Fiction from Kate Garklavs

Lies Hairdressers Tell

robe comfort MGD©

Image via MGDboston at morgueFile

I was out on the garden deck—magazine and coffee on the table beside me, wax-translucent canopy of greenery above—when Old Nancy peeked through the screen door. Seeing me, she shuffled out, shearling slippers barely hanging onto her feet. Old Nancy isn’t objectively old—five or six years beyond myself, maybe—but to the building’s other tenants, a couple in their twenties, everyone is old, beyond. They still feel the heft of entire unlived days and years.

“Hey there,” Nancy called. “Beautiful day for a picnic.”

“Not much for a picnic,” I said, raising my cup in a one-sided toast. “Just coffee. The New Yorker.”

“Food for thought,” Nancy said, and chuckled. I did not laugh, not intending malice but instead discouragement of clichés—this one and those still forming. Usually my tolerance for banal figures of speech was higher. Today, I wanted only the wood slats of the lowbrow chair adding friction to my thigh, the water-fountain burble of unnamed birds.

Nancy pulled up the other chair and sat herself beside me, smoothing her eyebrows and palpating her earlobes between her thumbs and forefingers, just generally making such a fuss of her head area that I set my mug down to take a good look at her. Same wrinkles in a wry New England scatter, same proud arch of nose. Her hair, which under normal circumstances fell to her shoulders in a lusty, half-intended wave, was bound in a scarf. She’d knotted it above her forehead: leaf-green paisleys on turquoise ground.

“What’s with the headgear?” I asked.

“Ach,” Nancy said, letting her hand fall loose from the wrist, “the hairdresser.” She drew a cigarette from the low pocket of her robe, lit it. Behind her, the sun was coming full into the sky: a red intrusion. I siphoned tepid coffee through my lips and let it sit in the hollow of my tongue.

Nancy dragged and dragged.

“Well,” I said, wanting a cigarette myself, “what happened?”

“What happened?” Nancy repeated. “I’ll tell you what happened. I go in to see Joanne, same as always, go in for the same number 3B moss frost glaze I’ve been getting the last fifteen years, and phooey.” She mock-spit on the fraying wood.

Phooey isn’t a word I hear often. I almost laughed, but my reptile brain outthought me and caught my tongue. But phooey: What could she have meant?

“Surely it can’t be that bad,” I said, bland and easy. Sympathy is the hardest emotion to muster, and its imitation is always a shade flat, recognizably discordant.

“Don’t pass judgment until you’ve witnessed the subject to be judged,” Old Nancy said, pausing before a huge final drag. I like to think that she wagged her finger as she laid out this pronouncement, but in reality her hands were occupied by her cigarette and robe hem. She stubbed her butt into a miniature pot incubating basil seeds, tainting their environment with topical nicotine.

Old Nancy leaned further into the chair and made no move to remove her headdress. I sat alongside, magazine rolled in my sweating palm, and funneled my effort into focusing on the scenery. The grass, were it still alive, would benefit from a mowing; as it was, the lawn had fried into a wispy yellow nest that crunched beneath each footfall. The Tree of Heaven, rabid and expanding, masked much of the fence. Was that a biblical quote she used there, or did its heavy-handedness—its almost-symmetry—just make it seem that way? Was Old Nancy a Bible reader? I couldn’t remember. Surely, we’d had the conversation some humid night on the porch, sangrias in hand, moral flags at eager half mast and climbing. Surely, but I remembered none of it.

“Well,” I said, “that’s fair. But hair grows back. That’s the beauty of it.” I flipped the magazine open to a random middle page and made a gesture of studied reading. Peripheral, Nancy’s mouth hardened to a frown, cheeks rose a bit in color. To my horror I’d paged to a piece on Swiss neoconservative politics, which I took as penance for my blasé reaction. Nancy said nothing but pulled another cigarette and lit again. Her lighter whispered swift into the warming air.

Once, in high school, I’d dyed my hair pink in the confines of my basement. Prior, I’d bleached it to allow the fuschia to hold, and the result was a commercial-baked-goods orange. I’ve never forgotten the sharp-angled fumes that crowded the unventilated bathroom, the tufts I pulled from the underlayer and just behind the ears. In horror, my mother bought a series of hats—short-brimmed straw and caps with my school’s mascot—anything to smother my teenaged lapse in judgment. I would have none of it. I wore my hair out until I grew bored and consented to corrective treatments at my mother’s salon. Low in my gut, I still remember the pleasure of strangers’ unkind glances, their double-takes at my candy-colored abomination of a head.

Nancy didn’t look me in the eye as she worked loose the knot, let the scarf ends separate and fall, gentle as wingbeats. Waiting for tears to bead in the dimples of her eyes, I thought of her day-to-day: outbound sales from the barren shed of her kitchen, dead Pekingese earthed in soil and spiderwebs mere feet below us. Former husband now ash in an unadorned can: a trophy on her marble mantle. Unstyled, her light hair hung in cottony wefts that lifted with the mention of breeze. She raised her eyes to meet mine. With conviction—felt conviction—I breathed, “Oh, it’s awful. Truly awful.” Her face shone beatific.

A native of the Midwest, Kate Garklavs now lives and works in Portland, OR. Her work has previously appeared in Tammy, matchbook, Two Serious Ladies, and Juked, among other places.

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