Hair Matters
  Barbara Biles

The Dylan Thomas poem runs through Janet’s brain like a song. “And death shall have no dominion.” She stares at herself in the mirror as she sits in the maroon swivel chair with her feet on the chrome foot rest, but she does not swivel. There are mirrors all around so she can view the room from several angles. Hard to say what goes through the minds of the others in their chairs.

She is here for her Friday appointment. She has never before been tied to a certain day of the week, let alone a Friday, to have her hair done, but she found out that this is Shirley’s day off, and she has switched to the much younger Megan, who is the age of her own daughter. Megan is taller than Shirley so she pumps the chair a little higher in order to apply the golden dye to Janet’s mostly white hair. Megan has a sunnier disposition than Shirley, is soon to be married, and keeps a more natural look with her own hair. It is long and blond and she sometimes just puts it in a simple though fashionable ponytail. This is more in keeping with Janet’s style. At least her style when she was twenty. When she was young Janet also had long hair, left to tumble as hair will when left alone. To this day, when she hears David Crosby sing Almost Cut My Hair, tears come to her eyes. It could be because of the pain in David’s voice and she does know he is not just singing about plying scissors. Hadn’t his girlfriend just died in an accident?

Janet was Shirley’s client for about a year. She envies women who know they are the ones to be served and not the other way around. Instead of openly choosing a stylist at any given time Janet became indebted to Shirley and now, like anyone avoiding their debtor, she sneaks in on Shirley’s day off so she will not have to explain where her loyalty is going, as if she is a traitor.

Just last week, out of the blue, curious thoughts crossed Janet’s mind. Was Shirley still working at the salon? Did she have enough clients to pay the bills? As it turns out, some kind of intuition was at work in Janet’s mind. Unlike a lot of these relationships, Shirley unloaded to Janet about her difficult life. Usually it is the hairdresser who hears all the gossip. It got to be a little too much, worrying about Shirley, a woman the same age as herself. A woman who was divorced and had to sell her house and move to an apartment, not unlike herself. One big difference was that Shirley’s hair did not have a hint of movement. It was clipped close to the head, shaved thin at the neck, streaked blond and sprayed so that not a hair was out of place. Meticulous, and not what Janet wanted for herself. Shirley was wound into a tidy skein except for the yellowed fingers and nicotine breath. Janet could not imagine Shirley in her twenties with braided daisies in her hair, disdaining corporations and Americans in Vietnam, listening to Bob Dylan sing Lay Lady Lay, inhaling marijuana and in fact wanting to be laid as the expression still goes. What would they have in common?

In her last gasp of single life, travelling abroad, Janet went to the musical Hair. Nudity was new on stage agendas at the time, so a kind of titillation. But more to the point was this protest of the Vietnam War and established ways of thinking manifested in the uninhibited growth of people’s hair. “Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair,” meant far more than a trip to the hair salon. And then there was Easy to be Hard. She still plays Three Dog Night’s version of it and it runs through her mind inexplicably on this day. “How can people be so heartless?” Love was not always in the air for the one right in front of you. It was easier to emote for a cause.

Janet leans closer to the mirror. Her hair is coated with creamy dye and sections stick out in all directions. Some of her scalp is painted too, especially around the edges of her face. It makes her skin look pasty white, even a little grey. Her wrinkles are not as prominent but then she acknowledges that without her glasses they do seem to fade away.

Megan always gives Janet a copy of the latest celebrity gossip magazine to while away the time while her hair oxidizes. Janet learns who is a binge eater, who is pregnant, who miraculously has her trim body back after the birth of baby number one, who is planning a spectacular wedding for the third time, who lives with plastic surgery nightmares and who, out of two, best wore a duplicate outfit. It is all irrelevant to her life so a relief for that very reason. At home she reads the obituaries to see who is still alive.

To be fair Shirley did ask questions about Janet’s personal life, and at first Janet let secrets roll off her tongue. But she began to ask herself why she would confide in someone she barely knew and didn’t even relate to, like going to a priest for confession when she is not Catholic or to a psychiatrist for diagnosis when she already knows her own foibles, except priests and psychiatrists are sworn to secrecy. Megan’s life seemed easy and optimistic with a wedding in the works and a home in the suburbs to settle. Shirley was meeting men online and had even moved in with one of them for a time followed by her own cynical analysis. Megan was too young to be curious about the romantic or sexual lives of women their age, as if Janet and Shirley were too old for such passions. Now, with Megan, the conversations remain uncomplicated and limited to the achievements of Janet’s granddaughters and the changing of the seasons and the births and deaths of certain friends and relatives and the style of Megan’s wedding dress. She must ask Megan how she will do her hair with the veil.

Janet thinks it is odd how people will share intimate stories with those they barely know. It reminds her of her previous next door neighbour, Monica, who liked to joke about her stint at Al-Anon where they operated on a first-name-only basis. Monica became “best friends” with one of the woman in the group as they divvied out similar stories each week on surviving the tribulations of their drunken husbands. The friend ended up in hospital and when Monica went to visit she realized she did not know her best friend’s last name so she was not able to see her. Monica shared this story so many times, first with tears then with laughter, that Janet almost felt she had joined Al-Anon herself. She thinks about this now because she realizes she does not know either Megan’s or Shirley’s last names. And if she had known Shirley’s last name, she would not have missed her in the obituaries.

It was lung cancer. And the chemo was short lived since the cancer spread so rapidly. Would it be rude to ask if Shirley lost her hair? Is it insensitive to think about the irony of it all? A line from Hair runs through Janet’s mind again as Megan snips away. “Give me down to there, hair, shoulder length or longer.” She acknowledges that she can now make an appointment on any day of the week.

Janet never lost her hair but it is short. Perhaps it is foolish to think this deemphasizes her wrinkles. Turns out she did have something in common with Shirley. More to the point, she still comes to the salon once every month on the days that Megan is available. Any day of the week will do unless of course she decides to make a change. It is odd how one becomes indebted over hair.

“You know, when I was your age I cheated on my husband,” says Janet.

“Oh!” says Megan.

“Before we had our daughter, you know. So how will you do your hair for the wedding?”

Past Issues Contact and Submissions About The Steel Chisel Author Profiles