The Men in Her Hair

by Doreen St. Félix

Illustration by Lizzie Davis

published April 27, 2013

Windsor was going to see the girl with men in her hair.

The pharmacy was dark. Everywhere else on Church Avenue was lit up: Rainbow Clothing Store, No Pork Indian Restaurant, the Amoco gas station, the Western Union, the broken-down van with spices and the old vendor’s swollen feet inside. As he walked towards it, Windsor felt his skin turn neon. He held up his arm to the Western Union sign dangling before his eyes—there was the yellow seeping through his wide hands. Night was descending on Brooklyn, on Church Avenue, on the spice lady’s water toes, on the stroller tossed spitefully by the parking meter. Night was falling on Windsor, touching the green crumpled twenty-dollar bills in his fist. Night was falling on 1996. But Windsor was lit up like the block. Curvin and Tricia were all the way up in Harlem, in the lobby of Sans Souci, and the woman with men in her hair was perched on the bed in her second floor apartment. What would she smell like? The old lady saw him.

“Sugarcane, ya want?”

Twenty, forty, sixty, sixty-six. Windsor rubbed the paper to make sure it was all there. He’d felt dumb, embarrassed to be walking down a block so close to his apartment with so much cash on him. If someone jumped him, he could be killed for that kind of money. And Curvin would be quiet. And Tricia would be pissed. And then all that sneaking Tricia had done, weeks spent beating the dawn so she could slip her hand into her dad’s only leather thing, a wallet that was becoming strings under the pillow under his sleeping head, would be for nothing because they’d have nothing to offer the girl and he would be dead.

“Sixty, sixty. Six, Winds,” she’d said before backing down the subway steps. Ten minutes, there was still a diminishing sun hitting the pharmacy and Curvin was already underground, standing on the subway platform.

“Don’t fuck this up, you can’t fuck this up,” Tricia said.

“Yeah,” he said, because he and Curvin and the wives could only say yes to Tricia. Yes, yes, yes is what they breathed to her when she touched them, Tricia had boasted to the two boys. And I ain’t even ask them a question.

They were mangling cigarettes that day, under that winter tree on Beverly Road. Tricia laughed, then stopped laughing, then let out a low moan when she noticed how Windsor’s big hands crushed his cigarette. When had that boy, whom she had known for years, grown the hands of a man? The stories about the woman was all they talked about, then. When struck by the bigness in Windsor’s hands, Tricia suggested that they go and Curvin and Windsor could only say yes.

Windsor tapped out the pulse of the 3 train that was arriving then.

“She’s not gonna see us if we don’t bring her that stuff. Be cool, and be there in an hour,” Tricia bounced down the subway steps, the boys’ jeans jostling on her hips. Windsor’s lips curled into his mouth while he listened to the arriving noise of steel rubbing on steel like an irritable whistle blaring into Curvin’s ears.

Ten, maybe fifteen if she could wrestle enough overtime, was all his mother gave him on Mondays. Windsor looked up and east and saw his apartment window and thought up what the shadow of his mother would look like walking past the window and then saw that. How would her face break if she knew he was to see that woman in Sans Souci, the woman with men in her hair? Would her cheeks crumble into her open hands or would her eyes sink underneath her skin? All around, mothers warned their sons about her, Windsor’s mother did, Curvin’s mother. This woman had just come from that island, where she had done a number of spells, to perch in a dingy apartment in Harlem. Because Windsor’s mother knew her son, the type of kid who could spend one hour angling his hand to the setting sun bewildered at the way the color changed, but could get sucked into things like a wrapper on a subway grate, she warned him.

Standing in front of the vendor’s can, Windsor calculated that at no moment in his life had he ever held that much money. He sighed at that miracle. In front of the vendor’s van was a wooden table, and on it, rows of small plastic bags full of dried foods.

“Ya, I want.”

Twenty, forty, sixty, sixty-five. He wouldn’t tell Curvin he’d taken a dollar from the wad to buy an already-rotten stub of sugarcane. The spice lady’s hand jutted out swiftly, extending from the taped-up backseat with a mind of its own, sucking up the dollar into her fannypack. “Is sweet but not too sweet. Eat it with milk.”

