The Toupee
A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Leather"
Originally featured on 02-27-2007
As part of our series "Anniversaries"

“Hit me.”

“Yessir.” The card slapped the table and a round black eight appeared as the dealer drew back his hand.

“Apologies, Mister Charles, twenty four. ‘Nother game?”

“Bastards,” was all Charles replied, sucking disdainfully on an unfiltered Camel stuck between his lips. His eyes rolled to watch the smoke vanish into the air, his vision refocusing on the empty chair next to him.

Charles was a regular at the Golden Sands Casino and Resort—a Las Vegas junkie who still considered cowboys to be glamorous and felt no need to explain the tears that built when he saw pictures of a young John Wayne. He always wore his worn black leather cowboy hat of course, but when offered a glimpse underneath there could be seen the most recklessly placed toupee any citizen of America would ever encounter. It rested precariously above his gray rim of pomaded hair like a pecan pie dropped from a second story window and left to coagulate. The horrified expression on people faces when subjected to it never seemed to bother Charles; he would only smile, displaying a row of pearly white teeth and soothing the injured aesthetic feelings of whomever he had offended.

His getup consisted of a motley collection of items from the poorly stocked garage sales he visited throughout the 1980’s, all polyester and pleated and faded past the point of acceptability by most standards. He made up for his shabby clothing with his red leather cowboy boots, perfectly shined and boasting a pair of bright gold spurs that he had super glued on immediately after winning them in a fifty-cent crane machine.

On the night in question the casino was considerably less crowded and therefore more depressing than usual for both clientele and employees. Like usual, Charles’ red boots were clinking away against the chipped silver rim of the blackjack chair, spurs whizzing away like tiny kazoos. He had lost all the crumpled money pulled from the depths of his pockets; it had been accepted without hesitation until gone. So he sat, the fat black eight staring him down and the limp cigarette slowly burning up to his hard pale lips, the ashes of which floated away into his glass of bourbon. He sighed and pushed the cards away.

“Ah, Max will be heartbroken,” he muttered, apparently talking to his drink.

“Your wife?” the dealer asked distractedly while shuffling.

“No, my wife’s long dead, may god bless her soul, and frankly she wouldn’t feel any pity for me in this situation, my good man. She hated my gambling like I hate not gambling.”

“So, Max then? A friend?”

“A friend, yes, you’ve got it. Just a friend.” He drained the last icy mouthful of bourbon and stood up dramatically, nodded at the dealer and walked away.

No one at the Sands knew how Charles afforded his extended stay in the small back wing suite of the hotel, but there were some rumors. Some people thought that he was John Wayne, but such suggestions were squashed when Renaldo, the nighttime bellhop, pointed out that Mr. Wayne was in fact dead. Others assumed that his wife, though not a fan of his gambling, loved him despite his weaknesses and left him her fortune to do as he wished. One of the bartenders said she had seen his name in a Film Theory textbook at her community college, author of a highly cited article called “Westerns: Pointing out the Weaknesses of Man.”

However it happened that Charles had his room at the Golden Sands, his key continued to open the door to Room 867, his fastidiously iron shirts hung in the mirrored closet, and his cat Max awaited his daily return. Max sprang awake at the sound of the doorknob, knowing that it was his owner and not housekeeping, which had long ago stopped visiting. Every Monday a neat stack of fresh linens was placed outside his door, occasionally topped by a Toblerone bar, and the arrangement satisfied both parties.

Other than a bottle of Makers Mark chilling on the air conditioner, the only decoration he had was a Virgin Mary statue on the nightstand next to a lamp with a gold paint dusted shade. The statue had rested on his wife’s own nightstand seven years ago as she lay dying, muttering about salvation and that he must prevent, by all means, the bugs from getting at the roses. He promised that he would fight the aphids with every last breath in his body, but three months after her death the house was sold and he was on a bus to Las Vegas. The house was too quiet, he told himself, smelled too much like her.

When he was drunk, as he often was, he would see the statue and find his eyes tearing up, lift Max up to his chest and squeeze him until their heartbeats rumbled together. The sensation would pass, his eyes would dry, and he would shuffle his way past the glaring statue to the chilled bottle. Sometimes he would play and old Hank Williams record and sing along, swooping his red boots along the carpet, the bottle a microphone, the cat his only audience, although he would purr away politely.

