Wigs by Monte
 

by Marci Stillerman

           

 

 

Faceless Styrofoam heads gleam from the shop window into the bleak December day.

 

Down the empty street comes Amy, walking home from school because she's missed the bus. She stops before the window, attracted by the display of wigs in different hairstyles, short, long, sleek and silky. How they bring the faceless forms to life. She imagines the mane of black hair covering the bare shoulders of a young singer. The bouncy blond curls frame the laughing face of a rope-jumping child.

 

Amy moves to where her reflection in the plate glass window fits under the Pixie wig, and she likes how it thins and brightens her face. For the first time that day, she feels good about herself.

 

The wig shop, narrow and graceless, stands between a Greek deli and a Vietnamese food store, a sliver of a building on a shabby street.  Shiny gold letters spell out WIGS BY MONTE across the ledge over the yellow awning. It is a street of rooms for rent above smelly bars, and stores with boarded-up windows. Who would expect to see a wig shop on such a grungy street?

 

But here it is, like a jewel in a mud puddle.

 

 

 

Amy misses the bus next day. She wants to see the wigs again.

 

There is a new display. A man's wig, flecked with gray; she visualizes a doctor, his forehead wrinkled with care. Three more wigs, all different styles.

 

Under the yellow awning, protected from the rain, Amy is "trying on" the one with long yellow braids when a man comes out of the shop, a man the age of a grandfather. He has Einstein hair, or is he wearing a fright wig? His eyes under bushy brows are slits of twinkling blue. She's embarrassed. How long has he been watching her?

 

"What do you think?" he asks. He is a foreigner, by his accent.

 

"About what?" Her eyes slide shyly down his white work coat to his polished shoes.

 

"My new display. Is it better than the one from yesterday?" He comes to stand beside her and looks in the window.

 

Did he see her here yesterday? Does he think she might buy a wig?

 

"I change the display each week," he says. 

 

"I don't know much about wigs. I'm on my way home from school."

 

"If you're not in a hurry, come in out of the rain and look around," he says. "Business is slow. You can try on some wigs." He takes a clean handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes at a smudge on the plate glass.

 

"I don't know. I should get home."

 

She is actually not in a hurry. Her mother won't be home from work until six. She'll bring cooked chicken for supper.

 

"Well, maybe for a little while."

 

"Monte," he introduces himself, holding out his hand.

 

"Amy." She puts her cold hand into his large, warm one.

 

 

 

It's called the wig parlor, a room larger than she'd expected. It has gray carpet. A table with three-way mirrors attached, a comfortable chair in front of it for trying on wigs. On the walls are glass shelves holding wigs on shiny black stands, many styles of wigs. Monte switches on the overhead chandelier. He's left the shop door open and rain light drifts in, misting the soft glow from the ceiling.

 

In the back wall is a door.

 

"To the workshop and living quarters," Monte says. "I live behind the store, you see."

 

Amy hopes he'll show her the wig workshop.

 

"This is nice," she says. "A nice place to try on wigs."

 

"Thank you. I'll hang your jacket up to dry. Look around. I'll be right back." He disappears through the swinging door.

 

Alone in the room, she wonders if it's okay to be here, a girl alone in a strange man's shop, even if the door is open. I don't care, she decides. The worst he can do is kill me. I wouldn't care.

 

She's examining the wigs when he returns, wheeling a small table with cups, a teapot and a platter of cookies.

 

"An antique teacart," he says. "From the thrift shop down the street. Did you ever see one?"

 

"It's nice," she says.

 

"Peppermint tea and triple ginger snaps."

 

"Well, thanks. That's nice." She's said nice three times. "I'm unaccustomed to the kindness of strangers," she adds. Tennessee Williams. It sounds stiff and foolish.

 

"A pretty girl like you should not lack for kindness."

 

Maybe it's the warm, silvery room, or the minty taste of the tea, or the tingle of ginger on her tongue that brings tears. She swats at them with the postcard size green cloth napkin.  More likely, it's his words.

 

If he notices her tears, he doesn't comment. He puts two cubes of sugar into his tea.  

