THE OCTOPUS PERM

perm machine

As I hung up the telephone, I let out a squeal of joy. “Momma, Mackey Padgent just invited me to go to The Citadel Hop with him. Oh my gosh, Tommy Dorsey and his band are playing.”
I began to jump up and down. I caught Momma’s hands and we danced around in a circle. She was amused at my excitement and started laughing with me. I began to sing in my tuneless voice that I had inherited from her, “My senior year is going to be great and I’ve got a date for the hop, hop, hop.” It was my last year at Memminger High School and Mackey was a freshman at The Citadel. Life couldn’t be better except for one itsy, bitsy, teeny, tiny little thing.
“Momma, look at my hair. It’s as straight as a poker and ugly as sin. I’ve got to do something about my hair.”
This began the campaign for me to get a permanent wave.
Momma quickly answered, “Anne, darling, there is absolutely nothing wrong with your hair, in fact you have pretty hair. I can curl it for you with the curling iron or we can pile it on top of your head.”
I had made this same pitch every time I was invited to something special to get my hair permed. Her answer was always the same, “NO”, and that was with a capital N and a capital O, if you know what I mean. This time was going to be different, I could feel it in my bones. After two straight weeks of nagging her, I finally wore her down. It was exactly eight days before the Hop.
When I came home after school, Momma said, “Against my better judgement, I made you an appointment at Miss Lillian’s Cut and Curl Beauty Parlor on Wentworth Street on Friday afternoon at three thirty. That was the only time she had, so take it or leave it. You know the Hop is the next day so you will be stuck with the results.”
I was beyond ecstatic. I dreamed about how my hair would look almost every minute of the day. I was positive that the perm would give me locks like Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind or Doris Day or any glamorous star in Hollywood. It was hard to concentrate on my school work.
Momma made me a beautiful pink gown of taffeta covered with net. It was strapless and was studded with rhinestones sewn throughout the gown. The light from the huge Citadel Mirror Ball would catch the shine on the rhinestones and cause my dress to twinkle like the stars at night. I thought I would look like Cinderella or at least a princess. My life could not be better.
Friday afternoon finally arrived and I entered Miss Lillian’s Cut and Curl Beauty Parlor. There were ladies (much older than myself) sitting under the hair driers (which looked like big over sized silver bullets with a big hole for your head.) or getting their nails manicured. (I wished I had campaigned for a manicure too. Oh, well.) I really did not know what to expect as I had never even been in a Beauty Parlor before. Miss Lillian told me to sit in her chair and she would get things ready for my perm. Miss Lillian was a little wisp of a woman with great big bleached blond hair (“Ash blonde, dah-lin, that’s the shade”, she would say). It was piled up in the back with a pompadour in the front. She smelled strongly of Evening In Paris perfume, the same as Momma’s but more like she had taken a bath in it. For her, it was definitely Two Nights In Paris. She had long manicured fingernails that bore bright red polish. She constantly chewed gum and could talk about any subject in the entire world or at least in Charleston circles. Her clients kept her informed of all the gossip in town, so if you wanted to know anything about anyone, you just needed to bring up the subject with Miss Lillian. She kept herself well versed on the Hollywood stars. She had every movie magazine known to God or woman.
“Dah-lin, do you want your hair cut?” she asked in her exaggerated Southern accent. (She called everybody dah—-lin.) “Oh, no Ma’am. I love my long hair. Just permed thank you.”
She put one of her special wraps over my clothes. It was bright pink with Miss Lillian’s logo on it in black. I could see where she had spilled black dye on it in a few spots. I wondered if she washed it between clients or if ever for that matter. She escorted me over to the basin area where she would proceed to wash my hair. Now Momma had washed my hair plenty of times, but never like this. She put me in a chair that the back folded down so my head would be in the sink. It was a terribly uncomfortable position I might add. She began to talk to everyone within ear shot about everything known under the sun while she scrubbed my head. Her long manicured nails dug into my scalp and I was sure there would be no hair left when she was done (my scalp would probably be gone too for that matter). This went on for what seemed like an hour before she started to rinse. She turned the sprayer on and the water was so cold, my head was in brain freeze mode.
