Sunday Stories: “Desire Lines”


Desire Lines
by Nathan Pensky

Most men in Brandsville look uncomfortable coming into a hair salon. You can tell by how they sit or how they won’t meet your eyes. There are two salons in town and only one barbershop. The old barber is about 80 years old and really starting to lose his stuff. No one blames him. He’s been at it for about sixty years.

Some men in town it doesn’t matter what they look like. They need a haircut for church or pictures. They work down at the Channellock plant or they cart poultry for one of the farms. It doesn’t matter if the back of their hair blends all the way down or if they have little rabbit patches. Other men get their paycheck from the Farmer’s Insurance or down at the college. They talk to people all day. How could they go to work looking like a teenager who hasn’t figured himself out?

That’s why they come into the salon even if they’re uncomfortable about it. We may play top-40 hits and have pictures of men with high cheekbones on the wall but at least we can cut a straight line.

Gerry wasn’t one of those men. He wasn’t embarrassed at all. He came in and sat. He didn’t even look at a magazine.

I took him as a walk-in, led him back to my station. I immediately took a shine to him. He had a nice smell.

When he sat down he didn’t meet my eye. He didn’t not meet my eye either but seemed, I don’t know, careless about the world and other people. I asked him what he wanted done and he said, “Well just do your best” and smiled. I didn’t feel talked down to.

I always try and keep up conversation with my clients, especially the men. Women have no problem talking and it doesn’t take them but a few visits before we’re friends. Someone you’d stop and talk with at the supermarket if you see them.

With the men you have to work a little harder. It pays off. They feel guilty (men are always feeling guilty about something) and tip you a little more. And if you happen to get a return visit and you remember a few details about them, then you’ve got a customer for life.

Men are simple. They have little slots in their minds and they fill them up based on the information you give them. They think “I need a haircut.” If you can make your face the one that comes to mind when they think that, they’ll come back every time.

Gerry wasn’t like that. Not like most men, not in Brandsville or probably anywhere. He had no problem talking. I have a few go-to conversational starters with men who come into the salon. Where do you work? Where’d you grow up? I didn’t get to any of them.

Part of it was that he was handsome. Brandsville isn’t spilling over with eligible men. Divorcees move away or remarry fast and the ones who don’t are usually too ugly or overweight or just plain resigned to be interested in. The ones who are single come across so awkward and randy you just feel sorry for them.

Something my grandmother told me was that charming men are mostly liars. She wasn’t wrong. But Gerry didn’t charm. In fact I felt a little ignored. If that can be a good thing. Like how the sun is a long ways off but you feel it on your skin. How could you want the sun’s full attention?


I had two or three other customers that day and closed out early, about 4:30. I was going to visit my friend Aeisha in the hospital (she had just had a baby) and I was already late. I was sweeping up my station when the girl who watches the front desk came back carrying a man’s wallet.

“That guy who was in here earlier, you know him?” Darlene didn’t specify which guy and didn’t need to. I didn’t even have to look at the driver’s license. There’s a momentum to life and sometimes you know when a thing is going to happen.

I told Darlene I’d take care of it. She was only too happy to get it off her desk. She was a snob. Younger than everyone else and pretty so she thought she was above working in a hair salon, answering phones and sometimes sweeping up. No one liked her much. She dropped the wallet on my station table and sort of rolled her eyes at me before walking back to the desk.

I finished up and caught the bus out to Mercy General. It was hot and I sat in the back next to an old Samoan man. I could only keep my hands still for about three minutes before I started looking through the wallet.

About eighty dollars in bills and a driver’s license (where I found out his name and that he was forty-three years old) and a Visa platinum card. No pictures, no library card, nothing that would separate him from any face in the crowd. Of course his address was listed on the driver’s license.

I thought about my friend Tracey back in high school. That was a girl who didn’t fuss over anything. If she liked a boy she told him so. She’d even sleep with them on the first date. She was slim and cute with curly brown hair so that made it easier. She didn’t give a damn about any of the things that keep me tossing and turning in bed, thinking about how a certain conversation went or what someone thought of me.

Tracy was not the norm though. I could go into any ladies room in any office building in this state and find someone clip-clopping around on their heels and shedding tears over some scandal.

It gets to where you just want to shut yourself in your room and spend your life doing nothing. Whenever I hear these stories about people who haven’t left the house in twenty years and got so obese they needed a crane to lift them out, I don’t wonder at it. I just figure they didn’t want to cry in the bathroom anymore.

I do my best. I don’t want to be broken down. Sometimes you can’t even tell if you want a thing. Want looks different on the other side of being afraid. This thing with the wallet was like that. I figured I better get with the program though I didn’t know how or what about.

