“Never take a man’s heart willingly,” he said, as he stoked the fire with the heel of his worn, leather boot. “Make him ask again and again so he never forgets it was his idea to give it to you in the fist place.”
It was cold out, and we could see our breath forming clouds of heat against a pink sky glowing with the first light of day.
“I’ll never take a man’s heart,” I replied after a sufficient amount of silence had passed between us. “No man’s heart is worth having.”
I had been kicking dirt around with the tip of my shoe but stopped to cock my head up slightly in Mr. Hall’s direction. I was hoping to see indignation in his eyes, and maybe even amusement. If he thought I was joking, I might make him laugh. I liked the way his Adam’s apple jumped up and down when he chuckled with his mouth closed.
But if he heard my response, it didn’t show. We stood in near silence, as we did every morning, waiting for my dad to pick me up on his way home from the dairy.
Mrs. Hall had been a good friend of my mom’s when they were in high school, so she didn’t mind letting me sleep on her couch while my dad was at work.
“Just until you find someone to look after her properly,” she’d said, when she brought the casserole over that first Saturday after the general consensus in our little town determined it to be official.
“Because I know she’s not comin’ back,” Mrs. Hall had said. “And if you don’t work, you can’t eat.”
Her pink fingernails were filed into long, oval talons that matched the cardigan she had tied around her shoulders. I must have looked like a rag doll from where she stood, her perfect curls hanging in sleek ringlets around her face, a hint of rouge giving her cheeks a gentle glow.
I was six at the time, and hadn’t been bathed in a week. My hair was knotted from playing football with the boys during lunch, instead of sitting on the benches with my legs crossed and my napkin spread neatly across a pressed skirt.
Even then I knew there was something amiss. Something about the way they kept looking at each other, then at me, then at the floor, then back at each other.
“Well, okay,” her chipper voice rang out across the silence, startling everyone, including herself. “You just bring Sally by around nine, and we’ll get her settled in for the night.”
The Hall’s lived clear across town, but they were closer to the dairy than any of my dad’s other friends. Plus none of them had offered to help take care of me now that my mom had run away from her responsibilities, “chasing some nonsense dream about finding a man that will treat her right,” as the round faced gossip at the super market had put it. Apparently my mom was looking for a man who was not like my dad, a man who wouldn’t treat her bad. When I was six, I had no idea how he could have treated her bad when he was never around to treat her any way.
While she sat at the kitchen table, muttering something about, “we share everything…didn’t know that meant husband’s too,” combing the catalog for a brighter color to wear on her nails than Mrs. Hall would ever have the guts to try, my dad worked, or slept, or went out. But he never treated her bad, not from what I saw.
And then after she was gone, he didn’t treat me bad either. He didn’t really treat me any way. He made sure I ate, made sure I had clothes to wear, then set me lose upon the world. I couldn’t imagine a better life. Other kids had a curfew, and their moms made them wash up before dinner, and they got spanked when they were bad. My dad and I hardly saw one another, and when we did, there wasn’t much to say.
Even now, we don’t have much to say. I’ve been sleeping over at the Hall’s for eight years, and I don’t have much to say to them either. I guess the person I talk to most is Mr. Hall. He starts his shift right as my dad’s shift ends, so he takes me to the dairy and we wait in the yard until my dad comes to get me. On cold mornings, like this one, Mr. Hall makes a fire to keep me warm, “so I don’t get arthritis early in life,” he says, and I like that he cares about my bones.
“Mrs. Hall said to have your dad bring you over early tonight,” said, Mr. Hall. “Around seven.”
“Why,” I asked dryly.
“Something about ‘you need a woman’s guidance.” He shook his head in what I thought was frustration, but I couldn’t understand why it mattered to him at all.
“Will Carrie be home,” I asked. It was the only thing I could think of to say.
“Mmhmm,” he snorted. “Probably wants to help her mother ruin you.”
I turned to look at him. He was making no sense to me and he knew it. He turned toward me and cast two earnest eyes in my direction.
“Don’t change, Sally,” he said. He was almost pleading.
“You…you don’t care what people think of you and you are honest. You always have been. Don’t change for anyone.” He pivoted toward me with one foot and was about to take a step in my direction, when the sound of footsteps caused him to revert back to his original position in front of the fire.
I stood there, gaping like a fool, unsure of what to say, thinking perhaps I wasn’t supposed to say anything. No one had ever spoken to me like that. It made me feel uncomfortable, but it also made me feel special. At least I think that’s what it made me feel. I had never been special to anyone, as far as I could remember.
“Bob,” came my father’s voice, as he reached the place where Mr. Hall and I stood.
“Pete,” Mr. Hall replied.
They nodded in passing and Mr. Hall kicked damp dirt onto the fire. He walked in the direction of the dairy, my father walked in the direction of the car, and I was expected to follow behind him. This had happened every morning for the past eight years, but somehow this morning was different. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want Mr. Hall to go. I wanted to keep standing in front of the fire listening to Mr. Hall talk…about me.
“Sally,” my father said when he realized I wasn’t behind him. And that was my cue to either catch up or walk home.
