.Once upon a time in the sixties, my mother, a brunette, without any warning, came home from work wearing a platinum blond wig. It was so white, it hurt to look at it for a long period of time. It was short and youthful, with a slight That Girl-ish flip at the ends. It looked like the haircut of a modern-day child beauty pageant contestant. That should make it clear.
My sister and I were full of questions. Why on earth would she want that? How much did she pay for it? Where was she going to wear it? Why didn’t she just dye her hair?
These questions were all answered with maximum vagueness. She bought it for her boss’ boss, a man she dated whenever he was in town from Miami. “It’s kind of a joke for him,” she said, without further explanation. It cost “around fifty dollars,” which was a gasp-producing amount. My mother never spent money frivolously. With regularity she paid the bills, bought groceries, cigarettes and bourbon and little else. We were shocked. It was real human hair, and that came at a price far higher than its lower quality synthetic, Dynel sister wigs.
And she was going to wear it to work the next day. We assumed the boss’ boss would be there for the joke, whatever it was.
As for the hair dye question, we already knew the answer to that: Only sluts dyed their hair.
Maybe she didn’t look ridiculous in it if you had never seen her brown-haired self before, but it sure looked goofy to us. And the prep work to get it to look believable was insane. She packed her own hair down against her head with a thin nylon stocking cap, and that had to be adjusted and readjusted so that you didn’t see tell-tale stocking remnants under the wig. She had it professionally washed and styled frequently, and she was always futzing with it, picking at it, combing it, trying to pave over any part that looked wiggish. And I can’t imagine how unbelievably uncomfortable it must have been under there in the humid Florida heat of summer. Nevertheless, she was determined.
She had even bought a wig stand for it. Let’s be clear on this. A wig is like a pet. It’s soft and fuzzy, but doesn’t come without needs. You wouldn’t buy a bird without a cage. We were a little put off by the extravagance of this major investment. We couldn’t get genuine Red Ball Jets sneakers when the generic JC Penney sneakers would accomplish the same foot-covering task. Fortunately, she had economized and bought the plain white Styrofoam Head wig stand, and not the more expensive one that looked like a mannequin head with an aloof expression and slutty makeup. Bitter and resentful in my Penney Ball Jets, one day while Mom was at work, I took the Styrofoam head and drew on it large crossed eyes with giant lashes and oversized lips, colored in with real lipstick. You know: slutty. She was not amused. It became a little creepy having this psychotic-looking blond head in the house, staring down at us from her tall white dresser.
Wigs were a big thing back in the 60’s, and women took their spare hair very seriously. Falls were kept in special round boxes. Switches were popular for making you look like you had more and better hair than you actually did. And dyed-to-match wiglets, from pin-in ringlets to beehive add-ons were popular with the well-to-do yacht clubbing stole-wearers.
The wig remained in our house for a few years, worn more and more infrequently, and finally ignored. It was last seen on my head during Halloween when I was sixteen. I dressed as a prostitute and paraded around the neighborhood late at night, demanding candy. “My God!” one woman explained, “What are you out for tonight, son?” That kind of threw me for a loop, and I immediately pulled out my breast-stuffing socks and ceased my trick-or-treating career forever. (And I still had to tell people, four years later, that I was gay. Were they just acting surprised?)
I was a very naïve child. My mother was morally strict with us, especially with my sister, so I never thought anything about her “dating” Mr. Butler, a married man who lived in Miami and was in town once a month or so for a night or two. The whole time they were going out, Mom insisted that it was all very innocent and genuine, strictly business, and that he didn’t know anyone else in town, so he took her to dinner to pass the time, plain and simple. I was good with that.
And I was shocked to learn years later from my sister that Mom and Mr. Butler were doing it. He always stayed at the Manger Motor Inn, a luxury hotel in downtown Tampa on the Hillsborough River. They later changed the name to the Manger Hotel to class it up a bit. We got to see the inside of his room once. I remember everything being very yellow, including the built-in rotary wall phone in the bathroom. (God, I wanted that!) I never imagined that the opulent Manger had been a house of lemon-yellow sin.
