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By kristin billerbeck
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Kristin Billerbeck
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEveryone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. ~ Cary Grant
My entire life is strewn across the front yard, laid out for all to bear witness to my pathetic existence. I'm just glad I'm not dead yet. Can you imagine if this is what I had to show for my life?
Bottles of professional-grade shampoo: $3
"I'll give you six for it," Janey says.
Lee Jeans, size 4: $5
"Will you take ten?" Mrs. Rampas asks.
Now, I don't mean to be rude, but Mrs. Rampas hasn't seen the likes of a 4 in, oh, at least a quarter century.
"I'm having a garage sale!" I shout to my various neighbors. "Not passing the hat. You're supposed to be jigging me down in price."
"Darling." Eleanor Gentry, who is the epitome of what all good Christian women strive to be, strokes the back of my neck. "Darling, this town is so proud of you. We want to send you off in style. If we can help just a little, it makes us feel good."
"Don't rob us of the blessing," Mrs. Piper adds.
"If we were young again, we'd go with you in a flash," says Mrs. Rampas. "As it is, we're brittle and on too many medications to stray far now." They all cackle together. Truth be told, any one of them could probably run me into the ground on sheer strength.
"Hollywood!" Mrs. Piper crows. "Can you imagine the excitement?" She drapes a summer dress of mine over her elbow.
"You have to take a lot of pictures and stand on Clark Gable's star for me, will you, dear?"
"Absolutely. I'll make it my Sunday outing. I hope to get to every star you introduced me to all those Saturday mornings."
I look up and see my friend Ryan, large and gentle (think the Baby Huey of men), huddled in between another group of church deaconesses. "Excuse me, ladies."
When I walk up the cracked driveway, Ryan flinches, stuffing a paper bag behind his back.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Nothing," he says with mock innocence.
"What's in your hands?"
"Let me see them, then?"
A crackling of paper and then his palms appear. Ten-and twenty-dollar bills float down behind his feet.
"What the heck? Can you produce men in that bag?" Inspired, I launch into song: "It's raining men, hallelujah!"
Ryan bends over and pecks at the bills until they're all returned to the crunched paper bag. "We're just having a good sales day. You asked me to help."
"Ryan, the sum total of my life is worth about forty-five dollars. I saw at least that there, and it doesn't look like anything's gone. If you want to help me-"
"Furniture gets good prices at garage sales." A broad smile covers his face. "I got twenty dollars for that computer desk alone."
"I didn't pay that much more for it five years ago." I look over at the desk, which is listing to one side, the keyboard drawer hanging miserably from underneath it. "If you sold it, why's it still here?" I challenge him.
"I offered to deliver it."
"To the dump, is that what you're saying?"
Ryan leans in close, pressing the paper bag full of cash into my stomach. He whispers into my ear (although all the townsfolk are watching us, so he might as well shout it), "Take it, Sarah Claire. Think of it as a dollar donation for every pin curl you ever blessed this town with. It's their way of giving you their blessing."
"Your wife's going to be doing all those pin curls, you know."
Ryan's fiancée and my best friend, Kate Halligan, is not here today. She's at the Hideaway Hair Salon, working double time so all the ladies will be freshly curled, permed, and frosted for the church potluck tomorrow. Although it seems as if many of them are here, the truth is when social security checks are doled out, Sable is on fire with action.
The salon is "base" in Sable, Wyoming. Home free. The only place I ever truly felt a part of something. For most people, I imagine that's home. But most people don't have to live with crazy rules and my mother. Even First Community Church, where many were warm to me, harbored the underlying current that I am my mother's daughter and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. As the resident "bastard" in town, I didn't belong among God-fearing people, especially if they had dateable sons.
The church divided into camps, if you will. Those who fell into the "enemy" camp got their hair done elsewhere and left the Hideaway to me and those who offered the mothering and love I so craved. I imagine every church is that way to some extent. There are those who believe in blind truth (the law), those who believe in blind grace (forgiving everyone without thought to consequences), and those who combine the two and create a practical faith that actually translates.
"She's not going to be pin-curling for long," Ryan says. "I nearly got enough saved for ten more head of cattle. She's going to be the wife of a cattle baron one of these days." He rattles his eyebrows, and inwardly I wince. Ryan's a fabulous guy, but how realistic he is remains to be seen. He's not exactly good with the cattle. One of his small herd actually died, and though the truth has never come out, rumor has it he let it feed on ragwort (poisonous to bovines). And then there was the rifle accident when he mistook one of his dad's cows for a moose. So while I know that to be cattle is fatal by nature of the job, I think getting to the actual "beef" portion of their fate is more difficult in the hands of Ryan the rancher.
