The only reason I’m getting my hair cut in the first place is Barbi said she’d do it here in the bare bones living room of the apartment I rent from her, instead of in her salon on the main street of Bakerville where everybody and his mother could see through the picture windows of Miss Barbi’s Hair Palace that Bonita Walker Tone is finally making an effort.
“She sits down in the Home Run and orders a Coors.” Barbi is shampooing my hair over the kitchen sink. She’s kept up a nonstop babble of chatter since she laid her supplies on the counter, as if I were one of her regular customers whose tip size is tied to the gossip value of the side show. “It’s eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning, and she orders a beer—nothing else, mind you.” Barbi’s told this story a time or two. “Not even a French fry.” The shampoo she’s using smells like oranges.
“Who’d have thought it,” I say as Barbi stands me upright and steers me to a stool centered on a drop cloth of old Bakerville Couriers. The idea of the lately widowed and extremely ancient Mrs. Morrison maneuvering our city center in her outsized Chrysler is off-putting in and of itself. A tiny old lady ordering a beer in the Home Run Café is unremarkable to my way of thinking, but then I’m a recovering alcoholic and always will be, according to A.A.
Barbi tightens the Velcro collar of the slinky Superman-style cape around my shoulders and dabs a wash cloth into my ears to get the soapsuds out. “She sits there for two whole hours, Lib says, and asks everybody who comes in!”
“People are worse than awful.”
“I mean, how do you ask somebody that? People you know. People who knew your husband.” Barbi’s using some kind of Afro pick to fluff my curls. They don’t need fluffing, I know from experience, but professional ethics require her to lift each wet corkscrew with the pick before she decides how she’s going to cut it. It would take a jar of fifty-weight Brylcream to tame what grows on my head, which is why I wore my hair in braids until graduation from New Dawn Recovery Center, when I cut it off to the nubs on the first day of sober freedom. I’ve kept it short and ragged ever since. Bonita’s penance, my big brother Lyle calls my hair. Bonita’s mortification.
Barbi pitches her voice up a couple of octaves. “”Hello. I’m Sally Morrison. Could I get you to shoot my dead husband’s cat?’”
“People are disgusting.” It’s a droll story, terrible and hysterical at the same time. “How could Lib stand it?”
“She couldn’t. She took the cat! Followed Mrs. Morrison out to the house and took him right then. Without a cat carrier, no less. Free range in the front seat.”
Barbi and Libby are best friends, always have been, even back in high school when they were serial girlfriends to my melancholy heartbreak of an older brother. I hear the admiration in Barbi’s voice. “Left the café in the somewhat less-than-capable hands of your Dickie de Vane and rescued the damn cat.”
“He’s not mine. He’s Liggott’s.” Dickie de Vane is an associate by circumstance only, seeing how he works with me at the Tune-Up Shop Liggott owns. Liggott hired him; I didn’t. Liggott finances the long lunch hours Dickie spends at the Home Run. “Hurray for Lib.”
“Hurray for Lib.”
Barbi’s working her finger tips through my hair, scoping the lay of the land, figuring out how she can best repair what I’ve put asunder. “It makes you wonder.” She snips something, I can’t tell how much because I have my eyes shut, and fluffs. “What did she think of Mr. Morrison. Lib says they were married forty-seven years.”
“It’s pretty clear what she thought of the cat.”
“The cat is twelve years old! It’s not like Sally wasn’t used to him.”
“People are disgusting.”
“She must have been hating that cat for years.”
“People disgust me.”
“It’s like she was just waiting for Mr. Morrison to die so she could get rid of the cat.”
“What does that say about their marriage, you know? Like did they fight about the cat every day?” Barbi asks, brushing the shorn dark curlicues from my caped shoulders. “Did Cal Morrison know how much she hated the cat?”
I stand. Barbi can’t resist fussing with some strands on my forehead that are supposed to be bangs, but what do I know. I push her hands away from my face. “He knew.”
“Poor guy. Forty-seven years.”
“He had to have known.”
