By Mellie Duke Justad
The situation she found herself in was nothing short of a travesty. It was the end of an era. It was almost the end of Mama, who had to face living with what I referred to as “The Hair of Many Colors.” To her shock and horror, there was only one solution. It was unbearable. It was almost unspeakable. It was ... a wig!
“Me, wear a, a wig?” Mama stammered. Her face turned a peculiar shade of gray, her lips pasty white. She looked at Marthalene, her beautician, as if she had just suggested Mama run stark naked down the middle of Main Street.
“Me, walk around in fake hair, or worse yet, somebody else’s hair?” Mama said in a hoarse whisper, as she began swaying from side to side running her slender fingers through what was left of her once luxurious, thick hair. In the South, the only thing more important than a woman’s hairdo was her fried chicken. Mama was no exception. I glanced uneasily over at Marthalene. She had no idea what a can of worms she had just opened.
Mama had been in first grade for an eternity--- teaching it that is. And for the most part, it had gone off without a hitch. But things suddenly changed that fall when she’d gone back to school to pursue her Master’s Degree. Since then, Mama’s bleached blond hair began falling out in clumps. Big clumps. Marthalene concluded without a doubt that stress was the root of Mama’s problem. Mama didn’t look well. Not at all.
Marthalene moved fast for a woman in heels, instinctively grabbing Mama’s arm and escorting her to the hideous, faded garnet antique fainting-couch right before she hit the floor. So that’s why she put that thing in here.
She was a cool one, returning in two seconds flat with a small, doily covered, silver-serving tray. I watched and prayed that Marthalene knew what she was doing. I didn’t know how much first aid training she might have had in beauty school.
Quickly removing a bottle of peroxide from the tray, she poured some into a small glass bowl and daintily waved the strong smelling liquid underneath Mama’s nose with all the ease and style of a refined hostess serving high tea. Mama’s eyelashes fluttered and she began to cough.
“There. That’s a good girl,” she said as if comforting a small child instead of a middle-aged mom. “Oh, she’s coming ‘round now. Breathe it in slowly, dear,” she continued, patting mama’s shoulder. “Just the shock you know. Seen it before. She’ll be all right in a jiff,” Marthalene assured me, as confident as a surgeon who’d just performed a successful open-heart surgery with a nail file.
Sitting down next to Mama, she gave me a quick wink, leaned in close and whispered, “Nobody will ever suspect a thing. Remember, only your hairdresser will know for sure.”
That old cliché. Coming from Marthalene it sounded almost believable, at least more convincing than from the lady on the TV commercial. But was Mama going to buy it? Who knew? She was still dazed like a panicked deer in the headlights.
Master hypnotist Marthalene remedied that in a hurry, snapping her hot-pink painted fingers together bringing Mama out of her trance. Now fully alert, she looked at Marthalene as if she was the devil herself. Mama was nobody’s fool. She knew better. She wasn’t sitting in some top-secret room at the Pentagon, but in broad daylight inside Marthalene’s Beauty Shop. The virtual nerve center of town. Cedartown’s Media Mecca. Mama looked around the room with sheer terror in her eyes--- and for good reason. She had problems---big problems. Big Mouth Eula-Mae Hill for one, who was sitting just two feet away in an ugly, multicolored floral house-dress hooked up under the permanent wave machine. Its eight black octopus arms extended far out from its luminous, gold metallic dome shaped head. The arms looped back up into the domed hiding place where underneath they were aggressively attacking Eula-Mae’s straight henna dyed tresses and transforming them into curly ones. She peeked up from behind her Ladies Home Journal. Her ears pricked straight up like a German Shepherd as she tried desperately not to miss a single word.
And if things couldn’t get any worse they sure were about to. Across the room, sporting her matronly, “going uptown” blue crepe dress, having her equally blue hair teased four stories high, sat the biggest busybody in town, Laudine Itson. “Old as the hills,” and a former librarian, she didn’t bother “pretending” to read her magazine, she made sure she never missed anything, and blatantly stared Mama down with a evil smirk painted across her heavily “pancaked” made-up face.
