by Michael Smith
LuJean is at her station preparing for a shave.
"Preston" is the name that has come off the
computer, a new patron, a walk-in, got in just
before closing, and he's reclining in her chair. The
computer says he's a radiologist. A shave usually
doesn't come for months, and this guy, Preston,
wants one right off the bat, wants to know why he
was greeted by someone who introduces herself by
one name and prefers to be called another. LuJean
takes water from a tea pot, whips lather to a head
in her mug and brushes it on.
Preston was greeted by Gilda at the com-
puter when he came in. Her Christian name is
Gilda, and that's how she introduces herself. But if
she catches you in the eye or detects something in
your aura, she'll tell you why she prefers Luci.
"Gilda" is now a family heirloom, her mother's
best friend, and she likes that, having a name with
some consequence. "Gilda is my godmother's
name." Her diction is perfect, wafts off her tongue
like a fragrant aria when she says it—sounds theis-
tic. But Luci is a name she has chosen for herself.
"I suppose it's a bit curious," LuJean says. She's thinking
now of the mnemonic she has down for telling people why Gilda
prefers to be called Luci. Right eye squinting, her head cocked to
the left slightly and looking up, she chases the words down. She
stops lathering Preston's jaw. It comes bobbing up like a cork.
"Luci comes from 'Silent Lucidity,"' she says. That's the white
lettering at the top of the window tinting on Gilda's windshield. A
decal. "She has that painted on her car," Lu Jean says.
"On her car? It says that?" Preston says.
Her truck, some call it a truck—Gilda prefers "outfit"—is
loud. She drives a big, black, ranch-suspensioned Chevy Blazer.
Double wiper blades. Oversized knobby balloon tires. "Silent
Lucidity" it says coming at you, higher off the ground than it
should be. You can be at the Frosty Top on the north side or at the
mortuary on the south side and when she makes a turn onto Main
you see it.
"On her outfit? It says that on her car?" he says.
Gilda returns from loading towels into the washing
machine. She's heard the conversation. Salons have a resonant
quality. You could cut a record at LuJean's, acoustics are that good.
"Yes, " Gilda answers, "that's what it says," neither angry nor inter-
ested. Just confirming facts.
LuJean is at Preston's neck. Her left hand, thumb and index
finger, are a capital C against his skin, holding it taut while her
right hand removes the shadow. She knows a man's jaw. Normally
you keep the same line when you approach the mandibular fossa
from below—follow the natural bone structure and keep even
pressure on the blade. She ignores the crowded capillaries at the jaw
line and finishes each stroke with a bold wrist flourish. She slides
down Preston's chin like a child playing on a banister.
"You do nice work," he says, getting up to pay. "I've been
looking for a place like this. Good to know you can still get
"Three dollars," LuJean says, keying the exchange into the
'Tm in town twice a week to look at x-rays over at the
clinic. Stop by if you ever break anything," he says. He flashes a
grin and leaves a five dollar bill on the counter. He's our the door
walking the two blocks to the clinic, puzzled about Gilda's outfit
and how hair grows into split ends. He's a radiologist; he knows
bones will knit. But hair?
* * *
Valois Crimshaw is in early for her manicure. Ac the com-
puter she keys her name in and with the mouse selects Luci as her
stylist. She likes the technology.
"May I hang your coat up, Valois?" Gilda says. "Get you a
cup of coffee?"
"Yes. Thank you, Luci. Cream, no sugar please." Gilda is
at the coffeemaker before Valois answers. This manicure has been
going on for six years. Tuesday mornings. Eight o'clock. Valois
talks about her husband and his work while Gilda pushes her
cuticles back. Valois has found her way to the cable when Gilda
brings her the coffee.
Gilda pulls Valois's left hand to the folded towel armrest
and starts the conversation. "Anything new with you and Jimmy?"
she says as she starts stripping the old polish.
"Oh no, nothing to speak of, except maybe our new little
"Well, me and Jimmy, we want to put a deck with a jacuzzi
in back of the house."
"Vino, Vivaldi, and hot bubbly water. Can't be a problem
with that, Valois. "
"You know what savers we are, Luci. 'Pay cash for every-
thing' is what Jimmy tells me. But we don't have that kind of
money saved up."
"There's the problem," Gilda says, not looking up, her
concentration still on Valois's hand. She's removed the polish from
the left and starts on the right. She's quick. No reason not to be.
