Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Living Doll~ A short story by P.C. Fergusson

Waiting in a beauty parlour on Union Street ("Don't call it that!" her daughter admonishes. "They're called hair salons now."), Charon picks up a copy of Vogue magazine and opens to a picture of Susan Sarandon in a story called "Women of Hollywood." Sarandon looks fantastic in the photo, dressed in a black leather trenchcoat with a studded belt and black heels. The story says she's 66.

"This woman is 66 years old!" Charon announces to the small lobby lined with beauty products, turning the magazine outward to show them the black and white photograph.

"I know. Isn't that pathetic? She rocks it better than I do," says the young receptionist, a pretty girl with a wide face in a blue and white striped crewneck sweater.

The certified eyelash tinter clicks over in her high heels and snatches the magazine out of Charon's hand. She is wearing a low-cut blouse and a miniskirt, penciled eyebrows that extend beyond their natural boundaries. "She's had work," the tinter says, chewing her cheek thoughtfully and tapping a painted fingernail on the page. "She's had at least one facelift, botox, implants..."

Charon nods skeptically. She can tell all that from one picture?

"Anyone whose neck looks like that at 66 has had work done. You start thinking about it at 40," the tinter informs.

Charon has come to get her own "work done" after noticing a sign advertising eyelash tinting. She hadn't known eyelash tinting was possible before she saw the sign. "Is it dangerous?" she asked the receptionist when she made the appointment.

"No," the receptionist laughed. "We use a vegetable dye, so it can't hurt your eyes, although some people say it stings. We're all certified here."

Charon's eyelashes have chagrined since she lost them during chemo. They grew back gray and stubby, and her efforts to mascara them into existence have only mild results. She doesn't want to be one of those old ladies with makeup inexpertly applied -- a blotch here, a clot there, a daub of red on her forehead...

The receptionist brings Charon a cup of chai just as the tinter tells her to sit on a high leather chair by the window and close her eyes. She wedges her cup between the tiny bottles and shiny implements littering the tinter's table. The tinter puts what feels like medical tape around each eye, then slathers on a cold gel.

Charon thinks of her colleague, a woman close to her age, lying in an open casket the day before. She wore pink lipstick, as she had never done in life. Her little wire-frame librarian's glasses were gone, and her troublesome, bushy hair. A flowery turban encircled her head instead. She looked much more feminine, Charon thought, by which she meant frail. And she seemed much smaller--small enough to fit in the narrow, powder-blue casket, which Charon had helped to lift out of the white hearse onto a silver wheeled platform and drag into the church.

"Can you tint my eyebrows, too?" Charon asks, her eyes still closed.

"I can, but you're also going to need me to shape them. Tinting alone isn't going to do much."

"Let me start with the tint and see how I like it," Charon resists the sales pitch.

The idea of pulling out even one precious eyebrow hair is odious to Charon. So much has been lost. Now the hair on her legs and under her arms is so meek it rarely requires shaving. Her pubic hair is splotchy, making her feel old. But the hair on her head, at least, is longer than it's ever been before, falling almost to the rise of her rump. She loves the way it brushes her bare back when she walks naked from the bedroom to the bathroom in their flat--free to be immodest with their children grown and gone.

"Her new boyfriend is 35 years old," the tinter continues, slathering a cold paste on Sharon's eyebrows.

"You're kidding! I thought she was still married to that guy she met on Bull Durham."

"No. They were divorced a couple of years ago."

"Thirty-five? Wow." Charon thinks of Demi Moore and other women who've partnered with younger men, thinks of her own crush, years before, on a friend of her children's, and the vulnerable situation that puts a woman in--wanting to look younger than she really is, wanting to be more beautiful.

Sometimes there are photographs outside of Rudy's Pub, where Charon and her husband go for drinks on Wednesdays, of the strippers on Broadway. The female photographer lays them out on the sidewalk, hoping to make a sale. Women handle their breasts in the photos, stick out their butts, lean close to the mirror to put on cosmetics. Charon doesn't like the photographs, although she imagines they are art. And she is put off by the younger woman who is often inside, looking like a child's dress-up doll in a big, wide-brimmed hat and long, fingerless gloves, brightly colored dresses.

Charon has often cast her eyes toward this woman, thinking to make a connection, as two of the very few women in the room. But the living doll is unavailable as she perches on the window sill next to her shiny polka dot handbag, surrounded by a flock of old, admiring men.

Someone once said that Sports is serious business, but Fashion and Beauty are not. And why is that? Charon wonders. Is it because women obsess over beauty to win male approval, while men obsess over sports for themselves?

One night Charon watched the doll flirt with the bartender--an older man with a sizable paunch and an areola of wiry gray hair in a loose tee-shirt. She placed one hand over the other on the bar, elbows out and forearms flat as in an Audrey Hepburn picture, put her chin on her hands and stared up at the old man with big, widened eyes. "Love me!" she seemed to be commanding or pleading, not sure if her beauty was a secret superpower or a wound.

"Love me! Love me! Love me! Love me!"

The tinter squirts something cold and liquid on Charon's eyes and wipes them roughly with a towel. "How does that feel?"

"It stings a little."

"Do you want more?"

"I don't know. Is that what's making it sting?"

She squirts on more cold liquid, then swipes Charon's face with the towel and brings her a big, hand-held mirror.

Charon's eyebrows are clownish, too thick and an unnatural, bright red-brown color. She suppresses a gasp. Her eyelashes, though, look better, with excess black tint lining both the upper and the lower lid.

"Okay. You're right. I guess you better shape them," she says.

"Good," the tinter says as she pulls more tape off the roll and applies it around Charon's eyebrows. Then she is wielding a thick little paintbrush, standing back for a moment to look at her handiwork, cocking her head to one side.

Charon thinks of the priest putting his hand into the casket to adjust her colleague's turban, touching her face with a paternal fondness that made Charon uneasy.

Later, he rolled up a little scroll and placed it in her colleague's hand, like a window dresser rearranging a mannequin. Charon didn't like that, either.

But she liked the open-throated singing of the young cantor in his long, black dress. She liked the swinging of the censor with its strong incense and tiny bells.

"What about my hair?" Charon says. "How do the ends look?"

"We can take care of that for you," says the tinter. "Hasn't Lucy got a 4:30 open?" she calls over to the receptionist. Then she flicks her wrist and a scorching pain rips across Charon's forehead.

"Ow!" Charon is shocked by the sudden violence, puts a finger to the bald skin where part of one eyebrow had been.

The tinter smirks, "Are you okay?" she asks, but doesn't wait for an answer before daubing her paintbrush on the second brow.

"Yes, Lucy's got a 4:40 open," the receptionist says. "Do you want it?"

"Okay," Charon hesitates. "But I hope she doesn't have to take off too much. I really like it long."

Still later, he had leaned over the coffin and kissed her cheek or forehead. Many people had kissed her. The other priests in their funny, flat hats and long, gray beards. The family in the front row, the first in the long line to view her. The lead cantor and the other singers.

One got down on his hands and knees before the coffin and touched his forehead to the marble floor three times.

"It's too thin," the the tinter is saying. "It's not healthy. They're going to have to cut off a lot."

"Okay," Charon says. "Okay."  She clutches the armrests, bracing for the next rip.


  1. Hello Patsy,

    Beautifully written on woman. It was very visual and honest:-)

    1. Thank you, Anonymous! I'm happy with this one. I haven't written short stories in a long time, but I'm currently liking this genre. I'm glad you enjoyed it. There are a couple more listed on my "Other Works" button on the right.