Up our way, there’s one place to get your hair cut and that’s Fiona’s Hair Fantasy. It’s a misleading name because Fiona does not trade in fantasy. “Fantasy sounds good with Fiona,” she explains. If it wasn’t the only shop for 30 miles, I’d probably have opted for any other. At Fiona’s Hair Fantasy you get the haircut Fiona thinks you should have.
There’s no pretense associated with this little structure tacked onto a diner, owned by Fiona’s ex-in laws, the Gootermotes, a name you stumble over all too frequently in this rural, upstate New York town. A door connects the two enterprises, and no hard feelings pass between. “They all know,” Fiona says, as if we should.
If the outside of Fiona’s Hair Fantasy looks a bit tawdry, the inside doesn’t say otherwise. There are two shampooing stations with two rusted sinks, two styling chairs that sag like overworked mules, and one exploded easy chair situated in what is referred to as the lounge, a closet facing a high window, its sill crowded with the same hair gels, goops and goos that have blocked out the sunlight since I became a regular here.
Fiona describes the business as, “a two-mule pull”, the other mule being Margo who captains the chair that lists to the east. Margo’s world is as off kilter as her chair. Beneath her piled high hairstyle and icing of makeup is a permanently dour expression. She suspects I might be a Socialist, and mutters a just audible challenge to every stray comment I make.
Fiona, in stark relief to Margo and to her surroundings, is radiant. Tall, slim, with dark brown eyes the same luster as her thick, long locks, she is a true to the bone beauty. I prefer less dazzle in the person who accompanies my image in the mirror so the contrast is not so disheartening. But despite her beauty, Fiona wears no pretenses. She says what she thinks, uncluttered by prudence and habitually followed by “know what I mean?” Still, I enjoy her company, could even call her a friend, even though each time I present myself in the duct-taped seat of her chair, staring at our two contrasting images in the smudged mirror, she exclaims with unfettered exasperation, “what the hell?”
I have to say here that my hair has been the bane of many. My mother, exhausted by four wilder than jackrabbit kids, wisely gave up on my hair. She drew the bulk of it into a ponytail and that was that. Many a beautician have claimed to have the answer. Then they get lost, never to find their way out.
I don’t know if everyone is like this, but I have an image of myself and my hair is supposed to play along. I found the haircut that matched that image some years ago and ripped it out of Stylist magazine. I carried around that crumpled, stained photograph until the fantasy died at Fiona’s door.
But it’s not about hair anymore. It’s about Fiona and her shop. Besides the always entertaining seesaw between Margo’s view of the world and Fiona’s, there’s the news. Fiona’s Hair Fantasy is the news hub of Greenbush. Every small town has one – the library, a bar, the corner grocery or a gas station. It is often the most unassuming and least accommodating dive in town, which is the attraction, of course. And anything serves as news – from a bad case of toenail fungus to a barn fire. It’s all here, parsed out in gasps, whispers and laughter. To enter Fiona’s is to walk into the big warm bosom of an embrace.
I have yet to be tucked into the bosom of Fiona’s Hair Fantasy. You have to have been born here for that, or at least be among the congregates of the United Methodist Church. It doesn’t help that my liberal leanings have been known around town for some time. Fiona, a closet liberal herself, instructed me early on that the conversation can only circle, but never land, on politics. “Just don’t go there. It gets ugly fast. Bad for business. You know what I mean?”
Besides keeping mum on any subject beyond town limits, I learned right away that if you are the recipient of news from Fiona’s, you better bring something to the table. Gossip keeps Fiona’s in business. I had no intentions of dishing my family’s business out at Fiona’s Hair Fantasy. But Fiona with her big brown eyes socking you with all that empathy and invitation — her hands poised with comb and scissors above your head – broke me down. I mean, nobody listens to you like Fiona. You want to tell her everything. And God damn it, I have.
I like an early appointment. That’s when the diner opens and the customers, many of whom trace their lineage in one form or another to the Gootermotes, come shuffling through the door that separates the two enterprises. Fred Gootermote, the local mechanic and brother of Fiona’s ex, visits the shop just about every morning, toting a mug of coffee, a plate of home fries and a cider donut, Fiona’s favorite breakfast. Fred may be landing a drunk from the night before, but he faithfully delivers the news, regular as the morning paper if there was one in Greenbush. And it’s all in the delivery. Big, booming Fred, with his broken fingers and barrel belly, was made for the theatre, and though he may be elocuting about a truck that wouldn’t start on a winter morning, it is only in someone else’s retelling that it deflates to trivia.
