Sample text for Blessings : a novel / Sheneska Jackson.


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From Chapter 1

In this life there are mysteries that will never be fully understood by mere mortals. Questions that when pondered extensively can leave the average human psyche in such a state of disarray that normal brain activity stalls, leaving the ponderer of such questions wallowing in a mass of confusion, aimlessly searching for the unknown, and ultimately leading to a state of mental chaos and cerebral shut-down. Unfortunately, as we all know, there are some questions that are better left unanswered. Questions such as Does God really exist? Is there life after death? Which came first? The chicken or the egg?

Indeed these questions can certainly leave one's mind hopelessly frazzled and disheveled. But there is an even larger question at hand today. A mystery that has eluded the genius of scholars, scientists, and political pundits alike. A question that has dogged the earth for hundreds of years, and even to this day we are nowhere near a breakthrough in this timeless riddle. The question is a serious one. The question is mind boggling. The question is this: Why? For the love of God! Why does it take so long for a woman to get her hair done at the beauty shop?

Many have tried to unravel this mystery, but none have succeeded. Some of the theories to explain this phenomenon include tardiness on the part of the client, overbooking of appointments, and a general lackadaisical attitude on the part of the beautician. Still, the answer to this question has escaped us. We may never get to the bottom of this dilemma, but if we are truly committed to bringing about change we must first tackle the obvious, most irritating, and most unscrupulous element of the equation. And that is this: Beauticians talk too damn much.

Oh yes, it is a natural fact that beauticians love to run their months. No matter where you live, be it North, South, East, or West, it doesn't matter. Where there are beauticians there is chatter. And on this day, in the bustling city of Inglewood, California, inside the small but well-kept beauty salon on the corner of Centinela and LaBrea, the natural facts were in effect.

***

"I just can't believe he could do something like that," Faye said, shaking her head as she ripped open a bag of silky straight weaving hair. "Do you think he did it?"

"Hell no, I don't think he did it," Zuma answered as she meticulously pulled the end of a rat-tail comb through her client's thick hair, creating a perfect one-inch side part. "I know he did it."

"Don't say that," Faye said, pulling the one hundred percent human hair from its bag and shaking it out. "I believe he's innocent. You saw the trial. He didn't look like a killer."

"Well I don't know what trial you were watching, but all I know is this: His blood didn't just get up and walk over to that crime scene. He was there, he did it, he's guilty as sin, and that's all I have to say about that."

"Stop it!" Faye squeaked, the words stinging her ears as if she was the one accused of murder. "He was set up! And to be perfectly honest, I for one am glad that he got off. It's about time we won something around here. We didn't get any justice with Rodney King," she said, a bit surprised by the rising tone of her voice. She paused and brought it down a notch. "That not-guilty verdict was a victory for all of us. We won this time."

"We won?" Zuma said and stuck the comb into her client's hair. She turned to face Faye head-on and put her hands on her hips. "What did we win?" she asked, flinging her hand through the air. "I have yet to see my O.J. prize, honey. Please. We won?" She sucked her teeth. "I've just about had it up to here with everybody assuming that all black people think O.J. Simpson is innocent. Unh-uh, not me. I know he did it. He did it. He did it. He did it!"

"Well, you weren't looking too unhappy when the verdicts came down," Faye reminded Zuma and raised her hand in the air, rationally. "You were sitting right here in this shop jumping up and down with everybody else when we found out O.J. had been set free."

"Hell yeah, I was jumping up and down. But I wasn't jumping for O.J.," she said, and smirked. "I was jumping for Johnnie Cochran. Now that's one bad man. People may not like his tactics, but he was just doing what any other good attorney is supposed to do -- support his client at all costs and win. Shoot, Johnnie Cochran is a damn hero and if he had been white, people would have been begging for him to run for president by now," she said, and pointed a finger for emphasis. "Shit, Johnnie Cochran is the man, but O.J.?" she said, and curled her lips. "Fuck O.J."

"Zuma," Faye said, wincing at her use of foul language.

"Faye," Zuma said, not giving a damn.

"Well, I still don't think he did it. He may know who did it. But he didn't do it himself"

"Hell yeah, he knows who did it. He did it!"

"A man like that cannot kill two people. It's physically impossible," Faye rationalized. "How is O.J. going to kill two people with one knife? I mean, what was the second person doing while O.J. was stabbing the first? Waiting in line talking about, 'Cut me next, O.J. Cut me'?" Faye paused, surprised by the laughter that statement had generated, but she wasn't trying to be funny. "No," she continued. "There's no way a man like that call kill two people."

"A man like that? A man like what?"

"A rich black man like O.J. Simpson has no reason to be killing anybody. O.J. Simpson is black and any black man going up against this racist judicial system in America has got my support."

"O.J. Simpson ain't black. He ain't nothing but another rich, stuck-up white boy. He ain't never used none of his money to help out black folk," she said, and pointed at Faye. "When have you ever heard about O.J. doing something to help out the black community?" she said, and waited briefly for a response, but Faye was dumbfounded. "O.J. hasn't done shit for me," Zuma said with fire. "Shoot. Where was some O.J. when I was in need? Where was some O.J. when my car was being repossessed? Hell, where was some O.J. when my broke ass couldn't pay my light bill last week? Shoot, support O.J? O.J. can kiss MY black ass. And I mean that. Shiiit."

***

It had been two years since the verdicts had come down in the O.J. Simpson trial, but the Juice was still a hot topic at Blessings. Blessings was the spot, the place where everybody came for a little pleasant conversation. Never mind that Blessings was a beauty shop. The way people ranted and raved throughout the place, it could easily have been mistaken for a town hall meeting arena. While women with nappy heads waited patiently on the faux leather sofa for hours and sisters with half-wet locks bent over shampoo bowls scratching their dandruff, the conversation between the two beauticians brewed on. Once again the subject had turned to the Juice, and as usual, the conversation was heated. So heated, that even the time-conscious clients had to get in on it.

