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The Old Dresser
by Tiff Holland


He wasn't my mom's only transvestite. He wasn't even her first, but I think he was her favorite. The Old Dresser. Only I'm not sure that's him when she slides the local paper, The Barberton Herald, folded open to the obituaries, across the table to me.

"Really?" I ask, trying to imagine the serious black and white face in lipstick and rouge.

"Of course!" She answers, sounding insulted. "I applied his foundation, plucked his eyebrows. I'd know him anywhere."

She also felt his hand inside her shirt, let him slide a fifty into her bra after each appointment. I don't say this though, just watch her, sucking hard on that fake cigarette of hers as she takes the paper back. I admit, I'm fascinated by that cigarette, I never knew there was such a thing until she started "smoking" it, and I'm always wondering whether it's plastic or what, but I don't ask and it would be weird to actually touch it myself.

"Don Anderson" she reads aloud. "You know, I never knew his real name. He looks like a Don."

I take another look. He does look like a Don or a Bob or a Joe or a George. He looks like any other seventy some year old. He doesn't look like the kind of guy who liked to dress up in women's clothes, but I learned after years of sitting in the back room of mom's shop while she put makeup on men after hours, none of them look like it.

"I would have thought he would have told you his name- at least after a few years, considering." I tell her. I met all of them. I spent a lot of time at the shop after school. She always made me stay with her when there was a man in the shop after hours, transvestite or not. In case he's a pervert, she always said. Only one of them ever gave her a hard time though. I was at basketball practice and missed it, but she told me about it. It was a beefy guy who came in with a black cocktail dress and, once she had him leaned back in the shampoo chair giving him an arch, started talking dirty. She sat him up fast as you please and made him leave, still wearing the dress, apologizing, clutching the jeans and flannel shirt he'd worn in.

"Nah, he never told," Mom said. "Most of them do, eventually, at least their first names. Do you remember Jack? But the Old Dresser never did." She takes another drag, holding the imaginary smoke in for a long second before she exhales.

Jack was her first. Jack and Jill we called him. Jack when he called in for his appointments, when he walked in with his paper bag full of women's wear in one hand; Jill when he was all dolled up. I always wondered if Jack told his buddies about Betty Petty's Beauty, wrote Mom's shop number of the wall in some gay bar in Akron. Maybe they came because Mom was so beautiful, a little Janet Leigh, a little Marilyn Monroe. Or maybe it was because, due to a mixup in the listing in the yellow pages, Mom's shop was listed first under Salons, under "B" for Betty instead of "P" for Petty. But after Jack there was a solid string of cross-dressers calling up. Some of them would make appointments but never show. Others would come in once or twice a month for a year or so. They were all a lot younger than the Old Dresser- in their early twenties mostly, and I always wondered if the dresses were something they were just trying out. Maybe Jack told them Mom was cool. Maybe they had meetings, all together somewhere. We never knew, and Jack stopped coming in all of a sudden without telling.

"I wonder what happened to Jack?"

I can tell she's really worried about him by the way she twirls her fake cigarette in little circles in the dirty ashtray she still keeps on the table even though she's supposedly quit. When she lifts it back out to take a drag, the end is all gray as if it were a real cigarette, and I realize that's why she doesn't wash the ashtray.

She always said Jack kind of looked like my younger brother, Kevin, who lives in Seattle now, designing software. They were both so thin, unhealthy looking, frail. Mom still worries obsessively over Kevin. He told me he's started screening her calls because she calls so often, usuaally early in the morning because she can't keep the time zone thing straight. He says she's always asking him to move back "home" so she can take care of him. She's in much worse shape herself. After twenty years standing on her feet all day doing breathing in the hair spray and cigarette smoke at the shop, she can hardly breathe.

"There's not much of an obituary here," I say.

"No, there's not. Looks like he had cancer. See, General Hospice."