She winked at him and bared her Jamaican teeth in a smile that lasted too long. Windsor would not eat the sugarcane, it’s brown, he thought. Red lipstick, a little brown like the final fibers of the stub, spilled out from the corners of her lips. Instinctively, Windsor wiped the corner of his own lips, to remove the lipstick. He remembered which body was his body and withdrew the finger.

“Milk. Thanks.”

Windsor was lit up like the block. Was he directing this? Walking past the storefronts, Windsor realized that this was sort of the opposite of dying. When you are dying, like in Ghost or Touched By An Angel or other movies or shows he sometimes watched with his mother, you are supposed to walk towards the big yellow light. You hesitate at first, so the camera can catch the way the glow wraps your blond face in a blond halo. You blow a kiss maybe, if someone’s watching and you’re Patrick Swayze. But then you always march towards the big yellow light waiting for you, your feet disappearing as you go down that tunnel.

But Windsor was walking forward in the open air, feeling himself go hot as the sign for Newkirk Road grew sharper; Windsor was walking away from the lights; Windsor was walking to the darkness and Windsor was not going to die. He was going to see a special woman. Windsor was as rich as a kid with the name Windsor could be. He might even grow up to be a black man with a strong jaw, a round white wife, and a cellphone that blinks. Because he was not going to die, he clipped off a chunk of the sugarcane and sucked out the sugar until he tasted the white also dissolving on the spice lady’s tongue.

Plain, sharpened in his field of vision: Newkirk Road. From the window in his apartment, Windsor had seen many lost people stop at Al’s Family Pharmacy. Curvin called them “pearls-and-suit” people, and Tricia thought that was stupid, and Windsor thought it was right. A woman carting a bag made of reptilian skin, a man who clutched his watch like he had been born with it, a family soothing a squirming kid. White people from Manhattan always stop at Al’s Family Pharmacy, confused by the blankness inside. The kids around Church knew, of course, that Al’s Family Pharmacy had never been a pharmacy; the storefront had never opened. There was no Al. Als were chubby white guys with grandchildren. Manny was tall, with a high head and long dreads. Three years ago, when Curvin and Windsor and Tricia were walking home from Hudde on the last day before winter break, they noticed a red and blue awning on the then-abandoned store. Al’s Family Pharmacy. Slack-hipped under the weight of her hair rollers, Windsor’s mother shook her head when they got to her apartment.

“You better stay away from that man Manny, and his pharmacy. That’s not a damn pharmacy,” she sucked in her teeth. Windsor remembered the sound of her teeth. “You’re just kids.”

Windsor had never dared to step inside. He would turn left whenever he walked by it, in other moments. But at this moment, at thirteen with a bundle of cash, thirteen with this body drumming so hard he winced when others heard it, Windsor knocked on the grime-encrusted door.

A hand forces itself through the mail slot in the front, palm up, palm gesturing up. A minute, two empty minutes. A second hand, sticking through the slot, wrapping the first to sense its width, its age. Then the second hand, balled in a fist, meeting the other, releasing. The second hand pulled back in. Twenty, forty, sixty. Paper rubbing on paper and cold rubbing on concrete. The first hand pulled back in; a succession of blank seconds; the first hand reappearing through the slot in the form of a fist. The second hand reaching, flesh and blood and wet and sticky from sweat. The second grasping a plastic bag filled with white powder. A whisper: you turn the other way.

Windsor felt plastic filled with white powder instead of green paper in his hands and grinned. 

When he found himself in front of Curvin and Tricia at Sans Souci, Windsor wondered what he had looked like. Running back up Church, down those six blocks to the corner of Stephens Court, that block east to Farragut, not noticing the neon light from the Western Union but briefly under it, what had he looked like then? When he went down the subway steps, waited for the 3 train, the arriving steel on steel, had he looked nervous, like a boy who was finally going to see a woman with men in her hair? Had the older Chinese man, sitting next to him on the subway bench with a lot of grocery bags, smelled the sugar on him? A cashier waiting for customers at a 125th street bodega—had he jumped when he saw a black boy run across his window to Sans Souci, where Curvin and Tricia were sucking their teeth?