***

"I know one thing," the lady with blond-streaked hair yelled as she poked her head from beneath the dryer. "If nothing at all, O.J. Simpson is a wife beater. Y'all saw those pictures of Nicole. She didn't beat herself up," she said, then slammed the lid of the dryer back over her head.

"O.J. said he never hit that woman and I believe him," a lady with a head full of loose braids said as she sat in the corner of the faux leather sofa. Her words seemed to ignite the blond-streaked lady's nerves as she poked her head from beneath the dryer again.

"Y'all kill me," she shouted over the rumblings of the old machine she sat underneath. "You women support O.J. like he was some sorta god." She looked sideways toward the lady sitting under the dryer next to her. "I know some of y'all have had your butts beaten by a black man," she said and squinted her eyes at her neighbor, "so don't tell me that O.J. isn't capable of beating his wife. I don't care how rich he is or was, he's still a wife beater."

The lady sitting next to her gasped as she rolled her eyes and pulled her skirt tail down to hide the black-and-blue bruise that stained her round thigh. She crossed her legs and hoped the conversation would end. But it didn't.

"O.J. was framed," another lady called out from the shampoo bowl. Her brown locks were covered in conditioner and as she lifted her head from the bowl, water dripped down the sides of her face. "Those crooked, racist cops set O.J. up. It was a C-O-N-spiracy."

The woman with the loose braids jumped in again. "That's right. That damn Mark Fuhrman ain't no good. This whole thing was a setup from the get-go," she said, scooping a handful of braids out of her face. "Did you hear those tapes he made? Nigger, nigger, nigger. He didn't have no business being on the police force, let alone being a part of the trial."

The blond-streaked lady had nothing to say about that so she just pulled down the lid of her dryer and sat back. But that didn't end the conversation. Another woman with a head of freshly blow-dried hair slammed the Essence magazine she'd been reading onto the counter in front of her. As she turned around to confront the lady with the loose braids her long hair whipped across her face just like one of those girls in the shampoo commercials on TV. "Now, I'm not trying to defend Mark Fuhrman, but the man was a cop. He was just doing his job. So what if he said all that mess on those tapes? That don't mean he framed O.J. Simpson."

"Fuhrman is a red-necked racist. Anybody who could talk about black people the way he did is capable of anything."

"Oh," Shampoo Commercial said. "And I guess you've never uttered a racist word in your whole entire life, huh?" She swung her head around to confront the lady at the shampoo bowl. "I was in here last week when you walked in here bitching and complaining about the Beaner who cut you off and almost made you crash into a tree. Now, does that make you racist against all Hispanic people?"

The lady at the shampoo bowl stuttered and wrapped the white towel that was around her neck over her damp hair as she sat back and shut up.

"And you," Shampoo Commercial said, turning to the woman with loose braids again, her hair whipping through the air. "Remember last month when we were in here talking about the civil rights movement? You said all white people are devils and that you wouldn't care if they all disappeared off the face of the earth." She tilted her head to the side. "Does that make you a racist? Just because you said those words, does that mean you're capable of framing somebody just because they are white?"

The blond-streaked lady realized Shampoo Commercial was on her side and regained enough confidence to poke her head from beneath the dryer again. "I said it before and I'll say it again -- O. J. Simpson is guilty as sin," she chanted like a cheerleader and gave a thumbs-up to Shampoo Commercial. "We've got a killer on the streets," she said as she lost her grip on the dryer's lid and it smacked her on top of her head. She winced, but didn't lose a beat. "And another thing," she said as the dryer's automatic timer buzzed. "That stupid jury in the criminal trial ought to be shamed of themselves."

The bruised woman sitting under the dryer next to her gasped again, but this time she pulled the lid of the dryer from over her head and turned right around to face her opponent. "I've been silent long enough," she said, and pulled her skirt tail down again to hide the black-and-blue mark on her thigh. "Don't go blaming those black people on that jury. They did their jobs. It's not their fault that the prosecution couldn't prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt."

Shampoo Commercial stood up from her seat to walk over to the hair dryer section so she could get in on this phase of the conversation. "No," she said defiantly, "those jurors did not do their jobs."

"Oh yes they did," Loose Braids said as she too walked over to the dryer section. "Those folks ought to be commended. They were locked tip for almost a damn year. Away from their families and everything."

"Hell, I should be so lucky," Blond Streaked interrupted. "I've been looking for an excuse to get away from my family for years." She and Shampoo Commercial chuckled over that. But Loose Braids and the bruised woman were not in the mood for laughing.

"I get so tired of people coming down on that jury." Loose Braids sighed. "Just because they were black and happened to come back with a not guilty verdict, everybody wants to call them stupid. As if a black jury isn't fit to handle a case like this." Bruised nodded as Loose Braids continued. "That black jury made the right decision," she said and pointed directly at the blond-streaked woman. "O.J. Simpson is innocent."

"First of all," Blond Streaked said as she removed the dryer from above her head and stood to her feet. She was all of five foot nothing, but as she looked up at Loose Braids her stance was like that of a giant. "You best get your finger out of my face," she said, eyeing Loose Braids until the finger she pointed had eased its way down. "And second of all, I call those black jurors stupid because they are. They did not do their fucking jobs. They listened to over nine months of testimony and reached their verdict in three hours? Ain't no way in the world you can call that doing your job. They were supposed to deliberate. Have you ever looked up the word deliberate in the dictionary?"