"Hmm.." I answer. I've had enough of this conversation. The beauty shop was all she talked about for years. I figure now that she's out of there I shouldn't have to hear about it. From the time Mom bought the shop when I was eight until I moved out at seventeen, I had to hear about all the old ladies who made up the bulk of Mom's business. I didn't know most of them and couldn't care less, but Mom didn't seem to hear me when I told her that.

While we talk, Mom's been picking at the leftover chicken dinner she had for lunch, and I put the lids back on the small Styrofoam containers of hot sauce and cole slaw and stow them in the fridge while she takes a few more drags on her fake cigarette. I toss the soggy fries and chicken bones in the trash.

"So, you don't mind watching the baby, do you?" I ask.

"Mind! Are you kidding? She's the most precious..." Mom starts but then goes into one of her coughing fits, hacking away until she removes the inhaler that she now keeps inside the bra where she used to keep her tips, breathes in two puffs and holds them. I look away while she does this. She always claims the attacks don't hurt, but that's hard to believe. It sounds like she's turning inside out. When she's finished, she looks up at me, a little defiantly, as if she's going to say something else, but she doesn't. Her eyes have teared up and smeared her mascara. She looks like a blonde raccoon.

"Ok, well thanks. I'm going to grab a nap before Kristen wakes up. Do you mind if I take this paper ?" I say before she can start coughing or thanking me again, for making her a grandmother, as if I did it for her. As if I ever did anything for her. Still, there's nothing she loves like being a grandmother. She has a framed copy of Kristen's hospital picture, when she was only a few hours old, over the table. It's a funny picture. Kristen's face is still a little scrunched up, and it looks like she's rubbing her hands together, making gang signs or something. Of course, that's not possible, but I can never decide if Kristen is blessing each meal or plotting who knows what. Mom loves the picture, either way, and it's kind of disconcerting, the way Mom looks up at the picture while she's talking to you or eating.

I gather the paper up and shove it under one arm. As I pass her chair, she stops me, slides the obituaries back out. While I'm standing there, she reaches up and pushes my black hair away from my eyes, and I know she's checking to see if she got the bangs straight my last cut. Even though she's retired, she still cuts my hair on a chair in her kitchen with a bath towel draped around my shoulders. I wear it short, like I have since she first talked me into letting her practice a "shag" on me back in third grade. When she complains that I should let it grow out, I always remind her that she started it, got me hooked on short hair.

"It's fine," I tell her and head for her room in the back of the house.


I was there the first time the Old Dresser came in, waiting for Mom to close up. She'd promised to run me up to the mall to pick up my basketball jersey. Practice had started that weekend. Thirteen, I was the only freshman to make the varsity team, and I couldn't wait to get that jersey, with my name on the back and Lady Comets on the front. I was spinning impatiently on the barber chair at her station, round and round and round and up to the right and then back to the left until I'd spun back down, and as I spun, I imagined I was driving the ball down the court for a layup.. I was dragging the left toe of my Converses across the lineoleum as I twirled, so that it squeeked a high pitched little squeek like the team's shoes did on the gym floors, and Mom had just finished yelling at me to stop, to act my age, to act like a girl, when he came in.

He didn't have an appointment. Usually, the transvestites would call first, ask if Mom did men there, maybe not saying exactly what they meant. So, she'd ask straight out if they wanted an appointment for a haircut or something else, but the Old Dresser just walked in, while I drug myself to a stop, hoping this guy wasn't going to delay my trip to the mall.

"Hello," he said to me in a smooth voice, not at all nervous or weird. I nodded, the way I remembered my dad used to do when someone he didn't really know spoke to him. He had died just that year of a heart attack. Dad was quieter than Mom, and I liked to think I was more like him, since I looked like him, since I never really wanted to be like her.

"Why, hello!" Mom said in a voice like a lightbulb coming on. She was wiping out the ashtrays with a damp towel and as she walked to the door, she held the towel out for me, for me to take it to the back, for me to get lost. I ignored her.

