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Excerpt from "Miss Shella's Beauty Shop"


Pauline suddenly felt overdressed, an uppity out-of-towner: black crepe knee hemline dress, sheer pantyhose. Charles Jordan heels curving into high, sturdy arches; hair pulled into a high, rain-resistant bun. She glanced in the rearview mirror to confirm the picture. She spotted a rebellious strand of hair and licked her fingers to smooth it down, something Miss Shella used to do. What was Miss Shella up to? Still doing hair? Or had she found a decent enough man to marry despite her vows to the contrary?


The full-figured, wickedly observant shop owner with an outrageous smile, her sepia complexion stippled with an explosion of flesh moles that to Pauline had always resembled a scatter of peppercorns, had too much life, she’d often told her clients, to worry about “no man.” While Miss Shella had washed, conditioned, combed, set, dried, pressed, and styled Pauline’s and her mother’s hair, she reported the low-down of mutual and not so mutual acquaintances, her unsparing intel missing no one. Miss Shella’s expert storytelling—guileless and intimate, florid and emphatic—accounted for her demanding client list as much as did her talent (so went the neighborly gossip); and well after the proprietress had unsnapped their nylon capes and swept their hair from the floor, acknowledging with a subtle, quick glance the check Pauline’s mother had slipped her, Miss Shella would start in on another tale. 


Pauline smiled, remembering a sensational story about the local hardware store owner’s son. An outgoing and unusually tall Chinese-American man, Michael (MC Mike, people in the hood called him) was a hipster who prided himself on having earned the rank of  “honorary brother.” He sold gaudy suits downtown at Leroy Menswear (Mama Rosa had often wondered about the missing apostophe-s—had it been intentional?) and worked as the star D.J. at the black-owned Royal Esquire Club: “One of the finest premier men’s clubs west of the Mississippi” according to the sign outside its door, where “Ladies Nite!” was every night.


Miss Shella had started in on a client’s hair. “MC Mike went out and got hisself the operation!” Her bodacious buttocks bumped against the salon chair next to her, where another client sat half-dozing under the hair dryer. 


“What operation?” asked Mrs. Louise Williams, a dark, heavyset woman whose hair was being worked on by Effie, a part-time hairdresser at the shop.


“Girl, the sex change!”


“Sex change!” Mrs. Williams looked shocked. “They can do that?”


“They done did it!” said Miss Shella.


“Michael got a sex change?” Althea gave a quizzical frown. “You know, I think I saw a story about that kind of surgery on the news.”


“That’s why we haven’t seen the man—I mean woman,” Miss Shella said. “Took hisself  down to California and—snip! snip! Over and done with. And now he—sorry, she—be coming up in here getting his—her—hair done, strutting in them high-ass heels dressed like he—she, Lord a mercy—she going off to high tea. Sister-girl got more clothes than the Queen a Sheba!”


Althea looked up from her magazine. “You need to quit,” she said to Miss Shella. A high-yellow woman with honey-colored eyes, thick lips the color of baked beans, and hair too fine for the rigors of hair-straightening products, Althea spent her weekends at the shop thumbing through Black periodicals—Jet, Ebony, Essence—tuning in when the subject suited her.


“It ain’t me that need to quit,” Miss Shella said. “It’s him. I mean her. But it don’t make no difference to me. I don’t care what you do with what the Lord gave you. But other folks be acting put out ... which is all they doing—is acting. Cause let me tell you them eyes be bugging. Staring at the man—I mean woman, Jesus help me—at the woman like she a piece a fried chicken. But Michaelene—that’s what she call herself now, ‘Michael’ like how you normally spell it, except with the e-n-e tacked on—Michaelene ain’t studying about no church ladies … except to give those flock o’ hens the eyeful they deserve!” Miss Shella dipped her chin and tittered; her shoulders and hips turned out a loose hokey-pokey.


Rosa seemed baffled. “But what did they do with his—?” She caught herself and looked at Pauline. At eleven years old, Pauline, her freshly-pressed pigtails long and glossy, twirled in her salon chair pretending not to listen. She’d once overheard her mother telling a girlfriend that she’d given up censoring Pauline from the shop talk at Miss Shella’s (staying consistent required too much work), but when the talk strayed too far (whatever “too far” meant; the shifting airstreams of their gossip did not lend themselves to hard and fast rules) she would send Pauline to the corner store for sweets and what-nots. 


Rosa pointedly eyed Miss Shella. “You know…”


Miss Shella pulled a hot comb through a head of unruly hair. “Chile, when it’s off it’s off. Doctors can’t do nothing else with it, far as I know.”


Mrs. Williams gasped; her plump hand flew to her bosom. 


“I saw on TV they’re looking to do transplants one day,” said Althea. Her eyes paused over an article in Ebony magazine on Cicely Tyson (“Exclusive Interview: She Can Smile Again After a Three-Year Ordeal”).


Miss Shella’s eyebrows lifted. “Really?” She parted another section of hair. “Then I hope they got that bad boy in deep freeze!”


The ladies squealed, beat their palms in scandalized delight. Pauline giggled into the crook of her arm.


“Sho’ you right!” Effie said.


“I don’t want nothing with no freezer burn!”


“Girl, you be lucky to get a damn thang!”


“Pauline,” said Rosa, handing her some change, “go get yourself some candy.”


The women hushed. Pauline slid from her chair in obedient degrees, ambled to the propped-open door. She strolled by the shop window, peering at the ladies in between the strokes of tempura paint on her way past. She paused within earshot of the door, just beyond their view. “Miss Shella,” she heard Mrs. Williams say, “you a mess.” 


When Miss Shella replied, “This whole world’s a mess,” Pauline envisioned the proprietress’s fleshy marion berry lips stretching into a broad smile.


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