A Perm in Three Acts
by McKenzie Davis
Runestone, volume 9
Runestone, volume 9
A Perm in Three Acts
by McKenzie Davis
I used to hate the fifth of every month. It always meant a lot of crying and pops to the side of the head growing up. Not for me though. Mama says that boys never need to get a perm. Plus, she always said I got good hair anyway. Not like my sister though. Mama always say Zella hair a nappy mess and hated getting up in it. Zella’s hair ain’t that bad though. Well, it ain’t used to be before mama started doing it. Used to be real thick and stand up tall even when she was running. Now it’s kinda like spaghetti. All stringy at the ends but curly at the top whenever mama hasn’t done it in a while. I remember the first time I watched mama do her whole head.
I heard mama yell from the kitchen, “Zella! Come on and let me do your hair.”
I don’t why she even bothered trying to drag it out. Mama was gonna do her hair anyway so she might as well go ahead and get it over with.
Mama shouted again, “Zella, come on and bring your butt to this kitchen. I ain’t got all day to be playing with you.”
I could hear Elijah through the wall in my room.
Elijah saying, “Zel, you better go head to the kitchen before mama come get you.”
I could hear Zella mumble, “I don’t wanna. I hate it when mama do my hair. It always burn.”
Elijah told her, “Zella, just go before you get her in a bad mood. Just gonna be worse then.”
I didn’t hear Zella say anything else until I heard the door open and close. Zella dragging her feet down the hall, but she should know to stop before mama would get on her for it. I still don’t know how Elijah could convince us to do just about anything though. Guess because he’s the oldest and he was usually in charge when mama wasn’t there.
Mama started yelling “Michael!”
I yelled out, “Yes?”
But she just yells again, “Michael!”
I don’t know why she wouldn’t just tell me what she wanted then. I would have to get up and open my door and stick my head out and still not get an answer.
I called out, “Yes, ma’am?”
She just calls out again, “Michael!”
I walked down the hall into the kitchen of the little shotgun house. Mama was standing at the table with Zella sitting in a chair with tears streaming down her face. Zella’s holding the perm box looking at the picture of the little black girl smiling on the front with shiny straight hair. Mama’s mixing up that box perm, and the stinging smell would fill up the whole house.
Looking to mama, I asked, “What?”
Mama looked up from mixing and stared at me. If looks could kill, I would have fell out right there.
“Don’t what me.”
You can’t sigh so I’d hold it in, “Did you call me mama?”
She’d start to pull out Zella’s ponytail and ask, “Where’s that comb?”
“I don’t know. I don’t use it.”
She sighs, “Well can you go check the bathroom for it?”
I’d nod, “Yes ma’am.”
I turned and walked back down the hall and into the bathroom. Opening the cabinet, I began to dig through mountains of containers of barrettes and beads that smell of hair grease. Finding the comb at the bottom, I grabbed it and go to open the door. The door was pushed open, and my brother, Joseph, shoved his way past me towards the toilet.
I looked over my shoulder at him, “Damn, you can’t wait for two seconds?”
Joseph turns and pushes me from the room and closed the door.
Walking back to the kitchen I mumbled about, “Too many people in this damn house.”
Zella’s sat at the kitchen table still pouting. She really got the worst luck. Youngest out of four. Of course mama was gonna put time into making sure she look good.
Placing the comb on the table, I turned to leave, but mama stopped me. “Michael, you finish your homework?”
I stopped to stand by the corner leading to the hall, “Not yet, but I’mma do-.”
Mama starts snapping her fingers and says, “Nah, go do it now. Actually, go grab your stuff and bring it to the table and do it in here.”
“Mama, I’ll just finish it in my room.”
“No sir, you had all weekend to finish it in your room. Go get your bag and do it at the table.”
I turned down the hall and started muttering, “Don’t see why I can’t just do it in my room.”
I don’t know how she always able to hear everything because she sure peeped her head around that corner and told me, “Keep on talking under your breath and see what happen.”
Man, I ran to my room and grabbed my backpack. When I came back Zella was already tearing up.
“Stop crying. If you’d comb out your head, then it wouldn’t hurt that much.”
As I sat doing math, Zella spent most of the time crying her eyes out saying that her head was burning.
Mama kept saying, “I told you not to scratch your head earlier” and “No, I can’t wash it out early.”
I finished my work up as fast as I could because that stuff was giving me a headache, and mama wasn’t even putting it in my head. I’d probably cry too if I would have had to sit there with that stuff on for so long.
