Remembering Gertrude Bines ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
El-Vee had a lucrative beauty parlor on Main Street between a hardware store and a delicatessen. All day long, every day, she stood on her feet, curling, cutting and dyeing hair while listening to an endless stream of blather, innuendo, distasteful personal revelation and catty gossip from her customers. At closing time she was so tired and frazzled, so sick of the sound of the human voice, that she wanted to pull out her own hair, but she looked at all that beautiful cash in the cash drawer and that was what made it all worth the effort.
One Friday afternoon (Friday was always her busiest day), while she was just finishing up on up on Mrs. Coolidge’s hair—a foot-high confection of swirling, pink-tinged white cloud—she heard the roar of a truck outside and loud voices and, looking out the window, saw that a new business was moving in across the street. As she was to learn a few days later, when the place opened for business, it was called Gertrude’s Wig Shop. It boasted in signs in the windows its stock of wigs of all kinds, hairpieces, hats, scarves, turbans, babushkas, and other assorted headwear for women and girls.
At first she wasn’t sure how a wig shop was going to affect her beauty parlor business, or if it would affect it at all. When they put up a huge sign across the front of the wig shop that proclaimed in large red letters You Don’t Need a Beauty Parlor—You Need a Wig!, she was disconcerted, believing it was a direct shot across the bow of her ship. When she saw a full-page ad for the wig shop in the newspaper, she began to be worried. The ad read, in part: Don’t Spend Beaucoup Dollars Getting Your Hair Styled Every Week! Buy a Wig Instead that Stays Styled! Nobody Will Ever Know It’s Not Your Real Hair!
Wondering if such tactics were legal, she consulted a lawyer, a boy she had known since seventh grade named Leroy Follett.
“I can’t see there’s any harm in it,” Leroy said. “Certainly nothing for you to take legal action against. Just think of it as healthy competition.”
“What if it takes away some of my customers?”
“You have the right to do the same to them.”
“How do I do that?”
“When you find out,” Leroy said, “you let me know.”
When she began to see a falling off in her business and hence in her profits, she attributed it to curiosity. Her customers would flirt with the idea of buying a wig but then would return to their old habits of having their twigs twisted every week. Wigs were fakery, no matter how good they looked. There was nothing like one’s natural hair, even if it was brittle, ugly, thinning and unhealthy-looking. To try to lure in new customers—and retain her old ones—she hired a manicure girl and offered free manicures. Then she hired a cosmetologist to give facials and makeup tips. These two extra people ate into her profits, of course, but she believed that hiring them would prove beneficial—in the long term if not in the short term.
After a few weeks, she and her two new employees were doing a lot of sitting around doing nothing in the long gaps—sometimes two hours—between customers. She began to worry about how she was going to meet expenses for the month when she decided to go across the street to the wig shop herself, something she had vehemently avoided doing before, to see what all the excitement was about.
She winced when she saw how busy the store was and how many people were spending money. When a sales clerk came forward and asked her if she needed help, she said she needed to speak to Gertrude herself.
Gertrude was a large, broad-shouldered woman with red hair and lots of makeup. As she approached El-Vee, she wore her fixed, professional smile. “Help you?” she asked.
“Are you Gertrude?” El-Vee asked.
“Yes. How may I help you?”
“I just want you to know you’re hurting my business.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“My name is El-Vee Persons. I own the beauty parlor across the street. You’re taking away my customers.”
“Oh, boo-hoo! And just what do you want me to do about it?”
“Move to another location.”
“Hah! Now, why would I do that. Because you want me to?”
“I could always bust you in the nose,” El-Vee said.
“I could always have you arrested for assault.”
“My brother is a career criminal with mob ties.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Not exactly, but it’s something you might want to keep in mind. You can’t destroy another person’s business and expect them to stand idly by and allow you to do it.”
That night, as El-Vee was trying to get to sleep, a thought came to her unbidden from deep in the recesses of her mind. Gertrude was somebody she had known at one time, although she couldn’t remember the last name. She got out of bed and pulled a box from the back of the closet.
She hadn’t looked at her old high school yearbook or even thought about it in a dozen or more years. She turned on the light and sat down on the couch and began thumbing through the pages. Soon she found what she was looking for: seventeen-year-old Gertrude Bines in the eleventh grade—elaborate red hairdo, self-satisfied smile and a “beauty mark” on her cheek.
It all came back to her. She and Gertrude had been rivals in high school. Rivals for homecoming queen, rivals for yearbook editor and rivals for love. (They fought over the school’s star football player who turned out to prefer members of his own gender). They both seemed to be good at the same things. If one of them could bake a lemon cake, the other could make a lemon chiffon cake. If one of them could make a party dress, the other could make an evening gown. El-Vee hated rivalry then and she hated it now. Rivalry only made life more difficult and ruined everything. In a perfect world, she thought, she would always be at the top of the heap and there’d be no such thing as rivalry. With a flick of a switch, she’d make it disappear.
She contacted her brother, Everett Persons (the one of her three brothers who flirted with gangsterhood), and asked him to meet her at a restaurant out on the highway for supper. She was buying, she said, and she had something she wanted to talk over with him.
After she explained the situation to Everett, he said, “I’m afraid she’s got you over a barrel, sis. She’s not doing anything wrong.”
“Yes, I know,” El-Vee said. “It’s just healthy competition.”
“I could have her roughed up a bit for you. Break her legs.”
“No, I don’t like that. How much to kill her?”
“You’d want a professional job. Between five and ten thousand, depending on who you got to do the deed.”