The rest of the day was spent mulling over what Mr. Hall had said. And the way he looked when he said it. And the almost step he had taken in my direction. It felt like seven o’clock would never come, but then it did and I was standing at the Hall’s front door once again.
“Come on in, Hun.” Mrs. Hall’s voice rang out in the boisterous, drawn out way it always did. “Go on up to Carrie’s room. I’m right behind you.”
As I walked through the familiar hallway, with its pink paisley wall paper and gaudy, gold plated mirrors, I found myself hoping, yet fearing I might bump into Mr. Hall. I made my way up the two half-flights of stairs covered in thick green carpet, and lingered, for just a moment at the landing before walking, disappointedly, into Carrie’s room.
What awaited me was terrifying. On every available surface lay bright colored scarves, and pleated, woolen skirts, and loud, patterned dresses. Littering the floor were knee high boots and pastel flats, button-up pea coats, and skin-tight capris. Before I knew it, Carrie was running a brush through my hair and giving me directions to pick out whichever ribbon I liked best.
Because I had not provided her with a prompt reply, she had moved on to something else, chattering on about finding out what size I was and whether or not she and Mrs. Hall should take me to the beauty parlor. I couldn’t think of anything to say, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to say it. She barely stopped to breathe, let alone make room for me in her whirl-wind conversation. She stopped, only for a moment, when Mrs. Hall walked in, and only long enough to be scolded for not waiting to begin.
For the next two hours, two squealing women, as Carrie made sure to point out, because she was now 18 and officially a woman, dressed, undressed, redressed, combed, teased, poked, pinched, painted, spritzed, tied, untied, clipped, cinched, tugged, teased and powdered me from head to toe. It was utter mayhem, and by the end of it, I walked away with a brand new (hand-me-down) wardrobe, accessories box, make-up kit, and rack of shoes, complete with my very own migraine and exciting new case of culture shock.
“Perfect,” she sighed, as Mrs. Hall tucked one last fly-away hair into the monument now perched atop my head.
“Let’s take her downstairs and see what Daddy thinks,” chirped Carrie, beaming at the finished product she and her mother had created.
In a flash I was whisked out the door, practically carried down the stairs, and deposited in the hallway to await the formal introduction such a transformation required.
It was only then that I saw the first glimpse of my new self. Peering through the the gold vein over lay of one of Mrs. Hall’s antique mirrors were two round eyes, decorated in peacock green powder, and tar black, cat eye style liner. Two bright pink lips cracked open just enough for me to gasp at the fact that I simply could not believe I was staring at my own face.
To that face, which was not my own, I lifted a skinny, bangled wrist, which lifted a skinny, moisturized hand, which lifted five skinny, pink-tipped fingers, which felt compelled to find out if the shimmering cheek in the mirror was as soft in real life as it seemed to be in the dim light of its reflection. As if to remind me I had no business touching anything as fine as a made up face, Mrs. Hall’s hoarse whisper stopping my fingers just shy of contact.
“Sally,” she croaked, “it’s time.”
I was terrified. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest, the tips of my ears flush with embarrassment, my legs soldered to the floor in a fear induced paralysis.
Annoyed that I hadn’t yet started moving, Mrs. Hall sashayed toward me, grabbed my wrist, and thrust me into the middle of the sitting room, where three pairs of eyes cast themselves upon me, then widened in shock.
Mrs. Hall had told my dad to stop by before heading to the dairy, but she hadn’t told me. She’d wanted i to be a surprise. It was odd to see him marvel when I was the object of his attention. I thought maybe it was pride I was seeing written in his features, but I wasn’t sure. He hardly ever looked at me, I mean, really looked at me, so I wouldn’t know a look of pride even if I saw one.
Carrie, too, seemed to have found a renewed sense of awe. I wasn’t expecting her to be blown away by my transformation, since she was one of its manufacturers, but nevertheless, she was as wide-eyed as my father.
And then I saw his face, his eyes. I didn’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Mr. Hall’s expression seemed to be flashing back and forth between disbelief and anger, and something else too. If I had to name it, I would chose the word hunger. Yes, to me, his eyes seemed hungry. The way my dad’s eyes looked when Mrs. Hall answered the door every night. The way her eyes looked as she caught his final over-the-shoulder glance on his way back to the car. The way any other man, except for Mr. Hall, might look at any other girl, except for me, in any other situation, except for this one. I had never wanted anyone to look at me that way, but now that someone had, it scared the hell out of me.
Suddenly, the game was no longer fun. All I wanted was to change out of my ridiculous costume, brush the tangled knots out of my ridiculous hair, and wipe the caked on layers of paint and powder off of my ridiculous face. I wanted to be myself again: Sally left to herself; Sally nobody sees or cares about. Simple Sally. Simply me.
But something about the way Mr. Hall looked at me, something about the fear and freedom it unleashed inside my heart, something about the hunger in his eyes and the hunger that I knew he’d see in mine, changed me forever. And so, on that night – as a man named Mr. Hall looked with hunger at a girl named Sally, who was standing in the middle of his sitting room pretending to be a woman, I realized:
I, Sally Parker, would never be the same again.
Until next time, my friends!
S. Taylor, The Taylor of all Trades