Allen Kopp is a technical writer and lives in St. Louis. He has been published in Foliate Oak Literary Journal and Temenos, and he has upcoming work in Hoi-Polloi, Sunken Lines, The Storyteller, Conceit Magazine, Bartleby-Snopes, Danse Macabre, and The Bracelet Charm.
In preparation for company coming for dinner, Peachy Keen was in her boudoir putting the finishing touches to her toilette. She slipped her best blue dress on over her head and smoothed it over her broad hips and fastened it up the back and spritzed herself all over with eau de cologne. She stood before the mirror and touched the comb to the wreath of curls on her head, even though it was already perfect to her way of thinking, and went downstairs to the kitchen.
Hetta was working over the tray of hors d'oeuvres. She had given herself a failed home permanent and her hair hung in limp cascades around her face like seared sheep’s wool. She spread cream cheese on little round crackers and put a half-moon of olive on top of each one and licked her fingers. Seeing that everything was proceeding as planned in the kitchen, Peachy went into the dining room.
Jewell was just setting the table. The spoons were cloudy, so she was blowing her breath on each one and wiping it with the tail end of her bathrobe. Her hair was up in curlers, as it had been since the night before. When she realized Peachy was standing beside the table looking at her, she jumped back and dropped a spoon as though a loud noise had startled her, even though Peachy had not made a sound.
“When you’re finished with your work,” Peachy said in the no-nonsense way she had of speaking to Jewell, “I want you to go upstairs and get yourself fixed up. Wash your face and comb your hair and put on some lipstick and some face powder. And put on something nice. You don’t have to go around looking slovenly all the time. I want you go make a good impression on Mr. Dilly and his son.”
Jewell said nothing but only looked down at a blister on her finger and nodded her head slightly and went back to her work.
Peachy put on her little hostess apron and busied herself with straightening up in the living room. She adjusted the sofa cushions for at least the fifth time that day and straightened the picture over the divan and emptied an ashtray where Hetta had deposited the stump of a cigarette and turned again toward the mirror and tugged at a little strand of hair over her right ear that wasn’t cooperating. She was thinking about taking the scissors and cutting it off when the doorbell rang. Her heart gave a little leap and she swept across the room in her grandest manner and opened the door.
When she saw Mr. Dilly she smiled and showed all her teeth, but when she focused her attention on Chick, Mr. Dilly’s son, her smile faded. She stepped aside and motioned for them to come inside. By the time she closed the door she had regained her smile, which she shone on them like a beacon.
“So,” she said, taking the little bouquet of flowers that Mr. Dilly handed to her, “this is the son I’ve heard so much about.”
“Yes,” Mr. Dilly said, “This is my boy Chick.”
She stepped forward bravely and took Chick by the hand. “I’m so happy to make your acquaintance, Chick,” she said. “Welcome to my home.”
Chick looked at her and tilted his huge shaggy head back and rolled his watery blue eyes at her in greeting. She had a fleeting mental image of a St. Bernard.
“This is the fine lady I told you about that Daddy is going to marry,” Mr. Dilly said in a loud voice to Chick. “She’s to be your new mama.”
“Yaw-yaw-yaw,” said Chick.
While Mr. Dilly was a small man, with the bodily proportions of an ant, Chick was thickset through the shoulders and hips and a head taller than his father. They looked nothing alike.
“Won’t you sit down?” Peachy said, gesturing toward the divan in her best hostessy manner. “I’ll tell Hetta you’re here.”
When she went into the kitchen, Hetta was sitting at the table reading a movie magazine. “What’s the matter with you?” Hetta asked. “You look funny. Are you going to be sick?”
“They’re here,” Peachy said, “and it’s worse than I thought. Much worse.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Come and meet them.”
Peachy took Hetta by the arm and led her back into the living room, as if she might escape if she let go of her, and introduced her to Mr. Dilly first and then to Chick.
“Enchanted,” Hetta said to Mr. Dilly, giving a little curtsey. “Enchanted,” she said again to Chick.
“Gaw-gaw-gram!” Chick said.
“Yes, that’s grandma,” Mr. Dilly said.
“Do you need to go to the toilet?” Hetta asked.
“Why, no,” Mr. Dilly said with a strained smile.
“Would you care for a beer?”
“Well, let’s all sit down, then” Peachy said. “Jewell will be right down. She went upstairs to change.”
“What will she be when she comes down?” Mr. Dilly asked, tugging at the legs of his trousers.
“You said she went upstairs to change. I asked what she’d be when she came down. I was making a little joke.”
