It was an after-dinner announcement no one had seen coming. After a great many years spent toying with the idea from the comfort of her upholstered recliner lounge chair with the polished wooden lever at the side, great-grandmother  Bertha Babcock had decided the time was finally right to get her very first spray tan.

It was now or never for the heavyset 88 year old, who, in her youth, had cut a svelte figure working at the local frog canning factory but via the passage of time, the birth of six children and one too many whoopee pies and Portuguese pastries had come these days to resemble more like one half of the popular bingo call for her age – “two fat ladies”.

Bertha Babcock had devoted some time on the internet to checking out tanning salons before deciding on one called AFTERGLOW, about ten minutes drive from her house. In amongst her fact-finding research, which included reading numerous horror stories of spray tans gone wrong (‘a radioactive orange colour which left the wearer smelling like vegetable oil for days’ seemed to be a reoccurring complaint) she’d also managed somehow to take in the episode of the American sitcom FRIENDS where Ross is shown going into an automated tanning booth (like a carwash for humans) and due to a failure to pivot fast enough emerges with a half bronzed body.

But with the occasion of attending her granddaughter’s upcoming wedding spurring her on to want to look her glowing best, Bertha was determined to ignore the stories of other’s misadventures and forge ahead anyway. The person she’d spoken to on the phone at the salon had assured her she would be incapable and experienced hands.

The next morning her son Phillip arrived at the house in his silver-grey Ford Bronco utility to pick her up and drive her to the salon. After the short journey during which Bertha again reminded Philip of her wish to have her ashes scattered at sea upon her death and her desire to visit the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas sometime prior to that happening, they pulled up in the car park of the salon and began the task of extracting Bertha from the front seat of the car. This took some minutes but eventually, Bertha Babcock was on her way in, supported by her own cane walking stick and her dutiful, ever-patient son guiding and encouraging her with each step.

Inside, Bertha was at once hit with the sterile, over-air-conditioned feel of a big box store and the slightly ‘yeasty’ aroma common to many tanning salons. She eased herself down onto the black leather waiting couch next to a laminated sign emblazoned in gold lettering with the words “We promise to do our best to make you look your best”. Next, the twenty-year-old ‘spray artist’ girl walked through (Bertha thought she heard her introduce herself as ‘Tiffany’ but knew it might just as easily have been ‘Tilly’, ‘Tina’ or even ‘Tigerlilly’). 

Even with her pasted on smile Bertha found her friendly and professional, but couldn’t help wishing for a brief moment she was now facing someone more like Maude from her favourite retro show The Golden Girls. Bertha knew she wasn’t going to enjoy having to get near naked in front of someone as young and bubbly as Tiffany, or whatever her name was.

After receiving her instructions on the poses to adopt while the ‘fake bake’ dark coffee chemical was applied, Bertha was handed a set of attractive nose plugs, a shower cap and a pair of too-tight green goggles and directed to walk down a tiled corridor into the 2nd room on the left that housed the stand up spray booth. The first thing she noticed once inside the room was how unbearably hot it was compared to the outside reception area. She looked up and noticed the sole ceiling fan wasn’t moving. A moment later she realised why. A dead rodent was lodged in it, its legs dangling down toward Bertha. ‘Tiffany’ entered the room and explained in her best cheery tone that Bertha should change into the disposable underwear that lay on a corner benchtop and she would return in a few minutes when it would be time for the hoping-to-be- glamorous great granny to ‘get her bronze on’.

After a ‘respectful’ time, the young salon worker knocked on the door and asked would it be all right to come in. “All ready my dear” was Bertha’s buoyant reply. When ‘Tiffany’pushed back the door she was greeted with a most unusual site. There was the great-grandmother wearing the spray technician’s surgical mask as underwear. She had somehow mistaken it for the g-string spanty that lay next to it. More incredibly she’d somehow managed to manoeuvre ‘into’ it. Spotting the girl’s surprise but not knowing exactly what had warranted it, Bertha quickly switched to comedy mode and asked, “Could you paint some tight ab muscles on me while you’re at it?” The quip seemed to relax the young AFTERGLOW employee and she was able to complete the procedure in under ten minutes with Bertha emerging like a luminous Oompa Loompa ready to go to the wedding the next day.

