The Hair Apparent
by Roger McKnight
“A pretty flashy Dodge,” Karen Vonch said, “if there is such a thing.”
“What thing?” echoed a deep voice from behind her.
“Darn it, Philpott, a Dodge Hellcat, if you’d listen. The one we’re leaning on, Linda and me. What we all rode out here in, down old Blue Mound Road.”
“It was like Linda driving Miss Daisy, remember? Our own chauffeur.”
Philpott hesitated ‘til the 1970s movie of that title popped into mind. “And getting nowhere slow, that’s what we were,” she answered.
“But we made it,” Karen said. She traced the other woman’s movements by the faint light of the joint she waved like a firefly in the dark ‘til it burned out.
“Oh,” said Philpott. “So sorry we can’t all be geniuses. Besides, I’m lookin’ for a light, not listening to your babble.”
Slowly Philpott walked back to the car. Her big belly made her clumsy and the marijuana didn’t help. She stumbled and Linda had to steady her. That little episode made Karen feel bad about shouting at Philpott but she couldn’t deny the woman brought out her impatient side. What woman, with all her marbles and seven-eight months pregnant, would use dope and risk falling on her face in a pitch-black field? But, well, nothing was new under the sun.
The two had known of each other since childhood, Karen and Philpott, but they ran in different circles. Philpott’s blunt manner and unaccountable antics clashed with Karen’s two years at state college and disappointed dreams of studying film. Even so, the workings of fate brought them together. Philpott got pregnant right after high school and Karen’s scholarship money at Northern U. ran out fast. In addition, they both came from the same blue-collar neighborhood, which assiduously paired its women with low-paying jobs and under-achieving spouses. So it wasn’t surprising they ended up occupying chairs next to each other at The Hair Apparent beauty salon. Philpott and her live-in man, the local grain elevator boss, now had five kids together and weren’t finished yet, while of Karen’s two teenaged sons one lived with the junior high hoops coach, his father, and the other was at home with Karen and her current hubby, who sold men’s shoes in the downtown mall.
A career in film was a distant dream for Karen, but she managed to live in two worlds. First was the ladies’ intense work place, where hair styles came and went but clients’ demands for perfect perms remained constant. Karen’s reprieve came in the form of movie channels and an extensive video collection. Big-screen epics and film noir were her thing, the more obscure the better. They became her focus, in fact. She once resolved to see Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye fifty times before her video of it wore out. That accomplished, she looked for other favorites. Gone with the Wind eventually gave way to the 1997 Titanic, which she first saw by calling in sick and spending an afternoon in the aptly named Grand Illusion movie mall.
The Hair Apparent was a name Karen herself invented when they started hairdressing. ‘They’ meant she and the other ladies surrounding the Dodge this evening. Philpott grumbled about the choice of a name from day one and never let up. “Apparent what? Just plain dumb,” she insisted, while Karen maintained a pride in her own clever word play. When customers were in the shop, the two partners worked hard to get along, but there was the rub. How long could a gal go on acting friendly to such a numbskull, Karen wondered in her worst moments, only to calm down and blame herself for the snippy feelings she couldn’t shake.
“Don’t worry, here’s a match,” Linda quietly interrupted and helped Philpott light up. Karen had nearly forgotten the marijuana, but Linda was like that, the kindest and most thoughtful of souls. She eked out a living for her kids, who had trouble leaving home after their dad mysteriously went lame from a work accident and then kept the family semi-sequestered out of fear of losing them.
After Philpott got settled, the three ladies leaned against the car and silently stared up at the vast prairie sky. Millions of stars twinkled in the crisp autumn night. A full moon showed how earth and heaven blended way off toward the horizon. Those same moonbeams must be shining down on flatlands all the way from Ohio to Iowa, Karen guessed, but this tiny patch of Illinois was all she’d seen of America’s interior. She relied on her fancy to envision the rest. Each woman remained alone in her thoughts, so they took long drags on their joints, which glowed like tiny red dots.
Pretty soon a fourth dot joined them. It was Mary Ann, who’d gone off to relieve herself in the bush. So now all the partners at the Four Sisters Hair Apparent—the shop’s full name—were together out in the sticks after a long week at work. Some nights Mary Ann might complain of her lower back tightening from leaning down to give shampoos, and Linda, the shortest of the four, often explained the opposite pain; her shoulders ached from reaching up to cut hair, what she described as the “hands above the heart” syndrome. The most common fear was carpal tunnel. Seldom mentioned, the complaint loomed nonetheless.
