Life is Fiction: Vanity

Mildred Kitchens was in the vanity business, and Rachel was the most vain woman in town.  Always had been. The face of a cheerleader. The legs of a runway model. Tall. Thin. No matter what she ate, Rachel was always thin. Long auburn hair that draped across her shoulders. A smile that could knock a man dead at thirty paces and usually did.

And Rachel never saw a mirror she didn’t like.

She may have grown a little older.

The reflection in the mirror hadn’t.

And if she held her head just right, and a gentle splash of sunlight touched her face and wound its way through the curls of her auburn hair, Rachel was, as she had always been, the loveliest woman in Crystal Springs.

She knew it.

So did everyone else.

“Look at Rachel,” they would say.

“A beautiful lady.”

“She’s more beautiful every day.”

“Always had such class.”

“And she still looks so young.”

“I wish I knew her secret.”

Only Mildred Kitchens knew her secret. She should. Mildred Kitchens was in the vanity business. She operated a small beauty salon on a back street across the alley and behind the Savings & Trust in the small town.

But she just didn’t do hair.

Not Mildred.

She did faces as well.

And Mildred possessed the deft hand of an artist and was, it was whispered far and wide, something of a magician when it came to mixing just the right combination of powders and lotions – some she concocted herself – lipstick and rouge, eye shadow and sparkle gloss.

An old woman would walk into her salon.

A young woman would walk out.

At least, they felt that way, and the mirror on the back of the shop told them so, and beauty was no longer merely skin deep. When Mildred finished with them, beauty attached itself to the bone.

She didn’t merely hide wrinkles. She erased them.

That’s why Rachel had been coming to see Mildred for so many years.

“Keep the wrinkles away,’ she would say.

The women both laughed.

And Mildred kept the wrinkles away.

They had grown up together in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, had even swapped dolls back and forth as young girls and shared mustard and onion sandwiches.

But they hadn’t gone to school together.

Rachel was white.

Mildred wasn’t.

Rachel graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in marriage.

Mildred went into the vanity business.

Some people in town collected stamps and coins and designer dolls.

Rachel collected husbands.

She had buried two, left one outright, and another suddenly showed up at the train station one morning with a suitcase and a bullet hole in the sleeve of his suit coat and bought a one-way ticket West.

“Where to?” the agent had asked.

“Don’t care,” the man said.

“We only go as far as Tucson,” the agent said.

“That’ll do,” the man said.

Rachel only laughed it off. “It wasn’t really a fight,” she said. “It was just a simple disagreement.”

“What about?”

“I wanted him dead. He didn’t want to die.”

She laughed again.

Rachel had said on more than one occasion that she remained in Crystal Springs just so the gossips would have something new to talk about over knitting, quilting, baking, and coffee each morning, trading opinions about which men were worth keeping around and which ones had run out of gas. Men ran out of gas a lot in Crystal Springs, Mississippi.

Mildred Kitchens could always count on seeing Rachel before every party, grand opening, celebration, or social gathering in town. During holidays, Rachel often came in to the salon twice a week, maybe more.

“Keep me beautiful,” she would say.

“I’ll keep you just the way you are, Miss Rachel,” Mildred would tell her.

And Rachel smiled. The way she was happened to be just fine.

Rachel always preferred to be front and center during the most special of occasions, and this one was the biggest of all, a high society collection of fine frocks and neatly pressed suits. It was important for Rachel to look better than the rest of them. She had always trusted Mildred to make her beautiful, and today would be no different.

Mildred added one final touch of rouge. It looked so natural. The lipstick was flawless. And her hair had never looked better. A touch of gray perhaps, but hints of auburn still shone through.

Those who saw Rachel all said, as usual, “She’s such a beautiful lady.”

“She’s more beautiful every day.”

“Always had such class”

“And she still looks so young.”

“I wish I knew her secret.”

Mildred Kitchens stood to the side and out of the way. She kept smiling, which is what a woman does when she’s in the vanity business. Here was a woman who had always reflected her finest work. She was still smiling when she gazed on Rachel’s face for the last time, just before they quietly closed the lid to the coffin.


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