Celia Gilbert

"Skywriting" by Celia Gilbert



        That night, half asleep, awakened by the sciatica in her left leg, she sighed. She had thought it only happened to her right leg, and now this.  Beside her, her husband lay wrapped in the sheet like a fallen soldier. A dim light from some electric apparatus pinpointed the room with its varnished furniture, dark and brooding like the history of Palermo.  She tried turning to see if the pain would ease. When it didn’t she staggered up and took some Motrin.  She decided she wouldn’t go to the excavation they had planned to see that morning.  The list of things her husband and Giovanni, the guide, had scheduled went on and on: museums, temples, cathedrals, fish markets, and flea markets, and always it said somewhere time to relax but she was still tired after the trip from Boston and it was only Tuesday.

        When he awoke, cheerful and contented as usual, she told him she wouldn’t be going. He acquiesced with regret.  As soon as he left she fell back to sleep, but mid-morning she woke with the claustrophobic feeling one had in hotel rooms in foreign places when not to be out and about was to be trapped in a limbo, a painful exile from oneself.

       You have to get up and get your hair done, she told herself. This is going to be your last chance for a week and you can’t look this way.

        Her thinning hair hung limp and dirty. Strands of salt and pepper gray wove in and out of the brown.  She felt it was shameful that her father had made her mother dye hers.  She never intended to color her hair. Gray hair was distinguished, and she thought it would be a violation of her integrity to color. Her husband, though, had different feelings; for a year without her noticing he had had his hair colored. 

         Everyone has to get old she told herself, but she had just had her seventieth birthday. “It” was coming too close. “It” could not be far off.  What were ten years when time passed more quickly every day? She pushed the thought away and tried not to see the crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes, the crepey skin of her cheeks. She dreaded going to a hairdresser in a strange town, but the days were gone when she could step into the shower, wash her hair and blow it dry. Now she needed the mousse and the gels, the hair sprays and the clever hands of a hairdresser to fix her hair in place.

        She dressed rapidly, wincing when her left leg sent up sharp twinges, and descended into the lobby of the hotel, a palazzo of some late 18th century style. When they had arrived, congeries of police in light blue and plainclothes men in dark suits had clustered about the entrance scanning the street.  An international conference of religious leaders was in town. 

          The color of the walls downstairs, a sulphurous yellow, gave out a somber light. A small sitting room and bar, and a display of jewelry in a well-lit case, occupied one part of the lobby.  To the side was a big sign with the schedule for the congress.  The conferees were nodding and smiling.  Some wore white robes, brilliant against their black skin. They spoke in a sonorous English, Italian, and other languages she could not identify.

           At the reception desk, two handsome clerks stood tall, vibrantly black-haired, with a classic Italian air of easy-going virility.  She was wearing her khaki pants, a white tee shirt, and her running shoes.  It was torture to wear shoes so ugly but there was nothing else she could walk in comfortably. On her head she wore a khaki cap with a wide brim to ward off skin cancer.

         She considered in what language to ask for advice.  Her Italian from years of traveling in Italy, for short periods, never got better than simple phrases and a lot of audacity for her accent was very good.  She decided for English.  Perhaps speaking Italian when others spoke better English seemed like an old romantic idea now.  She explained what she was looking for. The man smiled, “Of course,” he said, “there is one not far. You go straight down the Via Emmanuele to the Quattro Canti then turn left on the via Maqueda until you get to the Piazza del Castello Nuovo.  It’s right above MacDonald’s.”

         Laughing at the incongruity, she thought a moment and asked for the name.

          He appeared uncertain, pulled out a phone book, looked in a slow fashion and shrugged.

        “It is just there, Signora, no problem, just go straight.”

         She left the hotel with a sense of freedom. No guide, no husband, she felt confident, ready for adventure the way she had been in her student days abroad. At the same time her leg was hurting, and not being able to read a map or remember directions for more than a minute made her uneasy.

       Sure enough, when she came to the corner of the Piazza of Quattro Canti she had to ask herself had the clerk said to turn right or left?  And what was the name of the street she should be on? She determined it was left, turned left and lost her nerve.  She sized up several people, some walking too fast some she just couldn’t bring herself to ask and finally, desperate, stopped a white-haired man who wasn’t walking too swiftly.  She stated her goal; he shook his head indicating she was going entirely in the wrong direction and accompanied her across the street in a kindly way.  Straight down the via Maqueda was what she wanted, then past the Teatro Massimo.

