BY PATTY SOMLO
Copyright is held by the author.
NOBODY’D SEEN Leticia Williams since that unseasonably warm November afternoon when she waved goodbye. Those inch-and-a-half royal blue fingernails rimmed with gold half-moons fluttered one at a time, like they were playing a piano in front of everybody’s eyes. The counselors had organized a party for Leticia with a frosted white sheet cake and pink punch, unspiked. Everyone agreed that Leticia Williams was one of rehab’s uncommon success stories. She looked about as good as any girl could who’d spent as much time on the streets as she had.
Shirley Weeks and Mattie Cole, Leticia’s best friends at times and at others her worst enemies, couldn’t remember how long it had been since they’d seen her. Shirley liked to think that with her big plans and the way she could put outfits together and do hair, Leticia had probably made it all the way to Hollywood. No one, especially Mattie Cole, who relapsed more days than she stayed clean, wanted to believe that Leticia had ended up back on the streets, or worse, had gone to jail or died.
Rain was blowing sideways, wetting the group that had just left the methadone clinic and counselling centre, making them even more bedraggled than usual. They huddled under the too-small shelter, waiting for the bus that was going to be late, of course. Calvin Watts nudged bodies to fit under the shelter, even though there wasn’t enough space.
“Hey, let me in,” Calvin said. “Don’t want to hurt the leather.”
Calvin had on a shiny black jacket that Shirley Weeks thought looked more plastic than real. Nobody moved, forcing Calvin to shove some more.
“Give me some room and I’ll tell you what I know,” Calvin said.
Calvin did this kind of thing a lot. If anybody knew the gossip, it surely was Calvin Watts.
Cecilia Snow, a woman wide enough for two seats on the bus — and a snug fit even then — who talked too loud about her theoretically Native American heritage, gave Calvin a push that got him under the shelter, close to the front.
“Ya’ happy now?” Cecilia asked.
“Yes ma’am, I am. Thank you very much.”
“Okay, Calvin. What you got to say for yourself?” Shirley Weeks asked, on behalf of everyone.
Calvin cleared his throat, loud and dramatic. He also did this kind of thing a lot. Shirley couldn’t help but have a soft spot for Calvin, good-looking and sweet as he sometimes was. In fact, Calvin was exactly the sort of black man for which Shirley Weeks always had a soft spot.
After clearing his throat a second time, Calvin lifted his arms, like he was getting ready to lead a band, rather than tell a story. Shirley was used to it, since Calvin told stories a lot, especially when he had an excuse to make. If Calvin owed Shirley money, which he did most of the time, he would launch into a tale about what you wouldn’t believe had happened to him and why he couldn’t pay back that seventeen dollars. Shirley liked Calvin’s stories. Even when she was mad at him, Shirley could be heard saying, “Calvin is somethin’ else. That man know how to tell a story.”
“Now I’m walkin’ down Martin Luther K. Avenue,” Calvin began.
As usual, he didn’t go on right away, but paused, to make people lean in to hear what else he was going to tell them. Rain splattered against the three sides and the roof of the bus shelter, the drops banging like gunfire.
“You probably wanta’ know what I’m doin’ there on MLK and so I’ll tell you.”
Calvin stopped talking and adjusted the sleeves of his leather coat, making sure each of his wrists were covered.
“I’m on MLK to talk to a man about a job. Ya’ see, the city been redeveloping MLK with businesses supposed to benefit the community.”
When he pronounced the words “redeveloping” and “community,” Calvin stretched out each of the syllables, making them sing.
“You wadn’t there for a job, Calvin.”
Willie Washington spit those words out the side of his mouth, along with several puffs of smoke. Everybody knew Willie was jealous of Calvin because Calvin got the women Willie wanted. Willie had the sort of face that even before it’d been busted up from fighting hadn’t been that nice to look at. Plus, Willie didn’t get along with anybody, so his face was always getting busted up.
