My doctor is a man who used to be gorgeous, and knows it, and so now that he is old and no longer gorgeous in the eyes of the world at large, he’s become rather gruff and callous, which is really just a cover for how hurt he feels for being rejected where he was once loved; just because of the way he looks. His office is bright and clean and white in that dull, faded sort of way that doctor’s offices have of being bright and clean and white. It is easy to imagine this place being popular with a specific BDSM niche—the neat freaks who go more in for stainless steel and ammonia than PVC and sweat.
The doctor comes out in his dominatrix costume and pokes and prods at me, sticking things in my accessible head-orifices without explaining why. His wooden stick makes me gag and the tip of of the opthalmascope he inserts into my ear feels like he is tickling the inside of my brain. I feel invaded—as if he were a crew of colonists deciding whether they want to move in and figuring how best to dispose of the native inhabitants.
Eventually he gets around to looking at my scalp. I have a some kind of infection and it itches a lot, and when I scratch, great lumps of dead skin come away under my fingernails. It hurts in a burning sort of way that is unpleasant, but oddly satisfying. Especially when I get a nice big lump, a heifer of a picking, and pull it delicately out from between my hair to hold it up in the light. Much like picking your nose, really. It’s that same curious sense of achievement you get when you manage to pull out the entire boogery contents of a nostril in one long, stretchy piece.
The doctor puts on gloves (snap, snap) before touching my head, which is ominous. He plays his rubberised fingers through my hair and even though he is a stranger I shiver with that warm intimate feeling that is the enduring echo of our primate ancestors who would pass a goodly portion of their time sitting on one another’s laps having their hair groomed and the fleas and lice picked off. The doctor roots around for a while and I find that the relaxation of this free head massage quite nicely offsets the discomfort of being objectified by a human robot in a science coat. He hums and hahs as he works and signals his job-well-done by sitting back in his chair and un-snap-snapping his gloves.
Doctor: Yes. That’s quite the little culture you have there.
Me: Um, thanks?
Doctor: Aha, I see. Humour, yes. Ahem. Malassezia, it’s a family of fungus. Yeast, actually.
Me: And it’s growing on my head?
Me: And how do I get rid of it?
Doctor: I’m afraid you can’t.
Me: But there must be some kind of medication, a shampoo, or something.
Doctor: Oh, there is, but I’m not allowed to prescribe it to you.
Me: Why not?
Doctor: Animal rights.
Here falls one of those silences when one person says something crazy and the other can’t think how to respond without shouting. I breathe in, deep and slow, then say, “Right.”
He nods and smiles a benign, emotionally disengaged smile, “Yes. Fungi and bacteria are living creatures. And from a dermatological perspective, your scalp constitutes an ecosystem which is the native habitat of this particular culture of Malassezia yeast. It would be unethical of me to aid you in unbalancing that ecosystem and killing the culture.”
Me: I see.
Doctor: Good, I’m glad.
Me: But it’s my scalp, surely I’m entitled to decide what grows on it.
Doctor: I can understand why you might think so. But if you think about it a little bit, you’ll see that it’s almost exactly like a farmer’s field being infested with moles. And as you know killing moles is illegal these days.
Doctor: Would you firebomb the villages of natives living in the amazon because their tribes are quote-unqote infesting the rainforest?
Me: What? No. Of course not.
Doctor: We would call that genocide, wouldn’t we?
Me: But that’s not the same thing.
Doctor: If you think about it, it pretty much is. Here—.
He hands me a brochure. It has a cartoon drawing of a tapeworm hugging a humorously oversized deer tick.
Our Symbiotic Friends: The Rights and Protections of Human Parasites.
I try not to scream. “Oh, there’s a pamphlet and everything. I guess it’s pretty official, then.”
The robot doctor does not meet my eye. He straightens the sleeve of his science coat.
Me: So there’s nothing I can do?
