By contract, I receive a fixed monthly stipend and by nature I am frugal with my funds and most fortunate, in that lodging is provided to me at Silver Lake Estates as a part of my compensation. As is customary, I report to Director Hildebrandt’s office this morning for my uniform inspection and the resident’s medical updates. Of all the people I’ve met since arriving in Podash, Agnes Hildebrandt is the only person I’ve had personal contact with on an almost daily basis. Director Hildebrandt maintains detailed and precise reports on everything that happens at Silver Lake Community Estates and sometimes I wonder if she is also charged with documenting my assimilation. This would be the Directors first look at me since my appointment with Phyllis Spretzel. I took particular care to be sure that my appearance was immaculate. I had triple checked that the seams of my white hose were perfectly straight and my white orthopaedic nursing shoes are spotless with evenly tied laces. I carefully buttoned my best, freshly starched and pressed, white nursing uniform over a full Shadowline nylon taffeta slip and my Spirella 709…. my pale pink, cleanly shaved neck looking thin and delicate in high contrast to the tight white collar that rings my throat. Carefully I centre and pin my crisp, starched wing cap on top of my perfect lilac dome. Standing at rigid attention before Director Hildebrandt, I am confident that this morning I look to be the complete professional, the consummate nurse.
“Before we conclude this morning’s evaluations, there is one more thing.”
“Yes. Neat and tidy. It looks good on you. I expect you will continue.”
“Yes, Ma’am. If I may…”
“It’s the travel. Brenda Jean has been most diligent and gracious in providing transportation to and from my appointments in her son-in-law’s pickup truck, however, I often feel that I am unduly intrusive on her personal time.”
“I see. Well, perhaps you have shown enough common sense and fortitude now to earn the occasional use of our Ford. I know how much you young girls like to look pretty and how much you all enjoy your special parlour time. I want you to be happy here in Podash..”
I am absolutely thrilled that Director Hildebrandt has offered me the use of the estate car.
Thus it is that two weeks later when I have an appointment at Phyllis Spretzel’s I am able to drive myself over there. I jump into the car and turn out of the drive. Concentrating a little more than I would at home. I’ve only been driving here for a week and I still need to remind myself to stick to the right and all the other subtle differences of driving in Podash. As I settle in to driving my thoughts wander to my meeting with Missy Joy just the day after I had first been to Phyllis’.
I was standing at the counter in the store waiting to pay when I heard a tentative “Karen, is that really you?” from behind me. I turned round to find Missy Joy smiling at me. “Hi Joy. How are you?”
“I’m great thanks. Wow you cut your hair?” That phrase will never ring quite true to an English ear. We normally say “you’ve had your hair cut” since the cutting is usually done by someone else. “You’ve cut it really short!” Still the odd inflexion but even so I manage a smile and a nod. My hand instinctively drifting up my naked nape. “I had it done yesterday” Missy Joy scrutinises my tresses for a moment. “A fresh perm too unless my nose deceives me?” we share a laugh together. I don’t know how long the scent of the perm solution will hang around me like an olfactory sign that my hair is now permanently curly. “I wasn’t sure it was you from behind with all that shaved neck.” Almost unconsciously she lifts her hand and strokes a finger over the smooth shaven side then catches herself and snatches her hand back. “You’ve had it shaved over your ears too.” I blush. “It sure is mighty short, there’s only a handful of ladies have the smooth sides. It’s a few years since I’ve worn mine that short – not since my college reunion in fact.” Her eyes become distant for a moment as she remembers something from her past. “ So Betty Lou decided you needed a full Podash ‘do?”
“Betty Lou? Oh no, I went to Phyllis Spretzel.”
“Phyllis! That explains it. I’ve never had Phyllis do my hair. I’ve always been to Betty Lou’s. Phyllis is well known for her short styles - seems almost all her customers end up with just a top perm and many of her ladies have the sides shaven.” She gently pushes at the perfectly permed and set curls above her own ear. “I had a top perm when I first got here then again once I had settled in but now I wear one of Betty Lou’s bubbles. I should tell you about my coming to Podash, took me a while to settle in here and work out how things are for womenfolk here too. Hey, let’s go down to Greevy’s and I can tell you all about it.” With that we got to chatting and went for coffee together.