 

"It was nice of you to ask me in," she says. Couldn't she stop saying nice?

 

"Good for business." He grins.

 

"I won't be a customer for a long time," Amy says. "I'm only fourteen. My mom could use a wig, though."

 

Amy remembers when her mother had had thick, long hair, brown, with sun streaks. Now it's colorless, thin and limp, like the rest of her.

 

"Only fourteen? I thought older," Monte says. "Maybe sixteen."

 

How can he think that? In her school uniform, blue skirt, white blouse tucked in at the waist, flat heeled shoes, black-framed glasses, she thinks she looks like a frumpy twelve year old. But she's pleased.

 

When they finish drinking tea, it's too late to try on wigs.

 

"Is it far to go home?" Monte asks.

 

"A mile."

 

"I will drive you home," he says. "It's raining."

 

"No, I don't want to trouble you," she says. She has broken the rules by going into his shop. She should not get into a stranger's car.          

 

"No trouble," he says. "I have to go out anyway, to buy glue."

 

 

 

The next day, it's raining again.

 

"Come in." Monte is standing at the door as if waiting for her.

 

After tea and gingersnaps, Monte tells Amy to choose a wig.

 

"I can try on a wig?"

 

She chooses silky golden hair with straight bangs.  

 

In the try-on chair, her heart beats with excitement. She is about to be transformed.

 

From a drawer in the table, Monte takes a brush and comb sealed in a paper envelope, and, from a clear plastic bag, a cobwebby cap.

 

"First we prepare the head."

 

He combs the tangles out of Amy's chin-length brown hair, brushes it away from her face and slides on the filmy cap.

 

"I look bald," Amy says.

 

"Take off your glasses while I place the wig," Monte says.

 

Amy licks her lips, clenches her hands in her lap. She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes.

 

The cap feels snug but comfortable. Monte is arranging the wig with brush and comb, the bangs, over her forehead, with his fingers.

 

"These are sample wigs," he says. "Only for try on. When customer decides, I make her wig by hand with human hair."

 

Amy still has not opened her eyes.

 

"No one can buy these wigs?"

 

"Rent, yes, for costume parties or for temporary loss of hair. But a wig for permanent use must be specially made."

 

Amy feels the cool weight of hair against her neck.

 

"Tell me when to open my eyes."

 

Monte laughs. "You will be surprised, I think. Open."

 

Amy takes a deep breath, slides her hands under her thighs. Leans forward and opens her eyes. The face in the mirror, blurred without her glasses, is the face of a stranger, a girl with long blonde hair falling to her shoulders. Wispy bangs lay on her forehead and under them are large, misty eyes. Monte picks up her glasses from the table and hands them to her.

 

"Well?"

 

Amy puts her glasses on. Her hands are trembling. The image comes clear, but is it Amy? The round face looks oval, framed by long golden hair, and the skin glows. Has her neck always been so long and smooth? Her eyes seem dark and large under the soft bangs. The glasses don't detract, they look right.

 

"How a smile lights your face," Monte says.  

 

Amy runs her hands down the silky hair, flipping up the ends, loving the slippery feel. She turns her head and feels the hair swish around her neck.            

 

"Oh, Monte, I'm so different."

 

 "Under the wig, you are the same girl."

 

 "No," Amy says. "I look Catholic. Can't you see?"

 

"And that is good? To look Catholic?"

 

"It will make them like me," Amy says.

 

But it is a stray thought. The girls will know it's only Amy. A wig can't make you Catholic.

 

Amy goes to the standing mirror to see herself full form.

 

Not so good. In school skirt and sweater, she is the shape of a sausage with a head that doesn't belong.

 

"Tomorrow," Monte says, "we will try another wig. We will find the perfect one."

 

Back at the table, Monte removes the wig.

 

The real me, Amy thinks sadly. "I hate myself," she says to her reflection.

 

 "Does your mother know this?"

 

"She hates herself too." Amy's hair, released from the wig liner, lies flat and drab on her skull.  

 

"She hates her job, our apartment, how much she always wants a drink. . ." Amy stops, horrified to be telling this to Monte.

