“Hold down your ear, baby,” Betts said.
The kitchen air was heavy with singed hair and hot grease. Betts pulled the smoking metal comb through the thick coils hair. Marty winced from the heat. Betts lay the hot comb in its oven and blew on the girl’s skin.
“You can let go now, baby girl.” Betts let the child stretch while she took a puff from her cigarette. “What grade are you in now? High school? Starting college?”
Marty laughed. “You know I’m in the third grade Miss Elizabeth. But I am very smart.I’m the fast reader in my whole class.” Marty did a little shimmy on the kitchen stool. Her head half Afro puffs, half straighten swayed from side to side.
“I know that’s right.” Betts went back to work. “I’ve known you before you were you.” Betts added the curling iron to the stove to heat. Betts and Alberta, Marty’s mother, had grown up together. They had shared a crib, played with dollies, and later gone on double dates. She rubbed Pink Lustre through Marty’s natural curls from scalp to ends. Her hot comb moved through the child’s hair. From a daub of AfroSheen on the back of her hand, Betts rubbed the grease into the girl’s edges and started to curl. Alberta had married young and then came Marty. Betts had chairs at two salons and did heads at home. The old friends couldn’t see each other much.
Marty’s head was a mass of shiny uniform curls. Marty raised up her head as Betts showered her in a fragrant cloud of hair spray. Holding Marty’s face in her hands, Betts could see Alberta in the schoolyard.
”What side do you want your part?”
“Hold this around your neck tight.”
Marty draped the the splotched towel around her thin shoulders. Betts laved Vaseline around her edges.
“Thank you again for doing this, Miss Elizabeth. You are a true lifesaver,” Marty said. “I can’t believe how long it took to get my old cornrows out and then when Michaela never showed up with the extensions I was panicked.”
Betts took a long drag of her Marlboro and stirred the relaxer. The bite of the lye made their eyes water. With a wide toothed comb, Betts parted Marty’s fluffy Afro into eight sections.
“Girl, stop. We’re family. You have a ton of new growth and your scalp might burn. Let me know when it starts to tingle, okay,” Betts said. She worked the Dark ‘n’ Lovely through Marty’s hair, pulling and smoothing. From the tightness in Marty’s shoulders Betts could tell her scalp was beginning to burn.
“You know you are the only one who still calls me Miss Elizabeth. You do know you’re grown right.” Marty laughed.”I know. Mom laughs at me but it just doesn’t feel right.”
Betts was quiet and suddenly feeling her age. She patted Marty’s arms and guided her to the kitchen sink. In the cool water the red brown coils melted into silky waves.
“I know this water feels good.”
“Look at you.” Betts opened her arms wide.
The years had changed them both. With a crown of silver and auburn locks, Marty had grown older and more beautiful. Betts’s bones felt frail in Marty’s strong embrace. In her arms, Betts could feel Marty shake from tears. She rubbed the woman’s girl’s baby’s back to comfort her. They held each other for a long moment. Then Betts held Marty’s face in her hands to say goodbye and I will see you again to old friend in her heart.
“It was so kind of you to come, Miss Elizabeth.”
Betts wiped Marty’s tears and headed back down the aisle.