The Perm


Pamela York Klainer


The AAA School of Beauty Culture was on the first block where Main Street entered the poorer part of town, so it was only a short walk for Rose when she wanted to spend a few dollars getting her hair cut. Having accepted the date with Mr. Freddie Lew, Rose looked carefully at her finances and decided she could add a color and perm, which she hadn’t done for a long time. She wanted her hair dyed Raven’s Wing Black, her natural color when she was a girl. She was not, Rose told herself, primping for a man. She was just paying more attention to herself after the shock of the heart attack. Rose wasn’t one to believe in letting yourself go, but with money tight she’d not spent much on her appearance. Her dark hair had turned salty gray, and the thick wave of her youth was now slack and even sparse in spots.

She didn’t mind the AAA School of Beauty Culture. There were no appointments and no special requests for stylists, but the rates were attractive. You had to accept whichever young trainee came out from the back to get you, but if your girl was ham-handed a supervisor would come along and clean things up, all in the guise of teaching. Rose had gotten good cuts and not so good ones, but she never went out looking like she’d been butchered.

Rose was thrilled to see Grace open the door, beckoning her as next in line. Grace smiled in recognition and motioned for Rose to follow her to a chair. Grace had cut Rose’s hair a number of times; Rose thought Grace must surely be close to graduating. Grace was young, she’d have come to beauty training right out of high school. Grace’s own hair was stylishly cut, she wore a fresh white smock that someone had taken the time to iron, and her face had little make-up. Grace didn’t need make-up, Rose thought, as she had that lovely glow of youth. Rose stared at her own wrinkled skin in the harsh light surrounding the big mirror in front of her, and sighed at the indignity of age. She was happy to have Grace, because Grace was really good. Plus Grace was never out of sorts. Rose was tired of having people around her who were constantly out of sorts.

“I understand we’re doing a color and perm today, not just a cut” Grace said to Rose, looking down a the form that Rose had filled out upon arriving. Grace smiled again as she arranged her implements and got Rose into a drape. “You must be getting ready for something special.”

Rose stiffened, wondering if the girl was making fun of an old lady going out on a date. Then Rose caught herself, remembering she hadn’t told Grace about the date. Rose hadn’t told anyone, not the landlady and not her girls either. She’d barely mentioned to her nearby daughter that she had a new neighbor when she’d been abruptly and rudely corrected. “For god sakes Mother, he’s not Oriental. Oriental is for rugs. He’s Asian. Calling him Oriental is really offensive, and you don’t want to get off on the wrong foot like you do with people.”

After that Rose had no plans to say to either daughter that Mr. Lew had invited her to dinner. And she hadn’t gotten off on the wrong foot at all, had she? Mr. Lew must think she was nice, not offensive, if he’d invited her out. Rose wondered, just for a second, if Mr. Lew thought she was pretty. She had been, once. Rose wondered if Mr. Lew’s wife had been small-boned and petite, the way most Oriental women were. Rose had never been small, and now the doctor actually said she was fat. She’d been trying to lose weight since being in the hospital, but she’d never lose enough to be small. Maybe that didn’t matter to Mr. Lew, because he’d asked her out just the way she was.

Rose’s musings were interrupted by Grace, who was seeking Rose’s thoughts about color for her hair.

“Raven’s Wing Black” said Rose firmly. “I want Raven’s Wing Black.”

Grace nodded thoughtfully, running her hands through the hair she was about to wash and cut. “You probably had really dark hair when you were younger, right? And I’m sure it was beautiful. You have such lovely bones in your face, and such fair skin.” Grace paused, finding her words carefully. “But when we get older, such a stark color doesn’t necessarily flatter. You might want to choose something softer, still black, but with less of an edge.”

Grace took Rose’s arm and led her to the hair-washing station, giving Rose time to think. Rose was glad to close her eyes as she leaned back, waiting for the warm spray on her scalp. She was surprised to find tears welling behind her eyelids. She hated to be old, too old for Raven’s Wing Black. She hated to be criticized all the time for what she said. But Grace hadn’t criticized, had she, only suggested. Grace had no reason to care how Rose looked. But she was talking as if she did care. Grace poured the shampoo and began to scrub Rose’s scalp, and then knead her skin, the sides of her face, the back of her neck.

Rose didn’t open her eyes, but as she relaxed she surprised herself by blurting out “I am getting ready for something special. I have a new neighbor, and he’s asked me out. It isn’t really date because he’s a widower and misses his wife and just wants someone to talk to. Besides he’s Asian and I’m not and they only marry their own kind. I haven’t known him for very long. But my landlady knows him, or I would never have accepted going out with a perfect stranger. My daughters don’t know. The landlady doesn’t either, but she probably will if she sees us going or coming home. I have no idea what she’ll think.”

Rose’s eyes jolted open and she saw Grace looking down at her and smiling. “That’s wonderful news, and it makes me want to help you look really beautiful. I’m so glad you told me.”

Rose wanted to close her eyes again, but Grace had finished washing her hair. She put her hand behind Rose’s back, helping her to get up. When Rose was seated again at Grace’s work station Grace looked at her in the mirror, and gently put both hands on Rose’s shoulders. “Will you trust me to choose a color for you that I think would work with your skin? I promise it will be black, but maybe not Raven’s Wing Black. I think I have a color that will work just perfectly.”