All a patron knows is that they want a nail that lasts and looks nat-
ural. It's up to the stylist to decide on tips, wraps, freeform sculpt-
ing, or a liquid and powder system. Though she's had them her
whole life, Valois can't tell you a thing about her own hands-
couldn't pick them out of a line-up. She had a nicely curved nail
place and a bit of length, so sculptured nails give her all the
strength she needs. "Why not try credit?" Gilda says.
"That's just what I was thinking! But I'm not sure. We've
never done this before. I mean, other than the mortgage. I was
hoping you might be able to . . . to . . . tell us, Luci." Gilda knows
this means they want a revelation. They want to know from God if
it's going to work out. Seems like a petty thing to bother God over,
but Gilda has the gift and it is for helping other people. She doesn't
mind. "Can you speak it for us, Luci?"
Gilda is pulling dead cuticle into the finger bowl with a nail
brush when the request comes. Before she answers, she pats the
hand dry and applies moisturizing cream, starting at the first knuckle
and moving up the forearm, massaging in a circular motion with
her thumbs—all the way up the elbow and down to the fingertips.
She milks toxins out of each finger. She finishes, wipes her hands
dry, and shuts her eyes against the immediate environment.
People here know Gilda has the gift of tongues. She was
raised Pentecostal but slipped into the twice-a-year Protestant
mode. No zealot. But nearly nine years ago now, she was weeding
her garden and saw a snake. A simple, pest-controlling, innocuous
garden snake. This was a sign. God wanted her back. Gilda never
misses Monitor Radio, and that same day they aired a program on
the snake-handling religious sects of the West Virginia Allegheny
Mountains. Two signs. Same day. This was what God wanted.
Radio confirmed it. She understood the need for pain and repen-
tance—even faith. But snakes! She let her head clear a little and
realized that what God wanted her to do was speak in tongues.
That is what he had meant.
Gilda closes her eyes and looks up: '¿Dónde esta el aerop-
uerto? ¿Qué hora es? ¿Cómo puedo encontrar el correo? Múestrame el
Valois is holding tight to the sides of her chair. The super-
natural always gives her goose bumps, but she loves it. Gilda opens
her eyes, looks drained.
"What does it mean , Luci?" Valois's face looks like this at
only one other time: when she opens Publisher's Clearing House
"God wants you to gee credit. You will have an application
in your mailbox today from CHOICE Visa. They're offering 6.9%
interest to new card holders." Gilda keeps a post office box and
always picks up her mail at 7:00 a.m. She saw the postal workers
stuffing the card applications into everyone's box an hour earlier.
"Really, Luci! We get the deck! That's what he wants for
us?" Valois doesn't even wait for a seal coat on her nails. She
pumps hand lotion for herself and gets up to pay. Luci helps her on
with her coat. They hug and Valois leaves a four dollar tip.
* * *
Gerald Numan walks in as Valois leaves. Here for a shave,
and he wants LuJean. He stops at the computer to enter his name,
choose a service and a stylist. This time Gerald can't work the
machine. "It's locked up," he says. LuJean is at the strap with her
razor giving it a few licks.
Gilda walks by and says, "Control, Alt, Delete."
"Hold down the Control, Alt, and Delete keys at the
same time," LuJean says. "You need to reboot the computer. It's
"Someday all these computers are going to form a union,"
Gerald says. "They'll tell us how and when they'll work and what
they're to be paid. They'll go on strike and cripple us all." This
salon is an outbuilding—a converted butcher shop. And still you
key your name into an Intel-based, Pentium-chip computer, 32
megabytes of random access memory, a gigabyte hard drive. Two
people and they need IBM and Bill Gates to let patrons choose a
stylist, to say: Lujean or Luci. Gerald keys his name in with two
fingers when the computer comes back on. He tells himself that if
LuJean didn't give the best shave in town, if she didn't give the only
shave in town, he'd go elsewhere.
LuJean walks flimsy over prospects of stealing the shadow
off a man, better than a post-sauna, naked cold roll in the snow.
Patrons always seem satisfied, like they've just participated in
hygiene, when they leave, but LuJean's the benefactor. She fondles
a man's jaw with a pearl-handled, double-honed edge, hollow
ground, stainless steel, straight-edge razor—both blades on the
same side so if she cuts you once, you'll bleed twice. Going and
coming. Hemorrhage tension like Big Daddy's taught you a lesson
and wants a nod, like the Messiah's come. When she started out,
she couldn't buy produce within a seventy-five mile radius. Store
managers banned her. She wanted to practice on produce, cut the
fuzz back. They had her face up on posters: "KEEP THIS WOMAN
AWAY FROM THE PEACHES. "
For positioning a man's face during a shave, a chin in her
palm is more at home than a gear shift under a trucker's. Standing
on the left side tilting the head to the right, right side tilting the
head to the left, palming his chin for placement. She tilts
Gerald's head back to get at his neck—always watching growth
patterns to prevent ingrowing hairs. Most men grow facial hair like
the nap in cheap carpet—sometimes in circles. Gerald's would be
some hybrid of 70s shag and 80s burber. LuJean hawks for follicles
under a chin like Michelangelo reverenced the grain in marble. If
something goes wrong, this is where it will happen.
