Streak by Geronimo G. Tagatac
I always come in early because I like the way the floor-to-ceiling blinds divide the light into strands of black and gold against the tile floor and the adobe colored wall of the reception area. It will be another hour and a half before Melinda and Jeanne arrive. I straighten out the hair styling magazines on the glass coffee table and walk back to my workstation. In the tall jars of blue-green sterilizing solution stand the dark shapes of the combs and scissors. Beside them, stand the white and black plastic bottles of hair sprays and gels in front of my mirror. They remind me of the liquor bottles behind the bar at Čapek’s. It’s spooky the way the past has of finding its way into the present.
My last night in Prague, I was standing at the bar of apek’s, talking to my Aussie expat friend, Bruce. He’d just come out of Phnom Penh. We were drinking AK47s and reminiscing over the woman who ran the Little Majestic Hostel. I saw Bruce’s eyes cut quickly away from my face to something beyond my right shoulder and then back again. I started to turn when he said, “Easy, mate.” I glanced up at the mirror behind the bar, just a quick ping and then down at my drink.
Anya’s husband, Tomas was sitting at the table against the far wall. The light from the mirrored ceiling ball kept stirring his features, but I recognized the shape of his head and the horizontal sweep of his shoulders. He was staring at me with eyes so pale they might as well have been frosted glass. The size of his hand dwarfed the tall beer glass. I could tell that Tomas was stirring something bad around in his head.
“Not good,” I said to Bruce who slid away from me and vanished into the crowd at the other end of the bar. He’d felt it too, that hornet’s buzzing in the chest. I walked slowly down the hall to the toilets and headed for the women’s room where I knew I could slip the catch on the window. As I turned into the hall, Tomas rose from his seat. I started sprinting the instant my shoes hit the cobblestones behind the building. As I ran, I could feel the city falling in on me, bricks, garbage cans, punk rockers, cars, motor bikes, empty bottles. I felt Tomas right behind me somewhere in the dark. He had a hundred eyes and a thousand street fighter’s arms. And I knew he wouldn’t stop chasing me until I was all the way across the German border.
I walk over to Salon 294’s front desk and scan today’s appointments. Alicia Neifert’s name, written in neat block letters, is in the seven-thirty slot as it always is on Tuesday. Beyond the west window overlooking Madison Street there is only the occasional vehicle. The first of the day’s pedestrians, a big-boned woman pushing a baby stroller walks past, her shadow sliding along beside her on the sidewalk, slicing through the white stripes of the diagonal parking guides.
I go back to my work space and wipe down the counter before laying out my hand mirror with its white frame, shears, combs, spray bottle and dryer. I shake out the dark blue cape and drape it over the chair.
Beyond the windows an SUV pulls into one of the spaces in front of the salon. Its gunmetal gray finish gleams in the new light. The chromed wheels are spotless and the chevroned tire treads are as black and clean as the moment they rolled off of the showroom floor. The license plate exclaims, “GRL TOY,” and the tinted windshield could be polished obsidian. The thing is big enough to give Tomas a run for his money. It squats in that parking space for a full three minutes, a large animal making up its mind about something.
The driver’s side door opens and Alicia Niefert, wearing a tailored taupe suit steps carefully down from the vehicle and slams its door on the expensive leather purse that hangs from her shoulder by a thin strap. I watch her face bunch itself into annoyance as she grabs the rebounding door and slams it again. She looks down at the bruised purse for a moment, brushes at it with her slim hand and shakes her head, fanning her shoulder-length blond hair away from her face. That spray of gold brings back the throw of round nets that I once watched the fishermen whirl out from their sampans, on the brown waters of the Thubon River, near Hoi An. Alicia reaches up and pulls a half-smoked cigarette from between her lips and drops it into the gutter. I didn’t know she smoked.
“Morning Florian,” she says as she walks through the door. She never shortens my name to “Flo” the way so many of my clients do.
“Good morning, Alicia,” I reply. It’s always important to use the client’s name. “Very nice suit. Italian gabardine?”
She laughs. “Polyester! Can you believe it?”
“You could’ve fooled me.” I walk her over to my station and seat her. “Let’s see, the last time you were in we did a wash and trim. How’s that new conditioner working for you?”
I look at the reflection of her face in the mirror. The shape of her jaw and the fullness of her mouth remind me of my friend Reyes, though his eyes were black and not the deep blue of Alicia’s. What had possessed my skinny friend that night, in Treat’s Bar, in Hoi An? I had a quick flashback of Reyes’ brown hand sliding around behind him, reaching under the edge of his loose hanging shirt bottom and out again in one serpentine motion. His hand did a quick, backward motion. There was a flash then a snap as the knife blade locked open.
I looked up at the Yank whose wise-ass smile had frozen, then melted into an “O.” The kid grabbed his right forearm with his left hand, slid off of his bar stool and backed quickly away from Reyes. His butt hit the edge of the nearest pool table and then he sat down hard on the concrete floor. A stream of blood ran over the knuckles of his left hand, down his right forearm, off the fingers of his right hand, and began pooling on the floor between his outstretched legs. From behind me, Sam Sary, the big Vietnamese-Cambodian bartender said, “Ah shit.” Reyes turned to face me. The knife was no longer in his right hand. The flat look in his dark eyes and the hum in my chest had told me that it was time to run. I didn’t stop till I was in Phnom Penh that time.
