“Theodore Roosevelt’s Eyebrow Hairs” — novel excerpt

I head west. People tend to go in that direction when they need space, time to figure things out, and have get away from everything familiar. I want to find out how it feels to miss home, and whether I really do.

While driving through North Dakota I consider becoming a wandering hairstylist, kind of like minstrels in medieval times. I could earn my keep by doing cuts and curls in farmhouse kitchens, eat whatever casseroles or Jell-O salads I was offered in payment, and live off prepackaged gas station sandwiches the rest of the time. I don’t have to return to the same town as all my worldly possessions. The idea leaves an unsettled feeling in my stomach like that freefall float you get on a roller coaster.

When my minivan’s engine starts running rough I’m still an hour from Lost Point, my destination. There aren’t many towns in between and I don’t have extra oil or coolant, so I cross my fingers and keep driving. The prairie is dry and gold as far as I can see. North Dakota is pretty country but there’s an awful lot of it and it takes a hell of a long time to get anywhere.

Lost Point is just large enough to have a grocery store and a gas station and a bank and a motel. I like small towns, but my ex couldn’t stand them. He said any place that wanted to call itself civilized needed a bowling alley and a pizza parlor. I disagreed on both counts, but never thought of moving to a small town because fewer people meant fewer required haircuts.

I park in front of the grocery (it’s the size of a convenience store). On the wooden sandwich board outside, below the price for a two-liter of pop and a gallon of milk, it reads HOME OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT’S EYEBROW HAIRS in black block letters. I examine my gas gauge and my checkbook balance and wonder if anyone in the area could use a good trim. But first I have to see the eyebrow hairs.

Inside the grocery there’s a cooler for dairy products and another for drinks, shelves of crackers and chips and cookies and bread and lunchmeat, a rack of candy bars, and a basket of apples that have seen better days. A stack of yellow-edged postcards of the Badlands sits beside the cash register. The thin man behind the counter is probably in his mid-sixties.

1. Hair: Dark gray with a few lighter wisps around his ears.

2. Hands: Large and soft.

3. Eyes: Hazel. Slightly sad.

He peers out the window at my minivan like it’s a flying saucer.

“I’m here to see the eyebrow hairs,” I say.

The counter fellow nods to a rough-hewn wooden frame on the wall behind the register. The hairs are neatly arranged in the shape of two raised eyebrows on a white cardboard backing.

“Roosevelt was a deputy sheriff and a rancher out here for two years,” says the counter fellow. “He worked alongside my grandfather.”

I buy a bag of chips and a chocolate bar because I don’t feel like being skinny today. “Teddy shaved his eyebrows when he was out here?” I say.

The older man shakes his head. “He hated being called Teddy. His first wife Alice called him Teddy. After she passed he wouldn’t let anyone else do that. His nickname was Teedie. And he shaved his eyebrows later. When he was president. Teedie moved here when he was young, after Alice and his mother died within a day of each other. Country like this is good to help a man put things in perspective. If nothing else, it’ll give you a hell of a lot of work to do so you forget everything else.”

I introduce myself to the counter guy and explain I’m on a road trip. He shakes my hand and says his name is Lenn. Lenn says his grandfather told stories about Teedie, how he was a smart cowboy and a tough bastard. Living in the west made Teedie a conservationist. He saw the land was overgrazed and overhunted and not going to last forever, but Dakota life was hard. He lost a lot of money when all his cattle died in two years, so he returned to New York and politics.

“My grandpa was lucky,” says Lenn. “He managed to keep seventy-five percent of his herd. Back then everything depended on luck and the weather. Still does for the most part.”

Lenn peers out the window to Main Street. I’d bet the town has six hundred people. I lean on the front counter, about four feet from Lenn and close enough to notice his smell—sweat and aftershave and something like cinnamon.

After a moment I open my chips and ask Lenn how he got the eyebrows. Lenn glances at me and shivers like he’d forgotten I was here.

“My grandpa and Teedie exchanged letters for a long while,” he says, “even after Teedie ended up in the White House.” Those letters started the eyebrow-shaving bet. Roosevelt was sure his simplified spelling plan would be a success with the American public. It’d change the spelling of words to make them look more like how they were pronounced. Altho instead of although. Disrest instead of distressed. Rime instead of rhyme. Teedie ordered certain public documents be printed using simplified spelling.

“But Grandpa said people wouldn’t like simplified spelling,” says Lenn. “They’d want to stick with what they knew, even if some words were more difficult. So he and Teedie made the bet. The loser had to shave his eyebrows. Turned out that folks hated simplified spelling, and Teedie made good on his word. One day this wooden box got delivered to the store. Inside were a whole bunch of hairs, washed and dried and everything, along with a picture of Teedie with no eyebrows and a little slip of paper that read you won.”

Lenn glances back to the framed eyebrow hairs as if he expected them to change shape when he wasn’t looking. “Teedie died real young. Just sixty years old. Guess it wasn’t too bad for the time. But on the night Teedie passed, Grandpa couldn’t sleep. He came to the store at four in the morning and sat by the little case with the eyebrow hairs until he dozed off. They were just a bunch of hairs then, nothing fancy. When Grandpa woke up he found the hairs had arranged themselves in two lines. Two raised eyebrows. Grandpa liked to joke, but he seemed real serious about that one.”

I look at the frame and wait for the hairs to twitch or curl, but they remain stationary.

After a couple minutes I unwrap the top of my candy bar and tell Lenn about my trips. It seems like he’d appreciate stories of other relic-keepers. Lenn leans forward and cups his chin in his hands, watching me with his slightly sad eyes. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found balding men attractive. I think it’s my hormones adjusting.

“Never have traveled much,” he says, “especially in the past few years. When Dad and Grandpa were alive it was easier. There were three of us to look after the store and the ranch. I don’t make enough to hire help. Just trucking the stuff in costs plenty.” He rubs his hands together. “But this isn’t a bad place to live as long as you like to take your time getting things done.”

I buy a sandwich from one of the coolers and go outside to eat since the weather is nice. I scan up and down the street and wonder what it’s like to live in a town with one bank and one grocery and a post office the size of a gas station, a town where everything probably closes by eight in the evening. I wiggle the fingers on my right hand and the fingers on my left hand. They’ve spent too long curled around a steering wheel. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they’ll ever straighten.

Lost Point probably doesn’t have much housing for rent, but sometimes people have extra space for boarders, and the motel might rent rooms by the week. Could the town sustain me with haircuts for a few months? Could Roosevelt’s eyebrow hairs perform miracles beyond rearranging themselves?

A small part of me has been hoping for a miracle since I started my trips. I expected one would have happened by now, but I haven’t been rewarded with a twitch of Aaron Burr’s toe, a vision of Paul Revere, or the low southern twang of Jesse James’s voice in my ear. These eyebrows have to do something for me to interpret. I’m not picky.

On the front porch of the house next to Lenn’s store is a very round guy with dark hair and coffee-and-milk skin. He’s wearing a red NDN t-shirt, white shorts, and eating a taco. The round guy nods to me and asks if I’d like a chair. There aren’t any public benches around, so I join him. He says his name is Phineas and he’s a teller at the bank.

I explain I’m from Ohio and Phineas asks if I know much about President Taft. He looks disappointed when I say I’ve only studied people who’ve lost body parts.

“I’m just as big and tall as Taft was, and we both love golf,” he says. “There aren’t many people who can keep up with me on the course. My knees are starting to give me trouble, but Mom had trouble with her knees and she was slim as you are.”

I wouldn’t call myself slim, but I don’t contradict.