I smile at the thought of Kate in an apron, ringing a dinner bell. Naturally, she can't cook. Nor has she ever picked up a can of cleaning spray. But for Ryan, she'll try. She'll fail miserably, but she's so cute and such a "catch" for Sable that he'll just laugh about it and hire her a maid. And a cook. And probably a nanny, too, when the time comes.
She'll be one of those women who stays cute until she's in the grave. She has that kind of sparkle. You know-the kind of girl who's fifty and still flirting. Effectively. Kate will try to be the perfect wife until she gets bored with the role, and then she'll have to do something more. She'll lead up the town's library fund-raiser or organize one thousand frozen turkeys being sent to the poverty stricken. Whatever it is, she'll come out the hero, even if she is a complete failure at being a housewife.
Need I mention Kate lives a charmed life?
Opening the paper bag from Ryan, and sighting the fluttering cash within, I see the town probably agrees with me that it's time to move on. Don't let the Sable door kick you in the butt on the way out. And for once I'm grateful, and I hold the bag up as though it's a first-place trophy.
"Thank you, everyone!"
I look up at Ryan. "I feel like Kate for a minute." A look of horror crosses his face. "That wasn't a pass, Ryan. I meant my life is charmed for the moment."
"No, I know that." But it's clear his star quarterback days aren't far behind him-he still thinks he's the envy of every girl within fifty miles. He needn't worry; even if he wasn't Kate's beau, he's not of interest to me. I like them smart, and God love him, Ryan's sweet as pie, but the gate doesn't quite latch all the way.
Speaking of which, my mother takes this moment to slowly open the front door, scanning the yard and the crowd as if we can't see her. Naturally, all movement stops. My mother is sort of like the haunted house up on Cooley Mountain-she holds an enticing fascination for the conservative town because she does whatever she pleases. There's both a disgust and a bit of envy when it comes to her.
Janey Winowski has lived a hard life and, I'm sorry to say, it shows. Though she's only forty-three-having had me at the tender age of seventeen-her skin is singed red with broken blood vessels, and her store-bought, stringy blonde hair (with deep black and gray roots) resembles a "before" shot for any hair salon. I think it's her way of telling the world she won't acknowledge my single talent. That my mother would have the worst hair in town is a shame she makes me bear daily.
But when I'm doing Reese Witherspoon's hair, it's going to be her who's embarrassed.
"You're going to clean all this up," she shouts, as though I'm a child. "The yard looks like a pigsty."
The yard always looks like a pigsty (I don't think the lawn's been mowed since 1973), but I'll give her that it doesn't look any better with all my crap out here. Still, it's not like we were in the running for HGTV to begin with.
"I'll clean it up, Mom, as soon as the yard sale is over."
This must be the magic signal, because people start to scramble for their cars. And now I'm left with fourteen bottles of shampoo.
I sigh. Someday, somewhere, I'm going to matter. I'm going to walk this earth and people are going to care! Someday soon. Perhaps hairstyling isn't a divine calling, but I'm good at it, and so I'm going to a place where looks mean something: I'm going to shallow, impressionable California, where good, chunky highlights add value.
"It's going to be all right," Mrs. Gentry says, patting my wrist. "She's going to miss you. It's her way of making her presence known and that she's still your mother."
"I'll miss her, too, believe it or not." I look into Mrs. Gentry's warm blue eyes. "It may be completely dysfunctional, but it's our dysfunction."
"She did her best, Sarah Claire. We all do our best."
I'm sure she did do her best, but she didn't exactly reach for the stars either. I just nod, rather than risk answering and sounding ungrateful. It is what it is, I suppose. But I'm ready for a transformation, and what better place than Hollywood! A place that made Norma Jean Baker into Marilyn Monroe and Archie Leach into Cary Grant. Why not Sarah Claire Winowski into "hairstylist to the stars"? Stranger things have happened. Paris Hilton happened.
"I've been having dreams of styling hair, Mrs. Gentry. I heard on a doctor show that the surgeons practice the surgery in their minds the night before. That's exactly what I do with my styles. I can see my success, taste it. Maybe that sounds ridiculous to you, but I feel like I'm called there, like God has some kind of plan for me laid out in Hollywood."
"Why wouldn't He?"
She's probably placating me, but since she's all the support I've got, I'll take it. "I guess maybe because I'm Sarah Claire Winowski, and where things can go wrong, they tend to explode fantastically. If there's a cow patty in the middle of a football field, it's my shoe that will find it."
She laughs and pats my wrist again. "Without a vision, you'd just end up like us here, who never left the town. Which is fine for us. Enough for us. But you always were a special little girl, always dreaming of some magical gateway into a strange land."
