That Palm Springs Style
by Charles C. Cole
Many Novembers ago, I was in faraway and exotic Palm Springs for business so I decided to look up an old high school classmate, Bill Settler, who’d moved west to be near his wife’s family. If you’ve never been there, it’s a heavily watered, vibrantly green oasis in the middle of the driest desert.
Bill’s always been eccentric. Our senior year of high school, he threw a “banana bomb” — a real banana — into my history class from the hallway as a prank. His detention was probably a reward to him, because later, legitimately, based on that one incident, he referred to himself as “the banana bomber” in the nicknames section of the yearbook.
We hadn’t spoken in years, but we’d exchanged holiday cards with fair consistency. The last I’d heard, he was getting divorced and making life changes, such as becoming a vegetarian and shaving his head. I looked him up in the phone book and decided to meet at an outdoor Mexican restaurant not far from my hotel. Bill was a professional artist who made his “real money” with a paint-and-bake kids’ craft store franchise.
When we met, contrary to his Christmas letter, Bill had the most vivid hair I’d ever seen: thick, dense, with stiff silver spikes on top that drooped down the sides, alluring and not quite real. He resembled a certain British rock star from the ’80s. I didn’t know what to say. I’m sure I stared, but I didn’t say anything.
As our conversation wound down, Bill said, “So, enough about you, what do you think of my hair? Pretty amazing, right?”
“I don’t know what kind of shampoo you’re using,” I said, “but it’s working for you. Honestly, your head looks like a shaggy Chia pet, in a good way. You could do TV commercials with that hair. It looks alive.”
“Last year my ex-wife, Paulina, and I went on a working vacation to Sedona. You knew she wrote freelance articles for gardening magazines? Anyway, we’d been invited to this private sanctuary: a perfect place to find inner peace, if you’re looking for it. Unfortunately, we’d been fighting — again — about whether or not to have kids. While she hunkered down to interview our host, I wandered off in search of personal space and found this old Hispanic groundskeeper, Luis Campos. Luis was tending to the tillandsias, the air plants.”
“I’m sure you’ve seen them,” said Bill. “Picture a trunkless dracaena in miniature. Or, better yet, a small spider plant.”
“They don’t float in the air, do they?” I asked. “I mean, this was Sedona.”
“No, it’s not what they do; it’s what they don’t do. They don’t need soil. They sit on top of things, like rocks, and feed themselves from the moisture in the air and the sun, plenty of sun.”
“There are so many kinds, but he was cultivating epiphytic bromeliads.”
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” I teased.
Then Bill told me his story.
* * *
I’d been losing my hair since high school, and I usually traveled outdoors under the shadow of a wide-brimmed Australian bush hat, to protect my scalp. But, because of our spat earlier, I’d forgotten it. Well, I’d remembered it, but too late; we’d already left the hotel an hour after we should have, so there was no time for going back. My scalp was cooking.
Luis ignored me at first. He had this steel rake that my dad would have used for unearthing potatoes. And he was gently raking the sand around the elevated plant beds. As I watched, I opened a handkerchief and laid it flat on my head for respite.
“Looking good,” I said. He just nodded. At the time I wasn’t sure he could speak English. “You must be the fen shui gardener,” I teased.
“Nope, just raking up coyote poop,” he said, and then he laughed. “You don’t get out much.” He pointed at my handkerchief. “I mean, outside.”
“I usually have a hat,” I said. “But I wasn’t thinking clearly earlier, and now the sun is killing me.”
“Then you need to make friends with the sun.”
“Great idea,” I said.
“Are you here to write the magazine story?” he asked.
“My wife is.”
“Then I can help,” he said. “I’ve wanted to try this for years. Maybe your wife can write about it and make me famous. I think you could use it.”
And he was right.
* * *
“Isn’t it the coolest?” asked Bill.
“Isn’t what the coolest?”
“This,” he said, holding his hands, palms up, on either side of his ears.
“You’re wearing a plant on your head!”
“Actually, it’s a colony,” he said. “Luis told me to leave the ‘pups’ attached to the mother plant because it makes the specimen heartier.”
“Looks good,” I said. “Exotic, but professionally artsy-fartsy, in an Andy Warhol way, if that’s what you’re going for.” Freaked out though I was, I truly liked the look.
“They’re attached to this breathable Nylon ‘bald cap’ Luis designed. Talk about ‘going green.’ I remove it at night. Out here, nobody seems to notice, or at least say anything. But I knew you’d say something.”
“You did?” I asked.
“You can’t help yourself,” he said. “Sometimes you just blurt things out, like when you turned me in for the banana thing.”
“You don’t remember? Mr. Sussman asked, ‘Who threw that banana?’ And you blurted, ‘Bill, the banana bomber.’ And that’s how I got that stupid nickname.”
“Really?” I had completely forgotten. “Sorry, man. But what happened to Luis?”
“My ex was so upset that trip, she never wrote the article.”
“Then nobody’ll ever know,” I said.
“Unless you write about it,” he suggested, “seeing as you owe me big for the whole banana incident.”
“Done, so long as I can change enough details so it’ll feel like a story, creative license and all that.”
“Deal,” said Bill.
Copyright © 2016 by Charles C. Cole