Excerpt from My Only Story
He came to me first in a dream, as a crippled dog angling down a
country lane, puzzled by his sudden age, his bum paw, the dry stick
clamped between his teeth. I'd
been expecting this dream for a very long time, and I woke up moving.
Not a day later I saw him at the back of the church basement of
Trinity Congregational, clutching a cardboard coffee cup hard and close
to his chest. The way he
held that cup was the way he held everything: his thoughts, his
passions, all his ordinary wishes, those poor dry sticks.
He was not a handsome man. Flattened
atop his broad, pink scalp were thin filaments of hair that glistened
like beach sand. I paused
near him, catching the clean scent of laundry from his cotton shirt,
pressed and buttoned to the top and tucked so tightly into his trousers
that a roll of stomach showed all the way around like a second belt.
His tie was the sort you see a lot in this part of Massachusetts,
the navy-blue emblem of an accountant or middle manager.
Up close I could see that despite his translucent hair and soft
waist he was not yet out of his thirties, not much older than me. And yet he seemed old, the way all sad people do.
There are two kinds of people in this world.
One kind likes the half-empty glass, the I-told-you-so, the
John Reed was the other kind, only he didn't know it yet.
He had come for an Alanon meeting, not realizing that the Alton
town council had kicked the Alanons out for the evening in the
expectation of a bigger than usual crowd for a zoning hearing.
My next-door neighbor, Danforth Outlet Centers, Incorporated,
with whom I had a long and acrimonious history, intended to purchase the
old ball field and the Osgood block.
On all of East Main, my house and beauty shop was the one holdout
from the "before" version of Alton, which was in the process
of being transmogrified from an expiring mill town into the outlet-store
shopping capital of eastern Massachusetts.
Which is more or less what I was explaining to John Reed as he
stood in the back with his cooling coffee.
"In other words," I told him, "your meeting is
"Oh," he said. "Oh,
well. Sorry." He put the coffee down quickly, as if he'd stolen it, and
made to leave.
"No," I told him, returning the cup to his hands.
"Stay," I said. And
I sat down front, next to a woman from one of the real-estate
offices that had popped up on every streetcorner since we'd started
selling our town brick by brick. It
had seemed like good news at first, those engineer types in good suits
eyeballing our peeling shingles, our weedy yards, our boarded-up mill.
But that was only step one, as it turned out.
I had a pretty good idea whose side the real-estate woman was on,
so when the call came for comments from the citizenry I leapt to the
podium before she could so much as lift an eyelash.
Although the basement of Trinity Congregational is sizable, one
of the largest meeting spaces in Alton, from the podium I had an
excellent view of John Reed. I
looked him over to make sure he was the right crippled dog, which, as we
all know, the world is full of. He
looked up at me with a face round as bread, his rose-brown eyes squinted
ever so slightly above the ample arcs of his cheeks.
"Hello," I said to those assembled, who knew me well
from meetings past. "I'm
"Hello, Rita," John said from the back, very softly,
which of course is what you say at an Alanon meeting, which this wasn't.
He blushed to a shade of purple, too mortified even to get up and
leave, which was a relief to me.
I tapped my index cards to even them up.
"When I was a ninth-grader at Alton High," I began,
"I took an aptitude test and topped the chart in a category called
'spatial perception.' Back
then I considered it a useless skill, but lately it's been coming in
awfully handy." A
Danforth rep in the second row rubbed his face, his sweaty fingers
spreading peevishly through his hair.
John Reed leaned forward, gripping the back of the chair in front
of him as if he meant to drive it.
"I see two towns when I walk these streets," I went on.
"It's been long enough now that people can hardly remember
what Alton looked like--before. But
I can spatially perceive what used to be.
I can go to the Broad Street Starbucks, stand on the new
sidewalk, and point to the exact spot where the wooden threshold of the
sewing shop once met the old sidewalk.
And I remember the one worn place in the wood where the door
opened and shut a hundred times a day."
I believe John Reed was the only one listening.
"Thank you," said the mayor.
The other council members stirred at the table, eager to move on.
"I'm not quite finished," I said.
"We can pretend nothing died here, that we're all pioneers
on some kind of frontier prepared ahead of time by the hired hands, a
pleasant town on a river with lots and lots of pleasant places to shop,
safe from the howl of the city, a bedroom community where people are
hardly ever in their beds what with all the meals out and the jogging on
the new river path and all that last-minute rushing for the train.
