Winning Works

DRIVING AUNT DELLIE

By Carol Westreich Solomon

Second Place, Bethesda Urban Partnership Essay Contest, 2018

 The road twists through Lancaster countryside, past farms and mid-century brick homes as Aunt Dellie rambles on about Yiddish class in Baltimore and how many containers of vegetable soup she has squeezed into her small freezer.  We’re on our annual trip to Degel Israel Cemetery, where her husband rests beneath a double headstone with the right half empty, waiting for my aunt.

I park on the narrow road between modest bungalows and the cemetery, and Aunt Dellie pulls a large plastic bag of stones from the back seat and scoops some into my waiting hands.  “Lots of people to visit,” she says, then dips beneath the loose metal chain protecting the dead from the living.

Though blind in one eye, Aunt Dellie nimbly navigates her way past strangers’ graves to the people she’s come to visit.  From the shade, size, and tilt of the headstone, she knows who is buried where without even checking the names and dates carved onto the front.   Here is Zelda Dunie, whose long red fingernails punctuate her conversation.  We place stones on top as calling cards. Here are Aunt Dellie’s aunts—the one who snort-laughs while playing canasta at the kitchen table—and the one who deals the cards and keeps her eye on possible cheaters.  There are Mommom and Poppop—her parents—who are loading relatives onto the back of my grandfather’s truck to shuttle them to a picnic at Long’s Park.  Over there’s her sister Bernice, whose headstone omits the year of her birth out of posthumous vanity.  Down the center row, tucked among gray, thinning headstones, Aunt Dellie locates the grave of her grandmother, whose Hebrew name I bear. Faint letters record the length of her years, but not her strength in raising five children after her husband wanders.

On her way to my uncle, Aunt Dellie stops abruptly before an alabaster headstone that stands straight and proud, not yet buffeted by decades of winter winds or chipped by stones churned by the mowers.  “It’s cousin Linda.  So young.  See all the stones.  They all came for Linda.” The ripping away of the newly dead causes her eyes to tear.

“Who will come for me?” she whispers as she strokes her husband’s headstone that has lingered half-filled for over twenty-five years, the ground beneath it uneven, the marker beginning to tip.  Planes and schools and jobs have scattered us all to Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Texas, Canada, New Jersey, New York, California.  In Baltimore, no headstones of neighbors and cousins face my parents’ headstones, no neighborhood or family gathering recreated in granite.

The reunion over, Aunt Dellie washes death from her hands with water, then dips beneath the metal chain separating us from our loved ones.  Still, she invites them into my car, and they travel with us for the rest of the day.

SHEARA’S BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE

By Carol Westreich Solomon

HONORABLE MENTION, BETHESDA MAGAZINE SHORT STORY CONTEST, 2018

I’m standing in front of Gillian’s Hair Palace with my graying roots, and my heart’s pounding double time.  My fiftieth high school reunion is tomorrow, and the salon is boarded up.  “Gone to greener pastures.  Was our pleasure to serve you for 25 years,” the sign reads.  Does that mean Gillian is dead?  If she isn’t dead, I could kill her myself.  What would it have taken for her to cancel my hair appointment before today?

In desperation I scroll my smartphone and find Sheara’s Beautiful People, a name that suggests a place more interested in shearing away excess hair than in promoting hair growth in women who are losing it.  But it’s the closest place I can find to take me today and do the full job—color, trim, blow dry, scalp spray—before I head to Baltimore in the morning. No one expects me to match my yearbook picture, but I want to at least resemble my Facebook picture, taken five years ago, before my hair thinned and receded.

When I finally get to Sheara’s, I’m sweating from the unusual May heatwave as Eduardo, a kid about twenty or so with flashing black eyes and a pompadour, waves a hair color sample in my face.  “Mrs. Levy, I’ll match your old color with these strands and it will be bello, absolutely bello!”

“Eduardo, you can’t match the color with the strands in my hair now,” I insist.  “This is the faded version of my color after six weeks.  The blonde has become almost platinum.  No, no, we must get the deeper honey blonde that doesn’t wash out my skin.”

“Wash out your skin, Mrs. Levy?  Nothing could wash out your lovely skin, the rose glow that sets off your eyes.”