Shampoo Commercial took over from there. "Deliberate means to slowly and methodically come to a decision," she said, moving closer to Loose Braids and speaking as if she were talking to a two-year-old. "Deliberate means to weigh all the evidence. To consider it carefully. How could that jury consider nine months' worth of testimony in three hours? They did not do their jobs," she said, stressing each and every word of her final sentence.

"Yes they did!" Bruised shouted and pushed the dryer lid away from her head again.

"No they didn't!" Blond Streaked and Shampoo Commercial said in unison.

"Yes they did!" Loose Braids groaned.

"No they --"

"Hey, hey, hey!" a voice shouted from the other side of the shop, forcing the debaters to pause. They all caught their collective breaths as they turned to catch a glimpse of the woman walking their way. "What in the world is going on over here?" the tall, pristine woman asked as she moved between the feuding ladies. She graced the debaters with a smile so pleasant that they all began to feel a bit awkward about the way they had let their conversation get out of hand.

"Sorry," Loose Braids said as she slowly walked back to the sofa and took a seat. "I guess we got a bit too caught up in our conversation."

"Sorry," Blond Streaked said as she sat back down beneath the hair dryer next to Bruised.

"Yeah, I'm sorry too," Shampoo Commercial said as she headed back to her chair and picked up her Essence magazine. "We didn't mean to get so loud. It's just that some people have some very screwed-up ways of thinking."

"Excuse me?" Bruised said and raised an eyebrow.

"Now, now, ladies," the tall woman said calmly yet authoritatively.

"Sorry," Bruised said and faked a smile toward Shampoo Commercial. "I guess you're right. I mean you ought to know with that big ass bowling ball you call a head. With a dome that big I guess you're qualified to think for all of us."

Loose Braids snickered as Shampoo Commercial rolled her eyes, but before another word could be uttered, the tall lady with the soothing smile spoke up. "Everybody just calm down," she said. "This is a beauty shop, not a battlefield," she scolded, and frowned for a second. She looked over her shoulder at Faye and Zuma and squinted her eyes at her fellow beauticians. "See what you guys started?" she said as both Faye and Zuma shrugged their shoulders and smirked. The tall woman looked around the shop at all the disgruntled customers and realized she had to do something quick. Unhappy customers were definitely bad for business. "Hey," she said, clapping her hands together and flashing her smile around to all the ladies. "I've got a joke," she announced, then took a deep gulp before she continued.

Faye and Zuma shot each other a look, but that didn't stop the jokester from putting on her show. "Okay," she said, grinning. "Here we go....What do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhinoceros?"

Faye and Zuma rolled their eyes and sighed. The disgruntled debaters didn't even raise an eyebrow as they looked curiously at one another.

"Okay, we give up," Zuma squawked as she walked behind the client sitting at her hair station and waited for the punch line.

"Elephino!" the tall jokester said and grinned. "Get it? Hell if I know... Ele-phi-no...Hell if I know!...Get it?"

They didn't.

Still everyone gave her a polite chuckle, which was all the tall woman needed to feel satisfied. She stood in the middle of the shop and smiled to herself. Once again she had brought order back to the chaotic shop. So what if no one understood her joke. No one ever understood her jokes. The point was that she had returned the atmosphere back to its proper state of bliss. Keeping the peace was her duty. She owned the place. Her name was Patricia Brown.

Pat looked around at the shop she'd owned now for five years and decided to pick up a broom. The floor was covered in matted, dirty hair from a previous client who had her shoulder-length coif chopped off to a chin-length bob. She sighed as she swept through the shop, smiling at the customers who politely moved their feet out of the way for her. It was Friday evening and as usual the place was packed with women looking to get "did up" for the weekend. She was proud of her shop and the women who frequented it. Be they businesswomen who came in every week to keep up their professional appearances, broke women who had scraped together just enough money minus a tip for the occasional splurge, or the teenage ghetto fabulous girls who'd conned their boyfriends into giving them some cash to get their hair did. The nature of the client didn't matter to Pat. She loved them all.

Pat didn't see hair styling as a form of retail beauty. She saw it as a form of therapy. She was often amazed at what a good hairstyle could do for a person's self-esteem. It was almost miraculous. She'd named her shop Blessings, because that's what she wanted to create. She and the two other women who worked with her could take any average-looking woman off the streets and turn her into a diva with the flip of a hot comb. They were practically miracle workers. Hooking up hair was the ultimate blessing, Pat thought, and one of the easiest ways to make women feel better about themselves.

As she glided her broom across the floor toward the bathroom, Pat stopped for a minute and stuck her head in to take a peek at herself in the mirror. She ran her hand over her freshly styled hair that Zuma had trimmed for her earlier that day. She tucked a single curlicue that Zuma had left dangling over her eye behind her ear and smoothed it down. Zuma was always trying to give Pat's hair a bit of pizzazz, but pizzazz wasn't Pat's style. She was the conservative type. A prim and proper Christian woman whose only vice was her penchant for telling an occasional dirty joke. Pat was tall and slender with an understated beauty that didn't need to be beefed up with silly fashion fads or here-today-gone-tomorrow hairdos. Pat was content with herself and happy, and as she gave herself a final once-over in the mirror, she plastered the smile back onto her face, looked over her shoulder at the fully crowded shop, then continued sweeping.

