Late one Saturday afternoon, a muffled blast of thunder shook Helene’s Beauty Nook. It rattled my young head, which was soon to be layered with some caustic potion, as well as the windowpanes frosted by the clear bleeding sweetness of the November rain. Our lights winked and glowed brighter as darkness consumed the blurry world outside the crowded little storefront salon owned by my grown-up cousin Claude. Claude’s latest hefty patron rose from the salon chair and knotted her plastic rain scarf under her double chin. She gazed forlornly at the shop door, watching the water rinse the patterned glass.
“I should have told my husband to pick me up. I don’t think this hair is gonna make it in all this rain. Now I don’t know where he is.” She found a rickety seat with the rest of us to wait out the developing storm.
Claude looked at me while he popped the clumps of hair loose from the large, blue plastic sheet used to cover his clients’ clothing. He gestured, and I hopped into the chair so he could truss the sheet snuggly around my neck and line it with white gauze.
“How’s my auntie?” he asked, referring to our grandmother’s sister.
“Ma Dear is fine,” I answered. Then he turned me toward the mirror so I could see him parting and examining the new growth in my hair.
It was in that mirror that I first noticed the rain was turning to snow and a large dark human form was filling Beauty Nook’s door. It didn’t look like the woman’s husband. The person seemed to hesitate for a moment, then wiggled the doorknob and pressed against the glass, but the door didn’t want to open. It groaned and popped from the moisture and the pressure of the pressing figure. Claude’s eyes filled with concern and zeroed in on the door.
A large female form swathed in a flimsy, dripping scarf pushed through. The sticking door groaned as the worn insulation at its base scraped the linoleum floor. A boy who was waiting for a haircut got up to help her. He pulled the knob, easing the entrance wider. Her broad, blue shoulders appeared, then rib-knit wrists, a set of wide, healthy hips, large bare brown legs with dark knee scars, failing white socks, and sopping athletic shoes. My temples throbbed, and I felt myself draw a slow shuddering breath, realizing that the face under the dripping scarf was one I did not want to see. Nor did I want it to see me.
The face belonged to Rosalind, a girl I had double-teamed after school two days before for threatening to cut my friend LaNell. LaNell and I knocked her down in front of all her little friends and took her knife before she could do anything. I knew that she was just going to flat-out kick my ass the minute she saw me. I had not thought past the moment we had knocked her to the mud and left her screaming.
Claude must have felt me jerk and sensed my body temperature rising. He stopped looking toward the entrance and placed the palm of his hand on my forehead. He whispered in my ear, “Did I hurt you?”
“No,” I said. When he took his hand away, I pulled my sweaty palm from beneath the plastic sheet so that I could conceal my face. I felt my breath tickling my fingertips. In the mirror I saw Rosalind stepping over the knees and feet of the other clients, trying to find a place to sit. Claude’s comb raked across my scalp, sounding much like the thunder I had heard before. I reached for the end of his shirtsleeve and gave it a gentle tug. He bent toward me attentively.
“Claude,” I whispered. “That girl that just came in. Do you do her hair?”
He looked at me as if I had said something incredible.
“Naw, honey,” he answered barely moving his lips and teeth. “That is one of Mimi’s clients.”
Mimi, the hairdresser renting the booth next to Claude’s, had taken an early dinner break and was expected back shortly. Claude then pressed my head forward. Thankfully, my hair was long enough to cover my forehead and eyes. I was able to look up at the mirror through my own thick, black thatch to see Rosalind’s scarf looping her neck like a soggy noose while she pulled off her athletic jacket. Her own hair was thick and mossy and clung to the side of her face. She ignored the faces around her, not even thanking the boy who had helped her. Once she sat down, she kept her stare wedged on her own rough, bloated knees.
Oddly, Rosalind chose the very same chair I was seated in earlier. It was an old bitten vinyl cast-off crowned with a hair dryer dome that no longer functioned. The chair seemed cornered by a cheap coffee table loaded with tumbling stacks of BlackTress, Ebony, and Shop Talk magazines. I watched her eyeing those dreamy covers with a childlike absorption. I must have looked the way she did, angling her head and fingering each glamorous page, and it scared me to see myself in this dangerous girl. Like me, she was sinking into that familiar trance that shuts out the ugly, bloated world for a moment and lifts you to a paradise of the unobtainable: a SoHo world of slim figurines and shimmering shadows. In that moment of secretly observing my enemy I became aware of the lengths I had to go, to be acceptable to somebody else—that I wasn’t all right just the way I was. Nobody thought so. I was always remaking myself. Suddenly I became keenly aware of the floor model fan whirling listlessly in the human congestion, and of what I now felt I was allowing the world to do to me. I was accustomed to anticipating the pain of rejection and correction—for in the end, maturity would say, I would be beautiful—like the models in the picture. That was the hope. And from watching Rosalind, I knew she had the same hope—like everyone in the room. But she would have to come farther than I to please the world. I felt smug and superior. Not so bad about my life.
