by Jenny Smick
Not long after the surgery, Althea decided it had gotten hot enough that customers wouldn't shop. She gripped the railing and mounted the stairs to the art gallery above her home. The air conditioning unit sat anchored in the same window where it had always been, but this year, when she turned the dial and the machine rattled to life, Althea came face to face with a mourning dove looking at her sideways and blinking one frantic periwinkle eyelid.
Althea turned off the switch, and the air conditioner whirred to a stop in one drowsy sigh, the machine sounding as relieved as the mourning dove probably felt. The bird continued blinking its light blue lid as though its distress could be only conveyed through this one physical gesture, yet it didn't seem to consider leaving the nest.
“Right on the top of my air conditioner,” Althea said. She put her hands on her hips. The mourning dove blinked and shifted on a messy cake of twigs.
“It's gonna get hot as hell in here,” Althea said, and as soon as it was out of her mouth, the comment made her pause, raise her hand to her heart, and consider the idea of hell. This notion overwhelmed her with feeling in the way a painting hadn't for many years.
The whistling melody of wing-flap awakened her, and Althea watched the mourning dove take off. There, in the nest, were two eggs, white as a pair of hearty pearl onions.
Three weeks later, when the pain was almost entirely gone, alarmingly gone—could it really be possible that her body had been sliced open? That her insides had been touched by human hands?—she stood at the window and watched the mourning dove warm and wiggle the contents of its nest. Raising up its feathered chest, the bird lifted its wings like a woman hitching up her dress to look between her feet. Two weak-necked, dappled-brown babies emerged from beneath their parent's breast.
The customers had been coming in, foreheads rosy and moist. They picked up her catalog only to use as a fan. Sometimes they entered, took one light-headed, sweeping glance at the paintings, seemingly unable to focus on a single image, turned around and left. Others dragged themselves sluggishly along the walls, enjoying the work, but it was too hot to shop, to consider the staggering possibility of buying an expensive piece of art. It was the sort of weather where the only thing people could manage to buy was an ice cream cone from the vendor across the street. But Althea didn't even consider turning on the air conditioning. She didn't care if she never sold another painting; things like that didn't seem important anymore. “I'm sorry,” she told the guests, “it's broken.”
Now, standing by the window, Althea touched the tip of her braid, where her hair had retained the rich brunette hue of younger years. She called this her “proof of youth.” The plumage of the baby mourning doves was the same drab, muted shade as the wisps of white-brown that now framed her face. Althea bent and peered at the animals and when the phone rang, she and the mourning dove shared a startled neck spasm in its direction.
“Althea? It's Rick over at the paper. The article is all set to go about your new work, but I'd love to get a photo of one of the pieces to go with it. Could I stop by this afternoon?”
Althea sat at her desk, still watching the window with the air conditioning unit.
“Yes. No—I have a hair appointment this afternoon.”
“Anytime after three-thirty should be alright.”
“Great. If you could pick out which painting you'd like in the newspaper beforehand, I can shoot it real quick. Won't take more then ten minutes of your time.”
“Which piece would you like?”
“You choose. Whichever image inspires you the most.”
After she hung up, Althea stood in the middle of the room with her hands on her hips. She turned in a slow circle, looking at each painting.
“Cut it short,” Althea said.
The hairdresser unkinked her braid, thick as ship rigging and the deep polished brown of an espresso bean. He lifted Althea’s hair and arranged it around her shoulders, feeling its quality, heaviness, and texture.
“Cut short...how short?”
“Like a man’s.”
“Like a man’s,” the hairdresser said. He gently raked her hair away from her forehead and the two of them stared straight-faced at her reflection in the mirror. “You could donate it, you know. It’s long enough. Plenty long enough to donate. You’ve got… seventeen inches here at least. It’s beautiful.”
“And they give it to little kids with cancer?”
“Geez,” she whispered. “Little kids with cancer. That’s something else.” After a moment she added, “There's some white at the top. I don’t suppose little kids want to wear wigs with white hair?”
“They’ll take it. They can dye it maybe, or sell it. But in any event, they’ll take it. This is nice,” he said, weighing her hair with open palms on either side of her head as though his hands were scales and himself Lady Justice, endowed with the divine power to decide what will be cut short and when. He looked at her eyes in the mirror. “Anything in particular you would like me to do? Any last wishes?”