“James? You know James?”
“Of course. James is my husband. We married when I graduated from college and James thought it would be better for me if we moved out here right after. Why, I wasn’t even here one single day, before Aunt Bea marched me right over to Betty Lou’s for a proper cut and perm. Oh! That was quite a day! I didn’t like it at first… but since then, everyone’s been so nice and Podash has turned out to be a real nice, quiet and peaceful place to live.”
“That’s so funny. And it’s a man named James that has brought me to Podash. I had some troubles at first… but… now…”
“Oh, I know what you mean! We went back east for a college reunion once and I just couldn’t believe how those women still carry on and chase after every trendy little thing. And to think… well, let’s just say Podash has changed my life and I couldn’t be happier!”
In the end she told me her own story of coming to Podash, meeting Betty Lou and leaving her shop with her own top perm although she thinks it wasn’t as high at the sides as Phyllis has cut mine. Perhaps it was the length Phyllis had intended before she cut back my fringe and then took the sides in to match. She also told me of the early troubles she had with Myra Anne and some of her feelings and experiences which echoed my own.
As we were saying our goodbyes later she ran her own palm up her nape. “You know Karen, you’ve got me thinking. I just might have to give Phyllis a try. See you later Karen.” So even for many of the regular Podash ladies my hair is considered short although not too short of course. It seems as though there are the average Podash ladies with their no nonsense short, tight perms and their closely clipped napes keeping their collars fresh as Brenda Jean had explained to me and there are ladies who wear their hair very short. The second group are ladies who brook absolutely no questioning at all. Elsie and Phyllis it seems have planted me firmly in the second camp. Of course as Elsie was at pains to point out my hair isn’t really short like hers! My hand again runs up my nape. In the two weeks since my cut it has grown to a soft pelt which feels gentle and inviting under my palm. Sure feels short to me!
So this is my train of thought as I arrive at Phyllis’ and park the car. Virtually every lady in town sports a short perm. Some very short indeed like myself. One or two, for example Phyllis and Elsie have their hair extremely short but no-one questions this, in fact it seems to be admired. It simply is part of the Podash way. Is it my way?
I walk up the path to Phyllis’ house, it still seems an odd set up here. I am soon shown through into her porch/salon. This is my third visit, the previous week I had gone back there with Elsie and Phyllis had just shampooed and set my hair so I left with the curls immaculately arranged and crisp. Phyllis and I pass the usual pleasantries as I arrive then I swiftly divest myself of my blouse. No longer does she comment on my underwear. My corselet clearly is suitable attire for a Podash lady. I am soon leaning deep into the sink whilst Phyllis scrubs my hair. She then takes up a tinting brush and a bowl of colour. Of course, I had forgotten her plan for my locks, this is part of her cycle whereby I am permed then tinted at regular intervals. The smell of the colour is strong with ammonia. Not as strong as the perm solution of course but certainly one of the salon’s all pervading scents. I wonder what shade she is using. We haven’t actually discussed the colour. No shade charts or sample locks here.
She pauses and wraps my head with cling film. Common or garden cling film like you use in the kitchen. I suppose I am impressed at this “modern innovation” in such a dated hairdressers. I sit looking into the mirror at my ridiculous reflection. The plastic flowered cape is crowned by a discretely made up face beneath a bright purple creamy head wrapped in polythene. After twenty minutes I am pressed forward into the sink and my hair is rinsed. I watch the purple colour swirling around in the porcelain tub as she works. Once she is happy my hair is wrapped in one of Phyllis’ old towels and I am allowed to sit up. I stare into the mirror waiting for her to reveal my new colour. Phyllis almost flourishes with the towel as she removes it. This is about as animated as I have ever seen her but the sight of my hair makes me gasp. It is now full on, unadulterated, in-your-face purple. This is not artifice attempting to cover grey. This is a deliberate statement that my hair is controlled and managed. The strong colour is simply a manifestation of the same drive that causes Phyllis to perm, set and lacquer her client’s tresses until they hardly even move when pressed with the hand. “It’s taken perfectly” she offers as she reaches for comb and scissors. She begins to lift sections and gripping them between her fingers she trims a quarter inch away. Not a lot, just enough to tidy the ends and returning the top to the inch and a half of my first visit. “Erm, er, what shade is that?” I manage to ask still staring in amazement at a shade that would be considered punky at home but here Phyllis considers it appropriate for anyone. “Violet, just like we said.” Well I remember her mentioning it to Elsie but I certainly had not agreed to this but I suppose it is far too late now, my hair is simply purple. With a start I realise that it will be particularly strong at work with my white uniform and hat. I am confident Director Hildebrandt will approve.
