On a warm Saturday morning in 1964, a hair salon sits nestled between a hardware store and a popular fireworks stand on an unnamed street. Outwardly peaceful, inside the tiled floors mark the lines of battle, and by days end there will be ashes.
The salon is opened hours earlier than usual, by a young man who would just as soon not be up so early. This man makes his living by sweeping cut hair between chair stations and providing the salon’s gum machines and radio with technical support. He pays special attention to the cleanliness of two chair stations deliberately positioned on opposite sides of the small salon; these are the work stations of the two most popular stylists and notorious hair rivals in town, referred to here as E.M. and S.P. The man wonders which will be out of a job by the end of the week; the salon owner has promised to take on the victor of tonight’s’ battle as salon co-owner.
E.M. and S.P. enter the salon as if conjured by the man’s thoughts. E.M. worships at the fashion altars of Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman, specifically between 1942-1949, and is morally incapable of creating a hairstyle antonymous to that time. She draws a significant following from the town’s population of mothers, a fact most apparent on afternoons when nearly each one wants her hair curled for the evenings’ PTA meeting. S.P., meanwhile, worships the fashion of the moment. S.P.’s current obsession is Jackie Kennedy’s “mourning period” look, and all things Sophie Loren. Her following came from the town’s teenage girls, and she preps her station today with steely confidence; tonight is prom for the graduating class of ‘64, and S.P. was taking walk-ins. But it was anyone’s game, because so was E.M. and she had never been let down before by the Mothers Chaperones for Ladies high school Committee.
Clients pass through the salon styling chairs, daughters sticking to one side and mothers to the other. Like their stylists, the generation gaps do their best to ignore each other. There is excited chatter and giggling, hair flies amidst the sharp crack of turning magazine pages, and all the while E.M. and S.P. tally the others successes and failures. So intense is their focus, that no one notices the group of small boys playing with firecrackers just outside the door. A sparkler ignites on a trail of hair, and in an instant almost all the hair in salon, including on women’s heads, is fizzled to a crisp.
After the fire department leaves, the salon is closed. During that time, both E.M. and S.P. move out of town, and the man who opened the salon that fateful morning wonders just who would have won the battle if not for the firecracker.
Accompanied by ‘Can’t buy me Love’ instrumental, performed by The Beatles
Maybe their big sisters were inside and had them sore. Though I’ve never known a 12 year old boy who needed a reason to set big sis’s hair on fire. Or maybe it was one of those cries for attention like you read about in newspapers; the psychologist explains that the bank robber had a neglected childhood, and that’s why he did it. There were plenty of mothers’ inside the salon when it happened, one might have been neglecting and getting her up-do at the same time. I suppose it’s possible. Or maybe that’s just the risk you run when you have a hair salon right next to a firework stand, and the boys’ mischief was purely accidental. All speculation, of course…but when a scene like that unfolds before you, it gives you pause and makes you think, it makes you wonder how in hell so awesome and awful a thing came to happen.
First was the smell. No, first was the pop, then came the smell, I went over it with the Fire Chief a dozen times. ‘Can’t buy me love’ was playing on (S.P.’s) radio and those girls were tapping their feet and giggling, and Perry Como was singing something from the radio on (E.M.’s) side, so you could barely hear the first sparkler go off. And honestly, I wasn’t watching the door, I was watching the mirrors. (E.M.) and (S.P.) were shooting daggers at each other with their eyes in those mirrors! But after the smell hit, everything happened in seconds.
I blame the hairspray, that stuff lights worse than petrol. Girls started screaming and hitting their heads with magazines, and of course that only made it worse. By the time the last of them runs out the door, the first of the husbands and daddies and boyfriends are running in yelling and screaming. Then the fire department comes. Only ones who never left the shop were (E.M.) and (S.P.). I was running out past them, but they’re just standing there, still facing the mirrors on their separate sides of the salon, still staring at each other. You know, I think their eyebrows sizzled off and they didn’t even notice!