The Red Wig
By Ellen Hecht
Melanie didn’t quite know why she had to have it, but every time she walked by the red wig in the shop window, she knew it had to be hers. She had begun longing for it since she first walked by the shop and stopped cold in her tracks. Something stirred in her as she pressed her nose against the glass. She would have gone inside and asked to try it on, but it was after hours. The shop’s sign said “Closed.” Anyway, she knew she couldn’t afford it. Walking home, she began thinking about how she might be able to save the money to buy the beautiful red wig in the shop window.
As she passed by the shop every day, she would stop, gaze longingly into the window and get a feeling she hadn’t felt since she was little. There had been a doll she had wanted at a shop around the corner from her parents’ house. She begged them to buy it for her, but she was told that times were hard. She never did get that doll. Even now, all these years later, she occasionally dreamt about it.
She knew if she missed this opportunity, the beautiful wig would be another wistful dream. She also knew it would be difficult to save the money. She supported herself with her job at the sewing machine factory. After paying her rent and buying food, her paycheck was usually stretched as far as it could go.
William’s wife had died. “How many years ago now . . . five . . . six?” He scratched his head where his hair had once been, his memory not as sharp as it used to be. Age had crept up and slapped him where it hurt, but he still had the shop. Without it he would have gone truly mad.
The Manic Cottage of Eclectic Curios and Sideshow Souvenirs had been in William B. Lonsdale’s family for over 150 years. Run by generations of the Lonsdale family and situated on street level, with second floor lodgings, deep in the heart of San Francisco, it was one of the few buildings that had survived the earthquake of 1906. The building itself still stood, although the shop had lost some of its rarest curios of the time including a dress purportedly having belonged to a victim of Jack the Ripper.
William B. was born in 1938, at home in his mother’s bed on the second floor above the shop, along with his twin sister Ginger who died at birth. Her mummified little body was kept in a display case in the family’s parlor.
William began working in the shop with his father when he was eight and there he had stayed. For as long as he could remember, they had collected and sold curiosities. The shop drew a clientele of unusual people. Both he and his father had a particular fondness for Circus folk, Gypsies and whomever else society had deemed to be “freaks.” He had met his wife, Rayza, when her family had passed through with a travelling circus. For William it had been love at first sight. Their vehicle pulled up in front of the shop and he caught sight of the young woman he would make his wife. The first transaction was a trade – a crystal ball for a shriveled monkey’s paw. Various other antiquities and curiosities traded hands over the years and when they were in their late teens they married.
Rayza moved in upstairs with William and his parents. She and William never had children, but they did travel together, purchasing rare and wondrous objects for the shop from all over the world. They loved with a deep bond, never apart in all the years they were married, not even for a single night.
A year after Rayza’s death, William had gone on a pilgrimage to bring some of her things to her parents who were both still living and long since retired. In particular, he thought they would want to have her collection of prized wigs. He was surprised when they refused his offer, instead advising him to display them for sale in the window of the shop. Mysteriously, they told him that doing so would bring him far more than a mere financial benefit.
Little by little, all the wigs were sold, except the one with the long, red hair which had been Rayza’s favorite.
One day after closing, he saw a young woman come to stand outside the shop, apparently admiring the last remaining wig. He observed her day after day, at the same time, morning and evening. He wondered how long before she would come during business hours. Somehow he knew she would . . . eventually.
Time went by. Every pay-period Melanie resolutely set aside a portion of her tiny paycheck. She lived in anticipation of the day she would clutch her purse to her chest and let herself into the shop, hear what she imagined would be the “ding” of the shop doorbell and the “shhhhh-klunk” of the door closing behind her. Before she would approach the shopkeeper, she would whisper to her prize – the beautiful red wig – “I’m here! I’ve come for you!” All this would go through her mind while gazing at the wig displayed on its stand inside the window on her way to work and on the way home – always before the shop opened and after it closed for the night.
As months passed, Melanie began fearing the red wig would be gone from the window – sold to someone else – before she could save enough money.
Then one afternoon while at work, Melanie began to feel ill and even though she couldn’t afford to take time off work, she knew she was getting worse by the minute. She asked the factory foreman if she could leave early. Walking home, she rounded the corner and slowed to a stop in front of The Manic Cottage of Eclectic Curios and Sideshow Souvenirs or, as she had fondly come to think of it, The Cottage.
