by Maggie Andersen

2023 CITY OUT OF TIME
EDITORIAL BOARD SELECTION

Whenever I have any kind of a special event on the books, I head to a little salon a few blocks from my apartment, which is completely unlike the others in the neighborhood. Carol’s exists on a forgotten block of Lincoln Square near the Social Security office, the post office, the Burger King, the little Korean dive bar, and a Women’s Workout World. This stretch has been exactly the same since the eighties when I grew up here, before the luxury gyms and wine bars all cropped up and pushed out most of my neighbors. The sign on the front of Carol’s is her name spelled out in what looks like primary-colored alphabet magnets.

The first time I walked through her door I was told to have a seat, so I sat on the cracked black leather couch with the geometric pillows, and watched a Korean program where the kids keep a vicious pet raccoon until the grandmother gets fed up and beats the hell out of the animal with a broom. Most of the clients are Korean—most of them are geriatric women—I’m the only white person in the place.

When Carol realized she’d had me waiting a while, she asked Bonnie to wash and dry my hair. Bonnie is not Korean. She could be Native, or Eastern European Roma, or Uptown hillbilly—it’s hard to tell. She wears her thick, black hair in a ponytail so long it hangs to the bottom of her spine. She wears heavy green eye shadow, which doesn’t do anything to distract from the deep, deep lines in her face. She tilted my head back, and as she lathered my hair, she whispered, “What does she think you have? Bugs? Why is she making me wash your hair? Goddamnit, Carol.”

When it came time to blow-dry, she seemed a little more excited. “Okay!” she said and started humming. When she finally turned on the hair dryer, she was so clumsy with it that I wondered if she’d ever been given this task before. She ran her fingers through my hair and smacked my head with the hair dryer a few times; I couldn’t help but say, “Ouch!” when she accidentally burned my scalp.

“What?” she cried out. “What happened? What are you complaining about now?”

“Bonnie,” Carol grumbled.

She came over, pushed Bonnie out of the way, and effortlessly dried my hair into a beautiful shape.

“You gotta take your vitamins,” she said to me. “Your hair’s getting thin.”

Bonnie stuck her tongue out at me from across the room. “See you next time, Honey!”

I know you won’t believe it, but a couple months later, I went back.

~

“Where you guys going tonight?” Carol asked.

“An opening night party,” I said. “My husband’s in a play.”

Bonnie swept up dust bunnies and piles of hair around my feet so she could be part of the conversation, too.

“The pregnancy is good for your hair,” Carol said. “Look at it. Shiny. Thick. That’s a boy in there. He don’t wanna steal your beauty.”

“Fucken Koreans,” Bonnie says. “Think they know everything. Just kidding. Carol does know a lot about babies.”

~

“How’s that baby doing?” Carol asks. “Who’s he staying with while you go out?”

“His grandparents,” I answer.

“Good. That’s an important relationship.” She rubs my temples a little. “You respect Mommy even more now, don’t you? You realize just how much she did for you. The sacrifice.”

I nod because I suddenly can’t say a word; I feel like I might burst out crying. I haven’t slept more than a few hours a night since Archie was born; I worry about germs for the first time in my life and just about every worst-case scenario; I miss him as soon as I walk out the door. And my mother had three of us. How did she do it? Just then, Bonnie comes out from the side apartment with Mama.

“Carol! Your mama’s hungry for lunch. Okay? We’re gonna go and eat now. Hi, Honey,” she says to me. “Say hi, Mama.”

Mama is a four-foot-tall woman with a short black perm who shuffles along beside Bonnie in athletic socks and house slippers.

“After I feed Mama, I’ll take the doggy for a walk. Okay, Carol?”

“Okay, Bonnie,” Carol says, rolling her eyes.

I often wonder where Carol and Bonnie met. I know Carol listens to church hymns and takes Sundays off, so I assume that she’s religious. I always see Bonnie smoking cigarettes in the alley and arguing with people at the local grocery store; I’m pretty sure she’s a recovering alcoholic. Sometimes it seems like Bonnie is Carol’s penance.

But if Bonnie is the sinner, who am I? I’m the one who stayed in this neighborhood even after most of my neighbors had been displaced by gentrification. When my parents grew up here, Lincoln Square was all working-class immigrants: German and Greek, mostly. The Davis movie theater played German-language films and the Greek priest rang the bells at St. Demetrios and sang in a rock band on weekends to raise funds for the school. By the time I started kindergarten in the early eighties, the Brauhaus still hosted German Christmas with the pervert Santa Claus, but the neighborhood had welcomed a new wave of migrants: Salvadorian, Filipino, Korean, Mexican. My Catholic elementary school was predominantly Hispanic and Asian-American, which is why I still know a bit of Spanish and Tagalog, and perhaps why I ate very well as a child. My friends’ parents owned all the taquerias and noodle shops.   