Rose frowned, staring back at Grace in the mirror. Rose had her doubts, and was about to protest. She was paying, after all, and if she wanted a certain color that’s the color her hair should be. She could feel her ire beginning to grow, but then she looked at Grace again in the mirror. Grace looked, well, encouraging. She looked unruffled. She looked as if it wasn’t really a big deal to trust your stylist to choose the color. She looked as if she expected Rose to want her help.

Rose sighed loudly, her shoulders relaxed, and she said in a small voice “Okay. But if I hate it you have to fix the color and not charge me extra. That’s only fair.”

Grace laughed. “You won’t hate it. I promise.”  And she set to work. After several minutes she asked in a gently teasing voice “Have you thought about what you’re going to wear?”

Rose groaned. She had not. Her wardrobe, if you could call it that, was dreadful – limited options and everything out of date. Elastic-waist pants, and sweaters that had pilled. Sensible shoes and socks. Shirts with food stains that hadn’t quite come out in the wash. She should have bought a few new things every year as finances allowed, but she hadn’t bothered and now she simply couldn’t go out and buy a whole new outfit, not on top of the cost of the perm. She looked into the mirror in near panic.

Grace saw the look and wanted to help. “You know, if I was going to buy one new thing, it would be shoes. It doesn’t really matter if your clothes are a bit faded and out of style; that’s trendy these days and you can pretend to have chosen a period look. But no one means to wear shoes that are old and worn. There’s a shoe store a few doors down that has nice things that aren’t too expensive, and they have a rack in the back with marked down shoes on sale. You can stop there on the way home. With your new hairstyle and a pair of good shoes, the rest of you will fall into place.”

Rose looked into the mirror at Grace, who was busy working. Rose couldn’t remember a time when she’d felt as if everything about her was in place. She tried to quell her rising excitement at the thought of buying shoes, not wanting to feel too upbeat. Surely this date was a silly thing to do in the first place, and it would never work out. Then she’d see Mr. Lew coming and going and it would be awkward. She might even have to move. What had she been thinking. Her thoughts spooled on and on, her anxiety growing. She barely heard when Grace’s voice intruded.

“The color. How do you like it? I just have some touch-up trimming to do, and then we’re done. How do you like your new look?”

Rose stared at the person in the mirror. The woman was still old, her skin fair but wrinkled and a little slack. Surrounding her face were soft, dark curls that drew the eye away from the carnage of age. This wasn’t ordinary hair, but hair that an someone famous might have. This new woman would need earrings, and perhaps a scarf to cover the skin of her neck. She should probably smile, because a smile would bring more light to her eyes. Rose tilted her head a certain way, knowing a profile is always flattering. She chose a mysterious smile rather than a winsome one. Her eyes became deep pools, thoughtful. Her voice, when she spoke, was in a tone Grace had never heard before. Rose sounded grand, almost like royalty.

“I think you’ve captured me completely.”

8 thoughts on “The Perm

  1. Oh, I laughed so hard when I saw that the title of this week’s installment (how I think of the chapters) was called “The Perm”. And then the black color — precisely how my mother in law had her hair colored until she died.

    Well, so Rose has some faint hormonal glow left in her after all! She remembers being pretty, feeling feminine power. This is a little surprise that’s nicely offset by the grandiosity of the last line.

    Grace is aptly named, and beautifully drawn. Now I am going back to read some of the supporting characters again to see if they are, perhaps, what anchor our Rose to reality so she doesn’t become a caricature. Last week, the landlady helped in that way. I think the nurses did. And Mr. Lew will certainly move into this role.

    Brava, Pam. I have more empathy for Rose this week. Who among us doesn’t feel some impact of being a woman past a certain age?

  2. for Mary: I was so excited to read this feedback … put the Rose post up yesterday without knowing if it was going to work. For you, it did. This fiction writing is a real stretch for me. I’ve always been able to put words together easily. Now I’m trying to put words together well.

  3. The perm? Did not see that coming but totally well written and in the Rose emerging character-although some touches of huge ornery old lady show through.
    Great piece this week , drew me in wanting to know more. Loved the new character Grace. I even liked the exchange between the two. Like Rose doesn’t phase Grace.

  4. for J: Hurray! As I said earlier in a reply to Mary, I launched this one without having a good sense of whether the story worked or not, especially the end. I’m so glad it did.

  5. Wow – J wrote exactly what I was thinking. Great stuff and can’t wait to see what happens on “the date”!!!

  6. for Nedra: That next segment is in process. 🙂 Glad you liked The Perm. Next week, the date actually happens.

  7. Grace is certainly the embodiment of Grace. What a wonderful character and foil for Rose. I love that we get to see Rose through Grace’s compassionate gaze.
    You have made Rose much more three dimensional and interesting. You are making me want to go on the journey with Rose. That is the true magic of writing I think. I am rooting for her although I can’t imagine she would be willing to be seen in public with Mr Lew, even for a free dinner !! Can’t wait to see how Rose balances out her antipathy versus her avidity.

  8. for Amy: You were the one whose observation that a reader needs a reason to care about, or even love, Rose got me started in this new direction. I think it’s working. Thank you for taking my writing seriously.

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