“Oh. Ha-ha! Don’t you have the driest wit ever?”
“Oh, yeah,” Hetta said, lighting a cigarette.
Smiling brightly, Peachy went to the bottom of the steps and called up them. “Jewell, dear, we have guests and they’re waiting to meet you! Please come down right this minute!”
When Jewell came down, she was wearing silk Chinese lounging pajamas, and all eyes were upon her. She had removed the curlers, and her hair stood out all over her head as if electrified. Peachy introduced Mr. Dilly to her as her soon-to-be stepfather and Chick her soon-to-be stepbrother. Jewell looked at them solemnly and put her palms together in front of her and bowed from the waist without saying anything. Mr. Dilly looked strangely at her, while Chick lolled his head and clamped his eyes on the dragon on her chest.
“Serve the hors d'oeuvres, now,” Peachy said, forgetting, for the moment, to smile.
Jewell passed around the tray, and when she came to Chick and held it in front of his face, he took two of the hors d’oeuvres, one in each hand. He looked at them and started to put them over his eyes, but Mr. Dilly saw what he was doing and took hold of his wrists and made him drop them back onto the tray.
“Sometimes he doesn’t know what to do with things,” Mr. Dilly said apologetically.
“Glaw-tib-faw-faw!” Chick said.
“If it’s some kind of food he doesn’t recognize, he thinks he’s supposed to attach it to his face somehow.”
“Oh, dear!” Peachy said. “Should we get him something else?”
“Oh, no, we’re fine,” Mr. Dilly said. He made Chick put his hands in his lap as he fed one of the hors d’oeuvres into his mouth.
“Nyum-nyum-nyum,” Chick said as he chewed.
Jewell set the tray of hors d’oeuvres down and sat in the chair opposite the couch. She crossed her legs and rested her elbow on her knee and her chin in her hand.
“So,” Mr. Dilly said, “I hear you’re a good little worker.”
“What’s that?” Jewell asked. It was the first words she had spoken to him.
“I hear you take care of things while mummy’s working.”
“I hear you clean the house and wash the clothes and help out sometimes in the kitchen.”
“I like to make tuna fish sandwiches, but they don’t like it when I make too much noise. I like it at night when everybody is gone and I’m here by myself. I can hear the wind in the trees and if it’s raining I can hear the rain hitting the windows. The best time is when there’s a thunderstorm and the lightning hits really close to the house and it makes you scream. You might think I would be afraid of that, but I’m not. Not one bit. If it ever strikes me and kills me, I think it would be a glorious way to die, don’t you? I could ride right up to heaven on the old bolt of lightning! One night a man came and knocked on the door. He was a big man, too. I went to the door and told him nobody was at home and I couldn’t let him come inside.”
“Is that so?” Mr. Dilly asked.
“I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I had let him come in, though. I wonder what we might have talked about. Maybe he was a talent scout from Hollywood and he was looking for a girl just like me to be in the movies. I might have missed out on a wonderful opportunity by not letting him in. I do so wish I had let him come in. My life might be all different now.”
“Chick boy likes the movies, too,” Mr. Dilly said. “He likes any kind of picture with animals in it, especially westerns with lots of horses.”
“I like love stories where there’s lots of singing,” Jewell said. “And circus pictures and prison pictures.”
“I think you and Chick boy will find you have a lot in common. The two of you are very much alike.”
“Me and him?” Jewell asked, pointing at Chick. “I don’t know how you figure that.”
“Dinner’s ready,” Hetta said, as if she had received a telepathic communication from the kitchen.
When they were all seated at the table, Mr. Dilly set about filling Chick’s plate first. He took a little bit of everything and heaped it right in the middle of the plate and took a big spoon and mixed it all up together into a brown-and-gray mash. Then he took a napkin and tied it bib-like around Chick’s neck and set the plate in front of him and took hold of his right hand and closed his fingers around the spoon and pushed his arm forward to get as much food onto the spoon as he could and then into his mouth.
“He can feed himself,” Mr. Dilly said. “You just have to help him get started.”
“Nyum-nyum-nyum,” Chick said.
As the meal progressed, Mr. Dilly and Peachy spoke of their wedding plans. Since it was to be the fifth marriage for Mr. Dilly and the third for Peachy, they would have a simple civil ceremony at the courthouse. Afterwards, there was to be a five-day honeymoon trip to an undisclosed location that only Mr. Dilly knew about.
“That will be the perfect time for you and the Chick boy to get to know each other,” Mr. Dilly said to Jewell. “I’ll drop him off here with his grip and the two of you can have a fine time together.”
