Monday, February 21, 2005

Tina's by Charles Moore

(The sign looked professionally done with routed letters in red, trimmed in black, white background, on a nice wide plank. It hung over the lip of the porch of a small house -- rather than a plastic sided business shed-- and read “Tina’s Fresh Bait While You Wait.”)

I hadn’t been fishing in years, not since the Great Spill of ‘12 that ruined about a quarter of the continent’s water supply, made millionaires out of the four surviving bottling companies but drove the entire administration of the three largest western hemisphere countries to resign en masse, when their complacency was discovered. Didn’t do much to clean up the water, though. But, fresh bait? The great spill had driven the earth worm species nearly to extinction. And when they first came back, worms had bulges and mutant growths and then the birds began to die from ingesting the toxins in the worms. It was a mess in yards even for those that had good grass before and yard and flowers and even trees that could grow in the parts of the contaminated countryside. City folk just had to do without any of it all. Crickets survived, even flourished, although no one knew why. So I was perhaps in the mood for a change towards the former life when I saw the sign. Several pickup trucks were parked outside with guys sitting in the driver’s seat waiting. Just like the sign said to do: Wait, for fresh bait?

In my memory, in an other world, I could recall coming to this same place to get my hair done. My hair was another casualty of the great spill. When your hair grows in patches, the barber isn’t going to do much to help your looks. But the woman who had run the salon had also gone to my church and it was always a treat to talk and be pampered for a moment or two. But, I suppose, she must have gone out of business. That seemed like a long time ago and maybe my memory was faulty.

When the young woman walked out onto the porch, I should have taken it as a clue. She was pleasant to look at with nice figure, maybe 30 years old. Her tan glowed as if it had been just painted on. How was I to know differently? But her expression held my eyes. She seemed--happy. As if she hadn’t known all the suffering and toil like the rest of us slobs. As if old hurts and old pleasures no longer controlled her. At least she was drinking bottled water.

Curiously, inside wasn’t a bait shop. It wasn’t a beauty salon, either. There were four barber’s chairs and two closets. It took a moment to understand the closets were tanning booths. I had never been in a tanning booth or under the lights so I didn’t know if there were chairs or beds or card-operated timers or beach music inside the closets. The legend on the door on one closet was slid over to say “occupied.” But I couldn’t figure out the barber chairs, either. In them all, were young women, tilted back, with a what looked like a very old fashioned hair dryer dome over their heads. There weren’t any stylists. No attendants. And each machine--each hood--was connected to a computer screen. And a credit card machine. I recalled seeing a dish antenna outside but now noticed no television inside. Why did I ever think this was a place to buy worms and crickets? The word “bait?” Bait is something used to catch something fish, right? Or something else.

The Great Spill had been politically devastating. Like politics mattered, after all the genetic and physical damage had been heaped on the western hemisphere. The administration at the time blamed terrorists when it turned out to have been political contacts. Secrecy had ruled for six months, nine months, maybe longer. Who knew? When the actual conspiracy broke, even with the shady cooperation of the administration-friendly press, the retribution was swift and brutal. Riots broke out in the capital and in several state capitals. The top administration offered lesser heads only to ultimately lose their own and their hand-picked successors withered on the vine. It looked like the collapse of the country was at hand and frankly, in my home town, we had near civil ruin. I kept my shotgun handy in the house. That the bottled water companies had co-conspired to the coverup--not the actual contamination--making their own leadership wealthy beyond imagination--whole towns erupted in violence. Money wasn’t worth much protection when the sheriff himself leads the charge on your mansion and the governor sends troopers to your front door of your big house on the hill to escort you back to talk to the governor. Half the governors resigned because they chose to honor their oath rather than honor their political debts. The remaining half were lucky they didn’t get hanged. But we went through two presidents and vice presidents until things settled down. Canada remained relatively calm but Mexico suffered a solid 12 months of civil unrest. That had all been history. You could look it up if you wanted to. But as I stood in this room, running my hands through the thatch of my hair, and seeing these women being attended to, I wanted to see somebody wield scissors. I wanted to hear the gossip and chatter and laughter. There was none. Just a quiet hum as if thought was the only language exchanged between persons and machines. The salon lacked that smell of the coloring chemicals and soap I would have recognized from long ago but, still, I was beginning to develop a slight headache as if someone was meddling with my brain, telling me things, changing what I remembered.
I turned to go and now noticed a water fountain next to the door and took a drink. It tasted clear and cold. No iron. Not even a trace of chlorine. Good water. Of course, you’d need water after a session in a tanning booth. All public fountains were now tested and labeled. And safe. As I recall.

I guess I didn’t want to go fishing after all.

(I retreated out the door and paused on the stoop. The trucks, same ones, same drivers, where still there, waiting, trolling. I stepped on out into the middle of the parking lot and turned, facing the squat building, it and me both baking in the sun. Had the sign changed? It now read “Tina’s Tanning and Memory Erasing Salon.” )