When she had finally gathered up all the hair with the dustpan and trashed it, she sat down in a chair in the back of the shop and let out a sigh of relief as she gazed around. This was the first time Pat had been off her feet all day, and even though she still had a slew of heads to finish, she couldn't resist stealing a couple minutes of solitary relaxation. She glanced at her friends, Faye and Zuma, as they worked feverishly on their clients' heads. It was already getting dark outside and still her shop was packed with people. She knew she wouldn't get home before midnight tonight, but that was the norm on Fridays. She always kept the shop open late on the weekends to meet the demands of her ever-increasing clientele. Fridays and Saturdays were the days her shop made the most money and although the weekend was always hectic, she performed her duties with great pride. Yes, she was overworked, but that was a price she was willing to pay for success. More than anything, Pat was proud. Blessings was her baby. Her very own beauty shop. Her very own business. Her husband had bought the shop for her, but she had made it her own. Not only was she a wife, she was an entrepreneur now, and her life had taken on new meaning. And that was a blessing in and of itself.

To outsiders looking in, Pat had the perfect relationship with her man. He was rich by black folks' standards, meaning he owned a home, had a nice car, good job, and no apparent addictions. He loved Pat to death and gave her everything she ever wanted. But there was one thing that Pat's husband could not give her. He was a good man, but he wasn't God. He couldn't part the seas, turn water into wine, or heal the sick. So for now Pat had to make the most of the things her husband did give her, the most important thing in her life -- her beauty shop.

Blessings was located in Inglewood, California, a small, predominantly black area of Los Angeles that for the most part was considered a pretty good city. It wasn't as ritzy as West Los Angeles, but it didn't have the negative reputation of South Central even though it was only a stone's throw away. Inglewood was the perfect location to start up a small black business, but it was obvious to Pat when she first began looking for a location for her shop that she wasn't the only one who thought like that. There were so many other beauty shops in the area that Pat had been cautious about opening another right in the midst of all the competition. But Pat knew one thing. Black women like to look cute. Black women spend more money on hair, clothes, and entertainment than any other race of people. A black woman could have a refrigerator with nothing in it but a bag of bread, but if it came down to getting her hair done or going grocery shopping...well, let's just say she'd be eating wish sandwiches until her next paycheck.

With that in mind, Pat decided to go ahead and open her shop in Inglewood despite the competition and because she didn't want to work too far away from her home in Ladera Heights, the black Beverly Hills. Driving was not one of Pat's favorite things to do and with Inglewood being the next city over, she decided to throw caution to the wind and go with her instincts. Besides, Pat had a plan to get over on all the other beauty salons in the Inglewood area. It was a gimmick, she knew, still she gave it her best shot. Her plan? To post a sign right in the front of the shop's window that was sure to get everyone's attention. The sign was simple and to the point: Get your hair done in two hours or less or the service is free -- Guaranteed.

Needless to say, with the wait at most other salons in the area being upwards of three hours, Pat's sign attracted a huge amount of attention and gave her the leg up on the competition that she needed. Still, the gimmick only worked for a couple of months. The first weeks were wonderful. The sign caught the eyes of many women and clients began to trickle in slowly but surely. But by the second month, the darn sign began to work too well and soon Blessings was filled to the brim with so many clients that there was no way possible for Pat to keep her guarantee. There was no way she could get to all her customers in less than two hours working by herself.

She thought she had found the answer to the problem when she hired a part-time shampoo girl to help her out for a while. But even the two of them working together was not enough of a solution and on several occasions Pat found herself doing more heads for free than she could afford. Needless to say, the sign had to come down and with no gimmick, Blessings became just another run-of-the-mill beauty salon in an area already congested with too many. A few die-hard clients who were pleased with the way Pat handled their hair stayed with her, but most of the clients dwindled away, especially after a shop named Off the Hook Hair opened up lust two blocks away. Off the Hook Hair specialized in all the latest hair designs, and though Pat did consider herself to be an okay beautician, especially considering the fact that she'd only had her license for less than a year, she knew she could never compete with the stylists Off the Hook Hair had to offer. So, slowly but surely, Pat's business began to go under.

That first year Blessings was in business was a nightmare that Pat would certainly rather forget, she thought to herself as she stretched out her legs in the back of the shop. Looking around the shop now, though, it was hard to believe that Blessings had almost gone out of business in that first year. Now Blessings was considered one of the best hair salons in the city. People came from as far away as the San Fernando Valley to get their hair done at Pat's shop and business was, as they say, booming. Of course the days of the two-hour guarantee were long gone. Now if you come into Blessings by ten, you're lucky to get out by five -- on a good day. It was just one of those things. No one knows why it takes so long to get their hair done, they just accept it. They make a day out of it. And knowing that it can be rather taxing sometimes to wait over four hours to get one's hair done, Pat figured she could at least give the women who came to her shop a relaxing atmosphere. From the outside, Blessings looked like any other beauty shop. The two huge windows in front were trimmed in pink and stenciled with prices and advertising specials as well as a big, black woman with a full head of crimson hair and of course a large pink neon sign that blinked "Blessings." But inside, Blessings had all the comforts of home. There was a big-screen television complete with VCR, a sound system, a mini refrigerator and microwave oven for those who brought in food, a nice comfortable sofa, and mounds and mounds of magazines to distract the clients from their long wait. The shop was relatively small with only three hair stations, two shampoo bowls, two hair dryer seats, and one newly purchased manicuring station that Pat had bought last month because she wanted to expand. Just last week, she'd had the painters out restenciling the front window from Blessings Hair Salon to Blessings Hair and Nails. And it wouldn't stop there. Pat had even bigger plans for expansion. Soon she'd add on waxing and massaging, and as soon as the renters next door decide to shut down their fledgling hardware store, she planned on purchasing it too, knocking out the wall that separated the two suites and adding on an aerobics studio. But those plans would have to wait for a year or three. Right now, hair and nails were all Pat could handle.