Now, they are all gone, and I rent an apartment in my father’s falling apart old three-flat, and even though we’re the misfits on the block, it sometimes feels like a profound betrayal to be here. The punishment is the new neighbors, the ones who don’t remember Philip, my best friend who spent years of his life on house arrest. The punishment is the new neighbors who don’t know that their apartments-turned-condos are filled with all my childhood ghosts.

~

“Hi Honey,” Bonnie says. “Wanna blow dry? I can do that.”

“That’s okay. I’ll wait for Carol,” I say.

“Come on,” Bonnie whines. “She won’t be here for a while. Let me do it.”

“I don’t mind waiting. Really.”

“Suit yourself, but you gotta stop scowling. You’re getting a bad wrinkle between your eyebrows.”

“I’m not scowling.”

“Maybe you’re just worried. Stop worrying so much. You want an orange? They’re real good today.”

Bonnie peels a tangerine and hands it to me. When I bite into it, it is especially good. We sit there for a while, taking our time with each little section. The sun streams in through the windows, and I watch the interplay between dust and light. Bonnie peels me another tangerine.

“When you having a second baby?” Carol asks, the second she walks in the door.

“I can’t right now,” I say.

“What do you mean you can’t? He needs a friend.”

“His eczema is out of control. He scratches like he has fleas, Carol. I have to keep mittens on him all the time and footy pajamas in ninety-degree heat. People walking down the street look at me like I’m a terrible mother.”

“Chestnuts,” she says impatiently. “I told you already. Boil them and rub the oil on his skin. Everywhere. Day and night.”

“But I can’t do that. He’s allergic to nuts. Like, if he touches them or ingests them, he could die. I know. I used to think it was bullshit too. Believe me, I wish it were.”

For once, Carol is at a loss for words. So is Bonnie. Christian music swells from a little sea-green boom box. 

~

“What is everyone so afraid of?” Bonnie asks. “So what if this guy wins the election? Will anything really change, Carol? I mean, come on, we’ll still be poor. Am I right?”

“Bonnie, stop,” Carol says. “My back hurts today. Just stop.”

~

“He’s two already?” Carol says. “Let me see a picture.”

I scroll through my iPhone’s photo gallery, trying to decide which one she’ll like best. The one of him driving a boat? The one of him wearing a party hat or his sunglasses upside down? There he is, running around the apartment in his birthday suit. Oh my God, Carol, the one of him eating the watermelon makes my heart skip a beat. The one of him dancing through the sprinkler is a work of art, isn’t it? He was created on God’s best day.

“Handsome,” Carol says. “Very good-looking. Must be looking like his daddy. Ha!”

~

A white woman with a pear-shaped body and a gorgeous head of hair walks in the door and goes straight back to Bonnie.

“Hi Honey,” Bonnie says. “What’s newsy?”

I want to tell her not to trust Bonnie with a hair dryer, but then she starts to ramble on about the weather, the sales at the grocery store and her husband’s annoying habits, so it’s too late to save her now. Bonnie laughs politely at the woman’s jokes, which I didn’t know she was capable of, and then very matter-of-factly removes a partial wig, and doesn’t miss a beat as she gently massages and washes the woman’s naked scalp.  It’s not age-thinning hair; it’s most definitely cancer. But she doesn’t seem the least bit self-conscious because of the way Bonnie doesn’t feel sorry for her or seem to even notice anything’s different. Maybe it’s Carol’s church music blaring, but I can’t rid myself of the image of Jesus washing feet.

~

“Why you spending all your money here?” Carol asks as she takes my fifteen dollars. “Don’t you have college to save for?”

Honestly, I only go about once a month. When I come home from Carol’s, my son says, “Mama. You look beautiful.” When I come home from Carol’s, my hair smells like a beach. When I come home from Carol’s, my husband chases me around our apartment and I feel like he is lucky to have me on his arm at a party. I feel a couple years younger, maybe a shade prettier, and most importantly, like I can get shit done. What I mean is: I feel like I can do anything good. Like I’m a good mother who can admit out loud that she worries about being a bad mother. Like I can let someone do something for me, and that doesn’t make me weak. Like it’s okay if I’m not good at hair, or baking, or other basic things moms are supposed to be good at because I’m excellent at making my son laugh, building cities out of Legos with him, and hosting wild tea parties for all variety of stuffed animals and monsters. Every day, I walk him down these streets, where I became me, and proudly bear witness as he becomes himself.

~

The next time I saw Carol and Bonnie, Carol was sitting in a folding chair with her head between her knees.