“No, you can be as creative as you want, it doesn’t matter. I have cancer myself, and it’s all going to fall out in a few weeks anyhow.”
“Oh,” he said and dropped her hair. He put a hand on her shoulder, massaged a thumb into her sleeve, and whispered, “I’m so sorry.” They shared a brief and genuine moment before his face brightened like he had just had a taste of ice cream. He rubbed his palms together and pressed his index fingers to his lips. “So. I can do anything?”
“Anything you want.”
“Oh, this is exciting,” he said, running a comb through her hair.
Normally, Althea didn't discuss the emotional origin of her paintings because she believed it didn't matter what a piece meant to her, but rather what it meant to others. She believed art belonged to whoever looked at it, that people came to own the image merely by looking at it and feeling something, and that that was the extent to which anyone could ever possess a creative effort. Sometimes people purchased a painting because they wanted to feel a feeling over and over again, and then sometimes—when things got really exciting—they'd look at it and discover they felt something new.
When she began painting about her illness, she decided to tell anyone who asked, and eventually the local newspaper came poking around for a story. She was happiest with the painting of a bright white vase in the shape of a woman’s body, the base beginning midway up a pair rounded thighs. Above the thighs, a gentle tummy curved outward. The shading of the bellybutton indentation was no larger than a pinky print. The lip of the vase stopped just before the armpits, and out of the opening, red and orange snapdragons sprung like wildfire. They bloomed in rapid succession: some were still pinched buds looking much like the tip of Althea's dipped brush. Some were just beginning to reveal their hot interiors where yellow flames lay like hidden tongues. And some were bold, unfurled petals in the peak of their blossom. Althea had painted the snapdragons in splashy watercolor, a medium she found both strangely passionate and demure. This vase was her own thighs, her own belly, her own breasts, and out of them bloomed a blaze of vigorous health and brilliance.
“What inspired these paintings?” the newspaper reporter had asked.
“Healing,” she said.
“Hair…” the hairdresser said, starting to coil her locks and clip them on top of her head, “is very reflective of your emotional life. You know, my brother got in a car accident and developed a white patch right here above his ear because of the trauma.” The hairdresser tapped a feminine middle finger on the side of his skull. “And my sister, after she went through her divorce, shaved her head one afternoon while she was drinking brandy and listening to too much Radiohead. She just needed to get rid of all that history, all that dead weight. I was mad, of course, because she didn’t let me give her a great haircut instead, the bitch.”
“Oh my,” Althea said, “What is a radio head?”
Althea liked chit-chatting with the hairdresser. She lived alone beneath the gallery and had always enjoyed the solitude, but since she had become sick, the empty rooms and the tacit cat had begun to feel lonely.
“This is my first haircut,” she told him.
He stopped and put his hand on his hip. “Ever?”
“They're looking for cancer cells,” she told the reporter. The two of them stood in front of her painting of the lions.
Two noble lions prowled the painting, winding their peach-colored flanks through the scarlet interior of some unidentified space. Their manes glowed wild with buttery marigold and red-pepper-hot paints. When she looked at the painting, Althea imagined the animals spreading warmth to every part of her body.
“What will they do if they find any?” the reporter said.
“Kill them, of course.”
Althea had simply allowed her hair to grow as long as it would, and when it stopped, somewhere around her waist, she left it. Every once in a while, she’d hack off a few inches with the same scissors she used for trimming chicken fat. Now she wished she'd been getting her hair cut all along because it was the most exquisite sensation she had ever experienced, and she didn’t know how many opportunities she would have left.
Every time the hairdresser ran the point of the comb through her hair, or brushed her neck with his knuckles, or combed the strands in the opposite direction of where they had been hanging, heavy with gravity for all of her life, she felt a thrill of delicate tingles, the possibility of transformation, the phenomenon of being awakened, and the relief of a sensory pleasure so exquisite that it required the entirety of her focus.
The sibilant clip of the scissors was even more exhilarating than the comb. The blades worked in crisp snaps around her head, sounding so precise and assured as they snipped, Althea felt as if they were whispering secrets that must be true.