With the addition of the manicuring station, Pat had plans of going back to beauty school to get the manicuring license. She hadn't planned on doing nails herself, but since the red and white Help Wanted sign that hung on the front door hadn't been answered she really had no choice. Pat had it hard enough doing hair alone and adding manicurist to her title was not a welcome designation for her. But she had gone ahead and purchased the manicure station and she couldn't let it go to waste. So on top of doing hair, booking appointments, greeting customers, answering phones, keeping the place clean, and managing the books, Pat would soon be taking on even more responsibility. But Pat wouldn't complain. No, no. She'd do whatever it took to make her business the best it could be. Blessings was her baby and she would never let it go under. She remembered how awful she felt that first year of business when the lack of clientele almost forced her to close down her shop. The thought of losing what she'd worked so hard to create was almost too painful to remember. But that was a very long time ago, Pat assured herself as she got up from her seat in the back of the room and walked up front toward her hair station. She beckoned her blond-streaked client to join her and as she watched her scramble from beneath the hair dryer she pasted on a smile and tapped the seat of her chair. "Come on, darling," she said to her client as she watched her sit down in front of her. She placed her foot on the lever at the bottom of the seat and pumped four times until her client was elevated to the proper height. "Spirals or an up-do?" Pat asked as her client gave her a perplexed look. "Spirals," Pat decided and plugged in her curling wand. Pat took in a deep sigh as she combed through her client's hair and waited for the wand to heat up. She looked around the shop, knowing it would be hours before she could get off her feet again, but still she didn't complain. She'd take a jam-packed salon over an empty one any day. She'd seen her share of empty seats that first year of business and she vowed never to go through that experience again. And as long as she had her secret weapon she never would. Pat's secret weapon would keep her in business for the rest of her life. That secret weapon went by the name of Zuma, Pat thought to herself as she shot her friend a quick glance. Blessings wouldn't be half the shop it was today if it weren't for Zuma. Zuma was the diva of all hair stylists in the L.A. area. Pat knew it, the customers knew it, and you better believe Zuma knew it too.

"Flip on the radio," Zuma yelled to Pat without even looking in her direction. And, like an obedient pet, Pat obliged.

Those who didn't know Zuma would swear she was the bossiest bitch they'd ever met. But that was just Zuma's way. The "please" in the statement was an understood thing that didn't need to be said. Sort of like the silent g in the word fight.

When Pat hit the radio switch, a smooth jazzy beat rolled through the air, and as if stung by a bee, Zuma paused dramatically and stared at Pat as if she'd just seen a ghost.

"What?" Pat exclaimed as she returned to her hair station and returned Zuma's glare.

"Aw shit," Zuma said, closing her eyes.

"What!" Pat said nervously watching Zuma and wondering if she was about to have some sort of physical breakdown.

"That's my jam!" Zuma shouted and finally snapped her fingers and bobbed her head to the beat of the music. "That's that Erykah Badu cut," she said, and nudged her client, who could care less. Her client had been in the shop now for four hours and all she wanted Zuma to do was fix her hair so she could get the hell out of there and go home. Damn Erik Dubois or whoever the hell that was on the radio.

Though Zuma's client was nearing her pissed-off point, Zuma didn't pay her any attention. "Oh on and on and on and on," she sang and danced her way over to Pat. Zuma knew Pat wasn't a fan of hip-hop, but she had at least gotten her older pal to respect Erykah Badu's music. In fact, Pat and Faye were the two most hip-hop-impaired people Zuma had ever met. Even though they were only a few years older than her, she often found herself breaking down the simplest of terms to them just so she could be understood. It had taken almost two weeks for Pat and Faye to understand what Zuma meant when she called something "the shit." Once Pat had walked in the shop wearing a brand-new pair of shoes which Zuma enthusiastically referred to as "the shit," and Pat's feelings had been so hurt that she almost cried. Until, that is, Zuma explained that she was merely complimenting her.

It had taken Pat a while to get used to Zuma's eccentric, eclectic ways. Zuma was part homegirl, part African princess, and part businesswoman with just a touch of snobbery on the side. There were many things about Zuma that Pat didn't understand. Like how she could claim to be Muslim and still eat pepperoni pizza. How the mirror at her hair station could be filled with motivational savings like the one that read, "All that I need is already in me" yet Zuma seemingly was always in search of some unobtainable thing. Or how Zuma's most commonly used phrase was "My money is funny and my credit won't get it," yet Pat knew from the books that Zuma was putting in gobs of money by the week, more than she and Faye Put together as a matter of fact. Zuma was a piece of work, but just like a raggedy old blanket, she had a way of endearing herself to all who crossed her path. Zuma was the type of person you hated the first time you met her, but after a few days getting to know her, you'd wonder how you could have ever been so wrong.

"My cipher keeps moving like a rolling stone," Zuma sang as she danced her way over to Pat, grabbed her by the hand, and spun her around. Zuma snatched up an empty, bottle of water and held it to her mouth as she swayed around the room as if she were Ms. Badu herself. The rest of the women seemed to come alive with Zuma's impromptu performance and before long the entire shop was chanting, "On and on and on and on."

Even Pat got in on the groove for a moment. She stuck her hand in the air and moved it from side to side just enough to show that she had rhythm, but not so much as to bring any attention to herself. But Pat could spare only a minute's worth of time, and when she caught a glimpse of Zuma's pissed-off customer, who, unlike everyone else, was not too thrilled with the shop's sudden lapse into Soul Train fever, she reached out for Zuma and pulled her close to her chest. "If you don't get back to your client she's gonna have a cow. You're moving so slow today, you're gonna have to speed up to stop," she whispered.