Windsor did not know. There was a metro card tucked poking out of his pocket when he got there. Then Windsor held up a hand to Tricia’s face; the light from her face seeped through his hands and Windsor instantly saw her body and his body.

“Why is your hand in my face,” clucked Tricia, shimmying down the elastic waistband of her younger brother’s sweatpants so they hung low, showing her older brother’s boxers. Windsor’s mother would sometimes quip that Tricia was the type of girl whose hips would never swing. A fourteen-year-old pimpled girl who would reach an optimistic thirty, thirty-five if she kept messing with the wives of men. A girl who wouldn’t care about dying, because she had learned to hold her life lightly in her dry hands.

“And why are you late,” she scuffed the only clean part left on Windsor’s sneaker, the ones she had bought him with more money she had taken from her father’s wallet for his thirteenth birthday.

“Sorry,” Windsor mumbled, mock humble.

“S’aight, brother. You got it, right?” The “brother,” the upward intonation of the question-sound, the grumble Curvin reserved for when he was defending Windsor against Tricia’s needling aggression, signaled to Windsor that Curvin was talking to him. But he was facing the building lobby’s wall, chipping off peeling paint with the pen he always nestled behind his ear. Sans Souci’s lobby was bathed in a harsh blue hospital light, the flailing bulb at the ceiling’s center emitting no more of it than the glint of a scissor’s point. Windsor made a scissor motion with his index and middle finger in the air, to see if he could cut the bulb out of this, if he could make the room dark.

“Snip,” breathed Windsor. “Yeah, I got it, Curv.”

Windsor uncurled the fingers—his fingers—and produced the baggie, heated with the condensation from his skin. Like a scientist, and he was something of a street scientist, Curvin held up the bag to his eyes, fingers half-mast, and peered at it like it was a critter in a three-piece suit. Curvin’s eyes sank.

“This is pure. See that?” Curvin brought his spider arms up, injecting the powder with the little light from the bulb. Tricia oohed so Windsor oohed. “The real shit is supposed to shine like glitter.” The bag shone like glitter. “She’s gonna shine. We in,” Curvin winked and Windsor saved the wink like he did everything Curvin gave him.

Sans Souci was deceitful. Boarded-up windows, peeling paint, an elevator that nearly laughed when you thought its buttons would work—Sans Souci looked like the type of building that ate up its residents and spit them out in packed pine-box pellets. But the stairwell, the stairwell smelled like spices: cinnamon, cloves, dried ginger, dried bay leaves, the dried bay leaves his mother ran in his bath when she sensed fatigue in his limbs. What would his mother think if she knew he had gone to see the woman, he thought, as Tricia knocked on the ailing wooden door so the three could see the woman.

It was like the door dropped at the light force of her knock. Hallway light got sucked in by the planet of darkness inside—a curtain of black hair was already walking towards an interior room. She smelled like hair. Curvin shrugged at Windsor, Windsor swallowed the phlegm mounting in his throat and Tricia was already walking towards her. The three sat on the floor of the interior room. Windsor pulled fibers from the carpet.

“Don’t do that,” cooed the woman, the woman with at least a dozen small men in the environment of her hair.

A girl with men in her hair, clinging to her by the roots. They are small, and naked like she is. Not screaming, but wrapped tightly around the strands, the strands that have weight like legs. She is a tower; there is light coming from her. There is powder going inside her. Her nostrils flare, Windsor’s nostril flare, Tricia’s nostrils, Curvin’s nostrils. Watch that one lock of hair trace down the groove of her cheek, tickle the length of her neck, round the curve of her left breast, how did it move? But the hair did move to the curve of her right breast, lap against her wet and sticky stomach skin, disappear into the black patch where her womanness sat, lick the toes of Windsor, Tricia, and Curvin, the strand did lick their toes until they sputtered and giggled and sighed and laughed heinously, the laughing shrinking as the strand wrapped them about their stomachs and pulled the three back to her hair.