Moment of Truth is the first place winner in the Autumn 2023 Quarterly Short Story Competition.
Mama always said that folks who come to your front door are either sellers or needers. By her seasoned estimation, that particular portal offers a transactional relationship at best. She insists that it’s the folks who come to your back door that you should pay attention to. Case in point: my daddy. He came to her front door one day with a fine leatherette case of the latest edition of The World Book Encyclopedia, volumes M - T, and somewhere between “Mastodon'' and “Orophile,” she fell in love with his sprightly diction and overlarge sense of self. She saw what she wanted to see rather than what was clearly in front of her, which was “Narcissist.” When he took his leave, he carried away all those fancy books and left her with a plain P for “Pregnant.” That became me, by the way, and I would like to think that she got a bargain, but to hear her talk, it would seem that she has a different assessment of the reward entirely.
She never related that story to me, mind you. When I ask about my daddy, which is not often now that I am fourteen, she simply says that he is a sailor in the Navy with a job so important that the entire armed forces of these United States cannot function without his constant and undivided attention. I once saw a newsreel of the president on vacation, and it occurred to me that if an essential man like the president can step away from his desk for a bit, then surely my daddy could call home on occasion.
No, I overhear things, and I expect the truth lies somewhere in between. She has been offering variations of the encyclopedia story over the years for laughs. Generally, it’s when a new client comes in, especially one who has a few extra coins in her pocketbook for the full shampoo, dye, cut, perm, and set, that my mama and her natural storytelling ability take the stage. Around about the time this customer gets relaxed and realizes that I am not a bona fide employee (being more a variety of forced child labor) and that my mama has a conspicuous lack of wedding-related jewelry, the air of judgment in the room gets a little heavy, and my mama starts cracking the jokes about my daddy and his erudite ways.
Truth be told, most of our world comes in through the front door. Mama’s beauty shop is in what should be the formal parlor of our house, but instead of a fancy divan and a console record player, we have the shampoo station, Mama’s swivel chair, and a pair of Lady Sunbeam hair dryers with a Sears and Roebuck magazine rack in between. We also have a steady flow of customers in various stages of the style and set process, for there is one undeniable, indisputable fact. My mama, for all her lovelorn blind spots, is the world’s greatest hairdresser. Her clients are so loyal that they have been known to get into lady fights over squatter’s rights to my mama’s swivel chair. Mind you, these are less of the fisticuffs variety and more of the sharpening of the compliment before using it as a weapon. “Oh, bless your heart, Mitzy!” I heard a sharp-tongued lady say, “You go right on ahead of me. Don’t give my regular weekly appointment one bit of worry. Lord knows, your little bald spot needs attention!”
Mama’s appointment book, a dog-eared calendar she got with six books of Green Stamps, stays filled to the brim, and it’s a mark of distinction to claim a regular spot in her schedule. I can’t remember the last time my mama took a break from work, and I rightly never considered that she might want one. At 8:00 sharp, every day except the Lord’s Day, Mama isready by her chair with her potions lined up and her scissors sharpened. The ladies arrive in waves (no pun intended) after depositing their big Buicks and Chevys under the oak tree in the yard, then they sashay up the steps and press the doorbell with gloved fingers. That would be all Mama’s customers except for Mrs. Friedrich. Her chauffeur, Mr. Amos, runs ahead to open the door for her, no buzzer involved. Mama calls her tactics a dramatic entrance, but I think she’s just plain snooty.
Mrs. Fancypants and her husband own the largest department store in town, Friedrich and Jones (the Jones having been added during the late great conflict to distract folks from the German-ness of the family moniker), and somewhere between haberdashery and ladies’ foundation garments, the missus picked up the notion that she was royalty with a capital R. The other ladies in Mama’s shop are polite and all to Mrs. Friedrich, but when she is not around, they have much more colorful opinions. Mama knows her place. These are not her friends. She smiles and cuts and keeps her mouth shut.
My job is to get every customer a Coca-Cola out of the icebox. I also take it upon myself to curate Mama’s collection of magazines to make sure the most stylish reading materials are available. In my humble opinion, we may be small-town, but there is no reason to be small- minded. Mama carries the usual Life and Time, since she maintains that women come to her not just for beauty but for culture too, but I happen to know that the most popular is True Confessions. Pages seem to disappear out of that one with regularity. Woman’s World featuring Nancy Sinatra was a big draw for a while, and Mama turned out her fair share of towering blow- outs when that picture was making the rounds. She was rightly pleased when the next issue featured Pat Nixon and her more constrained look. I am itching for Mama to make better use of my budding skills by training me on the finer techniques of shampooing and rinsing. Long- winded point being, we usually orient ourselves to the front door, and it’s all business from there.