Now I know he’s full of what we used to call b.s., because my skin is worked over every three months by my dermatologist to remove little growths or scaly red patches that could grow into something disastrous.  Crepe skin under my chin, the patchwork of lines around my eyes and mouth, and brown blotches the doctor tactfully calls age spots—believe me, what remains after the doctor’s handiwork does not make lovely skin.  The glow Eduardo has detected is courtesy of my heat-flushed face, not its natural condition.

Just as I’m about to get out of the chair and demand an older, more experienced hair dresser, a girl with a purple snake tattoo slithering from her biceps up the right side of her neck plops down in the next chair and exclaims, “Dude, the hair’s gotta get fixed.  My sister’s wedding.”  She’s right about that.  Magenta streaks decorate hair tufts no more than two inches long, standing up straight as if she just stuck her finger in an electrical outlet.

“What about that purple snake?  Can you fix that?“ I ask before I can stop myself.

Eduardo leans over the snake girl, and she doesn’t say a thing to me, just a loud sniff, while he examines her magenta hair and fluffs the strands with an extra flourish.  Then he drops to one knee like he’s ready to propose and rests his hand on her thigh that’s sticking out of a hole in her jeans.  In a sultry voice he says, “Laila, you can’t be anything but beautiful. As soon as I’m done with Mrs. Levy, we’ll make the adjustments you want.”  I remember a time when I was about forty and a deliciously handsome hairdresser dropped to one knee and pressed his hand on my thigh.  Hairdressers don’t bother doing that to me anymore, as if there’s a limit to how far they will sink to get big tips from ladies of Medicare age.

When he goes off to mix my color, snake girl plays with her smartphone, her thumbs furiously texting messages, probably about the sizzling hairdresser.  “Did it hurt?” I ask.  When she doesn’t answer, I say it louder, “Did it hurt?”

“Hurt?  What?” she asks.

“The tattoo.  It’s so long and wide and touches areas on your neck that must be quite sensitive.  Did it hurt?”

“What’s it to you?”  She swivels her chair until her back faces me, and I notice an Elizabethan-styled tattoo “Eddie” at the nape of her neck.  Could that be Eduardo?  Whoever it commemorates, Eddie must have been really something.  I imagine them lying on an unmade bed, and he’s doing things to her that they show on HBO today, but Hollywood once considered X-rated.

No one’s even kissed me on the lips in the five years since Harvey passed away and I started exploring Facebook, something I’d never done before he dropped dead in the 7-11 parking lot when I sent him for a gallon of ice cream.  (Okay, maybe I used Facebook once or twice—just to check up on who’s who and where they are and how much weight they’ve gained since high school.  A quick, anonymous way to stay in touch.) If the reunion turns out okay, maybe I’ll at least get a slow dance and an air kiss from one of the guys who signed my yearbook.

Eduardo has returned and uses a small black comb to make dark blonde strands among my platinum wisps.  My empty stomach is gurgling (no time for breakfast this a.m.), so I suck it in to minimize the volume of the growls.  Ah, the things we learn as we age.  Like the importance of comfortable shoes, the regular removal of chin hairs, and the control of internal digestive sounds. Eduardo is too concerned about the little minx texting her heart out to notice my stomach growls.  “Do you want me to remove the magenta for the wedding, Laila?”  he asks.

She swivels back and shoots him a look that says Hell no.  “Make it brighter and add a couple purple streaks for accents.”

Her mother will go crazy, but then that’s probably the point.  Usually is when the hair’s this strange. I’ll bet the sister has long, shimmering blonde hair, with no tattoos for accessories, or at most, a discreet rose near her ankle.  The ammonia of the hair color stings my eyes, and a few tears sneak down my cheek, which I quickly blot, but snake girl must catch me tearing up in our shared mirror.

“Don’t worry, lady,” she says with a tone calibrated between snide and sincere.  “Eduardo’s doing his best to repair the damage.”

“As he will with you,” I reply, mimicking her tone.

Eduardo smartly ignores our exchange, probably thinking that saying anything will depress the tip from one or both of us.  He combs the mixture furiously through the remainder of my hair, then quickly applies some to my graying brows.  “Done!”  he announces with relief.  “Now we wait 35 minutes and you will see how beautiful you truly are, Mrs. Levy.”

Before I can contradict his patronizing comment and ask if the air conditioner is working, he vanishes, and I’m left to stare at my chemical hair spikes and beads of sweat in an unforgiving mirror.  Snake girl snickers.  “Your hair’s standing up like mine!” she says. “We’re twins.”

