You Are Here

Karin Lin-Greenberg

May 15, 2023 
The following is from Karin Lin-Greenberg's You Are Here. Lin-Greenberg is a Chinese American, award-winning writer. She is the author of two short story collections, Faulty Predictions and Vanished. Her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, Story, and Boulevard among others. Her short story “The Sweeper of Hair,” the basis of this novel’s opening chapter, was a finalist for the Nelson Algren Literary Award. She is an associate professor in the English Department at Siena College.

Jackson Huang’s mother arranged for the school bus to drop him off outside the mall every weekday afternoon because she works at the salon until nine. After he finishes his homework, which he does sitting in one of the stylists’ chairs with a book balanced on his lap, he helps his mother. He sweeps the hair that falls around her chair. He also sweeps the entire salon, from one end to the other, because hairs swirl in the breeze created by the air-conditioning and heat. When someone walks quickly through the salon, they stir up the hairs on the floor, which then land all over the place, and this leaves Jackson more to sweep too.

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A year ago the salon was more fun because there were other stylists working there, and Jackson could talk to them when they weren’t busy. There was Irma, with her bright orange hair piled high on her head, her dangly earrings, her loud laugh that filled the entire space. There was Missy, who was young with a small diamond stud in her nose and saw every single movie shown in the mall’s theater. There was Jack, with his snakeskin boots, who would tease Jackson, saying he was named after him, even though Jackson knows he was named after Michael Jackson who was his mother’s favorite singer when she was growing up, and because he was born on the same day in 2009 Michael Jackson died. But they are all gone, off to salons where business is better, and there is a row of empty chairs now. Jackson’s mother is the only stylist left.

Today Belinda, who manages the salon, is here. She pops in a few times a month to see how things are going, but she doesn’t cut hair anymore. She used to, but now the arthritis in her hands is too painful. Jackson’s mother rents her chair from Belinda, who walks with a limp and wears long flowered shirts and sighs a lot. Jackson’s mother dyes Belinda’s hair the color of eggplants. Belinda is always saying she’s not sure how long the salon can stay open. “There’s rumors the whole mall will be shutting down soon,” Belinda says, sitting in the chair next to Jackson’s mother’s station.

Jackson is sweeping and pretending not to listen, but he always listens to everything people say to his mother. He’s very good at what she calls multitasking. He can sweep and eavesdrop. He can do math homework and eavesdrop. He can fold towels and eavesdrop. Eavesdropping is one of his top skills.

“They’ve been saying that for years,” says Jackson’s mom. “I’ll believe it when they turn out the lights and lock the doors.”

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Belinda points to a bucket in the hallway next to a yellow sign that says wet floor and features a silhouette of a man slipping. Water from the leaky roof has been dripping into the bucket for the past week. “They’ve stopped fixing things, Tina.” Belinda opens a grease-stained paper bag from Burgerville in the food court and gestures for Jackson to come over. “Fries for you,” she says, holding out a carton. “And fries for me too,” she adds, taking another carton out of the bag. “Who knows if Hank’s dinner will even be edible. He never cooked a meal in the forty-five years we’ve been married, then he retires and suddenly thinks he’s Gordon Ramsay. It’s ridiculous to think you can go from an accountant to a gourmet chef, you know?”

“Thank you,” Jackson says. He’s not sure if he’s supposed to say something about Belinda’s husband, but he knows Belinda will be satisfied with his thanks. Adults always act so impressed when kids say thank you, as if just saying these words is something big and difficult to do. At school, his teachers always tell him he’s so polite, even though he doesn’t do anything special, just follows directions, doesn’t run in the halls, doesn’t cut in line for the water fountain after gym class, says please and thank you when people help him. He just does what he’s supposed to do.

Jackson sets the broom against the wall and takes the fries from Belinda. He thinks Belinda feels sorry for him for having to come here every day, so she brings him treats when she visits. His mother always tells Belinda it’s unnecessary, but she doesn’t stop Jackson from eating the junk food. He tilts the carton of fries toward his mother, and she shakes her head. She’s folding the clean black capes the customers wear when she cuts their hair and stacking them on a metal shelf.

Belinda eats a fry, rummages in the paper bag, pulls out a napkin, and wipes her lips. Her cherry-red lipstick comes off on the napkin. “I’m telling you, it might be time to retire. Hank wants to go down to Florida, and I’m starting to think it’s not such a bad idea. Warm air might do me good.”

“You’re not old enough to retire,” says Jackson’s mom, and Jackson is unsure whether she’s saying it because she really means it or because—as Jackson has learned from listening in on conversations in the salon—women sometimes lie about their age. Jackson wonders how old Belinda is. It’s hard to tell with her eggplant-colored hair and her makeup and her bright clothes. If she had white hair and clothes that weren’t splashed in color, maybe she would look ready for retirement.

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“I don’t look old because you keep me looking good,” says Belinda, patting her hair. She finishes her fries and sticks the empty carton in the bag. “I better go,” she says. “I’ve got to make sure Hank doesn’t burn down the kitchen.”

