The old woman hovered backwards over the hairdresser’s chair and landed with an audible thump. “Not so graceful as I used to be,” she groaned, settling her wide bottom.
“What shall we do for you today?” asked the twenty-something, less-than-a-hundred-pounds hairdresser.
“Well, you can’t erase the lines on my face or bring back my youth, so you may as well trim the split ends, and I’ll be on my way” the old woman said with a sigh.
The hairdresser pulled a fresh lavender cape from the shelf. As she shook it out and slipped it over her client’s head, she looked in the mirror, into the woman’s eyes. She smiled. “I think you have wonderful features,” she said. “You remind me of my grandmother, and she’s the most beautiful woman I know.” She pulled the pins out of the woman’s hair, watching it slip and fall onto and down her shoulders, gradually exposing lush silver and gold waves that shone like watered silk. “You must carry a lot of memories in this hair,” said the stylist as she ran her fingers through the glowing strands.
“That I do, girl,” nodded the woman. “That I do.” She scowled into the mirror. “Memories are all I have left at my age. It’s no fun growing old. I don’t recommend it.” She tugged at the cape on her lap and tried to cover her knees.
“Are you cold? Would you like me to get you a blanket?” offered the hairdresser.
“No, I’m fine. I just hate looking at my knees. They used to be so pretty.” She pulled the cape back up, exposing her legs for the hairdresser. “Look at them. Why, they look like a couple of manatees.”
The young woman’s eyes met the older woman’s in the mirror. She hesitated, not knowing at first how to react, and then she laughed. “What a funny thing to say,” she chuckled.
The old woman nearly smiled for the first time that morning. She looked around the beauty salon and began to relax. She noticed a pair of pantyhose hanging from a hook beside the hairdresser’s station. One leg was half stuffed with something, giving it the size and shape of a foot, ankle and calf. The other leg hung empty and limp. “What’s that for?” she asked.
“Oh, that,” the young woman laughed as she combed the old woman’s strands. They hung down the back of the chair, nearly to her waist. “After we sweep our clippings off the floor, we stuff them into pantyhose. They say that hair makes a good sponge for soaking up oil. So every week we send what we’ve gathered down to the environment agency in Louisiana. They can make booms out of them – to protect the coast from the oil spill.”
“Hmpff.” The old woman cared nothing about the coast of Louisiana. It seemed too far from her reality to get bothered about a bit of oil. She had enough of her own problems. She fidgeted in her seat and crossed her legs. The cape slipped back, revealing her sausage knees again. I’m glad he didn’t live to see me like this, she thought. He only saw my youthful beauty. She pulled the cape down, attempting to cover her knees. “It seems like a waste of time to me,” she said. “They’ll never clean up all that oil. And if they do, somebody else will come along and spoil it some other way. They always do.”
Only once had she been anywhere near Louisiana. It was a surprise trip to Florida that he planned for her birthday. They rented a canoe and paddled up a river on the Gulf side of the Florida coast. Warm springs fed the river with a temperature that attracted strange sea mammals from the cold winter gulf waters. Here, for the first time, she saw a manatee.
The hairdresser’s scissors began to snip inch-long clippings that landed on the floor. “Don’t take off too much; just the split ends.” After a few minutes of silence the old woman spoke. “They’re ugly creatures, you know,” she said.
“What are?” asked the hair dresser.
“Manatees.” The old woman stared in the mirror stuck in a defiant silence. Memories began to cloud the surface of the glass. A large, gentle creature with fan-shaped tail and arms that curved and moved with uncannily human gestures slowly appeared, a calf by her side. A small intake of breath escaped the old woman as she remembered the sunlight, how it sparkled on white sand beneath the turquoise water and reflected in her husband’s clear blue eyes. They sat together entranced, watching the two strange creatures. His face, which had long since disappeared beneath years of crusted grief and disappointment looked up and smiled at her through the mirror. He didn’t seem to notice her age; he only saw her youth and beauty as it was back then.
“How’s that for length?” said the hairdresser, spinning the chair around and holding a hand mirror for the old woman to approve the trim in back. “Will that do?”
The faded hair was still beautiful, luxurious, long, and now with ends neatly trimmed. But she couldn’t look. His face – it was so young, so alive. She pushed the mirror away, dropped her chin and bunched the lavender cape into her fists. “Take it off,” the old woman sputtered. “I can’t stand it.” Tears streamed down her cheeks as she tugged at the material on her lap.
The hairdresser reached to untie the cape, releasing the woman from her cloth prison. “I’m so sorry; I didn’t realize the cape would upset you. It is a bit confining. Here, let me help you. I’ll take it off.”
The old woman grabbed the hairdresser’s wrist and held it with a firm grip. She raised her chin and expelled a deep sigh. She looked into the mirror, at the young woman’s eyes. “No, not the cape,” she said. “I meant the hair.”