by V. J. Hamilton
After I left Shari’s place, the first person I encountered jumped to one side and gave an embarrassed chuckle, as if to say, “Now look what you made me do.” I patted my hair and looked back at the ramshackle house, where Shari’s kids tussled amid dead plants in the front yard. So early in spring, only crocuses were brave enough to poke their purple crowns out—and they were getting trampled.
My sister Kaylee had recommended Shari to me. “She’s on maternity leave from the salon, but she wants to keep on hairstyling.” I loved the pixie hairdo Shari had done, a nicely tapered cut that enhanced Kaylee’s luminous eyes.
* * *
I called ahead. “Yeah, come by any time,” a weary voice said over a lively children’s show in the background. Disney’s Frozen, I guessed.
“But what’s the best time?” I asked.
“I guess nap time,” Shari said, “Fritz goes down around two.”
The next day I strolled over to her house, admiring the Victorian clapboard houses, many with front-yard trikes.
Shari greeted me at the door. “Make yourself at home.” Behind her, I could see a living room that looked like a tornado had hit the furniture department of an overstocked thrift store, randomly strewn with laundry, knickknacks, and brightly colored toys.
“Lemme make some tea,” Shari said.
I accepted because Kaylee said I mustn’t be stand-offish. Summerhill, her sort-of-new hometown, values friendliness. Everyone was helpful and supportive after her diagnosis. We grew up in a small town—and I do remember the fun of feeling “we’re all in this together.” When there’s a baseball tournament, everyone goes out to cheer on the team; when a travelling Shakespeare troupe comes to town, everyone goes out to sample the Bard.
Shari led me downstairs to her finished basement, which had a bar counter and stools at one end, shelves of children’s books and games gathered higgledy-piggledy in the middle, and an old-style barber chair at the far end.
“Oh my,” I said.
“Rob got a deal on this,” she said, switching on the Coors Lite sign. It glowed rosily on her fuzzed-out ponytail. She ushered me to the barber’s chair, which had a wheelie salon-cart beside it.
I showed her a picture of the blunt, shoulder-length cut I wanted. My hair is limp as seaweed so expert styling is essential. As an aspiring professional, I must look impeccable. Nails, hair, make-up—I lavish more time and moolah on these than Naomi Campbell does. Last month, my VP took me aside and murmured words like “microderm abrasion” and “botox.” She was talking about a colleague, but I got the hint.
Shari washed, combed, and made criss-cross parts in my hair. We chatted about Kaylee’s remission. Then came the time-consuming stage—rolling-up of dozens of curlers (the big kind, that give fullness but not curliness). This was a potential minefield for me, because I’m terrible at small talk. Ever since Chew-barka’s death last year, I can’t tell my funny dog anecdotes without getting verklempt.
Shari was clearly was a pro—she prattled on about the latest town scandals: vandals graffitied the post office; the mayor and church warden were having an affair; and the animal shelter had fired their director for embezzlement.
* * *
I studied her reflection in the mirror, how her tongue protruded slightly as she separated each strand, wrapping its end in tissue and applying the smelly solution. She was waiting for me to dish the dirt, but my life was nothing but WORK and a merry-go-round of exercise, nails, hair, and facials.
“How ‘bout life in the big smoke?” She grinned. “Is it all Sex and the City?”
And my affair with my personal trainer? That was a little too personal. Under the nylon bib, my hands touched my denim-clad knees, their rugburns still pleasantly tender. I knew I should end things with Jared the Unfaithful; that’s what had brought me out to see Kaylee. Why don’t they call romance an addiction and break-up its withdrawal? Every night I went to bed craving his caress. I touched my knees again, remembered our ragged panting, and inadvertently sighed.
Shari raised an eyebrow. “Come on…. What’s his name?”
I felt the blood rush to my face.
A shriek punctured the air.
Shari tensed, pulling on my scalp. “Oh, shit… my little fire engine.” She laughed. “Be right back.”
