Red Heart ShopI grew up in a shop, a beauty shop, that is. My grandmother who was born in 1918 decided to go back to school at 47. At the time, my mother was attending school at Georgia State, so I never considered it unusual to have strong, industrious, hardworking women around me. They never whined; they just did.
Consequently, calling my grandmother’s place of business a shop was apropos. In my mind, her shop could be likened to any workshop where men gathered to get their cars checked out and pick up on the latest news traveling down the info pipe. Grandmother’s shop steamed around the latest fandangle and the juiciest gossip. She used appliances, concocted hair remedies to grease and lubricate, and tackled complex problems on design and repair. She opened up at 7AM, often working 7 days a week. She got called at the last minute, dealt with customer complaints, went to bed bone tired, and spent many hours at the funeral home making someone’s Mama look just like she did in life. And only Ms. Ann could do that.I always sat quiet, observing, listening. But my main intent was the conversation. I didn’t want to miss one luscious word, one dripping nuance or misnomer.
One day, Mabel (May – elongate and stretch the long a – Bell) came into the shop. She worked at the local mill, spool faced with cluster eyebrows. But this woman had a presence. When she entered the room, heads turned. On one particular day, I was kneeling, holding the dustpan as grandmother swept up mounds of multi-colored hair, laying curls atop resistant white, driving smelly perm solution airborne, when Mabel blew in, slamming the door with a staggering force.“Ann,” she said loudly, “The usual.”
Grandmother pushed the last mound toward me, motioning me to dispose of it. “I’ll have you outta here in no time flat,” she stated, grabbing a cape and flinging it around Mabel’s neck. “What’s new?”Two magic words, “what’s new,” began a runoff of names, misdemeanors, and indiscretions, most of which I didn’t understand. I did, however, understand the dicey rhythm of word delivery and reception. At one point, grandmother motioned for me to hand her a comb out of the sanitizer. I quickly maneuvered, delivering it directly into her outstretched hand.
In one instantaneous flash Mabel had me by the arm, pulling me close. “Have you been eating dog food?” she asked, her other hand running through my hair.“Mabel!” grandmother shouted, “What’s into you?”
“Look at this hair, Ann,” she said, pointing. “It’s like a dog’s!”
Grandmother looked puzzled. When I winced, Mabel released my arm and exclaimed, “Dog food, dammit. She’s been eating dog food. I’ve been coming here for years, asking for this kind of hair, and you knew the secret all along, didn’t you?”
We stared. The woman must be mad.“Ann, my hair is fried. The last time I walked out of here, I saw her with this.” Mabel pulled out a tin can of Red Heart. “See . . . right here on the front . . . that’s her hair, sure enough. Don’t deny it!”
I watched grandmother intently. She took the can out of Mabel’s hand, slipped up her eye glasses, paused and then exclaimed, “Mabel, you found me out. But I could lose my license over this.”“Oh, honey, I’ll never tell.” She smiled broadly and winked.
When Mabel left, grandmother turned to me, “Explain.”Feeling I was in horrid trouble, I began, “Well, I give Shots food out of my hand. When I’m done, I’m all greasy, so I do this . . .” Clasping my hands together, I rubbed them vigorously, stretched my fingers wide and ran them through my hair. “It musta worked. You haven’t said my hair looked like a scarecrow in two weeks.”
Grandmother reached down and kissed my forehead. She didn’t say a word. But I did notice a lot more Red Heart in the cupboard and a faint smell of it in the plastic bottle she kept by the wash basin. Funny how an odor can sit around on everything and no one will say a word.