 

"Things will change," Monte says. "Get better. You must believe that."

 

Amy shrugs. She watches Monte put the wig back onto its stand.

 

"Come. I show you the workshop. You see how wigs are made."

 

The door in the back wall opens to a curtain of beads; behind the curtain, a large bright room. On a square cloth-covered table are long hanks of hair, tied at each end with white string.

 

Monte takes in his hands a clear transparent ball. "On these forms, I build the wigs. When the plastic is warm, I can mold it to a head and neck of the proper shape. On this form the wig will be made to a perfect fit."

 

Monte shows Amy a brown-haired wig on its form, waiting to be finished.

 

"I will add more hair on the back," Monte says, "and it will be ready for a try-on."

 

On another form, is a mesh cap, to which overlapping strands of white hair are tied with tiny, nearly invisible knots.

 

"It looks complicated," she says. Her fingers want to touch the hanks of hair, her hands to mold a warm plastic ball into the shape of a human head. She smells glue and detergent and fabric and it reminds her of the craft room at St. Mary's where, at Christmas, the girls make figures for the chapel Crèche.

 

"It takes about forty hours to make a wig," Monte says. "I work slowly to make it perfect."

 

"Who are they for?" Amy asks.

 

"The dark one, of Asian hair, is for a Jewish woman who will soon be a bride and must cut off her own hair."

 

"Really?" Amy asks. "Why?"

 

She has a feeling she should know this.

 

"It is required for a married woman, a religious law."

 

"And this one?"

 

Short hair, light brown, covered the form like a cap.

 

"It is European hair," Monte said. "The best kind, but harder to work with because finer. It is for a young girl who has lost her own hair because of illness."

 

"How old?"

 

"Older than you. Sixteen."

 

So many reasons for wigs, Amy thinks

 

On a stand in a glass case is a small wig made in a child's simple hairstyle, short, a middle part, a gold clip holding each side.

 

"And this one? It's for a child?" Why would a child wear a wig?

 

Monte sighs. "It has a sad story. Perhaps I will tell you another time. It's nearly six. I should drive you home."

 

 

 

Every day for a week, Amy has stopped at the wig shop. She has told Monte why she has no friends. The girls at her school, St. Mary's, are Catholic and she's Jewish. She will not go to heaven, they say, no matter how good she is, how many good deeds she does. She has considered becoming Catholic but to do so she must have her mother's consent, according to the rules of her school. Her mother will never consent.

 

Monte wonders why she is sent to the Catholic school if her mother does not want her to be Catholic.

 

"Gangs," Amy explains. "At the public school. Girls getting raped."

 

But she has a good friend now, and Monte is teaching her to make wigs. Soon, they will make a wig for Amy's mother, a surprise.

 

Monte and Amy's mother have met.

 

"If we are to be friends," Monte had said, "I must know your mother."

 

He'd telephoned Amy's mother, explaining how they met and invited her and Amy to the shop to have tea. Later, after the tea, Amy's mother had given her permission for Amy to visit.

 

"No harm in him," she'd said later. "He reminds me of your grandfather. But don't wear out your welcome."

 

 

 

Amy is not allowed to work with real hair. "It's very expensive," Monte says. "Not for practicing." But she loves working with the cool, slippery synthetic hair in bright, hard colors. She is good at it and soon goes from the largest needle to a smaller one, drawing the hair into the tiny openings in the mesh covering on the forms, and tying small, tight knots.

 

"Soon you will create a hairstyle," Monte promises.

 

While they work, she tells him more about her life. It is so good to have someone to talk to.

 

She tells him how things are at home: "It's not getting better. Mom hates her job like I hate school. Her hands always smell of chicken grease. She has a sore bunion on her foot. We watch TV at night and she goes to bed early. Sometimes we go to a movie but most nights she sits with her feet on a kitchen chair. Saturday and Sunday if she doesn't work, we clean the apartment, wash our clothes and buy our food. We don't talk about Father. He is not coming home."

 

"She's lonely," Monte says. "Depressed. Too bad she has no friends. You, too, should have friends."

 

"I have you," she says. She'd throw her arms around him and hug him if he'd let her. "I love you."