I reckon that’s why it was something of a puzzle to get a caller at the back door. When we heard the knock, Mrs. Bennett was wedged in the swivel chair, her sparse locks thoroughly dyed with Silken Sheen in a statement-making shade of sable brown, and Mama had just started teasing up the volume with the Dippity Do. To be honest, the signal was more of a tap tap than a knock knock, but being as it was a slow day and I had nothing much to do, I scooted through the kitchen to see who was there. Curiosity had the better of me, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was a woman wearing a pale, yellow dress with fancy white piping on the collar and rows of rick rack around the hem. I could tell it was home-made, which impressed me all the more. She had a straw hat on her head, sitting slightly off to the side to highlight her naturally advantageous hairline, and a matching straw bag on her arm, nestled just-so in the crook of her elbow, what Woman’s World might call intentional yet effortless. And she had the blackest hair, the reddest lips, and the biggest eyes that I had ever seen. Clearly, she was not seeking my mama’s servicesin the beauty department.
“I’m Verity L’Amour” she said in a voice that was so deep and smooth, it was like velvet. “May I speak to the owner of this establishment?”
No one had ever talked to me before like I was someone who knew something. I just stared at her, her confidence as bold as her cosmetics, until I remembered my manners. “Oh, you mean Mama? Come on in.”
She hesitated and then said she would just wait on the back stoop if it was alright with me.
“Suit ‘cherself,” I said and went to get Mama.
Mama was annoyed when I interrupted her to say that someone important was waiting out back. “She wants to speak to the owner of this establishment,” I whispered for emphasis. (I’m told that drama is a viable career path for me if I ever decide to apply myself).
But when Mama walked to the back door, wiping her hands on the hem of her smock, she took one look at Verity L’Amour and cocked her head to the side. “What are you selling?” she asked all abrupt-like. And then before Miss L’Amour could answer, Momma spun around and went back to the parlor.
Now I’d never seen Mama act that way, and it seemed to go against every rule of lady- like behavior that she ever taught me, but Verity L’Amour didn’t seem surprised at all. She raised her delicate fingers to the brim of her hat, steadied it on her head, and bid me a polite farewell.
I watched her walk away with a hard feeling in my heart. It didn’t seem right, and I had a few burning questions, so I followed her. She ambled down the lane that ran behind our house and meandered toward town. Purple clouds were bunching up in the sky, and the wind was starting to whip around sideways. Miss L’Amour’s style didn’t seem threatened by a little precipitation. She took slow steps and tilted her hips this way and that in a rhythm that I tried to copy but couldn’t without serious consequences to my balance. After a couple of blocks, she stopped and turned around, staring at me with those movie star eyes. “Can I help you?” she asked in that dusky voice, strongly implying that she wasn’t looking to do anyone any favors.
“Uhm, well, no,” I stammered, toeing the dirt with my sandals to buy some time. “I’m sorry for the way my mama treated you.”
“She’s no diff’rent than anyone else.” Verity L’Amour stood tall with the wind swirling that pretty yellow dress around her thin frame. “You go on back home now, y’hear? I don’t want any trouble.” She lifted one hand to point me back toward home, and I noticed that her nails were polished in an assertive shade of orchid pink. Those of us who work in beauty never miss a chance to admire when a lady takes special care of herself.
“What did you want when you came calling?” I asked in an affront to good manners. The wind was whistling considerably now, making the art of conversation something of a bother.
“I beg your pardon?”
“What did you want with my mama before she sent you away?” I found myself yelling into the wind.
Verity L’Amour crossed her arms over her chest and stuck out one foot. “I wanna ask your mama for a job.” She hollered back.
I laughed and then realized she was serious. “You a hairdresser?”
“The best there is.”
I thought on that for a bit before I answered because I was generally predisposed to thinking that my mama was the greatest of all time. I experienced a painful moment of doubt but decided to press on despite considerable pangs of disloyalty. “Can you prove it?”
The screen door slammed when Miss L’Amour and I entered the kitchen. The storm had sent all the women packing, desperate as they were to preserve their teased and sculpted testaments to Mama’s skill and a significant dollop of setting lotion. Mama was all alone, fiddling with the cantankerous radio that refused to turn on. The sky outside was turning frightfully dark, and raindrops began to pelt the windows.
“This is Verity L’Amour. She needs a job, and she’s going to fix my hair,” I announced, daring Mama to disagree. (This is a tactic that I have been working to perfect, and this was one of my better attempts so far.) Miss L’Amour stood by the door, her face unreadable but her body leaning toward the back stoop and an easy escape.
“Oh, she is?” Mama retorted. “Says who?”
