by Emily Hessney Lynch
I arrive for my haircut promptly at two. The salon and I are still new to each other. I’m not what they call “a regular” yet. Usually I don’t stay anyplace long enough for that. This is my third appointment and probably my last. Perhaps the penultimate. Hard to say. It’s both so early and so late.
“Hi, I have a two o’clock with Julie,” I say to the front desk girl.
Eyes fixed on the computer, voice like honey, she says, “You must be Owen. Have a seat, I’ll take your coat. Care for some tea or coffee while you’re here?”
“Coffee would be great, thanks.” Essential, really, when you’re getting your hair cut at 2am.
“Julie will be with you shortly,” the receptionist says with a thin-lipped smile, pointing me toward the Keurig.
I take a seat on the plush velvet couch and lean back, then spring up and pop a pod of Donut Shop Blend into the machine. I focus on the mechanized drip of coffee into the plain white mug in an effort to calm my scattered mind. I take the hot mug and sink back into the couch with it. I think about texting my daughter and wonder if she would respond. I set the mug aside, pull out my phone, and start typing. Deleting. Typing. Deleting. I sigh and put my phone in my pocket, then pick up my hot mug of coffee again.
“Owen?” a bright voice asks.
I startle and spill coffee on my pants. “Fuck!”
“We don’t tolerate language like that in here sir,” the stylist tells me, biting her lip. “We’re trying to cultivate a calm and comforting environment.”
“What the fuck am I supposed to say when I spill hot coffee on my pants?” I grumble. “It’s the middle of the god damn night.”
“You’re the one who booked an appointment at the Night Salon,” she says pointedly, all but wagging a finger at me. “C’mon back,” she adds with a grin that looks like a grimace.
Off to a great start, I think to myself as I rise and try to shake the coffee out of the folds of my button down shirt, droplets falling onto the white carpet. Julie cringes, realizes I can see, tries to hide her expression too late.
I sit in Julie’s chair in the back corner. There’s a picture of her daughter on the counter by the mirror. Allison. Her name sticks on my tongue even though I’ve only had two prior appointments.
“So, what are we thinking today?” she asks, running her fingers through my graying hair.
Am I a silver fox? I wonder. Could I be? Does anyone think I am?
“Oh you know, the usual.”
Her face in the mirror looks puzzled. I hardly come here often enough to have a “usual” cut. She escorts me to the sink to have my hair washed anyways. She’ll give me the standard middle aged white guy haircut. It’ll be fine.
“Lean back, I’ve got a towel down for you.”
Warm water rushes over my head and I close my eyes. Julie’s hands massage my scalp. She squirts shampoo into her hands then works it into my hair. It smells like flowers. Having someone else wash your hair is a surprisingly intimate act. That’s why I keep my eyes closed, to be polite. One time I opened them, I think on my second visit, and noticed there were glow in the dark stars on the ceiling. Just like the ones in my daughter’s bedroom when she was little. I remember how each time we went to the planetarium, she made me buy her a new pack. She could never get enough of those glow in the dark stars.
“And how are your kids?” she asks over the running water.
“Oh, they don’t talk to me much anymore, not since the divorce.”
“Right. Right! You told me that.”
The water grows icy then shuts off. She towels my head roughly then waves me back to her station.
I look around and flex my ears. Eavesdropping is the best part of coming here.
On my left, a girl with purple hair chats with her hairdresser about video games. “So you play as a raccoon, and you just knock over garbage cans, eat people’s trash, and dumpster dive. It’s hilarious!” They laugh harmoniously.
To my right, a woman with jet black hair stares at her reflection, unblinking. “He had touched my ass in the elevator so. Many. Times. I never said anything, I kept letting it slide and scooting away from him. Trying to position other people in between us as a barrier. And then he called me “honey” in the middle of a board meeting. I absolutely lost it,” she tells her stylist with gritted teeth. In the mirror, the stylist’s mouth makes a tiny O of horror, her eyes teeming with empathy.
I’m the only man in here, as has been the case every other time I’ve been in. They don’t seem to know how to talk to me. I’m not one of them, it throws them off.
Julie returns from the sinks and hands me a cool bottle of beer.