         The streets she walked on were busy; the people…there was something flattened about them, neither happy nor sad, an undercurrent of what? Depression?   Palermo bustled but with a certain southern slowness. The tall buildings looked down grimy gray. The shops in this part of town had small, unenticing window fronts.  Young women with beautiful bodies and tight short skirts passed her.  Heavy-bosomed matrons, dressed in shades of camel and beige moved by, arm-in-arm, exchanging confidences.  September sun warmed her back.

        The clerk had said she would pass the Teatro Massimo. She remembered it from the excursion the day before.  Their guide, Giovanni, had said it was the work of a famous 19th century architect imitating an ancient temple.  Over the top of the pediment was engraved a quotation from Cicero: “It is the work of history to teach people”.  Once again since their arrival she was reminded of her father, his love of classics and history. The time they were in Rome together, every street, every palace was a book whose story he recounted to her with passion. How close he was to her now.  These days it seemed there were a thousand invisible filaments tied to her, any one of which might without warning pull her from the place she was to a place where she had been. It was a form of time travel not unlike the trip they were taking now, a voyage to connect with the past.

        Now again she was unsure, had the clerk said turn left at the Teatro Massimo?  She entered one of the two ornate kiosks in front of the Teatro. Vendors usually knew everything, but suddenly she felt too shy to ask. The place was crowded with men buying lottery tickets and cigarettes. She bought some stamps and left.   She walked a bit more, turned and passed the Café dell’ Opera where people were taking morning coffee.  The guidebook had said that somewhere nearby was the pasticceria where Guiseppe Di Lampdusa used to take his breakfast, (but could one trust the guide books?).   She passed camera shops, television stores, each moment hoping she was going in the right direction, then, unexpectedly she saw a beauty salon. In it a sole client sat draped in a cloth, worked on by a short man, fair–skinned, with curly dark hair, and an imperious expression.  She weighed her chances of engaging with him and decided against it when he made no sign of seeing her. “Too cruel” she thought. And that word triggered a memory of a few months ago when she had decided to color her hair.

        They had been having dinner out before the theatre. She wore an  elegant new dress. That afternoon they had made passionate love. She felt triumphant sipping her wine, looking at the other diners, wondering about their lives, when suddenly her husband said, almost as if to himself,  ”Your hair has turned very gray.”

          Her whole body went cold. What had been going through his mind? Instantly she thought he must be comparing her to some other woman. Never in their long married life had he made her feel inadequate.  What a fool she had been. If he himself colored his hair mustn’t he wish her to do the same?  Again she remembered her mother, this time in a beauty chair, Mr. George slathering her hair with a brush full of brown dye.

        “I think my hair looks nice white,” said her mother, as she looked on disapprovingly, “but it would make your father feel like an old man.  And that wouldn’t do.”

          She continued down the broad street with a sense of foreboding as though she were trapped in a dream.  The large seven- and eight-story apartment houses signaled she could never know what went on in them.  A woman passed by with a tiny dog on a leash. She asked her timidly where the Piazza del Castello Nuovo was but the woman didn’t know, apologized, and went on.

           She walked further debating whether she should give, up cursing herself that she had never really learned to read a map, but talking to people was her forte and she had always been able to a make herself understood.

            She determined on one last try, crossed the street and went into a dry cleaning store and asked.   Behind the counter, a matronly woman, short gray hair, gold-capped teeth, had a quick conversation with a younger woman. It seemed there were two ways of going. “No,” the older one said firmly, shrugging her shoulders,  “She should go this street, otherwise she will get lost.”   The woman walked to the door, pointed, and told her to go down the street, to turn right, and then to go straight.  In a minute she found herself back on the via Maqueda and then the street opened on to a very large graceful Piazza, like a little park, open on four sides with trees and benches and food carts. Turning left she passed a pharmacy and saw a very discrete MacDonald’s sign near tables and chairs set out on the sidewalk, but where was the beauty parlor? Had he said, sotto, or sopra?  There was no sign in the windows above the street.

         Confused, she went into the pharmacy, remembering that her husband had forgotten to bring his Metamucil, thinking she might find it and accomplish something.  She entered, scanned the shelves, but saw nothing familiar.      

          Behind the counter a black-haired woman with finely-cut features wearing a professional white coat, asked “Dica, signora?”