“Anyway,” Barbi puts the Afro pick in her pocket and hands me a mirror. “Like it? I had to go pretty short but—“
On principle and because of my training in A.A., I’m not looking to hurt anybody’s feelings. Not ever Lyle’s, not my evil stepmother Jantell’s, not those of Dickie de Vane, who certainly deserves cosmic retribution for irremediable laziness if nothing else. Even knowing what I now know about Sally Morrison’s clumsy search for a hit man, I wouldn’t seize the opportunity to hurt her wizened old self, either. So I am certainly not going to hurt Barbi’s for giving me gratis—and out of a lingering affection for all things Lyle Walker Tone—this new hair style.
“Barbi.” I look like a Kewpie doll. It’s going to be almost but not quite unbearable. “It’s great.”
“I won’t have to do anything to it, right?”
“Just shampoo and go, honey.”
“Thanks.” I’m calculating how many weeks it will take for my hair to grow long enough to reach a rubber band, if Aunt Amy will tolerate my wearing a baseball cap through Christmas Eve dinner. “So much.”
Barbi’s satisfied. Whether or not she’s paid for it, she loves doing hair. She’s been wanting to tame my feral locks forever.
“So you have room in your life for a cat, sweetie?” She stuffs her equipment into her bag, slips her sweatshirt over her blouse. “For a good cause?”
I have nothing against animals. Lord knows I raised my dearly beloved share of sheep and chickens in 4-H before I abandoned agricultural pursuits. I’m bosom buddies with Queenie, Norma and Walter Cathcart’s half-grown heeler. But the thought of having my own pet at this particular moment in my recovery doesn’t sit well with me, evoking as it does a distinct foreshadowing of attachment leading to inevitable loss and subsequent sorrow. With a Buddhist solemnity befitting the Dalai Lama, Lyle tells me regularly that life is suffering, that I need to stop dodging anguish and meet it head on. In New Dawn, the counselors said something similar. I don’t want this cat, no matter how pathetic his history.
“Bon? His name is Mister. Will you take him? You’d be helping Lib out.”
Libby loves me just as much as Barbi does. Their love is not simply an extension of their fond histories with Lyle. They were kind to me twenty years ago when I was a broken kid with a dead mama, and they were kind to me when I was a drunken hoodlum. They are kind to me now, when I have so little to offer.
“Yeah,” I tell Barbi. “I’ll take him.”
“I didn’t get my hair cut so I could go on blind dates,” I say to Libby after I’ve closed up the Tune-Up Shop and ducked into the Home Run for a hamburger dinner. “I got my hair cut because it was the only way to get Barbi to stop hounding me.” It’s cold enough to snow. The foolishness of wearing two inches of hair is making itself quite clear to me.
“It’s cute, Bonnie. Tomboyish.” Lib’s sitting across from me in the back booth at the tail end of the dinner rush. Norma and Walter Cathcart are seated up front beside the café’s window, finishing one of Libby’s casserole surprises. Walter parked smack dab in front of the Home Run so he could keep his eye on Queenie, who’s standing behind the wheel of the cattle truck, ears perked, keeping her eyes on Walter. Two sheriff’s deputies are drinking coffee with their lemon cake and talking about somebody’s pipes freezing and flooding a house just the other side of the river. Other than that, it’s only Libby and me and Manuel, singing a soft love song in Spanish as he closes down the kitchen.
“Like I need to work at tomboyish.” I wag a French fry at Libby, then point it at the spinach salad she brought me, unrequested, and which I’m doing my best to finish. “You think I don’t eat enough vegetables?”
“I think, sweetheart, that your aunt’s garden has finally given up the ghost. So yes, I’m plying you with winter greens.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I ingest a vitamin pill. Every morning.”
“Listen, Bon. I appreciate you taking in Mister—he likes dry Friskies, did I tell you?—more than you know. You’re a lifesaver.” Libby lifts her hair and coils it against the back of her neck.
I can’t see why Lyle didn’t stay with Lib, who ended up marrying a heavy equipment operator from Jackson. Her husband Bobby’s nice enough, but he’s not Lyle. Selfish thinking, I chide myself. Bobby’s great.