“What’s new, Dearie?” she chided, baiting Mama for more information her freshly penciled in eyebrows raised.
It was certain. Mama was dead meat.
The term “gossips” offended them, it was too crude. They preferred “informers.” That’s what they did, inform folks. About anything and everything. I knew what Mama was thinking. I was thinking the same thing. The Hamilton Beach Mixer Fiasco.
A few months earlier those two “informers” successfully enlightened the entire town of an incident involving an unfortunate local woman, Cleava-Nell Webster. She was all but beaten to death after getting her nightie caught in the beaters of her Hamilton Beach Mixer. Her husband came home and found her tied up and twisted in the wreckage, mangled in a sea of chocolate cake batter and blue chiffon. Though it took the paramedics nearly two hours to free her, it took those ladies only forty-five minutes to circulate the news all over town from Marthalene’s. The story even interrupted the radio station’s live remote during the grand opening of the new embalming room of Litesey’s Funeral Parlor. That very Sunday evening, every preacher in town held a candlelight prayer vigil for the poor woman, her mangled breasts, and her dilapidated stainless steel beaters.
News as juicy as Mama’s would be around town before we made the ten-minute drive home. I knew it. She knew it. And pretty soon the whole town would know it. It was after all Wednesday. Wednesday night in Cedartown meant only one thing---“prayer meeting.” In just a few hours every minister in town, including her own, would be praying for her and what was left of her hair. Mama nearly fainted again.
Truth was, Marthalene was a bit of an informer herself.
“I don’t gossip, I just like to pass along news to folks,” I recall Marthalene, the still attractive fifty-ish anchor woman, saying once in her newscast uniform, the familiar Pepto-Bismol pink gabardine smock and matching heels.
“And you know, anything can be considered news,” she hummed, pursing her lips together, her orange penciled-on eyebrows arched slightly above her dancing hazel eyes.
Her shop stood in the center of town. A virtual shrimp net, it was strategically positioned to catch news coming in from both sides of town. Right off Main Street and adjacent to one of only four traffic lights in the whole town, the long, narrow rectangular concrete block building was painted a crisp white, except during the summer months when the red clay and gravel parking lot stained it a pale shade of orange.
It was a three-chair operation, four, if you counted the fainting couch. Having a weekly, standing appointment in Marthalene’s chair was as highly prized as owning a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Rarely coming up for grabs, it usually stayed in ones’ family for years passing on from mother to daughter.
Completing her little enterprise were five hair dryers that were attached to pink vinyl upholstered chairs and lined up along the “hospital green” painted cinderblock walls. Two small, white, porcelain hair-washing sinks---you know kind with the scoop in it to put your neck in---were affixed to the walls next to the supply closet in the back. Each was specially equipped with its own big black hose--affectionately dubbed by Marthalene “Disaster Blasters.” As big as washing machine hoses, they were essential for penetrating the dense hairspray barrier encasing the previous week’s now beaten and battered beehive, popping it like a Mexican piñata. When the “hive” popped it was a virtual treasure trove, its secret contents dropped into the sink making a clanking sound. It wasn’t at all unusual to find a few stray misplaced items such as pencils, pens, lipstick tubes and once even a set of house keys mixed in with the several hundred bobby-pins that it took to achieve “the look.”
Pink and white checked curtains hung in the windows which were always raised slightly to let out some of the noxious fumes that emanated from inside. This was due to the massive amounts of hair spray that were required for the “mile-high beehive”--- Marthalene’s signature doo.
That spray became lethal if breathed in for too long. It was only after I happened to witness one patron, Miss Moeena Baker, become woozy and doing everything shy of barking like a dog that I realized the power of “The Spray of the South”--- Aqua Net. At Marthalene’s this potent concoction still covers beehives as sure as the dew covers Dixie. The only spray capable of withstanding two hundred mile an hour winds, monsoon rains, and ninety-percent humidity.
