The Day I Touched Rick Moody’s Hair
by Ted Wojtasik
I was in Rome, Italy, in the Keats-Shelley House, peering into a glass case at locks of hair from John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I had never seen a poet’s lock of hair before, and there was something rather thrilling to be looking at these locks of hair from these Romantic poets. There is also a reliquary that holds a lock of hair from John Milton.
I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Glenway Wescott’s novels (an expatriate writer who lived in Paris in the 1920s), and in his second novel, The Grandmothers, he describes a “hair album” that bewilders the protagonist “when his grandmother explained that this book took the place, in those days, of a photograph album.” Those days were the mid-nineteenth century. A photograph album would bewilder the young today because they now have Facebook. I knew that people kept locks of hair from lovers or family members. Parents often keep a lock of their child’s first haircut as a keepsake. Nevertheless, I was still startled to be looking at these locks of hair and I thought about two unusual incidents in my life that involved hair.
One memory about hair concerns Katherine Anne Porter, whose book The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Anne Porter won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1966. I met Katherine Anne the summer I finished college and we became close friends. She was 89 years old at the time, bedridden, and had good days and bad days. I used to visit her about once a week to have coffee and to talk about books, writers, and her life.
One afternoon, she asked me what I was reading, and I said, “I’m reading you.” I had a paperback copy of The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter. She asked to see the paperback copy because she had not seen that edition before and then asked if she could borrow it until my next visit. Of course I let her borrow the book.
I knew she had read the book (or just parts of it) because I found that she had underlined various sentences and made markings in the margins. However, between pages 194 and 195 in her essay “Act of Faith: 4 July 1942,” which describes our entry into World War II, I found a single short strand of her famous white hair.
On occasion I would give the book to friends of mine to read and I would never mention anything about the strand of hair and I always wondered if it would still be there when I got it back—it always was. (Which meant that my friends didn’t read the entire book or that the strand of hair was simply turned along with the page.) Finally, I decided not to take that risk anymore and I simply don’t let anyone borrow that book. I still have that paperback copy with that single short strand of Katherine Anne Porter’s white hair.
And then I thought of the day I touched Rick Moody’s hair. It happened in the student lounge of the MFA Writing Program at Columbia University in the spring semester of 1986. This was the time of spiked hair, punk rockers, brightly colored hair, and blue jeans with torn knees, the kneecaps peeking out at the world from a ragged hole of denim. Rick has gone on to great writing success with such works as Ice Storm, The Black Veil, and The Diviners.
One afternoon Rick arrived with his short brown hair thickened into a collection of gel-hardened little spikes as if Marcel Duchamp had created an assemblage on his head. Everyone wanted to touch his hair. Both men and women. And Rick willingly obliged. His hair was stiff and bristly as though I had touched a cactus without getting pricked.
Bio: Ted Wojtasik is the author of two novels, No Strange Fire and Collage, and many short stories published in various literary journals, such as Cold Mountain Review, New Delta Review, and Cairn. His first novel received a Silver Angel Award from Excellence in Media and a gold-starred review and “Editors’ Choice” in Booklist in 1996. His second novel was one of five finalists for the Lambda Literary Award in 2004. He served on the Literature Panel for the National Endowment of the Arts in 2003. His short story “Scars and Frost” received honorable mention in O. Henry Festival Stories 2000, a short story competition, sponsored by Greensboro College in North Carolina. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, North Carolina. He holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in 20th-century American literature from the University of South Carolina.