“Hey, come back to me, Florian,” Alicia says, yanking me back across twelve thousand miles.
I glance quickly down at her right hand which is curved delicately over the chair’s armrest. Her taupe skirt offsets her maroon nails nicely. Alicia’s pale hand is so innocent and blameless that I could kneel before it in gratitude for the refuge that it and this town represent.
“Oh, I was just wondering what a different hair texture might do for your look.”
“You’re not from around here, are you, Florian?”
“I went to cosmetology school in Portland,” I say, draping the blue cape over her shoulders and fastening it at her neck.
“I went to school in Salem. That’s where I met my husband,” she says.
“How’s his law practice going?” I ask as I run my fingers through her hair. It’s thick and healthy, no split ends or dryness.
The line of her mouth becomes a hard, strait line then softens. “Busy. Really busy.” I walk her over to the recliner in front of the sink and seat her.
“I’m going to use that conditioner I was telling you about,” I say, as she lies back. I adjust the water temperature, testing it with my hand. Then I gently spray the water into her hair which darkens from blond to brown and clings to her scalp, narrowing the shape of her head and sharpening her features. With her eyes closed she becomes a different person. I work the shampoo into her hair until it’s a white lather that softens her face again. When I rinse her hair before working in the conditioner, the white slides away, returning her to a sharper version of herself. I wrap a thick towel around her hair and gently knead the water out of it, feeling as though I am holding the firm contours of a small, stable planet between my hands. When I pull the towel away, Alicia’s hair is nearly blond again.
“What do you want me to do with the length? The same as before?” I ask.
“No, shorter. A lot shorter this time.”
I take some strands from the right side of her head and hold them out, putting the fingers of my left hand up to them like shears, about an inch up from the ends. “Like this?”
I move my finger scissors another inch.
“Keep going. Stop,” she says when I’m two inches from her scalp.
“That’s quite a change,” I say, keeping my voice mild.
“Let’s do it.”
“Why don’t I start about halfway to where you want it and see what you think.”
“No. All of it,” Alicia says and the right side of her mouth rises in a crooked smile that clashes with the perfect arch of her eyebrows.
“Do you want me to layer it at the back and sides?”
“No. Well, maybe a little.”
I mentally quarter her head and go to work on the left back section, pulling the top and upper side hair out at a forty-five degree angle to layer it, then straight down with the lower strands so that the ends will hang perpendicular to her head above the neck. Then I move on the right rear, using the left side as a gauge, moving faster as my hands warm up. I’m doing the right side now and my hands are moving swifter than thought. A year-and-a-half of cosmetology school and another two at Harvey’s Cuts in Corvallis are working for me. My shears are the snapping jaws of a fish diving into the warm yellow sea of her hair, pursuing a shape beneath its golden surface. Before I know it, I’m done.
I run my fingers through both sides of Alicia’s blond hair to see how it will fall, and something catches my eye.
There is a thick, bright red streak along the left side of her head. I freeze, staring at it, remembering the dark stream of blood running down the backpacker kid’s right forearm, in Treat’s Bar. Only this time it’s me, not Reyes, holding the knife. I look into the mirror at Alicia’s reflection, expecting to see that same stunned, gape-mouthed look pulling at the flawless skin her face, that no-man’s land between shock and the beginning of a scream. But Alicia’s face has the same neutral look that I’ve seen her wear when she walks down the street. I reach out quickly to seize the left side of her head, to staunch the bleeding. That’s when I see the blood welling out of my index finger. That’s my blood in her hair.
“What’s the matter?” she says, looking up at my reflection with her blue eyes.
“I need to re-wash your hair,” I tell her, lowering my hand out of sight.
“You don’t want to know,” I say, throwing a shaky smile her way.
“But I do.”
“I cut myself. There’s blood in your hair.”
“Let me see,” she says.
There is more than curiosity in Alicia’s voice. It’s the edge of something I haven’t heard before. She turns her head to the right and stares at her reflection.
“Okay, let’s get you over to the sink,” I say, forcing a smile.
In the mirror, Alicia’s eyes meet mine. “Leave it in,” she says.
I stand there wondering if there’s some way that I could excuse myself for a moment. It would take me less than thirty seconds to walk briskly down the hallway, past the rest rooms, to the back door that lets onto the alley between Court and Merchant streets. There is a soft thrumming in my chest as I look down at Alicia’s face and notice that the crimson streak matches the color of her lipstick and nails. It even compliments the ice blue of her eyes.
Geronimo Tagatac’s father was from Ilocos Norte. His mother was a Russian Jew. Geronimo has been a Special Forces soldier, a legislative consultant, a dishwasher, cook, folksinger, computer system planner, a modern and jazz dancer and a roofer. His short fiction has appeared in Writers Forum, The Northwest Review, Alternatives Magazine, Orion Magazine, The Clackamas Literary Review and The Chautauqua Literary Review. He’s received fellowships from Oregon Literary Arts and Fishtrap. His first book of short fiction, The Weight of the Sun, was a 2007 Oregon Literary Arts finalist. Geronimo lives and writes, in Salem, Oregon. Geronimo has recently completed a collection of stories about people trying to lead two lives at the same time.