I Am Not a Rock Star

It was the first time Nelly Clement had been to the salon to have her hair done in more than three years. In the meantime, she had used curlers and a pair of kitchen scissors to conceal her lack of stylistic balance. Her hair had grown thick and difficult, a jungle for any brush. The shop girl worked up a sweat trying to comb it out, and as she noticed the hair along Nelly's shoulders broken and jagged, she said, "What do you do? Let the dogs chew on your hair?" Nelly shrank in the vinyl chair and looked in the mirror at the other women to see if they had heard, and they fought back smiles and cut their eyes at one another and Nelly bit the tip of her tongue to keep from crying.

But Anna, the lean, boney-hipped stylist, smoothed the moment with, "At least we've got plenty to work with," and Nelly enjoyed the shampoo, the fingers in her hair, being massaged, touched gently. Anna shampooed her twice, the second time using something that smelled like cherries, then brushed her out again, spun her in the chair, and she leaned in to Nelly like a mother to a child and said, "What can we do to make it better?" Nelly had calmed and she trusted Anna and she said, "I don't know. Something like you see on television."

What Nelly had meant when she said that was she wanted to resemble the straightforward beauty on the evening news, or the heartbroken widow on her favorite daytime drama, or the slender mother of three on the butter commercial. What she got instead was Anna's interpretation of what you see on television-dancing women in half-shirts, streaked, choppy cuts on the heads of smiley stars, heads that looked more like experiments than requested and paid for. And as Anna took Nelly's tired hair in her hands and sliced off chunk after chunk, Nelly again saw the eyes in the mirror peeking out from under hair dryers and dye caps, curious and sympathetic. Nelly wanted to stop and scream but she wasn't accustomed to stopping and screaming so she rode it out, politely smiled when Anna added a twist or a flip, and when the blow drying and hair spraying was done, Nelly had no idea who was staring back at her. Her bangs where choppy and she could see her neck and hair stood from her head in places like it did when she woke up in the morning. And underneath the thick layers of brown had appeared a light red tint, almost crimson.

"Voila," Anna said and ripped the plastic sheet from around Nelly's neck and gave it a flourish as if she were center stage. Anna stepped back proud, half-expected applause from the salon crowd or for Nelly to fall to her knees and kiss her knuckles. Instead, Nelly stood, reached into her purse, paid Anna and said, "I am not a rock star." Several giggles followed her out the door.

From the neck up, Nelly was a rock star. What had been heavy, brown-like-mud hair only an hour ago was now an alive, abstract, dancing style that made Nelly look twice in the shop windows she passed on her walk home. However, from the neck down, she remained the normal, somewhat square, housewife-attired woman she had been for what seemed like forever.

But despite being initially horrified by what Anna had done, the more she caught her reflection, the more secure she became with the new look. With each passing block, she liked herself more. He had said, "Nelly, for God's sake, get out and do something. Get your hair done. Buy a dress. Do something. Please." So she had done it, and even though it wasn't the classic cut she had hoped for, it had changed her. As she paused again to find herself in a shop window, she noticed the dresses behind the glass and she went in, again did as he had said and bought a long black dress that hid her hips and a knee-length red dress with ruffles around the neck that made the natural tint in her hair shine brighter. Nelly asked the salesgirl if she could wear the red dress out and she said yes, and Nelly left her brown pants, white-collared shirt, and knee-highs in a pile in the dressing room. She kept her coat to cover her shoulders and she walked the rest of the way home with an extra spurt, hoping she would look as good in the bedroom mirror as she did in the dress shop mirror.

She came to her street, unlatched the gate and followed the brick pathway to the front door. The children had been with their grandmother since the funeral two days ago and the house was so quiet she felt as if she were at the wrong address. She hung her coat and looked into the empty front room, where there was once a dining table, and soon would be again, but had been recently filled with a hospital bed, machines that beeped, and a cot for her while she slept by his bedside. They had believed dying at home would be better and they were right but dying at home had helped extend his days and the expected months to live became two years and with children, work, and the special attention, two years bled into one long day with rest coming in moments versus hours. But it had ended. For weeks he had felt it coming and begged her to go for a swim, have dinner with a friend, for God's sake get your hair done. Please. But she never left any longer than she had to.

She walked to the back of the house and stood in front of the long mirror on the bedroom closet door. She squared her shoulders, placed one foot slightly in front of the other, turned her hips-her pageant pose from tenth grade. She liked the way it all looked and she hoped her hair would do this when she tried it herself. The phone rang and she stepped towards the nightstand, then she paused and let it ring. Six, seven, eight times and she knew it was one of the children, upset because grandma's toast didn't look like momma's toast or so-and-so hid my shoes. Ten, eleven, then it stopped. Nelly walked into the front room to make sure the hospital van hadn't left anything behind, then she sat down on the floor in her new dress, relieved and hurt by the silence.

About the author:

Michael F. Smith has published short stories in several journals and reviews and was awarded the Transatlantic Review Award for fiction in 2002. He studied at the Center for Writers at Southern Miss, lives in Alabama with his wife and two dogs, and teaches at Auburn University. He's also the proud owner of a 1974 Volkswagen Van.