 

"Don't waste your love on an old man like me," he says sternly.

 

When they finish their work, she goes in front and chooses a wig to try on. Always a different one. Some look awful and Monte laughs.

 

"You're a fright," he says, and she screws up her face, pulls her shirt collar around her ears and pretends to be an ugly old woman. Or she puts on one of the white coats he wears when he has a customer, and is a lady doctor with curly gray hair, her glasses on the tip of her nose. She loves this game. The wigs transform her to a comedian, a movie star, a society woman, a witch. An actress, and Monte is her audience.

 

"I think I'm going to be an actress," she says.

 

"You should," Monte says. "You're good at it."
 

"While I'm waiting to be discovered, I'll be a wig-maker."

 

"It's good to have a fall-back job. You won't go hungry."

 

 

 

Sometimes, their game is interrupted. The front door of the shop is always open, if only a crack on a windy day, and occasionally, when they are working in back, someone comes in to ask about prices or just to look. A bell rings in back when someone is in the shop and Monte comes out to answer questions. Older women and young businesswomen stop in to look at wigs. They ask the price and sometimes they say they will come back and buy a wig. Mrs. Longo, a lonely, bulky old woman who lives in an apartment nearby, is the most frequent drop-in.

 

"What are you doing here?" she demands the first time she sees Amy.

 

"Helping Monte," Amy says."

 

"She's my apprentice," Monte says, coming in from the back. "Will you be needing a wig, Mrs. Longo?"

 

"Humpf. Just looking. You mind your manners, young lady." She sniffs and wrinkles her nose as if she smelled garbage. She doesn't like Amy being there.

 

"Did I do anything wrong?" Amy says after Mrs. Longo leaves.

 

Monte laughs. "She's jealous."

 

"Of me? How could anyone be jealous of me? Does she want to marry you?"

 

Monte laughs again. "Maybe. She's keeping an eye on me. To her you are a dangerous woman. A rival perhaps."

 

"Doesn't she know I'm only 14?" But Amy is pleased to be thought of as a rival.

 

Mrs. Longo comes in often the days Amy is in the shop. Each time, she glares at Amy, her angry little eyes full of suspicion.

 

"You still here? Make sure you behave yourself."

 

One day, through the workshop door, Amy hears her say to Monte, "She's trouble. Watch she doesn't steal from you."

 

 

 

On a dreary day after they'd had a special snack to take the edge off the miserable weather––chocolate Brownies that melt in your mouth, and frothy cocoa with a floating island of whipped cream––Amy asks Monte to tell her about the wig in the little glass case.

 

"You promised," she reminds him.

 

They are sitting at the worktable. Amy is using the hair dryer on Mrs. Kraft's wig, just washed in special wig shampoo. Monte puts his needle down and takes the glass case in his hands.

 

"Do you know about Auschwitz?"

 

"A concentration camp?"

 

Amy knows of the Holocaust from before her father left. Most of his family had perished in the ovens. Sometimes survivors had come to their house, people who'd lived to tell about the camps. Her parents treated them like kings.

 

"My grandfather died in a camp called Dachau," Amy says.

 

"So you do know. They teach it in school?"

 

"I don't think so. St. Mary's doesn't teach about Jews."

 

"I see," Monte says. He opens the case and takes out the little wig.

 

"This is made from the hair of a seven year old girl. She was gassed at Auschwitz."

 

"A child was killed?"

 

"Yes. Many. I knew this little girl from there."

 

"You were at Auschwitz? Are you Jewish?" Amy hadn't suspected this. They never talked about his life. She'd talked and he listened. It was only about her.

 

"My father and I were brought to the camp when I was fifteen. Father was a wig maker, I his apprentice. This saved our lives."

 

He strokes the golden brown hair of the small wig.

 

"The heads of those about to die were shaved. The Nazis wasted nothing, and they had uses for the hair. Making wigs was not the only use, but important to them. My father and I made wigs in a little shop in the camp."

 

Monte stops talking to take a drink of water. Amy can see this is hard for him to tell.