But in the meantime, just downriver behind a screen of trees,
there's an empty paper mill abandoned in the weeds like an exhausted
elephant left to rot in a field."
For a moment nobody said anything, then the Danforth rep called
out, "And your point is?"
"My point is you've taken enough already," I said. "It's wrong to erase things." Before I stepped away from the podium I turned toward the
council members and added: "My father made paper here. That was not nothing."
After another pause, I got a smattering of applause.
There were still a few of us left.
John Reed was edging toward the door, so instead of resuming my
seat I beelined to the back of the room and heaved myself into his path.
"Do you have a name?" I asked quietly.
He looked like somebody from the "before" Alton, like
somebody I might have gone to high school with.
"John," he murmured.
Then he made a sweet kind of bowing motion with his head.
"John Reed." I
sidled into the only space between him and the door.
The new year had brought in some frigid air that seeped through
every door and window, reminding me that January was about the worst
time of year to expect people to begin anew, to brim over with
resolutions when the earth gave back nothing but naked trees and frozen
thermometers. Still, people
do. They begin and begin.
I motioned him outside, away from the clabber of voices behind
the council table. We stood
in the cold street, looking at each other.
"That was, that was a very good speech," he said. "I liked the part about the elephant."
He swallowed nervously. "The
speeches at Alanon aren't quite as interesting."
"You know, I went to a few Alanon meetings myself right
after I left Layton," I told him.
"He's my ex-husband."
"Oh," he said. "Well,
I'm sorry for your troubles."
"Don't be. Ancient
history." I folded my
arms against the cold, sizing him up, trying to figure out how exactly
he might need my help. "If
you're the Anon," I asked him, "who's the Al?
"It's my brother," he said.
"I'm not married."
"Does it help?" I asked.
"Those meetings didn't help me much with Layton."
"They help some," he said.
He paused. "I
just listen. I don't talk
or anything." He
blushed again. "Except for that hello part at the beginning."
"Maybe you should try talking," I suggested.
"Might help you get over that shyness."
"I'm not much of a, a sharer," he said, which wasn't
true, I could see that right from the start.
"You asked me," he said, "you asked me to
"I thought I knew you," I said.
We both laughed a little. "As
long as we're both here," I went on, "how about we go for some
He looked at his hands, in which the cardboard cup still rested.
"Or tea," I said.
"Listen, I'm freezing.
Wait here while I get my coat."
waited again. I believe he
considered sprinting away while I was gone, though he denied this later.
When I came back he smiled at me, so I took him home.
Because I wasn't expecting to meet him so soon after my dream--my
grandmother had told me these things can take years--my house was a
mess. Sheldon, my blue-and-white parakeet, flings birdseed out the
rungs of his cage when I'm not home.
He'd made smithereens of the cage lining, which consisted of
missives from my next-door neighbor, who wanted my house and lot for
their proposed expansion.
"Do you mind if I open his gate?" I asked.
"Poor thing's been cooped up most of the day."
He peered into the cage. "I
don't mind. I like
I set Sheldon free. He
flew through the rooms just to make sure everything was still there,
then lighted on my shoulder.
John cleared his throat. "That's
an interesting dress you've got on."
"It's Sheldon's favorite," I said.
"He loves bright colors."
For a moment John watched Sheldon, who was pecking at the fringe
along my collar. Then:
"It was kind of you to invite me here, Rita."
"You misunderstand," I said, remembering my purpose. "You're my obligation." Then I mentioned my dream.
"In other words, I'm meant to help you."
He blinked a few times. "Help
"I have no idea. We'll
have to spend some time together and then it'll come to me."
He kept his eyes on me as I moved through my kitchen, setting
some water to boil. "Does
this happen to you often?" he asked after a while.
"Only one other time so far.
Which is why I'm bound to pay attention."
I set down some tea and offered to read his cards.
"You mean fortune-telling?" he asked.
"Crystal balls and whatnot?"
"No," I said. "They're
Tarot cards. My grandmother
taught me. They help you
think, is all." I took
the pack out of its silk purse and showed him.
"Very pretty," he said.
"Pick one. Maybe
we can figure out why I dreamed you."
Of course he picked the King of Cups.
"That's you," I told him.
"Reliable, benevolent, filled with dreams."
He did that funny little bow again, like a minor duke getting
ready to throw his cape over a puddle.