This evening the pressure of work was off, other worries on. The Sisters were freshly peed, pretty pissed, too, but not at anything in particular, and frustrated at the world for reasons they struggled to find words for. When Karen tried to pinpoint what she felt, only random lines from old, once-famous movies stuck in her mind. “You’re not too smart. I like that in a man.” Kathleen Turner’s words from Body Heat popped up so Karen slung them out. The quote met with silence, but it set the tone.
“Sometimes things just don’t fit right, like looking up and thinking the stars need to realign,” said another deep-sounding voice on the opposite side of the Dodge. Karen knew it was Linda’s.
“Yeah, I know, ever see that vintage movie The Pumpkin Seed?” Karen replied.
“Can’t say I have,” Linda admitted. “What about it?”
“I saw it eons ago. At the Film Studio in Chicago, back when I was in college. Thought of it just now, out of the clear blue.”
“Or the clear dark? Watching late night tv again?” Linda asked in a teasing tone.
Karen met the question with an embarrassed chuckle. A moment later Mary Ann chimed in, and they burst out laughing together, which created a piercing sound that split the night air until it faded into the ether.
“Hear that? Our tunes joining the galaxies?” Karen wondered aloud.
“Yeah, the music of the spheres and it’s ours,” Mary Ann added.
“But this pumpkin seed story, did it realign the heavens?” Linda asked adding a serious note to their sudden jollity.
“No, more like star-crossed lovers,” Karen explained. “The movie’s about this modern-day couple, well, modern back in the ‘60s anyway. A philanderer and a lady married three times are madly on the make, but they’re not married to each other or are married and don’t want to be. Something like that. The guy longs to be a writer or maybe an artist, I can’t remember. He’s very serious, self-directed they call it, but the woman keeps distracting him by getting herself pregnant. Dirty diapers and all that junk destroy his artistic sense, he reckons. It doesn’t seem to faze him that he, or some other guy maybe, is the dad of her kids.”
“Yeah, I remember it,” said another voice, Mary Ann’s this time. “The woman, her name was Philpot, wasn’t it?”
“Sure. You got it. I remember now,” Linda replied.
“The same name as me?” Philpott asked.
“Yeah, except she had only one t.”
“Is that what eats at you about me?” Philpott asked Karen. “The same name?”
“Dream on,” Karen said, without admitting it could be true. “One day Philpot, with one t, is crumpled up in a corner bawling like a baby and holding her belly in despair about being neglected and her man starts shouting. ‘I’ve got ambition!’ he says. ‘And all you want to do is to sit in a corner and give birth. I’ve had it up to here!”
“Damned jerk,” Philpott moaned.
That was strong stuff, Karen knew, her quoting from a movie ages-old and black-and-white, too. Plus, her talking about stopping women from having babies was pretty much over the top. Certainly not the way folks talked about things at her St. Michael’s Catholic, where the pill was still a no-no, after all these years. But who cared. Karen was fed up with polemics, the way learned folks called their causes. Life demanded understanding for those who were up to it.
The Four Sisters took a break. Their dots of light grew brighter for a while, and the sweet, syrupy smell of pot filled the air. It’s Friday night, Karen kept thinking. Time to unwind. They’d closed the beauty parlor early and, without anybody suggesting it, they drove off down unpaved Blue Mound Road, just like she and Philpott said, then out past the Municipal Water Works and continued till they crossed city limits. They did this every once in a while, without anybody explaining what or wherefore or saying who got them the pot. Sometimes they never said anything at all, just stood out in the treeless expanses and puffed away.
That’s how it’d been for awhile this evening, each one a world away, in body and soul, from where she didn’t want to be at the moment–work or home or wherever. It was individualized group-think. Karen understood they read each others’ minds and resisted talking, except to beat around the bush about this or that.
Other times they took twelve-packs. Then their tongues loosened up. They thought stuff up, but figured in their beery minds, as they jabbered away, how they ought to keep their traps shut. At the same time, they realized it was okay to blurt out whatever they thought. On those Friday nights, an especially hard week’s work and extra appointments–which meant standing endless hours on the trendy concrete floor so their feet ached–had blown everybody’s mind out of shape, so a few drinks turned into several. Sometimes nobody could make heads or tails out of what anyone said. If they did, they’d forget it by Monday morning anyway. Or at least a girl could hope as much.
So babble as much, or as little, as they wanted, it was really hoped-for peace, or needed charity one-to-another, that reigned deep down inside them. The stream of words let them externalize, though not make sense of, the frustrations they felt in their marrow. In some perverse way babbling about those feelings offered them a way to work as a well-oiled team, an unlikely unity the Sisters honed out of life’s chaos. By the time they got home and hit the sack on a beer night like that, they could laugh at how it worked, or at themselves and the hustle and bustle of the beauty shop. That involuntary laughter was either the after-effect of the junk they put in themselves out in the fields, Karen thought, or the long-term stress of giving perms to blue-haired old ladies and patiently hearing their stories, which in reality weren’t that different from their own. The four hair stylists shared their tiredness. That was all Karen knew for sure.