Stopping to look in the window, she let her breath out with a sigh when she saw the red wig was still there. But there was something different. The sign said “Open.” Her heart leaped but just as quickly it sank again when an older gentleman came from the back of the shop, approached the door, reached out to turn the lock and then flipped the “Open” sign around; “Closed.” Just then he looked up and smiled at Melanie. He unlocked the door and she heard the distinct sound she had imagined many times, the sound of the shop bell ringing. The man nodded at her and beckoned her to come inside. By leaving work early she had arrived just at closing time.
“I don’t mind staying a while if you’d like to browse,” the shopkeeper told her. “We have many unusual and interesting items for sale. I live upstairs so it really doesn’t matter to me how long you take.”
Melanie found herself in the center of the cluttered shop. Objects clung to the edges of the shelves in disarray and seemed to be in the process of slow decay. Carved wooden monkeys and old puppets dangled from the ceiling. Puzzle boxes of various sizes were stacked in an unstudied display. Oriental rugs and tapestries lined the shop walls. The scent of incense mingled with the smell of melted wax, dust and furniture polish. Melanie turned her head towards the window.
“It’s the wig, isn’t it?” the shop owner said. Without answering, Melanie walked back towards the front of the shop and stood, transfixed, looking at the red wig – from behind – a view she had never seen before. It was even more beautiful from the back, she thought.
“Would you like to try it on?”
Melanie thought for a moment. She wanted the wig more than anything, but what if she tried it on, and couldn’t bear to take it off? She still was months away from having enough to make the purchase. There was still a chance someone else could take it before she could afford to buy it.
The shopkeeper seemed to sense her hesitation.
“Let’s just have you try it on. There is no obligation to buy it.”
There was a key on the shopkeeper’s key ring that unlocked the glass cabinet housing the red wig. With a twist of his wrist he opened it, swung the door outward and reached with both hands, lifting the wig off the wig stand.
“There is a mirror in the back of the shop.”
Melanie followed him and then stood in front of the full-length mirror and watched him lower the coveted red wig, as though . . . she thought . . . as though she were at a royal coronation and the wig were a crown. Just as he fitted the wig to her head, Melanie felt a sharp, painful prick. She cried out.
“Oww! The wig stand pin!” And then the room seemed to swirl. Darkness closed in around her.
When Melanie regained consciousness, she felt that only moments had passed, yet it was clearly the next day as morning sunlight streamed through the shop window. Her vision was a bit blurred, but she could see herself reflected in the full-length mirror. She was wearing different clothing than she had on when she arrived at the shop, even though she did not remember changing. Her reflection was dressed in a dowdy, old fashioned dress. The red wig was no longer on her head. She could see the shopkeeper standing at her side with his arm draped around her shoulders, yet she could not feel his touch. She saw him kiss her on the lips. As much as she felt revolted, wanting to push him away, she felt oddly stiff – unable to lift her arms to do so. She did not feel the pressure of their lips touching. She had no feeling in her arms or legs or anywhere else in her body, for that matter.
Continuing to observe the mirror’s reflection, she could see that she held a doll, a doll that looked just like the one she had begged her parents to buy her when she had been a little girl; the beautiful doll with a plaid dress and long red hair.
The shopkeeper reached for the doll, taking it from the arms of the woman reflected in the mirror. With a sense of dread and confusion, she realized she was being lifted up and placed on a shelf next to a row of sock monkeys, a Jack-in-a-box and a clown. From her perch on the shelf, unable to speak or move, Melanie observed the elderly woman who stood where only moments before she had stood in front of the mirror.
She heard the shopkeeper’s voice, low and velvety.
“My darling, Rayza. I missed you so much.”
The woman inhabiting Melanie’s former body responded to the shopkeeper’s words.
“Oh William, my love. I missed you too!”
Every pay-period Melanie resolutely set aside a portion of her tiny paycheck. She lived in anticipation of the day she would clutch her purse to her chest and let herself into the shop, hear what she imagined would be the “ding” of the shop doorbell and the “shhhhh-klunk” of the door closing behind her. Before she would approach the shopkeeper, she would whisper to her prize – the beautiful red wig – “I’m here! I’ve come for you!”