With permission from the publisher, please allow me to present my story “Bernice Bobs Your Hair,” originally published in Decopunk, from the Pink Narcissus Press in 2015. I hope you like it! If you do, please think about picking up the anthology and leaving a review on Amazon!
Bernice Bobs Your Hair
This is a portrait of Bernice, a young woman 20 years of age, strolling with unaccustomed confidence around a corner past the bank, a monstrous brick hatbox of a building, not at all modern, on her way to open, for the first time, her very own shop, a storefront beauty salon her father has secured in her name.
Despite her coal-black Gibson-coiffed hair, elaborately piled and tucked into itself, a few stray locks writhing down her forehead, Bernice is not, herself, beautiful: compared to her more fashionable acquaintances, her jaw is too heavy and her eyes rather widely placed around her nose, which is a little too flat; although she is not what one would call swarthy, she can only dream of the fair complexion idealized among the girls in her set. Overall, the effect is more mule than kitten. And if the pictures in the fashion papers may be trusted, even her hair, her one truly striking feature, a cherished bequest from her departed mother, will soon be desperately out of style among women her age.
Worse yet, she is not wealthy, not really. Bernice’s father, the indulgent widower of an islander woman politely described as French by the more conservative elements of society, works. He is the supervisor of a team of machinists in a factory that makes neon lights, and Bernice has often had to scrape to find nickels for pinochle with the other girls. At the last cards party, a small affair comprising two tables of women for pinochle followed by dancing with several charming and well-off young men, Esther and Gertrude Collins had bragged of a trip to Havana. Their father owns the factory, so the expense had been nothing to them. Of course the Collins sisters had no idea Bernice’s father works for theirs. Sometimes Bernice has found needing to dissemble about her circumstances to be exhausting, but if the other girls knew, they would be even more horrible to her.
“Bernice, darling, don’t you just adore Cuba?” said one of the sisters, at the cards party. “Oh, that’s right. Of course you’ve never been. Isn’t it just dreadful being poor, dear? You must thank your stars every morning that you have wealthy friends like us to guide you in the correct fashions.” At this, Esther and Gertrude together took a moment to look Bernice up and down, and clucked quietly in their throats.
Worse luck, although she had been to Haiti several times to visit her departed mother’s relations, Bernice never had been to Cuba. She had read about it in magazines, and of course everyone knows the song. Rather than admit her inexperience and validate the ill behavior of the Collins sisters, she sang, in a sultry voice such as might radiate from a lustrous muse in a low cut dress, bewitching young wastrels and romantics in a torch club, “Cuba, where wine is flowing! Where all those dark-eyed Stellas light their fellas’ Panatell-”
“Oh no, dear, don’t sing!” said Esther Collins, quite unfairly, for Bernice is possessed of a lovely voice, and Gertrude contributed, “Heaven knows you’re no Billy Murray. Hee! Haw! Cuba! Heeeeeehaw!” Lulu, who was Bernice’s partner for pinochle, had smiled quietly and looked at her cards. Lulu is generally nicer than Esther and Gertrude; she is a harmless, biddable girl with pretty auburn curls and a bit of angle in the bridge of her slender nose. She is not very bright, but she should have known better than to smile at Bernice’s humiliation. No matter – she would learn. They all would.
As Bernice struggled to hide her face, which she was sure had gone thoroughly pale with rage, girls at both card tables began to whisper their fondness for Billy Murray, whose song celebrating Cuban vacations was very fashionable that week, and their indulgent, condescending scorn for Bernice herself. She was certain everyone had stared at her, but she didn’t see; she was hiding her face behind her cards. When was her turn? Surely her strong meld would place everyone’s attention back on the game, double pinochles and jacks around, and with such a good hand at least her pinochle partner would feel gently toward her.
After the cards, when the boys finally arrived for dancing and cigarettes and gin, distracting the Collins girls for a moment from their predation of Bernice, the subject of our portrait had breathed a visible sigh of relief. She devoted herself gamely to a series of lurching Charlestons and quicksteps around the ballroom, in the hands of a series of young men with tidily slicked hair and short evening jackets and breath that smelled of Collins gin, with narrow waists and strong, fast legs. During a slow song, she confided in one such beau, Henry, a dark-haired bravo with a waxed and curling moustache.
“I know it’s dreadful of me to criticize my hosts, but really, those Collins sisters! You should have heard how they abused me at pinochle today, as though it were my fault Papa has to work to keep me in party gowns. Heaven forbid they should learn he works for Collins Industries! Each girl is dreadful, and together they rival Pharaoh in their persecutions. Imagine the river of blood that would flow from my reputation if they got their hands on that bit of news.”