"What can I do for you?" She asked him, setting the towel on the back of one of the dryers and giving me a dirty look. She wasn't really as happy to see him as she sounded, I knew. Men's haircuts were the cheapest item on the price list other than the senior citizen discount shampoo and set.

"Well, I was wondering," he paused and looked at me. Mom looked too, but I refused to move. I wanted that jersey. He was braver than most of the transvestites, though, he looked back at mom. "Do you apply makeup here?...On men?"

Mom knew him then, and I knew him. We weren't sure about him before, but when he said that, we knew. It seemed obvious after he asked. His hair was freshly cut, almost too short, and he'd come straight from work at some office job, obviously. He was wearing slacks and black dress shoes and a white shirt like Dad used to wear under his suit jacket. The collar looked like it had just been opened up, like it had been straining all day against a tie, and we knew that in a bag in the trunk of his car he had his real clothes, the ones he'd want to put on, maybe not that day but another day.

"Oh, sure," mom answered casually, and I got up from the chair without any prodding and slouched past the dryers to the back room to lick the icing off whatever was left in the stale box of donuts on the break table. Mom gave me a little smile as I passed, but I scowled back. I knew there was no way we'd be going to the mall. I hated the beauty shop.


I get through the front page and business but not to local before I doze off. Like most of the houses in Barberton, built in the thirties for the rubber workers, Mom's is small. When Kristen wakes, I hear her start to cry in the play yard I set up for her in the living room, but I just work her cries into my dream because I know my mom will get her right up and take care of her. Sure enough, I hear mom in there in a few minutes, cooing to Kristen. "You're the prettiest thing I ever saw," which is funny because we all know she thinks Kristen looks just like her.

I wake up automatically when it's time to nurse, my breasts aching, but I'm still groggy when the two of them show up at the bedroom door. Kristen has her binkie in her mouth, chomping away, obviously eager to eat, and mom has planted about a dozen coral kisses all over her bald head. As mom hands her to me she asks, "Do you think you could take me?"

I'm still too tired to know what she's talking about. "Huh?" I ask.

"Do you think you could take me to the funeral? The Old Dresser's?"

Mom still doesn't like to drive except about a ten mile radius from her house, just in Barberton mostly and the edges of Norton.

"Where is it?" I ask, positioning her pillows so I can nurse Kristen while I lie on my side, look into her eyes.

"Downtown." She says, meaning Akron, the former Rubber Capitol of the World. "Bacher Carr Funeral Home." We've been there before. Sometimes, when I was in high school, Mom used to make some extra cash doing the cadavers up for Mr. Bacher.

"Aunt Kay can stay with Kristen. I already called her."


"Tomorrow night. Seven."

"Sure. It won't take more than two hours, will it?" I ask. I'm still feeding Kristen every two or three hours, and I haven't been away from her for more than two since she was born three months ago. I don't think I could stand to be away from her any longer, even if I wasn't nursing.

"No, I don't think so." She tells me.

"Why do you want to go?" I put Kristen to my left breast and take a look at the clock. Ten minutes each side. I used to be jealous of the Old Dresser, of all her customers, really. She always seemed to have more time for them than she did me, and I never understood how she could be so cool with the transvestites, accepting them for who they were, dressing them up, chatting with them after, but was always telling me to "look like a girl," and put my "knockers out," kissing me on both cheeks and then rubbing the lipstick into my cheeks so that it would look like rouge

"I don't know. I want to show my respects I guess, but I'm also curious. You know, he was very good to me." She's messing with her clothes, not knowing what to do without a cigarette in her hands, or a baby, or somebody's hair. It has to seem odd to be that close to someone but not to really know him, what he does, where he lives or even his real name.

"You mean the fifties?" I ask, running my hand over Kristen's head.

"They were a tip," she answers, "on top of the makeup application."

"You don't think he was taking advantage of you? Making you stay late? Wasn't that kind of kinky, sliding the money into your bra?"

