The Laughingstock

Submitted for Contest #33 in response to: Write a story about a character making a big change.... view prompt

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The Laughingstock

After I left Shari’s place, the first person I encountered on the street jumped to one side and gave an embarrassed chuckle, sort of “now look what you made me do.” I patted my hair and looked back at her place, a ramshackle two-storey house, where her two older kids tussled amid the dead plants in the front yard. Early spring, only crocuses were brave enough to poke their purple crowns out—and they were getting trampled.

My sister Morgana had recommended Shari to me. “She’s on mat leave from her regular salon, but she’s all set up to do in-home hairstyling.” The most convincing reason to go to Shari’s was Morgana herself. I’d been admiring her pixie hairdo ever since I’d arrived two days ago. Shari had nicely tapered the cut to enhance Morgana’s best features.

I had called ahead. “Yeah, come on by, any time after 2 PM,” a no-nonsense voice had said over a loud children’s show in the background. Disney’s Frozen, I guessed. “Nap time is best,” she’d said. So, I’d walked over to Shari’s house, admiring the Victorian clapboard houses, some with original gingerbread trim. I’d daydreamed about living in the neighborhood.

*         *         *

“Make yourself at home,” Shari greeted me at the door. In the background, I could see a living room that looked like the furniture department of a thrift store, randomly strewn with laundry and  brightly colored toys. It would be enough to give Marie Kondo a heart-attack.

“Lemme make you a tea.”

I didn’t refuse because the entire visit Morgana had been warning me: “Don’t be stand-offish.” My sister’s very big on “community” and “main street.” We grew up in a small town— and I 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. By senior year, though, I’d found it too claustrophobic.

Shari led me downstairs to her finished basement, which had a bar at one end, shelves of children’s books and games gathered higgledy-piggledy in the middle, and an old-style padded barber chair at the far end with one of those wheelie salon-carts.

“Oh my,” I said.

“Yeah, hey, Rob just got a deal on this,” she said and clicked on a Coors Lite sign that glowed rosily on her neat ponytail and bangs.

I showed her a picture of the style I wanted. It had a slight curl to it, for body, and a blunt cut to make it look thick. On its own, my hair is as limp as seaweed, so you see why good styling is essential. As a successful advertising sales professional, I spend a lot on upkeep. Nails, hair, make-up—I lavish more time and attention on these than Naomi Campbell does. It’s simply expected in my line of work. Last month, my VP took me aside last week and murmured words like “microderm abrasion” and “botox” and “other procedures.” She was talking about a colleague, but I got the hint.

Shari washed, combed, and made a criss-cross of parts in my hair. The rolling-up of dozens of curls was a potentially tricky time. Not for Shari—she clearly was a pro—but for me, because I have trouble with small talk. Especially since my dog’s death last year—I don’t have my regular “go-to” topic of conversation anymore. I can’t speak of pets without getting verklempt. Morgana had briefed me on the latest scandals (man found dead at the town reservoir; Presbyterian minister having affair with the high school vice-principal; and the town was thinking of shutting down its animal shelter). I was rather looking forward to updates on these and other fascinating tidbits.

Instead Shari pleaded: “Tell me about life in the big city!” She looked like someone about to tune into an episode of Sex and the City.

“Long workday, crowded commute, evenings watching cable TV,” I said, faking a yawn.

“But in your spare time—do you check out hot new clubs? Do you meet lots of guys on Tindr?”

“Nope.”

“Are you a culture vulture, then—live opera, art gallery shows, archaeology talks at the museum?”

I studied her reflection in the mirror. Tongue slightly protruding, placidly concentrating as she skillfully wound each strand, wrapping the ends in crinkly tissue and liberally applying the stinky permanent solution. I didn’t want to tell her about all the time I squandered on “upkeep.”

And my affair with my personal trainer? That was a little too personal. Under the bib, my hands touched my knees, the rugburns a pleasant sort of tender. I kept thinking I should end things with Jared. This had brought me out to Summerhill, sort of a period of discernment. Why don’t they call romance an addiction and break-up its withdrawal? That’s the type of misery I felt I was entering. Every night I went to bed craving his caress. I needed some kind of 12-step program. I touched my knees again, remembered our ragged panting, and inadvertently sighed.

Shari raised an eyebrow. “Come on….What’s his name?”

I froze. I felt the blood rush to my face.

A shriek punctured the air.

Shari immediately tensed, pulling on my scalp. “Oh, dear. There goes my little fire engine.” She laughed insincerely. “Excuse me, please.”

The interrogation was put on hold until she could quiet the baby, and I breathed a sigh of relief. That is, until she carried out Fritz the nightmare baby. Sitting in a chair with my hair four-fifths curled, I watched as she tried to comfort him—the bottle, the changed diaper, the slow soothing swing of a lullaby. He cried and cried, his red sweaty prune face a rictus of rage. He was inconsolable.

Shari lay the baby on the floor, wound the last fifth of curls and quickly daubed on the last of the special solution. She set a big Mickey Mouse oven-timer to ring in twenty minutes, when she had to apply the neutralizer.