"I think I want the magical gateway out of the strange land, actually. Even if things do blow up miserably, I'll be in shorts at the beach and I won't care as much. I won't have to have that fake orange Wyoming tan from Tantastic. I can go for the real thing."
"Maybe you'll have a beach wedding and invite all us old ladies to wrap the candied almonds in netting. Was that ever one of your dreams all those times you drifted off from us?" She smoothes my cheek.
"Bless your heart, Mrs. Gentry. You're the only one who thinks a Winowski will marry anyone. And on the beach, no less."
"Not only do I see you married and breaking the family curse-" she raises an eyebrow to tell me what she thinks of my beliefs, "-I see you marrying someone who makes your heart go pitter-patter and treats you like the princess you are. Just like in those books and old movies we use to lose you to."
Mrs. Gentry was the town librarian. If anyone knew about my strange romantic fetishes, it was her.
I smile. "Pitter-patter like Mr. Gentry did for you?"
Her smile dissipates. "I hope for much better for you."
"That's cryptic. You two were always the envy of this town. Maybe you've forgotten that now because he's been gone so long?" I ask this hopefully, because if Mrs. Gentry wasn't the peak of marital bliss, then it just doesn't happen.
She smiles slightly. "You never know what goes on in people's homes, Sarah Claire. Mr. Gentry worked a great deal when he was alive, and since we didn't have children to come home to, he didn't really see the need to spend much time at home. That's why I liked to see you in the library at night. I knew you were safe when your mother worked, and I had some company while reshelving books."
"I think the library was open later than 7-Eleven sometimes."
"Don't misunderstand me, Sarah Claire. It was a good life; I'm not complaining. But it was lonely for both of us for so many years because we misunderstood each other. You have the chance to start fresh, and I want you to do it right. I don't want you to settle for anything less than the best."
What is doing it right? As much as I've read about great passion, no one has ever told me they loved me, or even that I was beautiful. It's sort of hard to fathom I'm going to wake up one day and get it. Once romantically challenged, probably forever that way.
Of course, once a guy in my mother's bar told me that I was hot. But with slurred speech, it came out as "shot" and completely lost all effect. Being beautiful to a middle-aged drunk is hardly a life accomplishment. Well, maybe in this forsaken town it is, but not in Hollywood.
"I can't imagine you lonely, Mrs. Gentry. I've never seen you without your posse." I look over to her giggling friends as they try one of my old cowboy hats on for show.
"I have my faith, Sarah Claire, and you have yours. Don't forget it in California when the men are lining up for a date."
California has a lot more men; therefore, statistically speaking, my odds may improve on romance. But keep in mind I work with hair, and men who are willing to come into a froufrou salon like I'll be working at ...? Well, most likely, they're not interested in what I have to offer. In any case, I'm going to hold off on thoughts of romance and get down to the business of becoming the hottest stylist in Beverly Hills.
"Right now, I'm only focused on doing my job, Mrs. Gentry."
I'm not anyone's girlfriend. And truthfully, I can't even say with complete certainty that I'm anyone's daughter-my mother's been a little vague on the subject. Well, I'm God's daughter, but it's not the same, is it? So I've retreated to the life of dreams, created by books and the stirrings of the old movies where life happens like it should.
Life just looks better after a Cary Grant movie.
"Did you hear me, Sarah Claire? You answer your mother!" my mother screeches like a great horned owl vying for its dinner.
"I'll clean it up, Mom." Sheesh, I will always be twelve despite my twenty-six years here on earth. I want to shrink up and wither away like a salted snail.
Sometimes I wonder, Why didn't she ever leave? She seems to have nothing here; yet she clings to the town and this house like a life preserver. And it's going down.
She suddenly retreats inside the house and closes the door. Behind me, I hear the familiar sputter of a diesel pickup. It's the familiar red dualie, chrome running boards and hubcaps. It announces Sable's most prominent resident as sure as any trumpets.
There's a hush at the sight of Mr. Simmons, the town mayor and patriarch-long reputed to be my father. That's the weird thing about a small town. Everyone knows everyone's secrets, but no one ever talks about them. Bud Simmons has never even addressed me, unless it's to ask about my mother. (And if he is my father, may I just say thank goodness I didn't get that nose!)
The party is definitely over. All of the little old ladies give me bear hugs, each with a word of advice before departing as I keep my eye on the truck.
"We love you, Sarah Claire."
"If you need anything, you'll write." Mrs. Rampas barks. "Not on that dratted Internet either. You'll write a real letter like a lady would have done. Do you think Grace Kelly would use e-mail in place of fine, linen stationery?"
Excerpted from split ends by kristin billerbeck Copyright © 2007 by Kristin Billerbeck. Excerpted by permission.
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