She unpicked the knot in the scarf around her neck with fingernails that were spotted with ruby red polish. Finally freeing the fabric, she twisted it into a hard, tight ball and stuffed it into her jacket sleeve. This day she was wearing a dull white T-shirt whose rounded collar was stretched to look like a plunging oval neckline by the weight of her breasts. She stopped toying with the magazines and tucked her forearms under her breasts to obscure her waist. She raised her eyes and glanced self-consciously around at the others who were staring absently at the small black and white TV propped on the grimy cosmetic display case. I was crazy to have picked a fight with this girl. I knocked her down not because of anything she had actually done to me, but because she was more of a threat. The more I watched her, the more fearful and stupid I felt. I had serious doubts about my decision to help LaNell. After all, doing wild stuff like that was not what I was raised to do, and Cousin Claude and Ma Dear and all her friends and all the friends she chose for me would be shocked if they knew my secret. While Rosalind looked around, every moment I went unnoticed gladdened my heart, but I didn’t know how long my luck would last.
Claude began parting my hair into four sections.
“You got some breakage here, baby,” he said. “I’m going to clip you just a little to even things up. Now be sure to tell my auntie the reason why so she doesn’t have a fit.”
“OK,” I said. I really wanted my hair cut short and what I really, really wanted was one of those styles in the magazine. I wanted to sit in Claude’s chair one day, open up one of his style magazines, point to one I liked, and tell him to go at it. But I knew Ma Dear wouldn’t go for it, and Claude wouldn’t either because he was too scared of her. She was from the old school that believes a woman’s hair is her glory, so there was no tampering with scissors on me. She didn’t mind him straightening my hair out by lathering all kinds of caustic chemicals on my head so I could look like an Indian and not a wooly-head African urban bush woman. She willingly paid for that. I wondered who was paying for Rosalind’s hairstyle. I had Ma Dear. She wasn’t my mother. She told me she was my great aunt. She never mentioned my mother. Rosalind was probably in the same boat, too. But it was obvious that she did not have a Ma Dear to be the great sponsor of her fashioning at the moment or a Cousin Claude who did hair and would follow his aunt’s orders to a tee.
When Mimi returned, she burst through the door like a fluttering wet bird. Her thigh-high suede boots were stained with water and salt. Her body clicked and jingled with keys and too much costume jewelry. I loved to watch her stylish whirling about the salon, and she could snatch a three-dollar tip with the speed of a rattlesnake.
“All that rain is turning to snow!” she announced.
I could hear people swearing under their breaths. Claude’s last client rose from her seat and dropped coins into the pay phone. I thought I was well shielded from Rosalind’s view by Claude’s body now as he snapped on rubber gloves, then stirred a container of white cream relaxer. The rotten egg smell of sulfur crept into my nose. I thought of Ma Dear’s preacher saying it was the odor of hell. I could still see Rosalind in her corner of the room, now opening a crumpled bag of cheese curls with her teeth. She dipped her fingers in delicately, pulled a worm-sized curl, and munched. She smacked her lips—a pop that could be heard across the room—then licked the orange crumbs, that looked like little ingots of fire, from her glowing ebony fingers. Her hands were large, but plump and dimpled like a baby’s.
Claude coated my forehead, ears, and hairline with a light glaze of Vaseline. Then he started to spread the relaxer on the crimped roots of my hair. When he’d finished the application, I resembled Ma Dear in the mirror. My thick, chemical-laden hair was standing in a great, gray mound on the top of my head, and the temperature was heating up—slowly but steadily rising on my scalp.
Claude then led me to the back of the shop to rinse this chemical fire from my hair. As I lay back, feeling the water cool my simmering scalp, feeling my newly softened, silky strands of hair free themselves from their coating of heavy hot film, I peeked to see what Rosalind was doing. She was looking straight at me! The dark pupils of her eyes locked on to mine. How long had she known who I was? My throat tightened. My heart kicked. I blinked to make sure I was seeing things right. I felt caught like a rabbit in a snare, and my whole body tingled.
“Is the water too cold?” asked Claude.
“Uh-uh,” I said. Water? I could no longer feel it or Claude’s fingers of tangerine fragrant shampoo massaging my scalp. Water? It seeped into my ears, blocked out the TV music, and all I could hear was my pumping heart and my hollow panting breath. My mouth flooded with water and I wanted to throw up.