On the way home from the salon with Philip driving, however, there was one more sun-kissed moment of unintended pantomime. The Bronco utility was pulled over for a police random breath test. Phillip blew into the plastic nozzle offered to him by the officer wearing over-large mirror sunglasses. Though he was a non-drinker, the plastic metal device registered a reading for alcohol, though not enough to put him over the legal driving limit. He found out some time later it was the nearby powerful fumes from his mother’s freshly spray tanned skin that had set off the machine and given a false reading for alcohol.

When the two arrived home, they sat down with the rest of the extended family in the living room. Everyone was eager to hear how Operation Tangerine Dream, as someone had dubbed it, had gone. Laughter and voices babbled happily like a flowing mountain stream for the next hour or so as Bertha Babcock held the floor like a fluff news reporter continually fed by the smiles and gentle gaze of those gathered. When Aunt Ophelia asked “Did they put it on with a paint roller?” the laughter echoed down the hallway and into each and every room of the house.

Soon it was time for the youngest children of the gathered clan to have their bath and as it was not her time to leave, great-grandmother Bertha Babcock insisted on helping. The old bathtub was fashioned from tin and beaten into shape with a flat hammer. It was just big enough for a child to sit in and the water was never more than tepid. Before anyone could protest there was big bronzed Bertha, glowing radioactive orange by this time, arms deep in suds and bubbles scrubbing with a flat brush the grime from her grandchild Leroy’s puppy fat bolstered five-year-old body.

When it was over, the entire house was treated to the genuinely horrible screams of bathetic Bertha reacting with all the grace of a wrecking ball to the sight of herself winding up with no tan at all halfway up her arms, making her look for all the world like she was wearing white gloves. And from a distance, at her granddaughter’s garden wedding held in the city’s Botanical Gardens the next day, that is exactly how it appeared. Unfortunately the super soak mishap also gave rise to a somewhat inebriated Uncle Spida, who was already slurring his words by the time the best man got up to give his speech, remarking on more than one occasion to anyone who would listen, how big Bertha’s newly tanned look ‘fit her like a glove’. 

About the Author:

Glen Donaldson is an Australian flash fiction author with a nutty aftertaste. Glen admits to being fascinated why a group of squids is not called a squad and lists his all-time favourite movie as CAPRICORNE ONE (1977). He blogs at SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK.

Eva’s Comments:

‘After Glow’ by Glen Donaldson cracked us up so much at CarpeArte Journal that we decided to publish his flash piece in celebration of Short Story Month.

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”
― Neil Gaiman

Glen’s piece opened a window to how humour injected adeptly into a short story can fill the reader with mirth and delight. Bertha Babcock’s story made me glow with pure pleasure, chuckle with glee and choke on the surprising imageries so wittily conjured up by Glen’s magical writing.

The Portrait of Dona Rosita Morillo, completed in 1944 by Frida Kahlo, depicted the mother of Eduardo Morillo who was a Mexican diplomat. Eduardo purchased more than 30 paintings from Frida over the years and commisioned her to paint several portraits of his family members. Apparently, this portrait is said to be one of Frida Kahlo’s favourite paintings.

Frida Kahlo needs no introduction. She was born in 1907 and named Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. This famous Mexican artist is well-known for her self-portraits which she painted many of after a bus accident that left her in debilitating pain. Her paintings have deep autobiographical layers, mixed with fantasy and surrealism reflecting the agony she lived through on a daily basis, her dreams of escapism, and the fantasies that she engaged in to rid her psyche of pain.

Kahlo employs a type of folk-art style in her work which examines questions of identity, class, race and gender in Mexican society. Kahlo is loved by feminists who see her art as representations of the female experience and form.

Glen Donaldson does not remember how he became intrigued by this Mexican artist.  However, what struck him was the relatively short life she led. Kahlo died at the age of 47 after decades of ill health and chronic pain, pain that she had suffered from since the age of eighteen. What intrigued us at CarpeArte was how Glen saw past the sadness of Dona Rosita, indicated by her down-turned lips and found inspiration in the orange glow of her skin to produce ‘Afterglow’, “the story of great-grandmother Bertha Babcock and her ‘now or never’ moment on the eve of her granddaughter’s garden wedding.” (Glen Donaldson) Out of the ashes of pain, flew the phoenix of mirth. There’s hope in laughter.

Image Credit: Hand-painted reproduction of ‘Portrait Of Dona Rosita Morillo’ (1944) [artist unknown]. Originally painted by Frida Kahlo (1944).

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