'The Search for Baby Combover' The Search for Baby Combover reprinted by permission of the Louisiana State University Press, copyright 2007.

'The Search for Baby Combover'

The Search for Baby Combover reprinted by permission of the Louisiana State University Press, copyright 2007.

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In Paris one night the doorbell rings,

         and there's this little guy, shaking like a leaf

and going "uh-uh-uh-UNH-ah!" and his eyes get big

                  and he raises his hands like a gospel singer

and goes "UNH-ah-uh-uh-uh-UNH-uh-ah!"

and for just a fraction of a second I think

         he's doing the first part of Wilson Pickett's

"Land of a Thousand Dances" and that he wants me

                   to join him in some kind of weird welcome

to the neighborhood, so I raise my hands a little

and begin to sort of hum along, though

         not very loudly in case I'm wrong about this,

and I'm smiling the way old people smile

                   when they can't hear you but want you to know

that everything's okay as far as they're concerned

or a poet smiles in a roomful of scientists,

         as if to say, "Hey! I'm just a poet!

But your stuff's great, really! Even if

                   I don't understand any of it!" And by the time

I start to half-wonder if this gentleman wants me

to take the you-got-to-know-how-to-pony part

         or means to launch into it himself, he gives

a little hop and slaps his hands down to his sides

                   and says, "PLEASE! YOU MUST NOT MOVE


so I lower my own hands and say, "Whaaaa . . . ?"

         and he says, "ALWAYS YOU ARE MOVING IT WHEN


                   And now that he's feeling a little bolder,

he steps in closer, where the light's better,

and I see he's got something on his head,

         like strands of oily seaweed, something

you'd expect to find on a rock after one of

                   those big tanker spills in the Channel,

so I lean a little bit and realize it's what

stylists call a "combover," not a bad idea

         on the tall fellows but definitely a grooming no-no

for your vertically challenged caballeros,

                   of which Monsieur here is certainly one,

especially if they are yelling at you.

But I'd read an article about AA that said

         when your loved ones stage an intervention

and go off on you for getting drunk

                   and busting up the furniture and running out

into traffic and threatening to kill the President,

it's better to just let them wind down

         and then say, "You're probably right,"

because if you're combative, they will be, too,

                   and then your problems will just start over again,

so I wait till Mr. Combover stops shaking—

it's not nice, I know, but it's the first name that comes to mind—

         and I say, "You're probably right," and he raises

a finger and opens his mouth as if to say something

                   but then snaps his jaw shut and whirls around

and marches downstairs, skidding a little

and windmilling his arms and almost falling

         but catching himself, though not without

that indignant backward glance we all give

                   the stupid step that some stupid idiot would have

attended to long ago if he hadn't been so stupid.

The next day, I ask Nadine the gardienne

         qu'est-ce que c'est the deal avec the monsieur

qui lives under moi, and Nadine says his femme

                   is toujours busting his chops, but il est afraid

of her, so il takes out his rage on the rest of nous.

There's something else, though: a few days later,

         Barbara and I see Mr. and Mrs. Combover

crossing the Pont Marie, and she is a virtual giantess

                   compared to him! Now I remember once hearing Barbara

give boyfriend advice to this niece of mine,

and Barbara said (1) he's got to have a job,

         (2) he's got to tell you you're beautiful all the time,

and (3) he's got to be taller than you are,

                   so when I see Mrs. Combover looming over her hubby,

I think, Well, that explains the busted chops.

Not only that, Mrs. Combover looks cheap.

         She looks rich, sure—Nadine had told me Monsieur

is some sorte de diplomat avec the Chilean delegation—

                   but also like one of those professional ladies

offering her services up around the Rue St. Denis.

But who are they, really? "Combover" is one

         of those names from a fifties black-and-white movie;

he's the kind of guy neighborhood kids call "Mr. C."

                   and who has a boss who says things like, "Now see here,

Combover, this sort of thing just won't do!"

He's like one of Dagwood's unnamed colleagues—

         he's not even Dagwood, who at least excites

Mr. Dithers enough to be fired a couple

                   of times a week, not to mention severely beaten.

Only Dagwood is really in charge. Everything goes his way!

Despite chronic incompetence, ol' Dag keeps

         the job that allows him his fabulous home life:

long naps, towering sandwiches, affectionate

                   and well-behaved teenaged children, a loyal dog,

and, best of all, the love of Blondie.

Blondie! The name says it all: glamorous but fun.

        Big trashy Mrs. Combover is not glamorous,

although she thinks she is, and no fun at all.

                   She is the anti-Blondie. Her job seems to be

to stay home and smoke, since we're always smelling

the cigarette fumes that seep up through the floor

         into our apartment day and night. And he says

we're keeping Baby Combover awake when we move

                   the furniture, which we've never done, but then

we've never seen Baby Combover, either. Or heard him.

Baby Combover: the world's first silent baby.

         Barbara has this theory that, after a life

of prostitution, Mrs. Combover has not only repented but

                   undergone a false pregnancy and imaginary birth.

Therefore, the reason why Baby Combover is silent

is that he is not a real baby who fusses and eats and

         wets and poops but is instead a pillowcase with knots

for ears and a smiley face drawn with a Magic Marker and

                   a hole for its mouth so Mrs. Combover can teach it

to smoke when it's older, like eight, say.

Now I know what they fight about: "You never spend

         any time with the baby!" hisses Mrs. Combover.

"I will—later, when he can talk!" says Mr. Combover.

                   "Here I am stuck with this baby all day long!

And those horrible people upstairs!"

And he says, "Oh, be silent, you . . . prostitute!"

         And she says, "Quiet, you horrible man—

not in front of the baby!" Maybe it's time

                   for a call to the police. Or the newspapers.

I can see the headlines now: OU EST L'ENFANT COMBOVER?

I feel sorry for him. With parents like these,

         it would be better if someone were to kidnap him.

Or I could take him back to America with me,

                   I who have a wife who loves me and two grown sons.

Why not? We've got all this extra room now.

We'll feed him a lot and tickle him;

         there's nothing funnier than a fat, happy baby.

And when the boys come home to visit,

                   they'll take him out with them in their sports cars:

"It's my little brother!" they'll say. "He's French!"

The neighborhood kids, once a band of sullen mendicants,

         will beg us to let him play with them,

even though he doesn't speak their language.

                   Look! There they go toward the baseball field,

with Baby Combover under their arm!

I love you, Baby Combover! You are Joseph Campbell's

         classic mythical hero, i.e., "an agent of change

who relinquishes self-interest and breaks down

                   the established social order." But you're so pale!

You've stayed out too long and caught cold.

Barbara and the boys gather around his bed;

         they hug each other, and we try not to cry.

Baby Combover is smiling—he always smiled, that kid.

                   His little mouth begins to move, and we lean in

and think we hear him say, "Be bwave fo' me. . . ."

Back in Paris, Mr. Combover grows a full head of hair.

         Mrs. Combover reaches up to touch it.

He puts down his attaché case and caresses her cheek.

                   "How beautiful you are!" he says. It's so quiet now.

Then they hear it: in the next room, a child is crying.