Most of her clientele has adapted to the stuff over the years. A true example of survival of the fittest, it has resulted in nearly tripling the lung capacity of our town ladies. Mama included. I’d have to say without a doubt, Marthalene’s produces big- lunged women the way Texas produces beauty queens. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if some of those ladies could inflate a spare tire to over fifty pounds if they tried. Apparently it’s all in the breathing, or not breathing as the case may be. Thanks to Marthalene, my Mama can hold her breath for over three and a half minutes without even flinching.
As darkness fell and the busybodies had gone Mama summoned every ounce of courage she had and whispered, “Go get Marthalene.”
“Are you sure, Mama? I asked, as I sat on the couch next to her still holding her hand afraid she might keel over again.
She nodded. Her wavering figure on that fainting couch did little to convince me that she was sure of anything. Marthalene was still sweeping up when I gave her the news. Without a sound she dropped her broom and walked over to the windows drawing every curtain in the shop. She hung the pink and white “closed” sign on the front door and locked it. I watched intently while she pulled a gold necklace from underneath her pink smock revealing a small brass key. What was she up to? Moving as slinky as a cat burglar in a spy flick, her thin, willowy shadow flickered eerily across the walls as she headed to the rear of the shop.
She disappeared to the back closet where locked away were beauty secrets only Marthalene’s eyes had ever seen. The shop was dead silent. It was a little unnerving. My heart began to race and I wondered if I was up to the challenge. In all my fourteen years, I had never been in a situation as serious as this. Mama eyes wide were fixed on the closet. Her upper lip sweating, her breathing shallow. How much longer could she hang on? Could we both hang on? What was taking Marthalene so long? Would this madness never end?
The familiar “clicking” of pink heels came closer and broke the deafening silence. Marthalene emerged with two blonde, beehive wigs on white Styrofoam heads. She carefully wrapped the forms in thick, black sheaths like a couple of bottles of bootlegged whiskey, handing them to Mama as if they were newborns. A small “squeak” emanated from Mama as she took a quick glance at them, shuddering as if looking at a couple of furry rodents.
She spoke in a low, controlled voice, “Now, Hon, these wigs are the top of the line--well worth the money all the way from New York City. Two of my very best. You’ll have to take real good care of them so nobody will suspect anything.”
Those wigs definitely had their work cut out for them. If those wigs knew what was good for them, they’d hop aboard the first two heads that popped by and make a beeline back to New York City where they’d come from.
Mama nodded silently as if under a spell. Marthalene, serious as a mortician in her neatly starched pink smock with not a hair out of place gave us a confident nod.
“Just make sure you comb ‘em out every night, and be sure you keep them on top of those heads at all times, too. “Call me if there’s a problem with ‘em, and I’ll come a runnin’,” she promised.
We drove away into the night and headed home. Passing by the First Baptist Church, the lights burned brightly through the stained glass windows. Prayer Meeting was in full swing. Mama took one look and blubbered all the way home.
After struggling for a few weeks, she finally managed to take the entire situation in stride. Brushing and fussing over those two wigs as if they were small children. She followed Marthalene’s instructions to a tee. I hate to admit it, but those Styrofoam heads started to take on a human quality, especially after I drew faces on them, complete with big red lips, blue eye shadow, and false eyelashes. “Hooker Heads,” that’s what they looked like. We dubbed one of them Bambi and the other one Babs. Eventually, we began referring to the wigs as Babs and Bambi, too. The true secret to their success was not due to the hours of combing and shampooing they received, but the massive amounts of hair spray they could endure.
Mama was spraying for two now. No one ordinary can of Aqua Net would do. She resorted to using a gallon container with a hose that could cover both wigs in one huge blast. Her clandestine hair appointments were on Wednesday nights now instead of Wednesday afternoons. Now of course, Babs and Bambi were sitting under the dryer in curlers instead of Mama.--------------------------------
Continued on April 26th