“That is really cold, Miss Lillian,” I mustered up the courage to say.
“Yes dah-lin, it will clear your head and get you ready for what’s to come.”
I began to feel like I was entering a war zone. What had I gotten myself into? What did she mean by that remark? She began the process of curling my hair with these very small rollers. She put them in so tight, I began to feel my eyes getting squinty and my head began to hurt.
“Dah-lin, the rollers have to be tiny and tight to get those curls, you know.”
Finally, she had all of my long locks in those tiny little rollers.
“Dah-lin, I’m going to mix up the perm solution now, so just sit tight.”
Off she went, chewing her gum and chatting to all the ladies in the shop. It was amusing to hear them talk about Clark Gable like he was an old gentleman friend of theirs. They all read the movie magazines and gossiped about all of the stars. She came back with a bowl of white stuff that smelled like a cross between plough mud and the Purina Feed Factory in North Charleston. (Now if you have never smelled plough mud, it is about as rancid as the cow manure the farmers use as fertilizer.) I could already feel my eyes burning and she hadn’t even begun to put the solution on my head. As she started, the solution began to smart just a little.
“Is it suppose to burn Miss Lillian?”
“Well, dah-lin, you must just have some sensitive skin. It’ll go away along with the smell.”
I wondered just how long that would be. As she lathered each tiny little curler with solution, the burning got worse, but I kept my mouth shut for once. Finally that was done. She asked me to move over to another chair on the far side of the room. I looked and was astonished at what I saw. Above the chair were long wires (that looked like Octopus tentacles) attached to a contraption that looked like a huge round tin wheel cover on the ceiling. Each wire had a clamp like thing that would attach to each of the tiny little curlers on my head. What in the world have I done? Momma’s hot curling iron wasn’t this bad. She took her time putting the curlers on the octopus like thing hanging from her ceiling. Each one pinching worse than the one before. Once she had them all connected, she told me she was going to turn it on and I would feel a little warm. A little warm? It was like Dante’s Inferno on my head. I didn’t know whether to scream or cry. I felt tears creeping down my red cheeks and perspiration running down my back. There was no way I could get out of here without Miss Lillian’s help and she was no where to be seen. I think she went in the back to smoke a cigarette. I saw her pull her pack of Luckies out of her pocket when she had finished connecting me. Oh my gosh, is that thunder I hear? I’m going to get electrocuted in this Octopus. I can see the headlines now, Seventeen Year Old Memminger Girl Killed by The Octopus. They’ll have my picture and a story about how I pleaded with Momma to get a perm at Miss Lillian’s Beauty Parlor. Oh my gosh, when is she coming back? She took her whole pack of Luckies, I hope she’s not going to smoke them all. Helpppppppppppppppppp. I am screaming in my head but no one can hear me. Don’t they know I am about to die? Breathe, Anne, breathe. Count to ten. One, two, three, four..one thousand, how did I get there so fast? I reached for a hand fan that had a picture of Shirley Temple on one side and Vote for Senator Maybank on the other and began to fan rapidly, so rapidly that breeze was going everywhere but not cooling off my head. I don’t recall when Miss Lillian reappeared, probably when she heard the egg timer go off. I only know it was really long time and my entire head was on fire. I hope she didn’t fry all of my hair right off my head. I was sure I could smell hair burning. I remember that smell from Chemisty lab.  Miss Lillian escorted me back to the wash basin area after removing me from the Octopus. It was quite a relief even though my head was still burning.
“Dah-lin, It’ll feel a whole lot better just as soon as I get this neutralizer solution on it.”
She was right, it cooled my head right down. Maybe I was just exaggerating. I know I can be a little dramatic. She began to remove the curlers after the second timer went off. She rinsed my hair with water, wrapped a towel around them and sent me back to her chair.
“Oh lookie here, dah-lin, you’ve got some real curly curls here. That’s what you wanted, right?”