"Not any more kinky than those outfits," she says.

The Old Dresser always wore really bright dresses, too high shoes and, sometimes, artificial nails that stretched like daggers from his fingertips. Mom would spend an hour on those alone, applying, filing, painting, then he'd waltz around the shop in the whole getup for five or ten minutes, maybe sit in a dryer chair and read the Enquirer before he'd have her take them right back off.

"Those fifties came in handy, you know," she says. I hadn't really thought about it, but things were awfully tight after Dad died

"Well, ok, no problem. If Aunt Kay will watch Kristen."

"She will." Mom gets silent for a minute. Looks at Kristen, sucking away.

"Just like a little animal," Mom says, a little too close so Kristen squirms a little as if she's afraid Mom might be after her dinner, and I move away, too. "Did you ever think you'd be doing this?

"No," I answer, honestly. "After five years of trying, Dave and I gave up."

"I didn't know you were trying," Mom says. "I thought you just didn't want to make me a grandma- out of spite."

I look up at her. "You didn't really think that, did you?" I ask.

"I don't know, maybe. I thought you didn't like me, didn't want to make me happy, maybe didn't want to be like me."

"So, I wouldn't want kids? Just so I wouldn't be a mom like you?" We never really got along very well, not for years, but that's changed since Kristen.

"Maybe." Mom says.

"No, Mom." I tell her. " I just wanted to be me. It had nothing to do with not being you." Kristen pulls off the nipple, puts her chin up in the air like she always does when she's finished. Dave calls it "doing the Betty" since my mom always sticks her chin out in pictures, because she thinks her neck is fat. I put Kristen up on my shoulder to burp her. "I love being a mom."


The last time I was at the shop when the Old Dresser was there, I stopped by after practice because my car had broken down, and I needed a ride. I was sixteen then, and the Old Dresser had been coming in regular for two or three years. I used my key on the back door to let myself in, and there they were, the Old Dresser pressing up against mom in the doorway between the front and the back room. The orange and yellow beads that hung from the door frame just grazed the top of the Old Dresser's head as he melted into her and pushed the money into her bra. He seemed drunk or something, but I know Mom wouldn't let him drink in the shop, wouldn't have done him that day if he'd been drinking. Probably, he was still just intoxicated by the sight of himself in his clothes and makeup, or maybe it was her that made him that way, her smell, the way hung onto him, not quite looking as he slipped her the tip. I didn't say anything, just snatched my key out of the lock as quick as I could and left. I walked home that day.


I beep my horn when I go to pick Mom up, but she doesn't come out. I feel amazingly light without Kristen in one arm or astride my hip, without her carseat dangling from one arm. I take the stairs two at a time from the drive up to the front door, and I let myself in. I find Mom in the kitchen. She's all ready in a maroon colored print dress with a turquoise belt at the waist and a bright yellow scarf at her throat. She's standing in front of an open window with a real cigarette, blowing the smoke out, and she notices me looking at the scarf.

"He loved color." Mom tells me, adjusting the scarf.

"I thought you quit," I say, trying not to sound like I'm accusing her of anything. I worry about her, and I want Kristen to have a grandmother. Dave's mom is dead.

"I needed one today," she says, and I realize maybe the Old Dresser, Don, meant more to her than I had considered. "Is that what you're wearing?" She asks as she stubs the cigarette out on the sill and tosses it out the window. I'm wearing a navy pantsuit, silk, from my pre-pregnancy days as an insurance adjuster. Thanks to the elastic waist, the pants still fit.

"Obviously," I answer. "Let's go."

After we're buckled in she asks me if we can make a stop. "Sure," I tell her. "Where?"

"The mall."

"Why do you want to go to the mall, Mom?"

"I want to get you something to wear."

"I have something to wear," I tell her. I know she's thinking dress, and she knows I don't wear dresses any more. I remind her.