“I’m no lifesaver.”
Libby makes a stern expression, probably the same face she gives her little girls when they’re naughty. “You are to Mister, believe me.”
Just when I’m thinking Libby’s forgotten the blind date she was cooking up, she stands and lifts my plate, balances it on her flattened palm. “So I can go ahead and let Bobby know? Dinner at our place, girls and all?”
For a long while, since somewhere between Mama’s dying and Jantell’s taking up residence in our house as the second Mrs. Tone, I’ve held my breath through the Christian holiday festivities. As soon as Libby starts playing Elvis’s Christmas albums and “Here Comes Santa Claus” seeps onto Main Street, crisscrossed by sparkling white Christmas lights and tarted up with sprigs of red-ribboned mistletoe, it takes every ounce of energy I have to leave my apartment. When people—good Bakerville people who’ve known me my whole life—greet me with a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, the best return I can make is hey, you too. I don’t want to get in the way of anybody else’s yuletide joy, so I make it a point to lie low and hug the sadness of the winter solstice to myself. I could just manage having dinner with Libby and Bobby and the girls, but I’m in no condition for a blind date.
“Lib.” I stand and pull some bills from the pocket of my jeans. “I’m in no condition for a blind date.”
Libby kisses me on the cheek. “Yes, you are, Bonita.” She pats my rump with her free hand. “You just don’t know it, sweet girl.” Mister walked into my apartment and made himself right at home. He’s staked out his favorite territories, the pillows at the head of my unmade bed and the plaid hand-me-down love seat in the living room being the front runners, which is fine by me. He shows no interest in the great outdoors, so I leave him inside when I head off to work. Morning or night, he climbs into my lap wherever I sit, a warm-blooded surprise that pleases me twice: first because I didn’t expect Mister to come bearing gifts, and second because I find myself looking forward to coming home to him. I bought him a brush, which he treats like a toy, and a silly catnip mouse, which he won’t play with at all. He’s been well-loved, Libby told me when she brought him over, and Lib knows a thing or two about loving well. Sometimes, when he’s cuddled up and purring against my chest, I wonder if my cat misses Mr. Morrison, if he’s just making the best with the runner-up owner he’s accepted while a heavy gloom weights the pit of his stomach. We’re getting along.
“You’re a crummy cat, Mister,” I say to him when the phone rings. I kiss his head and slide him off my lap to answer what is sure to be Lyle’s weekly check-up call, eight on the dot on Thursday evening.
“Sissy?” Lyle says as, silent, I hold the phone to my ear.
“Your one and only.”
“Bon, you need to speak when you pick up your phone.”
“What if it’s a breather?”
“But I don’t want to hear everybody breathing.” I sit back on the love seat. Mister reclaims my lap. “I only want to hear certain people breathing.”
My brother waits a beat, then another. “How you doing?”
“Fair enough.” I scratch Mister’s chin. “I got me a cat.”
“An old one.” Mister hooks one paw into my sweater. “Adopted, kind of. Saved from certain death.”
“That’s my girl.”
“I’ll live to regret it.”
“Okay. I like him. He’s fat. He doesn’t ask for much.”
“A soul mate.” Lyle’s always speaking in tongues. Sometimes what he says is recognizable to me; sometimes he sounds like a raving lunatic.
“Will I see you before Aunt Amy’s?” I slump down on the love seat so Mister can lie across my chest.
“Christmas Eve, Lyle. Remember? You’re supposed to bring what’s her name.”
“That right there is why I won’t bring what’s her name.”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry.” My brother does not weather well jokes about his love interests. “Marianne. With the…fingernails.” There’s dead silence on Lyle’s end. “I hope you do,” I say, fast. “I liked her. I know for a fact Aunt Amy liked her. It’d be fun, you know, to have more than just the three of us.”
“Marianne’s not sure she can come.” Lyle sounds sniffy. “Something about her sister’s kids, I don’t know.”
