SOUTHERN LEGITIMACY STATEMENT: Born and raised in Caldwell County, North Carolina, I have lived in the Old North State most of my life (except for two soggy years in Oregon – what was I thinking?). I am the youngest of three sisters raised in our Mama’s beauty shop, which was attached to the house by a breezeway. When Mama wasn’t looking, I would eavesdrop on the women and sneak a pack of nabs from the shop’s snack jar and Sun Drop from the drink box. I’m sure Mama never knew.
Mama is in her beauty shop teasing Irene Massey’s brittle white hair and talking, talking, talking when I walk up to the glass door and stand there waiting for her to see me. I always do this when I come back home, which is usually for a holiday or a funeral or a wedding. I park on the west side of the big half-circle driveway in front of the house and then creep up to the beauty shop attached to the house on the east side by a breezeway. Any customer sitting under the dryer opposite the door will wave at me if she recognizes me or stare at me suspiciously if she doesn’t.
Instead of swiveling the styling chair to get to the other side of Irene’s head, Mama steps sideways around the chair so that Irene remains facing the giant wall mirror over the sink. Predictably, Mama gasps when sees me and rushes to the door, causing Irene to turn her tufted head to see the commotion.
Mama hugs me viciously, but she is careful not to jab me with the rat-tail comb in her hand. “Ava!” she says, pulling me into the shop. “How was the trip?”
I sit down on a stool next to the sink, and Mama goes back to Irene, who smiles at me.
“Lots of traffic between Raleigh and Winston-Salem as usual,” I say.
“Any wrecks?” Irene asks.
“Oh.” Irene is disappointed. She coughs several times, then takes a sip from a can of Sun Drop Mama hands her.
“Where’s Daddy?” I ask Mama.
“He’s been with Betty and the family since before breakfast, helping with the arrangements. He called me at lunch to tell me he wouldn’t be home till later.”
“Did Barry and Lisa get in OK?” These are my cousins, one in Atlanta and the other in Tampa. They have come home for their father’s, my uncle’s, funeral.
“They both got into Charlotte on flights yesterday,” Mama says.
“It was the colon cancer, wasn’t it, that took him?” Irene asks, looking at me.
“Yes, ma’am.” I reach up with my right hand and twist a strand of hair around my index finger, from the end all the way to the scalp.
“You still do that?” Mama asks. “You’re not going to have any hair left on your head if you don’t stop.”
She looks at Irene and says, “That’s what I always told her when she was a little girl. Guess it didn’t do any good.”
Mama and Irene pick up their earlier conversation, something about the recent flare-up of diverticulitis another customer has had. I am silent, as unnoticed as a knickknack.
They talk about people they both know or at least one of them knows and the other has maybe heard about, and I watch Mama’s hands. She whips Irene’s hair up and then shapes it, tames it. Her hands dart about — she pulls and twists and pushes and smooths and pokes and sprays. She somehow manages to juggle the rat-tail comb and a can of Vita-E hairspray as she forms Irene’s ‘do, and she doesn’t once come close to stabbing Irene with the comb or dropping the can. I am mesmerized by her hands. After thirty-five years, she is an efficient, hypnotic hair-doing machine.
After a dramatic pause, Mama says, “Well, I did Ellen’s hair.”
“Oh, did you.” Irene says, interested. “How was she?”
“She looked good, not half as wasted as I expected.”
“I heard she was getting real yellow there at the last.”
“Oh, no,” Mama says, shaking her head emphatically. “Not at all.”
Then Mama looks at me. “Do you remember Ellen Greer?”
“I think so.” Even though I haven’t seen her since I was in high school, I can picture Ellen Greer clearly. She is one of those remarkably unattractive people who stay in your mind forever. She is tall, emaciated, raspy-voiced from smoking. Irene is right about her being yellow: yellow hair, yellow-gray skin, yellow teeth, yellowish eyes. I remember her wearing loose, floral-printed shirts and polyester pants in orange and maroon.
“She died in Florida last week,” Mama says. “You know she moved there several years ago for her health.”
“Oh, how sad,” I say, but I’m thinking you did her hair. I begin to feel queasy. The fast food fish sandwich I picked up in Greensboro flip flops in my stomach.
“Anyway,” Mama continues, “the family brought her up here right away, and they asked me to give her the set since I was her beautician for all those years.”
Mama removes the plastic styling cape from Irene’s neck and brushes off stray hairs. Irene stands and pulls her wallet from her purse.
“Well, Winnie,” she says, handing Mama several bills, “I always have said I want you to do my hair when my time comes. Everybody knows you make all of your customers look so good.” She and Mama squeeze each other’s hands. I stand up, now twisting a thick hank of hair, say good-bye to Irene, and go into the house to find some Pepto-Bismol.
Daddy has come home for dinner, but it’s Mama I watch. She picks up a piece of corn-on-the-cob and coats it with margarine. When she bites out a neat row from one end to the other, several shreds of bright yellow corn stick to her fingers and lips. Her hair-dye-stained fingertips are now coated with butter.
As we eat, Mama and I occasionally talk about my sisters or the neighbors or people I knew in high school, but I can’t stop thinking about her styling a dead person’s hair. I wonder how she can so quickly forget the feel of death. I glance at Daddy and notice that he hasn’t eaten much.
“Something wrong, Ava?” Mama asks. She flourishes a fried chicken leg in front of her face.
I stare at her shiny purplish-brown fingers before saying, “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Ellen Greer.”
Mama looks at me, incredulous. “I didn’t know you liked Ellen so much.”
“I didn’t. I mean, it’s not about her dying.” I take a deep breath. “I don’t understand how you could do her hair, how you could work on her hair when she’s dead. You knew her. That’s what bothers me.”
She is silent, but Daddy drops his fork onto the table. I look down to my plate, at the corn and chicken and mashed potatoes, and I feel achy and weak in the crooks of my elbows and behind my knees. I’m afraid to look at Mama’s face, afraid I have reminded her of the skin cold to the touch, the rigid features. “It must be awful for you,” I finally say.
“Not really,” she says as she chews. I look up to see her wiping her mouth with her fingertips. “Corpses make pretty good customers.”
Daddy pushes back in his chair, scraping it across the linoleum.
“They never complain,” Mama says and cuts her eyes at me. We look at each other without blinking. “Never a word.”
After a long, still moment, we break into laughing so hard we begin to cry. Mama clamps her greasy hand over her mouth to keep from spraying bits of chicken skin over the table. I drop the biscuit I’m holding and press my hand over my heart to suppress the laughter —or maybe to push out every last bit of it. We both wipe the tears from our eyes, the tears that had been gathering for days.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” Daddy says and leaves us.
Mama and I once more look at each other, calm ourselves to fits of giggles, and then we struggle to stop.