"Don't throw that hair out in the yard," Mart says. "The birds'll peck it and I'll get a headache."
"I know, I know," I say. I sweep the curly gray clippings into a dented metal dustpan and head to the bathroom at the rear of the trailer. The hair starts catching on the wind as I walk, so I put my hand over it to hold it down. It feels soft and fluffy, like feathers. In the toilet, the locks separate to form a knitted skim on the water. Like always, I feel sorry as I flush them. Like I'm discarding something valuable. The birds could use it to build a nest, had Mart ever thought of that?
"All gone," I say as I re-enter the kitchen.
Mart is taking off the plastic cape that smells like permanent solution and wiping loose prickles from her neck. "Thank ye," she says. She shakes her dress and runs her long, bony fingers over her shorn head.
"Feels nice," she says. "How do I look?"
She looks old. Disturbingly so. Even older than when I saw her a month ago. Her eyes now have a sort of glaze over them that makes me wonder if she's still all there. She hasn't said anything crazy yet, though. Nothing to report to the Agency.
"You look like a new woman," I say. She takes up the handheld mirror out of my basket of supplies and I give her her glasses off the kitchen table.
"Sure is short," she says.
"It'll be easier to take care of that way," I say. "And it'll last you till I make it back here next month."
"You might not believe this, but I used to have beautiful long hair," she says, testing me with a sidelong glance.
"I believe you," I say.
"That's what made Big Curt fall in love with me. Or that's what he used to say, anyway."
I fold up the cape and gather my combs and scissors. I can tell she wants me to ask about him, but it's already three and I have another client to get to on the other side of the county. An old man who needs his feet soaked in Epsom Salts so I can cut his thick yellow toenails. Besides, I know all the stories backwards and forwards by now, anyway. The moonshine-running, the stock car trophies, the plane crash. Frames of crumbly newspaper articles line the plywood paneling of her living room in case I, or she, were ever to forget. Sometimes I think forgetting would be the best thing for her. It was for me.
"Does Little Curt still come to take you to church on Sundays?" I ask.
"If he don't have a race on Saturday night, he does," Mart says. "It's gettin' to be the season, though, so he don't make it too often no more."
She pulls a jar of mixed pickles out of a cabinet for me that she canned some years back. I can tell how old it is from the layers of dust on the lid. I like mixed pickles and I appreciate the tip, but I'm always afraid to eat what she gives me. It's probably okay, but how can you tell if mixed pickles go bad? I thank her and give her a hug at the door. Her shoulder blades pop sharp tents on the back of her thin satiny dress. Now that I look closely, I think that it isn't a dress, but a long-sleeve nightgown. Maybe I should report that to the Agency.
I roll my windows down in the car and turn the radio off. I like the sound of gravel crunching under my tires. A cool April breeze blows through my hair, clearing the tepid fuzz out of my brain. I always get drowsy at Mart's because she keeps the heat on and the windows down no matter what the season. Now I'm awake and alive. Joey will be home from school already, I realize. He'll be playing with the dog out in the yard and getting muddy from this morning's rain. He'll probably track it inside when it's time for his cartoon and I'll pretend to be angry about the mess, but really I kind of like the smell of fresh mud and the way small footprints look on white linoleum.
I reach the mouth of the holler and stop to yield for a fleet of dump trucks. Hundreds of birds fly out of the budding trees around me, startled by the noise. I hang my head out the window to watch. Loud and busy, they return to their work as soon as the rumbling begins fading into the distance. Soon Joey and I will be able to hunt the yard together for halves of dainty blue eggshells. We'll make a wind chime out of them. I take in a good lung-full of what the birds are having and pull onto the main road.
About the author:
Jennifer Barton is originally from the Appalachian region of Southwestern Virginia and currently resides in New York City, where she is enrolled in the Creative Writing MFA program at The New School. She is at work on her first novel.