swept

our fallen hair, replaced it with chips and spearmint gum. Afterwards, feeling my head for the loss: like squinting for light in a sudden dark or reaching for a word

beyond recognitio­n. Unhomely? Yes, and uncivil: idle citizens in a nation of forlorn objects, suffering strangers’ questions about our appearance. Our faces

confused opposing cardinals like compasses that refused reading. Always, a fear of curiosity, false welcome, a suspicion of rejection during our entrances.

Did we belong? We were related.

A lineage of exits and arrivals, patriots of a barber’s chair, a small country we’d visit and abandon in the tradition of our elders.

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