On the way home, I stopped at the grocery store – ostensibly to pick up a few items, but in truth, I needed to use their restroom. But once inside the bathroom I found it occupied, so I stepped outside to wait. As I did, another man entered and I knew I was going to have an even longer wait. To take my mind off it, I glanced down at the display items in a bin. I was reading the ingredients on a package of peppermint bark, discreetly doing the “I need to go to the bathroom” jig easily recognized by any second grader, when a woman called me over.
The woman, whose name tag identified her as “Karen,” was in one of those little sampling booths that grocery stores set up to entice customers into trying products they ordinarily wouldn’t look at twice let alone buy. “Would you like some chicken?” She pointed to an array of toothpicks sticking out of tiny slivers of meat.
“No thank you,” I replied, dancing my indiscreet jig while eyeing the restroom door.
“You look like my husband,” Karen said, almost in an accusatory tone. She stared at me intently.
It was awkward because until the restroom emptied out she had a captive audience. I made a slight grimace. “Um, well, I can assure you, I’m not.” I wasn’t quite sure what to say but I felt that would cover it.
“Oh, I know that. He’s been dead for fifteen years.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I shuffled from foot-to-foot, feeling oddly envious of him because at least he didn’t have to pee anymore. I thought perhaps I should express more condolences, maybe throw in a “sorry for your loss,” but before I could say anything, Karen broke out laughing. “It was funny when he died.”
Okay, now condolences seemed awkward. Once more, I was uncertain how to respond. “Really?” I ventured.
She leaned forward. “It’s a funny story. Do you want some chicken?”
Again, I turned down the sample.
“He wore a hairpiece. When he died, I had to call his stylist to go to the funeral parlor and fix it so he’d look good.” She smiled.
I wasn’t sure if this was the part where I was supposed to laugh, so there was an uncomfortable silence. I was beginning to wish I had stuffed a piece of chicken into my mouth to provide me with an excuse for not replying.
“But you know,” Karen continued, “the head shrinks when you’re dead, and no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t get that hairpiece to fit.” She laughed, and I realized this must be the punch line. I forced a smile. Karen added, “I still have four of his hairpiece mannequin heads at home. I set them on the counter and he talks to me through them.”
My mind flashed back to an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show [“Coast to Coast Big Mouth” (1965)] in which Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) accidentally blabs on live TV that her husband’s TV star boss Alan Brady (Carl Reiner) wears a toupee. Laura attempts to apologize to an infuriated Brady, seated behind his desk surrounded by his now-obsolete hairpiece mannequin heads. Throughout their conversation, Brady pivots to address the heads (“Fellas? There she is. There's the little lady who put you out of business.”).
|Alan Brady (Carl Reiner) addresses the mannequin heads.|
I pictured the woman sitting before four mannequin heads channeling the spirit of her dead husband. What was he saying to her? I wondered. I thought of the Son of Sam killer who had murdered because the voices in his head told him to do so. What might the voice she heard coming from the mannequin heads be telling her to do? I glanced down at the slivers of chicken impaled on toothpicks, thankful I had not sampled them. I began to see the possibilities of a great short story forming. And to think, people believe I’m being facetious when they ask where I get my story ideas from and I reply I pick them up at the grocery store.