August 1999

Larry Smith

Larry Smith   Larry Smith, the author of Beyond Rust, is the director of Bottom Dog Press in Ohio, and managing editor of The Heartlands Today. He's a poet, essayist, and fiction writer.

Rose's Hair    Click to hear in real audio

Come in here and sit at the table. I'll fix us a nice cup of tea. I have to tell you something. I heard you talking about me last night. It's okay. I wasn't asleep. I heard you telling your husband how hard I am. It's alright, but I want to tell you this so you'll understand something about how I am.
I wasn't always this way. I started out gentle and trusting like you and your sister. But I learned. I'm telling you, Honey, for me gentle only gets you hurt in this world. This is about Grandma's sister, Aunt Rose, who used to cut your hair when you were little. Do you remember that? She was the oldest, and Grandma, the youngest, so you can see how it grew from jealousy. Rose had green eyes for Mom who was so sweet to everyone, so those green eyes, that look, it came over onto me, the first daughter.Here's the sugar and a spoon for that. Anyway, what I'm telling you took me years to figure out, years to understand the moloch, the evil eye, you know in the heart.       
Back then we would all go to her place to have our hair done. We would walk across the tracks to her little place behind the bar. "Rose's Hair," it was called, as blunt as her scissors grazing the back of your neck, as red as the way she forced you into her chair. It wasn't much. You remember, you were there. No? You were only six when we stopped going to her damn butcher shop.

You know back then I always had someone breathing down my neck. Mom's other sister Delores lived across the street, and she would stop me coming home from the store to see what I bought. She'd stick her nose in the bag and scold me right there in the street. "Tell your mama she's a fool to buy her chicken already cleaned and cut up like that. Tell her," she would hiss. The one time I did, Mom just laughed, said not to walk down that side of the street any more.

Anyway, I'm telling you about Rose and how she'd gone to Beauty School down in Wheeling for a month. Though, I never did see a license or anything. Well, Mom wanted us to go to Rose's, cause, well, she was family, and that was all. For the first three months she, you know? One dollar for two hairdos, and that was back when a dollar would buy you a bag of groceries. My god, today, I paid forty dollars for that ham we ate last night. Anyway, you could say, Rose leaned her trade on DeFranco heads.

In the beginning she wanted to do men too, and so Mom took Joseppe to her. Only that once. He got such a scalping, he ran home and hid in the closet. He was ten, and when he wouldn't come out, Mom cried. And when he did, she cried some more. Pop took one look and called Rose up to talk with him. They all stood out on the porch waiting, then Joseppe stared down at her and said, "You witch! You ain't cutting my hair, never again!" And he hid back of Pop's legs, but we all could see the scalping he got. And Rose she stood there and spit on the floor, then hissed, "Bastardo!" and walked down the steps with her high hips going. Pop started after her, but Mom she put out her arm and he wouldn't cross her, though he gave a big swing with his leg like he was booting her old tomato butt.

Joseppe was free, see, but we women were not. We still had to march down to her shop once a month. I don't know, I guess I got used to it. You know how it is with family. You'll swallow a lot. Each time I'd come home and cry in the mirror, till your daddy begged me to stop, but I just couldn't. I knew she'd curse me if I went or not, so I'd have Mom take off the moloch and head back each month to get it again.

And then, Rose's daughter Beatrice, she started cutting hair. Well, when Rose was booked up, I'd go to Beatrice. Is that who cut you? She was the opposite of that red haired bull of a woman; she was a gentle cow taking her time with you, brushing your hair soft and slow, like it was worth something. Rose, she would yank your head and neck, lay her hand across your forehead as she raked your hair back. It was Betriece who told me how Rose would take revenge on those she didn't like, those who told stories about her daughter Marie, who ran the bar. "I show them," she'd say, "those sonsabitches who talk trash on Marie. I show them. I give them pain for pain. The husbands, "and she'd snap her fingers slow, "I like to twist their balls. The women I yank out their hairs." The women in the shop were all laughing like a bunch of chickens. She was talking like that as she yanked back my head, cutting more and more till I couldn't take it any more. I screamed, "Stop it. Stop it! Jesus Christ, you're scalping me!" I stood up. "Oh," she says, "Hee, hee... I don't know my own strength. Come Assunta, sit." I looked at her black eyes, and I looked at Mom, and I did sit down, only this time she was as gentle as a flying bird, as soft as a quilt. It was another woman, and I could understand why she had so many customers.

Next month she was back to yanking me like I was a twig in her eye. I had you with me then. I remember you were sitting in a little chair playing with those pink pop-beads I had bought for you. I looked at you and felt the red-haired witch scalping me again, and I couldn't help it, I started to cry right in the chair. Beatrice, she saw me, cause later she came out on the porch with us as we were going.

"Assunta," she said, standing there in the landing. "Assunta, listen, you know you can have me cut your hair from now on."

"I can? How?"

"Just call ahead for an appointment. I always answer. You're paying the same as anyone else, so I'll cut your hair the way you like."

I couldn't believe she was telling me this, or that I never thought of it.

"My mother, she can't help it. You know. It ain't nothing you did." She looked me in the eye. "She can't be your sweet mother, so she becomes the wicked one with the sharp tongue." She was saying all this soft into the night. "With me," she says, "the more I help her, the more she gives her love to my sister. Our mothers, they are sisters. And we are their daughters. Do you see? The same blood in you and me, but we can choose."

I had you in my arms, but I hugged her there, the three of us outside in the dark together. Beatrice was always good to me and you girls. When she died of cancer so young leaving those little girls, well, they just closed down that shop and Rose went back to working in the bar. You see, it was the moloch made me hard at times, the thousand eyes watching eyes. I can't help it. But it was Beatrice that makes me remember to love wise. Let me fix you a nice ham sandwich with that tea? 



Larry Smith: Fiction
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue EightThe Cortland Review