I asked specifically for Denise. We arrived at the appointed time. I sat in a large rectangular room, four hair dresser chairs, black, boxy, modern, and new since the last time I was there. A wall of lighted mirrors covered one side wall. A counter attached to the mirrored wall was neatly organized with straightening combs, curling irons, curler paper, curlers, hair clips, and pins. Dyes, conditioners, and locking agents, of various sized boxes, tubes, jars, and bottles, were stored in a cabinet at the end of the counter. Only one hairdresser today, Chris, the owner. On the opposite side of the shop were two shampoo bowls and another wall of lighted mirrors. Only one shampoo person today, Denise. Non–stop Christmas music played on an Atlanta black radio station. The station also played non–stop commercials directed toward poor black people. The announcer hawked, “Forget your FICO score. Those scores are just a number. Come on down and we can work something out.”

Chris quipped after the tenth such commercial. ” You know what they say about those people who give out those loans and sell those cars, don’t you?”

Even though the customers had heard Chris ask this question before and heard the answer, one asked, “What they say Chris?”

“You go get one of those cars with one of those loans in November and the Repo Po-Po comes to get it in May.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” anther customers commented.

Chris continued.

“And the people who give out the loans and sell those cars will all make a bunch more loans and sell a bunch more cars just like those the next November.”

On the same side of the room as the shampoo bowls, four chairs with hair dryers, that looked like space helmets sat behind the new boxy chairs. Together they gave the illusion of cubed alien bodies. Plastic aprons and towels were neatly folded, stacked, and waiting for use along the opposite mirrored wall and counter. Bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and neutralizer sat in good order on the counter behind the two shampoo bowls. The two sides reflected each other, allowed conversation with just a look when Chris or Denise was turned away completing a task. The front of the shop was all glass, and looked out on a mostly empty parking lot of a mostly empty strip mall.

Denise’s is dark brown, petite, and plump with a round sweet good natured face. She wore maroon glasses that stretch around her eyes like goggles, only very fashionable ones.

“Denise, those glasses look very good on you. Where did you get them?” I asked, as her hands guided me to lean back to place my neck into the curved bottom of the shampoo bowl.

“Oh, thank you,” Denise giggled in shyness and pleasure. I got them at the eye glass shop over at Kroger Plaza on Columbia.”

“What kind are they?”

“Oh, they’re by Joan Collins.”

I sank into the chair, my head cradled in the neck of the shampoo bowl, thinking about Joan Collins eye glasses being sold in strip mall south of Atlanta catering to poor black people, while Denise began her shampoo waltz. Warm–warm water. Shampoo that smelled of sunshine and dew laden morning air. Denise applied it tenderly, thoroughly, then gently scrubbed my twenty–four–inch long dreadlocks from my scalp to tip end. She then rinsed, rinsed, and rinsed some more. I felt the strong flow of the very water on every inch of scalp, and the slight tugging on my hair as she lifted and showered the water close to my scalp. Denise gently rocked my head this way and that, while her other hand cupped and covered my ears. She toweled my hair to damp dry and then applied hair conditioning that smelled like the warm evening air moving through night blooming jasmine. I relaxed and sighed in the scents dancing and swinging around my head.

Christmas music had been playing relentlessly on the radio and Chris turned to another station only to find more Christmas music. When my hair was rinsed and damp dried again, I got up and walked across the room to Chris’ chair. She sprayed and then separated, twisted, and clipped each section of my hair with a pin close to my scalp. I was looking forward to the magic Chris would do styling my dreads. The last time she had given me a complete up do, twisted and curved upward all eighteen inches on the top of my head. When the pins would not hold my thick hair, Chris decided to sew the style in place. I loved it! Showed it off to everyone, even people in museums, restaurants, and dog parks when my daughter and I walked my grand–dog. I wondered how she would top that style.

A black performer, I didn’t know, sang soulfully on the radio suddenly at twice the volume it had been before. Denise began to bop and sway in place to the music. An announcer interrupted the music and began to hawk a concert that would happen in February at the Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta. Another performer followed closely behind the announcer. The beat was heavy. The female voice was strong and suggestively romantic. The announcer hawked that performer and then others. He admonished listeners to, “Buy tickets right away before they are all sold out!”

Denise spoke quickly and excitedly in a high pitched adult-baby-doll voice, with a soft Florida twang, and an urban Atlanta drawl.

“Oh this show is gonna be good. I gotta get my tickets. I know,” she said like she had just had a great idea,” “It’s my husband’s birthday right then and it’s at the Fox. I can get us tickets and get really–really dressed up. He’ll like that”

Denise sang along with the various performers, in a quite sweet melodic soprano voice, as she continued to shampoo another customer’s hair.

One of the customer’s in the shop said, “Ya husband will be so happy. That’ll be a great birthday present, Denise ”

Denise did not look up from her work, but her tone implied the customer was out of her mind when she replied.

“My husband?”

Denise reared back a little with her eyes wide and incredulous.

“Mister ain’t goin,” as if her husband’s going to the concert was never ever in her thinking.

Denise continued, “I’m gonna ask….,” naming women who I thought might be her daughters or sisters or friends or a mix of both.

Another waiting customer said what I was thinking.

“But you said it was ya husband’s birthday present,” she said in a questioning tone.

Denise responded, “Yeah. But he ain’t no people person. He don’t go to

thingslike that. He talk too rough when he be around company. But, he’ll like seeing me all dressed up. He’ll drop us off and pick us up. I’ll tell him all about it. I’ll buy him a CD. He’ll like that.”

Everyone in the shop laughed and hooted, while Denise’s look said,

‘What? What are you laughing about? Ya’ll just don’t know Mister. He’ll be very happy. Really,” Denise reassured.

Chris finished twisting my hair and I went under a dryer that muffled the voices of the women and one man in the shop who were having rolling conversations about football, school board scandals, O.J. and Cosby’s innocence, which ball player was cheating on his wife or beating her or their child. They caught each other up on Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, the latest movies, the soaps, who had appeared on late night TV dressed how, and the ongoing rivalry between the Hawks and the Saints.

Chris maintained a strict policy of no gossiping about the people they all actually knew, or barely knew. So, there was no talk of what preacher was acting badly or which wife or husband was cheating with whom, or whose child had been arrested for what or whose house the police had showed up to or who had a drinking or gambling addiction or anything people could judge another about in their absence.

When my hair was mostly dry, I switched to Chris’ chair again. She cut my hair about six inches, just below my shoulders blades, and styled it with a round bun behind my right ear, almost sitting my shoulder.

I wanted to like it and so I tried to.

I paid Chris gladly and gave both Chris and Denise a generous tip. Later that day, as I sat in reserved stadium movie seats, the faux leather kind that have high backs and you can recline in I realized, I could not fully turn my head because my hair doo wouldn’t let me. Irritated by my hair doo, I reluctantly picked out the pins holding my style together. I chuckled to myself and leaned to whisper to my daughter, who eyes were questioning the pile of pins being dropped into my purse

Oh well. Not this hair do. But, absolutely, yes to Str-8-N Natural. Oh, and Mister.



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