“Sorry about the spilled coffee,” she says. “Thought you might want to wind down with one of these.”
I meet her eyes in the mirror. “I don’t drink. It’ll be six years sober in March.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry!” she hustles away to hide the beer, petrified that she’s offended me.
“It’s no trouble, don’t worry about it,” I reassure her.
She starts maneuvering around my head, first the buzz of clippers then the methodical snipping of scissors. I don’t know what the finished product will look like, nor do I care. I come here for just one reason: human interaction. I don’t want to get out of practice.
“How’s…work?” she asks, desperately searching for a way to break the silence. It’s not supposed to be silent in a hair salon.
“It’s going,” I reply, not giving an inch. Work is the last thing I want to talk about.
“I love it,” says the woman on my right, leaning forward and examining her new bob. She unclenches her jaw and cracks the first smile I’ve seen on her this whole time. She stands up to leave, runs her fingers through her hair. It looks silky-soft.
“Good luck with that asshole at work!” I call over to her.
There’s a collective gasp from every woman in the salon.
“Excuse me? I didn’t ask you to weigh in!” the stranger says, frost and fury creeping into every syllable. “I thought this was a women’s only salon,” she mutters to her stylist.
“Not exactly,” the stylist replies. “We’re open to anyone who needs this place…” she trails off.
“That guy sounds like a real dickwad, that’s all I was trying to say,” I add. The woman with the bob rolls her eyes.
“Is he…hitting on her? Does he think if he feigns sympathy she’ll go out with him or something?” the girl with the purple hair cringe-whispers.
“He’s clearly one of those ‘not all men’ types,” her stylist mutters.
What have I done?
The woman with the bob walks away wordlessly, her boots clacking on the cement floor. All activities resume. An assistant starts sweeping up hair from the floor, voices rise in chatter, the heat clicks on.
Julie pulls the cape off my body with a flourish and gray hair flutters to the ground. “What do you think?”
“It’s hair!” I exclaim. She pouts. “It looks great! Thanks,” I add hastily. I stand up to walk to the front with her.
On the way out, I pause by the chair of the girl with the purple hair. She is so full of life. “Does that raccoon game have an online multiplayer mode?” I ask. “I’m always looking for new hobbies and I’d love to play with–”
“Oh. My. Gaaaaaawd,” she exhales, staring at the floor. “Why would I want to play video games with a random old man? I don’t know you!”
I hurry away to go cash out, feeling hot with shame and sadness. Why do I even try?
“Before you go, my boss would like a word with you,” Julie says.
I pay my bill and leave an acceptable tip, then step outside with the willowy blond salon owner. We stand in a puddle of moonlight.
“Owen, is it?”
“Mhmm.” I sense what’s coming and brace myself.
“We appreciate your patronage, but I’m not sure the Night Salon is the right place for someone like you.”
Don’t get defensive don’t get defensive. “And why is that?”
“The Night Salon was designed for people who find normal waking hours a bit much to bear. Misfits and outsiders, night owls, anxious teenagers, angry women, lonely people, folks who have experienced trauma. It’s for them. They deserve pampering, too.”
“And I don’t?”
“I didn’t say that. I just get the impression that you’re hindering the experience for others.” She leans close, whispers in my ear: “We can’t have that.” She bites her lip and gives me a pitying smile before returning inside.
I climb in my SUV and turn on the radio to one of those in between points, listening to static the whole way home. I park and sit in the driveway looking out the sunroof, seeking constellations. I finally turn off the ignition and go inside my empty apartment. No one to show off my new haircut to.
Collapsing on the coach, I flick on the TV. Nothing good on at this hour. I turn on a light and take a selfie. I’m cast in a yellow glow, making my skin look sallow, but my hair does look nice. I’ll send it to my daughter. I open up the messaging app, attach the photo, hover over the send button. Maybe not tonight.
Using the Fireplace on Christmas
Every year on Christmas morning, she wakes to the crackle of a fire in the fireplace. But this morning it’s unusually quiet. Becca’s nose twitches as she descends the stairs. Something smells putrid downstairs, rotten, almost. To her right, presents swarm the Christmas tree, dozens of them in glossy packaging. She heads to the left, ignoring the smell, pulling a battered paperback from the bookshelf, and laying on her stomach. Her brother is a late sleeper, so she can definitely squeeze in a few chapters before it’s time for breakfast and then presents. Becca hears a creak from the kitchen. Her mother is putting the French toast casserole in the oven.
