She thought it would be a fun change to work around more glamorous people than waiters and cooks, so she wondered how she could get a job at a hair salon. Elan, the one on the boulevard, attracted her most. When she passed the window and doorway, Helene was tantalized by the gold and blue decor, the warm lighting that made everyone inside look dewy and healthy. She saw a wall of wallpaper with white roses and blue bird cages with their doors flung open. The salon had a soft garden feel, nothing like she was used to experiencing at work.
She had looked for a new summer job since March but most were snapped up or she was underqualified. Helene was eighteen; she had only washed dishes at After Six, her uncle’s mediocre dinner club. She’d had enough of heavy lifting, stinging hot water and harsh soaps, rushing from start to stop, her uncle’s rude attitude and sometimes unsavory remarks behind the staff’s backs. When he commented on her own ragged T-shirt, she quit at the end of the shift. He yelled at her as she walked down the alley and hailed a cab. Enough, already, she thought, enough and then some.
“He runs a good place, he gave you a part time job at fifteen, works around your schedule. Yes, he’s my errant brother, poor fool, but he means no real harm. You know how he is, runs off his mouth too much.” Mom was darning the heel of Dad’s crew sock and knotted an end of thread with deftness.
“Mom, he actually said I must still be growing or my T-shirt had shrunk–as he glanced at my chest! He’s just disgusting sometimes, more than you might know. Doesn’t he get it?–there are sexual harassment laws! And my biceps are getting too big from hoisting dish racks a hundred times each shift. Its so tiring. I want something different before I start college.”
“All you have experience doing is restaurant work. Tell Uncle Toby you’re ready to hostess this summer, he’ll give in. You might get one of those nice black and white uniforms.”
“Ellen, I’ll tell your brother Toby a thing or two! It’s about time someone in the family spoke up,” Dad piped in. He was half inside the refrigerator. “Good for you for quitting, Helene! You’re going to be a terrific musicologist, and it’s time you moved on.” He yanked himself away from more tantalizing leftovers, hands already clutching containers, and gave her a sharp nod.
“What does that have to do with summer work? But not a good idea, Jim, you confronting him. It will only fan the fire. You won’t fare much better, Helene. Good luck trying.”
Mom was the diehard family pessimist–“realist” her mother corrected–but Helene was going to find something else some way. She felt a prickle of embarrassment that her father overheard, but was relieved he was as mad as she was. Her mother could be too dismissive of things, she had found, as if life was full of rips and trears and you just made do. Helene didn’t care if she ever saw her uncle again even after four more weeks of submitting applications and getting only one interview at a meat counter that resulted in nothing more than a salami sample. But at least she graduated high school in the top two percent; that gave her and her parents a sense of triumph more a silly summer job. Still, money was needed.
It was a late May day when the light took a bronze cast that Helene felt a surge of courage. She came upon the hair stylists taking a break at the cafe next door to Elan. They were circled up like imagined creatures, faces giving off sparks of health and well-being, smiles teasing their lips. She knew the blond, a girl who had been two years ahead of her in school. Eva had been remote, too poised and fashion savvy for Helene’s group. Except for one who styled her hairdo for the spring gala a year prior, no one else was known to her. Maybe she should leave but she had to try.
Helene thought of Eva’s reputation as an ice princess and walked to the other side where the other familiar face was. All girls’ eyes were lowered under the serious beams of high noon sun. It felt as if she should whisper.
No one responded except one who sighed; another uncrossed her ankles. Perhaps she would stir up bad will by intruding on their reveries. She was nobody while they were well paid Elan employees, enjoying the quiet company of each other on a swoon-worthy day. She was wearing old shorts and a tank top while they managed to look crisp and almost elegant in pale blue or white aprons and shirts. Helene put on her sunglasses back on and turned away when a voice stopped her.
“Don’t I know you? Are you possibly my next appointment?”
The brunette with the pale blue oxford shirt shaded her eyes and squinted up at Helene.
“No, just passing by. I recognized a couple of you. Eva went to my school.”
“Ah.” The stylist closed her eyes again.
“Right, I know you, too.” Eva sat up and smoothed back her perfectly colored champagne hair. “You sang at various school events, right?”
Helene looked down at her sandaled feet; dirt had somehow when walking the Pix, their terrier. “Um, sometimes. You remember?” Her voice had turned high and thin. She adjusted her sunglasses before they slid all the way down her nose and swallowed to open her throat.
“So good! Still singing?”
“Well, I graduated. I sometimes sing at the coffee shop on Saturday nights but you wouldn’t know–”
“Take a seat. Your name is…Helen, Helena something?”
“Helene.” She fumbled with the metal chair, managed to sit down without toppling. Why was she feeling so inept? They intervened on hair, not the soul. They were harmless young women; she had just been complimented.
“Helene. I noticed you all enjoying the sunshine but I’m looking for employment and have about exhausted possibilities. But never give up, right? I start college in the fall, so I need to save up money this summer.”
Eva sat up and smoothed her skirt, then checked her watch. She glanced at the others, all of whom were now paying close attention to the intruder. Helene thought this might be a signal for her to leave; they had only so much time for breaks and she wasn’t a customer or a chummy addition to their circle. She rose.
