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MISS

By Yvonne Chism-Peace

After the little girl became a big girl, she began to spend every other Saturday at the hairdressing parlour. That is what her mother called it, not beauty salon like the white housewives on television. Miss Muriel did hair in a large converted living room with breezy French doors that led to a narrow enclosed front porch, windows half concealed with pots of tall snake plants and a monstrous species of rhododendron. There in cozy white wicker chairs with faded cabbage rose-patterned cotton cushions, refined Negro matrons of modest means waited their turn. They flipped through a tired Ebony or Life or Readers' Digest; they relived wartime gaiety and romance with Cab Calloway and Jimmy Dorsey and Lena Horne on the radio; they stared blankly at the street traffic below the dark corrosive rumbling Market Street El. To the big girl the place looked frayed and old-fashioned like the neighborhood dry cleaners or the hosiery and lingerie shop where everything was hidden in thin plastic covers or plain white cardboard boxes.

For many years the mother had been a patient customer of Miss Muriel. But when the mother grew weary of the pompadour and the Veronica Lake dip, Miss Muriel could not quickly adjust to the change. She did not know how to make long hair look light and feathery. She applied too much pomade; she made stiff symmetrical waves like something out of a 'Thirties movie; she took two hours to do what should have been done in one. Eventually the mother tried a smart modern hairdresser advertised in the local Negro newspaper. The woman called herself a beautician, hired two other "girls" to shampoo and manicure, and rented the storefront of a commercial building on the corner of a wide two-way traffic avenue. Poor Miss Muriel. As recompense, she was passed on to the big girl like a faithful family servant.

"I can trust her not to burn your hair." Burnt hair was a Negro woman's second curse, the first being nappy hair too short to burn. "Hair like the snap of a finger," the mother snipped. The preservation of a woman's hair, especially its length, was the talismanic law. Didn't the Bible say a woman's hair is her crown? Miss Muriel guided the big girl's progress from pigtails to finger curls to sleek page boy. As the big girl's waist narrowed, her hair thickened. As her body bloomed, her hair stretched beyond her shoulders.

How strange the big girl never saw the likes of herself at Miss Muriel's. Not in all the years that she was her customer, from age ten to seventeen. No other girl sat patiently in a wicker chair while her mother's crown was washed, pressed and curled. No other girl, curious and restless, tiptoed from the porch, crept between the two large silver hair dryers that stood like helmeted robots, and studied the mysterious transformation Negro women underwent. Hair dripping like a slick black seal, a woman would thrust her head under a helmet for what seemed an endless time only to emerge with a halo of fuzzy hair. Then head bent, the woman scurried to a chair by a small gas burner fit to cook only a hot dog. There the hot iron comb would be waiting to change the woman's nappy cloud into a waterfall of sleekness.

In the beginning the big girl abhorred these Saturday trips to the hairdresser's. What an eternity! Thirty minutes to get there, an hour's wait, two hours for the ritual itself, then a thirty minutes' bus ride back home. But worse than this, some kind of humiliation, she could not quite explain it to herself, would arise in the big girl every time she scurried from the hair dryer with her thick high kinky hair. She felt exposed, naked before the eyes of strangers, even though they were women just like her own mother. But as the years trickled along, the big girl let go of her shame. Miss Muriel's clientele slowly dwindled.

"She's getting forgetful and she was always too-o-o-o-o-o-o-o slow," the mother pontificated. "But I hope she doesn't retire yet. She's cheap."

Miss Muriel lived only with Martin, a fat calico cat. Her husband had died during the Great Depression, so the big girl's mother had never met him. Martin was ghostly enough. Like a shadow he slipped behind and under the wicker chairs in the front porch waiting room; he brushed against shoes like a breeze; he disappeared with the waning afternoon into a crack in the door that led back into Miss Muriel's small two-room apartment. The big girl did not fear the cat but never tried to pet him. She never even called his name or said that silly kitty, kitty, here kitty. The big girl thought it strange that the cat had a regular person's name; in all the childhood stories she had read, it had never been that way. Perhaps the cat thought as much of the girl. How strange to spend more than two hours twice a month in rooms soaked with the smell of syrupy shampoo and warm pomade!

Long Saturday afternoons at Miss Muriel's had one curious revelation. The old hairdresser was a "Grand Ole Opry" fan. From radio to television, addicted to distraction, Miss Muriel reminisced about the Opry stars as if they were her own kinfolk. Roy Acuff. Bill Monroe. Flatt and Scruggs. Even Minnie Pearl. Mandolins, banjos, fiddles. Nobody in the big girl's family bothered with the show. Rednecks. White trash and maybe even the KKK. But over the years the big girl acquired an ear. What had been at first a quirky strangeness, an unpretty twang became something familiar to her. But it had no name. The big girl could turn on any radio station at any time of the day and feel it seeping through after an hour or so. Somehow the big girl knew her capacity to hear and to listen was important. But she did not tell anybody. For seven long years, in the waning solitary afternoons at Miss Muriel's, the big girl was silent and alert as the old hairdresser hummed and tapped her foot. Such a peaceful, private time. The big girl never told a soul.


Bio: The poet Yvonne writes short fiction under the name Yvonne Chism-Peace. Fiction credits include Clever Magazine, Feminista, Thought, Moxie, Posse Review and Saint Anne's Review. Her books of poetry are IWILLA SOIL, IWILLA SCOURGE, and IWILLA RISE (Chameleon Productions Inc. 1985, 1986, 1999) for which she won NEA fellowships. She was the poetry editor at MS. magazine (1974-1987)


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