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
"Really?" I ask, trying to
imagine the serious black and white face in lipstick
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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.
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
After we're buckled in she asks me if
we can make a stop. "Sure," I tell her.
"Why do you want to go to the mall,
"I want to get you something to
"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
"I know, I know, but I might want
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,
"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
"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
" 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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