“Wait a minute,” Jewell said. “You’re going to go off for five days and leave me alone with him?”
“Hetta will be here to help out,” Peachy said cheerily.
“When I’m not tending bar,” Hetta said.
“Now, don’t worry about a thing,” Mr. Dilly said. “I’ll write out everything you need to know. Then after your mother and I get back, we’ll all be living together in the same house.”
“I just know we’re going to be so happy!” Peachy said, her eyes glistening. “Just as happy as we deserve to be!”
After dinner, Mr. Dilly had to help Chick go to the toilet, which took such a long time that Peachy thought about going to the door and knocking to make sure the two of them were all right, but finally they came out and Mr. Dilly installed himself on one end of the divan where he had been sitting before dinner and Chick on the other end. Mr. Dilly launched into a long and graphic account of a recent abdominal operation he had suffered through, while Chick roved his eyes around the walls and the ceiling, breathing audibly.
“I tell you, the gas pains were something fierce,” Mr. Dilly said in his droning voice. “I needed to have a bowel movement so bad and it just was not going to happen! They were giving me laxative after laxative and I was getting no satisfaction at all. I thought it was going to take at least a ton of dynamite to get some movement down there again…”
Peachy gave a little yelp of laughter and rocked in her chair, while Hetta yawned behind her hand.
Jewell listened for a while to what Mr. Dilly was saying and then, since nobody was paying any attention to her anyway, she blanked him out the best she could and leaned her head back and closed her eyes. She went to sleep for just a minute or two and then she awoke with a little start, wondering how she could have gone to sleep so easily.
She realized in the moment of waking that Chick had been looking at her, as if studying her. When he saw that he had her attention and hers alone, he placed both hands on his crotch and rubbed up and down suggestively. He smiled then, and in his eyes was an intimation of cognizance that had been absent before.
A little while later, when Hetta opened a bottle of cut-rate champagne to toast the happy couple and their upcoming union, Mr. Dilly asked if Chick boy, since he wasn’t allowed champagne, might have a glass of milk in a champagne glass so he wouldn’t feel left out. Jewell was sent to the kitchen to get the milk.
She poured the milk into the champagne glass and stood there for a moment at the counter looking at it. She could still hear Mr. Dilly talking in the living room and Peachy’s high-pitched laughter. Quickly, before someone came in, she opened the cabinet door under the sink and picked up the small, faded box of rat pellets that had been there for as long as she could remember.
She tilted the box of pellets and allowed two of them to come out of the box and rest on the palm of her hand. They were little brown nuggets the size of pencil erasers that rats were deceived into believing was something good to eat but that would kill them. She squeezed them between her fingers and put them to her nose, but they had no smell. She wondered if they had somehow lost their strength and their ability to poison. She dumped them from her hand into the champagne glass full of milk and took a spoon and made sure they dissolved.
When she took the milk back into the living room, Chick took it from her and drank it greedily in one long drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Jewell stood back and watched to see if he was going to die right away. If he didn’t, she would have to think about using more pellets the next time.
Vicki-Vicki was just starting to think of herself as pretty when her mother held her down and shaved her head. In just a minute or two, all her hair lay on the floor around her feet. She ran into the bedroom to look in the mirror, hoping that enough hair remained to cover up the parts that had been shaved, but it was worse than she thought. She just had a fringe around the edges, and that was only because her mother had been drunk and had missed those parts.
She planned on killing herself that night. She couldn’t go to school and let people see her with all her hair shaved off. They would make fun of her and call her names, worse than they already did—worse than anything she had ever known before.
The only thing that kept her from killing herself was a small voice in her head that told her if she killed herself her hair would never grow back. She would go to her grave bald-headed and would remain that way until her body rotted away to a skeleton. If she remained alive, though, she would see the day when she had a full head of hair again, but best of all she could get revenge on her mother for what she did to her. If it took her all the rest of her life, she planned on paying her back.
She locked herself in her room that night. There was no lock on the door, but she pushed enough furniture against it so that nobody would have been able to get inside no matter how hard they tried. She sat in front of the mirror and experimented with different ways to cover up her head.
