17th Street Review

Dead Skin

Benedict Nguyen

The fourth time was the first time in public transit. 

The person was standing by the doors about to open onto the platform, their headphones dangling from their chin and disappearing into some hidden pocket. This person wasn’t particularly remarkable; they had a plain face — not too confident or at ease in the world, not uniquely distressed or unfortunate looking either. They were just there. 

As FFFF exited, they pulled from their pocket a pair of child’s scissors and made a quick, precise snip at the base of this stranger’s pocket. The doors closing behind them, they could sense without sensation the stranger reaching for their phone to figure out why the noises they were expecting got lost en route to their ears. 

FFFF let the rush of glee lift them into a tiny hop before climbing the stairs, knowing without seeing that the stranger’s day was now just slightly disrupted by a motion smaller than a centimeter. Their pelvis sloshed with guilt but they shook it out on the stairs, skirting between crowds of determined commuters. They lacked the existential anger that drove others to violence, the envy that festered in other people’s guts until they said something regrettable. It wasn’t quite the same thrill that they imagined shoplifters feeling either. They gained nothing obvious from someone else’s broken headphone cord. 

 ***

The first time had been an accident.

They had been running to work and running late and wound up even later than they should have. They turned the usual corner on 7th street and smacked facefirst into someone, almost fell completely backwards but caught the woolen sleeve of a distracted someone, tugging at the fabric with sweaty hands and finding purchase on the handle of a brown paper bag. It tore. Round produce cascaded in all directions — a couple apples, a single onion, a pepper. A bag of wilted iceberg lettuce was made more pathetic by simply plopping down and rolling over. 

They apologized and, seeing that it made no difference, ran for it.

***

After the seventh time, they saw their picture in the paper. It was a grainy profile view taken from a security camera of their navy blue windbreaker as they looked back at the moving, blurred subway. They had probably run up the platform seconds after. 

They cut up that windbreaker into quarters, the way they used to kill people in Medieval times. They placed the pieces into brown paper bags and sent them off into various disposal sites — one down a trash chute in their apartment building, another in a trash compactor near a park, one in the kitchen of their office, and the last with a pair of old shoes in a pile of black garbage bags in the street. With that piece, they tied a note to the sleeve that read:

“Where will this go? Who made these shoes? Who threw them away? What does it mean to hold someone’s old shoes and not know how they made it to your hands? If I were to burn, dear fire, would you tell me apart from that can of grape soda with some decarbonated droplets inside? Would you remember the hands that checked whether the machine put the laces in my holes correctly? Would you remember where the dye that made this jacket blue came from?”

They walked home in and out of the shadows of lampposts, fantasizing that someone might find their jacket and read the note. They ignored the more probable reality that it would simply be tossed in a truck and made unrecognizable before any human eyes could read it.

***

The eleventh incident was also on a subway. This person was standing in FFFF’s usual spot for a participant — minimum visibility from bystanders and maximum access to the exit. They also fit the usual profile: stoic but not stiff, motivated in the eyes, mellow in the body. 

As the door closed, they took out their scissors and jostled into the person standing adjacent to them, startling their target so that they could close their scissors cleanly around the tight ponytail cinching a cascade of lusciously unruly and unwashed dirty blonde hair.

The gasp was audible in a vacuum of silence that had suddenly appeared to contain it. The few commuters conversing had gone from whispered to mute. How did they all know to look when FFFF did it? 

The door chimed, signaling to FFFF before they could register it that they might not make it out.  Even if the participant hadn’t been able to stick their forearm through in time, FFFF’s trench coat, recently swapped in for the shredded windbreaker, would’ve caught in the door.  

As it happened, when FFFF turned and saw the stranger’s left hand gripping FFFF’s coat, they became aware of their own right hand clenched around a fistful of hair. Some strands fell between the train and the platform. As the door tried to close again, the stranger pulled, and, before FFFF could think to keep running, they were back in the train car. The train began moving; the next stop was over the river. 

Everyone was watching them.

“What the fuck? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

  The stranger was crying now. They must have really been attached to their dead skin.

FFFF stuffed the scissors deeper into their pocket.

“Oh, um, I don’t know. I—”

“Hey, that’s that guy!” someone seated with their hands resting on a cane spoke up. 

FFFF pulled their hat further down around their ears, letting a few dozen hairs fall in the process.

Someone else responded, “Uhh, person?”

“Yeah, whatever.”

“Oh, that is. That’s the one that’s been going around cutting people’s bags and scarves!”

“And piercing leaks in water bottles,” said a biker with a water bottle.

“Yeah!”

The person who got their hair cut jumped back in, bringing almost immediate silence: “Yeah, so what the fuck is your deal?”

“Oh, um, I—”

“Do you get off on fucking people’s days up?”

The crowd joined in again.

“Are you bald under that beanie?” 

“Did you have cancer?”

“Is this performance art?”

“Did you feel invisible as a child? Is this like, late-onset attention seeking?”

“Is this about how plastic water bottles are bad?” the biker said.

How was the quiet train all of a sudden invested in this. It’s not like FFFF was famous. Not really.

“But seriously, why did you cut my hair?”

The train emerged from the tunnel and began to float above the river, suspended by rails and wires and architecture FFFF couldn’t follow. They were surrounded on all sides by the impossibility of escape. FFFF knew that the decent thing to do would be to apologize.

They responded, “It’s just hair. Are you that upset?”

“Yes! I am. It’s my hair! Give it to me.”

FFFF’s hands were sticky with sweat. They didn’t move.

“Give me my hair back!”

The crowd rose up in support: “Yeah, give back the hair!”

“What’s your deal?”

“What the hell is wrong with you? 

“Uh, no. I want to keep it.”

“What do you want with my hair? Do you have some kind of hair fetish?”

“No, I just want to keep it.”

FFFF could see everyone staring at them in disgust.

“They should arrest you.”

“For what, hair cutting?” said someone FFFF noticed was bald.

“Isn’t this assault?”

“It is!”

The participant was running their hands through their hair, stopping short just at the shoulder. FFFF didn’t think it looked bad. Introduce some layering and they could have a new look.

  “Stop staring at me.”

The participant’s hands clenched into claws, then fists, then fell limply at their side.  FFFF turned away to face the river below. 

The train began to move again, inching its way to the other side.

“Don’t worry dear, we’ll take care of you.”

“Do you like wigs?”

“We’ll make sure this psycho gets arrested.”

“I’m sure it’ll grow back really nicely.” 

It was strange to hear everyone rally around the participant like this. FFFF wondered whether they could really be arrested for making someone’s scarf lose a foot or a necklace stop adorning a neck, for causing some brand new cashmere sweaters to cascade onto the dirt-crusted car floor or detaching a few strands of dead, useless skin from this stranger’s hair. 

They looked back around to see the participant trying to see how their new hair framed their face. They had given up on the idea of taking their hair back kind of quickly, and they weren’t going to respond with violence. A few people were still offering advice, while some had been reading intently from their books and phones the whole time, never looking up.

No one seemed to take notice of FFFF. Had they already forgotten? Maybe if they stayed still enough, they could bolt when the doors opened again. 

Benedict Nguyen

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