I know you’re not supposed to hate babies, but after ten minutes of intermittent squalls and piercing wails, I wanted to stamp out the entire under-six-months demographic. Shari strolled around, patting Fritz on the back, trying to distract him from his considerable woes.

My cell phone reception was terrible here so I couldn’t browse the entertainment channel as is my custom at my regular hairdresser’s. “Well, I have some magazines…” Shari said dubiously. She was jouncing Fritz on her hip, and he was still wavering between G-sharp and A-minor. She dragged over a rickety magazine stand for me to browse. Reader’s Digest from 2006, Recipes Today, International Knitting, and Hustler. Wait, what?

While I finished the laughter columns in Reader’s Digest, Shari was pacing the floor with Fritz. Finally she took him upstairs, looking for the pet Doberman to terrorize, so I could open the well-worn pages of Hustler, marvelling how Rob’s porn stash had leaked into regular reading fare in this household. My curiosity cycled to prurience, to perplexity, and back. How could someone photograph that thing… from that angle? How did these anatomical freaks find regular clothes to wear in real life?

I didn’t notice the timer ding, nor did Shari, who had taken Fritz outside to calm him (or maybe to surrender him to the East Wind).

*         *         *

And now, here I was, walking the streets of Summerhill, Morgana’s sort-of new home town. I next encountered a little old lady, who gave a look of friendly perplexity, as if to say, “we might not understand our fellow human beings, but we love them anyway.” After that, I met a little old man, and he gave a scowl. “Why you do dat, man?” he seemed to say.

I’d had only a glimpse of my new ‘do before I left. Shari was blocking the mirror, saying she simply had to start dinner.

Up and down the street I looked for a store with a plate-glass window where I could see my reflection. There was one café, but I lost my nerve when I saw it was packed with people.

Somehow, I had to get from Shari’s to Morgana’s as quickly and unobtrusively as possible.

*         *         *

“Oh—” Morgana said. She seemed at a loss for words. “Back already?”

“I need a mirror.”

“What happened?”

“Damn baby had a fit of colic.” The thioglycolate solution was left on my hair way too long before the neutralizing solution was applied. Shari had explained it meticulously, as I was lacing up my shoes. She belonged to the camp that thought a bomb was easier to accept if you knew it was a 20-megaton nuclear warhead instead of just “a bomb.”

Morgana winced. “That’s just not like her.” Pause. “She didn’t charge you, did she?”

I stared at my hair in the mirror, poking up unevenly every which way like each strand wanted to flee my head. I thought of next week, when I’d agreed to give a special presentation to the board of directors. As career milestones go, it was make or break. “How am I going to live with this?” I moaned. A future vision rushed at me: unemployed, homeless, unlovable. A laughingstock.

The phone rang. “Oh hi, Shari,” Morgana said, hightailing it to her bedroom.

I slunk off to the guest bedroom and seethed. It was actually Morgana’s studio, a place of sunlight, playful doodlings, and the faint smell of turpentine. After a while I became distracted by her latest canvasses. Her style, which I’d always admired, had changed, subtly, for the better. I wondered what it all meant.

As I was looking through a leaning stack of 2 X 4-foot paintings, Morgana appeared in the doorway. “Shari’s fit to be tied,” she said.

I continued flipping one painting after another. “I like your new work,” I said.

“She suggests a trim, something to remove the fried hair.”

I study Morgana’s pixie cut for a long minute.

*         *         *

A week later, I’m chairing the big meeting in my power Armani suit. I can feel the breeze around my ears and the nakedness of my scalp—novel sensations for me. During the Q&A, when I’m at the lectern and look at the audience, it hits me: I have broken the acceptable “fembot” mold of this company. Sure, women have representation on the board—but they all have well-trimmed shoulder-length blonde bobs—even the Latina.

Afterward, back at my desk I softly collapse. My VP swings by: “Surviving?” she asks, in a fake sympathetic voice.

“Whew! All done,” I reply. “I’d say that was a roaring success, wouldn’t you?” I glance at the clock, automatically calculating how soon until I can have a good sweaty session with Jared. Maybe my last… maybe not.

“I thought you could’ve handled Wilson’s question better…wait, you’re not leaving yet, are you? We need a debrief.” My VP pulls out the legal pad where she kept track of all my misdemeanors and offenses, picking apart this and that. She began muttering darkly about “looking too chemo.”

“What, you don’t like my Sinead O’Connor look?” I pick up my gym bag. That’s right, my hoped-for pixie cut from Shari had not gone according to plan. This time, it wasn’t colicky Fritz, it was their pet Doberman leaping unpredictably, knocking the shaving tool through my hairdo. I couldn’t stay mad at the dog for long. Some hair fiascos are just meant to be.

I roll my eyes at the VP. “Ad sales is not the right fit for me. Too much upkeep.” I head out the door, already mentally composing my letter of resignation. I happen to know of an animal shelter that’s looking for a director. It took a bad hair day to catapult me out of my fake hair life.


THE END

 

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