E.N. Walztoni ~ Heart of Ohio

I looked into the sun that came through the glass door of the Beauty House and did not think about any truth while I wait­ed for my grandmother’s perm to set. No one made small talk with me in the plas­tic wait­ing chairs. The light drew blank yel­low squares on my eyes when I looked at the mag­a­zine spread my grand­moth­er point­ed to. She was talk­ing about the celebri­ties inside. Look how fat she’s got­ten, she said.

I made mhm-hm nois­es with my throat, because she didn’t care what I said, only that some­one was lis­ten­ing. Outside, mag­no­lia blos­soms fell apart on the side­walk. They opened too far and cleaved away from their sprout­ing place to become a brown put­ty stain­ing the concrete.

While we read the mag­a­zine I wait­ed for a text from a mar­ried man back in Boston. Oh, I know, I said, Her calves are huge. Until a few min­utes before, I did not know he was mar­ried. He wrote it out in the mid­dle of a con­ver­sa­tion. By the way, I’m mar­ried. I had just told him of not belong­ing here, no mat­ter how I want­ed to–that every­one could still see I was made some­place where hum­ble­ness isn’t enough a virtue to become a weight.

My grand­moth­er laughed with a woman in the neigh­bor­ing chair. They talked about her adult son, who had some prob­lem with his intestines that reduced him to crawl­ing around his house on his hands and knees but would not enter the hos­pi­tal. The woman glanced at me and kept her eyes mov­ing. She knew that I was born in a coastal city and had devel­oped infant asth­ma from exhaust fumes and got on a com­muter train by myself as a first-grad­er and had to be picked up by the police in Saco. Nothing like that, noth­ing that hap­pened to peo­ple who were alone, would have hap­pened to her chil­dren. When her son couldn’t stand up from the floor she sat there with him and fed him oat­meal and said that he didn’t have to go any­where if he didn’t want to.

Married, I repeat­ed while my grandmother’s chem­i­cal curls were removed from their rollers. Married. The idea wouldn’t come togeth­er in my mind. All along he had been part of that real life I couldn’t seem to break into, and it wasn’t even enough for him.

Real life, to me, was an ascen­dant state of being giv­en to cer­tain peo­ple, a reward one either earned or was born for. I called it the Midwest Belonging and I envied it ter­ri­bly. Everybody else in the Beauty House had received it with the rings they wore. Rather Protestant of you, he would have said to my bare hand. I had this recur­ring dream of touch­ing a man’s elbow through his sleeve. Other than that, I didn’t think of anything.

My grand­moth­er looked at her face in the mir­ror around the set­ting curls of her hair. My moth­er made me say that I loved her once on the phone and she hung up. She often told me she’d have died to be born with my nat­u­ral­ly curly hair, although it wouldn’t have made a dif­fer­ence, of course, because then she’d be dead.

We walked to the car and she held my arm. I told her the per­ma­nent wave looked beau­ti­ful. They charge fifty dol­lars now, she said, But it’s the only place left to get a perm! Her hair was thin. Under the fall­en mag­no­lia petals, the side­walk had been poured in one long slab with lines pressed into the con­crete to give an illu­sion of the expect­ed separation.

At home my grand­moth­er turned on the tele­vi­sion. I sat at the kitchen table and put my head on my hands. The birds she fed on her deck fought over the end slice of a brown­ber­ry bread loaf. I had asked the man what his wife was like and he hadn’t answered.

I couldn’t under­stand what it all meant and I felt fur­ther away from the cen­ter of things than ever. Once at a liv­ing his­to­ry muse­um the shape of my head was mea­sured by a hatmaker’s tool and came out look­ing like a jel­ly bean. I wasn’t sure I would ever earn a real life. Not here, where nobody knew they had one, and not in Boston, where nobody want­ed theirs.

Kind, intel­li­gent, beau­ti­ful, he said.

My grand­moth­er turned the vol­ume up on the tele­vi­sion. It played loud enough to hear through the wall. Whenever I called her from my rent­ed room on the shores of pride and wealth, before I came back, I heard her TV in the back­ground, but she thought that I didn’t, and nei­ther of us spoke of it. She could always car­ry a con­ver­sa­tion like her eyes weren’t on some­thing else.

My friends in col­lege want­ed to know if I was hav­ing fun in the coun­try, if I had explored any cool aban­doned build­ings. If I was eat­ing eggs at out­dat­ed din­ers or walk­ing around dead shop­ping malls. If I was tour­ing some­one else’s places not worth liv­ing in but good enough for a weekend.

I asked him what he was doing. I meant it in the moral sense, but he wrote back I’m sit­ting in a parked car on 35th street, read­ing. Thirty-fifth street might be anywhere.

Do you want some crack­ers? My grand­moth­er came in to ask. Some dip with our crackers?

She didn’t have enough food grow­ing up so she kept every­thing in her fridge until long after it went sour. She could eat it all with­out get­ting sick but some­times I had to sneak out­side in the dark to throw up.

In the dream I had that night, I was some­where else again and her and I were talk­ing on the phone, and she had the tele­vi­sion on in the back­ground but I did too, and I said I love you, good­bye, and hit the but­ton before she could reply.


E.N. Walztoni’s writ­ing appears or is forth­com­ing in The Hunger, The Meadowlark Review, The Dodge, West Trestle Review, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, and elsewhere.