Martha is mad at him. She hates Hair Trix, the hair salon in the strip mall, wedged in between the China Wok II and Sonny’s Laundromat, and it’s the only place where Martha’s father will drive her to get a haircut. Something about a five-mile radius, he always says. But the true reason is he’s cheap. Anyway, she’s desperate because her hair looks like a mullet right now. Hair Trix is a place where old people get their hair cut.
“Old people, huh?” her father says.
“Like in the geriatric ward or something,” Martha says.
“I don’t have 50 dollars for you to get a haircut at that frilly place in the mall.”
“They cut your hair horrible at Hair Trix. And it smells like burning Chinese food in there. It’s not fair.”
“Awww. And weren’t you also neglected as a child?”
Martha stares out the passenger-side window passing by a strip mall. Havenwood is the kind of place where you can buy a gun, find a plumber, and get a tattoo, all in the same place.
“Tell me, it’s because you didn’t get that talking bear for Christmas one year, isn’t it?” her father teases. He always makes this joke. She never even wanted the bear that bad.
“You had all those gifts under the tree. A brand-new bike. And all you cried about was how you didn’t get that talking bear. What was its name?”
“Nothing,” Martha says.
“Nothing the Bear,” he says, pulling up to the curb to let Martha out. “I remember him well,” he continues. He never stops.
Martha gets out of the car, sulking. It smells like detergent from the laundromat and greasy Chinese food from the China Wok II. Why is it called that? Why is there no China Wok I? Only in Havenwood. Havenwood is a stupid town.
Martha wishes she could live in a place where there is art and culture. Everyone at her high school only cares about the wrestling team. Mr. Melvin is her history teacher and also the wrestling coach, so he never teaches anything; he just sits on the desk talking about wrestling and demonstrating head locks with the boys.
“I’ll be back at three o’clock to pick you up,” her father says.
Martha turns to face her fate. The door of the salon is plastered with their cheap prices. WOW! VALUE! ONLY $15. BLOW DRY EXTRA. The glass is smudged with fat fingerprints and the door handle is oily. Martha enters. DREAD!
In the waiting area out front, the receptionist chews gum, making a sucking noise that sounds like something dirty. They are uncivilized at Hair Trix.
“Hi there, hon,” the sucking woman says. “Whatcha havin’ done today?”
Martha shrugs. “A haircut.”
“You have a favorite stylist you like?”
No, thinks Martha, and she shakes her head. Words are futile.
“Looks like I’ve got Julie available right now. Let me take you back there.”
The sucking woman leads Martha back into the salon area. There are no other customers. They never sweep this place. There is other people’s dead hair all over the floor. Old-lady-white-hair and dark-curled-hairs and probably some dog hair too.
Julie has been her stylist before. Julie, the one with the short red hair, which Martha suspects is dyed. Julie, the one who dots the “i” in her name with a smiley face. She probably thinks doing this makes her adorable.
Martha sits down in Julie’s chair, examining herself. She has plain brown hair that drapes over a round face. Shaped like a heart, her mother says, but Martha suspects that’s just a nice way of saying fat face. Heart-shaped just like your father, her mother adds. One day, Martha will appreciate this resemblance to her father, but for now, all she sees in the mirror is fat—and she sees Julie, picking out somebody’s hair from the comb she is about to use.
“How do you want your hair cut today?” Julie asks.
They only know one cut at Hair Trix. Layering. And no matter how many photos Martha points to in the style book from 1985, the only book they have, they will only layer her hair.
“You want layers?” Julie asks. Right on time.
“Whatever makes it look good,” Martha says, knowing nothing will.
Julie leads her to the sink to wash it. Martha read on the Internet that people have severed their spines from resting their neck in the dip of the basin. It’s true. Julie has probably never heard of this danger, but it happens all of the time. Martha lays back into the dip, praying it happens. That will teach her father.
“How old are you?” Julie asks.
“Fourteen,” Martha says.
Julie squirts a gob of shampoo in her hand and begins lathering it into Martha’s hair. Julie smells like cigarettes and Diet Coke, and the shampoo smells like strawberries. Martha’s neck tenses. Maybe it’s about to disconnect.
“I have a weird question for you,” Julie says.
“Have you ever seen a stripper?
“Sure,” Martha says. She knows what a stripper is, if that counts.
“Okay, well one of the girls here, it’s her birthday. We’re surprising her with a male stripper, and he’s supposed to be here pretty soon. Any minute now,” Julie says.
“Oh,” Martha says, trying to sound unimpressed, the “oh” as though it simply falls out of her mouth.
But Martha is mortified. She secretly begs God and Buddha and Jesus and Santa, and whatever else is up there and whoever else will help her to please make it not happen before her father comes back.
“You kids see it all these days anyway,” Julie says. She stands Martha up and wraps a towel around her head. The towel smells like a shampooed dog. They walk back to the styling chair for the ritual layering.
“You’re not like, religious or anything, are you?”
“No.” And she’s not, either. She’s not like this girl at school, Amanda Miracle. That’s her real last name too. Amanda always prays for things like good weather for her youth group cookouts and the time her father had kidney stones, and she prayed for God to help him pass them. Amanda Miracle would lose her shit if this was happening to her right now like this is happening to Martha right now.