“Oh, don’t go.” Eva turned to the others. “We just lost an employee. Maybe you should fill out an application right since you’re here.”
She smiled at Helene, even teeth gleaming, dimples softening her appearance. It was as if she was bestowing a small blessing.
Karin gestured at Helene’s head. “I remember you, your hair is so thick and luxurious I had to thin it to get the shape you wanted. And it turned out well, right?”
Helene nodded and returned the smile although it didn’t seem likely this person recalled her after a year. Maybe she had a photographic memory for hair types and faces the mass of hair surrounded. Odd, being a hair stylist, when she thought about this.
The others were checking their mobile phones but seemed accepting of her presence. What sort of job, she wondered, could she do at Elan? Check people in? That would be marvelous after working in a sweltering kitchen all hours. She’d prove her mother wrong, dash home to inform her she was now an actual receptionist at fabulous Elan where hardly anyone they knew could afford even a monthly shampoo and blow out.
“I’m Karin,” the brunette said, and Helene nodded. “We just lost someone due to pregnancy and impending delivery. ” The girls assented with an admiring tone as if this was an unimaginable feat. “I think Eva should put in a good word for you and then you can fill out the form. If she likes you, we all like you.”
They turned to her in concert, their coiffed heads like something delicious, faces so pale and smooth they could be in dermatology ads. It was a little frightening but she returned the scrutiny. Helen was used to the vintage-wearing, rather sloppy and offhand artsy type.
She wanted that job. Nothing was worse than facing summer without pocket-money plus a growing fund for college expenses.
“So, Eva and Karin, what is the job?”
The other two girls looked up from their phones. Eva glanced at a good-looking guy with a retriever. Karin kept Helene in her sight line so Helene took off her sunglasses and hoped she looked glad about this announcement. But what did this mean? Emptying trash? Sweeping up dirty or damp hair that had accumulated on the floor beneath their feet? Washing walls, windows, bathrooms? Check, check, check, she was sure.
“You know,” Eva said with a languid air, “keeping things tidy and fresh for our customers, helping us out as we slave over heads all day long. A good housekeeper is a real asset, believe me, especially when they are easy to be around, too.”
Helene tried to see herself with broom and washrag and sensible shoes, sweeping around strange feet. Women who gossiped and drank bottled water as their terrible or inhumanly gorgeous hair was shaped, primed, redirected and renovated into something maybe or maybe not worth so much money and their slice of free time.
She sat up straighter. “Sounds like I’m a decent fit. I washed dishes in my uncle’s restaurant for years so I have stamina.”
“Yes, you’d need that, at least,” Karin agreed.
They led her into the shop and introduced her to their boss, who acted as if she was desperate for anyone who could wield a broom and a scrub brush and hold an adequate conversation if needed.
On the way home, Helene thought about what it meant to work with beautiful girls in a high-priced hair salon.
It meant a paycheck.
“Hi Dad,” she said as she entered the house. “I got a job.”
“Good. Doing what?” he asked as he slipped off his school jacket. He transformed from math teacher to still-nerdy, loyal and loving dad with one quick motion.
“Housekeeper at the salon down the road.”
“Uh-huh. “He took the lid off the pasta pan on the stove and inhaled.
“Fantastic!” her mother called as she headed up the stairs. “You’re moving up a tad. Lots of good gossip, no doubt.”
The first day Helene was introduced to everyone, then found her way among dust bins and cleaning supplies with some help and support from Eva.
“Just smile if you greet people and try to be invisible the rest of the time.”
She cringed but it made sense. No one liked going to a classy salon and thinking about all those dead ends on the tile mingling with everyone else’s, bacteria that accumulates on combs and brushes, then soaks off in cloudy disinfectant. She swept and emptied trash and cleaned the lavatory and washed windows and mirrors as unobtrusively as she could. A sweet herbal and flowery scent of hair products interplayed with cleaning supplies and won due to majority rule. She liked the click-clicking of scissors, the punctuation of different voices, the low roar of hair dryers. People came and went and were happy here.
There were snippets of life scenarios that made the time pass as her feet grew tired. It was like being on a movie set but better, with real people offering glimpses into their lives.
“I told her that unless she gets straight As there will be no dates. That is the main rule. She’s just fifteen. Who can manage top grades and a male of our species? Unreasonable and unnecessary at this time. She needs to have a life, first, you know?”
Eva completely agreed.
“If I hear one more comment from that music teacher I’m going to have to remind her where her bread and butter come from. Who does she think she is, informing us our son has a voice like a foghorn? He’s finally growing up, his voice is having temporary spasms! She ought to know better. She has to teach him everything he needs to get a music scholarship or his well-known composer grandfather will absolutely disown him–and me. Period.”
Helene stifled a giggle, moved on with broom, then was pulled to another conversation.
“It’s spiritual action, don’t you think? Having things fall together or not? Like finding money in her mailbox when she cannot pay the rent? No return address, just a generous donation from nowhere. I said, ‘Get on your knees, sweetie, and thank God.’ Our needs are met. Not our wants, usually, but our needs. If we stay humble and faithful, you see? It is simple, really. And she’s a dear one, deserves so much more.”