“Hey, let Calvin tell the story, Willie,” Cecilia said.
“I’m just sayin’ is all,” Willie said back, a bite already forming around his words.
“As I was tryin’ to say,” Calvin butted in. “I was on MLK to see about a job. My counselor, Mary, she told me about it.”
“Now what kinda job you do besides hustlin’?” Willie asked Calvin now.
“Used to be a short-order cook, so that’s what I was seein’ a man about on MLK. They’s opening all these new businesses there, givin’ loans and such, to help the black community.”
“You get the job, Calvin?” Shirley asked.
“Matter of fact, I did,” Calvin answered her, and then pulled the sleeves of his black leather-look jacket over each of his wrists again.
“Is that the story?” Cecilia asked.
“No that ain’t. But everybody keep interruptin’ me, so I can’t tell it.”
“Go on, Calvin,” Shirley said. “No interruptin’ now. Ya’ hear?”
“Okay, okay. So I sees this man about a job and I’m feelin’ pretty good. I’m walkin’ down MLK to the bus stop but then, ’cause I’m feelin’ good and wantin’ to see what else is happening there on Martin Luther K., I just keep walkin’. I go past my stop and see that there’s all these nice shiny buildings, big tall ones, painted nice colours like green and blue and tan. I’m lookin’ in the windows to see what other businesses there are, when all of a sudden I can’t believe what I’m seein’.”
Calvin paused for dramatic effect now and also because Mattie Cole said she saw the bus coming.
The day Calvin Watts had gone to see a man about a job the sun came out. It’s important to know that as unusual as a man like Calvin Watts going to see a man about a job might be, the sun coming out in the cloud-covered, rain-drenched city of Portland, Oregon, was even more surprising, especially since the calendar had not yet been turned to the month of July. Anyone who’d lived in Portland any length of time knew the sun didn’t show up much before the Fourth of July. So it was easy for everyone to feel especially bright when they woke that morning and saw blue sky.
As anyone who’d ever known Leticia Williams understood, Leticia was a woman who tried to take every bit of brightness and shine it on her life. That morning when Leticia opened her eyes and saw the sun making wavy patterns of light across the purple bedspread as it filtered through the half-broken Venetian blind, she determined that this was going to be a special day blessed by God. It’s critical to note that Leticia Williams had developed a highly unusual connection to God. As everyone in the program had heard, since nobody gossiped more than recovering drunks and junkies, the morning of her graduation from rehab, Leticia saw a man who resembled Jesus. He had long brown hair and blue eyes, and was wearing a clean white robe. As the story went, Leticia saw this man who looked exactly like Jesus reflected in the mirror, when she was putting the final touches on her makeup. To make sure this wasn’t one of the crazy hallucinations she’d been known to have but a true vision, Leticia turned around. That’s when she found herself unexpectedly and breathlessly shaking Jesus’ hand.
Ever since, Leticia had taken it upon herself to spread God’s word around to anyone who cared to listen. Some folks in the program had heard this story before, minus, of course, the appearance of Jesus himself and that splendid handshake. Willie Washington for one had met enough born-agains and Muslim brothers praising Allah in jail and in counseling groups and recovery programs to last him the rest of his life.
“Everybody think they got the answer and now they been saved,” Willie sometimes said, muttering the words to himself, in response to someone’s preaching. “They’s saved until the next temptation. Then, where’s that Jesus or Allah when they be shootin’ up again?”
Now, Leticia Williams would be the first to agree with Willie Washington that the devil had tempted her, even after she’d shaken hands with Jesus. But as time went on, the memory of that handshake kept assuring Leticia there might be another way to soothe the raw ache in her belly crying out for a drink and then another and another one after that, when some little thing didn’t go right and a world of sorrow threatened to come crashing down. After a couple of relapses and with that memory’s help, Leticia started to take charge.