Lyle’s probably expended the allotted time he can dedicate to Marianne; he could be breaking up with Marianne right now. He won’t tell me because whatever I feel about the qualifications of Lyle’s more recent paramours, I do harp on longevity. For its own sake. Somebody in our family needs to behave normally in the romance arena, get married and stay married without interruption. Give Aunt Amy a break and host the holiday dinners.
I think of Mrs. Morrison, the loose wires sparking beneath her cap of blue-gray hair each time she took a long look at Mister. “That’s fine, too. Singles would be grand. I’ll make Mama’s lace cookies.”
“Lib says she’s setting you up.”
Bakerville telegraph. Headquartered in the Home Run Café. “Could you be less crude? I’m not a bowling pin.”
“You want some dating tips from big brother?”
“What I want is for you to go in my place, Mister Manners.”
Lyle laughs. He will never hold a grudge against me for having revealed my feelings about Marianne’s candidacy. She has blood-colored fingernails, for criminey’s sake, and substitutes a chirpy absolutely when a simple yes will do. It’s as if my brother selects the most outrageously inappropriate woman to date because then, when he does leave her, it will be evident to all observers exactly what a poor choice he’d made in the first place. Talk about setting yourself up.
“Sister most beloved?”
“Are we so fucked because of Mama?”
Since I’ve been sober, I’ve asked Lyle this question many times. The answer shifts, as if with passing time the facets of our mama’s death reflect our light differently. Sometimes the reflection is as rude as neon; sometimes it mutes itself, like candlelight.
“Think of this, Bon.” Lyle’s voice deepens.
I alert myself for advice Buddhist or Franciscan in its lovely nature, something I can repeat in the dead of night when I’m waiting for chronically tardy sleep, a sugary soporific phrase to follow my recitations of the Serenity Prayer and the lyrics to Imagine. Mister tenses. “Yes?”
“Think of this: maybe Mama’s the reason we’re not even more fucked up.”
My mama used to hoist me up off the ground at least once a day, even when I was a big girl seven years old, to make certain there would never come a moment when she couldn’t, insurance that my flesh and bones would always be weight welcomed by her muscles. That’s what she’d say, holding me tight against her: If I pick you up every day, Bonnie mine, I will always be able to. I don’t know much about the physics of leverage, but I do understand what Mama was telling me. I know what Lyle wants me to consider, too. Instead of wallowing in self-pity because she’s gone, you see yourself as better for having had a mama like ours. You put one foot in front of the other. You chop wood and carry water. All you have is change—and suffering, if Lyle is to be believed—so you brace your back and lift and clasp it to you like a child.
I know too well how memory can repair the past into what it never was. Loss elevates the lost one, sometimes so much the very thought of her breaks your heart all over again, no matter how old you’ve grown. One could say I became a drunk because I lost my mama at a tender age, which is what all of Bakerville believes and why my town has forgiven me my rude rampages. One could also say that at twenty-seven I’m no longer drinking because of what my mama left me, the trail of breadcrumb clues leading me to what she wanted me to be. Not become, not a trophy child lining up blue ribbon headlines to pay tribute for lessons learned at the knee of some grand dame. Be, day in and day out, in a less-than-perfect world where every turn of the road tempts a person to degrade into wanton self-absorption.
Lyle, himself no stranger to shrink talk, wants me to reframe the way I look at things. He knows from vicarious experience there’s not a more self-centered human being than a recovering alcoholic. He says when a person puts herself at the center of the globe, the centrifugal forces will eventually throw her into space, and then where will she be. Lyle’s a fine engineer and a learned thinker, but my big brother does take liberties with his scientific principles. He could just tell me he means: that I shouldn’t spend so much time remembering what is lost.
The last Christmas we had with Mama, Santy Claus gave me a beauty of a Radio Flyer wagon. It had removable wooden side racks and tires the size of a small motorcycle’s. Too big to wrap, it was loaded with Ponderosa pine cones Mama had gathered from beneath the trees at the far end of my sheep pasture. That wagon was just waiting for a driver and the open road.