There was another reason that the fifth months were full of crying though. Zella always loved doing what me, Joseph, and Elijah did. She never really had a lot of girl friends growing up, so she spent most of day with us since mama was always at work too. Mama always told Zella not to go outside running with us after she done got her hair done, but Zella ain’t ever listen.
I remember we was out in the backyard during the summer. It was hot and humid as hell that day. Mama had just permed Zella hair earlier that week and told her not to be running around outside. She was doing well until Eli and Joe asked if I wanted to throw around the ball outside.
The minute Zella walked outside Joe said, “Zellie, you better take yourself back inside before mama get home and have something to say.”
She told Joseph, “Calm down, I’m not finna run around and sweat it out. I’ll just play catch with y’all. That ain’t gonna make me sweat.”
Elijah tried to warn her again, but she just ignored him and stood next to me ready to catch the football.
It was fine at first when we were just throwing the ball back and forth until Eli started throwing it too far and we had to run to catch it. I ain’t even notice when mama’s car pulled up until she stepped outta her car and started hollering, “Zella Cicely Lewis, have you lost your damn mind!”
I looked over at Zella and realized why mama was yelling. Her hair wasn’t shiny and straight anymore. It was frizzy and the top started waving up a bit.
With her teeth clenched, mama said, “Get your ass in that house right now.”
Zella walked back into the house quickly and mama stomped in after her. I stayed outside with Joe and Eli for a little longer throwing the ball around. We’d say that we just wanted to play for a little bit longer, but we all know we just didn’t wanna go inside yet after how angry mama was looking. She was already in a bad mood, and nobody wanted to get yelled at just because she was already angry about Zella’s hair.
We finally decided to come into the house and a burnt smell filled the house. Eli and Joe looked at each other and decided to go back out.
Joe looked at me and said, “We gonna go get huckabucks from Ms. Libby. You coming?”
I wish I woulda had some sense because I said no and started walking towards my room. As I came to the kitchen, the burnt smell got stronger. Mama was stood at the stove with a hot comb in hand as Zella sat on a stool.
Mama told Zella, “Hold your ear.”
Holding her ear down, Zella scrunched her face up as mama passed the comb through her hair until Zella jumped in her seat and started crying.
She cried, “Mama you burned me.”
Mama said, “I ain’t burn you. That was just steam. Now sit still.”
Mama turned and sat the hot comb on the stove eye before grabbing a rattail comb to part another section.
Zella looked up at me sniffling with tears in her eyes. Mama caught my eye as I stood in the kitchen.
Staring me down, mama said, “So y’all just gonna let her go outside and sweat her hair out knowing I told her to stay inside?”
Looking everywhere but her, I said, “Mama, she followed us out. We tried to tell her, but she ain’t listen.”
Picking up the comb again, mama said, “Y’all older than her. Y’all should have just stayed inside in the first place. Plenty for y’all to do. Laundry ain’t folded, dishes ain’t washed, floor not swept.”
I knew when to give up arguing at that point. No reason to make her more upset.
I nodded my head and said, “Yes, ma’am. I’ll go fold the laundry now.”
Mama nodded before reaching behind her head and undoing her wig. She threw towards me and said, “And take this with you. Go and put it on my stand in the room.”
Under the wig, mama’s hair was just like Zella. Kinda a stringy but starting to thin, but she didn’t seem to care. It’s not like anyone outside of the house ever saw it.
As I walked out of the room and down the hall with the straight wig in my hand, I remember hearing mama tell Zella, “If you’d stop moving then it wouldn’t touch your ears.”
The fifth months got quiet as we got older. When Zella moved out and had her own kids, I thought the fifth months would stay quiet. But as I walked up the steps to Zella’s house, I can hear crying.
Knocking on the door, I hear Zella yell, “It’s open!”
The crying only gets louder as I walk further into the house. I turn into the kitchen, and I see Zella standing at the table with her daughter, Amena, sitting in a chair with tears streaming down her face. Amena’s holding the perm box looking at the picture of the little black girl smiling on the front with shiny straight hair. Zella’s mixing up that box perm, and the stinging smell fills up the whole house.
Louisiana State University
McKENZIE DAVIS is a recent graduate from Louisiana State University having double majored in English and Psychology. Born and raised in Louisiana, she draws inspiration from her southern upbringing to create stories that highlight the everyday unheard experiences of others while pulling from common themes traditionally found in Southern Gothic. Her publication in Runestone is her creative debut, and she looks forward to continuing to create and share her stories with the world.