Diane Payne

Oscar's Beauty Saloon


Eager for a change, Harriet drove over to Oscar’s Beauty Saloon, stuck her head in the door, took one whiff, and left.  

“Oscar won’t be able to do a perm like Norma. That’s why my hair looks like this,” she later explained to her daughter.  

“Ma, if you don’t go to Oscar, there’s nobody left to do it.”

“Annie, you could give me a home perm.”

“You know how sensitive I am to those chemicals. I’d get sick.”

“It’s all in your head. Absolute hogwash.”

“You’re right; those chemicals all go to my head and make me feel crazy. You can’t tell by opening the door that Oscar doesn’t do perms. What time of the day did you go there?”

 “Annie, I was there at nine in the morning, just the time the regulars would be getting perms at Norma’s if she hadn’t left.”  

“She didn’t leave, Ma. She died.”

“Same thing. She upped and left. Had I known, I would’ve got my perm done on Tuesday.”

“What was she supposed to do? Hang a sign warning she’d be dead on Wednesday?”

Norma died three months ago, and Annie had been listening to her mother talk about her regret over canceling That Tuesday Appointment ever since.

 “Didn’t even buy anything at that fancy yard sale. Drove all the way to that rich neighborhood with Edna. She said I’d be sorry if I didn’t come along because she wouldn’t let me forget it when she showed me her new dishes and lamps. I didn’t need no new dishes or lamps. I needed Norma’s perm.”

 “Ma, just try Oscar. When I drove through town, I noticed he wrote saloon on his sign. Maybe he’s got a sense of humor.”

“It says saloon? I never noticed that. You sure?”

“You took a whiff but never noticed the sign?”

 “Don’t be getting all cocky on me. I don’t wear my glasses when I go to the beauty shop because I’m afraid I’ll leave them there when I’m finished. You sure it says saloon?”

“Pretty sure.”

“It’ll never be the same without Norma.”  

Annie opened her wallet and counted out five tens. “Here, Ma, I want to give you this so you can try out the new saloon. It’s on me. Now make an appointment.”  

“My hair that bad?”  

“Yeah, it is,” Annie laughed.  

“You sure?” 

“Ma, just go and get your perm.”  

“I ain’t never had a perm from a man before.”  

“Well, enjoy having a man’s fingers running through your hair. I’d be willing to pay for that right now.”  

“The way you talk. I ain’t had that done in years, either.”  

“When I come back next Friday, I expect to see a new hairdo.”  

“Never had to make an appointment with Norma.”  

“That’s because you went there every Tuesday for fifteen years.”  

“Not That Tuesday last March.”  

“Ma, enough about missing that appointment. You may like Oscar. I gotta go now. Love you, and I’m counting on seeing a new perm next Friday.”  

“Got a boyfriend, Annie?”  

“Nothing serious, Ma. I gotta run.”  

“When you bringing Nothing Serious over to meet me?”  

“After you get your perm,” Annie laughed.  

Harriet hadn’t met one of Annie’s boyfriend in two years. “It’s a deal,” she said. “You’re on, Ma.”  

Annie visited her mother every Friday, her day off from the nursing home job in Pine Bluff, a seventy-mile drive from her mother’s home. Her mother never understood why she had to move there when there were plenty of decent jobs in their hometown at the restaurants. There was even a floor factory looking for workers. But, Annie went to the community college for training to be a nurse’s aide; then, three years ago she moved, and never regretted it.  

Oscar offered Harriet an opening on Tuesday, but she refused. On Wednesday, she walked downtown, ready for her perm. The place had changed since Harriet had first stuck her head through the door. Now there were two wooden double doors hanging in the entranceway, just like a saloon. Harriet seriously considered turning around, but she wanted to meet Annie’s new boyfriend, if there was one. This perm was the only way she’d find out.  

“Why I never,” Harriet muttered.  

“You must be Harriet,” the receptionist said.  

“What kind of a beauty shop is this?” Harriet asked.  

“A good one,” she said.  

“What are those ladies doing over there by that table?”  

“It’s a writers’ club. They meet here on Wednesday’s.”  

“At a beauty shop?”  

“It’s really a salon, a place where people meet and talk.”  

“Is he gonna make me discuss a book when he gives me my perm? If so, I’m leaving. I ain’t read nothing for years, except the Bible, of course.”  

“I doubt Oscar reads either, so I wouldn’t worry if I were you,” the receptionist laughed.

“Can he fix hair?”  

“He’s lousy with books, but great with hair.”  

“He’s no Norma. I know that already. She knew what I liked and always did it right.”  

“Did you know Norma was Oscar’s aunt?”  

“No one told me that. You sure?”  

“I’m sure. Oscar had a salon in Albuquerque, but he wanted to take over Norma’s business to keep it in the family.”  

Harriet suddenly remembered Norma telling her about this nephew. “Oscar the one who used to cut Norma’s dog’s hair when he visited in the summer? This the same boy?”  

“The one and only. You’ll like him.”  