“Yes ma’am. I have never had curly hair except when Momma curls it with the curling iron.”
“Well, you got em now.”
She combed the perm out and put them back in some rollers kind of like the ones my sister used and put me back under the hot drier that resembled a bullet to process. I must admit it wasn’t quite as bad as the Octopus, but it was still pretty hot. Getting curls was no picnic. About thirty minutes or so went by before Miss Lillian escorted me back to her chair for the comb out.
“I’m going to turn you away from the mirror while I comb you out. Dah-lin, I want you to be surprised with the result.”
I thought she would never get done. I could barely wait for the great reveal.
“Okay, Dah-lin, it’s time for you to see what you’ve got.”
She spun me around so quickly, I almost fell out of the chair. I looked into the mirror with great anticipation of looking like Vivian Leigh or Lauren Bacall or any movie star for that matter. What I saw left me totally and utterly speechless (which for me was an unusual occurrence). I was surprised alright. “Well, how do you like it?” I could not answer. I tried to pull off a smile. I gave her the ten dollars that Momma had given me and got out of her chair and headed to the door.
“Hope you have a great time at that Citadel Hop, dah-lin. Y”all come back now ya hear?”
Oh my gosh, that is tomorrow night. What am I going to do ? As soon as my feet hit the sidewalk, I quickly covered my head with my kerchief that I had in my pocket. I am never going to leave my house again as long as I live. I have never seen such curly hair in my entire life, well maybe once on that girl who  works at Hampton Park. My long hair had shrunk to about an inch from my scalp with the curls. I ran all the way home. I was glad that my sister was away at college. She would’ve teased me for life. Momma was there waiting for me when I got home.
“It’s awful” I squalled. “I look like Nancy in the funny papers.”
I ran up the stairs straight to my bedroom. Momma followed close behind.
“Let’s take off the kerchief dear. Let me see what you are talking about.” I slowly removed the kerchief from my head and I heard Momma give a little gasp.
“Well, let’s see, it’s not too bad.”
What was she talking about. My hair looked exactly like Nancy in the funny papers. It was as big as the moon and as frizzy as a bear and fried to a crisp and shorter than the dog’s. How much worse could it be and the Hop is tomorrow night. There is no hope for me. I’m going to call Mackey and tell him I’m sick, cause I am sick. Sick to death about my hair.
Momma said, “Let’s wash it and see what we can do about it.
“Miss Lillian said not to wash it for ten days or the curl will come out.”
“Well now, that’s our solution isn’t it? We want the curl to come out now, don’t we?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
So Momma began doing her magic. She washed it and put a softener on it (I think it was Borax) and then put it up in great big rollers that she used on her own hair. I was hopeful but not sure that this was going to work. After she was done, I laid on my bed and cried myself to sleep. I didn’t wake up until the next morning and it was too late to call Mackey and decline the invitation. Momma carefully unrolled my hair and it was still pretty curly but no where near the Nancy in the funny papers look. After breakfast, she said that she wanted to try something that her sister use to do with her curly hair. So I laid my head on the ironing board while she carefully ironed my hair back into sanity. We decided since it was such a humid day (one that loves to frizz the curliest hair or straighten the straightest hair), she would put it on top of my head, so she did. That night when Mackey arrived in his Citadel dress uniform (looking fabulous I might add), I was still apprehensive about my hair.
He came in, handed me a corsage and said, “You look great. What did you do to your hair?”
I started to give him a dissertation about my perm, but he cut me off, “It looks gorgeous.”
I saw a smile come over Momma’s face and felt one on my own. All’s well that ends well I guess. I never asked my Momma for a permanent again after that, at least not for one at Miss Lillian’s Cut and Curl Beauty Parlor on Wentworth Street.
I was content to curl it myself or wear it straight. I wonder if Miss Lillian’s Cut and Curl still has the old Octopus? However, I did learn a lesson from the old Octopus, Momma was always right about most things. “Dah-lin, I can’t recall ever questioning her judgement after the perm disaster nor did I ever go back to see Miss Lillian again ya hear?”

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