Zuma rolled her eyes, bumped Pat on the hip, then headed back to her hair station. Zuma was as slow as the day is long, but damn, could she hook up some hair. She was a celebrity of sorts in the hair community. Her appointments were booked up for months in advance, which in shop talk meant she had a following. Zuma didn't care that it took her forever to finish a client's hair. She didn't care how much hmoment. She stuck her hand in the air and moved it from side to side just enough to show that she had rhythm, but not so much as to bring any attention to herself. But Pat could spare only a minute's worth of time, and when she caught a glimpse of Zuma's pissed-off customer, who, unlike everyone else, was not too thrilled with the shop's sudden lapse into Soul Train fever, she reached out for Zuma and pulled her close to her chest. "If you don't get back to your client she's gonna have a cow. You're moving so slow today, you're gonna have to speed up to stop," she whispered.

Zuma rolled her eyes, bumped Pat on the hip, then headed back to her hair station. Zuma was as slow as the day is long, but damn, could she hook up some hair. She was a celebrity of sorts in the hair community. Her appointments were booked up for months in advance, which in shop talk meant she had a following. Zuma didn't care that it took her forever to finish a client's hair. She didn't care how much her clients sighed, rolled their eyes, or tapped their fingers impatiently. She knew that once her clients saw the finished product, they'd worship her forever. Hell, she was Zuma. Couldn't nobody do the do like Zuma could.

Long before Zuma ever came to work at Blessings, Pat had heard of her. Everybody knew Zuma. She was the infamous top stylist at Off the Hook Hair known best for her outrageous couture hair designs, which she showed off at Off the Hook's annual hair and fashion show. Pat had attended one of their shows during the first year she had opened Blessings. At the time Blessings was in a financial slump and Pat figured she should go check out the competition, get a few ideas on how she could make her hairstyles better, and maybe even steal a few hair designs for herself.

When Pat attended the show at Off the Hook, she sat in the back of the huge salon hoping no one would notice her. Not that they'd know who she was anyway, considering that Blessings had no following whatsoever. Still, she sat incognito in the back of the room watching the wonderful, nonstop display of fashion and hair designs as models strolled through the shop, spinning around, swinging their heads, and showing off their hairstyles from every angle. Aside from a few intricate finger-wave designs, Zuma's creations stole the show that year. She opened her collection with a simple flat ironed geisha bob, moved on to an abstract braided and spiraled up-do and the piece de resistance -- a motorized windmill. Yes, motorized. Pat couldn't believe her eyes when she saw Zuma's final hair model take the stage. The confident model walked out wearing what seemed to be two simple ponytails on the sides of her head. But when she reached the end of the stage the tails began to slowly move upward, and when they reached the top of her head they began to split around and around. The crowd went crazy as they watched this girl's hair spinning like a roller coaster, and when the darn hair lit up with multicolored bulbs the crowd could barely contain itself.

Though she knew no one would ever be caught dead wearing their hair in such a gaudy style, Pat could see why Zuma was L.A.'s top hair stylist. She took hair to a different level. She made it an art.

Pat had thought going to that hair show would give her the added motivation she needed to stick with her own shop and make it an even better establishment. But in actuality all that came of it was a sense of depression. There was no way Pat could compete with Off the Hook Hair. Their reputation was too established and their stylists were on the cunning edge. And the fact that they were only a few blocks away from Blessings made matters worse.

After Pat left the show, she realized she didn't have a fighting chance of keeping her business alive, and the more she thought about it, the more she realized there was really only one thing left for her to do -- quit. She had toyed for weeks with the idea of closing down her shop, but the thought of giving up just didn't sit well with Pat. She knew the odds were stacked against her, still she couldn't throw in the towel. She knew there had to be a way, some way to hold on to her business. Pat often sat alone in the shop long after closing time on her knees, praying for God to give her the strength to keep on keeping on. She'd pray until her knees were sore, then get up and pray some more. But after a month or two of this, God still had not answered her and all Pat had to show for her prayers were two knobby knees and an empty bank account. Still Pat was sure of one thing -- God was no liar. Ask and you shall receive was what the Bible said, and by faith, Pat knew that one day when God was good and ready He would answer her prayer. It took a while, but verily, verily, the day finally came.

Pat had been nearly knocked off her feet when the young woman with a head full of tiny twists popped up at the shop one morning. The woman had been carrying an oversized hair bag filled with curlers, combs, brushes, dryers, and clippers. She'd walked right into the shop and over to a hair station without so much as a "hey, how ya doing" to Pat. She simply plopped down her hair bag, raised her eyes and said, "Can you use another beautician?"

"Do I know you?" Pat asked, cautiously, peering at the girl with the Afrocentric hair and relaxed, baggy attire. She tried to place her face, but though it was familiar she couldn't remember where she'd seen her before.

"You ought to," the woman replied and placed her hand on her hip. "Know me, that is," she added as she looked at Pat with an elitist air so arrogant and unwelcome that Pat's otherwise cool demeanor became stiff. "So can you use another beautician or what?"

Being a refined woman herself, Pat was not impressed by this stranger's presumptuous attitude, which she chalked up to a lack of home training and official church rearing. She was even less impressed when the woman, who appeared at least five years her junior, began unpacking her bag and setting up her utensils on the counter. If Pat was not mistaken, this was still her shop. But judging by the actions of this young girl in torn jeans with a pair of obvious knock-off Chanel earrings hanging from her lobes, it was hard to tell who was running things. It was a rarity for Pat to raise her temper, but this girl was pushing it. Who does she think she is, Pat thought, and stared at her sideways. And that's when it hit her. She did know this woman. She'd seen her at the Off the Hook Hair show, but for the life of her she couldn't remember her name, until... "You, you're..."

"Yes, I am," Zuma said, without even looking at Pat. She pulled out a notebook from her bag, opened it up, and began taking out small pieces of paper and sticking them on the mirror in front of her.