“OK, lift your head,” said Claude. Somehow his embrace as he supported my dripping head over the basin and covered it with a fresh cotton towel gave me a feeling of safety.
What could Rosalind do? She can’t do anything in here. I’m with my cousin Claude. Look at these people. Besides, I know Mimi’s got a gun. She ain’t gonna let nothin’ happen to me.
Claude thought I was shivering from the shampoo as he led me back to his chair. “You comin’ down with a cold, lady?”
“Could be,” I answered, carefully seating myself and still clinging to the towel that half covered my face.
“You better be careful,” Claude warned me.
I almost jumped out of the chair when I heard Mimi cry, “Come on, Rosalind!”
“Let go of the towel, baby,” said Claude, tugging it from me. He sounded amused, having no idea of the terror building inside me. I had to get a grip on myself. It helped when he vigorously buffed and blotted my hair. I took some slow deep breaths like the TV yoga lady recommended: so slow nobody would suspect I was nervous.
Rosalind lumbered over to Mimi’s chair, which was positioned directly across from Claude’s. Mimi tightened the plastic apron around Rosalind’s neck and spoke to her while barely moving her lips.
“Now, Rosalind, I don’t want any shit out of you today.”
Rosalind never looked at Mimi and never took her eyes off me. And as Mimi combed out her tough, thickly matted mane and Claude snipped at my newly processed split ends with little barber sheers, Rosalind and I were locked in a game of who would blink first.
“How’s school?” asked Claude. I felt him fiddling with the blow-dryer.
“I’m getting all As,” I answered. Then I thought to myself: in math, social studies, English, and street fighting. My lips quivered as I fought to control them and not give myself over to Rosalind’s stare. Mimi parted Rosalind’s hair and prepared to smooth in the cream relaxer.
“Well, baby, I’m scared of you!” he gently exclaimed. “You’re really tearin’ up that academic scene. Good girl. Good girl.” But his words of praise only deepened my secret fear and my determination to hold it inside me. I had to beat Rosalind out of the door and get home, or she would beat me. I took some small comfort that time was on my side. It looked like Mimi had a lot of work to do on her. The blow-dryer blasted my head, and I prayed to Jesus to find a way out of there. Then it occurred to me that I could crawl out of the washroom window in the back of the shop and call Claude later to explain everything so he wouldn’t tell Ma Dear. I thought that Jesus had granted me the perfect answer.
Rosalind’s stare never wavered. She tucked in her lower lip, which made her jaws look bigger, and her eyelids were puffy with anger. I felt my bowels bubble. Then the pay phone rang and somebody picked it up.
“Mimi, it’s for you!”
“I’m warning you, Rosalind, don’t move out of this chair,” Mimi said. “And if it starts getting too hot for you, you let me know right away.”
Rosalind blinked dumbly.
Mimi dashed to the phone and I saw my chance to get out of there without raising Claude’s suspicion. I told him I had to go to the bathroom.
“Go on,” he whispered. “I’ll be out front having a smoke.”
Rosalind was looking more like a menacing and mighty snow-capped mountain with all that chemical relaxer in her hair. I rose out of the chair and casually walked to the back of the shop. Behind the humble little washroom door was a damp, dark, narrow room that smelled like pine cleaning solution. There was a puny, water-stained sink and a grungy little toilet with a broken seat. A box with a new toilet seat was tucked nearby. I felt heavy and sick when I noticed that the window over the toilet, which I had counted on for my escape, was now boarded with plywood and adorned with brand new burglar bars. A wedge of the upper window was broken out so I could see flecks of snow dancing against the dark brick walls of the alley behind the shop. I planted my butt on the wobbly toilet seat, feeling disappointed with Jesus. I reached up and slipped the door hook into place. But the door never completely shut, so I pressed my foot against the door to consider what I would do next.
Then I felt such a force push against the door, it almost knocked my knee into my chest. The fragile hook gave way and Rosalind’s leering face with her coated, sulfur-reeking hair was breathing down on me. Her body was still covered with the plastic sheet so her head looked like it was floating on its own, her eyes orange like fire.
“Where’s my fuckin’ knife, bitch!” she spewed. “What you and that little country-fried cow done with it?”
I kicked at the door, trying to get it to shut. Rosalind gripped the doorknob, and her large shoulders blocked my efforts.
“You got my fuckin’ knife!” she shouted. “Gimme my knife bit--!”
“What the hell is goin’ on back there?” I heard Mimi. Rosalind shut the washroom door. “Rosalind! What the hell is the matter with you? I told you not to leave that chair!” Mimi wasn’t afraid of anybody.