"You should. What about Kristen?" She pulls down the visor and peers into the vanity mirror, brings out a lipstick.

"What about Kristen?" I ask, turning the key.

"You need to look good for her. You should at least wear more color. Babies love color."

She pulls out a crumpled kleenex and blots her lips.

"Kristen's just fine, Mom." She doesn't say anything else for a while because she knows I'm right.

We make a stop for gas, and Mom goes inside the station for, it turns out, more cigarettes. "You can't smoke in the car, Mom." I tell her, gently.

"I know, I know, but I might want one later."

I click on the radio. Mom looks out the window. In another twenty minutes we arrive at Bacher Carr. The lot is full of big cars, Caddies and Lincolns. Most of the people we know drive Cavaliers and Sunfires, little pickups. There are a few old people, dressed in black, standing outside the door, talking.

"Here you go, Mom." I say pulling into a space. She smooths her dress as she gets out, and we walk in together. There's a big guest book just inside the door, and Mom stops to sign it, "Betty Petty" in big looping script. She hands the pen to me. "Mickey Petty" I write in my half-print cursive as she looks over my shoulder. She grabs the pen back, crosses out my Mickey and replaces it with a Michelle. "Whatever," I tell her and turn around. It's a somber, older crowd. I see a few of the women in black dresses and pearls look at Mom, her bright yellow scarf like a flag, but she doesn't seem to notice them. After a moment, they look away.

On an easel beside the casket is a large color picture of the Old Dresser, Don, with a long column of newsprint curling down beside it, the full-length obituary that ran in the Beacon, it turns out. Mom reads aloud in a loud whispery voice: "Don Anderson, 70. Vice President Roadway Radials," then stops and turns to me. "Hmmm..." She says. "I always knew he had money." She reads the rest to herself while I stare over her at the open casket.

The Old Dresser is laid out in charcoal suit and shiny black shoes that look like they've never been worn. He has a little less hair than I remember, but it's hard to say since he usually brought a wig. Mom styled that for him, too. His hands are huge, sticking out from his sleeves. He's dead, of course, but he still looks very, very pale.

"Leaves wife Beverly," Mom tells me as she turns around. "No kids."

That's obviously Beverly in the other corner. She seems stern but sad, and I wonder if she ever found out about Don's clothes.

"Too bad she's all alone now." Mom tells me, and I know Mom means it, that she feels sorry for this woman she's never met.

"It doesn't look like she's all alone," I answer. There are several women and a man standing near her, probably some kind of family.

"Well, let's say goodbye," Mom says as she moves closer to the casket.

She appraises the Old Dresser for a moment. "Tsk," she says. "They should have called me to do him up. His coloring is off, and he liked his hair parted on the other side." We both know that they wouldn't have known Mom was his "operator" and that now that she's closed the shop they would have called someone else to do him up.

"What's left of it" I answer.

"Yes, what's left of it," she says as she reaches in and pulls the arms of the suit down over the cuffs of his shirt. He's wearing big square black onyx cufflinks, and she covers them. "Ugly," she says.

"Mom." I say, sternly, making sure no one is looking, but she's not listening. She takes a rattail comb out of her purse and combs his hair so that it parts on the left the way he liked. Then she kisses him on both cheeks, rubs it in the way she used to do me, the way she still would if I let her. "There," she says, stepping back to appraise her handiwork. "Some color. He always felt better with a little color."

She's right. She leans back one in more time. "Goodbye you Old Dresser," she says. "Don. Thank You." She turns to me.

"Ready?" I ask.

"Yes." She starts coughing, pulls out another kleenex to wipe her mouth. She nods at Beverly on the way out, and I can tell Beverly is wondering who she is. I feel kind of sorry for Beverly. We might not have known his name, but she never knew him either, not really, and she was his wife.

" I need a puff," she tells me back in my Honda.

"Ok," I say, and even though I don't approve of it, I let her smoke in the car on the way home.


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