"Ellen" is one of fourteen stories in Dandelion Crossing, my unpublished collection of linked short stories about characters who work at or visit a brand-new suburban shopping mall in November 1983.
It was published by Jersey Devil Press in 2020. You can check it out here.
This gives you a flavor of what the book is like. If you're an agent, editor or publisher and want to learn more, please message me!
Ellen’s husband Pete died in February. He owned and operated his own plant nursery, and there were still pots of ivy and succulents all over the house, a constant reminder of him. Ellen was having trouble keeping the plants alive, but she didn’t want to throw them away, because she thought that would be disrespectful to his memory. So her grieving process had been persistent and never-ending.
On top of that, Barb – her hair stylist of thirty-one years – had retired just before Thanksgiving and moved to Boca Raton. That meant that Ellen, who had gotten her hair done every Saturday morning at 9:30 for as long as she could remember, had to find a new place to get spruced up each week. This was a distressing dilemma.
Denise, Ellen’s grown daughter who lived on the other side of town, wasn’t sympathetic. “Why do you need a perm so often?” she asked. “You’re destroying your hair! Just let me do it. I’ll come by and trim your bangs if you really need it.”
Ellen’s gray hair was awfully thin, but it did have a gentle curl that gave her bright hazel eyes an extra spark, so she knew it would be tough to find someone who could do it justice, like Barb had. She also wanted to remind her daughter that Barb had been a trusting confidant and shoulder to cry on during her many years of marriage to Pete, and had been particularly supportive during his illness. But Denise had always been stubborn and it wasn’t worth trying to explain anything to her. Plus, she kept her hair in a perpetual Dorothy Hamill bob that required little to no maintenance, and she had a loyal husband to lean on. So Ellen, who had always had difficulty sharing her honest opinion on personal matters, changed the subject and tried to focus on having a nice Thanksgiving with the family, even though Denise burned the stuffing.
Ellen had trouble getting to sleep that night, and it wasn’t because she missed Pete lying next to her, snoring gently. It was because she had decided what she was going to do next.
Dandelion Crossing was opening the next morning, and it was incredibly close to her house; it would take less than fifteen minutes to walk there. Ellen still remembered when the spot had been a vast field full of clover and wildflowers. A woman at the Bingo had told her that there was a salon inside the mall that would be a viable option for her hairdressing needs, so Ellen decided she would go there to scope out the situation. As a retired nurse, she felt it was important to get a full picture before making any decision.
There had been plenty of community meetings and protests about the potentially deleterious effects of a busy mall on the previously tranquil neighborhood. Ellen considered driving there for her reconnaissance visit, but she knew she’d be far too nervous maneuvering her 1974 Chevy Impala around crowds of excited shoppers in the parking lot. She put on her most comfortable pair of shoes and left the house.
* * *
Ellen had written down the name of the salon – New Attitude – on a sticky note, and she went right to the security guard’s desk to ask where it was. It turned out to be across the way from an arcade where throngs of teenagers milled about like ants around an ice cream cone melting on the ground.
The place was brightly lit, and the receptionist had teased hair that lifted off her forehead like she’d just stuck her fingers in an electric socket. “Hi there,” she said. “What can we do for you?”
Ellen looked past her with considerable trepidation. She saw four stations where stylists were at work, as well as a row of hair dryers and sinks. Television monitors played a music video from a cheerful androgynous man who was singing about a church of the poison mind. Ellen wasn’t sure what that meant.
“I need a perm,” she said quietly. “Do you do those here?”
The receptionist looked at her as if she’d said a word in Russian.
“A permanent,” Ellen clarified.
The receptionist grinned. “Our policy here at New Attitude is to give our clients a one-on-one consultation to determine your needs and subsequently recommend a course of action before we move forward.”
“Am I in court?” Ellen asked.
“No, ma’am. But after your session, you’ll definitely have a new attitude!”
Before Ellen could counter, the receptionist called to the back. “Timothy! You have a guest!”
Ellen was seventy-five years old. Even though she was used to high-pressure medical situations, she still felt slightly uncomfortable when things moved too fast. Before she knew it, an extremely tall person entered the reception area. His hair was dyed blackish-purple and pointed in several hundred different directions at once, like a porcupine. He wore heavy dark eyeliner, and his t-shirt had an image of a screaming zombie on it. It read: THE DEAD LOVE BRAINS.
“I—” Ellen began.
“Hi. Come on back,” Timothy said. And before she knew it, Ellen was following the Gothic scarecrow to his station.
Truth be told, Barb had always done Ellen’s hair in the front room of her house, giving Ellen an excellent view out the wide bay window of her front yard and the cars driving by in their quiet suburban neighborhood. She wasn’t used to a proliferation of mirrors and bright lights magnifying each wrinkle and liver spot, or the intense smell of hairspray. But that was the situation as the person named Timothy escorted her to her styling chair.
Ellen sat down and took a deep breath. She had spent her life dealing with patients of all kinds at the hospital, but men and women who dressed like they had just risen from their coffins were a relatively new thing. New Wave Punks – if she was getting the name right – didn’t frighten her, but she had no idea how to connect with them, or if they even wanted to exist in the same world as the people around them.
“My name’s Timothy,” he said, leaning against the counter and offering a tentative smile. He wore tight black jeans and a studded leather belt, along with combat boots that he had probably stolen off a dead person in an alley.