It seems to be just the work of moments to trim all of the curls before she sets down the scissors and begins to smear a large blob of cold dippity doo through them. I watch in mute fascination as her skilled fingers twist in small green rollers anchoring each one with a plastic pin to my scalp. Very rapidly my head is covered with perfectly positioned rollers in exquisitely accurate rows across my head. A triangular net is tied over the rollers and ear pads are slipped underneath. My head is a rainbow of shades, pale green rollers wrapped with purple hair under a red net with blue earpads. A sort of harlequin head! Phyllis then duly installs me under her masterpiece of a hairdryer and adjusts it before setting me to dry.
Twenty minutes later and Phyllis lifts the visor of “Old Robbie” and presses the rollers into my scalp. “You’re dry Hon, let’s get you back over to the chair.” My permed curls are so short and Phyllis’ pli is so perfectly wound that drying seems to take so much less time here. I stand and walk over to the large styling chair. I notice the dusting of violet hairs on the floor around it where she has trimmed a quarter inch from my curls.
I sink down into the soft leather of the chair, resting my feet on the big metal foot rest. Phyllis pulls out the earpads then unties the net. I watch as she pulls pins from each roller then untwists each lock popping the green plastic tubes into her trolley. My hair is held in rigid locks thanks to the dippity doo and the efforts of the perm of course. She takes out her tailcomb and begins to arrange my curls. Of course I have only the top cap of hair to arrange but Phyllis is a particular expert at this style and soon I have the most perfect of little domes perched on top of my head. The violet tint is much darker than I have been sporting here and serves to make the curls seem even more refined and staid. She hands me the facemask. “Looks like being a hot week this week so I’ll give you three coats.” Ssss, ssss, ssss,ssss,ssss,ssss. The lacquer penetrates deep into my curls. I feel it reaching my scalp and watch the brown liquid swishing around inside the small plastic bottle. Of course with so little hair on top it is the work of but moments to soak it with the spray. I stare into the mirror and see the liquid in droplets sitting on my curls. Phyllis picks up her clippers, the pink Andis Edjer. “So what’s it to be?” My mind rushes back to Elsie sitting in this very chair and being asked the very same question. Phyllis is treating me just like one of her other regular clients. Have I really come so far at integrating here?
Phyllis asks again. “So Karen, whitewalls?” My hair has grown some. I have a quarter inch on my nape and sides running through Phyllis’ perfect mechanical taper up to a luxuriant half inch below my curly top. Whitewalls – she means to shave the nape and around my ears like last time. I lick my lips, my mouth dry once again. I could ask her to leave it and start to grow the back and sides out until I can wear a neat little bubble, helmet perm like Missy Joy. Elsie’s words to Phyllis when she was sitting in this very chair pop unbidden into my head. “Neat and tidy, real clean.” Do I really want this? Thoughts race through my mind. I have come back here to Phyllis of my own volition – not just once but twice. I knew of course that today my appointment was for a colour, set and trim. I knew my hair was destined to be cut but even so I had driven here and kept my appointment. I thought I hated what Elsie had done to me but the sensation of the razor on my nape had been frankly delicious…Now what to do?
I make eye contact with Phyllis in the mirror. I take in her own grey wire wool perm crowning her head and the barren sides below.
