Jessica, I really think you should let me fluff up the top." My favorite hairdresser, Loretta Spiegel, used her fingers and the handle of a round-headed brush to push my ash blond hair about an inch higher than I normally wear it. Then she turned the easy-to-rotate salon chair I was sitting in from right to left and back again so I could view it from all angles in the mirror in front of me.
"No, thank you, Loretta. I am happy with my hair the way it is." Then I added, "At least for the time being," to soften the blow.
Loretta and I had some version of this same conversation nearly every time I came in for a trim. She kept trying to make what she called "small changes" to my hairstyle, which I was sure would eventually lead to major changes. My short hair, layered with just enough waves to have an agreeable, feminine look, suited me perfectly. I found it easy to manage, a boon when I am traveling, what with book tours, research trips, and my favorite jaunts-visits to family and friends. Although I resisted every suggestion Loretta made, that never stopped her from making them.
Loretta pulled a long, pointed stainless steel hair clip off a cardboard placard that was standing upright on her countertop and snapped it open to section off the side of my hair she was ready to cut. "If you say so, Jessica, but I wish you'd let me make a small change here and there. I think it would give you a more modern look."
My longtime friend and neighbor Ideal Molloy was tucked under a pink domed hair dryer a few feet behind us. She was wrapped in a kimono-style smock, her dark hair covered with rows of plastic curlers and a bouffant hairnet. Ideal raised her voice as if not sure we could hear her over the whirring of the dryer. "More modern. That's exactly right, Loretta. Thank you."
Coreen Wilson, the salon's manicurist, had worked as Loretta's assistant since she was a student in high school. Now she stood in front of Ideal, holding open a plastic nail polish display case filled with inch-high bottles of lacquer of every color of the rainbow, along with a few odd shades I couldn't identify. Coreen ran one hand through her honey blond curls while she waited patiently for Ideal to look over the entire selection and then choose her usual deep red polish. She'd said it so many times, even I knew the name-Dark Cherry. So when Ideal veered off, we were all taken by surprise.
"Loretta, that's exactly what I want. A more modern look for my fingernails. Maybe this time I'll even do my toes. Should I go with royal blue or stripes, or something bolder? Every time I thumb through a magazine, I feel frumpy when I look at the models. To tell you the truth, I am sick of red, red, red all the time."
Loretta caught my eye in the mirror and gave me a quick wink. I answered with a smile. Neither of us said a word to Ideal, who turned back to examining the box filled with polishes. My money was still on Dark Cherry.
"Coreen, you're the one who would know-how are the young girls coloring their nails? Not the teenyboppers-I mean the college girls, or even the mid-twenties crowd."
I watched their reflections in the mirror. Coreen was as hesitant as Ideal was insistent. Coreen was barely in her twenties and probably thought of Ideal as motherly, if not grandmotherly. I'm sure she was having a tough time visualizing Ideal as a trendsetter. I could see she was having difficulty hiding her grin while she tried to come up with a suggestion that would mollify Ideal and, hopefully, not look ridiculous on a woman of a certain age.
I could almost see the lightbulb flash over Coreen's head when she thought of something that might do the trick. "Here's what I think, Miss Ideal. Since your hands look so pretty with the deep red polish you get every week, you might want to keep the same color but jazz it up by adding sparkles on the tip of one nail. I can tell you for sure that look is extremely popular with, ah, girls my age."
Coreen held up two bottles from the nail polish case. Rays of sunlight beamed through the front window and bounced off glittery silver sparkles in one bottle and shimmering gold sparkles in the other. "Take a look, Miss Ideal. You can pick."
Ideal pondered for a moment and then agreed. "That sounds like a good start. If I like it, we can go bolder next week. First, I have to decide which finger I want to sparkle and shine." Ideal held out her hands, examining them critically. "How about my left ring finger? I've been divorced for so many years, the tan line from my wedding ring is long faded. Metallic sparkles will perk it up. Jessica, what do you think? Silver or gold? Which would you do?"