“Mom?” she calls. “Why isn’t the fire going?”
“Daddy slept in and hasn’t started it yet, sweetie,” her mother replies. Becca can hear the eye roll in her voice.
“Do you smell that weird smell, Mom?”
“No. What smell? I don’t smell anything. Shush so I can call grandma,” she says.
Becca hears the beeps as her mom punches seven quick digits on the landline.
“Hey Mom, it’s me. No, no one’s up yet.”
Becca strains to hear her grandmother’s response but can’t quite make it out.
“Harry didn’t do anything to help out, par for the course, am I right? He’s useless. He did cook dinner last night, but it was too peppery. I can’t stand it when he does that. Then I had to do all the dishes! As usual. 8am now and he’s still asleep. Didn’t even start a fire in the fireplace and it’s Christmas morning! He’s worthless. What? No, he wrapped all the presents. He always does. He’s better at it than me. Was he up late? I don’t know, probably. He’s a night owl, he doesn’t mind.”
Becca tries to tune her mother out, focusing on the black ink of each sentence on the page. The words blur before her eyes and her stomach gurgles. If they weren’t going to eat breakfast for awhile, she could sneak something from her stocking. With some rustling, she frees a peanut butter Santa and unwraps him, salivating as she pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose.
“Becca! Put that down,” her mom calls from the kitchen. She slams the receiver into the cradle and stalks toward Becca.
“Merry Christmas, Mom!” she says with a chocolatey smile.
“No chocolate before breakfast,” her mom snaps, retrieving the stocking and placing it on top of the refrigerator, out of Becca’s reach.
Thunder rumbles outside–another rainy Christmas. Becca’s stomach growls again, just as her brother Will clomps down the stairs.
“Mom! What’s for breakfast?” he yells. “Can we open presents?”
“Wait for your father.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming.” Dad stands at the top of the stairs beaming down at his hungry kids. At the kitchen table, Becca laughs as she notices him wearing his hideous old sweatpants and beat-up moccasins.
“Mom’s gonna yell at you,” she whispers. He shoots her a devilish smile.
“Harry! You’re wearing those ratty things on Christmas morning?”
“She told you so,” Will mutters. Becca snorts and orange juice trickles out her nose.
“Relax! I’ll change before we go to your parents’ house, no big deal!” he reassures her as he slaps a jiggling square of French toast casserole onto his plate.
“Isn’t this so good?” Mother asks.
“It’s great!” says Will.
“Best I’ve ever made, right?” she pushes.
“Oh definitely,” Becca replies. The casserole was a little dry.
“Is it time for presents yet?” asks Will.
“Sure, dear. I’ll meet you by the tree, let me just clean up,” Mom says with a sigh.
Dad pours himself a mug of coffee and dilutes it with creamer til it turns beige.
“Let’s go!” he bellows with joy, shuffling into the family room and sloshing his coffee along the way.
“Dad, what’s that smell?” Will asks. “It smells like when mom buys a bunch of kale and we refuse to eat it so it rots in the produce drawer.”
“HA!” dad laugh-bellows. “You’re right, it’s gross but I have no idea where it’s coming from.” He glances around the room, puzzled.
“I swear, you all are crazy,” Mom adds. “I’ll light a candle if it makes you feel better.” She flicks the lighter and slowly a strong vanilla bean fragrance begins to mask the stench.
“I’m going to go light the fire and then we’ll get started,” Dad says.
He returns and they find their places around the tree. There is a girls’ side and a boys’ side. You could see a clear line down the center of the Christmas tree–to the right, the ornaments grow pinker and glitterier, sparkly heels and dresses, and to the left, they get bluer and more athletic, ceramic footballs and baseballs everywhere. It had been this way for as long as anyone could remember.
“Becca, you could have offered to help me with the dishes,” Mom jabs as she saunters into the family room in her matching floral pajama set.
“Will didn’t help you and you didn’t nag him,” Becca replies.