There were no edges to her voice, just a tiredness, so Miss L’Amour and I walked on in, and I settled myself in the swivel chair. Now a normal person might think that the daughter of the world’s greatest hairdresser would have a special ‘do to show off, if only for advertising purposes, but Mama generally doesn’t pay much mind to my overall appearance. As a result, my blondish, brownish hair was long and wavy, not in a good way. Mama would’ve liked me to wear a barrette to keep my hair off my face, but we fought that battle years ago with pretty decisive results. Truth is, I would’ve loved to wear a barrette every now and then but didn’t want to reopen negotiations.
Miss L’Amour searched Mama’s workspace and located the special scissors. She just stared at them while I took stock of my assets in Mama’s big mirror.
“I’d like a flipped up do, please” I paused to make sure I had Miss L’Amour’s attention. “Something like Patty Duke has on her TV show. That is - do you know who Patty Duke is?”
Miss L’Amour took a deep breath. “Yes, I most certainly do know who Miss Patty Duke is. Where do you think I came from, the moon?”
I liked her spunk. She stood there, appraising my hair and what she had to work with, but she didn’t commence with any of the necessary procedures.
“You have to shampoo first,” I whispered, trying to be helpful.
“Yes miss, I know what needs to be done, but these are not my tools.” Miss L’Amour looked at Mama, and neither spoke for a minute.
Finally, Mama nodded her head. “Please, Verity help yourself. If you can get that head of hair looking neat and Patty Duke-like, then you and I can talk.” Mama lit a cigarette and leaned against the wall in a manner that seemed to say that she didn’t have any confidence that Miss L’Amour would be able to impress her.
An hour later, I stood in front of the mirror, gobsmacked. My previously untamed hair flowed off my scalp in perfect harmony. Glossy and smooth, my locks cascaded toward my chin and then dramatically flipped up all in agreement. The top of my head was capped in a fluid upsweep, teased just enough to give me a little lift, and ingeniously clasped with concealed bobby pins. For once, I was speechless. I was stylish. I was glamorous.
Mama had stubbed out her cigarette as soon as her scissors in Verity’s hands began flying across my head, chunks of my hair hitting the floor and leaving a chaotic frenzy of wet strands around my face. I admit to feeling pretty low at that point, like I had made a big stubborn mistake with Miss Verity L’Amour. In for a penny, in for a pound, though, and when Veritycommenced with the Dippety Do and the big rollers, Mama pulled a kitchen chair right up to the station and began asking her questions about this technique and that. I was annoyed that I was under the dryer for the bulk of this conversation, but I expect most pioneers experience that singular emotion of isolation in their quest to perfection. I was amazed to watch her and Mama in a spirited discussion, hands waving and arms flinging about as they punctuated their sentences with enthusiasm.
At a particular juncture in the conversation, I suppose to hammer home her point, Miss L’Amour put Mama in her own chair and set to work on her lackluster ‘do. Mama never got around to her own hair until she was thoroughly tuckered out from a long day, which explains the unimpressive results. The look on her face was some kind of magic as Miss L’Amourcombed and sculpted the flyaway frizzies into a sleek bob that would set Hollywood on fire.
I eased up next to Mama and tipped my head toward hers. Miss L’Amour’s brushouts were marvels of beauty - blue ribbon, prizewinning renditions of a woman's victory over the natural forces of wavy hair. The ends of my ‘do asserted themselves over gravity and vaulted up in regimented precision to perfectly highlight my bone structure, heretofore hidden by a curtain of mediocrity. Mama gasped and Miss L’Amour smiled.
The wind picked up and a clap of thunder made us jump. The old radio, sparked to life by the storm, crackled with the jaunty voice of Wanda Jackson. Mama grabbed my hand, giggling and crooning along. “I never kissed a bear; I never kissed a goon; but I can shake a chicken in the middle of the room. Let’s have a party, hoo!!”
I don’t mind admitting that this was a first. Up ‘til now, I had limited Mama to two speeds: irritable and exhausted. Jovial had never entered the picture. I clutched at Verity’s slender fingers and we three twirled in a circle, my Patty Duke curls bouncing against my cheeks with a rhythm all their own.
The screech of rusty hinges interrupted us as the front door flew open. We spun around to see Mrs. Friedrich waltz in dry as can be while poor Mr. Amos stood on the porch dripping wet. She gasped as she took in the whole giddy scene in front of her. I’m not sure what raised her hackles the most - Mama’s laughter, my fancy ‘do, or the bold novelty of Miss Verity L’Amour, but as quickly as she arrived, she skittered back down the steps in her sensible shoes. Mr. Amos followed close behind, and I’m sure I caught sight of a twinkle in his eye.
Lightning hit high in the oak tree, and a sudden whoosh of wind, propelled by Mother Nature and my own mama’s wisdom, slammed the front door back into place. “Let’s have a party tonight!” squealed Miss Jackson over the radio, and we three beauty queens danced on.