This night was different, though. It was grass, and still the four talked on and on. Karen could only guess at what triggered the sudden frazzled tone. Their words touched closer than ever to the core of their frustrated home life, all occasioned by Karen mentioning an outdated and nearly forgotten flick.
“The guy in Pumpkin Seed seems more like my old man,” Linda spoke up. She sounded disturbed.
“What about it?” Karen asked.
“Sitting in a corner.”
“Giving birth? Your old man?”
“No, not him but expecting me to, while I’m making his dinner. And…”
“…and god knows what else,” Mary Ann chimed in. “No help from guys. Sometimes I can’t stand thinking about it.”
They took another drag. The night air was getting cooler, and their talk became slower, so individual words dragged out like whole sentences, even though the pathos grew. The chill made their bodies shiver while their minds churned.
“Now I know why you despise me!” Philpott spat out at Karen. “It’s because I’m in a family way. I’m younger and you can’t stand it. I’m not sittin’ alone in any corner givin’ birth. My old man likes me. I’ve had more miscarriages than you got kids. Beat that if you can.”
“Well, at least I bothered to get married before I had mine,” Karen shot back. More than talking straight at Philpott, she directed her words out into the prairie vastness, as though blaming the firmament for the women’s weariness.
“Yeah, you been hitched more than once,” Philpott shot back. “Which hubby is this, now, for you? Still counting?”
“You know, sometimes I wonder,” Mary Ann mused, trying to ease the tension. “What it’d be like. I mean, what if. The twinkling heavens up there make me wonder all kinds of things.”
“Yeah, me too, what if I had a million bucks,” Linda sighed in exasperation.
“Whadda you mean, what if what?” Philpott asked. “C’mon, get a grip. Bein’ knocked up? I can sure tell you about that. Five times in seven years. That’s me, baby.”
“No, I mean, what if I hadn’t hooked up with that crazy preacher man…for all those years…till he ran out on me and the kids,” Mary Ann lamented.
Karen studied Mary Ann. This was the first time she’d mentioned her wayward husband for years, but it was common knowledge her Larry had forsworn the church and run off with a señora from Matzatlan. Mary Ann never mentioned where they went, but everybody assumed they were holed up south of the border. “Otro gringo ateista,” Karen thought cynically, remembering a line from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre about a wayward American gold miner in Mexico.
“I gotcha,” Linda sighed. “What if I didn’t have three grown kids still under my roof.”
They thought it over a while. Thinking called for something to sip on, but going for a cold beer felt out of the question. And on top of the grass? No way. A sort of reverie fell over them, like the growing realization summer was over or something had passed them by that would never come again. They were at that certain age when life’s pressures start mounting big-time. Or close to it.
“More behind us than ahead,” Karen muttered.
“Yeah, but I see what could be. What if my old man’d take his doc’s advice,” Philpott finally said. “If only…”
Karen had never known Philpott to sound so thoughtful before. Or change her approach so quickly. Surely the need to be accepted into the conversation as an equal dominated her new attitude. Philpott, like everybody, had her story. Even more so than most maybe.
“What advice?” Karen asked.
“The doc says, you know, there’s lots of ways to be safe, Buddy, but only one way to be sure. What way’s that, my old man asks. Why, keep it in your pants, the doc says. Keep it in your pants.” Philpott laughed out loud at her joke but the others kept quiet.
“Get it?” Philpott asked them. “Keep it in your pants. Get it?”
“Yeah, all right. We get it. Or a gal can hold a dime between her knees and press tight, the way dumb-ass guys in the bars downtown say,” Mary Ann sighed. “That’s about as good.” She failed to hide her growing anger.
“Does it work?” Linda joked, again trying to temper her friend’s touchy mood. “That means you’ve tried it? One thin dime?”
“Have you?” Philpott blurted out. “I mean, really? Have you? How do you make it work?”
They chuckled at Philpott’s gullibility, but only half enthusiastically. It was getting late and the talk was growing depressing. Or stale. Finally, Karen spoke up.
“Yeah, what if, all right. Gee. I think about that, too.”
“You tell me, girl,” Linda urged her on.
“What if I weren’t married to that shoe store owner of mine. Hell with the shoes, Harry’s only interested in the young fillies working for him and them bending over to show their boobs to gentlemen customers while fitting their shoes. My hubby goes around and dreams of acting out his fantasies. Or he’s worried about how much he’ll leave me when he’s dead and gone. Or not leave me. That’s what I deserve for getting married a second time. Need to learn my lesson.”
