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Painting Faces

by Maria Kontak

part 1 of 4

Velma was telling me about her first customer of the day. But she wasn’t sharing the usual quirks that a beautician’s clients lay bare when they get done up weekly or monthly.

“You know, Lauren, I can’t understand why people are fearful of touching a dead body.”

This remark rolled off Velma’s tongue like any other. Her shoulders were squared and hands steady as she worked against the whirring fans that whipped up the pleasant, slightly chemical smell of Velma’s Beauty Shoppe.

Velma had muscular toes and calloused soles. She knew her place after forty years of suborning unruly hair, balancing the triangle of eye, cheek and lip, and smoothing ragged fingernails. She was a physician — in fact, a veritable artist — of the beauty trade.

She picked up a few strands of my freshly colored hair and continued, “I love my business. I like my customers, and to me a customer is a customer, and some of the best ones are the ones that don’t talk back.”

She laughed and I joined in politely. Her mirth, like everything about Velma was big, and quickly snuffed out my out-of-place east coast cool.

“Talk like this bothers you,” she said, sizing up my head. “Two inches or so? Bit more maybe? You shouldn’t take it like that.”

“Uh-huh, whatever you think.”

“Being fearful about it is the only thing that’s wrong... about anything, just about.”

Velma shook her beautiful head of auburn hair and brought her face close to mine in the mirror. With one deft swoop, she drew a perfect part in the pathetic tangle atop my head. Her gaze remained steady but I could tell that she saw through the warped looking glass the thing beyond the part that wouldn’t go away, and the thing was as she had called it, discomfort and fear.

“Well, you shouldn’t be afraid of touching someone who’s passed on. No harm in it, and it helps you live. I don’t suppose you’ve had the chance much at your age, but one day you’ll see. I think maybe three inches is better.”

Velma snipped away. She worked with the kind of dignity that was missing from my own workplace, a distant six hundred miles away, the pressure cooker that is Washington, DC. There we sat, in our cubicles, glued to computer screens, a sterile open pit ever since fragrance in the office was outlawed, high up in a tower of steel and glass, freaking out over charts and graphs and impossible targets of the week. Velma was the antidote to all that. Velma and her orange plastic chairs and whirring fans.

As always, I sank back into her chair, taking in her calm and the lessons that she dropped so casually on every visit. Six total including today’s. Numbers rarely escaped me, but at Velma’s, counting was something more. Counting visits. Counting lessons. I liked it all. All the small town lessons of kindness and acceptance and modesty, lessons that my mother or my Ivy League university or my business degree hadn’t taught me.

Today’s lesson gave me a jolt, though. Death. The thought of dead flesh and whatever way it felt to the touch. Uggh. I was glad when Velma stopped speaking, which she always did when she cut hair, glad in general for the silence in the room that would squelch the buzz of the creepy topic inside my head.

But somehow it didn’t work. The buzz was there, maybe because it had caught me off-guard or maybe because it hit that spot inside me that came alive only in Velma’s plastic chair. Whatever. It lingered there, perched firmly, reflected in the mirror, weighing down my head and robbing me of the bouncy lightness that usually followed every snip of Velma’s scissors. My one solid experience of death.

I tried to catch Velma’s eye in the mirror and saw that my lips were open but no words came out. Would it have mattered if I had touched Dad, felt for his pulse, brought my mouth to his? I couldn’t stop the shudder that warped the looking glass further. Dead flesh. My Dad’s flesh.

Velma rested her sturdy hands on my shoulders, nudging me back into a comfortable space. I had dialed 911 instantly, after all. I smiled into the mirror. I was always good with numbers.

“You like it?” she said, running a comb through my shorn head. It felt light and airy, and I couldn’t stop smiling at the reflection of the two of us, the black and the red.

The beauty shop door opened with the tinkling of a bell, and without turning around, Velma called out for Ruthie to take a seat. From then on all creepy thoughts drained from my head, and I listened with relish and a tinge of envy to the banter of a townswoman who had known my Velma long before I had been born. I knew that Ruthie was the town gossip, and her latest tale, censored with a lot of tsks, involved an upcoming wedding.

“She oughta be ashamed of herself. That’s what I think. A woman of her age marrying a man who could pass for her son.” Ruthie paused briefly, very briefly, in her rant. “She’s ordered a proper wedding cake and a fancy dress from Chicago they say. You’d think... Well, it’s shameless her marrying a younger man... like that... Why he must be twenty years younger... or more. For shame.”

“Why not when you’ve got the chance?” Velma said. “I’d do it in a heartbeat. Before he got away.”

Ruthie poured a cup of coffee from the large coffeepot, brought it to me and set it down on the vanity table in front of me. Velma reached for the hairdryer and spoke in a small voice that reached into some deep pocket of her own. “In a heartbeat. That’s what I would do. In a heartbeat.”

So far it had been a day of surprises. I had assumed till today that a handsome woman like Velma had chosen single life, but now I became the stranger again, an outsider in a small Midwestern town far away from anything I knew, and Velma, my Velma, seemed a stranger to me, just as she had been on the day we met.

Banter between the townswomen continued but I remained on the outside, my cup of coffee getting cold, the dryer drowning out words that might clue me in. Only when Velma switched off the dryer and I saw my expression melting into Velma’s big, broad smile did I feel back in, already sorry that I would have to wait several months to feel like this again.

Ruthie climbed into the chair, still talking, when I laid the four crisp twenties on the tray by the coffee pot, and I caught the raspy tone in her voice, and an eerie flash crept before my eyes. The feel-good moment had passed, and I saw a bright light, like a sunspot, and in it Velma was administering the last beauty rites to Ruthie, who lay stretched out, still, not talking at last.

“You don’t have to,” Velma said, tucking the bills into her apron. “That’s more than generous. Good luck in your big meeting today. Drive carefully and don’t wait six months to come for a haircut.” Then Velma gave me a hug that knocked off one of my earrings, which I clumsily ground into the floor. We looked at the bits of sea glass that had once been a little blue fish as if that was the most important thing in our lives just then.

“A good omen,” I said smiling, not realizing how right I would prove to be.

Because things went exceptionally well that afternoon in my meeting. I scored a huge pricing concession from our supplier, an account that I visited regularly twice a year. An account that had introduced me to Velma, coming by chance on a tip from a stylish secretary who made the thirty-mile trip to Velma’s Beauty Shoppe faithfully herself.

“Velma doesn’t take city slickers,” the secretary had said, “not even us in the Midwest, but she will on my word.” That was the way life worked in small towns. Words had meaning, unlike back home.

Back home, my victorious concession felt less victorious. A few nice emails from colleagues and my boss, but soon enough we were all back in the pit with charts and graphs and numbers, and the numbers began to lose their appeal. Budgetary cuts in the office kept me away from travel, from Velma, and the whole nine-to-nine seemed less fun the rest of the year.

So did the after-hours. The trendy drinks with chic friends at the club of the moment. Updating my wardrobe. Checking out guys who checked me out. Listening to Mom on the latest wedding etiquette. I fell to thinking more and more of how I missed the orange plastic chair, the whirr of fans useless against the stinging heat, the clangy radiators that were only slightly more effective against the cold on the great U.S. central plain. And then a bizarre idea popped into my head, an idea I could not shake.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2011 by Maria Kontak

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