Then I heard Claude’s voice. “What’s goin’ on! What’s goin’ on!”
The door cracked. I saw Mimi’s heavy eye makeup crinkle with concern.
“You all right?”
I nodded yes and felt the sweat pouring down my chest. Mimi’s fingers probed the area where the hook was torn from the doorjamb.
“Who broke this latch?” She slammed the door shut, leaving me in much desired privacy, and all I could hear outside was Mimi shouting something about being fed up with Rosalind, because every time she came to the shop there was trouble, and how she had worn out her welcome at Helene’s Beauty Nook.
When I was finally ready to come out of the washroom, I knew I had to find another way to beat Rosalind out of that salon. It didn’t look good when I saw Mimi working at top speed. She was already setting Rosalind’s hair with curlers, and Claude was taking his own sweet time hot-curling my hair. Finally, Mimi had Rosalind’s head full of curlers. She told Rosalind she could keep the curlers, gave her a plastic cap to keep off the wet snow, and collected her fee. Rosalind paid her, shot me one last deadly look, and went out of the door just as sullenly as she had entered. My heart sank. She would be out there in the early evening darkness waiting for me.
“What’s going on with you and that Rosalind?” Claude asked.
“Nuthin’,” I lied.
“Well, I think you should sit tight and wait for me to drive you home.”
But as I sat around, when he was finished with me, I got so bored with his jumpy TV, the magazines of dried-up dreams and petty gossip about folks I knew nothing about, that I told him I had to go outside and get some fresh air. What I really wanted was some peace and quiet so I could think about what I was going to do next.
When I told Claude I was going to the little mom-and-pop basement store to get some potato chips, he stopped clipping his client’s hair and just stared at me for a good five seconds. Then he sighed and handed me one of those plastic shower caps like Mimi gave to Rosalind. “I sell chips here,” he said.
“They too expensive,” I said defiantly, and I could hear the few clients remaining in the shop giggling. I snapped the cap over my bouncy new curls.
“Don’t run and work up a sweat,” he warned, “or Auntie will be calling here cussin’ me out if something happens to that head of yours. I’ll be leaving in about thirty minutes.”
“Oh sure,” I thought, wrestling with my jacket. He still had two clients waiting, so it wasn’t likely he was going to be leaving that soon. Claude had a habit of underestimating the amount of time he needed to do something. I was out in the frosty evening air before the door to the salon could stop creaking. And as far as Ma Dear was concerned, she wouldn’t cuss anybody out. Especially her darling Claude. It was not in her nature to do that. I was sure.
The afternoon rain had indeed turned to sleet, then into virgin snow, just as Mimi had reported. It was the kind of snow LaNell told me could be mixed with cream and sugar and eaten like ice cream. I wondered how she knew that having just arrived from the South, so I asked her and she told me she had read about it. Then I asked Ma Dear why we never made any snow ice cream since we started living in the North as long as we had, and she was quick to say that city snow was nasty and contaminated and that I better not be caught eating any because she wasn’t going to pay the doctor bill. LaNell had lots of books for a girl our age. She was probably reading that very evening as the pale sky turned more yellow in the twilight and people on the street became moving shadows of blue. She said she read for comfort, whenever she felt nervous—like the afternoon we spent together after the Rosalind fight. We were hyped over our victory.
“She’s coming after us again,” I warned LaNell, who was clutching one of her favorite books and looking through the curtains of her bedroom window to the street below.
“What did you do with Rosalind’s knife?” she asked.
“I’m keeping it,” I declared proudly. “It’s my trophy.”
“Where did you hide it?”
“It’s a secret. And I put it in a place where nobody would have the nerve to look.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes I’m sure.”
I had not walked half a block from Helene’s when I sensed someone was following me. I whirled around and almost slipped on the pavement. I quickly recognized Rosalind’s form standing behind me. It seemed there was nobody with her, but you could never tell. My first impulse was to run and yell. But I wasn’t a baby girl anymore. I owed her one. I had started this one, and now I had to finish it. She was standing still as stone, as if she had been waiting for me all along. Her hands were deep in her jacket pockets. I put my hands into mine, too, like I was holding some secret weapon. We stood face to face, wearing the same cheap shower caps. Somebody passing probably thought that we came from the same gang, but I felt we had come from totally different parts of the world. I watched the snowflakes land, dissolve, and dribble down the sides of her cap. I could hear them falling on mine and feel my sweat trickling through my raw scalp. Finally, I said, “OK. You can kick my ass. You can even kill me, but that ain’t gettin’ your knife back!”