“Sure, why not. Neat and tidy please.” I hear myself say surprisingly confidently. For a moment I wonder who does Phyllis’ hair and how often does she have the sides and back shaven. On each time I have seen her she has been smooth. Surely she doesn’t do it herself. Clack. The clippers begin to buzz. This time I keep my head perfectly still and erect and stare into the mirror just as Elsie did. To an outside observer it must seem as though this is all perfectly normal and the clippers do not frighten me at all. My dry mouth and rapid pulse would show the most careful observer that this is all pretence. Phyllis starts under my right sideburn. Bzzzz, and the clippers chew upwards and the violet locks fall away leaving shadowed scalp in their wake. Phyllis lifts the clippers at my temple as she did last time. I envisage her taking her comb and then tapering in the hair above that, restoring the margin beneath my curls. My cut will be returned to what it was when she first had me in her chair and my bob ended up on the floor. Suddenly my heart starts to pound even more and my pulse races. I take a deep breath as she moves the clippers back a little. “Erm, Phyllis…” She pauses and looks at me in the mirror. My heart beats like a drum but I hear myself saying. “No need to go easy on me this time” she frowns for a moment, looking puzzled. “You can take it higher if you want.” I say. The frown turns into a smile. “Higher? You mean like Elsie has.” I nod once, firmly, emphatically. “All the way up?” She reiterates the question. “Everything below the top perm?”
“Yes please. Let’s have it REAL high and REAL tight.” Phyllis nods and smiles and I realise Elsie’s prophecy has been fulfilled.
“No problem, it’s good to see you like a real respectable style.”
Bzzz, the clippers sweep up above the first pass and I note that my scalp in their wake is covered with just shadow all the way to the curls on top. Bzzzz, bzzzz. As she works denuding the side I see the shape of my cut changing just enough that it moves from severe and unquestionable to absolute no nonsense. I smile to myself. I am joining the ladies with extremely, unquestionably short hair. “I’m taking it all off round the back and sides then. Just leaving you with the top perm.” I don’t need to comment and in any case nothing I might say will now stop process as she shears the lower portion of my head back to the scalp with her little pink clippers depositing seeming masses of hair onto the cape. There’s more hair than I realised I had left. Why does it look so much more when it is no longer on your head?
Soon she finishes. I can see that the sides of my head are shaven to just shadow on my suddenly pale scalp by the edging clippers. I don’t doubt that the back too is similarly bare. She clicks them off and places them on the counter. She whisks the soft brush over the back and sides of my head. The tickling whisp of the brush is strangely energising on my almost bare scalp. She then hands me the face mask. I cover my face once more as ssss, ssss, ssss, ssss. The curls are soaked once again with lacquer. I put the mask down on the counter and stare at my reflection. The higher sides have certainly made a difference and I know without looking that the back is now shaven all the way to my little dome of curls. I remember looking at Elsie’s shorn head when she had had hers done like this and then stare in mute amazement that I have just asked for exactly the same haircut.
Oh my god, what have I done? I am pulled from my reverie by the sensation of soap being smeared onto my shorn scalp. Phyllis rubs it in on my nape then higher, over my occipital and all the way to the top. She hasn’t asked me if I want a full clean up. I have not asked for this but the feeling of the soap and her fingers around my denuded head is so delightful. She wipes her hands and picks up the razor. Her left hand clamps down on my crisp curls angling my head over slightly to my left. The razor is poised then it touches my scalp. Not at my temple but where the curls end high above my eyebrows, Scriape, scrape. She pulls the razor down and rosy pink scalp emerges naked from the white soap. Scriape, scrape. The side of my head is quickly rendered, well there is no other word for it, BALD. I know that within three or four days my hair will be showing as shadow as though the clippers have just run over it but for now the smoothest and barest of skin will surround my head. As she moves to the back she presses my head forwards just a fraction. I find I am panting a little. Then, I don’t believe it, the waves of an orgasm begin to wash over me. I close my eyes losing myself in the rolling sensation of pleasure as the blade touches high up the back of my head then scrapes downwards to my occipital. I look up into the mirror my face betraying me with a blush. Phyllis smiles into the mirror and completes the shaving of the back of my head then the right side making sure that all of my scalp is smooth and shiny. “I told you we have fun here honey. There we are one full summer finish just like Elsie and just like you asked for.” The pedant in me questions that. I had asked for it to be taken higher but I had not mentioned one of Phyllis’ full ‘clean ups’ even so she has razor shaved my scalp absolutely smooth. Suddenly the intercom buzzes. Phyllis is finished with the shaving and takes a moment to rub over my bald scalp with the rough towel then steps out into her kitchen. I am left wondering what has happened to me as my fingers gently explore the smoothness of my head then brush against the rigid, starched curls at the top. What have I done?