“I dare say!” opined the young man, his moustache rising and falling.
“In any case, those days will end soon, when I open my beauty salon. I shall earn my own money for gin and party clothes by cutting bobs. A working woman! I shall be thoroughly modern. And so I have named my shop. You must come see me for your next trim.”
“Oh, I shall,” Henry had agreed. “I shall indeed, and I shall tell all the men.”
Bernice had rewarded him with a kiss. He gleamed openly, even though she had ravaged his moustache.
Later, during a pause in the music, she overheard him doing just as he’d promised.
“Our Bernice is going to be a barber,” he said jovially, twisting his maimed whiskers in a vain attempt to recover from the kiss, to a ginger fellow home on holiday from Annapolis and splendid in the dress uniform of a student sailor.
The sailor said “You lie! How grand! We must bring her all our business, the bold girl.”
Unfortunately, Esther had overheard this exchange and turning to Lulu wondered aloud how Bernice would ever pay the lease on a fashionable shopfront.
“Why surely her father borrowed the money from yours, against his wages,” said Lulu. Bernice had confided her circumstances to the simple girl at the beginning of their acquaintance, and Lulu had sworn an oath of secrecy. The poor girl, wide-eyed, realizing her error too late, clapped both hands over her mouth. Too late, of course. Her fate was sealed.
The Collins sisters looked to one another and away in a coordinated, Vaudeville gesture that would have made Laurel and Hardy jealous for its precision. “Oh really,” Esther had said, and Gertrude had said “Yes, that is surely what happened.” The treacherous sisters had turned their hawk-like attention to Bernice, and the social bloodbath that followed does not bear description.
Bernice had done her best to keep an even temper, but she broke under the weight of the taunting leveled by Esther and Gertrude and their toadies. “Why must you be so horrible?” she had shrieked, hurling her cocktail at Gertrude, and then she had fled to the washroom to compose herself.
Suffice it to say that she lost at more than cards that day. Bernice is a mediocre card player in any case, so she seldom wins, but she rationalizes her losses, preferring to believe that money goes to money. At least she hadn’t needed to pay for her gin. The Collins girls have a bathtub still in the washroom, and thank God for Prohibition!
At gentle Lulu’s urging, Bernice calmed herself and emerged, but the damage had been done. When the party ended and she had put on her shawl (fine crochet lace, but her late mother had made it – it had not come from a boutique), her head spinning slightly with homebrew liquor, Bernice stroked a hand over the Apollonian, geometric carvings that adorned the great double doors out of the Collins mansion, bas relief mythological beasts rendered in bold concentric lines, carved from marble and trimmed in chrome. She idly ran a finger in one groove, as though stroking Pegasus’ wing, and kissed the air beside Esther’s cheek, a gesture of peacemaking. Had the Collins girl rolled her eyes? Bernice kissed Gertrude goodbye without comment, and then left.
All that is in the past, now, surely. Since graduating from the Institute of Art and Sculpture, Bernice has completed, in secret, a course in hairdressing, and her father – darling Papa! – has managed to rent her shop. With the coming changes in hair fashion, lots of girls will be after a new look, and Bernice specialized in bobbed hairstyles at the academy. Best of all, if she earns enough on her own, the shop has room for an additional girl. Bernice feels strongly that after all she has endured, she deserves an underling, or, that is, an employee, to do her bidding. Lulu seems a likely candidate, with her normally docile nature. How much sweeter if it were one or even both of the Collins girls! She laughs low in her breast, imagining the haughty Collinses cleaning the silver shears and dusting her shop. Nothing is impossible, no matter how unlikely, if one is truly creative and determined. There will be no more scraping after nickels for Bernice, in any case, and no more submitting to the sneering, sarcastic treatment of her so-called friends. She will soon have the means to complete her social ascent.
In the shop, watch Bernice as she hangs her shawl carefully around the shoulders of a bust, in the modern style, of Nefertiti. She takes a moment to admire the sleek lines of the ancient queen, one eye watching over the boutique, one looking into the next world. She rolls a long stitch of her shawl between two slender fingers, thinking of her mother, another woman of spirit and strength. Bernice lacks her late mother’s skill with crochet hook and thread – she had tried to learn, but the squinting detail of it had always thwarted her. Even so, she learned other, more practical skills at mama’s foot, and at the feet of mama’s many sisters with their thick not-quite-French accents, their many-bangled wrists clinking and jiggling throughout each lesson, skills they had in turn learned from their own mother, Bernice’s tiny, wizened Memere, a shrunken apple of a woman whose eyes gleamed from her gray-brown face.