“I needs that fuckin’ knife back,” she said.
“OK,” I said. “I’ll give you your knife back—just don’t mess with me or LaNell or nobody no more!”
“Who the fuck are you? Some kinda hero? Fuck you and LaNell. Just gimme the knife, square. It ain’t mines. It was Bubby knife.”
“Bubby? Who Bubby?”
“You don’t need to know! Just that I got to bring him back his knife or pay him some money for it.”
At that moment I realized that she was trying to reason with me. I was still OK and not being beaten to the slippery ground.
“You got any money?” she asked.
I couldn’t talk.
“Naw. I guess you ain’t got none. But I bet you could get some.”
My mind was racing. I was trying to think of what to do. What I could say to get her off me.
“I told my mama’s boyfriend I lost the knife, and he told me he would give me some money to pay Bubby ’cause he like me. But he want me to go to the motel with him.”
“The motel?” I stuttered. I was so naive. I just stood there looking dumb.
“Yeah!” she answered. “Ain’t you hip?”
I wasn’t hip. Rosalind just looked me up and down with the most incredulous expression on her face.
“Naw,” she finally said, satisfied that my tongue was lost somewhere in my throat. “I guess you ain’t. Don’t no men mess with you?”
I shook my head no. That was yet to happen in my life.
“Well he pays for my hair to get done. My mama don’t. And when she ain’t lookin’ that bastard is grabbin’ on me sayin’, ‘Why don’t you sing for me, baby! Sing for me, big baby doll! I knows you can sing.’ That’s what he calls me: big baby doll.”
Rosalind lowered her eyes to the powdery sidewalk.
“You need to gimme the knife ’cause you ain’t the kind who would know how to use one anyway. You a house girl. Yeah, you can thump when you have to, but you a house girl. You need to stop trying to be somethin’ you ain’t and stop lettin’ people make you somethin’ you know you ain’t like. Like I don’t want to go to no stinky butt motel with mama’s leftovers ’cause I ain’t no whore. Got it?”
My cheeks burned with her truth as we stood under the rising glow of the streetlights.
“OK,” I said. I was stunned because all I had seen of her was sinister power and fury, not reason. I certainly had not expected her to see into me. I didn’t even expect her to think or even to care. I was even beginning to like her, but I was still afraid. “We can go to my house. I got it stashed in the house. Come on.”
I had forgotten all about Claude and started the nine-block walk home with Rosalind through the dim streets, in our jackets and shower caps, in the falling temperature. I thought if only LaNell could see this. We said little to each other, and it felt real awkward at times because I felt ashamed of my old vicious thoughts about her. With each slippery step home, I felt like I was doing the right thing by helping Rosalind out, and I knew that Ma Dear would approve of such a thing. She wouldn’t want Rosalind forced to degrade herself no matter who she was. I felt good—almost high and mighty—when we finally reached the steps to the gray stone where I lived. But I also knew that Ma Dear was familiar with Rosalind’s family as she was about most things in the neighborhood, and I knew that she wouldn’t take kindly to Rosalind coming into the house at that particular moment. So I asked her to wait outside.
As I opened the front door, I saw that only the small lamp in the living room was on, and I could see Ma Dear sitting in her chair by the telephone. She called my name when she heard me stomping the snow off my feet in the foyer, and so I entered the room immediately and stood before her.
My heart plunged to the floor when I saw Rosalind’s knife, the one I thought was so well hidden, lying across her lap. Ma Dear was quiet, but her lips were drawn smooth and taut as the knife’s steel blade. In the dim light, her eyes were shadows, but I could still see that they were moist with rage. She looked scared and hurt, as if I were becoming something she did not want me to be. I knew there was no room for an explanation when she said, “Claude called. He was worried to death.” I just hung my head and slipped the shower cap off my hair. My smooth, bouncing curls had become lumps of frizz, matted and plastered to the sides of my shiny young face.
“I’m too tired to whup your behind tonight. Just too tired. But you can believe on Lord Jesus that I will in the morning. Now go to bed.”
I limped slowly toward my bedroom and started to open the door. My mind was racing about Rosalind, who was waiting outside, alone in the snow. Then Ma Dear said as I faced the entrance to my room, “And one more thing. If I catch you in that window, I’m a beat your behind twice.”
I closed my door after waiting respectfully to see if she had anything more to say. I put on my nightgown and sat on the edge of my bed. The house was utterly silent as I watched my clock. One hour, then two hours went by. Then I watched the world freeze and dribble down my frosted window—the one above the street—the one with the drab lace curtain I touched around midnight that obscured Rosalind’s footsteps in the snow.