Timbre and Tone by Sudha Balagopal

Timbre and Tone

Overcome, I sink to my knees by Father’s dead body. He would hate to be seen like this.

For the first time in thirty years, salt overwhelms the pepper in his neatly combed strands. He’s dressed in his best suit, and his skin, though waxy, could pass for smooth. But, to him, none of this would matter as much as the hair.

The funeral home has been remiss. Or Mother has omitted this one significant detail.

She’s also uncharacteristically late. Staring into the casket, I wish I could do something. He likes dark chestnut the best. Or is it the burnished brown? They can wield a paintbrush here, surely? Too late. People are entering, somber and silent.

I retreat to a corner. Where’s Mother?

Father dyed his hair for the first time the day after Mother went to nurse her ailing sister. He wanted to surprise her when she came back. The chemical mix spilled and sank into the grout in the bathroom and stained the counter and the floor. I said he was the handsomest father I knew.

Our neighbor Mrs Dey brought us dinner. She wore her hair up in a bun with a butterfly-shaped clip in the center, showing off a slender neck. Her gushing made me wish Father hadn’t colored his hair. I picked at the steaming rice and fragrant curry.

When she sat on the love seat with Father, my chest pinched in warning. Mrs. Dey smoothed his dark hair with a manicured hand. Her lilac shirt had a dramatic white lily printed on the back. Father didn’t care about the flower. He examined the pendant resting in the deep V of her top.

When Mother returned three weeks later, she ranted and raved about the stain in the bathroom. She told Father he fooled only himself by changing the color of his hair. The pinching in my chest grew worse. At the end of the fighting, the bathroom got a facelift.

Right after the renovation, Mrs Dey moved. I remember because my breathing got easier and I believed it was because there was no more dust from the construction. I didn’t see her again. But Father continued to experiment with his crowning glory’s timbre and tone.

My parents made an odd couple. Father’s hair, rich, dark, and vibrant, while Mother’s bob stayed a proud, adamant gray.

The hall is filling up. I wonder if Mother’s car broke down.

When I hear a shuffling approach, I want to shrink into the wall with my thoughts.

An old woman makes her way up to me and whispers, “I’m so sorry.”

The first of many hundreds to come. “Thank you,” I say, automatically.

“You don’t recognize me,” she says.

I prevaricate. “Of course, I do”.

She gives me a quizzical glance, but nods as she shakes my hand. Walking up to the second row, she settles into a seat. A butterfly clip glints in the center of her tiny, sagging bun. I recognize the small, familiar squeeze in the region of my heart.

I run fingers through my hair. What did the hues from a bottle afford my father? Courage, confidence, some resurgence of youth?

“Sorry I’m late. Why are you sitting here? Come on, let’s go up front.” Mother pats my shoulder.

I cannot respond because the words get stuck in the narrowness of my throat. Shaded an opulent ebony, her tresses look beautiful.


Timbre and Tone


Sudha Balagopal’s fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin, The Tishman Review, Gravel Magazine and Superstition Review among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections,There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com


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