"That could, that could be me."
"See there, you're already thinking."
I dealt out a spread, a Celtic cross.
"Queen of Cups," I said, tapping one of the cards.
"She's in the position of your fear."
I looked up. "Are
you afraid of me?"
"A little," he admitted.
"That's all right," I told him.
"We don't have to do this now.
How about a tour of the mansion?
I've got a beauty shop in the basement."
He nodded. "I
saw the sign."
"Sorry about the smell," I said, leading him down the
stairs. "I gave two
perms this afternoon."
"That's no trouble," he said.
I liked his way of clearing his throat before speaking, just the
tiniest croak, as if he might fear offending someone by the sound of his
I took him through the shop, turned on a couple of the dryers,
showed him the facial steamer. "It's
all paid for," I said. "One
of the conditions of the divorce was that Layton had to help me set
myself up. Course, that was
a few years back. Things
aren't quite brand-new anymore."
There wasn't much else to show.
I run a pretty low-rent operation, to be honest.
People come to me after the fact, to fix their wrecked
permanents, even out a hatchet job, make the streaking disappear. Fix the broken, that's what I do all day long.
People come to me because my shop looks like the kind of shop
where their mothers used to take them for their grade-school haircuts.
They stay with me for a little while, then flock back to Ramon or
Bettina over at Shazaam, or Angelique at Hair Tomorrow, a
plastic-and-steel joint where they serve cappuccino in porcelain
champagne flutes. The
stylists wear tight black T-shirts, even the men, and count on the basic
tenet of human vanity: We all want to be beautiful in ways that don't
suit us. White girls want
cornrows, black girls want the kinks ironed out.
Chubby ladies like pixies, skinny men like crew cuts, wide-faced
women want a wash 'n' wear bob that turns their entire head into a pup
tent. In all my years in
this business I haven't once met a woman who could look into a mirror
and actually see herself. Man
either. This is a mill town--was,
I should say--where beauty can take peculiar shapes, and in my opinion
the voodoo artists at Hair Tomorrow should be casting their spells in
Boston or Providence. Still,
I've got my stable of regulars: Mrs. Rokowski's weekly set 'n' style,
Rodney's twice-monthly trim and card-reading, little Amy Chang's
six-week cut, and so forth. A
few dozen in all, people I genuinely like, and not just because they
help me meet the mortgage.
All things considered, I've done fine.
John was staring at my fingernails, which I'd painted up in gold
hazard," I explained, wiggling my fingers.
"The vendors send you something new and you feel compelled
to try it out."
"They look nice," he said, then, looking around:
"This whole place is very nice."
I admit I was touched, more than you would think over something
so small, but it had been a very long time, if ever, since another human
being looked that interested in what I do.
Not counting card readings.
Talk about your full attention.
"Why don't I wash your hair?" I asked him.
"Would you like me to wash your hair?"
He looked stricken. "Does
it need it?"
"Not technically," I said.
"But it would feel good."
What he did then was nothing.
Perhaps it passed through his mind that I might have an ill
intent he wasn't picking up on, or maybe he was deciding whether or not
it was time to put himself, literally, in the hands of another.
I like to think he stood there for those few moments just to feel
his life change. I took his
hand and led him to the sink, where he got into the chair and let me
settle his head. His
shoulders were stiffer back then, his expression still complicated with
the thing his brother had done.
"Just relax," I told him, and squeezed out a
quarter-sized dollop of shampoo.
"Smells like, like . . ." he tried.
"Papaya," I said, turning on the water.
I ran the sprayer back and forth over his scalp.
"It's supposed to relax you."
"Is that right?" He
was beginning to murmur, his eyes closing partway like a cat's.
"Believe me," I told him, "I've done the research. Papaya produces an enzyme or some-such that we don't produce
naturally unless we're delirious with joy.
And you know how often delirious joy turns up in the average
"Have you always been a hairdresser?"
"I'm not a hairdresser, John Reed," I said.
"I'm a healer." The
minute I said it I wanted to take it back, for I have no powers, unless
you count the power of observation.
But I felt summoned somehow, called, and wanted him to
know this. His hair, which
was thin and filled with light, lay now in pale, damp blades over his
tender scalp. I massaged
from the neck up, rotating gently so as not to disturb any follicles.
"This feels wonderful," he whispered.
"Well, of course it does.
It's the human touch."