The doctor smiles a rueful, emotionally unengaged smile, “Not if you want to do it ethically.“
Out in the late-autumn fog, on the grey pond of parking lot concrete across the tarmac river from another standing-pool of grey artificial stone, I stand and scratch my head. It’s cool and damp out and I’m annoyed at having had to come all the way here for nothing. The plasicky paper of the parasite pamphlet is waxy in my hand and reflects the bright, clean, white, and yet somehow dull light of the doctor’s sign. I can feel the whatever it is that is growing on my head munching on the skin cells between my hair follicles and I think how much I would like to get rid of it. Then I think how much I don’t want to be put in prison for genocide, or ecocide, or fungicide, and find myself unable to reconcile the absurdity of that thought with the fact that it just happened inside my head. I scratch my itch-burning scalp again and someone behind me steps into the light and the brochure goes dull.
Creepy Guy: Got a bit of an itch, ‘ave you?
Me: Me? Oh, yes, a bit.
Creepy Guy: Would you like to do somethin’ about it?
Me: Of course I would, but—
I twist my hand holding the brochure and he looks down and takes my meaning—then gently pulls the fold of waxy paper from between the fingers of my hand, “Never you mind about that.”
Me: But I wouldn’t want to—
Creepy Guy: Of course not, of course. Listen, I’ve got a friend who might be able to ‘elp you out, entirely above board, of course, completely ethical.
He has a smile that makes me want to feel comfortable, but it stretches out under eyes which seem to have a nefarious gleam to them—especially because he is backlit by the doctor’s sign and I am unquestioningly certain there is no light source behind me powerful enough to make his eyes gleam like that. And also, and I know this is unfair of me to think, but there is something in the set of his crooked nose that makes me feel wary of following him across the street.
He knocks on a steel fire door set in a narrow alleyway with walls covered in embarrassingly unskilled graffiti and his bare knuckles sound dull and thick in that way that tells you the door is 100% totally solid. He turns and smile-threatens me again and I have the feeling that it would be better to walk away now—but then my scalp gives a burning, itchy throb and I am stepping in through the door that he is now holding open for me. The light is dim but the walls are covered in large, rectangular mirrors, each with a big leather chair in front of it and a little shelf unit below it covered in spray cans and glass jars full of combs and brushes soaking in blue liquid.
Off to one side a tall woman with a very large dress size is standing over a chair in front of a sink basin. The tap is running and a human form is reclining in the folded-back seat, and she appears to be holding its head under the water—though the body isn’t flailing or fighting back as you would expect someone being drowned to do.
The man with the untrustworthy eyes calls out to the big woman, “Hey Mary-Mary, got a new friend you ought to meet.”
She glances back at us and speaks through lips clamped tightly around a cigarette, “That so? Put ’em in a chair, Gary. I’ll only be a min’.”
Gary leads me to the next chair in the row of chairs in front of sink-basins, behind where Mary-Mary is not drowning her other customer but running her fingers through his wet hair. The man groans with a pleasure that seems almost sexual and it is not hard to imagine why someone might pay just to have their hair washed by a woman with strong but gentle hands.
Gary steps on the lever at the base of the chair and it falls beneath my weight, and then he pushes another one and I tip suddenly backwards, and then I’m spinning a half-circle and Gary is lowering my head gently into the deep U in the edge of the sink basin. The porcelain is cool against my neck and the man in the chair next to me grunts an orgasmic shudder and Mary-Mary washes the foam from her hands and drapes a towel over his face, “You just rest there a while, darlin’.”
And then she turns to me, her bulk looming over me, her belly pressing warm and firm against my shoulder.
Mary-Mary: Hello sugar. How are you?
Me: Good I guess.
It’s hard to talk with my neck all stretched out and it feels like my skull is being pulled off the top of my spine; so I lift my head, but my neck starts to hurt more in a different way and so I give up. She continues to loom, but it is the friendly, smiling kind of looming.
Mary-Mary: Must be all that goodness brought you in to see me now.