“Who’s got anything to leave?” Linda asked.
“Some do,” Karen assured her. “Some do, even in this town, but it’s priorities that count.”
“Anyway,” Karen resumed. “You know, there’s this guy comes in for haircuts when I’m at the shop on extra hours. He doesn’t need to, he doesn’t have much hair left to cut, but we talk. And joke. I put on some lotion and cut the wayward hairs on his ears and eyebrows, just to stretch the time out. We’ve even gotten to where we complete each other’s sentences. Like, you know? He’s younger than me, but I think, well, what if…he even has a DVD player.”
“What?” Philpott asked.
“I mean, this way. What if we didn’t have to obey our vows, if we ever made any, that is.” Karen glanced at Philpott and felt her take a step farther away. “I wonder sometimes, that’s all.”
Karen thought of Warren Beatty screwing Julie Christie in Shampoo. Playing a horny hairdresser, Beatty looks up and sees his girlfriend Goldie Hawn stumble into the room and asks her in feigned surprise, “Hey, where ya been, baby, been lookin’ all over for ya.” Karen recalled the scene vividly, but kept her thoughts to herself.
Nobody commented on Karen’s revelation of being drawn to the younger guy in The Hair Apparent chair. Instead they got the last of the marijuana, rolled a joint, and passed it around under the profoundness of the night sky. A long time passed. Midnight got closer. Words failed them again.
At last Karen broke the impasse with a smile. “Yeah, there’re fantasies, mine as well as anybody else’s. Too much silver screen in me maybe,” she murmured softly as a follow-up to the smile. “There’s things a gal can think about but never do, or even talk much about.”
“Like what?” Philpott asked her, as she crawled into the Dodge to get warm. “You and all your fancy words anyway. Dreams. Whadda they mean, I wanna know?”
The others piled in behind Philpott. Soon Linda had the motor up and running and the heater working. Four sisters. Four red dots. Four homes to get back to. One flashy Dodge, if there is such a thing, Karen repeated to herself and wondered what she meant by that line, which for no rhyme or reason kept popping up in her head.
“Hellcat,” she said, just to stay awake.
Nearing town, Linda drove even slower than on the way out, but the Dodge hit a pothole anyway. The shock was a reality check that threw Mary Ann in the front seat almost to the ceiling. It jostled Karen mightily, too, and jumbled her thoughts. Another work week coming up, it occurred to her, and tomorrow’s Saturday already. Then Sunday. Sunday, bloody Sunday, she thought, remembering the title of another oldie from a college film class. Monday’s up after that.
“What if. One more bump like that’ll do me in. What if we died out here, you know?” she asked the others.
“No, what?” Mary Ann asked.
“Who’d take over the shop from us? Like who’d inherit it?”
No answer. Yeah, Karen sighed, nobody has a word when it really counts. “And me and all my big words. What do they mean? Anyway, we’re not about to croak,” she consoled herself and the others, “not out on Blue Mound Road, and Gawd knows who’d find us if we did?”
Linda steadied the car while Philpott nodded off. Mary Ann repeated a truncated lament about family life, her anger and fatigue making her slur words one after another. “…’kin seed…giving birth…like an alley cat,” she murmured. In turn, Karen stared long and hard into the silence until she resigned herself to the thump of loose gravel on the Hellcat’s underside. When at last Linda turned onto the main road, the tires whirred on the pavement. They lulled Karen into memories of passionate weekends from her younger days, when film fired her imagination. She saw Leonardo and Kate spooning on the prow of their ill-fated vessel.
A bright street light at city limits allowed Linda to speed up. That’s when Karen should have roused herself. Dream on, she thought instead, while squishing down in her comfy seat. The lateness of the hour was mind-numbing by the time Linda dropped her off. Together with the shoe salesman and Titanic, Karen had a weekend ahead. Maybe it’d be short, maybe long. Going down with a crippled ship can take forever, she knew, but she thought of Kate’s words before the Titanic sinks, “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.”
Karen consoled herself that next week will bring what it must. She’d be there to face it.
Roger McKnight is from a farming and coal-mining area in downstate Illinois. He studied at Southern Illinois University and the University of Minnesota. Roger has lived and worked in Chicago, Sweden, and Puerto Rico. In Sweden he observed the value of gender equality and social justice while life in Puerto Rico showed the dignity of Puerto Rican culture before natural disasters and US-government neglect ravaged the island. Roger now resides in southern Minnesota, where he teaches Swedish language courses at the college and community ed levels. He has written extensively on Swedish culture in the Upper Midwest. His short story collection Hopeful Monsters (Storgy Books, London) has been nominated by Friends of the St. Paul Public Library for the 2019 Minnesota Book of the Year award.