 

"One day I was called to the barbershop where they were shaving the heads of girls. I was told to select the hair we could use for wig making. It had to be long enough and not, like baby hair, too fine." Monte holds a lock from the wig in his fingers.

 

"This girl, Andrea, was seven. We were waiting together, I to gather the cuttings of hair, she for her turn with the barber. She told me her name and asked mine.

 

"'I don't want to be bald', she said.

 

"'You won't,' I told her.'I will make a wig from your hair and when you go home, you can wear it until your hair comes back.' She was only seven and did not know she would never go home."

 

Monte puts the wig back in its case.

 

The tears that come so easily to Amy are streaming down her face and Monte hands her a tissue.

 

"You should have told me you were in a concentration camp. Why didn't you?"

 

"I have put the past behind me. It is over. The future we do not know. Only the present is important."

 

He gathers up the dishes from their snack.

 

"We have an hour before I must take you home. Go and put on the most beautiful wig you can find. Take the Spanish shawl. Bring me a person from your imagination, a movie star, a vampire, an angel, a queen. We'll pretend for awhile, have a little fun."

 

She takes the shawl from the closet where he keeps his white coats and aprons. It is a very old and valuable shawl, he's told her. Black with fringes and red roses embroidered all over it. He'd bought it from the thrift shop where he got the teacart. The feel of the heavy, cool silk changes her mood. She's happy, optimistic. She wants to make Monte laugh, hear him say how beautiful she is, how smart. Have him try to guess who she is impersonating.

 

She goes to the large window in the salon, now displaying Christmas wigs—a man's heavy dark hair under a top hat like he'd wear to a fancy ball, a woman's shining auburn pony tail fastened with a jeweled clasp, and in place of the usual third wig, a little Christmas tree twinkles with festive lights. It's already dark outside. The wind has overturned a trashcan and is chasing its contents down the street. She shuts the door against the cold, turns on the chandelier and closes the blinds.

 

Amy looks over the wigs. She'd already tried on many of them, the ones she thought would make her look older and prettier, and some that looked ridiculous, and she and Monte had a good laugh. She has lipsticks and eye make-up from the dime store to use with the wigs and keeps them in the drawer of the try-on table.

 

There's a wig she's never tried on. It's for a queen, a prime minister, an Oscar nominee. Thick black hair coiled into a high pompadour, overpowering. She's intimidated by it. But tonight she feels ready for it. Monte had trusted her with the secret of his past and she feels older, worldlier, changed from a naive, self-pitying schoolgirl to a woman who knows important things.

 

She takes it off the stand, surprised how heavy it is, and brings it to the try-on table, switches on the little light above the triple mirror. She gathers her hair into one of the silk caps, and taking make-up out of the drawer, prepares her face: red bow-shaped lips, eyes dramatized with purple shadow, outlined with kohl, black mascara for thickening her lashes. She carefully places the wig on her head. She stares at the face in the mirror, interestingly blurred without her glasses. As always, she is astonished at the magic transformation. She's Queen Antoinette, her favorite queen because of her beauty and tragic death.

 

Next, Amy presents herself to the full-length mirror, the Spanish shawl draped around her shoulders. Something is wrong. Antoinette would wear her shawl over bare shoulders. She opens the top buttons on her blouse and pulls it down, revealing a bit of her chest. But her bra straps ruin the effect. Placing the shawl carefully on a chair, she takes off her blouse and bra and retrieving the shawl, fixes it low on her breasts, just above her nipples. She looks fantastic, bare skin gleaming in the soft light of the chandelier, the unexpected thrill of the dark shadow of her cleavage. She stares at the woman in the mirror, her magnificently dressed hair above a beautiful face, full lips a deep, glistening red; large, glowing eyes. She can't pull herself away from the mirror.

 

Suddenly, the door opens and the cold December wind rushes in. Startled, she drops the shawl and stands, naked above her blue wool skirt, in the presence of Mrs. Longo whose shocked eyes, nearly popping out of her head, lock onto Amy's. In the same instant Amy reaches down for the shawl, a hand flying up to her mouth, holding back a scream.

 

Monte comes from the workshop.