On the rare occasions when Fiona and I happen to be the only two in the shop, we hoist the flag of our partisanship. That’s party time for Fiona. She can get so worked up that the scissors zip around my head like angered ground bees. When she’s that revved, I am lucky to walk out the door with any hair at all. Thank God I’m beyond vanity.
One morning Fiona’s was crowded as a women’s room at half time. Fred was holding court, his baritone booming over the drone of voices as he related a story about Ellen Starzinski getting fired from the Dollar General for what he referred to as “over exposure.” Guffaws all around as Fred repeated over exposure three times in case his witticism sailed away unappreciated.
Out of nowhere, Margo’s baritone bowls through the laughter. “Does anyone know what monster is devouring Sylvia’s tomato plants?
There’s a momentary hush. Sylvia, clutching the armrests of Margo’s chair and swathed in the fumes of a perm, elaborates: “it’s big as a cigar, bright green with red eyes and a big hook at the ass end.”
I can’t help myself. I know just what she is talking about. They visit my garden every year. “Hornworm. Not as big as a cigar and they don’t have red eyes but they’re very impressive.”
It turns out, after the image sinks in, hornworms are legend in Greenbush. Everyone has run up against the devastation of hornworms. Ingenious and horrifying methods for killing them are passed around the shop with relish.
“What I do,” I say, interrupting an elderly Gootermote in back of the crowd who gets her kicks watching chickens pull hornworms apart, “is break off the stems they are feeding on and put them somewhere away from the plants, with the hornworm still attached.”
This is just the kind of thing they expect from me. Nonetheless, I plow on. “You lose a little, but if you give a little, the plants recover enough to produce plenty of tomatoes.”
“Socialism!” Margo, seldom heard above a grumble, shouts. Her suspicions have been confirmed. She eyes me murderously as she slaps a towel over her shoulder. “So, why,” she continues, now striding up to Fiona’s chair as though cross-examining a witness — leaving Sylvia and her perm smoldering behind her –“do you expect anyone to give up even one tomato to a …”
“Monster!” Sylvia shrieks, “with glowing red eyes and a barb big enough to hook a shark!”
Murmurs of agreement all around. Fiona, obviously nervous things are trending toward the political, clicks off the dryer.
Into the abyss I drop: “Hummingbird moths.”
Margo has come very close to my chair. She frowns down on me like a thundercloud, twisting the towel in what seems to me a threatening gesture. The chemical fumes are strong enough to gag a horse. “I know what a hummingbird moth is,” she growls, and “there’s no way …”
Fiona, without a word, draws her IPhone from her hip pocket and presents a picture of a hummingbird moth beside its caterpillar stage, the Hornworm, for all to see.
No one is sure how Margo will take this. All gather around to get a look at the evidence. In a voice as soft as if she were asking if she could hold a baby, Margo asks if she can hold the phone. She gazes at the photo enraptured.
Margo lapses into a version of herself I don’t think anyone in the shop has been privy to before. She brings us into her grandmother’s fairytale garden and the beautiful moth that visited it every spring. “Exactly like a hummingbird,” she purrs, describing its see-through wings and long proboscis probing the garden flowers for nectar.
“It’s still disgusting,” Sylvia snorts, her hair beginning to smolder. Fred agrees, pushing his opinion out his nostrils. But others gather around Fiona’s phone, their little gasps of surprise and wonder make Fiona laugh gently.
“You have to understand,” Margo professes, “It’s what they become.” She looked up from the phone, and I swear, she almost smiled at me.
“So…” Fiona begins, turning to Margo. I’m thinking she has her own fairytale of grandmothers and hummingbird moths, but Fiona doesn’t do fairytales. “Sylvia’s head’s on fire. Know what I mean?”
Mary Cuffe Perez lives in Galway. In addition to six books – which include poetry, creative nonfiction and children’s novels – she has published numerous magazine articles on natural history subjects, and fiction and poetry in a variety of literary publications.