My New Do
by Jackie Craven
My name is Luanna Appa, but you probably know me by my maiden name, Kornacki. Some thirty years back I made headlines over that hullabaloo in Flantline, Kansas. Newspapers said I coulda been kilt.
I headed out early that morning, pointing my bike toward the 7-Eleven. Blue tassels fluttered from my handlebars, and locusts out in the yellow fields screeched loud enough to break glass. I kept on pumping, reciting the shopping list Mama gave me: milk, Dr. Pepper, two cans of tuna fish, the Sunday Star. I didn’t hear the black Buick creep up behind me, didn’t notice it till it swooped past in a poof of dust.
Then, up ahead, the Buick pulled onto the shoulder and lurched to a stop beside a shimmery mirage. A lazy crow swirled overhead. The driver’s door creaked open, and a man climbed out. He slouched against his car and watched me approach.
He was a young fellow, fresh from church I guessed by the way he dressed. White shirt, red tie. Dark blue pants with a tidy crease up the legs.
I stopped beside him. “Car broke?”
His glance scuttled over me, then away. “Lost my dog?” His answer came out like a question. He touched his hair, delicately, like a woman primping. It was black as his car, all shiny and slicked back to show off a widow’s peak. “You seen it?” he asked.
Now, you might think I’da been smart enough to smell trouble. But remember these were innocent times, especially in Kansas. I threw down my bike and looked around, eager to know more about the missing dog.
“A poodle,” the man said in a smooth, almost girlish voice. “So small, other dogs think it’s just a cat.”
“I never seen a poodle, except on TV,” I said.
The man cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, “Tuffy! Here, Tuffy!”
I squinted out at the field and said a little inside prayer. Any moment and the wheat would part, and a tiny white dog—smaller than a kitten—would bound out with happy, high-pitched yips.
“Tuffy’s lost. I’ll never find him.” Now the man’s voice trembled. Well, he wasn’t a man, not really. I guessed him not much older than my brother in high school. And he seemed about to cry.
Minutes later, I sat inside the Buick, trying to reassure Malcolm, because that was his name, and telling him stories about the time my own dog ran off but came home eventually, fat and happy and covered with brambles.
Malcolm pushed his foot on the gas pedal. A drop of sweat sparkled like a diamond chip on his right cheek. In the hot car, he gave off the scent of English Leather and nervousness, like my brother getting dressed for a date. It’s scary, thinking you might lose something you love. I turned to watch my bicycle turn into a blue speck in the rearview mirror.
“You’re going too fast,” I told Malcolm. “I won’t be able to see Tuffy.”
Malcolm’s thin, elegant hands turned white on the steering wheel. “We need to move fast so we can find him fast.”
Now, this made no sense. A great big “but” formed at the back of my throat. “But,” I wanted to say, “a small dog like Tuffy wouldn’t have gone this far.”
“But,” I wanted to say, “Tuffy won’t be able to catch up with us if we’re speeding.”
My mama always said everything after “but” is bullshit, so I kept my doubts to myself. Leaning my face out the window, I felt the sting of dry wind. We zoomed past O’Leary’s old barn and the redbrick high school, and, at the junction of Flatline and Holy Mount, the 7-Eleven, where I should have been shopping.
“Mama will worry if I’m not home soon,” I told Malcolm.
“We’ll head home soon’s we find Tuffy.” He forced a smile. Sweat made his face glisten like a plastic mask. “She’ll be so proud of you,” he said.
By now a small voice murmured inside, warning me. But Malcolm clearly needed my help. I turned and called, “Tuffy! Tuffy!” My shouts flew back at me in a whistle of wind.
The junction, with its cluster of shops, dwindled behind us. The road became a long, straight line that seemed to drop from the edge of the world. Malcolm humped over his steering wheel. Why didn’t he watch the fields? Why didn’t he hang his head out his window and shout for Tuffy? I raised my voice and hollered, “Tuffy, Tuffy,” as though my life depended on finding the little dog. I began to think maybe it did.
After an hour or so, Malcolm pulled the Buick into a Texaco station. A woman in striped overalls trotted over. She wiped her hands on an oily rag. “Regular?”
For an instant, I forgot about the puppy. “You’re gonna pump the gas YOURSELF?” I’d never seen a lady gas pumper before.
“Shush, now,” Malcolm whispered. “You shouldn’t oughta talk to strangers.”
“Ain’t safe,” he said.
The lady crossed over to lean in my window. Her long, curly hair brushed my shoulder. Beauty parlor smells mixed with a whiff of gasoline. “You wanna help pump?” she asked.
I glanced over at Malcolm. “We’re on a tight schedule,” he said.
“Sorry,” I told the Texaco lady. “We’ve got to look for Tuffy.”
The Texaco lady opened my door. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna, Luanna.”
“You know my name?” Then, before Malcolm could stop me, I exclaimed, “She knows my name!” and climbed from the car.
Malcolm’s face blurred behind the windshield. Suddenly the engine revved, and the Buick jolted from the gas hose. Malcolm roared off without even paying his bill.
The article that ran in the Kansas City Star made all this sound so dramatic, as though I’d been tied up, gagged, and stolen away at knifepoint. But, as you now know, nothing bad happened. Only afterwards, when the police fed me chocolate mint ice cream and asked all sorts of questions, did I grasp how much danger I’d been in.
In all the commotion stirred up by the police and the newspaper reporters, Mama and I never got to thank the lady at the Texaco station. A few days later we went back.
“A lady pumping gas?” asked the old man at the cash register. “What kind of place do you think this is?”
None of the fellows working in the garage had heard of the lady in overalls, so she became something of a mystery to me. What was she doing at the Texaco station that day?
How did she know me?
Eventually I forgot about the Texaco lady, and then remembered her again, and forgot and remembered.
Her words always came back when I needed them. Like, when I was in tenth grade and my boyfriend wanted to go too far, I remembered that lady saying, “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna.” And, when I was first married and Mama pushed for a grandbaby, I remembered. And when I got the job at the Golden Chicken and Mr. Hawkins wanted me to serve a drumstick that had fallen on the floor, I remembered. “I don’t have to do anything I don’t wanna,” I told him, then and there. Got me a better job, working for, don’t you know, Texaco.
But I never in my wildest dreams imagined who that lady really was until today at Kwick Kurls, where Francis gave me a perm. The chemical smell made my head spin. When Francis twirled me around in the chair to show me my new do in the mirror, the light shifted and my soul flipped over. There! There were those same curls that dangled through Malcolm’s car window and brushed against my shoulder.
“Now aren’t you the smart one?” Francis exclaimed, and I had to agree.
“Why, so I am!”
Francis, who knows about such things, says I have Rapunzel hair, and that’s what saved me all those years ago. But I think all women do, if only they knew it. Don’t you?
NEXT STORY: The Mnemoth and Its Uses in Dream Recall
BACK TO Issue 28