His Hair Was on Fire

Ron Carlson

You ride the bus long enough, I mean daily for a year or two, maybe three, and you’re going to see somebody’s hair on fire. I’ve seen many other things, including some fights, lots of slapping fights, and two real slugfests that included kicking, and the best thing you can do when there is a fight is make noise. I like to call “Whoa! Whoa! Driver!” invoking the authorities, which doesn’t always dampen the fray. But I’ve also seen some tricky love scenes, if that’s what they’re called, some heavy kissing, and then those who sit staring raptly ahead while their hands are tunneling below like criminal archaeologists deep in the Seventh City of Cibola. The philosophy must be: we’re on the bus, let’s have sex. I’m not sure that public transportation could so inspire me, but that, as they say, is me. It sounds like I’m a wicked ardent voyeur as I ride the eleven miles to Policy Lumber and back home five days a week, but I’m just not. I read the paper, the only newspaper ever on a bus anymore, and when there’s a commotion I note it and keep reading. There’s a beautiful woman who rides part of my route three days a week, and if she sees my paper up, she’ll slap it and point at me and threaten to kill me. She’s done it a dozen times, and it’s not what you want. I mean, listen, she is beautiful; I’d compare her to some actress, but none would compare; this woman shines. And what she says after she’d batted down the paper is, “I should just kill you; I don’t know why I don’t do it right now.” It breaks my concentration is what it does and starts my heart every time.

It wasn’t like that with the fire. There’s a guy, a toothless guy, which I hesitate to mention, but it’s true; he’s toothless and all the rest, some skinny guy in the same dungarees and faded Budweiser T-shirt over which he wears a holey gray cardigan, and he rides most of the way every weekday with me. He’s sat in front of me plenty of times, and it just shouldn’t be the toothless guy who starts on fire, but it was. He smokes at the bus stop and then pinches out the cigarette when he boards and lodges it behind his ear. I was reading the paper one day, the police blotter, which is written with what they call élan by some wag with a fine dry sense of humor, so it should be called the hapless blotter, because most of the crimes seem like the Three Stooges have just been paroled, and I smelled something. What I smelled was the gray curls behind the guy’s ear, smoking from the unextinguished butt, and when I looked up a flower of flame ripped up the side of the guy’s head. I’m not one to intervene, as I hinted before. I’ll help a woman with a car seat or a stroller, and I’ve held coffee for people boarding with backpacks and boxes, but I like to stay out of things. That’s not strange. So I waited for the guy to sit up and scream or slap his head or something. Hair burns. I’m sure it’s studied in the books, like which hair burns best: old, dry hair, gray and desiccated, or dirty, greasy hair fueled by the accumulation of lubricious oils. I think this guy had both kinds working for him. He did not move. I folded my paper so it wouldn’t catch fire, and now the flames were five or six inches high up the dry slope of the guy’s cranium. So I clapped him on the ear and slapped the back of his head four or five times, and now he did scream and jumped up and looked at me with hatred in his eyes. His head was smoking like a torch after the big ceremony, and he put a hand on his red ear and ran up to the driver and pointed at me, saying, “He set me on fire.” This was a dangerous moment because a bus driver, like a regular passenger, has seen such things. Fire is commonly employed in the wrong settings. We all stopped, and the bus driver used his big kerchief to rub the guy’s head fully out, and the bus driver came back to me and said, “What the hell, buddy. You’re an arsonist now?” What saved me were the two women behind me who had seen the whole thing and told the short story to the driver. One woman handed the other her purse to tell the tale, and that act sealed her credibility. The driver went back, and luck was with me in that the toothless guy’s cigarette butt was still charcoaled behind his ear, the smoking gun you might say.

The bus was full of smoke, and we all deboarded on the corner of Angle and Reservoir, which is only half way to work, and then a cop car appeared and we had some more discussion, each with our separate cop, and when I turned from my interview, which I thought went pretty well, a news guy was there with a cameraman and they were asking me the questions you see every night about how I took such heroic efforts. The toothless guy came over with his cop and he nodded at me, looking sheepish, which is not exactly what a toothless guy needs to do. He was smoking again now, a fresh cigarette, and he put his arm around me because the cameraman had signaled such a thing. The beautiful woman came out and drew some attention for a while, but she waited until the cops were gone and the news people were gone to approach me and slap at my folded paper, because she couldn’t speak without such an action going before, and she said, “Now I’m going to kill you. I’ll bring my gun next time.” The purse woman said to me, “She’s got a bad crush on you.”

Two days later, it was in the police blotter with my direct quote in quotation marks: “The hero said, ‘Well, his hair was on fire.’” It was the last line in the item, a smart turn, and then my paper was dashed from my hands by the beautiful woman, who just looked at me now. She didn’t have her gun, and she didn’t say a thing. She had knocked apart my reading, and that seemed to be enough.

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