“What’s wrong with Carol?” I ask.

“She has a bad back,” Bonnie says. “A real bad back.” Then she looks at me. “You didn’t know that, huh?” She warms oil in between her hands and says, “Lean forward now, Carol.”

“Bonnie,” Carol whimpers. She sounds worse than my son on his sickest day.

“Okay,” Bonnie coos. She gently lifts Carol’s hooded sweatshirt, massaging the oil into her back.

Carol squeezes her eyes closed and lets the tears come. I look around and see a couple Mass cards and photos of her grown son, but no sign of a significant other. Bonnie continues to massage her back. I don’t know if I should stay or go, but I know that I’ll let Bonnie dry my hair today, if that’s what Carol wants.

~

The next time I go, it’s a sad morning, and Carol isn’t there.

“She coming in today?” I ask.

Bonnie doesn’t turn from the television.

“I understand why they’re upset, but you can’t protest in the street and disrupt traffic like that,” she says. “That doesn’t do anyone any good.”

I do not have patience for Bonnie today. The hateful rhetoric of this election has gotten to me, and I have asked myself lately why I ever brought my son into this ugly world. Just as I’m about to leave—who gives a shit about hair—Carol bounces through the door with a giant pizza box, wearing fluorescent workout leggings.

“Oh good, you’re here,” she says, as if this time, or any time, I’d actually made an appointment.

She opens a linen closet and pulls down a roll of paper towels, some Styrofoam plates, and a few red Solo cups. She goes to the side apartment door and knocks for Mama.

“Anyone need salt and pepper?”

She starts passing around plates and napkins.

Bonnie turns from the television with swollen eyes. “Oh, the five-dollar special,” Bonnie says. “I like this kind, Carol.”

“We gotta eat,” Carol says. “Okay?” She looks at each of our faces. The woman who works for shitty tips, an exhausted mother, and a woman who will turn ninety this year. 

“We have to eat,” Carol repeats.

She hands me a slice of pepperoni pizza and turns off the television. The last image we see is a protest sign promising that love will triumph over hate.

~

The last time I saw Carol, she was drying my hair while Bonnie was hovering, as usual.

“So? When you gonna have another one?” Carol asked.

“I don’t think we will,” I said.

“Why?”

“It’s just that we’re a little old now.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Babies are so scary, you know? I like toddlers so much better.”

“What’s so scary about babies?” Bonnie asks. “Monica—you know my landlord—she just had a baby. Little, tiny thing. She’s not scary. You remember Monica, Carol? She’s from Poland, I think. But anyway, she gave me those oils that made your back feel better.”

Carol gently tugs at my hair, runs her fingers through to test its thickness.  

“Well anyway, every time I’m holdin’ the damn baby, Monica says ‘Be careful, Bonnie. You’re spilling your coffee on her. Bonnie, hold the neck! Hold the neck! You gotta hold the neck!’”

I still think of my son as a baby; so tender and so small, all the things that could’ve gone wrong, and all the things that still could. I know that would be the end of me; he has that power over me now. I think of how I want him to never be lonely, to never have to shoulder the burden of his parents or this world on his own. I think of him all the time.

“Carol,” Bonnie interrupts my thoughts. “I might have to work a little less from now on, okay?”

“Okay,” Carol says, without missing a beat.

“Because Carol? I hate to say this, but I think Monica’s gonna ask me to watch the baby.”

Carol watches Bonnie sweep for a few seconds, then throws her head back and laughs, until I see all of her big, white teeth and their fillings. She stops with my hair and just laughs. I try not to, but I can’t help it. Fucking Bonnie. Bonnie looks at us then, a little confused. “What are you guys laughing at?” Then she gives up and joins in. I mean: why not? Anyone walking down the street that day could’ve seen us. The bedbug barflies from the corner bar, the sweaty girls from Women’s Workout World, the Greeks from the Hellenic Bakery, the produce snobs from Harvest Time Grocery, the swimsuit wearers from L.A. Tan, the drug-rug boys who run the courts at Gross Park, the yuppies with their dogs and their double-wide strollers, the Croatian princes of the Burger King. And the three of us, laughing and laughing and laughing about Bonnie watching Monica’s baby. Women who are not accustomed to winning are always so good at laughing.


Maggie Andersen is a Chicago-based writer who has been recently published in DIAGRAM, the Laurel Review, CutBank, and the Los Angeles Review, among others. She is an assistant professor at Dominican University, a company member at the Gift Theatre, and has served as dramaturg for many Chicagoland theaters. She lives in the Ravenswood/Albany Park neighborhood with her husband, John, and her son, Archie, in the apartment where she was raised.

SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 10 • March 2024
Header image by Eric Allix Rogers