Then her eyes drop to her smartphone, signaling disengagement, as I watch her mirror-image scroll quickly through pictures, searching for something that’s obviously important, maybe a picture of her with Eddie. I imagine snake girl before the magenta and the tattoos.  Arms sprinkled with freckles, brown hair—a bit on the mousy side, pale skin with a few acne pock marks.  The kind of girl who fades into the crowd.  Did Eddie meet her before the magenta?  What drew him to her? Was it her eyes?  I try to get a glimpse, but she’s still focused on the pictures, so I clear my throat like I’m ready to make a big announcement. She looks up.  Ah, they’re molten brown, hinting at a story far more interesting than her hair, maybe about Eddie, who I’m beginning to suspect is no longer in her life.  If he is, what accounts for the flatness in the rest of her expression?  I know that look.  I wore it for two years after Harvey died until finally, I decided to turn up the corners of my mouth as if I’d actually cleaned out his closet and moved on in ways beyond my fishing expeditions on Facebook.

The timer says 25 minutes remain, and snake girl is shielding her phone from my prying eyes, so I stroll over to the magazine rack filled with entertainment magazines and a news magazine with a glossy photo of president #45 and his family.  A wave of nausea sweeps over me.  First Harvey gone, and there’s no one touching my body as if I really matter.  Now this—the world around me turning backward, inside out, upside down, ripped, sheared.  Only the thought of my reunion is keeping me afloat—commiserating with my civil rights buddies about the country’s retreat, laughing with once-upon-a-time girls who know the real Bobbie Levy beneath the mottled skin, feeling part of me I thought was dead tingle at the touch of a guy I used to have a crush on.  I grab an old Christmas issue of People as the room starts to tilt, shimmy, spin.  Hair driers, mirrors, shampoo girls, ceiling tiles whirl around me, then darkness.

I feel snake girl patting my face and calling, “Mrs. Levy.  Mrs. Levy.  Are you dead?” I open my eyes and a dozen pairs of horrified eyes stare back at me, including Eduardo’s.  How did I get here on the tile floor among pieces of hair and coffee stains?  I start to lift my head, but the spinning starts again, and snake girl puts a towel under my head and a wet cloth on my forehead.

“They’ve called for an ambulance, Mrs. Levy,” she says.  “Just rest until they come.  Does anything hurt?  Can we get you anything?”

“Harvey,” I say.

“What’s your number?  We’ll call your husband.”

I laugh.  “Good luck,” I say.  Then I start to cry for real, like I did for three months after the funeral.

“Her hair,” Eduardo says.  “We’ve got to rinse the color out now or the chemicals will fry what’s left of her hair.  We can’t send her to the hospital like this!”  Hands are lifting me onto a makeshift gurney of two swivel chairs and wheeling me over to the shampoo station.

“No hospital,” I say.  “I’ve got to go to the reunion.  And not with my roots showing and the color fading.  Keep the color in.  Just give me a minute to get my head straight.”

“The ambulance will be here in a minute.  We’ve got to rinse now!”  Eduardo shouts.

I’m pushing myself up on my elbows and Eduardo’s pushing me back down.  “Stay flat.  You can’t faint again.  Just stay flat.”  But someone’s holding up my back, and I’m sitting up straight and the spinning slows to a shimmy, the mirrors return to the walls, the ceiling tiles remain where they belong, and the wave of nausea subsides.

“She’s better,” snake girl says.  “See, she’s holding her head up straight.  Can’t you leave the color in?” “She could sue us if something happens,” Eduardo yells.

“I’m going to sue you if you rinse the color!” I tell him. “Just finish the job.”

A siren blares and two ladies shout, “The ambulance is here.”

Send them back,” I say.  “I won’t go. Finish my damn hair.”

Eduardo and an older woman, probably Sheara, and a couple of women in black gowns armed with scissors are all talking at once.

Snake girl wheels me back to Eduardo’s station in one of the swivel chairs and calls, “Eduardo, your client’s ready.”  She’s smoothing down my wrinkled black cape, her hands touching me more tenderly than anyone’s hands since Harvey.  Not my children ensconced in homes far away on the West Coast where they remain vaguely aware of my existence on Facebook, not my friends occupied with husbands who still inhabit this world—no one has touched me with such humanity since Harvey cupped my face in his hands and kissed me for the last time.

“Why are you doing this?” I ask.

