by John Boucher
The following story is true. The names have been changed and composite characters created in order to protect the innocent, and the guilty.
She kept ketchup packets in her Don King hair. Dark red Heinz ketchup packets slid amongst the kinks and dandruff, as well as those small packets of salt and pepper. She was hording them, she didn’t want to run out and was afraid to eat her meals without them, so into her Afro they went. It wasn’t really an Afro, or any sort of hair-do at all. In fact, her hair was the result, the conclusion, of what happens when a fifty-five-year-old black woman doesn’t do anything with her hair, except use it as a place to store condiments.
Betty told me she wouldn’t let the hospice nurses wash her hair: “Because they make me look like a fool.”
It was the spring of 1996 and I’d been working at the hospice a year. This was the first time we’d had more than one female resident. Now we had six (five by birth), all African American, ages thirty to fifty-five. I was able to arrange an outing on Betty’s direction to LaMel’s College Palais de Beauté in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. Six women, dying of AIDS, getting a press & curl, in the purple Palais de Beauté.
I dropped them off at one-thirty, just after lunch, and phoned around four. They were almost done. I drove the bronze and baby-shit brown Dodge Ram van (donated by some church, to AIDS Healthcare Foundation) to the Palais de Beauté and spoke to Miss LaMel Lamont herself.
I could tell something was wrong as I was parking. A very angry black woman in a lilac smock, gold sandals and matching sunglasses was standing in the sun smoking Kool’s. Her queen-sized strawberry-gold Patti LaBelle coif glistened in the sunlight. She tapped her tiny lamé foot, took the last drag of her Kool and squished it under her toe. As I closed the van’s door, I wore the expression of benign, white-boy idiocy that usually worked in these situations. But as I approached her side of Leimert Boulevard and the doors of the Palais de Beauté (with its double reversed initial ‘L’s emblazoned in gold on lilac door handles) I could tell LaMel wasn’t buying it.
“Where these women from?” Her face was fearful and mean. “I thought you from some church or somethin’—go round pickin’ up homeless women, have their hair done.” She turned and pointed through the large plate glass window and into the Palais de Beauté. “This one—the tall one—that ain’t no real woman. She told me where they from. From some AIDS place.”
She glanced back at me; I could see flecks of her iris through the bronze tint of her shades. But my dumb white-boy demeanor would not be cracked. I smiled, broad and fake.
“I really can’t comment on their medical condition,” I said. “They’re from Carl Bean House; I’m the Activities Coordinator there. They wanted to get their hair done and Betty—the one who, um…likes ketchup…”
Miss LaMel interrupted.
“I know who she is.”
“Well, she recommended you. She said she’s been coming here for years, for her press & curl.”
I kept smiling, but was beginning to sweat.
“I checked around. You really do have the best prices in town!” I thought ending with praise might do the trick. “How much do I owe you?”
I removed my wallet and quickly calculated eighty bucks. I didn’t want to get change out of her.
Miss LaMel pointed a lilac claw at me. Each index finger was emblazoned with a gold chevron and a big ‘L’ (the same font and colors as her door handles.) Her nail jabbed the air, and at me. I smiled back a grin that said: fuck you too lady. Miss LaMel’s voice was now a whisper growl. “The one with the good hair? She got some sores on her head—said they ’erpes or some shit. How the fuck you get ’erpes on your head? She stick her head up some guys ass or somethin’?”
I smiled, and waved to my girls inside. Betty led the troupe out of the purple, and into the sunshine. Her Don King had been transformed into a Marlo Thomas, a jet-black flip, with lots of body and side-swept bangs. She looked just like my plump and kind Aunt Patty, circa 1968.
Betty was bright and chipper, and led the troupe back to the bronze and baby-shit van.
“Hi, Mr. John. My hair look great.”
“Yes, very nice,” I replied. “Did everything go OK?”
Betty answered for the group, “Oh yes, Honey, we blessed.”
“OK, you guys get in the van. I have to pay Miss LaMel.”
“Now don’t you be cheap, Mr. John. Her girls work hard.”
“All right,” I said.
My girls were in the van, the door closed, and my back to them. I faced LaMel, the eighty dollars in my fist. My frozen smile replaced by the flat, hard, look of truth.
“Here’s eighty bucks. Six press & curl at eleven apiece is sixty-six. There’s a twenty percent tip too,” I paused and emphasized the next word, “which—is for your girls, not you.” My voice rose but was firm. “And I need a receipt.”
“I ain’t givin’ you no damn receipt.”
“No receipt, no money.” My eyes steel and straight.
“What? Some white-ass punk gonna tell me what I do? I got six angry hair-burners in there, all of ’em screaming at me that they got AIDS, from a press & curl!”
I glanced through the window; a circle of six angry women stared back. Miss LaMel pointed at the ringleader and said: “Sandra say she gonna sue me for makin’ her do they hair.”
“Do you want the cash? Or would you rather send a bill?”
I removed my business card and handed it to her. She snatched it. And tried to snatch the eighty bucks too. My fist swallowed the twenties, my fake smile returned, my brows raised. LaMel pursed her lips, muttered “cracker” under her breath, entered the purple Palais de Beauté and returned with a crumpled receipt. She threw it at me. I paid the bitch.
As I drove my girls back to the hospice, I said tentatively: “Well I’m glad that went OK, now we can go home.
“Don’t you say that, Mr. John––that ain’t nobody’s home. That the last house on the block.”
I looked at Betty in the rearview mirror. She was right. Her dark eyes caught mine and twinkled.
“Don’t you worry, Mr. John, our hair look great. We blessed.”
John Boucher started writing in HIV+ writing workshops sponsored by AHF, APLA, and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. He was a 2009 PEN Center USA Emerging Voice Fellow, and was the recipient of a 2010 UCLA Community Access Scholarship, where he began working on Dichondra, his collection of humorously dark nonfiction stories. John was a 2011 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow and is a recipient of a 2016 City of West Hollywood & PEN Center USA, WeHo Writing Craft Scholarship. His first published piece, “Speaking in Tongues,” appeared in Washburn University’s inscape literary journal, winning the 2009 Best Nonfiction award. It was republished by PEN Center USA in Strange Cargo: An Emerging Voices Anthology. John attended Corcoran College of Art and Design and earned his MFA from Claremont Graduate University. Born in 1962 and raised in Los Angeles, John lives in West Hollywood.