As someone who likes her nails to be neat and unobtrusive, I wouldn't opt for either one. While I was trying to think of a diplomatic answer the front door opened and drew everyone's attention to our local Realtor, Eve Simpson, who began complaining before the door shut behind her.
"Wouldn't you know it? That would be my luck. I was on my way here for my weekly hair appointment-I'm not late, am I, Loretta?-and I stopped at the post office to mail some brochures about the Barkley house to a few of my out-of-town prospects. You know the house I mean-that gorgeous two-story with the wraparound porch near the cliff top. The one with the stunning view of the water. I'm positive it's going to go superfast, and for top dollar, too. Anyway, Debbie promised me the brochures would be on their way to Boston in this afternoon's mail. Then, when I turned to leave, who do you think was walking in as I was walking out?"
We all knew that when she was in midstory Eve's questions were nearly always rhetorical, so we silently waited for her to continue, and in less than two seconds, she did.
"I've been dying to run into him casually, to have the opportunity to strike up a more private conversation, if you get my point. But not today. And certainly not when I look like this."
Eve stopped to take a breath and look around the room, wide-eyed, as though she was expecting wails of sympathy from every corner. But since we actually had no idea what she was talking about, no one said a word. When she crossed her arms and began tapping her toe, Loretta took the hint.
"Who did you meet, Eve? Who is this Adonis who has you so bothered?"
"Who do you think? Who have I been trying to wangle a few private moments with for months now? The handsome, distinguished, and so very cultured Nelson Penzell. You all know him. He owns La Peinture, down on the dockside. Naturally, we all must admire a man who uses the French language to name his shop. I did hear that he was a college professor at one time-he probably taught art history or romance languages. He is trs Continental."
She pulled the black cloche hat off her head and dropped it on a chair alongside her purse. "And here I am avec des cheveux en dŽsordre. Couldn't I have met him later today, after Loretta works her magic, when I will look totally stunning? Of course not. He held the post office door for me, and smiled rather warmly. And he ensured that the door was less than fully open so I was able to brush his arm ever so lightly as I walked through-you know, a signal of interest. But I'm sure it was all for naught. How could he possibly realize how attractive I am? There I was with my hair a complete mess, and wearing that silly hat that barely hid my untidy hair."
She might have believed she looked awful, but I thought Eve looked absolutely perfect, as she always did. She was wearing a light gray fitted jacket with notch lapels over an emerald mock turtleneck, and tapered black slacks that complemented her trim figure. Her expertly applied makeup added subtle color to her finely chiseled features. And other than a strand that moved slightly out of place when she pulled off her hat, her light brown hair didn't look as if Loretta needed to do a thing.
"Eve, take it from me: You shouldn't waste your time on that Nelson Penzell. He may be good-looking, but from what I've heard, he's a real playboy. The love-'em-and- leave-'em kind." Ideal's conversation generally centered around the up-to-the-minute recipes she'd discovered on the Food Network or her frustration with her latest craft project, so I was surprised to hear her pass along cutting-edge romantic gossip.
But Eve simply waved her off. "Nelson Penzell is a cultured gentleman, and we are extremely lucky to have him as a part of our community. Why, as soon as he bought a partnership in that slovenly tourist trap Angus Michaud unimaginatively named the This and That Shop, Nelson turned it into a quality establishment. Within weeks he'd upgraded it to an art emporium I am proud to recommend to my new householders as they begin decorating their Cabot Cove homes. Angus still has some of his touristy junk for sale, but I guess Nelson felt that couldn't be helped."
Ideal, who generally retreated as soon as anyone disagreed with her, stuck to her guns. "You may see him as a classy businessman, and you may be right, but when it comes to his personal life, well, according to the ladies in my ceramics class, he is-"
Eve wasn't having any. "Oh, them! Ideal, who would pay attention to anything those old biddies have to say?"
I suspected Coreen was trying to make peace when she interrupted. "I do Mr. Penzell's manicure every week, and, well, he's always on time and a good tipper . . ." She trailed off when she saw the look on Eve's face.