She painted a troop of angels looking through her body for illness. Her body was a house with many wooden drawers, cupboards, and tables. The angels were opening every one of the drawers and peering inside to make sure nothing harmful lurked. They peeked into the cupboards and brushed the nooks clean with feather dusters and swept under the tables with wide skirted brooms. She painted the drawers running with intricate knots and grain lines, penned quickly with the tip of her brush so the liveliness of the wood and the vitality of the artist could be felt in the picture.
“When I began painting,” she told the reporter, “I intended for them to be serious angels, diligent and set on their task. But then, the angels were fooling around—smiling, singing, joking, putting their thumbs at their ears and flapping open palms—behaving in a way that was almost embarrassingly childish, juggling feather dusters and hitching up their robes to tap their feet. And—was that wine? Were they drinking wine? Stop it, I thought, back to work, you, but the picture had begun painting itself.”
She hoped the angels were behaving this way because there was nothing for them to find, that the house was clean, that chemotherapy was just a precaution, that the surgery had done the trick, but she didn't tell the reporter this.
“When I lie in her bed at night,” Althea told the hairdresser, “Sometimes I can’t tell where my hair ends, as if the braid has snuck out of the bedroom, out the front door, and all the way across the lawn. Sometimes I can’t tell if my arms are thin as spaghetti or thick as pigs, you know? Or if the ceiling is high as a cathedral’s or just inches from my face. Do you ever get that?”
“Yeah, not for a long time. But I used to. I always called it the heebie-jeebies.”
When the hairdresser finished, Althea had many things she had never had before: bangs and angles and layers. The style made her feel both plucky and sweet-natured. She tossed her head around a little in the swivel chair and felt as though it might tumble off and roll away without anything to weigh it down. She twitched her shoulders up and down, exploring their new independence and grinned at herself in the mirror.
“I’ve never had short hair. Never in my life.”
“It suits you,” the hairdresser said. He unbuttoned her smock.
“Well,” Althea said, hoisting herself up. “I’ve lost my uterus. And now I’ve lost my hair. I suppose I just might not be a woman anymore.”
She had meant it to be a joke, but the brief silence that followed accounted for the single awkward moment between them. Then the hairdresser shrugged and said, “Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m a man. But you, you’re a woman, honey, you’re ten times the woman you were before.”
The whole way home from the hairdresser, Althea touched the nape of her naked neck, freshly introduced to the elements of the world. “Nice to meet you,” she said, fingering the soft skin.
When she opened the front door, the cat leapt from the sofa to greet her. A thick matt of orange fur lay in a circle on the cushion where he had been sleeping. He stretched and turned around to spastically bite his coat, yanking out mouthfuls of fur at a time, twitching and licking his lips till he swallowed the clump. It was summer—time to shed, time for flowers to bloom and long for pollination, time for life. In a few weeks, Althea would be bald as a newborn baby. The cat threw his head back and kicked his hind foot at an itch on his throat. In the afternoon light, golden hairs sprung free and floated.
If I die, I want my gravestone to be a tree, Althea thought, and she was in the midst of this rumination when Rick said from the screen door, “I like your haircut.”
She turned to him, and he ran his thumb and knuckle over the mustache he'd had since the seventies when they both moved to the area. He had shaved the mustache once, but the skin beneath was so strangely light from never having seen the sun, and everyone was so used to the darn thing anyway, he had grown it back.
“You really want to see the best thing in my gallery? The image that inspires me most?” Althea said. She mounted the stairs and led him to the window, framed with trim just as the other paintings were.
“I'll still be here after they've flown away,” she said. Rick looked at her as if this were a peculiar thing to say but with enough awareness to realize it might also be somewhat profound. Althea let out a brief puff of laughter. “I might even outlive those little baby birds. What do they have in the wild? Two years maybe?”
They stood quietly for a moment, watching the baby birds gasp unsteadily, seemingly overwhelmed by the sensation of being alive.
“It's not a competition, of course,” Althea sighed, “but it does put things in perspective. They bring me peace of mind.”
“The babies are called squabs,” Rick said.
He stepped back and took a photo of Althea by the window. As the camera clicked, the parent swooped down to the nest and sat almost entirely on top of its babies, blinking blue lids over black eyes luminous as a pair of onyx earrings.
“Life should knock your socks off like that,” Althea said, “leave you vulnerable and breathless.” The squabs squirmed out from beneath the mourning dove's breast and breathed in rapid spastic inhales, their whole bodies pumping as would a quickly beating heart.