Me: Well, I have this itch on my scalp.
Mary-Mary: Does it burn?
Me: It burns.
Mary-Mary: And Gary brought you over from Burt’s place across the street?
Me: The doctor? The dermatologist. You know him?
She holds up a hand with a band of gold around her fourth finger.
Mary-Mary: Sure, me and Burt go way back.
Me: But he said it would be unethical.
Mary-Mary: Well, darlin’, there’s unethical, and then there’s unethical. What we do here ain’t so bad.
Me: Look, I don’t know if this is such—
And then she turns the tap on and a gush of warm water splashes on my forehead and begins to run down my scalp. I groan involuntarily and lose the power of speech. Her hands have started massaging the skin hidden by the hair on my head and I can feel it stretching and compressing as she digitates my tingling scalp. The muscles in my neck loosen and I don’t think I could lift my head if I wanted to, nor stand, my body is so relaxed. Her voice is soft over the hiss of the water that is soaking my head, “If you’re worried about it, I have a little home remedy I could use, all natural, no nasty chemicals.”
I want to protest, but the rhythm of her hands is too powerful, it sends ripples of energy into by mind, interference patterns that jumble up my brain waves. She shuts off the tap and turns away, but before I am able to reassemble my Self she is back with a bottle in her hand and she pours a thick, yellow liquid into the palm of her hand and I smell the smell of lemons and Shea butter and tea-tree oil. She begins kneading my scalp again but this time the tap is off and there is no sensory confusion from the water running down my head and the white noise in my ears. The whole universe has become the tips of her powerful, tender fingers and my head is like a giant clitoris and she is just rubbing and rubbing and rubbing. Circles and zig-zags and long vertical lines that she sometimes digs into with her fingernails just a little—which makes me see the spark-cloud explosions of fireworks on the dark lids of my closed eyes. Just as I am coming a skull-shattering scalp-gasm, the door bangs open.
A group of people start shouting but my eyes aren’t working again yet. Through the cotton-puff haze of universal oneness I can hear loudly resonating vocal chords projecting their angry and intimidating hums and buzzes into the echoing room. I am still in the throes, so of course I can’t lay down on the floor like I think they want me to, but Mary-Mary makes a lumbering dash for the door out into the failing mystical-healing store that is the front for her real business.
A uniformed woman shoots her gun and Mary-Mary shouts (Ahhhwwwghhh!) and tumbles to the floor in a rumbling heap. I am grabbed by the arms and hauled up onto my wobbling jelly legs, and the toes of my shoes rasp limply behind me as they drag me to their quasi-military truck covered in flashing lights. As I gradually pull focus back from the blur of coital bliss a female voice speaks in a voice just about to brim over with agitation. I can’t understand yet, but it’s probably that same thing that they say on cop shows when the bad guy gets arrested. Blahblah rights and blahblah can and will be used against you. I never thought I would be the bad guy someday.
I have never been in a police station before. This one is a lot cleaner than I would have expected and looks surprisingly like the open-plan office I work in. I sit on a visitor’s lounger between two ferns with my hands cuffed behind my back, and it feels like my shoulder might pop out of its socket. It’s a lot busier than my office though, with lots of people in dark, quasi-military uniforms covered in pockets, stripes, and shiny bits striding purposefully from one end of the foyer to the other. They mostly walk with stiff shoulders and an odd wiggle in the hips, kind of like cowboys—which is strange because probably none of them has ever ridden a horse.
Over the hour that I am sitting there I notice that the skin on my head doesn’t itch as much as it did before. Maybe this is just because of the vigorous scrubbing that Mary-Mary gave it before she died, but maybe the lemon and shea butter and tea-tree oil shampoo really did work.
A short, tough woman with a long, straight ponytail and wicked dandruff comes up to me and grabs me by the arm—leading me into a small room with a dull steel table and four dull steel chairs; which don’t do much to make the atmosphere at all cosy or inviting. The arrangement of plastic flowers on the table only makes it worse, somehow. I feel like everyone and everything in this place is trying make themselves feel better about trying to intimidate me into feeling guilty, which, technically, I am not.
