Side A Fiction: “Pieterjan Thyjssen” by Hugh Behm-Steinberg

Pieterjan Thyjssen

For Peter Bullen

One day during my morning walk I ran into Jim sporting the most staggering of haircuts. All the people around us, with their boring lives, their tedious bangs and fauxhawks, walking their shallow dogs, oblivious to the very concept of absolute beauty, each became entangled in leashes as their animals went berserk in the presence of Jim’s almighty hair. Upon contemplation, it was so obviously a work of majesty and power, like the heaviest and most radioactive of metal, where each note flays all the meaningless flesh from the face of this disgusting world.

Jim practically shimmered; butterflies abandoned their flowers just to circle his hair.

So naturally, of course, I wanted a cut like that.

I could crush the world if I had hair like that!

“Jim,” I said in my most dispassionate voice. “What genius did this to you?”

I had to stare at the ground to contain my enthrallment. I think Jim had become used to his heavy burden, because he lifted my chin up with his strong right hand. “Pieterjan Thyjssen,” he said, and with that name alone he dashed every single one of my hopes.

I should have known. Such an enduring voice in hair for so many years; it has been said that you cannot even make an appointment at Pieterjan Thyjssen’s, no matter who you knew or how much money you had. Instead, one had to sacrifice something they loved upon the iron hook dangling in front of his salon, and if your tribute was found worthy, if one was fortunate to be so blessed with a head that interested Thyjssen, and one possessed a willingness to surrender all, then you would receive a summons, and everything you knew would change.

Many were the things I had left upon that hook, only to slink off in shame to some infinitely lesser stylist in El Cerrito. But witnessing Jim, I knew I had been holding something back, and that I was the one ultimately responsible for all of my failures. If I truly wanted what I wanted, then I knew what I had to do.

The next day I walked up to Pieterjan Thyjssen’s and, shedding my clothes, I hoisted myself upon that hook, piercing my chest, holding on until I passed out from the pain.

Glad was my heart when I woke up in the solitary chair of Pieterjan Thyjssen’s salon, wounded and dressed, but alive. “Would you like some herbal tea while you wait?” asked an assistant dressed entirely in silver, her hair some sort of beautiful machine the future will never understand.

The cut itself, of how time fled, and what happened during that velvet, I cannot begin to describe. The salon itself had no mirrors (“Mirrors are abominable,” Thyjssen once said in an early interview, when he still gave those. “All they do is copy that which must remain unique.”). Still I could feel my new self, suffused in the radiance of a beauty that cannot last, which is all the more wonderous because of it. For once in my life I felt weightless and free.

I wrote a check for everything I owned: it was the least I could offer, but I knew Pieterjan Thyjssen would not touch it. Whatever words I could say could not measure up to what I had been gifted. The moment I walked out that door, I could crush, or for that matter, bless, whatever faced me; any thing or person I could possibly want would be mine, because I was that beautiful.

Oh, if you could only have seen my heart at that moment!

But at the threshold I lingered.

I turned around and walked back inside to watch Thyjssen working on his next miracle, a child, no more than eleven years old. She looked so happy I could only wonder how much she must have lost in order to be here.

What is the point of bearing such beauty? Beauty that could make cars crash, trees fall, men and women do whatever delights you: the lightest and most heavy of burdens now crowned my head, and yet at that moment I felt so selfish, so worthless.

“I don’t want to leave,” I said. “I’ll sweep the floor, or make the tea, or anything you’d like,” and I kept saying all the different things I could think of, that I could do, be of use, if only I could stick around.

“Let me stay and learn from you,” I said. I was crying. No doubt my tears were already destroying whatever Thyjssen had made of me.

“Why would you wish to do that?” his assistant asked.

I waved my arm, though any gesture felt useless. “The moment I walk out that door, this, all of this, will begin to go away.”

“So?” replied Thyjssen, too much an artist to even raise an eyebrow.

“What is the point of anything being beautiful if time destroys everything and everyone eventually? It is the same for love or anything else we think good, why should anyone bother going to get their hair done, even if it is by the greatest artist of our time, unless it is to inspire others to make more beauty?” I said, though every word felt futile the moment it crossed my unworthy lips. “Let me learn whatever you wish to teach me.”

The child in her chair laughed, most likely at the foolishness of my behavior.

But I stood there, and I let myself be judged, by people who knew more about truth than I will ever know.

Which is why I felt like sunlight, or a length of golden hair before it is perfectly cut, when the assistant smiled at me and Pieterjan Thyjssen said, “OK. Tomorrow I will teach you how to sharpen a pair of scissors.”

Mini-interview with Hugh Behm-Steinberg

HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?

HBS: About seven years ago I started writing these weird little narratives, riffing off The Sound of Music, such as imagining if H. P. Lovecraft had written the musical, or if the actors playing the Von Trapp children had been listening to John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things.” When I finished, I thought great, my next book will be a bunch of poems about movies. But each time I tried to write a poem, it was terrible. It turned out that what I was interested in wasn’t movies at all: it was writing weird prose narratives. When I was writing poetry, I was very disinterested in narrative: I’m not a fan of poems that could just as easily be short stories or essays. But I think my pushing against narrative only pulled me deeper into wanting to write fiction.

HFR: What are you reading?

HBS: I’m currently reading The Cabinet by Un-Su Kim (translated by Sean Lin Halbert). A series of vignettes about a person investigating “symptomers” (people who do such things as drink gasoline or have trees growing from their hands), but it’s also a really funny critique of work culture and late capitalism. It’s a bit like Leena Krohn’s Datura.

HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “Pieterjan Thyjssen”?

HBS: I wanted to write a story that was really exaggerated, in a heavy metal sort of way. I also wanted to pay tribute to a friend of mine, Peter Bullen, who, in addition to being an amazing prose writer, is also a damn good hair stylist.

HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?

HBS: More stories. Trying to put a book together of them. Currently working on a story about parrot dudes (the sort who walk around with macaws on their shoulders) who make a living putting their birds on people and taking pictures in exchange. Only with vultures.

HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?

HBS: Fuck the Supreme Court.

Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in X-R-A-Y, Grimoire, Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Heavy Feather Review, and PANK. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast, and his story “Goodwill” was picked as one of the Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions of 2018. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, was published by Nomadic Press in 2020. He teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts.

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