“Ellen,” she replied. His station was in the corner and there were no personal touches anywhere – no coffee mugs or photos of his family taped onto the corner of the mirror. It looked sterile and lonely.
“You seem scared,” Timothy said. “I want you to know that I graduated second in my class in cosmetology school, and I worked at Astor Place in New York City for just over a year, before I moved back home.”
“Why did you come back?” she asked, fearing the answer.
“I ran out of money,” he replied. “New York is really expensive, even when you’re living in a basement with six roommates.”
Ellen shivered at that thought. “Are you originally from here?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m living with my parents until I can get back on my feet,” he said. “I’m real grateful to be getting another shot.”
Ellen felt herself sweating under her bra straps. The television behind her starting playing a music video featuring men singing about a union of the snake. “Do you have photos of past clients?” she asked.
“No ma’am,” he replied. “I guess I should start doing that.”
Ellen told herself then that there were other salons around the city. She didn’t mind driving, if there was plenty of daylight. “Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” she ventured.
Timothy smiled again. “Your hair is really nice,” he said. “Can I touch it?”
After a moment of debate, Ellen nodded. His fingers were surprisingly gentle as he lifted her hair, then let it settle back. “Daphne mentioned you’d like a permanent,” he said. “I’m fully qualified to do them.”
“My last stylist knew how to give really delicate ones,” Ellen told him. “I don’t want it to come out looking frizzy.”
“Agreed,” Timothy said. “Frizzy is for Nina Blackwood only.”
Ellen thought about Pete, how he would patiently sit in his living room easy chair after work as she tried out new recipes for dinner, how he sampled her numerous attempts at failed casseroles without complaint. How he never had a stern word for her, even when they both knew she’d screwed up. Now that he was gone, maybe it was her turn to give people a chance.
“All right,” she finally said. “Let’s get to it.”
* * *
Timothy did a horrifying job on her permanent. Ellen looked like a grandma-version of Little Orphan Annie.
“What do you think?” he asked proudly, standing behind her chair as they looked at the finished product in the mirror.
“I—” Ellen began. She reached up and tried to tuck some of the Medusa-like curls behind her ears. Timothy waited with expectant eyes, heavy with dark liner.
“I guess it’ll take some getting used to,” she ventured, falling back into her old habit of not wanting to offend.
There was a flash of disappointment on his face. “Sure,” Timothy replied. “It’s a change. But I really think you’re going to turn some heads.”
Ellen wanted to say that she would, but for the wrong reasons. But her training as a nurse to convey just the facts, but with compassion, took over. “Thanks so much for your hard work,” she told him.
“You don’t like it, do you? Be honest.”
Ellen took a look at him standing there behind him, the dejection causing his shoulders to slump, his dark clothes magnifying his pale skin. Even the zombie on his t-shirt suddenly looked disappointed.
“I love it,” she told him.
Ellen got home in time to have a late lunch and watch a bit of As the World Turns. She had stopped watching the show regularly years ago, so she didn’t recognize much of the cast,. But admittedly, it felt nice to finally have some extra time on her hands to watch whatever she wanted, including “orgies with nothin’ but screwed-up folks,” as Pete had called soap operas on more than one occasion.
The rest of the afternoon she did her vacuuming and dusting, but she kept going into the bathroom to check her hair, hoping that her opinion of it would change. It didn’t.
But on her fourth visit, she noticed the potted cactus on the windowsill. That particular part of the house only received sun for a brief time early in the morning, so the plant just wasn’t doing well. She remembered a similar one that Pete had kept in his office at the nursery that bloomed beautifully in shades of purple and pink.
* * *
There seemed to be even more shoppers at the mall the following day. Ellen resisted the urge to wear a hat during her walk over. She tried to walk proudly and without regard for how people looked at her as they went past.
Daphne looked up from her desk as Ellen approached. “Well, hello,” she said. “It looks like somebody’s got a new attitude.”
Ellen was momentarily distracted by the receptionist’s enormous geometric earrings, but she held fast. She held her plastic bag carefully. “Is Timothy in?” she asked. “I’ve got a gift for him.”
Daphne raised one eyebrow, almost imperceptibly. “Oh?” she asked. “Let me check for you, sweetie.”
Ellen resisted an urge to trip her as she swooshed past in a swirl of pastels. Instead, she waited until she heard Timothy calling her name.
“Hi,” he said as she walked over to him. His client was sitting under a hair dryer nearby. “Is everything okay?” he asked.
“This is for you,” she told him, and handed him the bag. “Be careful. It’s sharp.”
Timothy carefully pulled the cactus plant out of the bag. “Righteous!” he said. “I’ve never owned a plant before!”
“I’ve had trouble getting it to bloom,” Ellen told him. “But there’s so much light in here that I think it might do well. And you need a little personal touch on your station. I’m a grandma, so it’s okay for me to say things like that,” she added.
Timothy smiled his genuine, crooked grin. “Yes ma’am. I’m going to take excellent care of it.”
“Timothy,” she said, after a moment. “My perm is pretty darn awful. But— that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate you, and what you do.”
He blushed. “Hopefully you’ll give me a second chance,” he answered.
“That was never a question in my mind,” Ellen replied. She realized it was the truth.