After Belinda leaves, Jackson’s mother flips through a stack of papers on the receptionist’s desk. There’s no longer a receptionist. There aren’t enough clients to need one.

“How old is Belinda?” Jackson asks.

“Seventy-one,” says his mother. She looks up from the messy desk and says, “Old enough to retire.”

“Does she have white hair?” Jackson says.

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“A stylist can never reveal these things,” his mother says, and Jackson thinks about the advice he’s read about keeping secrets in his books on magic. Jackson has been practicing saying, “A magician cannot reveal his secrets,” in front of the bathroom mirror while attempting to lift one eyebrow in a way that looks mysterious. He has been studying magic—in books borrowed from the library and in videos on YouTube—for the past three months. His mother doesn’t know about this new hobby. He won’t tell her until he’s good enough to perform ten minutes worth of magic tricks for her.

“Why do so many women like dyeing their hair purple?” Jackson has noticed a lot of women ask for purple streaks or for entire heads the color of eggplants or plums or red grapes. “Isn’t dyeing hair a trick?”

“A trick?” says his mother.

“An illusion,” says Jackson. “Like magic. The illusion that someone doesn’t have white hair, even though they really do.”

“I guess it is,” says his mother. “Here!” she shouts, as she pulls a piece of paper out from beneath a Thai takeout menu. “Found it.”

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Jackson peers at the paper and sees the number for the scissor sharpeners. They are a husband and wife—both with gray hair, the husband with a big gray mustache that hangs over his upper lip—and come to the salon twice a year.

“But if it’s an illusion, why don’t people dye their hair real hair colors? Like brown or blond?” Wouldn’t the point be to look like they weren’t dyeing their hair?

“Because they want to feel different from everyone else. Maybe a little dangerous. They want to show the world they’re not growing old.”

Why, Jackson wonders, is it bad to be old? He doesn’t like being nine. He doesn’t like not being able to drive or pay for things or own a dog or make decisions about his life. All he wants is to be older.

“Why is purple hair dangerous?” Jackson says.

“It’s not,” says his mother. “Not really. But I think it lets people believe they’re doing something daring, something outside of what’s expected. And it’s not so out-there, not like a Mohawk or something, so people with boring office jobs can get away with a few purple streaks.” She picks up the phone at the reception desk, and Jackson can hear the dial tone. At home, they don’t have a landline, just his mother’s cell phone. That’s another thing he wants—a cell phone— but his mother says he’s too young. He mostly wants a phone so he can take pictures, but his mother thinks kids who have phones can get themselves in trouble by talking and texting with strangers.

Jackson’s mother punches in the number for the scissor sharpeners, and Jackson can hear music that sounds like it should be played on a carousel coming out of the earpiece. “I’m on hold,” she says. “Hold! It’s not like they’re some big corporation.”

“But you don’t dye your hair,” Jackson says.

His mother lifts a finger, telling him to be patient, but Jackson still hears that carousel music and knows no one is talking to her on the other end of the line.

“And you’re forty.” He has heard other women complain about being forty; last week a woman getting her hair dyed told his mother that once she turned forty, white hairs started sprouting, and her thighs seemed to get lumpier overnight. Jackson is not sure what it means to have lumpy thighs, but it seems like not a terrible trade-off: white hairs and lumpy thighs for the ability to drive and to have a cell phone and to own whatever kind of dog—preferably a corgi—you want. “You don’t have gray hair,” Jackson says.

“I’m lucky,” says his mother. “Good genes.”

“What does that mean?” says Jackson.

“Hello?” says his mother. The other end of the phone is silent.

“Shit,” she says, slamming the receiver back into its cradle. “I got cut off.” She looks up at Jackson and says, “Don’t curse. I shouldn’t curse, but you especially shouldn’t, okay?”

Jackson nods, and his mother picks up the receiver and punches in the number for the scissor sharpeners again. “Do I have good genes?” Jackson says. The carousel music comes on again and floats out of the part of the phone Jackson’s mother holds to her ear. She reaches into her pocket and hands him five dollars. “Food court,” she says.

“But I just ate fries.”

“Then could you get me a Diet Coke?”

“Diet Cokes are cheaper at Dollar General than at the food court,” says Jackson.

“Hello?” says his mother. “Yes, hello, this is Tina Huang at—” and before she can say the name of the salon, she looks up at him and says, “I finally got to a real person and they put me on hold again.” The carousel music starts once more.

“Genes?” says Jackson.

His mother sighs. “It just means what’s passed down to you by your parents. What you’re made of. And I got to forty without gray hair, so you should too.”

But Jackson knows this isn’t the whole equation. His mother is only half of things. He has never met his father, and his mother won’t talk about him. Maybe his father’s hair has turned completely white. Maybe his father dyes his hair purple so he can pretend to be younger and cooler than he is. And even though Jackson knows his mother doesn’t like to talk about his father, he says, “But what about my dad? What’s his hair like?”

“I don’t know,” says his mother. “I haven’t seen him in a long time.”


From You Are Here by Karin Lin-Greenberg. Used with permission of the publisher, Counterpoint Press Copyright © 2023 by Karin Lin-Greenberg. 

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