Instead of running to the corner store and buying a bottle of booze the minute some man broke her heart, as nearly every man managed to do, Leticia sat herself down in the little apartment she’d gotten, thanks to the government, and lit some candles. Leticia had candles of all sizes and colors, mostly in glass, some that were scented. By the time she was done lighting candles and blowing out matches, the apartment smelled like a bouquet of carnations and long-stemmed roses.
That’s when Leticia sat down and quieted her mind. She started breathing in and out, as she’d been taught to do in some anger management class a long time ago. The breath coming in through her nose smelled so sweet and flowery, Leticia couldn’t help but imagine herself in a beautiful garden. With her mind’s eye, she watched the breath travel down into her lungs and enter her belly, where it swirled around, easing the old raw hurts before dropping to her legs. The breath eventually made its way down to her bare feet and toes, at which point she brought it back up through her legs again.
About now, Leticia would call up the vision of Jesus smiling as he shook her hand and those clear blue eyes looking at her with such kindness. At that moment, she would ask Jesus for a favour.
For the longest time, all she ever asked him was to keep her from drinking again. Pretty soon, though, she was able to do that work on her own. Now she started asking Jesus for more.
All that breathing and the sweet scent of candles burning and time spent with Jesus had brought Leticia to this bright sunny day. Among the requests Leticia had made was for Jesus to bring her a beauty parlour.
Sure enough, one day after church, the minister held a meeting to let the congregation know about a program to promote small, black-owned businesses as part of the redevelopment of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Leticia went to that meeting and to all the meetings that followed, aimed at success for the new business owners on MLK. She learned that every enterprise, if it was to thrive, needed to make itself stand out. It’s no surprise that Leticia turned to her candles and breath and sweet Jesus to make her little beauty parlor a success. When the idea arose, as the candles burned all around the room, she said, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
That’s when the name HAIRWAY TO HEAVEN came to her, right out of the air. Everything that went with the name followed soon after.
Calvin Watts was not a churchgoing man. Yet even a man who didn’t see much point in listening to preaching and trying to be good so one day he might end up in heaven couldn’t resist a good gospel tune. The sound of gospel music floating out an open door caused Calvin to look to his right as he headed up Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. After he read the sign, HAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, he had to smile. But when he saw what the sign above the storefront window said below that in smaller letters, Calvin Watts couldn’t keep from grinning ear to ear, as he shook his head back and forth.
“ ‘Heavenly Hairdos by Leticia Williams,’” he read out loud, still smiling. And below that it said, “Praise House. Service at 10:00 every Sunday.”
Of course, he knew Leticia Williams. In fact, Calvin Watts knew Leticia Williams in the biblical sense, as the two had carried on a relationship for years that was on again but mostly off.
Calvin eased himself into the open door, hoping to take a gander at the interior before he was spotted. He took two steps sideways, but then had to stop and let his eyes adjust from the bright unfamiliar sunlight outside. The music stirred something in him, maybe from his younger days when he played tenor sax and dreamed of becoming a famous jazz musician. Or the sound may have touched on a memory of his mama dressing him up and dragging him to church on Sunday morning, when he lived with his mama, two brothers and sister in that crowded Detroit apartment. For just that moment, he remembered the hot sticky summer nights on the stoop out front and all kinds of music dancing through the air, coming from the open windows. And he felt a keen ache in his belly for the boy he’d been before he started messing around with drugs.
Finally, Calvin could see inside the place, which looked, well, like something he’d never quite seen before. It was a beauty parlor, Calvin felt sure of that, with sparkly pink vinyl chairs trimmed in black and matching black countertops, pink sinks and hot pink hair dryers. Photographs of black women covered the pale pink walls, their hair piled up or plaited tight around their heads.
But at the end of the room Calvin spotted two rows of wooden chairs. In front of the chairs, on a raised platform, stood a pulpit. And behind the pulpit was an almost life-size, full-colour picture of Jesus Christ.