Whenever he was in town, Mr. Butler would come to the house, have a cocktail and chat with us while Mom got ready for her night out with him. He was a nice man, sweet and sensitive, and very engaging with my sister and me. He would always take Mom to Bern’s Steak House, the swankiest, most expensive restaurant in the city. My sister and I had never been there, and we loved hearing stories about it and gnawing on the leftover morsels that sometimes came home in a doggy bag.
Mr. Butler was the only man-friend of my mom’s we had to call “Mr.” That was probably because in the office, she had to as well. I liked him. And Mom brought home some scary men, including a falling-down alcoholic who would pick me up by my head and a boozer who tried to explain condoms to me while standing in front of me wearing only grimy pajama bottoms while his member dangled out the fly, unbeknownst to him. (He was the one she ended up marrying.) While my mother was recovering from surgery, Mr. Butler babysat us and took us across the bridge to eat at Wolfie’s deli in St. Petersburg. He knew I was a dyed-in-the wool Peanuts fanatic, and would from time to time bring me Peanuts-related stuff, like the Charlie Brown trash can he gave me. He took an interest, which was more than any other of Mom’s gentlemen callers did. To those guys, children were usually a liability; a roadblock that prohibited remarriage. Mr. Butler seemed to actually return our affection, and I secretly wished that he would get divorced and come to Tampa, marry my mother, and move in with us. I never asked, but I suspected the females in my family were hoping for that, too.
But it just wasn’t in the cards. I realize now that Mom finally grasped that things were not going to change, and the relationship was not going to advance. The last time he came to the house, Mom met him in the driveway and talked to him while he remained in his rental car. I knew something serious was going down as I watched from the living room window, peeking out from behind the new curtains (which were, curiously enough, yellow). When the car started, I quickly moved to another part of the house, and Mom came in the house and wept loudly. I came back into the living room, and she was on the floor, crying into the feather cushion of the camelback sofa. She looked up at me and said, “Do you understand why I’m crying?”
I said, “Because you’re not going to see Mr. Butler anymore?”
She said yes, and continued to weep.
Still naïve about the intensity of their relationship, I thought what she was really crying for was the fact that there would be no more chateaubriand from Bern’s, no more heels-and-stole wearing dress-up dates, and she would miss that. I never surmised that he was the good one she had to let go. The lost prize.
There was one time when I was in my early twenties when my mother and I actually had an adult-to-adult talk. She had come up from Florida to visit me in my apartment in the DC suburbs. It was very confessional for both of us. I admitted to her that I sometimes enjoyed smoking marijuana. She told me about the time when her husband (Mr. Penis-Poker-Outer) had given her an ultimatum: She could be with him, or she could have her son, the homosexual, but not both. Never giving it a second thought, she hopped in her car and left. He later backed down. And she also told me about her love for Tom Butler, how much she wanted him to back out of his loveless marriage and be with her. It was very touching, and I felt badly for her. Of all the men mom dated, Mr. Butler was most like my father. He was bright and intellectual, thoughtful and kind to children; soft-spoken with a delightful sense of humor. And she ended up settling for Mr. Pee-Poke, an illiterate truck driver alcoholic who accused her of raising her son to be a faggot. She sat quietly for a moment after that. Trying to brighten up the mood, I said, “So what was with the wig?”
A grin came to her face. “Tom really had a thing for blond women,” she said.
That was the first time I heard her refer to him by his first name only. “I see,” I said, although I wasn’t sure that I did.
“No, you don’t see,” Mom said. “He was impotent. I bought the wig hoping it would turn him on and enable him to be functional.”
“Did it work?” I asked.
“Not really,” she shrugged.
Some things are better left unsaid. I think I liked it better when I was young and naïve and didn’t realize my mother was teaching chastity to us while having an affair with a married man who couldn’t get it up. Whenever I think of this, I get an image in my head. Mom and Mr. Butler are in the bright yellow Manger Motor Inn with the bathroom telephone. She’s lying on the king sized Posturpedic’s banana-colored sheets, and as Mr. Butler bumbles unsuccessfully on top of her, her head moves down on the pillow, forcing that sweat-making, platinum blond baby-doll wig to inch slowly down over her forehead until she can’t see. Whenever this vision comes to me, I try to block it out with an image of my Charlie Brown trash can.
“Good Grief,” he says.