I’d had a wagon before. Lots of Lyle’s gear made its way into my hands, where it was no less prized for being second hand. But this wagon was roomy enough for two people, an adult woman and a skinny seven-year-old kid.
By the end of Christmas morning my mama and I had it rolling so fast down our long sloping driveway that Daddy threatened to pack it up and send it back to the North Pole. But Mama, Mama was aiming to go as fast we could make that wagon roll.
I’ve retained few memories of quarrels between my mama and Daddy, but I do remember a sideways look she used and which she shot him over the Radio Flyer: I’ve got her, she told my Daddy once and for all, holding my mittened fingers in one hand and the wagon yoke in the other. I’m not going to let anything happen to our Bonnie.
So I’m trying. I got myself a housecat. In exactly two miserable hours I’ve got a blind date, too. Nobody realizes it yet, but I’ve bought and wrapped presents for Aunt Amy and Lyle, Libby’s girls and Barbi, even some silly joke gadgets for my boss Liggott and old Walter Cathcart, who’s on my list because he’s driving the same stinky cattle truck he was driving when I was born and because he’s given the name of Queenie to every dog he’s ever owned.
“You do celebrate Christmas,” says Barbi when she sees the piddly stack of wrapped presents decorating my bedroom. She claims she dropped in to bring me a carton of eggnog, but her real purpose is to oversee my wardrobe. I’m wearing a tatty robe and mukluks. There’s not a trace of Tune-Up Shop grease on me, not anywhere. “You want me to fix your hair?”
“What happened to shampoo and go?”
“Beyond the pale.”
“Well…what do you think?” She lays three sweaters on my bed. “I thought you could borrow one.”
Mister lifts himself off my pillows and sniffs the sweaters. Once, twice, three times he circles, then plops himself down on the red one.
“Mister says red.” Barbi tugs at Mister’s tail. He rolls onto his back. “Mister says go with tradition.”
“No way am I wearing anything with ribbons.” I point to the thin satiny line woven into the sweater’s neck. “And I don’t do sequins, either.” I nod at the black one, which has an off-centered ladder of shiny black buttons running up the front.
“They’re buttons, Bon.”
“Look.” Barbi’s not a foot stamper, but if she were she’d be stamping now. “You can’t wear a freaking sweatshirt to this dinner.”
I pull off a mukluk and dangle it over Mister. “I’ll wear the gray one.”
“Leave it to Bonita Tone to go colorless.” Barbi lifts the sweater by the shoulders and hangs it against my shoulders. “On with it, kiddo.”
When I come out of the bathroom wearing the sweater and the cleanest pair of jeans I can find, Barbi says I look classy and subdued. Barbi does hair for a living. As a professional payer of hollow compliments, she probably means I look like a woman who couldn’t quite get it together in the conventional sense. At least the Kewpie effect is giving way to something closer to tousled or windblown. I pick up a ball cap emblazoned with the Tune-Up Shop’s logo, a descending line of quarter notes on wheels. Barbi snatches the cap away.
“If this guy is so great, how come you’re not in my lucky place?” I ask. “Barb, I’m going to have to borrow some shoes.”
“You’re Libby’s project,” Barbi says, frowning. “She’s long ago given up on me.”
“Who says everybody needs marriage and family? It’s not as if there’s a surfeit of success stories. You know?”
“I have some black flats.”
“Great. I mean, how many happy couples can you count?”
Barbi nudges Mister off the red sweater, shakes it, and folds it up on top of the black one. “Lib and Bobby. Norma and Walter Cathcart. I think, I’d say, yeah, your mom and dad. From what I remember.”
Of course I’m relieved Mama and Daddy made the list. I can trust my memory on that score; I can add Mama and Daddy’s good marriage to the list of reasons I must bypass liquor. I won’t concede the logic of Barbi’s short list of examples, though. “You prove my point. It’s a lot easier to count up bad matches than good. Exceptions to the rule and all that. So why am I pretending to go on this date?”