Did I want to see this man again? Take his wallet to his address and strike up a conversation? Have a drink, seduce him? Make a mess of his marriage and his neat ordered life? It was some combination of all of these things. I wanted to make some look between us stick. I wanted there to be some sort of sweaty handshake between us that would have all of those other questions wrapped up in the middle.

I folded the wallet (it was one of the trifold kind that always seems to want to flip open) and stood up on the bus. It wasn’t my stop.

The brakes hissed and I stepped off the bus onto the sidewalk down by the Tops grocery. The sun was already halfway down but it was hot on the pavement. I stood there and pretended to look in my purse for a moment and took stock. There was a coffee shop a block north. I started walking.


As soon as I was in the coffee shop I felt very foolish. The kind of feeling you have in your clothes where you want to straighten the shoulders of your shirt. Seeing all those pastries laid out in a row in the glass case, the barista with the young face. I felt both comforted and embarrassed at the same time.

How ridiculous adult life is. What a dumb emergency to be infatuated with someone. Coffee is so simple to make and people will pay ten dollars for it to come in a little paper cup. I do it too. It’s all pretend. Playing like you’re the sort of person who pays ten dollars for a coffee when that person only exists because you pretend her.

I bought myself a coffee anyway. I wouldn’t be missed at the hospital yet. I could always just say everyone was sleeping when I visited. I went to the cashier to pay and hesitated over my purse and pulled out Gerry’s wallet instead of my own. I wondered what would happen if I paid for my coffee with his Visa.

Maybe I was Gerry’s wife. Maybe he was a contractor and we lived in a big house in a city somewhere. I could have some hot-shot job with an assistant and a big desk where I’d take my calls. An architect or an interior designer. That person could sit and have a coffee and think about her next move, whatever that might be. Calling to cancel her therapist’s appointment or calling her assistant to set a meeting with her next client or getting Gerry at his work to ask if he wanted to take his lunch hour early.

I realized I was sitting down at a table outside. I’d been holding my cup between the table and my mouth staring out at the parking lot. I burnt my tongue and decided that was enough. I got up and dropped the coffee in the trash and scolded myself back to the bus stop.


Of course I went back to the bus stop. What was I supposed to do?

I don’t usually sit when waiting for the bus but my legs felt tired. I remember my grandmother would get that way. She’d sit in our living room and put her feet up on the coffee table and sit with a newspaper over her face.

I would watch her. Stare, more like. I was fascinated with her. All old faces are interesting but hers was ancient. Lined in every direction. When she smiled it all gathered up like cinching the drawstring of a linen sack.

When you’re a kid you notice difference first. Then you give it reasons. Grown-ups are bigger than you, somehow. You wonder how they seem to know so much. Why they get to tell you what to do. Only later you connect the bigness and the knowing things to their age. They grew big. First they get to tell you what to do because they’re stronger than you. But then you understand it has a logic behind it. They got it from living.

I think that’s why my grandmother was so good to look at. She wasn’t strong like my mother but she still seemed to know more. I wasn’t sure what that meant.

A woman and her child came to the bus stop. There was another bench so I didn’t need to stand. She was carrying a bag of groceries and the child (only about three years old) was eating a radish. I’d never seen anyone eat a raw radish like that before.

Kids either smile at strangers or don’t and it always feels like some judgment on you. This one smiled. The mother smiled too so I spoke to the girl. “Are you eating a radish?”

The mother nodded. The girl covered her face with her hand. “She loves them. She’ll eat a whole bunch of them for her dinner.”

I asked the girl what her name was but she was still bashful. Her mother said, Patrice. I asked her how old she was and she held up some fingers.

“Well now I’ve met a little girl who likes radishes,” I told her.

They took the next bus and after they were gone I took out the wallet again. The inventory had the same result. That want. I didn’t know if I was supposed to learn something from this or not. I was old enough to know better but somehow I didn’t. There was a self telling another self to behave and it was barely listening.

One day I’ll be old with my feet on the table and a newspaper on my face but no knowledge in my head. No little girl to stare at my face and be fascinated.

Sometimes when you’re walking on a sidewalk you can see a side path through the grass that people made cutting the corner. There’s the sidewalk and then there’s where people go. No one could stop the habit of those feet finding the shortest way. I read once that they call those desire lines. Places where people’s feet go off the straight and narrow.

You can’t deny those paths are useful. Unless you’re talking about how a little girl sees you and then what? Use doesn’t track that way. You can’t explain anything to a little girl. There’s nothing useful about someone getting caught up in her thoughts and missing her bus ride home.


I put the wallet back at the front desk the next day. And do you know what happened? Gerry came back to get it and took up with Darlene. That child. What kind of fool man would do such a thing?

I decided I was well shot of him. If you can say that about someone you’d only ever known through desire. It’s no knowledge at all.


Nathan Pensky is a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University and has written for publications such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the A.V. Club, and many others. He is working on a dissertation on early modern drama and philosophy of mind, as well as his first novel.

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