“That Calvin Watts?” he heard a voice out of the darkness ask.
Calvin took a moment to adjust the sleeves of his leather-look jacket before raising his eyes.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, as he looked up. There, standing before Calvin Watts, was none other than Leticia Williams.
Calvin continued the story he had started in the pouring, blowing rain at the bus stop after the Number Seventeen arrived and everyone took what seemed like an awfully long time to board. Calvin claimed a seat on the aisle, three rows from the back, and everyone who’d been listening slid into seats close by him. Everyone, that is, except Cecilia Snow. Cecilia was too wide to fit into a regular seat, so she sat in one of the three-seat rows behind the driver.
She’d wanted to hear the rest of the story and made Calvin promise to talk loud, after he refused to sit way up in the front. She kept yelling back to him to talk louder and he finally yelled back, “Hold on, Cecilia. I’ll tell ya’ the whole story when we get off.”
“So I says, ‘Hello, Leticia,’ ” Calvin went on. “I look her up and down. She’s dressed all in white, like them ladies that sat in the front row when I went to church with my mama. She had her hair braided all around her head. She not skinny no more, like she was.
“ ‘This your place?’ I ask her, knowing that it was.”
“ ‘This my place, Calvin. Praise the Lord,’ Leticia says.”
At this point in the story, Calvin forgot about the folks leaning in around him to hear about Leticia Williams. He went right on talking, though he wasn’t aware that he did. See, telling the story, and maybe the experience of being around Leticia and in that church of beautiful hair, well, it all somehow took control of his spirit.
“This is nice, Tish,” Calvin said, calling Leticia by the nickname he’d used in their more intimate days.
“You like it?” she asked. Calvin had a pretty good idea she knew he did.
The music was pumping out of two tall black speakers Calvin spotted next to the pulpit. A throbbing beat and the refrain a chorus of voices was calling out traveled through Calvin’s body. When the chorus sang, “Lift me up,” and then repeated those same three words, this time louder, and then another time, louder and faster, Calvin felt his spirit being raised higher, rising almost to the ceiling.
“Looks like you found your calling, Ms. Tish. Well, I suppose nobody’d be surprised.”
Leticia smiled at Calvin, then laid her long slender fingers on his shoulder. The overhead light reflecting off her nails caused them to sparkle.
“So, how you doin’, Calvin? Stayin’ clean?”
Calvin felt the weight of those fingers through his skin as the music pulsed around and through him. He wanted to be somebody better than he’d been in the past for Leticia. He knew that, even before he found his voice and managed to speak again.
“I been clean,” he said. “Come down here to MLK to see a man about a job.”
“That’s good, Calvin. Praise Jesus for that.”
Well, normally Calvin was not a man who would ever consider praising Jesus or engaging in any of that religious mumbo jumbo, like his mama was known for. He thought all that praisin’ Jesus was just a way to keep black folks down, makin’ them believe that bein’ poor and gettin’ shot at and arrested and locked up and all that was their own fault for not gettin’ down enough with God. And Calvin wasn’t sure why this was happening, except later he might have given some credit to that pulsating music and the sun being out and how good Leticia Williams looked and that he’d just gotten a job. But he felt so right, almost like when he was high, and he told Leticia that now.
“Praise the Lord,” Leticia responded.
Leticia took Calvin by the hand and led him over to one of the shiny pink vinyl chairs in front of the black counter.
“Let’s get you a nice haircut to start your new job,” Leticia said, pushing Calvin down onto the pink seat cushion and throwing a black smock over his leather-look jacket. “God like a man who cleans himself up.”
Calvin let himself float above the shop, which in his mind had become a temple. When Leticia was done, Calvin lingered for a long time at the door.
“Now you come back and see me,” Leticia scolded. “Sunday morning, I do me some preachin’.”
“I will,” Calvin said, surprising himself as he stepped out the door, because he thought there was a good chance he really would show up.