“Watch your mouth! It’s Christmas and I shouldn’t have to deal with that attitude.”
Dad selects a present for each child and distributes them. They unwrap in silence.
After each gift, Mom chimes, “Do you love it? How much do you love it?” then explains just how long it took her to procure each gift. Did you know she went to three stores to find this? And it wasn’t on sale anywhere? She loves you so much she paid full price, she wants you to know. Becca pastes a smile on and nods with faux enthusiasm at each shopping anecdote.
Her mother claims that she has saved the best gift for last. Becca feels her chest tighten. A small part of her dares to summon her highest hopes, though she knows it is dangerous: singing lessons with the voice teacher her best friend works with. An annual pass to the science museum. One of those giant Lego architecture sets. A pet bird! The rest of her brain drums on: no no no, not gonna happen. She knows better. And yet.
The wrapping paper falls to the floor. Becca unzips the pink sequined bag and examines the contents of the makeup kit like a biologist with a microscope.
“You’re 13 now, Becks, you’re old enough to wear makeup! It’s got foundation, blush, eye shadow, eye liner, mascara, lipstick–and I’ll teach you how to use all of it!” her mom singsongs.
Becca feels hot. Her eyes are wet. She has never expressed an interest in makeup. Did her mom think she was ugly? That she needed this stuff to look pretty and fit in?
“Sweetie, you don’t have to cry! I love that you love it so much.” Her mom leans over and wraps her in a hug so fierce it nearly knocks the wind out of her.
“Let’s do stockings now,” her brother interrupts, saving her.
They make their way into the living room to sit around the fire. Becca feels a little better just being close to it, makeup set abandoned in the other room. She stares into the blue heart of it, watching the flames flicker and sway.
“That smell is worse in here,” she murmurs. “Stronger.” No one seems to hear her.
“Have either of you talked to your friends yet today?” their mother asks. “What did they get? Anything good?” She is eager to keep score.
Will and Becca shake their heads no as they unpack their stockings. Same as last year: an orange, a plastic candy cane full of M&Ms, a Pez dispenser, a toothbrush.
“The mom never gets a stocking…” she muses aloud, staring at the ceiling and biting her lip.
Dad reemerges from the kitchen after topping up his weak coffee with Bailey’s. “What a Christmas, eh? We’re very lucky!”
“Text your friend Claire and see what she got for Christmas. Bet it wasn’t a fancy makeup kit like you got!” mom urges. Becca’s eyes rest firmly on the fire. She will not meet her mother’s eyes.
“Dad! Can I use the poker to poke the log?”
Dad chuckles. “Go for it, Will.”
He eagerly grabs the iron poker and prods the logs, recoiling with a grin as sparks fly and wood shifts. The logs settle. Then,
“What is that?!” Will asks in delighted horror.
They crowd around the fireplace.
“I think it’s a bird,” Dad says, squinting.
Mom shrieks. “Christmas is ruined! Good lord, a bird was cooking in our chimney! Jesus Christ!”
“You can’t take the Lord’s name in vain on his birthday, Mom!” Will says with a smirk.
“I did not ask for your feedback! A bird has died in our chimney, William!” she screams.
“It’s a mourning dove,” Becca says placidly. “They sit on the power lines sometimes. Looks like the poor guy was trapped in the chimney for awhile.”
“That THING had the gall to ruin our Christmas!” Mom cries.
“I’ll go bury it out back,” Becca says. She slides on her raincoat and boots, tucking the new makeup kit into a pocket which bulges obviously. No one pays her any mind. She has no plan but feels alive with the thought of shoveling dirt over the makeup kit, burying it deep in the earth and never having to see it again. And the bird deserves a proper burial too. He didn’t do anything wrong, he just got lost. Stuck. She gently lifts the charred bird corpse and goes out into the rain alone.
Emily Hessney Lynch (she/her) is a short story and memoir writer. Her work has been published in McSweeney’s, Sad Girls Club Literary, Five Minute Lit, Spellbinder Magazine, and Gastropoda Lit and is forthcoming in Pastel Pastoral and Sledgehammer Lit. She lives in Rochester, NY with her husband and their two rescue dogs. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @EHL_writes or visit her website: www.ehlwrites.com.