She tried a baseball cap pulled down low over her eyes, but if she wore that to school somebody would tell her to take it off because it was a violation of the dress code. She found a winter cap in the closet that had belonged to her older brother, and she took it out and let down the earflaps and put it on. It covered up her hair all right, but winter was past and a winter hat just wasn’t the thing. She took a large man’s bandana handkerchief and pinched the corners together with rubber bands until it conformed to the shape of her head, but it made her look like a field hand. She found an old flowered scarf in the bottom of the bureau drawer that she had never seen before; she tied it around her head turban-fashion, but it made her look like an old woman. Then she took the same scarf and put it around her head and tied it in back, but when she held up a mirror and looked at herself from behind she saw that this arrangement allowed the back of her head to be seen underneath the scarf, so that was no good either. The best she could hope for was that the school would burn down and they would have to close down for several weeks while they built it back.
Not knowing what else to do, she put on the baseball cap and slipped quietly out of the house to go pay Grandma a visit.
Grandma lived in a tiny, neat bungalow over by the lagoon. She always kept herself looking good. She bought her dresses at Goodwill on Main Street and she had lots of them. She wore a different dress every day until she wore all of them and then she started over again. She always collected things, like cups and ashtrays and salt and pepper shakers, but especially jewelry. She had collected jewelry all her life and always wore lots of it. She usually wore earrings and a matching necklace, along with a brooch or a pin on the front of her dress and a bracelet on one or sometimes both wrists that jangled whenever she moved.
When Vicki-Vicki walked into Grandma’s house and removed the baseball cap, Grandma looked at her and put on her glasses because she didn’t recognize her at first; she thought she was a boy from the neighborhood that she didn’t like. She laughed a little, but when Vicki-Vicki told her what happened she was very sympathetic and she tried hard not to laugh again. She said she would like to stick a knife in Evelyn’s gut and twist it until she died for doing such a thing to Vicki-Vicki.
She had a couple of hats and a knit turban with a bumblebee on it that she wanted Vicki-Vicki to try on to see how they looked, but they somehow were not right for a girl of Vicki-Vicki’s age. They were more for a woman in her seventies and made her look worse than she looked without any hair. Then Grandma had a wonderful idea, she said; she knew of somebody who might be able to help. She got her purse and told Vicki-Vicki to come with her. They were going to pay a call on her friend Miss DeRosa.
Eulalie DeRosa lived in an old apartment building across town. She and Grandma had known each other since they worked as waitresses together at a roadhouse when they were young. She worked for many years as a cosmetologist for a funeral home and she still had all the tools of her trade.
Grandma drove her old green Ford pickup truck with the fake fox tail suspended from the aerial, and in ten minutes she pulled up in front of the building where Miss DeRosa lived, and she and Vicki-Vicki went inside and climbed the four flights of stairs to Miss DeRosa’s apartment. Grandma knocked on the door and when Miss DeRosa came and opened it Grandma hardly recognized her. She had been to a party and was wearing a blonde wig and heavy makeup that covered up all the wrinkles and made her look years younger. Grandma had never seen her as a blonde before.
As they entered Miss DeRosa’s apartment, Vicki-Vicki had to admit she had never seen anything like it. It was crowded full of furniture and art objects and special memorabilia that Miss DeRosa had accumulated over her entire life. The walls were covered with pictures of all kinds, scenes of Paris and ancient Rome, seascapes and landscapes, pictures of some important-looking people, and some scenes with some animals in them. Over to one side of the first room was a blue coffin with peach-colored satin interior that rested on a low table. The coffin was empty and the lid was opened. Vicki-Vicki couldn’t keep from looking at the coffin, but to Miss DeRosa and Grandma it was nothing out of the ordinary.
Grandma explained to Miss DeRosa what had happened to Vicki-Vicki’s hair, and Miss DeRosa listened attentively while making appreciative noises. She acted as though it was nothing out of the ordinary for a young girl of Vicki-Vicki’s age to accidentally end up with her head shaved. When Grandma finished speaking, Miss DeRosa thought for a moment and then she ushered Grandma and Vicki-Vicki into the room that she referred to as her studio.
The studio was a large, cluttered room with a big skylight in the ceiling. The clutter consisted of boxes, barrels, crates and some furniture, including a church pew, an antique chaise longue and an old-fashioned phone booth. Along one wall were four full-sized mannequins standing in a row, two men and two women, all dressed in evening attire. Sometimes Miss DeRosa would put one of the mannequins in the coffin and pretend it was an old boyfriend or one of her husbands or somebody she knew a long time ago. She would keep the mannequin “lying in state” for a couple of days and then she would have a nice service and after the service she would put the mannequin back in the studio until she felt like having a funeral again. Sometimes when she didn’t want to sleep alone she would put one or other of the mannequins in her big double bed and sleep with it all night beside her. It was like having another person in bed, but with none of the inconveniences like snoring or hogging the covers.
