They’d warned her about shaving her head. They’d said she wouldn’t be prepared for the loss she would feel. Yet as she stared into the dark chunks, like bristles of unmade brushes transforming into rose petals stacked upon themselves and gathering around her chair, she felt lighter.
“Salon’s down the road.” From the corner of the room, a barrel of a man spoke without looking up from his nails as he intently clipped away at them, the small half-moons flying and scattering into the unknown.
“I’m not looking for the salon.”
“What are ya lookin’ for, then?”
She stood in the doorway. The setting sun carved her silhouette into the window. It felt like an old spaghetti western. “I want to get my head shaved. Can you do that?”
“Balder than a Q-tip?” He spat. She nodded. He persisted. “You sure you wanna do that?”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion. I asked if you could do it.”
“Yeah—all right. Sure. I can do that.”
A woman entering a barbershop is a phenomenon—especially in rural Louisiana. Yet she felt certain this was the place. The checkered floor, the breeze of aftershave, the three mismatched barber chairs standing at attention, and the grainy buzz of Billie Holiday humming from an outdated radio.
The night before,
in the mirror,
there’s the her that is her mother.
She sees her:
Long, dark hair dangling from its roots,
sopping wet from the shower,
pulling her toward the ground.
She hears her:
Put your heart away
For a day in May
You will always stay
My little girl
There’s the her in her fingertips,
the her in the crook of her uneven nose,
the her in her forward stance,
the her in the sadness billowing in every room.
When blue skies turn gray,
Whatever they say,
You will always stay
My little girl
She smells her:
Dial Soap. Marlboro Menthol 100 Lights.
Pavement after the rain. The attic of an old house.
Peppermint candies from Denny’s.
A musty, dog hair-speckled quilt. Suave shampoo.
She touches her:
in the humming that vibrates her forward.
in the dryness at her cheek,
in the drops of water that spread across her shoulders,
“Our kids are the way we stay immortal,”
she used to say.
Lately, my nights are restless. I desperately pray into the darkness—to any unseen gods I can dream up—for a few hours’ rest.
When I finally fall sleep, I find myself in a forest. A forest in the sky. There are grand live oaks rising from the clouds that line either side of me as I walk down a simple illuminated path. I wear nothing, but feel no cold, no warmth, and I am alone as I continue steadily toward what looks like an eternity of fog mixed with tangled tree roots and branches that stretch ahead as far as the eye can see.
When I wake up, I feel myself gasp loudly for breath. I look down at the single gray sheet wrapped around my curled legs like a cocoon. I run my hand through my newly shaven head and long for the old, long pieces to grasp onto. I know what you’d say about my lack of hair. Your hair was the best-kept part of you. Long and dark until the day you died; with a natural touch of curl, unless you straightened it. Your hair even looked good in a ponytail.
I remember as a kid—my whole life, really—you used to call it your secret weapon. If we got a discount on our tires, found a parking space, or a dollar on the ground: “secret weapon,” you’d whisper to me. I always wondered if you really meant “good luck charm,” but I never corrected you. You always looked so satisfied when you said it, and it wasn’t often that you looked so satisfied.
We are always from where we come from. We are born in a place, to a person, and no matter what is lost or how far we go, we are forever from that point. There must be point A to get to point B, whether we ever see point A again or not.
Her point A is no longer. She cannot find her in the house with the rusted fence where she was so often found: chancletas dangling from her feet, Marlboro hanging from her lips. Further back in time, they knocked down the old apartment building, her first home, and lifted a Dollar Tree in its place. It’s not like the other trees in the area; it is square and concrete and its roots are parallel lines on a plot of blacktop.
She stands in the seasonal aisle. It smells of vibrant plastic. Here there are bountiful neon buckets and nylon parasols—even if the closest beach is a long car ride away. She contemplates a blow-up pool for the yard. She stares at the image of the happy white children splashing in the jewel-toned water, and wonders: will the bereavement leave when the ‘bereavement leave’ ends?
Hours later, she stands in the yard and fills the pool up to the rim. It has been nearly a week, and yet she has done no clearing of things, no organizing of affairs, no answering of calls or emails.
It feels good to be invisible here. The hose limp in one hand, a sweaty can of cheap beer in the other; she steps into the cold water and feels it hug her calves. A gray cat watches from a neighboring windowsill. She is not invisible, after all.
She falls asleep curled in the baby pool. Her empty can of beer floats like a buoy behind her. There are several rings from the doorbell, but the sound is much too faint to hear from the backyard. That is, if you can call this patch of grass and rectangle of cement a backyard. (Most do. She does, her mother did.)
A woman in a purple housedress approaches with a tinfoil-wrapped gift. Her skin is a deep brown, with welcoming wrinkles pressed into her forehead—they seem to smile ahead of her.
“Honey! Honey!” The woman kicks at the edge of the pool, holding the foil rectangle above her head. “You alive?!” The water splashes around her and she startles awake. She takes a large gasp of breath and her eyes open as wide as those of a tropical fish. “You the daughter, right? You got her eyes. Sorry about your mama, by the way. That woman was a riot.”
She rises from the water slowly. She is naked, but the woman in the purple housedress does not seem to notice—or if she does, she does not care.
“I brought you some jambalaya. Figured you might want somethin’ to eat.”
“Thanks,” she says, alarmed by her own voice, which she hasn’t used in days. The sound is weak and quiet.
“Well, ain’tcha gonna say somethin’? Invite me inside?”
“Can we go to your place instead?” The woman in the housedress looks at her curiously, with a smile that lifts her eyes. The woman is quiet as she leads her through the tall stalks of grass that line the fencepost and lead into her own yard.
The door is marked “A11” like an apartment would be, but it clearly stands as the entrance of a simple house. The wood on the door is golden, laminated like a thin leaf of foil on a chocolate bar.
“Open it,” she says. “Go on.” And suddenly she feels like Alice in Wonderland. So much of the last week has been spent alone that it’s hard to parse the reality from the fantasy. Except there is nothing in this illusion (or truth) that feels terrifying or intimidating or not right—quite the opposite. Everything about this door feels like an answer, a golden ticket.
On the other side of the door, a young man peers through the peephole. He is eager, but sets his palm to the door’s surface, willing himself to remain calm. He has been waiting for this day, this moment, for a long time.
He watches the neighbor and the woman in the housedress. The neighbor woman, with her hair trimmed close to her head, eyes the door curiously, marveling at its goldenness, much the same way he had when he’d first approached it all those years ago.
He looks for the signal. In his head, he recites the script over two more times. The woman in the housedress touches her chin and stares directly at him. With that, he reaches for the knob, his palms sweaty with anticipation. At the same time, the stranger reaches for the handle on the other side. At once, however, she removes her hand and the door opens and disappears.
The man smiles. The smile is genuine. The woman in the housedress looks pleased. The stranger looks confused, but not alarmed.
“Welcome,” says the man. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Christina Quintana is a New York-based writer with Cuban and Louisiana roots. Her writing has appeared in Glass Poetry, Saw Palm, and Nimrod Journal, and her chapbook of poetry, The Heart Wants, was recently released from Finishing Line Press. She is the recipient of fellowships from Lambda Literary and Columbia University School of the Arts, where she received her MFA in Playwriting.
JJ Jetel is a photographer working worldwide photographing interiors, architecture, and portraits. Originally from Illinois, he holds a BFA from The School of The Art Institute Chicago.