After a good sudsing I rinsed him off and turbaned his head with
a towel pulled out of the warmer. As
he sat up, Sheldon hopped onto his shoulder to catch the droplets that
tracked down a helpless gully in his neck.
"I used to have a dog," I told him, "but after I
left Layton and the dog died I decided to downsize."
I opened my hands, trying to show him the whole of my domain.
He was blinking hard. Maybe
he was even crying. "Rita,"
he gasped. "I feel
like I've just won something."
I led him to the swivel, where he and Sheldon settled themselves.
When the snips from John's hair began to float down, Sheldon flew
to the top of the mirror in a huff.
John had a spangled, silvery laugh that surprised me in so large
"There you are," I said, and turned him around to see
His mouth opened. I
liked his upper lip, which was shaped like two low hills, one rising a
little higher than the other. The
shape of a question.
"Well, now," he said, leaving his mouth partly open. I submit to you with no false modesty that John Reed was
looking at the best haircut he had ever laid those rose-brown eyes on.
"You ought to change your sign," he said.
" 'Walk in ugly, walk out handsome.' "
"You're not ugly."
"I used to be slim."
"You're not ugly," I said, turning him once again
toward the mirror. "Look."
He looked. And I
believe, I do believe, he saw himself.
For a long while he said not a word, then: "How did you do
I snapped the scissors a couple of times.
For a moment he took me seriously.
"Did you train in, in the East or someplace?"
I laughed. "East
Main. Jean-Pierre's Beauty
Academy. It's closed now,
along with everything else useful in this town.
My childhood home is a pasta store."
I smoothed his forehead. "You're
Sheldon followed us upstairs and flapped onto John's shoulder as
soon as he sat down. I
brought John another cup of tea, and we talked some more.
Turns out we both believed the '86 Celtics could beat the
bloomers off Jordan's Bulls even on a bad day.
We'd voted the same in the last election.
He looked at his hands. "It's
like we were supposed to meet."
"We were," I said, but I didn't mean what he meant. He had a nice smile, a white shirt endearingly pressed, but I
can't say he was the type a woman expects to fall in love with.
I sized him up a bit, taking in his navy tie, his shirt and
pants, his polished black shoes. I
said, "I'm guessing you work with numbers."
"Sort of," he said.
Turns out he was district manager for a dental-supply company in
Chesley, which was also where he lived, a half-hour drive away.
"I used be on the road a lot," he said.
"Five years ago I asked for a desk job."
I heard a quiver, a catch, on the word five.
But I didn't press him. This
man from my dream was a responsibility I was willing to wait out.
"Also, I play the piano," he said.
"One night a week, sometimes two."
"For people, you mean?
You play for people?"
He winced at my surprise, knowing what I was thinking: This man
looked about as much like a piano player as my parakeet.
I looked at his hands, which were short and blunt, the hands of a
"It's not Carnegie Hall," he said quickly.
"Just background music at the Holiday Inn."
He smiled. "Sometimes
they even remember to pay me."
I smiled back. "You
can play for me sometime."
He got up and I walked him to the door.
He shook my hand politely and left as I stood on my cold steps,
watching him as he made his way along a block of East Main that used to
house the hardware store where my father bought paint, the grocery where
you could keep a line of credit. The
buildings that replaced them looked weightless, fleeting, and John
Reed's silhouette seemed good and solid beneath them, like something
that hadn't yet been altered. He
walked calmly, but with a certain gladness I could see in him all the
way down the block. I shut
the door, feeling like a healer.
After I had fed Sheldon and drawn the curtains and snapped off
the porch light, I stole down the basement steps, and I don't mind
admitting that I caught the smallest jolt of delirious joy.
God's gifts to us are pleasure and purpose, and it seemed I'd
been granted both in the time it took for the earth to make one full
The number five fluttered in my head, soft as a moth. I wandered through the shop, where a dim light from the
street angled in through the high casement windows.
I bent to gather a whisper of John Reed's hair, the equivalent of
the fluff of one dandelion, and put it into a glass jar that held snips
of hair from as far back as my beauty-academy days, some even farther.
The brilliant auburn of my old friend Margaret was in there, and
a pearly curl from my grandmother's cancer-gray head, and a single white
hair from the kindly judge who did my divorce, and a big black tuft from
Layton, roots and all. Into
this mix of love and betrayals and partings and death I dropped John
Reed's fragile strands and replaced the lid.