Phyllis returns. I am somewhat surprised to see she has Missy Joy with her. “OH! Ah… Hi Karen, I didn’t know you’d be here.” It is Phyllis who answers.
“Karen’s here for her regular tidy up.”
Missy Joy walks over to me. “Wow! You look great! You’ve had it coloured and you’ve gone even shorter!” She stands next to me and scrutinises my head. “Oh boy is that short?”
Once more Phyllis speaks for me.
“Karen prefers a perfectly neat head, she is one of my ladies who appreciates a clean finish.” So I am one of Phyllis’ ladies now am I? Phyllis picks up the lacquer and I hurriedly cover my face. Ssss, ssss, ssss, ssss. A last dousing with the spray. Whilst Phyllis is very careful and keeps the nozzle close to my curls a little still gets onto the shaven back and sides. It feels strange as it dries and sort of tightens. I put down the face shield and Phyllis sweeps the small mirror in and around me. I study the smooth scalp around the back. It is shaven up above my occipital where it curves back under my curls. It looks so ridiculous and severe but here in Podash it somehow seems to be just right in some strange way. “There we go Karen, is that tidy enough for you?” I beam at her in the mirror. Whilst my mind is still in turmoil I have to put on a positive face for Joy. “Perfect thank you Phyllis, just perfect. I love the new colour.” It’s Phyllis’ turn to beam. “It’s a permanent tint, it won’t fade much. It will grow out though and by the time your next colour comes around only the ends will be violet, still we can start using rinses in three weeks or so.” She removes the comb out cape from my shoulders and smiles. “Of course if we are keeping it this high and tight we don’t have to worry about the back and sides none.” I smile at her appreciating her humour. Joy smiles at me. “Karen you look great. Well, now I don’t feel quite so nervous.” And then, with a smile and a wink… “This’ll be fun!”
I stand up and walk over to the toilet to dress. When I return Joy is in the chair. Phyllis is pulling out a lavender curl on top of her head, scrutinising her hair. It is about four inches long and I can see it must be about eight weeks since her last perm since the half closest to her scalp is actually straight. It must have been time for a perm with Betty Lou but instead she had opted to put herself in Phyllis’ tender hands “So what are we doing?” Phyllis asks. Joy looks at me through the mirror and smiles. “I think I want it shorter.” Phyllis’ brow furrows in a look of annoyance.
“Of course you want it shorter, I am a hairdresser, I cut hair. That is why you are here. You walk out with your hair shorter than when you came in.” Joy looks shocked and for a moment I notice her shoulders dip and a submissive posture overcome her.
“I, I’m sorry I wasn’t clear, I mean shorter than the bubble perm I normally have.” Phyllis nods once, businesslike. “Good, I think Betty Lou can be a little easy going sometimes on you younger ones. She certainly messed up Karen’s hair for a while. Didn’t she Karen?” Joy looks at me in the mirror. I find I have to protest and defend Betty Lou. “She was just trying to be accommodating, to make allowances with me being English and all.” Somehow my accent slips on the end of the sentence and my Englishness seems almost to have been stripped away for a moment just as Phyllis has so recently stripped away so much of my hair. “Oh I don’t doubt it was out of kindness but you finally come to realise the benefit of a perfect short ‘do like you wear now and we’re finally done with all that uppity English nonsense?” I stand there displaying the severest of haircuts in testament to that fact. My hand runs up the back of my head to meet the crisp curls on top and I nod. “Yes Phyllis, I guess I am finished with my old hairstyle…this is my new look. It’s perfect, thank you.”
“And just so you know… Betty Lou can work a fine razor if you ask her, nothing like smooth sides.” Her hand runs up her own barren scalp just as mine does. I nod in agreement. Joy nods too – “Aunt Bea had Betty Lou shave my head smooth when I first got here…” Then she smiles at me for a moment a little nervously before I see her bosom heave, as she takes a deep breath. Missy Joy then says. “Could I have it like Karen’s?” It’s Phyllis’ turn to smile. “So you want it nice and short?”