Yes, Pat knew this woman, but what she didn't know was what the woman was doing in her shop and why she was pasting these scrappy pieces of paper on the mirror. Papers that read, "No weapon formed against me shall ever prosper," and "Whatever you can believe and conceive you can achieve." Pat didn't know what was going on, but there was one thing she did know, or at least she thought she did. "Don't you style over there at Off the Hook Hair?"

The woman sucked her teeth and sighed. "That is past tense, honey. Get it straight or leave it alone," she said, then began mumbling to herself so rapidly that Pat almost assumed the girl was going insane. The only words she could make out were "bitch" and "fucking with the wrong woman" and "better recognize."

Pat scratched her head as she eyed the woman, watching as she mumbled on and on, becoming more and more upset with each utterance. She didn't know how to react in this situation so she decided to remain calm and fish around for more information. "Did you get fired?" she asked, then immediately realized she asked the wrong question when the woman stopped mumbling and glared into her eyes.

"Fired?" she huffed and jerked her head to the side. "No, baby. Don't get it mixed up. I quit. Okay?" She pointed a finger in the air for emphasis. "See, that bitch Connie thinks she's slick. But little do she know I wrote the book on slick. I know all the tricks. Shit. She better recognize."

"Connie?" Pat questioned with a wince.

"Yeah. She owns Off the Hook and I guess she thought she owned me too, but I had to wake her to a few things," she said and sucked her teeth. "Girl, let me tell you what happened," she said, shifting her weight to one side and cozying up to Pat as if they were old buddies. "Do you know that tramp had the nerve to come up in my face yesterday talking about she was going to raise her commission on me? Shit, I told her she must have lost her damn mind," she said and pulled on one of the tiny twists that filled her head. "Hell, she was already getting thirty percent of what I made then she gonna say she want forty-five? Oh hell no. That's bondage. I told that bitch I would rent my hair station for eight hundred dollars a month, no commission, take it or leave it."

"I guess she refused, huh?" Pat asked as she picked up a bottle the woman had tipped over as she ranted about her former employer.

"Naw," she said matter of factly. "I went off on her so bad that she backed down. I had to show her who was really the boss. She had fucked with the wrong woman, honey. I guess she was asleep, but I had to wake her up."

"Well, if she agreed to your terms, why did you leave?"

"Because she pissed me the fuck off," she scoffed. "She shouldn't have even come at me like that in the first place, demanding more money and shit. Ain't nobody over there bringing in more clientele than I was. But was that good enough for Connie? No. She had to be greedy and start talking that forty-five percent shit like I was some new Jill straight out of beauty school. Shit. Fuck her. Fuck that bitch. I don't give a fuck. I'm gone. Do ya miss me?" she yelled at the top of her lungs.

Whoa, Pat thought to herself and took a step back. She didn't know whether to laugh or be scared, so she just stood there watching the woman, silently preparing to run for her life if it came down to that.

The woman eased off her anger long enough to pause and take a good look at Pat for the first time. She smiled briefly, realizing her attitude was getting the best of her as it often did. It didn't faze her. Zuma believed in being real and expressing herself. Still, the look on Pat's face told her that she needed to chill out. So she took a deep breath, braced herself, and began afresh. "Look. I don't mean to bust up in your shop like I'm running things, but I can't continue to work for Connie and that's just the way it is," she explained as pleasantly as she could at the moment. "Anyway, I live right around the corner from here on Eucalyptus and I pass by your shop every day." She took a quick look around the empty, stale place and played with her hair twists. "I know how business is doing," she said with a pitiful grimace on her face.

"It's pretty terrible."

"You said it, I didn't."

An embarrassed silence hung between the two women. Business was terrible and whoever actually said it didn't matter -- it was the truth. Business was worse than terrible, it sucked, and as Pat stood facing the presumptuous, hot-tempered woman she was sure of one thing. God had answered her prayer. This woman was the talk of the town in the world of hair. She had name recognition and could bring in the clients. She also obviously had a chip on her shoulder, a bad attitude, and a hint of conceit, but every gem has at least one flaw, Pat concluded.

"Anyway," the woman continued, "I can get a job anywhere I want and that's the truth," she said, giving the shop the once-over again. She curled her top lip as her gaze returned to Pat. "But," she sighed, "since this shop is so close to my apartment..."

"You're hired," Pat interrupted, realizing the great opportunity that stood before her and not wanting to waste another minute.

"And you're a very lucky lady," the woman said and batted her eyes. She smiled and extended her hand to Pat. "Zuma Price."

"Pat Brown," she said and returned the smile. "Welcome to Blessings."

***

Ever since that day Blessings had been swamped. Gone were the days of slouching around the shop, hoping, wishing, and praying that one, just one potential customer would poke her head through the door. Now Pat had to handle the fall-off customers Zuma couldn't get to because she was too swamped, as well as the few regulars she already had. But Pat didn't complain. A packed shop meant a packed bank account, and oh, what a blessing that was.

***

"Can we turn that music off for a minute please?" a plump brown face asked as she brushed by Pat to get back to her hair station. "My customer's got a headache," Faye said as she fluffed out the newly tightened weave she'd just sewn into her client's hair.

Pat excused herself from her own client and dashed to turn off the radio before joining Faye at her station. She stood behind the wide woman and leaned over her shoulder. "You haven't had a break all day, have you?"

"I've done two weaves, an African corn row, and that woman with the loose braids is next," she said as she spun her client around in her seat and handed her a mirror so she could examine the back of her head. "I'm gonna have to take a minute to eat before I start on the next one."

"No problem," Pat said and looked around the crowded shop. It was nine-thirty and still the place was jammed. But Pat knew Faye needed a break. Faye was as nice and polite as anyone could be, but when she was working on an empty stomach, she could get a bit testy. "You want me to run out to Popeye's and pick you up something?"