“Any other ideas?”
“We could start a little fire to put her out of business,” Everett said, “but there’s no guarantee she wouldn’t just clean up at the expense of her insurance company and reopen.”
“No, I don’t like a fire, either. It could hurt others besides her.”
“How about a little fear and intimidation? Death threats? A brick through the front window?
“I don’t know if any of that would work.”
“Well, I’ll think about it and talk to a couple of my friends and get back to you. I’d advise you to go slow with this thing. Don’t do anything you can’t undo or that you’re going to be sorry you did.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me!” El-Vee said.
“And if you decide to do the deed yourself, I’m sure I can get some of my associates to dispose of the body for you.”
One morning a few days later when El-Vee was alone in the beauty parlor before her first customer arrived, Gertrude Bines came rushing in.
“I need to speak to you,” she said.
“Sorry,” El-Vee said. “We’re all booked up. You’ll need to call for an appointment.”
“My store was broken into last night,” Gertrude said.
“What do you want me to do about it? Bust our crying?”
“They didn’t steal anything. All they did was break some things and make a mess. I believe it was some kind of warning or intimidation.”
“Did you call the police?”
“They’re there now.”
“Well, good luck with finding out who did it.”
“I think you know who did it,” Gertrude said.
“That’s silly. How would I know?”
“I think you’d do anything to get back at me.”
El-Vee laughed and began washing some brushes. “I’d like to stand here and chat all day,” she said, “but I’ve got lots of work to do. So, if you’ll excuse me?”
“I wondered if you recognized me when you came into my shop the other day,” Gertrude said. “We used to know each other in high school.”
“I didn’t give it a thought,” El-Vee said.
“I was the prettiest and most popular girl in school,” Gertrude said. “You were a distant second. Or maybe third.”
“What a memory you have. Those things don’t matter to me any more.”
“Isn’t it ironic that we should meet again all these years later after we detested each other so much when we were younger?”
“I didn’t go to college,” El-Vee said, “so I don’t know what words like ‘ironic’ mean.”
“I think you know what I’m talking about. I can see it in your body language.”
“Well, I guess I’m just not as smart as you are.”
“Why don’t you admit you’re defeated?” Gertrude said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“All your former customers are buying wigs from me. They don’t want their natural hair anymore. A wig is easier and is cheaper in the long run, too.”
“Well, to each his own.”
“Why don’t you admit your business is kaput? I have bested you once again, as I did at every turn in high school. I think you’d do better if you moved to another location.”
“I’ve been here for five years,” El-Vee said. “I have no intention of moving.”
“Even after I’ve taken away all your customers?”
El-Vee walked around behind Gertrude and began looking at the back of her hair. “You’re not wearing a wig,” she said. “You need a trim.”
“My hair is perfect,” Gertrude said.
“No, really,” El-Vee said. “You have a few little loose hairs right at the back of the neck. Sit down and I’ll take care of it for you. No charge.”
Gertrude sighed and sat in the chair. El-Vee put the cape around her shoulders and turned the chair around just so.
“You do remember me from high school, don’t you?” Gertrude asked.
“My memory is not as sharp as it should be,” El-Vee said. “When I was in the state mental hospital a few years back, I had electroshock therapy. What they call shock treatments. It removes certain memories from your mind the same as if they never existed at all. I guess you were just one of those bad memories that was just swept away.”
“We needn’t have any bad feelings,” Gertrude said.
“I’d like to think we were friends.”
“Why would you want to be friends with me?”
“I just don’t like ill will, is all.”
“There’s no ill will here. Anything that happened between us is forgiven and forgotten.”
“Then you do remember me?”
El-Vee snipped at the back of Gertrude’s hair. Her hand was trembling a little so she took off more than she intended. “I remember lots of people,” she said. “It’s all a mixed-up blur.”
“I want to make you a business proposition,” Gertrude said.
“Go ahead and make it,” El-Vee said.
“I’ll buy out your shop and you can come and work for me.”
“I haven’t got that far yet. We’d think of something.”
“You’d do that for me?”
“I’ve never worked for anybody else before.”
“Don’t let pride stand in your way.”
“I don’t think I could stand to work for you,” El-Vee said.
“I don’t like you. I don’t like your type. I don’t like your looks. I despise everything about you. I detest everything you stand for and represent.”
Gertrude met El-Vee’s eye in the mirror. “You do remember me, then, don’t you?”
“Yes, I remember you.”
El-Vee picked up her longest, sharpest scissors and plunged them into Gertrude’s neck, severing the carotid artery. With blood gushing from her neck, Gertrude fell to the floor and flopped around like a fish out of water. She tried to pull herself up but couldn’t. She burbled blood out of her mouth until she lay still and stopped breathing.
When El-Vee was sure Gertrude was dead, she dragged her body by the ankles across the floor, opened the door to the dank cellar that was never used, and pushed her down the stairs. After cleaning up the blood the best she could, she was ready to receive her first customer of the day.
At nine o’clock that night El-Vee called her brother Everett at home. “There’s a big dead rat in my basement at the beauty parlor,” she said. “I need you to take care of it for me.”
“Can you manage it?”
“I don’t know why not.”
“Go in the back way. Nobody will see you.”
The next morning El-Vee was snipping away at an old lady’s hair when she looked up to see three men coming across the street toward her: an older man in a suit, flanked on both sides by young, uniformed police officers. She stood up straight, took a couple of deep breaths to steady herself, and went to the door to meet them. If she was kind to them and cooperative, they would have no reason to suspect she had done anything wrong.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp