Beauty Secrets | Fiction | Chicago Reader

Beauty Secrets 

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They'd been there 40 years and never once had someone come to see them in a car. But it happened one day during a spell of decent Christian weather--light rain with goodly breaks of sun. If it hadn't been for the woman in her Buick, it would have been another average morning. The children were still sleeping when they left the house for work, and the bus was full the whole way there. Margo saw women on the #70 she hadn't seen since the holidays. Most of them were showing now, even the teens, and they walked the aisle chatting excitedly about things like lochia and episiotomies. Girls who otherwise could not complete a sentence dropped such words effortlessly into play. It's just like gin, Margo whispered to her sisters, who were fawning over all the swollen bellies. Estrogen goes to the brain just like gin. Don't be surprised if they start to speak in Japanese.

It had been a violent winter. The bus moved slowly on the cracked asphalt of Division Street, where in places the road had been worn to grooved concrete, the primordial rock below. Every few blocks they'd hit a pothole, and the women standing by the door would get thrown wildly across the aisle. One of them missed the bar and grabbed Margo's hair instead, ruining an hour's work with hot curls and so much hair spray her breakfast had tasted of aerosol. They say red is the color the eyes see first in an emergency.

In the end they got to work later than usual. It was ten minutes at the most, not much to complain about, really, but they could hear dad inside the store screaming so loud you'd think he'd just been robbed. In retrospect Margo could imagine the Buick speeding toward them, imagine the woman behind the wheel staring at her reflection in the rearview mirror. Maybe she just missed hitting a car coming the other way. How could anyone pay attention anymore when there was so much misery filling up the air?

Margo flipped the sign so it read Open. Yes, dad, we know time is money. At his age, she had to remind herself, you think everybody wants a piece of you.

Once they put a pillow behind his neck their father went to sleep on his daybed in the back room of the family store, Beauty Secrets. Margo and her three older sisters saved some money by having him live back there with the extra boxes of lipstick, rouge, and dry skin cream. Mom took care of the sisters' babies at home.

Margo raised the blinds. Outside, the clouds had burned off and the sky was bright and clear. It was the color of Revlon's Blue Parfait, she thought dreamily, or Blue Moon, which is what they used to call it back when.

That morning, there were no early customers. Flipping through her magazines, Margo searched for news that they might be headed for another dreaded spring au naturel. She feared the natural look more than cancer, having lived through two seasons of terrible drought. Every six or seven years the magazines would praise a movie star's dull brown hair, plain eyes, limpid cheeks, and the next thing you knew Margo would be down at the bank taking out another loan. It had happened first in '68. And then again in '76, '81, '89, and '95.

Sometimes the girls wore nothing on their lips but a little Vaseline.

You just hope it keeps Christian out there, she warned her sisters. Good weather's good for business.

Why's that?

Gets--

Gets warmer and girls like to look good, they chimed in unison, knowing all Margo's truisms.

At least she had paperwork to do when it was slow. Orders, bills, inventory, taxes, letters from the landlord. She always did her paperwork first thing because if she did it after hours it made her want to drink. Small businesses had gone bankrupt on every corner of the park, and the few that were left floated there with the hopelessness of lifeboats missed in a fog. This time last year the strip included Lucy's Nuevo Puerto Rico, T.J.'s Liquors, the Buck Stops Here, California Beer and Wine, We Care Hair, Humboldt Liquors, Our Lady of the Cross Resale, Pan de Vida, General Liquors, and Gonzales' Fashions for the Bride. Now everything was closed but Beauty Secrets and the liquor stores.

None of this mattered to Margo's sisters. Each had given birth the previous fall, and they shared the most misguidedly positive postpartum syndrome Margo had ever seen. They were the ones who told the girls on the #70 that getting your perineum sliced open was, quote, great for stress.

Sometimes it made Margo sick. How could she watch her sisters dream their pleasant little dreams over those babies, those people who couldn't even speak, let alone see the dimness of their future. For her, the smell of talcum and mashed peas had a sickening sweetness. For her sisters, it was a perfume.

She swore, the next time she saw an article in W or Elle saying, this year Less Is More, she was going to take the cross from her neck and throw it in the Dumpster. Let the rats believe in God.

Margo was standing by the window, wishing she were Christie Brinkley, the young unmarried Christie Brinkley, when the Buick Regal skidded to a stop outside. It couldn't have been past 10 AM, but even at that hour there was nothing strange in the skid of a car in Humboldt Park--brakes are the last thing people need to pay for when they're poor. But just as soon as the Buick came to a stop, it began to back up (honking, if you can believe) against a long line of angry motorists. Margo rushed to lock the door. You couldn't be too cautious those days.

Where you think you goin', bitch?

Bitch was not the worst of it. Margo heard words she'd rather erase from her memory: puta, you ig'rant fuckin' ho. Whoever sat in the Regal was oblivious to the urban riot about to descend on the hood of the car. She--and did Margo know it was a she at this point or had everyone just decided that only women drive that way?--proceeded to roll down her window, wave, and calmly parallel into a spot across from Beauty Secrets. Margo covered her ears. It had begun to sound like the San Juan soccer stadium out there. Even the misnamed twins, Ebony and Ivory, young black girls of such opalescent beauty Margo (forgive her) couldn't help but envy their future lovers, screamed out in tinny girlish voices:

Bitch almost scratched his chrome!

What's that going on out there? their father yelled from the back room.

Nothing, dad. Somebody's radio is all.

And then the driver got out of her car and the scene died as quickly as it had begun. No one dared curse at such an ugly woman. She was older, heavier, wiry-haired--maybe west-side Italian. Who could tell these days? Clearly she wasn't married, because no wife would allow herself to be seen publicly in that tight strapless dress. It was a color Margo could only describe as Split-Lip Red. Even the cruelest chicas bit their tongues. Guys in dago Ts laid down their tire irons, unclenched their fists. So disgusting, what cars brought in from out of town. How much exactly, Margo wondered, can you take such a woman for?

You see that?--she can't even stand.

I think she looks pretty.

What? said Margo. What?

Even the bangers know not to make fun.

What do you think, Margo? Where's she from?

Margo liked to think she could spot the sluts from far off, 50 feet at least, a skill that was no doubt handed down from her father. From her spot at the window she watched the woman cross the street and, if she could say so, if it didn't sound too crude, she walked like a whore on Sunday morning, unsteady in her heels, bare thighs quivering, one hand rubbing circles on her stomach like you do to soothe a child when she swallows something strange. In the other hand she gripped like they were all she had left in the world a small, shell pink compact and a tube of lipstick. It was true that whores from the North Avenue bridge gave Beauty Secrets its best business--false lashes, baggy-eye cream, cover-up for hickeys, rashes, sores. Experience had taught them to treat the hookers well. Come Monday, whores were about the only ones who've got any money left at all.

Start looking like we're busy, girls.

You got a car, what do you want with Beauty Secrets?

I'd be at the mall myself.

You see that? No lipstick. No gloss, no liner. Not even a balm!

Just shut up, Margo said. Shut up and look good. And don't seem too eager. You know how girls like that need their breathing room.

Beauty Secrets, on the northwest corner of Francisco and Augusta Boulevard, was established in 1959 under the auspices of that great American arbiter of beauty, the Corporation of Avon. This was long before the whole concept of the Avon Lady. In those days people like Margo's father sold Avon products at franchised stores. But when Avon closed its retail posts to concentrate on the at-home market, Mr. Childs cut his ties with the company and began to sell tonics, creams, and feminine products no reputable Lady would touch. Miracles in tiny bottles. Slimming pills. Peterson's infamous Fine Flab Gel. There was simply no competing with the Ladies on cosmetics. Women had taken to the novelty of consultations in their homes, needing privacy to try on the racy new colors of the sexual revolution, colors like Sangria and Satin Skin. They liked the comfort of a familiar light, a favorite seat, the chaos of the kids nearby. There was only one way to survive. Like his father before him, dad tempered the highs and lows with Irish whiskeys he could barely afford.

Feeling charitable, you could say that if it weren't for the Jameson's, Beauty Secrets would have closed back in 1969. Sometimes you need to bottom out before you can strike the heights of genius that arrived one day in Mr. Childs's dank head. God only knows if the idea would ever have come had he not been so wasted. All one can say is that Mr. Childs woke up and had a vision of what would soon be known all over town as the Back Room.

Set off behind a beaded curtain, the Back Room at Beauty Secrets opened in June of '69, full of mirrors and low light. It always felt like midnight in the room. Tea lights burned in tiny wax cups. Ice cracked in the base of a carafe. Incense burned in discreet corners, leaving a fine sandalwood scent in the air. Mr. Childs served olives, artichokes, and tiny marinated mushrooms on silver-plated trays. A phonograph played Brazilian jazz. One at a time, in complimentary terry cloth robes, women came to sit on the plush green sofa while Mr. Childs took an equally plush seat behind them. He spoke to them in a low, comforting voice about things like complexion, tone, and shadow. With fashion there is no freedom, he'd say to them. You have to be told what to do.

I'm here for you now, the expert said. I'm your cosmetics man.

Soon Beauty Secrets was stocked with lipstick, rouge, mascara, shadow, in all the latest shades. Signs in the window read: Personal Consultations and Private Sessions Available Within.

You could still see them today, curled at the edges, bleached by the sun. He had a TV in there instead of candles. The television was never turned off. He said the flicker reminded him of the old waxy light. The way they used to stare.

First thing the whore wanted to know, if you can believe it, was whether or not this was the same, quote, Avon store that had occupied the corner back in 1962.

My mother, she's 82, she's the one who told me about the store.

Bless her heart, Margo said, crossing her chest in gratitude behind the cluttered countertop. Customers liked to know their salesladies had good Christian habits; people don't trust beauty secrets from the damned. We used to sell Avon. But, now, of course, they've got the Ladies.

The woman looked around the room, and Margo could see her taking it all in, the boxes stacked in messy piles behind the counter, the reams of useless glossy ads, dad's clumsy shelves on which the white bottles of hand cream leaned like rows of tiny Pisan towers. Dad had never been too good with levels. He was a dreamer, inspired to build but never with much care. For Margo, it was just the way things had always been; her family was off-kilter, and their mistakes allowed Margo to feel she was destined for a higher fate. She was the only Ms. Childs untouched by plastic surgery, whose blood had never known the bitter burn of diet pills. From the soft nacre of her cheeks up to the Capri highlights of her eyes, the lines of her expertly blotted Nude Twig lips to the tasteful accents of rouge in Trucco's soft pink-red, Modesty, everything was just as it should be on a woman of erudite beauty. If she could say so, she looked better than Christie Brinkley. For one thing, she'd kept her size.

But the whore's eyes were heavy with reproach. The harsh slant of her furrowed lids seemed to pass judgment on the way Margo kept things up around the store. She could hear it now. Just look at those sisters in their blowsy dress, the Tammy Faye smears of Baltique Blue, a very last-year shade of blue, by the way, the false lashes, and (God forgive them) those six preternaturally large silicone breasts! They couldn't even feed their own children. Never mind the chipped paint, the cracked tile, a front door that didn't fit its frame...

Margo listened to the voices inside the whore's lonely, swollen head. And began to think that maybe they were right. Had she been too permissive? Had she been used? Since her girlhood Margo had trusted that good things would come of martyrdom; now her life was about waiting, about patience, the resignation for which good women are trained. Because, if you think about it, what could be more Christian than waiting on a whore?

Meanwhile, the woman was walking with difficulty in her girdle of a dress across the room, limping to the display case of lipsticks, where she focused on the reds. From behind, Margo could see that she'd been sweating. The back of her dress was dark with perspiration--where her kind makes a living, Margo thought.

You've been working hard? I could give you a towel.

The whore looked puzzled. Oh, that, she said. I've got vinyl seats in that Buick. I should have paid for leather.

With a shoplifter's ease, she picked up each tube of lipstick, read its label, and put it back again.

Don't you want to try anything? Margo said, coming closer to protect her stock. We've got all of this year's reds. Pout is nice. Very sexy. Or that one, the one you just put down, that's L'Oreal's Mulled Wine. Mulled Wine looks very you. Or maybe a Merlot, dark and sly. No? Brick? Coral? Terracotta? Live a little. We've got Bolero and Cherries Jubilee.

I'm looking for Avon's Candy Apple Red, the whore said curtly.

That's Cherries in the Snow. Tres youthful! You'll love it.

You used to be an Avon store.

Like I said, ma'am. We don't carry Avon anymore. But there are so many options these days. We've got Apple Butter, Applesauce, Candy Mint, Candied Pecan,

Red Licked Candy--

Maybe in the back. You've got an old box full. In a drawer somewhere. I just need a stick. Just one stick will do for now.

Margo worked her first shift at the store in 1985, the same year she started (forgive her) fucking men. That was also, and perhaps not by coincidence, the year of neon. Those were merciful colors. Phosphorescent greens, day-glo blues, pinks so bright they could make you lose sight entirely of the situation around you, which in Margo's case wasn't pretty. Though she was a ripe, bosomed Wham! fan of 14 whose parents owned a makeup store, Margo refused cosmetics of any kind. Acne on her daughter's chin--it terrified mom, truly burdened her soul. In church the priests said, Sarah Childs, in time Margo will obey and you will forgive her these transgressions. Patience and mom, however, were never on good terms. Weaving her fingers through Margo's hair, mom subdued her impious daughter and screamed, Bring toner, cottonballs, and rope! Peeping Toms up in the trees probably thought it was the family sadomasochistic hour. Dad wielding the lip pencil like a leather belt, his mascara brush like the bottom of a shoe. Her sisters yanking the knots tight. Cosmetics had made the Childses, picked them up from migrant misery, etc--she'd heard it so many times.

Lipstick puts bacon on the table, her father used to say, so I want to see your mouths full.

Photographs of Thanksgiving '84 show three out of four girls fighting with small nail-polished hands over a wishbone's lucky end. But Margo--stubborn, intellectual, the disloyal, sexless freak--appears out of focus in the corner, sallow, pimpled, and pale, her hair held back in a ponytail. It was just like spitting in dad's face for a Childs girl to appear at dinner au naturel. Margo the Frog, as her sisters liked to call her, didn't want to join the evening speculation as to which of the dirty boys in her class would transform her into a normal, lipstick-wearing girl. Everyone cheered her first period when it came that fall. But Margo didn't believe in what her mother called the tides. There were other, more beautiful things on this earth than women.

Dad would have slapped her for that one.

But then, in the spring of 1985, a boy named Bobby Nester chased Margo through the school yard and she was hooked. It had been a long pursuit, lasting the greater part of ninth grade, and Margo had grown tired of the marathon. Sometimes she'd look back at Bobby Nester and feel a kind of affection--though more often than not, it was an affection for herself, not him. She'd catch her own reflection in a pool, a pond, the glass windows of the hospital, and for a moment not realize that the vision she was seeing was herself. She liked the way a woman looked when she was hunted but never caught. Muscles twitching, equine hair, sweat beading on her temples like dew.

Bobby was wheezing hard behind her. In her youth she mistook his asthma for love.

All of a sudden Margo stopped, spun on her heels, and braced for impact--sprinting Bobby Nester couldn't stop in time. There was a momentous crash. Leaves scattered, squirrels fled, a park bench split beneath them. When he stood up, Bobby found the head of a rusty nail sticking from his knee. Blood ran in eager tendrils down his shins. Not queasy in the least, Margo pulled the long nail out herself, then carried her skinny, bloody conquest to the hospital for his tetanus shot. She loved the word, tet-nus. It spurred a strange clenching in the walls of her vagina, the labia puckering, which at first she didn't know how to oblige.

To her dismay, Margo was not allowed beyond the curtain of the trauma room. But she could hear them back there, saying the word. It sounded like a call to arms. Tetanus.

Mrs. Lindecker, as the whore called herself, wouldn't listen to questions or advice. Margo sent her sisters to the back room to recover reds from other years, but they couldn't find anything remotely Candy about the Apples in the pile. All the colors had names like Nuance, Nectar, and Mocha Stain. Isn't there anything plain, said the whore, more American? Her sisters tested Cuba, Fetish, and Bordeaux. No, no, she cried, it's just not right. Light, not so glossy, redder. Just red, very red, red red, pure red, red red red. When she began to sweat with worry, Margo led the whore to a small table they used for manicures and sat her there with an icy drink, as the sisters continued the search. Don't worry, they said, the colors haven't changed, just the names. We'll find it.

Cult, Damnation, Marilyn.

You single, Mrs. Lindecker?

My name's Dee. This is good coffee. The coffee at the restaurant was horrible.

Clients take you to restaurants? Margo said. Just curious, really.

I should have known, the whore said. Who eats lobster in Gary, Indiana?

An uncomfortable pause, broken only by the sound of dad's phlegmy cough echoing in the back room. Margo sat across the table, snapped on a pair of plastic gloves, which she didn't use for all the customers, and began to file the whore's bitten nails. She could tell when her clients needed a woman's company, a female touch, because they would readily give up control of their hands. There were six or seven girls, for example, whose husbands beat them every Friday night and they came Saturdays, dropped their hands down upon the table, and let Margo do anything she wanted.

Do your customers like Candy Apple Red? Margo said. Is that what they say? Their mothers probably wore Candy Apple Red and now they want you to wear it, right? God forgive...the things you girls have to do. I've got to tell you, I don't think I could do it myself. Not for any kind of money.

It was cheaper to buy it by the case--

What?

Could you stop please? I don't need my nails done.

Oh, sorry. I thought-- Margo obliged the whore; she didn't know what else to do.

I bought a case in 1972, the whore went on. From a lady who came to my house and told me I looked good enough to marry. I trusted her. I trusted Avon.

You gave some to the others, of course...to your girlfriends, Margo said, trying to use a delicate term. You all have girlfriends, don't you? Band together.

The whore looked at Margo, the insinuation dawning on her. Why not just admit to what you are? thought Margo, loathing that quality in prostitutes that makes them act modest, even matronly in public, assuming they can pull the wool over everybody else's eyes. Don't pretend I don't know you.

I used it every day. It was my favorite color. I wouldn't so much as go to the laundry without my Candy Apple on.

Out on the street someone was inscribing a Latin Kings emblem with his finger on the whore's car's dirty windshield.

Let me ask you something, she said, standing up and facing the four of them at once. All of you. I don't know what I'm doing wrong. You tell me, since I don't know you. You tell me what you think? It's my ad.

She closed her eyes and recited.

DWF, 59, used to getting what she wants, loves nights out, boating, faithfulness. ISO S/DWM, 40-60, looks a plus, for devotion, dining, conversation. Disease free please! Smokers OK.

Margo, speechless, looked over at her sisters to see what they were thinking.

Do you find good men? they asked, excited to know a woman who had risked the personals. Margo wanted to tell them that she was lying; it was all a ploy.

What do you think you'd get with that? the whore asked exasperatedly. Dominick? You wouldn't think that would get you a Dominick. Dining? A seafood joint in Gary is dining? You tell me. Or how about devotion? When I wrote devotion I wasn't thinking he would--in the middle of dinner, mind you--reach across the table for my hand and knock a wineglass over on my lap. Is that devotion? So of course I excuse myself, go to spot the dress. It'll never come out. The devotion of a stain. Is that what you think I should get with my ad?

Margo looked over at her sisters and tried to influence them. They would believe anything once it found its way into words.

I'll tell you what--this is what I get. I come back and he punches me on my arm. Not maliciously, but it hurt. He says the guys he hangs out with always hit each other in the arm. Just like a high five, he says. How could I know you would bruise so easily?

Please, Margo said, turning away and crossing herself discreetly. It's not worth it. A stain and a bruise? Just stop. You can do it.

Ma'am? You think I'm some kind of slut or something?

Margo, she said. My name is Margo.

Margo, you don't meet too many men working as a secretary for an OB-GYN.

As she laughed, Margo's sisters quietly removed themselves.

Let me see that color, Dee. What's left of it.

Margo took the small metal tube from Dee Lindecker and extended the useless nub of a bright, carefree Candy Apple Red. There was not enough to cover a young girl's lips. Maybe when your body is something you give away, something you sell and put on a receipt, with a money-back guarantee, these things begin to matter. People want to know that you offer the same service every time.

We don't even order whole cases for the store, Margo said in disbelief. How could you go through a whole case? You must have been, I don't know, in a kissing booth or--

--and I told him, Who bruises easily, I bruise easily? I mean if my arm weighed 100 pounds I'd bruise you too.

Do you, um, date a lot of men, Dee?

Margo, Mrs. Lindecker said, touching her bare lips with a finger. I'm telling you I thought for sure I'd never run out. When I bought that case I thought for sure my lips would be Candy Apple from that day forward. Always and forever. You say you're going to love him always and forever. You wear your good clothes. And then one day you reach in your purse and it's like everything is gone.

The next day Bobby Nester could hardly lift himself on the swollen knee, though he wanted to know what that was, that tapping on his windowpane. Was it the wind? A branch tip scratching at the glass? Or was it a dream of death approaching? There was, the doctor had said, a dementia linked to tetanus that affected one in 95.

But no, as we can see, it was Margo, brick in hand, who stood below, lobbing rotten apples against his window. She was saving the brick for dire straits. Who? Your girlfriend, dummy, Margo Childs. To Bobby, whose mind was dull from codeine, she was an apparition, a sprite, a bare-legged wraith with her face smeared in neons. Green shadow. Electric blue. Glossy silver. Very MTV.

Bobby let down the chain ladder that was meant to save the Nesters from a fire.

You look like Madonna, he said.

You OK? she replied, touched by the compliment. Was the needle really as long as my arm?

It hurts to move it, I guess.

Despite the pain, as the sun broke through the little footballs on his curtains, Margo (forgive her) began to fuck bandaged Bobby Nester in his boyhood sheets. Because he could not move, she got on top and did what she'd seen done so many times, between her mother and her father and her father and a hundred other girls. Bobby Nester's penis, like the nub of a favorite lipstick (Peachblossom? Applesauce?), was not half her father's length or width; there was hardly any position from which it could enter her. Hold it still, she said, struggling to connect. It's your own wiener, Bobby, you can touch it. Once he got inside she felt something akin to a small scratch, like from a nail. Was this the link to tetanus? For years it confused her, the distinctions people make, the lines between bride and whore, hymen and Holy Land, and she wanted to know were you still a virgin if the boy slipped out of you before anything really happened at all. A few days later, worried that her hymen was still intact, she broke the thing herself, for good measure, so to speak, employing a 12-volt device they carried in the store for--dad would laugh, yeah, right--facial-muscle-firming therapy.

What are you doing? Put your hands down, Bobby. Go like this, she said, like you're doing sit-ups.

That's not how you do it. I have to hold your hips.

Do not.

Do too.

Stop talking like you're five. I've seen my father and this is what he does.

Don't get your face on my sheets. My mother will know.

She'd made her face up because she'd never seen her father make love to a woman who wasn't wearing a made face. But from then on, she did it because of this incredibly prissy thing Bobby said that day. Without fail, she made her face up each morning in thick van Gogh-ish swirls, wanting to dirty the boyhood sheets of all the members of the Lane Tech High School Band. Mothers everywhere were sweating over stains they'd never seen before, obnoxious colors, stubborn colors, colors from the deep evil of the modern world, which no article in Good Housekeeping seemed to address. They scrubbed with toothbrushes, they spotted with bleach, they scraped with the hard edge of a nail, asking themselves questions that would have sounded all too familiar to their sons. Is my boy normal? Am I normal? Where is that crusty off-white stuff my husband leaves behind? Is this what comes out of young boys this day and age? Daisy yellow and silver sparkle and neon green?

Soon Margo noticed that she felt not mature, but aged. Fat and sex add years to a body. In high school everybody thought she was 19, 20, a dumb, stay-back-a-year kind of girl, and when she graduated the men at the bars pegged her for 30. You look like you been 'round a few, they'd say, handing her a drink.

Meanwhile, feeling that she owed them, Margo started showing up to work with her family at Beauty Secrets. Her father, thrilled, gave her business advice. All that matters in this world is that you be eager, he said. And alone, Margo added. Otherwise, your ambitions go down like a whore on a wealthy man.

She turned 19 in the spring of 1989. Dad had his first stroke, and they closed the Back Room, setting it up with his daybed and TV. For months not a single customer came to see them--no one but an agent from the bank.

Those afternoons Margo used to take the #70 to Our Lady of the Cross to attend the after-work mass. With her mother at her side, she celebrated her birthday by divulging all of the above, her entire sexual history, everything from Bobby Nester to her father's predilection for leaving his Back Room door ajar, all to a priest she was sure was Father Tarington, a rather handsome man himself. With the sound of a breath behind the screen, Margo offered up to God a private vow of chastity--which, if she could say so, if it didn't hurt her chances with Him now, she didn't really plan on keeping. Dear Lord, she prayed, make me young again. Let me regain all that I have lost. She took the vow to keep the store afloat: 1989 was, if you remember, a natural year, a time when all they could sell at Beauty Secrets was petroleum jelly and baby oil.

You simply could not pay the rent on Vaseline.

And then, miraculously, the natural spring passed into a fauvist July, a summer of wild pathologies of tone, and the cosmetics companies found new glory. Like a sports star with a superstition, Margo kept her vow of chastity. So far the business has managed not to sink. Through a recession and the pregnancies of her three sisters, Margo has not as much as sipped from a man's well. Not a kiss. Not a touch. Not even a shy look across a crowded bar. It's been a long fast, and her abstinence has become a self-satisfying dream, one she can believe in even if she wasn't pure when the vow was made. Men look at her, of course, at her legs, at her sleek and girlish legs, at the calves that betray the fact that she has never given birth, betray it like a prize, and they stand outside the windows at Beauty Secrets saying words like varicose and cursing the fate that makes the most unattainable women the ones they most desire.

If a family can't always love each other, Margo said softly, least they can do is love themselves. My father used to say that during the divorce.

I still don't know what it means.

I forgive you, Dee, Margo said, motioning toward her. Give me your lips.

The woman shrunk back and covered her mouth with her hand.

Are you going to make me look like a widow?

My mother tells people she's a widow.

Just don't make me look old.

Come here, said Margo. Oh, look, girls! What a lovely Cupid's bow.

Pointy, her sisters chirped. Sexy. Ready to shoot.

Shoot who, is the question, Dee said. But OK, I give up.

Bring me the Rocket Ruby, Margo cried. Get the Trixie and the Tramp! That's what Susan Lucci wears, you know. She wears Tramp.

Dee stayed for hours that day. She told the sisters how Cupid's Bow had been the name of the dating service that had mismatched her ad with Dom's. Margo stood behind her chatty client, so that the beautician's arms came Shiva-esque around Dee's neck and to her lips, which then were softly stilled. Cocoa, Sugar Bean, Graffiti. Dee clenched her fists like a phobic does with needles, as Margo painted and thought of the plush green sofa that used to be in the Back Room. When they put it in the alley, a junk man came within minutes, as though he'd been waiting in the shadows to haul the thing and its residue of memories away. Gingersnap, Heather, varieties of coral. Dee never once checked the mirror to see what they had done. Margo was the judge and jury. Each time something looked good on Dee, Margo set it aside. So far, there was $47.98 worth of lipsticks on the table. The day's only sale.

Are you comfortable? Margo asked. We could get you something, some food, tea.

Where is my Cupid's bow exactly? Dee asked with her eyes closed.

Delicately, Margo traced an Revlon No. 101 True Red Lip Definer pencil along the perimeter of Dee's tidy lips, saying they, while not ample, had the kind of form that a trained beautician should emphasize, not hide. Beneath the nose, where the curve of the lip rose and dipped and rose again, the apexes were higher than on most girls with smallish mouths. What you need to do, Margo explained, as much with the pencil tip as with words, is accentuate the positive.

You want to know what Dom's ad said? Looks like Connery, talks like Larry King. Accentuate enough and everything's a lie.

Here it is, Margo said. That part with the arches. Where you'd sip through a straw.

Against her better judgment, Margo removed her latex gloves and took Dee Lindecker's hand. It did not feel at all like a hand that had touched men for money. There was not the expected chill of deep, habitual sin, the dry snakeskin and calloused thumbs of women who scrape their nails into the backs of businessmen and dirty, bruise-inflicting jocks. Had her charity so quickly worked its warmth into the woman's skin? This could not be the hand of a woman who for ten dollars gave hand jobs to strangers, the man in his raincoat on the CTA. Instead, Dee's hand reminded Margo of her mother's--the fingers were plump but strong, fluent and dignified in posture. Through all the surgeries, the second nose and collagen lips, the tummy tucks and Tans in a Pill, Margo knew her mother by the familiar, constant touch of her hands.

Dee, why haven't you? said Margo. Children, I mean.

There's never been a man good enough.

Not for us either, Margo's sisters interrupted. But we found a good sperm bank.

As the girls fell into a conspiratorial giggling, Margo held Dee's hand and brought it to her lips, Dee's lips, extending one of the fingers so that it could trace the path of her Cupid's bow.

That's it? God, I never even knew there was a name. Margo, you know so much.

Her sisters laughed. Everything that girl knows she's learned from us.

And dad, Margo said.

Yes, how could we forget? And dear old dad.

The door opened once more that day. Margo and her sisters almost didn't notice the customer until she was standing beside them, a small woman with terse manners, Polish, a refugee of some distant war. Margo didn't follow any politics other than the politics of beauty, which were manifold, those campaigns of fashion, the wars between Lancome and Lauder, the way certain colors vanquished all the rest and you saw women on the streets marching rank and file. There are some colors so popular, so inaccessible, that you have to sign up and wait for them at Saks. They're VIP colors. You have to be on a list. This woman, the Pole, gave the distinct impression of never having been on a list. Sometimes a woman will just make you feel like no one has ever remembered her name.

Mrs. Ryczek, is that you?

She nodded slightly at Margo, without letting on whether she actually remembered the girl. Mrs. Ryczek was a customer from another era, one of the first to use the Back Room. She worked at a hospital, saving for her nine young children who lived with a grandmother in Krakow. Still, Margo couldn't conjure a week of her childhood that she hadn't seen Lilli at the store filling a large shopping bag. She recalled that Lilli loved products with an edible-sounding scent. Lipsticks in Cinnamon or Mango. Citrusy perfumes.

Time had done Lilli Ryczek no good. She looked poor. She was short and thin and had a small face, a Pole cast against type. She didn't have the large forehead that Margo thought opened up the Polish for disparagement. Instead she looked like a figure skater, a hard athletic woman whose body was unable to accommodate the wants of her ethnicity, the bigger breasts and stockiness of the Old World. Fact is, she wasn't Old World at all. She was an immigrant to a neighborhood that hadn't been dominated by Poles since 1929, a very late addition to a dying breed, and Margo wondered how it had felt to get off the plane from God knows where thinking you're in New Poland and finding instead a bunch of dirty-minded people living in houses your forefathers had built for you but then abandoned.

Lilli, Margo said pleasantly. Nice to see you. How have you been?

But all Mrs. Ryczek returned was a dismissive shrug. Margo motioned for her sisters to help the woman, gesturing a She's-Got-$ sign toward them when Mrs. Ryczek finally turned her back, just in case they didn't remember how the lady used to spend at the store. It might be a ploy; she might have put on a poor look just to get a deal. And her sisters were the kind of women who would be fooled by a deceitful wearing of rags.

Anything you want, Lilli, Margo said. My sisters will help you find it.

Without a thank-you, the woman began to sort through the perfumes on the display counter by the register, spritzing at her wrists with Perky Peach and Mists of Honolulu. When she had decided which one she preferred, she kept it in her hand and walked around the room, not looking at anything in particular, just pacing really, like something was on her mind. Margo tried, in Dee's close ear, to whisper the circumstances of the woman's life, the children back in Poland, the money she'd had when she arrived, the nagging question of whether or not she had ever sent for them. If only the store were larger, she thought, Dee could have gossiped with her about Lilli Ryczek, but in Beauty Secrets there was nowhere to hide.

Dee sat up and pushed Margo's hand aside.

She's stealing, Margo, she said. Look.

And indeed, into a pocket crudely sewn to the waist of her house dress, the Perky Peach had disappeared, though in the conspicuous way of children playing under a sheet--maybe she thought they couldn't see it, but there it was, a lump in her pocket looking very much like a bottle of perfume. Margo stood up suddenly and so did Dee, pointing at the Pole with an accusatory finger, a sharp-tipped angry thing. To Margo's horror, she saw that Dee was wearing a ridiculous white lipstick. Was this to be her lasting memory of Dee: a face of indignation and Pina Colada?

Lilli? Margo said carefully. Would you like me to set those aside?

You, Lilli said in a slow, heavily accented voice. I remember you. You little, a smart little girl. You not going to make me go to him, are you? The Back Room, it closed now.

My dad is sick, Margo said. He had a stroke, Mrs. Ryczek.