“We’ll see about that. Never had a man cut my hair before. At least he’s Norma’s kin. I sure do miss her. This place smelled like a beauty shop when she owned it. You burning those hippie sticks?”  

“It’s incense. Have a seat, Harriet. Oscar better be right with you.”  

After a few minutes of waiting quietly, Oscar introduced himself and brought Harriet to a sink.  

“You look a little bit like your aunt.”  

“Well, thank you, Harriet.”  

“I remember when you used to cut her dog’s hair.”  

“I forgot about Ralphie. He was a great dog.”  

“Just like your aunt. This place sure has changed since you took over.”  

“Don’t want to feel like Aunt Norma’s ghost. Her customers all miss her, and I don’t want this place seeming like a funeral parlor.”  

“It don’t feel like that. Are those women drinking over there by the table? Those women with the books. What on earth are they doing with wine and books in here?”  

“It’s the writers’ club. They meet here.”  

“It’s eleven in the morning and they’re drinking! Why I never! I don’t even recognize them. Are they from here?”  

“Seem to be,” Oscar admitted.  

“So it really is a saloon?”  

“Not really. I don’t sell alcohol. They bring their own. Liked the sound of saloon better than salon. I’ve been cutting hair for eleven years, and salon just sounds so salonish,” he laughed at his own joke, and Harriet didn’t find it the least big amusing.  

“What would your aunt think about this?”

“She’d probably think this was a fun place and wish she had done it herself. Aunt Norma visited my shop in Albuquerque and had a few drinks with the customers one evening.”

“But now it’s morning. Lordy!”  

“Harriet, you want a glass of wine? That why you keep talking about it? I’m sure those ladies will share with you.”  

“Are you out of your mind? I’m a church-going woman. You know how to do perms, don’t you? That’s what I’m here for. Not drinkin’.”  

“I bet Aunt Norma had fun teasing you, Harriet.” When she didn’t respond, Oscar decided he better focus on her hair. “You have good hair. It’s thick. Has life to it. Are you sure you want a perm? We could try something else. Something perky.”  

“Perky-schmerky. I want a perm. Then I don’t have to fuss with it in the morning. It’s too hot for all this hair.”  

“It’s your hair, but why don’t you look through these magazines, just incase you want to try something else. You have such lovely hair, I’d hate to force all those curls in there.”

“You don’t know how to do a perm, do you?”  

“Oh, Harriet, are you going to be a difficult customer? Susan, will you be so kind as to share a glass of your wine with Harriet? She’s getting all worked up over nothing.”

Laughing, Susan poured a glass of wine and brought it over to Harriet. “Doesn’t she have beautiful hair?” Oscar asked.  

“Such a great color.”  

“You shouldn’t be drinking so early in the morning otherwise you’d notice my hair is gray.”  

“Have you ever colored it?” Susan asked.  

“Never. My husband wanted me to. Guess I should’ve, then he wouldn’t have left me for a younger woman.” Without thinking, Harriet reached for the glass of wine. “Now, look what you got me doing!”  

“You have such lovely hair. You should wear it in a bob,” Susan suggested.  

“Are you a beautician too?”  

“Oh, no, I’m not that creative.”  

“She teaches English at the college,” Oscar said.  

“A professor? That explains all those books. Heard you folks were a liberal bunch. But wine so early in the morning seems too liberal, even for a professor.”  

“Some of us work nights, so we met this morning. We don’t usually meet until late afternoon, but we always have wine, so we decided to not bother with the clock and just go on as normal.”  

“I like normal. I came here every Tuesday for fifteen years. Norma always shampooed my hair. I could’ve done it myself, but she had a way of making my hair look nice when she fluffed it up afterwards.”  

“My mother always went to the beauty salon on Saturdays so she’d look nice for church,” Oscar said.  

“What’s she think of your beauty shop?”  

“She got killed in a car accident years ago. Aunt Norma was like a second mother.”  

Harriet remembered Norma telling her about this sister, how she only had one son, and next thing she knew, three weeks after getting her driver’s license, something she had been postponing for years, she was dead. There was never any mention of a father. It was obviously one of those family secrets. Even though Oscar had to be around thirty, Harriet had a soft spot for motherless children. “This wine isn’t so bad,” Harriet said, speaking like a seasoned wine drinker.  

Both Oscar and Susan laughed.  

“You sure you want a perm, Harriet? We could try something else.”  

“Oscar, you trying to get me drunk so you can do something crazy with my hair? Is that why this is a saloon?”  

“Harriet, you’re such a skeptic,” Oscar laughed.  

“I never doubted your Aunt Normal. Oh, no, I didn’t mean to say that!”  

“You have no idea how many times I called her that behind her back,” Oscar admitted. You are really funny, Harriet. Once when I curled the dog’s hair, she came outside and told me I should do boy things. I mumbled ‘Aunt Normal’ to myself, and she overheard me and said to get those damn curlers out of the dog’s fur immediately! Her favorite thing to say when she felt exasperated with me was to assure me I wouldn’t be behaving a certain way if my mother were alive.”  

“And you probably wouldn’t have,” Harriet added.  