She pushes me roughly down onto one of the chairs and then seats herself on the other side of the table, turning her own chair around with a stage-rehearsed flick of the wrist and straddling the seat and leaning forwards on the backrest. Her pupils flare with a fire of rage, then she scratches at her scalp. She keeps scratching and a snow drift of white flakes falls onto the shoulder of the dark sport coat she is wearing over a white shirt tucked into dark jeans.
Detective Lady: You disgust me.
Me: Look, I told the other officer already.
Detective Lady: Yeahyeah. Against my will, and had no choice, and didn’t know what they was up to.
Detective Lady: How do you end up in an illicit shampoo parlour by accident?
Me: Like I told her, the other officer, the guy, Gary, didn’t tell me where he was taking me and I never gave consent to have my hair washed.
Detective Lady: And nowhere in the course of the 15 minutes that woman (her tone of voice sounds like she wants to say that whore) had her filthy hands all over your head did you think to say no.
Me: She had very persuasive hands.
She scratches, more flaring eyes, more drifting flakes, “Not good enough.”
Me: And Gary told me it would be ethical, it would be natural. How was I to—?
Detective Lady: Natural genocide?
Watching her scratching, the itching on my own scalp starts to get worse again.
Me: But it’s only a fungus!
Detective Lady: Only a fungus? Is it alright to drown kittens because they’re only cats? Is it just dandy to steal nursing babies from their mothers and feed them rat poison because they’re only infants?
Me: I really don’t think that’s a good analogy.
She scratches again, “You disgust me.”
Me: Well, I didn’t mean to offend you. I was just hoping they could make the itching stop, ethically.
Detective Lady: Ethical murder?
A spot on my temple has started to itch and I want to scratch it very badly but I can’t because of the cuffs holding my hands behind my back, “You can’t honestly believe that treating a fungal infection is murder.”
Detective Lady: Did you deliberately set about changing the ecology of your scalp to the disadvantage of the culture of Malassezia Globosa which has in good faith taken up residence there?
Me: Well yes, I suppose. But technica—
She scratches at her scalp yet again and the spot on my temple is driving me crazy, “And the natural consequence of that would be?”
Me: Well, the fungus would, I suppose it would die.
Detective Lady: Sounds like murder to me.
Me: But who on earth would think like that?
Detective Lady: Deliberate ignorance is no excuse. Cruelty is cruelty and the law is the law.
Me: So what now, am I going to prison?
Detective Lady: Your guy Gary corroborates that you never gave consent or that any money changed hands, so no. But be sure, you filthy son of a bad person, be absolutely certain that I’ve got my eye on you. And if you even so much as think of washing your hair with anything other than a government approved, bacteriologically-friendly shampoo I’ll know and we’ll have you—
Me: Does that mean you can take these cuff off now?
She scratches at her scalp again then she gestures for me to turn around and the tension falls from my shoulders and the stranglehold on my wrists releases—I can breathe again. I finally get to scratch the spot on my temple and I sigh audibly. As I turn, I see that she is scratching her own head on the crown and a grimace of discomfort contorts her face.
Me: You have it too?
She looks embarrassed, nods, “It’s making me crazy.”
I smile sympathetically, “Does it ever go away by itself?”
She takes a deep breath and sighs, “No.”
The fog has dissipated into a clammy, lingering damp. The streetlamps fill the air with orange light that is clear but makes everything look hazy. I scratch absently at my head and feel my fingernail slide under a chunk of dead skin which peels away almost like the skin of a satsuma and I feel a burning sensation as it lifts up from my scalp. I hold it up to the light and it is almost as big as the nail on my thumb. I get a momentary urge to put it in my mouth, but I don’t—I flick it out into the orange haze and begin the long way home.