Julie isn’t paying any attention to Martha’s hair. She’s making eyes at the other stylist, Toni, who sits perched in her swivel chair, her hair pulled back into a slimy pony tail. Grease oozes from each strand of her hair. She must eat French fries for every meal. Her arms are flubby. When Toni cuts your hair, the arm fat swings into your face. Once, Martha left with red cheeks from getting smacked by the flub. That actually happened.
“It’s Toni’s birthday,” Julie says, cooing.
Toni fans herself. “What did you girls get me?”
“You’ll see,” Julie says, as she hacks clear through Martha’s bangs. Martha watches the hair drop onto her shoulders and onto the floor. Plip, plop. Oh God, she looks like a pageant pony. Julie presses her head to tilt down. Chin up. Turn right. A little more.
“So you won’t be offended or anything, right?” she whispers.
“No,” Martha says, and she means it too.
Martha imagines the male stripper talking in a deep voice, trying to sound sexy, but instead sounding skeevy just like Anthony Peterson. That’s a guy at her school. He’s not even cute. He’s just popular because he’s on that wrestling team. The other girls call him Antonio when they’re trying to be flirtatious. Martha doesn’t call him anything. She doesn’t even speak to him—doesn’t even look at him—not even in peripheral vision.
The stripper will probably be wearing one of those tuxedo thongs. Anthony brought one to school once, as a joke. He carried it around in his grubby jeans pocket all day, and when he showed it off, the other girls squealed and acted impressed.
Now Julie is running her hands wildly through Martha’s hair, like something on the cover of a romance novel. This woman is nuts. She hopes her father gets here before the stripper. What if her father was the stripper? Like he had some kind of sick, twisted double life? Martha erases the thought from her mind and plots the fastest escape route.
“How do you style your hair in the mornings?” Julie asks.
“I blow-dry it.”
“Baby, the blow-drying is bad for your hair,” Julie says. “You need a moisturizer.”
Julie is always trying to sell that moisturizer. One time, Martha even bought it. Nightmare city. Big mistake. It made her hair look like an oil slick all day long. At dinner, a waitress even asked if Martha had just gotten out of the shower. Then she—
Suddenly the sucking woman darts into the salon from behind the wall. Her face is pink. Martha knows what that means. She must have seen his balls.
“Get her ready, girls,” she says.
The women gasp collectively. Except Martha, whose eyes bolt toward the clock. Her father will be here in six minutes, and he’s always on time because he has nothing better to do with his life. This is a man who clips and organizes coupons on Friday nights for fun.
Julie throws her hands up in the air, dropping the bottle of gunky moisturizer. Thank God she didn’t have a pair of scissors in her hand. They would have impaled Martha through the neck.
The women swarm to Toni, Ms. Flubby Arms. Toni’s face flushes, the blood rushing in between and connecting all the freckles. The women roll a desk chair to the center of the room. The hair on the floor whooshes around.
“What is this, you guys? What are you doing? Oh, I’m scared,” Toni says, although she’s clearly not, as she giggles. So fake.
Next, a cop comes around the wall. So predictable.
“I have a warrant for your arrest, ma’am,” he says. So cheesy.
Julie turns off the radio station that was playing a continuous stream of your light favorites from the ’80s and ’90s, and on comes a dance song. A CD. They actually brought in a CD for this. The man tosses off his plastic aviators. Toni looks like a ripe tomato. She raises her arms above her head, dancing. The flub flaps in the wind.
Martha watches the stripper begin to unbutton his uniform, revealing a bronze chest. For some reason, Martha thinks about her father, who walks around the house in boxer shorts and old T-shirts. She also thinks about Anthony Peterson, who tries to act so suave, who tells girls he could be a male stripper.
“Whoooo,” let out the girls. Martha cringes. Whoooo is a sound that no human being should ever make again. It ought to be banned. Martha wonders if she is the only normal girl in Havenwood. Or maybe she is the one who’s not normal. One day Havenwood will just be the town where she grew up, but for now, it is the sheer hell of her existence.
She has to get out. Martha pulls the crumpled bills her father gave her from her pocket and slams them on Julie’s station. No tip. No way. Not for having to endure this. Julie doesn’t even notice, so Martha decides to make a run for it. Head down, she bolts to the other side of the wall. Standing there is her father.
“Is there some kind of party going on back there?” her father asks.
“No. The music is just loud. I’m done. I’m ready to leave.”
“You already paid?”
Another whooooo rips out from behind the wall.
“What are they doing back there?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why are you out of breath?”
“Please, Dad. Let’s just go,” Martha says.
“I want to take a peek,” her father says.
He sticks his head behind the wall. Martha hates God. Her father sees the stripper. He sees the tuxedo thong. He sees balls, probably. He laughs. “No wonder your face is so red,” he says.
He chuckles to himself the whole drive home. He’s gross. Martha watches the land of sub shops and gun stores go by. Life sucks, but at least the next time Martha’s hair reaches mullet formation—and it always does with Julie’s stupid layers—her father graciously drives her to the mall, to the frilly salon. He says he hopes this salon comes with female strippers. Martha hopes her neck separates from her spine in the basin dip.
Email Michelle Carrigan