Miss DeRosa had Vicki-Vicki sit in front of a large mirror. She tried a couple of different wigs that somehow didn’t seem appropriate, and then she settled on a blonde wig that was made of real human hair that was just a couple of shades lighter than Vicki-Vicki’s real hair. She stood back and looked at the blonde wig on Vicki-Vicki’s head and she knew right away it was the right wig. Grandma agreed.
The wig was medium-length, slightly curled and wavy, and it didn’t look either too young or too old for Vicki-Vicki. It was just right—better than Vicki-Vicki’s real hair had ever looked. While her own hair was lank and lifeless, the wig was vibrant and shiny and full. She sat looking at her reflection in the mirror, and she couldn’t quite believe it was her own self she was seeing.
Miss DeRosa thought it only fair to tell the story of the wig if Vicki-Vicki was going to wear it until her real hair grew back.
The wig had been used on a dead person. A young girl named Sylvia Knox had died in a fire. Her face was untouched by the flames, but her hair was all burned off. Her family wanted her to look in her coffin exactly as she had looked when she was alive, so the undertaker arranged to have them shown dozens of wigs. They chose the wig that was the closest to Sylvia Knox’s own hair. When it came time for the burial, though, the family chose not to have the wig buried with her because they would have had to pay retail for it, which was more than they could afford. At the family’s request, the undertaker removed the wig from Sylvia Knox’s head right before the coffin lid was closed for the last time, so it could be used again.
Miss DeRosa said that she would let Vicki-Vicki borrow the wig for as long as she needed it at no cost, because she and Grandma were such good friends. She told Vicki-Vicki how to groom the wig and how to take it off and put it on and how to make sure it wouldn’t come off accidentally. Vicki-Vicki had a slight squeamishness about wearing a wig that had been used on a dead person, but the wig looked so good on her that she quickly overcame her misgivings.
When Vicki-Vicki went home, her mother became infuriated when she saw her wearing the wig. She accused Vicki-Vicki of stealing it from an uptown store. When Vicki-Vicki tried to explain, her mother went after her with her arms outstretched, trying to grab the wig to flush it down the toilet. Vicki-Vicki was able to fight her off and ran out of the house and down the road. She went to Grandma’s house and spent the night on her couch.
That night Sylvia Knox appeared to Vicki-Vicki in a dream. She told Vicki-Vicki she was glad she was wearing the wig she had worn and that she hoped it would bring her good luck. Since it was a two-way communication, Vicki-Vicki asked her what it was like to be dead, and Sylvia Knox said it was better than a poke in the eye with a stick. This was Vicki-Vicki’s first experience of speaking to someone who had died.
At school Vicki-Vicki received more favorable attention than she ever had before. Everybody wanted to know what she had done to make herself look so much better. Nobody suspected she was wearing a wig. Boys looked at her in a different way. Girls who had always shunned her suddenly wanted to be friends with her.
She realized that if a wig could make that much difference in her life, she could do other little things to improve herself. She became more particular about her appearance and began keeping herself cleaner. She began shoplifting lipsticks and little containers of makeup from the dime store and she learned how to use them to the best effect. She had never wanted those things before and had thought them silly.
She thought quite a lot about Sylvia Knox and felt somehow connected to her. She even thought of herself sometimes as Sylvia Knox. She made up in her head the kind of life for Sylvia Knox that she herself wanted to have. In her imaginings, Sylvia Knox lived in a pretty, two-story house with a handsome father and a beautiful mother, a precocious little brother, and an adorable large dog. She wore the best and most expensive clothes, she received excellent grades in school, and she was always receiving some kind of honor or other because she was so smart and so gifted. Every summer she went with her picture-perfect family for a lovely vacation to a beautiful tropic country that was all beaches.
Vicki-Vicki never thought about the terrible fire that claimed Sylvia Knox’s life or what it must have been like for her to die that way. She never thought about her lying in her grave bald-headed, either, because her family wouldn’t pay retail.
As he own hair grew back underneath the wig, she dreaded the day when she would have her own hair again and would have to give the wig back to Miss DeRosa. She planned on speaking to Grandma about speaking to Miss DeRosa about how she might keep the wig and clean Miss DeRosa’s apartment and do chores for her to pay for it.
A couple of weeks after Vicki-Vicki began wearing the wig, her mother was wanted for questioning by the police in a case involving armed robbery and assault. When the police came to the house to pick her up, she had been given advance warning and had fled. Vicki-Vicki knew exactly where she was and was more than willing to tell the police, on the condition that they would not reveal how they came by the information.