Karin nodded at the woman’s reflection in the mirror as she massaged oil into her scalp. Helene could tell they had been long connected at this point of intersection, that they were even friends of a certain kind in a place where differences were suspended.
“I would say you know what you’re talking about,” Eva said with seriousness.
Helene noted the woman was slight and had a half-inch of fuzzy hair, some white and some black. The client had deep wrinkles around her eyes, thin pale lips and wore a silvery necklace with a diamond studded heart. She wondered if the woman had cancer, what she did for a living, if she had placed that money in the mailbox for the “sweetie” she’d mentioned.
There were unanswered questions like these all day long. She would never know the whole truth likely. It was the one thing that got to her as she cleaned and sweated, yet it was one reason she felt glad to be here and not at Toby’s place.
“How’s it going?” Eva asked. “Ready for a break?”
They sat at the table drinking sodas and iced tea, right where Helene had first spotted Eva and the others. She marvelled that one week she was scared she wouldn’t get any work and the next she had a paycheck coming. She flashed back to the woman with the flashy heart around her neck: spiritual action, she’d called it.
Eva checked her mobile and Helene took off her shoes and massaged her feet.
Eva sipped her tea. “I plan on becoming the best stylist in town. One day I’ll have my own salon. I have a mind for business or so Frederic says.” She leaned her head on her hand. “My new boyfriend. He’s got an entrepreneurial spirit of his own–he’s developing computer games. You?”
“I’m not into dating now. I’m all about going to college and making a life of my own.”
Eva’s perfectly arched eyebrows rose and hovered there. “No dating? I mean, college isn’t all work, from what I hear. You can’t hide out!”
“For me, more work than play. I want to be a musicologist one day. It’s a passion. Not that guys can’t be but…this is my first love, at least now.”
“Is that a sort of musician that specializes… in something…?”
“Sort of. It depends on what you’re most interested in. I want to be an ethnomusicologist and study the cultural influences of music and vice versa. I’m also fascinated by music and healing, body and soul.”
“Wow, that sounds like a big topic to study. I never knew someone who loved that sort of thing. I’m impressed. You’ll have to explain more to us when we all go out sometime.”
Helene shrugged and thought how easy it was to talk with Eva, after all, how helpful she had been. She must have changed but, then, high school was not the best place to be your true self. She found it satisfying to sit there and cool under the awning, to listen to Eva as she enthused about Frederic. She liked that her new friend was aspiring to establish her own business; she felt mutual respect bloom. Who would have imagined such a pairing, the two of them?
The fourth day after work Helene recognized Uncle Toby’s lankiness and his large hawkish nose from a half block away. She turned the other way, ducked into a drugstore and bought a pack of gum. When she came out, there he was, waiting with a man who wore a Detroit Tigers baseball cap.
“Here is my niece Helene! This is the one who worked for me for almost three years as dishwasher and one day she just takes off without a decent explanation.” He leaned into her, then gestured to the man. “Oh, this is Mr. Levinson, my new chef.”
“Glad to meet you,” Helene said and took a step back as if to leave.
“So hold on. I still haven’t found a good dishwasher since you left, just lazy ones. You need a pay increase? A uniform? Better hours? Let’s talk.”
“I have a job.”
“Oh, I see, you’ve already sought loftier heights. Retail? Is it waiting tables at a hot spot? Or have you risen to assistant to the dean of your awaiting two year college, perhaps?”
Helene felt her blood heat up but she steadied herself, shifted her weight on the tender balls of her feet as if readying to fight. She wanted to walk away a last time but she could handle this despite the smirk on her uncle’s gaunt face and a quizzical look on Mr. Levinson’s. Uncle Toby had decided to have more fun with derision, or he was regretting his attitude. They were family, still.
“No, I work at Elan, where my aunt, your wife, gets her hair done.”
“Shampoo girl? That’s what you have in mind for college prep, Helene?”
“No, I just clean up after the stylists, keep things in order. It’s a good job. It will get me through summer.”
Uncle Toby laughed so loud it attracted attention from passersby.
“Yes, Uncle, it is much better than working for you. It’s better than hearing you bully your staff and humiliate female employees with off-color jokes and lascivious comments.” His face fell and began to generate a reddened hue. His chef frowned at them both. “You were a good uncle once. I don’t know what happened. Or maybe I grew up and discovered that your so-called humor was just an excuse to put down others. I’m sorry to tell you, but sweeping up hair from the scuffed floor is a much finer position to be in. I have decent co-workers. And in another few years I will be an ethnomusicologist and long gone. Maybe I’ll be in China or Iceland.” She swung around and stepped away, then pivoted. “But I hope things get better for you, too, really.”
And with that Helene left the block and headed home. She had been saving up those words for so long that she was surprised they didn’t crash one on top of another, that she said it with such easy resolve. As she turned another corner she looked back. Uncle Toby was standing alone, his new chef wandering elsewhere. Somewhere deep inside her was a sharp ping of sadness. She broke into a measured run that soothed her and heard the music stored in her mind to keep the beat of her feet, and she wondered what good thing she’d hear and learn tomorrow at Elan.