Four minutes from the time he sits down, Gerald is fishing
through his trousers for three dollars for the shave and four bits tip.
* * *
On Monday Preston is back in the chair. This time it's
Luci and Manicure he chooses on the computer. His hands have
had work before. A renaissance man. But he fidgets. He's a seven-
year-old on a sugar high when you're at his collar trying to square
off the neckline, when he's sat too long.
"Something bothering you today, Preston?"
"Life is good. Bené bené bené." He's got something to
say, but it won't come until he's been lubed, got to work it out of
Gilda rests his hands in the finger bowl and shuts her eyes.
Like you've reached down to pinch her, she lashes up, hair in a fan,
eyes concentric as silver dollars, sensitive, in tune, and looking past
Preston's pupils, past the retina, syncing up with the optic nerve.
"La cocina está en mi abuelita. ¿Sigame al doctor? Las aves bailan en
la carretera al tragar piedras. Lo siento señor, no hay credito. "
"You speak Spanish."
"It's God's word. This is his message for you. "
"The kitchen is in your grandmother?"'
"Maybe not that part. What else did I say?"
'" Follow me to the doctor's office; birds dance on the
highway swallowing gravel; I'm sorry, sir, we don't take credit.'
That's what God wants me to know. You're sure."
"I didn't ask for this gift. It's part of the service. "
"Well, thanks, Luci. Very kind of you. I'd like square edges
and a medium buff. Careful around the left index finger. It's prone
His first visit to LuJean's Preston was smitten. There was
something to be gained here. And maybe not. Maybe it's just the
shave LuJean deals out. 'Birds dance on the highway swallowing
gravel.' Is there supposed to be something existential in that—
symbolism, hidden meaning? God spoke to him in college, 'heal
bones' is what the man had said, and that's what he does, end of
story. Who is she . . . Ms. Delphi Oracle Cosmetologist 1989?
Dispatching communiques from God like fortune cookies. Get
your nails buffed and your palms read $12.95—come in before
noon and have your transgressions waxed, no extra charge.
"So what's it like over at the clinic, Preston? Do you operate
often?" Gilda says.
"Never. I look at pictures. You break something, some-
thing takes your picture, and I tell you what it is you broke." He's
never lost a patient. Never really had a patient. He sweeps into town
in his Cessna, makes a diagnosis into a microcassette recorder, and
then leaves—does it for eleven rural communities, never meets the
person behind the x-ray, money flows, never on call, no blood. No
hair. He gets a clean shot at the bone. Sure he needs to be precise,
but 80 percent of his $380,000 a year could be done by a technician.
Insurance companies make him what he is. His degrees followed by
his signature—just to seal out litigation.
"That sounds pretty technical. Did you have to go to
school for a long time?"
"Eighteen years beyond high school."
"That's a lot to learn. You must be dedicated."
"I do my job." Preston pays Gilda and doesn't leave a tip.
Walking back to the clinic he rubs his knuckles unconsciously and
kicks pieces of gravel with pleasure. ''Es un buen día, ¿no?" he says
* * *
Wayne and Maxine Metzger come in together at
10:00 a.m., usually Maxine to get her hair combed out and set,
Wayne to get a shave or trim, but today they are in for full
treatment, Maxine a perm with LuJean and Wayne a cut and
manicure with Gilda. LuJean does love to shave a man, but a per-
manent wave is science transcending beauty. She understands
the math. What she really likes is having an attentive patron in
the chair—she'll tell them the treatment takes its name from the
idea of rearrang-ing covalent bonds and reforming them "perma-
nently." It's about breaking down disulfate, sulfur-to-sulfur bonds,
rearranging and then fixing them hard into the desired aesthetic
"Are we going with the usual cut today, Wayne, or do I get
to go crazy?" says Gilda.
"I really wish we could, Luci. I'm sorry I'm not much of a
canvas for your creative outlet. Maybe you can go nuts at the nail
"Virility . . . remember what they say. Yours is not thinker's
baldness, Mr. Metzger."