“I am sure James would love it.”
Joy nods. “Just like Karen’s?” Another nod. “That’s a real tight inch and a half top perm with the back and sides off?” Joy pauses for only a fraction of a second then nods again. “All of the back and sides and a full wet shave finish?” Joy looks down to her feet. I see a moment’s doubt flit across her face but it is as quickly replaced by a smile. “Yes please Mrs Spretzel. If my friend Karen, can wear your hair, I should too. That’s what I want. Please don’t hold back, make me a Phyllis Spretzel Lady like Karen.” Phyllis nods all businesslike now. “Young lady I do not hold back as you can see if you look at your friend here. I am a perfectionist. If that is what you want then that is precisely what you will get. Karen would not want to be seen leaving here without a perfect, tightly permed head of curls and the back and sides nice and clean and you will certainly not be seen leaving here without a perfectly permed head of curls and a back and sides as shiny and smooth as Karen’s, so don’t you fret yourself none. Now, let’s get you over the tub for a shampoo and then we’ll see some hair hit the floor…” I stand and wonder for a moment. Her fate is now sealed. She will be leaving with the identical haircut to mine, there is no doubt in that. Once more Missy Joy will be able to feel her own smooth scalp around her head and the scent of perm lotion will follow her for days. I must see how this turns out.
“I’ll meet you for coffee in a couple of hours.” I say. Joy nods and smiles. This will turn heads, two ladies with the most immaculate of hairdos. No-one will question it or wonder why. Here in Podash this is how things are. It is absolutely right and proper… After all, that is what we are. Podash ladies. Joy stands up to go to the bathroom to remove her sweater and blouse and I pay Phyllis for the privilege of having her slaughter my hair. I then tip her handsomely. Well… when someone’s work is so perfect you have to reward them don’t you? As I turn to leave Phyllis calls after me “Bye Karen, see you next week…”
We make quite an entrance when we walk into Greevy’s. People turn and look then very swiftly return to their food. Phyllis Spretzel ladies are not to be taken lightly. We are about to settle into a booth when we hear. “Ladies, oh Ladies!” It is Brenda Jean and Elsie sitting by the window. Of course we must join them and are soon seated in their booth with them. We order coffee and apple pie. Brenda Jean tells us they are waiting for the bus to welcome the new school teacher to town. She is newly qualified and this will be a first job. She will be staying with Brenda Jean, at least to begin with and she hopes we will help her to settle in. When the bus arrives only one passenger gets off. We all look at her as she gets down from the bus. She is wearing jeans, a t shirt and sneakers. Elsie harrumphs “she looks more like a boy than a school teacher”. As she turns though a soft swinging ponytail proves this statement to be wrong. “Oh my, I am afraid that just won’t do” says Brenda Jean as we stand to go out to welcome her. “She is supposed to start at Podash Elementary in four days, we don’t have long.” We haven’t paid our bill but I turn to the waitress. “We are just going outside to meet the new school teacher, we will be back in presently.” The response of “Yes ma’am” shows instinctive obedience and takes me aback a little.
“You two youngsters are really going to have to sort this.” Elsie mutters as we leave the air-conditioned sanctuary of Greevy’s and the hot sun strikes us. “Just look how she is perspiring and that hair is hanging damp around her face.” We walk across the street to the bus stop. “Are you both free tomorrow?” we nod our affirmative. It is Brenda Jean who makes the plan as Elsie commandeers two teenage boys to carry our newcomer’s bags. “Missy Joy you have excellent dress sense, you are responsible for getting her some new clothes. Nurse Karen, you must get her hair done, take her to Betty Lou…” Elsie interrupts,
“Karen is one of Phyllis’ ladies.”
“I suppose one of Phyllis’ cuts will be more suitable anyway…the pair of you can take her on down to Phyllis and get her ready for Podash. Go easy on her, she needn’t be as short as you two!” I exchange a glance with Missy Joy, it seems there is another lady to introduce to life here in Podash…
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