Uncle John’s Toupee

Flannel leaf caterpillar

This is not Donald Trump’s toupee, it’s the puss caterpillar of the flannel moth. But it does serve to remind me of a little family history.

My father went down to Mexico in the mid-1930s, looking for work, and fell in love with the country and the capital. His older brother John soon followed him. John always had an eye out for the main chance and (so the family story goes) very much liked it that he could choose almost any profession and practice it in Mexico without much training — and the licenses were cheap. He chose to be an optometrist and did fairly well at it. He married a woman named Virginia, who said that she was not Mexican but French.

An aside: At least at the time, this was a snobby ploy to separate from the lowly Mestizo. Having pure Spanish blood was okay, but if you could claim descent from the French who came over with Maximilian, you were at the pinnacle of the social pyramid — or so they thought. The family story says that Virginia’s folk were quite rich and, before the revolution, used to beat their maids with hairbrushes. This may explain why they emerged from the revolution far less rich than before, and in far fewer numbers.

Theirs was a curious marriage, John and Virginia, perhaps best summed up by a visit they made to California when I was a kid. Dad and John sat, for some reason, in the kitchen (probably because it was closer to the coffeepot) while Mom and Virginia chattered in Spanish in the living room.

Comes John’s voice from the kitchen: “Chachis!” (Accent on the first syllable — his pet name for her.

“Yes, Yonny!” she calls, and minces into the kitchen.

John is lounging in his kitchen chair, his jacket hanging on the chairback behind him.

“Chachis, give me a cigarette.”

“Yes, Yonny!” she says in dulcet tones. She slides her hand into the breast pocket of his jacket, the one that is hanging right behind him on the chair in which he sits, and extracts his pack of cigarettes and his lighter. She puts the cigarette between her lips, leaving traces of lipstick on it, and lights it, then puts it between his lips. She returns the cigarettes and lighter to his pocket.

Johnny puffs, approves of the cigarette, and says, “Thanks, Chachis.”

She twinkles and titters and minces back to the living room.

This act is repeated not only with cigarettes, but with coffee and glasses of water, while Dad and John sit in the kitchen.

It became a family joke. If you wanted something and were near it, you yelled “Chachis!” and the other family members laughed and heaped abuse on you.

Anyway, back to the wig.

Baldness runs in Dad’s family. It skipped my grandfather, but Dad started balding in high school and so did John. It never bothered Dad much, but apparently John hated it. On one visit to California, he and Virginia confided to my folks that their marriage had almost foundered. John had, he explained, bought a toupee and wore it while out of the house, and while wearing it conducted at least one illicit affair. It was the toupee’s fault, he said. It forced him into carnal relations with tramps.  Eventually Virginia found out, snatched the toupee off his head, and threw it into the fire, thus freeing Uncle John from its malign influence. They recounted this tale with great earnestness to my folks, and while they billed and cooed my parents struggled mightily to keep straight faces.

John thought of himself as a Jack of all Arts, and one of them was architecture. He designed the home he had built for himself and Virginia in Mexico City, a place where the building codes, at the time, were lax to non-existent. I hated the house. The stairs from the living room up to the second floor were polished stone slabs with only one side wall and no railings, and I was convinced that I would slip off them and break my neck and die. But John’s most famous innovation was the wall in his bathroom. It faced the street and was taken up by a floor-to-ceiling, side-to-side one way mirror, so that John could take a relaxing shit while looking down on his neighbors. Would have worked fine, too, except that it was put in backwards. I don’t know how many craps John and Virginia took before somebody alerted them to the problem. Instead of having it removed, they covered it with a curtain.

Some years after I became published, John loaned me a copy of a screenplay he had written and solicited my opinion of it. It was a pretty obvious rip-off of the movie RAIN, based on the Somerset Maugham story, but in John’s version the names were changed and People Actually Did It. Not on-camera, you understand, but there was some Hot Action going on, you can betcha. He pointed this out as the innovative factor, after I pointed out the connection with Maugham. I wasn’t particularly impressed, and John kept his literary efforts to himself from then on.

He had, in fact, come to California specifically to pester Barnaby Conrad with it. Conrad was currently in residence somewhere in Marin County, and he was pretty certain that Conrad would love the book and stake it financially, because after all they were both Men’s Men, into bullfighting and boating and other dick-waving events, although Conrad actually did them. In any event, he finagled a meeting, went off with his derivative screenplay in hand — and never mentioned it again.