"No thanks," Faye said, wiping sweat off her forehead. "I've got some greens and tortillas warming up in the microwave."

Greens and tortillas, Pat thought, and winced. What a combination. But Faye was always bringing in strange combinations like that to eat. Yesterday it had been pig's feet with a side of Spanish rice and beans. Go figure, Pat thought as she watched Faye collect three hundred dollars from her customer, slip it into her jumbled cleavage, then hustle over to the microwave in the back of the room.

Faye Cruz was Pat's best friend and closest confidante. She was closer in age to her than Zuma so naturally they were tighter. Faye had been working at Blessings for just under four years now as the shop's one and only hair braider and weave specialist. Faye had been braiding hair ever since she was in elementary school, but she'd never thought she was capable of making money at it until after her husband died, leaving her with zero income and two mouths to feed. Faye had never worked a full-time job in her life until she came into the shop four years ago. And when she first walked through the door and found Pat in the back of the room dusting off countertops she nearly freaked and ran right back out the door. But it was too late. Pat had already gotten a glimpse of her and there was nothing left for Faye to do but exactly what she'd come there to do -- ask for a job.

Faye was a whole two years younger than Pat, but if you saw the two together you'd swear Faye was old enough to be Pat's mother. It wasn't that Faye was ugly or had wrinkles or warts and such. It was just that she didn't do anything with herself. Thanks to her half-black, half-Mexican heritage, Faye had a head full of long and wavy hair that reached all the way down to her waist. Many women would love to have a head full of healthy hair like that, but all Faye ever did with it was pull it back and plait it in one long French braid that dangled down her back. You'd never find a ring in her ear or on her finger and the only jewelry she ever wore was the gold-plated face of the Virgin Mary that hung on a once gold, now rusted silver chain around her neck. She never, ever wore a drop of makeup so thank God she had smooth, glowing skin. Still, even the most natural face could use a spruce of lipstick every now and again. But the thing that most added to her aging appearance was the extra eighty-five pounds she carried on her frame. To see her walk, you'd swear she had arthritis by the slow way in which she moved around, her thick thighs blocking one another as she waddled. The extra weight not only added years to her face, it also added years to her mind. Faye couldn't remember which had come first -- had she lost interest in herself, then gained all the weight or did she gain the weight, then lose interest. The only thing she was sure of was that she no longer cared. Why concern herself with trying to look good? Men weren't attracted to her anymore. Why concern herself with trying to lose weight? She couldn't do it anyway. She'd been on every diet known to man -- Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Pritikin, the cabbage soup diet, the apple diet, the one meal a day pile anything you want on one plate and no more diet -- none of them ever worked. So why concern herself at all? Faye was what she was. A thirty three-year-old, five-foot-two, two-hundred-and-ten-pound woman. Why fight it?

But at moments like the one she experienced the night she walked into the shop to meet Pat, Faye wished she could instantly snap her fingers and make all her weight go away. She hated first sightings. Without fail, the first thing people did when they saw her was look her up and down and shake their heads. Then they'd pretend not to see her or, if forced to make her acquaintance, pretend as if the fact that she was large made no difference to them. But Faye knew her size affected people. People often dealt with Pat and her weight just as they would deal with a person who had a bad case of halitosis. Theyd try to be nice and ignore it, but they knew it was there. There was no way you could miss it. Whoever came into contact with her had to deal with her problem and though they tried to act like they didn't notice it, she knew for a fact they did.

Faye tried not to let the curious way in which Pat gawked at her bother her on that first night they met. After all, it was nighttime, Pat was closing up, and in walked a complete stranger. Faye would have gawked too if she was in Pat's position. Still, Faye knew the peculiar look on Pat's face was more about her size than the fact that she was an unknown.

Faye had squeezed herself into her one and only church dress and jammed her swollen feet into a pair of white pumps. She approached Pat with the confidence anyone else would show when confronting a possible employer, but when she opened her month to state her purpose the only sound audible was that of her cries. "I need a job," she wailed and threw her hands over her face.

At first Pat had thought the woman was crazy. She backed away for a second and watched as the woman's stomach jiggled, pushing in and out, shoulders heaving up and down, her mouth seemingly stuck in the open position. But soon Pat's apprehension turned to compassion She searched the countertops for a box of tissue, but couldn't find one.

Luckily Faye had come prepared. She opened up the tiny white patent leather purse she carried and searched around, pulling out her wallet, a rosary, and finally a crumpled tissue that looked like it had been used before. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Faye whimpered, wiping the sides of her face and trying to control herself "It's just that I need a job and, and...I don't know where else to go." She dabbed at her nose and took a deep breath, knowing she was not making the great first impression that she had set out to display. She hadn't intended to beg or to cry, but she could not help herself. She was desperate. She had children. Mouths to feed. She needed money. "I've been braiding hair since I was ten," she spat out. "I do weaves, I, well...I'm not too good with chemicals, but I can help out on washing and conditioning, or if you just need someone to clean up the place..."

"Slow down," Pat said, more concerned with the woman's mental state than her verbal resume.

"You don't understand. I need a job. I've got two children, my husband died and...and..."

"Ssh," Pat purred. "It's going to be all right," she said. "Everything's going to work out fine," she said, eyeing the rosary the woman still clutched up her hand. "Have you been using that?" she asked and touched the row of beads and the woman's hand. "Prayer works."

"I know," Faye said, suddenly finding strength in the woman's touch. The last time she'd gone to confession the pastor had told her she had to be strong. He told her to pray for strength, seek it out and meditate in it. She did. Still, when her mind was lulled into thoughts of her dead husband, seeing him slumped over, bleeding blood so re


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
African American women -- Fiction.
Los Angeles (Calif.) -- Fiction.
Beauty operators -- Fiction.