“Heat Lamp” by Susan M. Breall
Her hair color was a washed out, faded platinum. It looked like a discolored Polaroid from years ago. I watched her as she consulted with the colorist. She did not seem to notice. My brown skin made me invisible to her. I was the mere sweeper of hair after every cut and blow-dry. I was the one who washed the towels, but never the hair itself. I was the one who tidied up the stations and turned out the lights.
My invisibility allowed me to stand literally inches from her without detection. It enabled me to stare directly at her, to study her, to face her by facing her reflection in the horizontal wall mirror used for cuts. It allowed me to listen and soak up all the bits of her conversation as thoroughly as suds soak up dry flecks of skin with a good scalp cleanse.
Oddly enough, I recognized her. She had an unmistakable mien, an abnormally long neck and huge plumes of hair, a large red face and a doubly large body. She looked like Marie Antoinette with a profound case of rosacea. We attended the same middle school, and although it had been fourteen years, she looked the same, except for her body mass and dress style, which had morphed into that of a late nineteen nineties suburban house matron. I, on the other had, was literally and figuratively a different person. In middle school I wore an afro and looked like Angela Davis without the attitude. Now I resembled Bob Marley, wearing a red gold and green boho ensemble every day.
Back then her name was Carol Connors. Back then my name was Teri Simmons, until I changed it to Autumn Peri. I would run past her when I had to cross over to the temporary annex that housed the school ceramics department. She always walked fast in the opposite direction, trying to get to her next class on time. When she rushed past me, she never looked directly at me. At first, I took this as a kind of shyness, an awkward out of place-ness. I even wondered if she, like me, had a crush on certain girls. She was ridiculed as much as I was in gym class, and I always felt she could have been an ally, a sympathetic fellow outsider, if only she had been more courageous.
I finally realized back then, as I did while listening to her palaver on and on with the colorist, that she was a person who strived for the ordinary. She actually felt superior when discussing her normal life. I listened to the way she confided in the colorist about her husband. She talked about her husband’s work promotion, her husband’s anniversary gifts, her husband’s fashion sense, her husband’s Mercedes. As I stood listening, I began to think that the word Husband was tattooed to her tongue.
In middle school she worked hard at being normal. She was never called names like Lez, Dyke, Cake Plate, Scrapyard, Brown Litter—names that were constantly hurdled at me. I did not blame her for trying to avoid scrutiny back then, although her awkwardness made her more like me than she knew.
What came between us happened on a Friday before the Memorial Day weekend. I left school and crossed the street to where a group of workmen were repaving the road. Some kids tried to imbed their initials and cyphers into the soft ground while the workers took a break. Others began to circle me. Carol Connors stood with the group of circlers. She was drinking a bottle of orange soda.
Some circlers started their name calling, their ugly words and shouts of profanity. I ignored each of them except for Carol Connors. I stared directly at her. I begged her with hard, unblinking eyes to come over and stand next to me. I never took my focus off her. She was fringe, she was an outsider, and the more I stared the more she realized that I knew who she was. The chanting grew louder and more fierce. The circle began closing in around me, but all the while my attention was still on her. She stared back at me, and when they all came close enough for me to touch, she took her large bottle of orange soda and splashed it on me. The others then pushed her aside and shoved my body, now wet with orange drink, into an open trough of smoldering tar.
Although the colorist was bored, he listened earnestly to her prattle about the husband as he coated strands of her hair with dye and then wrapped them in cellophane. When he finished she was covered in cellophane dreads. He told me to bring her over to the heat lamps. I went directly to the lamp that was already turned on, the one I forgot to turn off after its last use and sat her down.
“It’s way too hot under here” she shouted over a blow dryer, acknowledging me for the first time, but never recognizing me.
“Oh no!” I yelled. “You’ve got to bake to be beautiful, babe!” I turned that heat lamp to maximum capacity and walked away, leaving her there to fry on the faux leather couch for about an hour.
About the Author: Susan M. Breall has short stories published in TheWriteLaunch.com, FeedMeFiction.com, JewishFiction.com, and DreamersWriting.com. She was a finalist in the 2017 Retreat West Short Story Competition, and the 2018 Firedrake Books short story competition. Her short story, The Martha Rhymes, is part of the 2018 anthology Impermanent Facts. She is currently a finalist in the Blood Puddles and Silent Screams short story competition. By day she handles cases involving abused, abandoned and neglected children. By night she writes short stories.