 

"Please close the door," he says to Amy, quietly. Mrs. Longo had left it open. Holding the shawl tight over her chest with one hand, she does as he says, noticing that wet leaves and trash have blown in. The carpet will be stained.

 

Mrs. Longo's busy eyes dart like furious bees from Amy to Monte, her lips clenched, her arms hugging her chest as if to protect herself from an attack. Her thick coat is buttoned to the neck and clumps of gray hair, escaping from her black hat, look like fringe gone wild.

 

"What is going on here?" Her voice is harsh and full of threat.

 

"We weren't expecting you," Monte says. His face is serious but a smile tugs at his lips.

 

"So I see. Tramp," she spits at Amy. "Aren't you ashamed? And you!" She shoots a look at Monte like a poisoned arrow. "An old man! What are you doing with this child?"

 

"Go inside and dress yourself," Monte tells Amy, quietly. She hasn't moved from the door. She's shaking. What has she done? Are they in trouble? Holding the shawl against her naked chest, she gathers up her clothes and goes through the swinging door into the workshop.  

 

Through the door, she hears Mrs. Longo snarl, "I will report this. Filthy Jew. You won't get away with it."

 

The outside door slams shut, rattling the window glass.

 

When Amy comes from the workroom, dressed and carrying the wig, Monte is sitting at the try-on table, his head in his hands. She replaces the wig on its stand.

 

"I was Marie Antoinette," she says, and after the words are out, realizes how stupid and childish they sound. "What should we do?"

 

"I've called a cab," Monte says. "Come, sit down. It will be ten minutes." He looks tired. There is no anger in his voice and his smile holds its usual kindness. "Please don't worry about this. A bitter old woman has nothing better to do than try to make trouble. You have done nothing wrong and, for you, this matter is over."

 

She wants to put her arms around Monte, to hug him hard, to put her head on his shoulder and cry. To tell him how much she loves him. Somehow, she can't. There have never been hugs between them. Never a touch.

 

She hears the cab pull up and park, its headlights seeping through the closed blinds. Gets her coat and hurries out the door without a word or a look, hoping Monte will call a good-bye.

 

Peering out the back window of the cab, she sees the lights go out in the wig shop.

 

 

 

It is snowing next day, a blizzard predicted. St. Mary's Academy is decorated for Christmas, the tree in the lobby waiting for its gown of lights and tinsel. Amy is excused from music class and given an extra study period because they are singing Christmas songs and a Jewish girl does not sing about Jesus. Amy is not part of the holiday spirit that fills the school. The message of good will to all does not include her.

 

She thinks Jesus would not leave out one sad, lonely girl.

 

 

 

The snow has turned to sleet and it's become bitterly cold. After school, Amy walks to Monte's. She must apologize to Monte. How foolish she'd been to take off her clothes in the shop, forgetting the door is left unlocked and someone could come in at any time. A fourteen-year-old girl should know better. But she'd been so full of herself as the tragic queen, caught up in acting a part.

 

Would Mrs. Longo tell the police that she found a half-naked girl in the wig shop? Is it against the law?

 

On her frantic rush to Monte's shop, Amy prays and prays. God, let Monte still be my friend. Let everything be the same. Hot cocoa and ginger snaps waiting on the teacart.

 

She would dry her coat with one of the hair dryers, and work on the wig Monte was showing her how to finish.

 

 

 

Two wide boards crisscross the dark window of Monte's shop. Between the boards, the display space is empty, the holiday wigs and the little Christmas tree gone.  The striped awning, like a half-closed eyelid, drips icy tears.

 

CLOSED is printed in red across one of the boards.

 

Amy pounds on the locked door with bare fists. Monte! Monte! she screams. People passing by pause and then walk on. She presses her face against the rough plank and sobs.

 

The wind rushes down the street carrying scraps of Christmas carols.

 

###


Marci Stillerman was born in Chicago, Illinois and received her MA from the University of Chicago in English and American Literature. She is the author of the award winning picture book Nine Spoons, a short story collection, Swimming Lessons, and a young adult novel, Something Terrible Happened on Kenmore. Her short stories and poetry are published in print and online literary journals.