She indulges in a sense memory: softened tallow squeezing slowly between her tiny, little-girl fingers as she fashioned a crude manikin, the slickness of the oily medium beneath her sharp fingernails as she sculpted its eyes and mouth, the salty smell of the work. She had trimmed it with a tiny nightshirt fashioned from a handkerchief and a tiny moustache of real human hair. Her aunts had proudly demanded she “show Memere the cunning poppet she has made, how it resembles Pepere, and how well she can say the words” – how her Memere had praised her inexperienced and accented French. How her aunts had swelled with pride at their wise mother’s praise for their niece, their pupil. And how Pepere had moaned in his sickbed.
After nodding with satisfaction at a crate of sculptor’s clay delivered ahead of schedule to her shop, Bernice flips a switch, hidden on the wall behind Nefertiti, lighting a neon sign, an extravagant gift bestowed by her father’s employer, burning the name of the shop in angular cursive letters, liquid fire tracing a sleek upward diagonal across the stop-front window: Thoroughly Modern! She takes a moment to appreciate the marble and chrome of her shop. Her shop, and only the first step on her path to independence and respect.
Soon, as Bernice knew would happen, Lulu timidly enters the salon, accompanied by the tinkling of a tiny bell installed above the door. “Sweet Lulu!” Bernice cries, “You are my very first customer, and I could not have hoped for a better one!”
Lulu gives her a dimpling smile. “How could I resist, dear? How exciting! How modern…” She touches the bust of Nefertiti and gestures to the neon.
“Shall I bob your hair, darling?”
“Oh! I don’t dare. Daddy would absolutely panic!” Lulu giggles.
“All the girls will be doing it soon enough,” urges Bernice, “but if you fear being too modern too quickly, perhaps just a trim and style. You shall make Gibson himself weep in his grave when we are through.”
This nearly-necromantic reference makes Lulu tighten her belly and gasp. “You’re so wicked! But you are right – there is no sense fearing progress, and even Daddy can’t disagree with that. Let’s bob my hair! Gertrude and Esther will be furious to miss being the first of us girls!”
“Oh, Lulu, you’ve no idea how proud you make me.” Bernice leads the other girl to a stool, and drapes a tightly-woven linen smock about her friend’s shoulders. “No doubt they’ll come running once they see how glamorous you look.”
“I’m afraid they won’t, Bernice. They are quite vexed with you. They’ve told all the girls you spoiled their last cards party.”
“Have they?! How rude. Well, one must forgive one’s friends, and we shall all soon be reconciled. You must be my agent.”
“I couldn’t! I hope you won’t be too angry, but I don’t want them to shun me as well…”
Bernice just brushes Lulu’s hair for several minutes, appreciating the sheen and sleek texture of the curls, then sets aside her brush and reaches for a gleaming, new set of shears. Soon enough, Lulu is the height of fashion, and her fallen auburn tresses litter the salon floor.
At the tinkling sound of the shop door, Bernice hands a small hand-held mirror to Lulu and turns to see her moustachioed party champion casting a slender, flickering shadow from the neon in her window. “Henry! Please have a seat and keep dear Lulu company while I clean up. I’ll be with you ever so soon.”
She sweeps Lulu’s hair into a dust tray and carries it and the carton of clay into a small storage room in the back of the shop. She carefully pours Lulu’s hair into a canvas pouch marked “Lulu,” one of several similar pouches marked with other names, “Esther” and “Gertrude” prominent among them. She opens the carton and softens a block of clay.
She is a fast worker, but still her task takes time, squeezing and rolling the clay until, when she hears Henry clearing his throat impatiently, she has sculpted a fair likeness of Lulu in her best Deco style. “I’m nearly done, sweet Henry!” she calls. She reaches into Lulu’s pouch, and pinches several auburn curls into the clay doll’s head. She says the words her aunts taught her, and taps the poppet on its tiny arm. When she hears Lulu exclaim “Oh!” she nods with satisfaction and sets her sculpture on a shelf.
As Bernice returns to her friends, Henry says, with admiration in his voice. “Darling, I didn’t know you could speak French.”
“I learned so many useful things from Mama and her sisters,” she says. “Come over and sit on my stool and we’ll have you trimmed and dashing before you know. Lulu, be a dear and bring the Collins girls. They’ll look cunning in bobs, don’t you think?”
Lulu nods, dazed, still rubbing her arm as though she’s been struck. “Yes, of course.”