Yes, yes, sick, I got a dog who sick. Lilli picked up a few lipsticks from the display and dropped them like coins into the pocket.

Here, let me ring you up, Margo offered, going to the cash register and hurriedly punching in the numbers.

I don't have no money.

Dee snorted. Then get out, she said. What do you think--

It's all right, Dee. I can handle it.

Well, this woman's stealing right in front--

She's an old customer.

Mrs. Ryczek looked at the door to the back room. You make me do it, she said. I do it. But you be shamed, Margo Childs. You make me ask him?

He's sleeping, Lilli. He's in no shape for visitors. Anyways, I'm in charge now. That'll be $22.67, please.

You make me do it. I do it. And I do it right in front of you.

There's something you learn in the cosmetic business that most people don't know--tears won't necessarily ruin your mascara. If mascara is applied correctly, a tear can drift quietly to the corner of an eye. Then with a fingertip, a tissue, the edge of your sleeve, you can take the tear away, lift it off your face, free it from the damage it will surely cause if left, like men, to its own devices. That is to say, smearing everything it goes through.

When she began to cry was Dee already gone? Or was she watching her? With all Margo had done for that whore you'd think she'd have stayed long enough to place a hand on her shoulder.

Margo sat at the table and cried. Dee's lipsticks were there in front of her, all good choices, she thought, except the Pina Colada, that is, but the tears began to well up and she had much work just to keep them from ruining her face.

Lilli was in there with her father. The door was open, in part, she supposed, because in the old days the door was always open. There was just the beaded curtain, not much of a cover for what went on in there. Mom used to stand by the front windows and look out at the passing traffic, the comings and goings of the neighborhood, Latinas with their babies wrapped in heavy blankets, so warm in there you wonder if they can even breathe, as she tried her best not to see the reflection in the plate glass of her husband with his hands on a woman's face, rubbing lotion into her skin, darkening her eyes. Margo had learned just by listening. Even out the lashes, make each hair stand on end like it's frightened. If you do it my way, a man can kiss your eyes and nothing will come off. Your face will still look as beautiful as ever. Here, let me show you. But Margo could not make herself stand and walk to those windows. She couldn't even get out of her chair.

Was Dee watching her? Was she standing there behind and watching? Did she think, so who's the widow now?

The room had changed. For a moment Lilli stood at its center looking lost. Instead of dim candles and incense and a plush rug whose fibers the coy girls liked to curl with their toes, Lilli was flanked by rows of garbage, in boxes, labeled by color, by its effectiveness on oily skin, garbage on shelves that made your bowels run and that made your ovulations smell like rose water, garbage for perky nipples, droopy eyes, for flesh that moved when you had not, garbage in file cabinets and in drawers, bills overdue and never paid, and, finally, in the corner beside the TV, his lunch strewn around the daybed, dirty napkins, and soiled towels.

Dee? Don't leave without your lipsticks, Dee. You look so good in Grenadine.

Nimbus, Tease, Ingenue. Dee?

Lilli Ryczek lifted up the dress and raised it above her hips, over her arms, and then, like a moon, a thing with insistence, her body appeared, and Margo could not get it out of sight. She looked left and right, she looked at the ceiling, she looked at her sisters who were at the window behaving with motherly diffidence. This is the only kind of love that matters, Margo thought, the love of imitation.

Lilli stood naked in the Back Room and began to move before her father, who could do nothing but adjust the daybed so that he sat upright, facing her. His pajamas were bunched loosely in his lap. Climbing into the bed, Lilli straddled him and removed several bobby pins from her hair. A tight system of twists and buns fell messily around her shoulders. Wiry black hairs snapping like dry twigs, falling, upon a saggy breast, drifting to the floor. But despite the loss Lilli threw her hair back, the way an animal nods its head before it takes off, and began to kiss at dad's flaccid lap. It was the same look Margo had caught in her reflection as Bobby chased her through the park, with her hair flowing behind her in the wind, long before it was Magdalene, before it was Egyptian Plum, before it was Black Cherry and all the reds of other years. If she stopped dyeing it right now and shaved her head, she thought, what would grow tomorrow? Would it be the same color as it was in those old photos? And what color was that? Chestnut? Amber? She couldn't even remember the color of her own hair.

So who looks like a widow now?

It's on the house, Lilli, he said.

They say that there are women out there in the world who give their babies away and then pass them on the street, decades later, without seeing a resemblance. And then, they say, there are women who one day, in an elevator or a bus, meet a stranger and suddenly reach out to hold her, take him in their arms, knowing with that certainty that is not thought, but act, behavior, the instinct of memory, that this is the son or daughter they had left behind. To Margo, it doesn't seem like such a pretty place to be, this middle place between desertion and grace, where she sees them go by and turns her head, thinks maybe, but no, it can't be, that person's just a little different from me, and then walks on. For some reason she decides not to say anything at all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Teresa Mucha.

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