          It was a challenge.  How to describe the problem without the vocabulary?  Constipation? Bowels? She opened her mouth waiting for inspiration, stammered a few words looking for circumlocutions.  Estomaca was as far as she could get but she persisted in broken phrases, using the English word for the brand. She repeated mio marito as though the mention of a husband in this country would count for more. Now the pharmacist searched the shelves and brought down a bright cheerful yellow box with a picture of grain in a field.  It was an all-natural product, but what if it was the wrong thing?  Was there anything else?  The woman said only things that were of a more chemical nature, and shrugged, looking at her at her with a patience that concealed impatience.  She scanned the shelves as if her need to bring home the familiar brand would make it happen.  Firmly the pharmacist said there was nothing else

         She noticed a man who had been standing against a case the whole time, neither buying nor speaking. He reminded her of the men she had seen in other places  men who own the store and do nothing but survey the work the women carry out.  She thought he had a sinister air.  Wearily, she surrendered and accepted the box, and then as if this transaction had somehow established a link between her and the woman she asked if there was there a hairdresser near MacDonald’s?

       The woman said immediately, “Yes, there is one. And I will call them for you.”

         At that moment it occurred to her that she had been a complete fool thinking she could just walk in somewhere and get an appointment and it was already late in the morning.  The pharmacist went into a back room with a window; she watched her riffle through some papers and emerge triumphant.     

        “It’s across the street,” the pharmacist said. “But I found the number I will telephone.”  “No need,” said she said weakly, embarrassed, but the pharmacist was already dialing.

         “Christina?  Francesca, I have here una donna… una donna senile.  Can you take her?  Yes?  Ah some others first?  I will direct her.”

        The pharmacist hung up and came around the counter and led her to the door. “Across the street and to the left, it is right there in a big building.” And she waved her hand.  She went back in but immediately returned.

        “Signora, you forgot!" she dangled the package in front of her.

        The words echoed:  Una donna senile.  They rang out as she crossed the pretty square, as she stood in front of a large building with a closed courtyard.  A man in a guard’s uniform stood outside with a cell phone.  A man carrying a briefcase passed her and entered.  Could this be the place, hadn’t the pharmacist said it was directly across the street?  Once more she felt a drowning, struggling sensation.  It was getting late, she was hungry, almost defeated but she kept telling herself she was getting close, not to despair though she felt all her energy draining from her.

         “Is there a hairdresser near by? ”  she asked in Italian. The man laughed, “Not here, there.  He turned, “Alla sinistra un grande portrone.

          She walked a few yards, turned the corner; there was an apartment building, very grand, but no sign of a hairdresser.  She was now on a lovely residential street with some elegant boutiques and on the corner a little neighborhood café and standup bar where people were starting to get their lunches.  Why did this always happen, her going from person to person asking in effect to be taken care of?  How infantile she was really.  What malicious sprite made her unable simply to follow directions as normal people do?

          A sudden vision of her mother, ninety, in diapers, unable to walk, swaddled in a chair, not recognizing her when she came for a visit, awake for only short periods of time, her only activity to pluck a Kleenex from the box and apply it to her runny nose.  The face she so loved with its eyes no longer able to open, vacant of expression except for certain moments when key words could still pull her from her dark pit of oblivion.

          Wearily she entered the bar and spoke to the woman behind the cash register.

      “C’e una parrucchiera nella vicina?”

        The woman, trim, hennaed, with dark eyes, heavily made up, looked at her, the hat, the shoes, the accent, and went with her to the door.

        “Certo,” she said courteously.”  Laggiù, numero 6 la grande poltrone, Christina, la prima piano.”

        She recrossed the street and in a minute was in front of the door she had passed before. At the top of broad granite stairs she found herself in a very large set of high-ceilinged rooms where an agitated blond in tight black pants and a tight sleeveless black top was just blow-drying a customer. The walls were decorated with posters of movie stars and glamorous women with white feral teeth advertising hair preparations.

         They looked at one another. So, she sees the “senile donna”, she thought, words that burrowed inside her, at first to laugh at, then over the next few days and weeks to settle in, to fester, to remind her that she was indeed 70 years old, set apart from others who had not reached this threshold, the one where she would turn and looking back regret all that had not been accomplished.

          “I’d like to have my hair washed and blow-dried,” she said timidly.

          Christina said with a look of stern disapproval. “The signora must have her hair cut.  Her hair is too long!”

          Christina explained she was shorthanded, had two clients before her, but the wait would be brief.