Lyle’s the Tone who should be seeking matrimony. Certainly enough women think so. He’s had so many years of experience practicing on me, he’d make a good father, too. With such a dearth of happily-ever-after’s in our family history, though, he may have concluded the best bits are always at the beginning of the story, before your wife dies and leaves you shipwrecked, or your kid has time to reach the age of reason and convert to alcoholism, or your mate of forty-seven years starts itching to shoot your cat. People don’t consider what miseries they set into motion with their well-meant matchmaking.
“I’ll get you the flats,” Barbi says, pouting. “Back in a sec.” She pauses at the slider that gives onto the cement square of patio we share. She points to her apartment, lit up like a power plant with the leftover lights she couldn’t manage to deck on the halls of the Hair Palace. “I’ll want a full report. No matter the hour.”
“And Bon?” She moves closer to me. “Smile, babe.” Barbi pinches my cheek as if I were wearing the fat face of a two-year-old. “Smile.”
I wear Lyle’s red and gold high school letter jacket, my favorite piece of clothing and the warmest coat I happen to own, for the drive out of town to Lib and Bobby’s. This December is colder than any I remember, but the heater fan in my Toyota beater only works when it feels like it. Even I have enough fashion sense to know I’ll need to shed Lyle’s jacket before making my feeble entrance to Libby’s soiree.
On the road outside town, beyond the straggling clutter of eyesore businesses nobody in her right mind would ever grant her custom, past the sickly celebratory holly branches and the barmy snowmen soaped onto the storefront windows, the pilgrimage offers the same view it did when I was a kid and Daddy and Mama and Lyle and I would make the rounds on Christmas afternoon, a constancy for which I am more grateful than the run-of-the-mill offspring of Bakerville. It was an easy two miles to the Cathcarts’ next door for Norma’s iced rum cake and the December ranching and farm report from Walter.
One of the Queenie’s and I would sit, secret but safe, under the red-draped dining table in Norma’s kitchen, not quite underfoot and not quite exiled, square in the center of civilization. A half-mile further out brought us to Aunt Amy’s, where my Mama’s lace cookies and hot chocolate with miniature marshmallows slowed all of us into a drowsy ease.
As Lyle’s and Mama’s voices plaited themselves sweetly with Aunt Amy’s and Daddy’s in a range of gentle tones on a wealth of incomprehensible subjects, the warm berth of my mama’s lap softened my resistance to the close of a day of wonder.
For all the medicinal purposes to which I put my alcoholism, for all the intended oblivion it induced, drinking failed me during the holiday season. It could be Lyle’s not exactly correct about the debilitating indulgence of reminiscence: possibly an alcoholic can sustain her sobriety with memories like mine. Without them, I could have turned out a whole lot worse than I did.
Bobby’s performed a miracle: he’s managed to mount a glittering gold light on the crown of the pine tree canopying his and Lib’s old ranch house. Most likely he balanced himself in the raised bucket of one of his big earth movers while he threaded the extension cord up the pine’s trunk. He must have looked a hero to his girls, their daddy locating the North Star in the center of the solar system. Years back, smart Lib had to have seen through the clownish, ruddy good ol’ boy to the decent man Bobby, bracketed by his wife and girls, would become. Even with the Sally Morrisons of the world walking around as marital testimonies scarier than the living dead, Lib chose her husband on the promise she saw. She puts her faith in hearth and family, which is why she’s held out hope for me, no matter how much I howl.
If I sit in this cold car any longer, they’re going to have to wait for the spring thaw to send out the sniffer dogs. I crack open the door, rise from the seat, and slide Lyle’s coat off. From where I’m standing, I can hear Libby’s Christmas carols. If we’d had an early snow, a snowman with a carrot nose would be there to beckon me up the porch and into a Currier and Ives print.
But we haven’t had snow yet, so it’s Libby’s stair-step daughters who find me. Each holds one of my icy hands to lead me into the house. They want presents. They want to know why my hair’s so short. They want to know how Mister is.
They want, as little girls content in their own selves do, for their family to stay the same forever.