He sipped on the bottle until the cat became two, and four and Mary’s eyes became six, and eight, peering at him from every corner of the room as if he were a blasphemous fly. He stood in front of the statue, squinted his eyes to focus on her smooth blue robe, her soft black eyes and weightless smile. His own eyes swarmed inside his head and fear panted out with his breath onto his cigarette stained lips which were curled ever so slightly against her angelic expression.

“What do you want?” he demanded, squealing a little as his fist hit the dresser. Mary’s feet wobbled upon the impact, and slipping serenely onto the floor her blue and ivory robed body split open, leaving only her head whole.

“Sorry Ma’am,” he said sincerely, tipping his hat slowly and avoiding the eyes that now seemed ghostly. He scooped up the hollow frame looking for blood or some human essence to escape from the confines of the statue, but all that was on his hands was a chalky white powder, like an ash from a cigarette rubbed between his fingers.

Max jumped past him to investigate the tragedy but was shooed away by Charles’ now white tipped boot. A silvery tear hung at the edge of his eye like an anxious bullet as he gathered her remains into the nearest rocks glass and checked the peephole before stepping into the hallway. He slid the glass under his one size too big blazer as he spotted a woman sitting sloppily in front of a half open door, a boa draped around her neck like an abandoned party favor. She clicked her tongue and eyed him curiously as one strange person does another.

“Irving Charles,” she muttered, her voice dripping like the sloppy mascara from her lashes.

“You used to sing at this place…back when it wasn’t this name it is now? Am I correct? My mother, dead now, boo hoo, was a cocktail waitress. Silvia Germaine? Knew her? Worked Thursdays, Saturdays, I think…”

He stood looking at her as if he suspected that by killing the statue he had inadvertently sentenced himself to another life. He scurried away, the woman stumbling after him, repeating the name ‘Sylvia Germaine’ until the elevator doors closed and left him in silence.

He stood peering into the rocks glass full of Mary’s remains until his eyes grew dizzy. The doors opened to the fiery lights of the hotel lobby where three doormen tipped their hats to him and smiled bright gold-toothed smiles. He ran past them and pushed through the lobby doors onto the Astroturf lawn. He rifled through his pocket, pulled out his Swiss army knife and turning his back to the valet he cut a small rectangle in the plastic grass. Using his fingers he created a small hole in the dry dirt underneath and quickly tipped the glass upside down. He took one last look at Mary’s pleadingly soot soft eyes before spreading the dirt back over the hole and rolling the cut patch back over the earth. He turned on his heels back into the hotel, rubbing the dirt from his hands.

A strange churning sensation brewed up in his stomach suddenly, and drawing his hands to his mouth he rushed to the nearest men’s bathroom. Tears streamed from his eyes as his hat tipped against the tile wall behind the toilet. He watched his tears fall into the bowl and mix with his vomit, letting his head fall onto the cool seat. Before his senses could catch up he heard a leathery plop and upon opening his eyes, he saw his toupee floating in the bowl like a drowning rat. His eyes registered and his index finger slowly flushed. Sounding like a backfiring transmission, the toilet began to choke down his toupee.

“Who needs the damn thing,” he said, swiping his hand at the now empty toilet. He sat back on his heels and then pushed to his feet, running a hand over his now calm stomach. Seeing his bloodshot eyes and shining head in the fingerprinted mirror before returning to the lobby, he made sure to avoid the eyes of the employees.

“Mister Charles, sir Mister Charles!” shrieked a woman from behind the front desk. His head swung to face a red-lipped smile full of crooked teeth.

“Yes?” he asked.

“Sorry to disturb you sir,” she said, momentarily meeting his eyes, “but your bank called earlier, they said it was quite urgent that you return the call today. Would you like the message now?”

“Yes,” he said, after a slight hesitation. He took the slip of paper cautiously from her outstretched hand and took the elevator back to his room. The strange girl was gone. He slowly packed his sparse belongings into the suitcase that had sat untouched in the closet for the past seven years.

No one at the casino heard from or saw Charles after that night. Some assumed he’d taken his life in some old fashioned manner, riddled with antique guilt. Pascal the front desk clerk claimed an old Native American had led him from the hotel, possibly by gunpoint, though others argue it was a spiritual connection like with Jim Morrison. The lounge singer, Margot Germaine, said he’d left to finally re-claim his spot in the music industry; that he’d confided this to her that night, one professional to another.

Read More By Liz Varley

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