“Nothing’s more important than hair,” snake girl says with a half-smile as Eduardo races toward me, examines the damage to the back of the hair where I hit the ground, and begins massaging the hair color to compensate for what’s been lost to the floor.

“She’s fine.  Just a little dizzy,” snake girl is telling the EMT’s and the manager.

“Have the lady sign a release,” an EMT says.

“She can’t drive,” the owner says.  “Eduardo, can you take her home when you’re done?”  Someone is pushing a pen and a form into my hands.

“It’ll mess up my schedule for the morning.  I’ve got two more colors and three cuts before noon.”  He’s touching my hair like he wants to get done with this and me as soon as possible, as if dizziness and aging are contagious fatal diseases.

I scribble my name on the form, then catch my pasty face in the mirror.  “I’ll drive myself,” I lie, knowing that my legs are still rubber and my brain fogged over.

“I’ll drive her home,” snake girl insists.

“But Laila, your hair?  My schedule?”  Eduardo says.

“Adjust your f**ing schedule,” she says.

~

From the passenger seat of my fading Corolla, the neighborhood feels different.  The empty storefronts, the houses with peeling paint, the sidewalks that tree roots are upending—all the decay that usually unsettles me seems fixable with someone else in the driver’s seat.  As Laila follows Waze’s directions for the ten-minute ride and watches for stop signs, cross walks, and unexpected cyclists, my jaw unclenches and the vise-like feeling holding my body together for five years finally releases. I’m free to notice the azalea buds starting to pop and the fertilizer making the grass green up.

As Laila turns into my development, the sharp right pushes me toward her.  She smells different, this Laila, not a fragrance my friends would use—something fruity but tangy, probably not even a cologne, more likely a special soap or shampoo.  Odd, it comforts almost as much as Harvey’s aftershave.

“So Mrs. Levy, when did you lose your husband?” she’s asking me as we near my home, the question resonating like it’s been percolating inside her since the salon.

“Five years ago. Sometimes it feels like forever.  Today it feels like yesterday.” I’m answering a question no one but me usually cares about anymore

“Time’s strange.  You’d think a minute is a minute and a year is a year.  But it isn’t,” she says.

“I’ve lived a lifetime—fifty years since I went to school with these people I’ll see tomorrow.  But I can remember the sound of my best friend’s horse laugh and the words my prom date said when he slipped his arm around me in the car and tried to kiss me but missed my mouth.  Why do I remember those things but forget the names of people I met yesterday?  And my husband, I remember when we went someplace new, he’d whisper that I was the prettiest girl in the room.”

“That’s like with my dad,” she says.  “I can remember every word he said the day he died, even though it was a year ago.  But when I saw you on the floor, it felt like this morning, and it was him lying there on the floor.”

I wonder if my children ever think of Harvey that way, or if he—and I—are just relics fading into the past while they get on with their lives.  Maybe loss wears off faster for the young.  Maybe a couple years from now Laila will have forgotten most of those memories of her father.

“You’re so young to lose your father,” I say.  Her smile evaporates, and she’s turning stone-faced like she was at Sheara’s.  “I don’t want to make you hurt.  I’m sorry.”

“Remembering hurts, but not remembering feels like crap.  Besides, I don’t feel so young, not after he died.”

We’re in front of my house, and I long to stroke the snake on her arm like I used to stroke my daughter when she’d had a fight with a friend.  “Laila,” I want to say, “your father was a lucky man to have you for a daughter,” but the words feel presumptuous.  So instead I say, “I can tell you loved him very much.”

“He was the only one who got me.  He saw how I can’t breathe with fake people around me.  He loved my snake.  And my hair—the brighter, the better.  So I keep him with me.  For always.”  She points to the back of her neck to the Elizabethan-style “Eddie.”

So Eddie isn’t Eduardo or some guy twisting in her bedroom sheets.  Eddie is her father, so important that he’s tattooed in purple onto her skin, like Harvey’s tattooed onto my heart.  I reach out to touch her “Eddie” as if touching it will help me know him and understand their emotional connection, then stop before I embarrass us both.

“That’s okay,” she says.  “Go ahead.  I want you to touch it.”

Her skin feels smooth, pliant, full of possibilities.  I start to cry.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Levy. Your hair turned out great.  You’ll be a hit at your reunion.”

She opens the car door, hands me my keys, supports my elbow as I—still a bit unsteady—wobble up the cracked walk to my front door.  Then she’s gone.  And for a minute, I miss her almost as much as I miss Harvey.