Ben Willets

Sampson and Her Bouffant Hairdo

On Monday morning, the head lunch lady told Mabel Sampson she was being put on register duty, permanently.  She set her down on a pallet of baked beans and reassured her they were only switching things up to give her a break, since she wasn't getting any younger and her bursitis had been acting up lately.  But the truth was none of the other girls in the kitchen could stand her.  You see, Mabel loved to give advice, especially when no one had asked for it.  Everyone who knew her agreed it wasn't even very good advice—often amounting to little more than a poorly-guised insult—and from time to time someone got fed up enough to tell her as much, but Mabel remained undeterred.  She knew with absolute certainty that she had a gift, so she wore on the other ladies' nerves, doling out her own brand of homespun wisdom to anyone in earshot, issuing dire warnings of the fate that would befall them if they failed to heed her words like some gypsy crone from a B-horror movie.

Now, Mabel was no gypsy, but you'd never know it to look at her: her hair was as wild and black as a sinner's soul, and it had a natural curl.  It was her pride and joy—the only thing she loved more than giving advice—and she teased it every morning into a big bouffant, draping a bath towel over the mirror sometimes to test her skill.  But even with a blindfold on, Mabel could work a pair of picks and a can of Aquanet like a chef at Benihana, and by seven a. m. not one hair would be out of place.  It was instinct really, a bird weaving its nest, the hiss and click of her tools drowning out the sound of the morning radio, the dark mass of tangles billowing out beneath her fingers like smoke boiling from an oven, until at last she emerged through the door to her boudoir like a thunderhead swept down out of a mountain pass. 

Mabel's big hair was indeed her finest feature, but removed from the safety of the lunch line, it also made her an irresistible target.  That same Monday morning around nine o'clock, a group of football players stumbled in, hung over from a Sigma Nu party the night before.  They took a table beside the register, chewing noisily in the way of docile beasts, but as the fog lifted from their brains they immediately recognized Mabel—the lady with the hair—the one who refused to give bigger portions to athletes and forced them to wait in line again if they wanted seconds.  For a time, the boys sat picking at their hashbrowns, the cogs of mischief slowly grinding in their heads, until one of them reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of gum. 

Moments later, Mabel felt a distant impact, then half a dozen more—a spider detecting vibrations in her web.  Her hands reacted before her brain, and unwittingly she committed the cardinal sin of hair emergencies:  she reached back and pulled.


By the time Mabel had finished cutting out the last strands of gum, the mighty black storm front of her hair was little more than a rain cloud, and she fell into a deep depression.  For the rest of the week she called in sick, sleeping all day and crying all night, watching TV movies and eating cherry pie filling straight out of the can.  She’d always spent her weekends calling her kids to tell them how to live their lives, but so grief-stricken was she by the loss of her hair that by Saturday she was too weak to even pick up the phone.  Then Sunday morning rolled around, and Mabel changed the channel to find that grand old Televangelist, the Reverend Ernest Angely staring back at her with his pearly white dentures and his bad toupee.  The sight of him struck her like a holy explosion, nearly blasting her from her armchair, and suddenly, she knew exactly what she had to do.

Two days later, Mabel returned to work, but she was Mabel no longer.  As she strolled through the kitchen, the other ladies in the kitchen couldn't help but avert their eyes, risking only a passing glimpse at the radiant mystery reflected in the tile floor.  When Mabel took her seat behind the register, the students crowding at the door fell silent.  A minute passed before anyone dared to speak.  "Man alive!" one of them finally whispered, and at the sound, a boy near the back of the line let out a strangled gasp and dropped to the floor, shaking uncontrollably and wailing in tongues, struck down by the revelation of Mabel's glory, for atop the pale globe of her head sat a crown of crimson hair, a bright red whirling dervish of a wig, bathing everyone around her in it's hue like a pillar of flame.

"Can I help you?" Mabel asked the boy at the head of the line.  For a moment, he hesitated, stiff with terror at the sight of her beehive hairdo sparkling in the light like a ruby viper, coiled and ready to strike him dead if he lied.  He nodded cautiously and handed her his student ID; Mabel squinted at the photo, then smiled and said, "Five dollars please."