Eve's jaw dropped, her eyes popped, and her tone rose to manic. "Coreen, what are you saying? Are you telling me I've been in danger of having Nelson Penzell walk in here to get his nails done when I am sitting under the dryer looking exactly the way Ideal does? Good grief, why didn't anyone warn me before now?"
Ideal pushed the dryer away from her hair and stood up, hands on her hips, ready to do battle. "Eve Simpson, exactly what is wrong with the way I look?"
Loretta leaned in and whispered, "Jessica, I'll be right back."
She quickly moved into the middle of the room and held her hands up as if she were surrendering, when in reality she was taking charge. "Ladies, we're all friends here. Can we please stop the bickering? Coreen, why don't you put out a plate of those doughnuts I picked up at Charlene Sassi's bakery this morning? Ideal, Eve, can I offer you a cup of coffee?"
Ideal was instantly diverted. She licked her lips and asked, "Are any of the doughnuts chocolate crme?"
In contrast, Eve ran her hands over her waistline and said, "Only coffee for me. Black, thank you."
While pouring coffee into oversized pink mugs decorated with pictures of blow-dryers, scissors, and curlers, Loretta said, "Eve, I can promise you will never run into Mr. Penzell here."
Eve's tension began to dissolve. "Thank you, Loretta. I knew I could count on you to handle the scheduling with discretion so I don't have any, er, embarrassing encounters when I am not at my best."
Loretta laughed. "Eve, I don't have to do a thing. When he first moved to Cabot Cove, Mr. Penzell dropped by and asked if he could arrange for a weekly manicure at his home. When he saw that I wasn't keen on his request, he offered his shop as the site and threw in a ten percent 'travel bonus.' Coreen and I talked it over and we agreed to accommodate him."
But Eve was taking no chances. "What about when he gets his hair cut? Don't tell me he goes to the barbershop. Why, every man in this town comes out of there with a flattop straight out of the nineteen fifties."
"Not a problem. He still travels to his stylist in Portland. From the look of him I would say he makes the trip at least once a month."
Loretta came back to my chair, picked up her scissors, and mumbled so only I could hear, "Crisis averted."
Ideal nibbled on a chocolate crme doughnut held carefully between her thumb and index finger to avoid smudging her nail polish. She watched as Eve settled into a chair and opened the latest copy of Vogue.
"Eve, you have such great taste." Ideal began with flattery, as though their mini altercation hadn't happened less than five minutes ago, then got to the point. "What color looks better with red? Would you say silver or gold?"
"Every year I decorate my office Christmas tree with silver twinkle lights and red ornaments, if that is any help," Eve answered, then quickly buried her head in the magazine to show she was still miffed.
Happy to have the decision made for her, Ideal stretched her left hand toward Coreen and said, "Silver."
The front door opened again and a young woman dressed in jeans and a bright green Celtics sweatshirt hesitated in the doorway, then walked to the desk and looked around uncertainly. Her bright blue eyes met mine and she gave a tentative smile, which widened when I smiled back.
Loretta said, "Give me a minute, Jess." Then she asked, "Can I help you?" as she walked to the counter.
"Yes, ah, hi." She curled an unruly lock of ginger hair around her finger. "As you can see, I'm in need of a trim. I was wondering if you'd have an appointment available later today or perhaps tomorrow."
Loretta glanced at the appointment book that lay open on the desk. "We are a little busy right now, but how about after lunch-say, two o'clock? Name?"
"Erica, Erica Davenport."
"I'm Loretta, and I will be doing your cut. If you'd like a manicure while you're here . . ."
Erica shook her head. "I'm embarrassed to admit I bite my nails. I keep promising myself that I'll quit, but so far, no luck. My dream is to have perfectly manicured nails, but I haven't gotten the discipline yet."
"You're in the right place. While I am cutting your hair, our manicurist can give you a few tips on how to conquer the nail-biting habit. Free of charge."