“You ready to begin that perm, Harriet?” Oscar asked, hoping to avoid a lecture. Harriet was beginning to remind Oscar of Aunt Norma. “You want a tight or loose perm?”  

“The kind Norma gave me. My daughter says she’ll have me meet her boyfriend if I get my hair fixed.”

“That’s a strange requirement. I think your hair looks fine as is for meeting a boyfriend of your own or your daughter’s.”  

“I don’t think Annie has a boyfriend, and she doesn’t think I’ll come to you to have a perm. Oscar, you won’t be doing much business if you tell your customers their hair don’t need fixin’.”  

“That’s what Aunt Norma would have said, Harriet.” “What do you suggest for my hair?”

“First, I’d put some purple streaks in it, then add a few spikes with your bangs.”  

“Why purple?”  

“That’d be a good color on you.”  

“How much wine do you think I drank?”  

“I was just kidding, Harriet, but we could give it a modern cut.” 

“Tell you what, no experimenting today. I want to look good incase my daughter has a boyfriend. Maybe I’ll try something new after I meet him. Maybe.”  

After Oscar set the curlers in place, Harriet overheard two customers talking. She hadn’t seen these women before either and wondered where all these new customers were coming from.  

“When I first met Jim, he said he liked meeting a woman who knew how to use power tools. I was just using a drill to make a picture frame. If I were to tell a man I was thrilled he knew how to use a wire whip, I’d have something else in mind other than batter,” Alice laughed.  

Harriet wondered what it was she was missing because she didn’t see anything funny about a wire whip.  

“So, Marcia, I did something terrible. The first time Jim spent the night, I told him I had a toolbox filled with tricks, and he says that typical ‘Give ‘em to me, baby,’ line. I hauled out four C-clamps and attached Jim to my bedposts. He was actually humored by this. I expected some sign of nervousness. When he saw me spray the screwdriver with WD-40, Jim finally got nervous.”  

Alice and Marcia got a good laugh out of that one, and Harriet finished off her glass of wine and asked Susan if they could spare one more refill.  

“You’re looking pale, Harriet,” Susan said. “You sure you want another glass?”  

“I just overheard something that left a terrible picture in my mind,” Harriet admitted.

“Would you like me to bring you a magazine?”  

“No, I don’t think it’d be as interesting as what these two women are talking about,” Harriet said, nodding her head in the direction of the two women.  

“You sure you’re not a writer, Harriet? Writers are always eavesdropping and turning things into stories.”  

“I would never repeat what I just heard.”  

“Something tells me you will when the time is right,” Susan chuckled before returning to her group.  

“You two sure are having fun,” Oscar interrupted Marcia and Alice. “Who’s first?”  

“Can’t you do us both at the same time?” Marcia said, bursting out laughing.  

“I bet you two didn’t talk like this to Aunt Norma. Climb up to this chair, Marcia, and behave yourself!”  

“What do you have in that toolbox of yours?” Harriet asked Alice. Harriet could tell she was getting tipsy and knew it was best she remain quiet, but suddenly she felt like talking.

“I didn’t know you heard us. I make frames. You know, picture frames, so I need those kinds of tools.”  

“I’ve never understood why anyone would want to be tied down, have you?”  

“Not really. I don’t like to be restricted.”  

“Heavens no!”  

Oscar interrupted their conversation and told Harriet it was time to take the curlers out. “I’m nervous about this, Harriet. No matter how it looks, you’re going to compare it to all those years of perms from Aunt Norma.”  

“Don’t disappoint me, and we won’t have any trouble.”  

“You are a hard customer to please.”  

“Being easy gets you nowhere,” Harriet said loud enough for Marcia and Alice to hear.

Before Oscar let Harriet see a mirror, he walked around her looking at the head of curls from all directions, snipping here and fluffing there. Then he faced the chair to the mirror and stood back.  

The entire saloon was silent. Not one word was spoken. Sensing Harriet’s displeasure, Oscar’s stomach felt like it was being kicked.  

“I can’t believe this, Oscar. This is exactly how Norma did it. Exactly!”  

“She must have left me her talent as a farewell gift.”  

“Wait until Annie sees this. I look just like when Norma was here.”  

“Harriet, I’m so glad you’re pleased.”  

“She better bring over that boyfriend. But, Oscar, next time I come, I think I want to try a new cut, as long as you don’t use purple. If you can do a hairdo like this, you can do anything.”  

Before walking out the door, Harriet walked up to Alice and said, “I know a few tricks of the trade myself.”  

“I’m sure you do,” Alice whispered back. “Maybe you’ll share some with me next time?” 

“Maybe,” Harriet said before leaving Oscar’s Beauty Saloon, wondering if this was really the hair she wanted Annie’s boyfriend to see. “It’s just hair,” she chuckled, rubbing her fingers through it. She was definitely going to buy a bottle of wine. She was going to offer Annie and her boyfriend wine, not iced tea. On the way home, Harriet decided she’d make a stop at the library, and then one last stop at the hardware store. With this new hair, everything suddenly seemed not only possible, but also enjoyable.



(photo by Amanda Waits)