"You're flirting with me again, Luci."
"Can't help it."
"He was hotter than fresh buns in a Dutch oven when he
had hair, weren't you, Babykins," Maxine pumps in. All the way
from senior year eighteen years ago these two have gone every-
where, hands clasped, grabbing each other. You see them in the
grocery. At the filling station. He gets the door for her to the ladies'
room. Handholding has yielded nine children for Sugarlumps and
Babykins. Food and Drug Administration has these two on retainer
for testing new birth control methods. They shack them up, pro-
vide champagne, and ask for the data. If love blossoms, the FDA
starts a $20,000 trust fund.
LuJean says, "We're going to start you out with a treatment
of Mane 'n Tail, Maxine." LuJean got the treatment from Clive
Eggert who raises Appaloosas. What did he feed them, she wanted
to know. Alfalfa. Mane 'n Tail 'swhat make 'em look so good, he
said, and sent a bottle for LuJean to try. She substituted hair for
coat and followed the directions. Not rinsing the conditioner out
completely is her idea. Patrons love it. The Metzgers are checking
with the FDA on patent procedures for her.
It's quite dynamic when the Metzgers come in for service.
You've got husband and wife sitting ten feet apart with women at
their heads working the hair. The Metzgers speak to each other, to
the stylists, stylists speak to each other, to the Metzgers, conversations
crisscross and dissect.
At the end of the waiting process, the double helix proteins
in Maxine Metzger's hair have been softened, moved, and locked
into a new confirmation of wavy beauty. Having styled with
blowdryer and brush in one hand, shaping comb in the other,
LuJean delicately moves the hand mirror around the back of
Maxine's head. Toothy with pride and framing Maxine into the
large mirror she says, "This is what happens when you have your
disulfide bonds broken, Maxine.
"You're magic, honey. I love you," Maxine says.
* * *
It's been a week when Preston walks in waving a folded
newspaper. He throws a copy of the New York Times next to the
computer and impatiently keys in his name and chooses Lujean
and Shave. LuJean's got him in the chair and tries to put a towel
around his neck, but Preston is here to talk. He unfolds the paper
in his lap to B8, The Environment. There's one article with annota-
tion, large areas of text bracketed, phrases underlined, handwriting
in the margins, photos of fish and a biologist: "Clues Found to
Puzzling Single-Sex Fish." "This has got to stop," Preston says.
"What's got to stop?"
"Birth without sex. Listen to this:
For the female fish, the need has always been
clear and compelling. If she is to complete her
bizarre reproductive cycle of cloning her eggs
into a brood of offspring all female replicas of
herself she must have a male fish's sperm. And
she needs his sperm, not for its genetic con-
tent, as most would-be mothers do, but to
serve as a simple chemical trigger that secs her
Preston has underlined "a simple chemical trigger" and
hits it pretty hard, with exaggerated emphasis when he reads the
"What kind of fish," LuJean says.
"Yes, what kind?"
"Doesn't matter what kind. How can a fish live and
progenerate if there is no sex? Plants can do this, simple sponges.
But these are animals with full functioning dynamic systems."
"Did you read Jason and the Argonauts?"
"Homer?" Preston crosses his legs in the chair.
"Aeschylus, I think. They visited a matronly island where
only men felt the pain of childbirth."
"The men had children?"
"No, the women had the children; the men just felt the
pain. I think the women were called Amazons."
"Thar's the name of these fish!"
Researchers from the University of Texas at
Austin, studying a classic case of an interaction
between members of an all-female species and
the males they seduce, have cracked the mystery
of what's in it for the guy. They have learned
that when the male fish called sailfin mollies
mate with females of a related but gynogenetic
species called Amazon mollies, the males
become much more attractive to the females
of their own species. The Amazon mollies look
enough like female sailfin mollies to convince
the female sailfins that when they see the male
sailfins courting and mating with an Amazon,
what they are witnessing is a purely sailfin
affair. And nothing, it seems, is sexier to a
female sailfin than a sexually successful male.
"You sure these are fish?"
"That's my point. That's the danger. This shouldn't happen
in nature, and if it does, we've got no right putting it in print."
"Are you upset that the females can have babies without
sex, or that the females are attracted to males who cheat?"
"This is going to get around. We'll have an epidemic.
Virility as currency."
"Is it the no sex or the way women choose men?"
"How can a fish come into this world with genes from
only one parent? It will have inferior parts. It will never have sex. If
a fish wasn't born of sex, it never lived. It was never conceived. Men
and women don't need each other, or if they do need each other it's
just to get more sex, or more offspring, but not the product of sex.