       Have a stranger cut her hair?  She shuddered, thought briefly of turning around and going off to have a coffee and a sandwich, but when she proposed that, the hairdresser became agitated as if she could read her mind and see that she might bolt altogether.

         Then, it was all too much, the idea of leaving and starting somewhere else. She had to accept she was there for however long it took.  Grateful for a shabby comfortable sofa in the corner, she sank down, pulled out The Leopard, the book she come prepared with, and let herself be soothed by the conversations of Christina and her client, their Italian rising and falling like music.

         The woman being worked on appeared older than she herself, she noted with satisfaction. Her hennaed hair was being blown into high waves.  Her face was a network of wrinkles.  The old woman spoke in a rusty gravely voice like someone not used to speech.   She remembered that she was always surprised when people who knew her age commented on her youthful voice.   Was there a voice that went with “old?”

          She plunged back into The Leopard, the scene where Angelica the base-born daughter of a nouveau-rich man comes to dinner and with her young, full-blown sensual beauty disturbs the whole dinner party.  Suddenly she recalled, years ago when they crossed over the Alps into Italy, the border guard checking her and her passport photo had said in unfeigned admiration that she was a bella donna; now she understood it had been nothing more than youth.

         Finally in the chair, the moment she feared, her wet hair plastered down, her naked appearance shocked her.  She surrendered.  Like a mad woman, Christina combed and cut without pause talking all the time in Italian

          “Where are you from?  Boston, yes?  I have relatives in New York.  Last summer I went to Las Vegas. You’ve never been?  Wonderful place.  I’m going again next year.  I want to open a beauty parlor in Los Angeles.  The weather so bella!  The economy here terrible!”

          All her Italian was returning.  She had no trouble understanding.  And on and on Christina went as if they were old friends in that freemasonry of women at the hairdresser.  The woman in the chair next to her waiting her turn joined in from time to time as if she was of the neighborhood.

        Lashings of hair hit the towel on her shoulders and fell to the floor.  Then suddenly, like a storm that’s subsided, Christina picked up the hairdryer and brushed her into the new look.  When she had finished and held the mirror up for her, she was astonished.  By what cultural trick had she been transformed, a Boston intellectual, into a windswept stylish Sicilian matron?

            Una donna senile.  It must be the Italian or Sicilian way, an expression in common parlance for an older woman.  She remembered in learning French about the pitfalls of “les faux amis,” words which sounded the same as their English counterparts but had a different usage.  There was sensible which was sensitive, not sensible; ignorer meant to be ignorant of not to ignore and rude meant rustic not impolite.  She would never ever tell her husband what the woman had said although it was her habit if anything troubled her to let him comfort her.  Why, if he wished to close his eyes, give him something to brood over, too?

       Senile, when she was known for her wit and quickness, for her youthful ways!  Forget it she told herself, and never, never allude to it.  Yet later that day as she studied the new hair cut trying to get used to the face that had been so transformed, she couldn’t stop herself.  She waited for a moment when she and Giovanni were alone and then in the most casual way she could muster, though she could feel her cheeks become hot, she asked “Is senile the usual way to refer to an older woman?

         He considered a moment and said matter of factly,” More usual is vechia, antico isn’t used for people and senile would mean someone who wasn’t right in their head.”

         “Oh,” she said, with a little half laugh, “that’s how the pharmacist described me to the hairdresser when she made an appointment for me, “ and in the pause before he replied, she waited, hoping for some last minute reprieve, some solace.

         He blushed. “ Ah,” he said, looking away from her, ”that wasn’t very kind.”

© 2011Celia Gilbert

Celia Gilbert is the author of four books of poetry, Queen of Darkness, Viking, Bonfire, Alice James Books, and the most recent, Something to Exchange, BlazeVOX[books], 2009.  An Ark of Sorts, Alice James Books, won a Jane Kenyon Chapbook award.  In 2009 a collection of her work appeared in a Polish-English edition in Warsaw under the imprint Czuły Barbarzyńca.


She is the winner of a Discovery Award from the 92nd St. YM-YWHA, a Consuelo Ford Award, and an Emily Dickinson Prize, both from the Poetry Society of America, and a Pushcart Prize IX.


Her work has appeared among other places in Poetry, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Southwest Review, and Ploughshares as well as the online journals, Inertia and Memorious.  Her work has been frequently anthologized.


Her art can be viewed at http://celiagilbert.artspan.com

Books by Celia Gilbert