I sighed with relief… until she carried in Fritz the demon baby. Sitting with my hair four-fifths curled, I watched as she tried to comfort him—the bottle, the changed diaper, a soothing lullaby. Nothing worked.
She put Fritz on his tummy on the rug and wound the last fifth of curlers while he howled. She set an oven-timer to ring in twenty minutes, when she would apply neutralizing solution to my hair.
After ten minutes of piercing wails that wobbled between G-sharp and A-minor, I wanted to stamp out the entire infant demographic. Shari wandered around with Fritz, coaxing an occasional burp.
Cell phone reception was terrible, so I couldn’t browse for entertainment. “Um, how ‘bout some magazines?” Shari offered. While jouncing Fritz on her hip, she dragged over a rickety magazine rack for me to browse. Reader’s Digest, Recipes Today, International Knitting, and Hustler. Wait, what?
I perused Reader’s Digest while Shari paced about with Fritz. She took him upstairs to entertain the Doberman. Then inquisitiveness overtook me. I opened the well-worn pages of Hustler, wondering how someone’s porn stash had sneaked into the magazine rack. My curiosity cycled from disbelief to perplexity and back. How could someone photograph that body part… from that angle? How did these anatomical freaks find regular clothes to wear to the supermarket?
I didn’t notice the timer’s ding, nor did Shari, who had taken Fritz and the dog outside.
* * *
Eventually I was walking the streets of Summerhill. I encountered an elderly lady, who looked at my hair with friendly sympathy, as if to say, “We all make mistakes, don’t we?” After that, I met a grumpy guy, whose scowl deepened. “Why you do dat, man?” he seemed to say.
I should have looked at my new ‘do before I left, but Shari was blocking the mirror, apologizing for going overtime. “Fritz is so colicky. Sorry, the thioglycolate solution stayed on your hair a teensy bit too long before I could apply the neutralizer…. But it’ll grow out…”
Up and down the street I looked for a plate-glass window where I could see my reflection. There was one café, but it was packed with people, and I lost my nerve.
* * *
“Oh—” Kaylee said. She seemed at a loss for words. “Back already?”
“I need a mirror.”
Kaylee winced. “She didn’t charge you, did she?”
“Gak!” My reflection in the mirror looked like an electrocuted Medusa. I thought of next week, when I had to address the board of directors. As career milestones go, it was make or break. A vision of my future ambushed me: unemployed, homeless, unlovable. A laughingstock.
The phone rang. “Oh hi, Shari,” Kaylee said, and ran with the phone to her bedroom.
I slunk off to the guest bedroom. It was actually Kaylee’s studio, a place of sunlight, playful doodlings, and the pervasive odor of turpentine. To distract myself, I started looking through the stack of paintings leaning against the wall. Her style, which I’d always admired, had become even better. I could guess why.
Kaylee appeared in the doorway. “Shari’s frantic,” she said.
I continued flipping one painting after another. “I love your new work.”
“She suggests a trim, something to remove the fried hair.”
I studied Kaylee’s pixie cut for a long minute.
* * *
A week later, I’m in my Armani suit, presenting to the Board. I can feel the breeze around my ears and the nakedness of my scalp.
Afterward, my VP pulls out the legal pad where she’d noted my misdemeanors during the meeting. “We need to talk about image,” she says.
“What, you don’t like my Vin Diesel look?” I say. That’s right, my hoped-for pixie cut from Shari had not gone according to plan, either. This time, it wasn’t colicky Fritz, it was the Doberman leaping unpredictably, knocking the whining electric trimmer across my scalp. The simple “trim” had turned into “clear cut.”
My VP mutters ominously about “looking too chemo.”
“You know what?” I say. “Ad sales is not the right fit for me. No tolerance for diversity. Too much upkeep.” I head out the door.
I happen to know of an animal shelter that’s looking for a new director.
It took a bad hair day to catapult me out of my fake-hair life.
Category: Featured, Fiction