Never sex and offspring together. Where's the rub?"
"Did you want a shave?"
"This is debilitating. It's threatening."
"Threatening? These are fish, not your buddies, not your
family. That's a pretty big leap from little fish."
"It says that the biggest factor in a female's choice of partner
is not the properties of the male himself, but who all the other
females in the neighborhood are choosing. That's not right."
"These are fish ."
"Yes, but the piece concludes with a quote from a professor:
'If you take a woman out for a drink, and you just happen to let
her see a picture of an old girlfriend in your wallet, you can be sure
that will immediately pique her interest and heighten the pursuit.'
This is a professor using science—and university research funds,
no doubt—to manipulate women."
"It's a theory, a hypothesis. This isn't news, Preston. Do
you want a shave? I've got a ten o'clock this morning."
"Al l right. Shave, please."
LuJean lathers his face and hovers above him for three
minutes brandishing the blade. The razor slides down his face like
a toboggan waxed for an ice storm. The beard is dense, but the fol-
licles come too easily, like evening ice droops beneath a defroster
gently blowing warm, like snow burns landing on flesh, like so
many blades of grass fall to each swoop of a mower's winding-
pores tight like porcelain, growth like velveteen.
Preston leaves quietly, walks back to the clinic stinging
At the clinic there's a note from Dr. Pickering—her
husband is locked out of the house with ice cream getting warm
in the car, can he watch the clinic, shouldn't be more than fifteen
minutes. No problem. Get to play general practitioner. On the corner
of the desk Preston sits down, one leg touching the ground, where
Dr. Pickering's assistant updates records. He shows Luci's handi-
work to her, bends his wrists down and splays his fingers out for
her to see, and as soon as he's done it, realizes that he's done some-
thing horribly feminine. He should have balled his hands into fists,
palms up, to show her. He pulls them back quickly, sneaks them
into the pockets of his smock and, feigning interest, asks what she's
"Have you ever seen a bird swallow gravel?"
"My finches need grit to digest their food."
"You don't see finches dancing on the highway here, do
"We have pheasants."
He lifts his leg back down to the floor and turns
to the window to see a woman flying into the lot, half miss-
ing and bouncing over the curb, in a pick-up. He lurches forward
and pulls himself back. "X-rays, x-rays can always wait. I've got
Marge Eggert busts in with eyes aching to see Lazarus
doing handsprings in the waiting room. "My husband's been
kicked by a horse. He's not breathing." With her pulling him by
the hand, Preston moves out to the truck, his legs denying the
urgency. In the bed he sees Clive Eggert purple as rhubarb. He
climbs up and puts a stethoscope to his chest. There's a faint pulse
but no breathing. Then life stops too for Preston as he runs the
litany of Hail Marys and good uses of a clean x-ray. What good are
silver salts and radiation when a man's lungs won't rise and fall. How
do I make him breathe? There's still a pulse. Tracheotomy, CPR? I can't
see a thing. This isn't my ballgame. If there's a break, if there's a frac-
ture I could tell you. I've found hairline fractures on three-day-old,
four-pound infants. Understand? Don't talk to me about ability. I can
see these things.
"Dr. Pickering's at home. Have the woman inside call."
And then he's alone, sitting on the sidewall of the bed and
looking down at a dying man who can't be helped, not by an x-ray.
Next day Preston stops by the salon just before closing.
LuJean and Gilda are cleaning up after a long day. "Suppose you
ladies have heard about Clive Eggert."
"Valois Crimshaw was in earlier. She said Clive was
banged up pretty good by that horse," Gilda says.
"Collapsed lung. He pulled through," Preston says.
"You okay by it, " LuJean says, while cleaning red and
brown and black strands of hair out of brushes.
"Shouldn't I be?"
"Well, I guess so. lt's not often we have a fatality here,"
"Fatality? He pulled through. "
"He and Marge are good people. Too young to die, either
one of them," says LuJean.
"He didn't die."
"I was just saying . . . ," LuJean says moving closer, sweep-
ing hair into piles on the linoleum.
"But he didn't die."
"No, and we're glad to have him with us," LuJean says.
The curtains on LuJean's salon, red hot chilies on the fore-
ground, green bellpeppers in the background, are drawn closed for
the day's business. Had they been chopping cabbage for kimchi
today, she and Gilda would have cropped enough heads to fill
a minefield of kimchi caches. LuJean likes Korean coleslaw, and
this is how she learns new things. By making associations. You
chop a head of cabbage—you trim a head of hair.