She gazes out from the stage relieved this will be her final performance. Everything in front of her slows; it’s as if she’s a bystander in a Renoir painting, both present and absent, the people at their tables rendered so well they seem to be in motion. The faces in this crowd are not all that different from what she remembers back in her day, except they are far more diverse. As much as things may change, they remain the same: the clinking glasses, the background chatter, the young couples so obviously in love. She turns and smiles at Leroy and Buzz, who have dressed in professional black attire for tonight’s performance. She wants to do right by them, realizing they have no idea this is the last time they will perform together. She spots Richard through the darkness seated at the far end of the bar. He smiles, mirroring her resigned acceptance, aware that what they shared this week came at a price not yet knowable.
Charles Schmidt is going over program notes with the sound engineer, his recording equipment set up in the middle of the club. Wade Ferguson steps onto the stage and squeezes Peggy’s hand, grateful his club is receiving national exposure. She takes her seat behind the Steinway and adjusts the long red gown to free her pedal foot. Schmidt holds up his right hand, counting down slowly from five to one, lowering his arm signaling for Wade to make the introduction. He taps the mic: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Wade’s in Clarksdale, Mississippi, birthplace of the Delta blues. Tonight’s performance is being recorded, so I ask that you please remain quiet, withholding any applause for the end of each song. And now, it is my special privilege to present the Peggy Winston Trio.”
Mabel splashes water from the faucet onto a face she does not recognize. The reflection in the mirror is at odds with how she sees herself, her once-freckled caramel skin now an ink blotter of dark stains. The bags beneath her eyes extend down to her cheeks in an apparent hostile takeover. She sees her great-granddaughter standing behind her, reflected in the mirror, her expression combining curiosity and sadness.
“Good morning, Grammy May,” Priscilla has just arrived with her father.
“Hi, honey. Will you just look at this hot mess?” Mabel tugs at her Afro as if pulling shrubs from the garden. “My hair looks like the ventricles of a heart, these two bushy sections split right down the middle. I look like a sheep dog.”
Priscilla hugs her. “Why don’t you get it cut?”
“What’s the point? It’s not like anyone is actually looking at me anymore,” she groans.
“Mommy kept hair products in her bedroom. Let me get them and see what we can do.” She races off and returns with a wooden hair pick and a bright orange bottle of Cream of Nature hair conditioner and detangler. Seeing her granddaughter Michelle’s conditioner causes Mabel to tear up. “Oh, dear,” she utters to no one in particular.
“Grammy May, come sit on the chair and I’ll see what we can do with this,” Priscilla looks cute in her yellow sundress, hair braided with the bright beads Michelle gave her for Christmas. Mabel sits and Priscilla begins twisting small sections of hair into manageable handfuls. She rubs cream into each handful, starting at the ends and working her way toward the scalp, using the hair pick to detangle.
“That feels so good, dear.”
“Your hair is completely dried out,” she massages more cream into the ends of each bunch.
“Did your mother teach you how to do this?”
“She did,” Priscilla works with characteristic earnestness.
They remain silent for several minutes as Priscilla finishes pulling Mabel’s hair into large braids, adding more cream to the dried ends. She takes one braid at a time and combs it out, until she is able to sculpt her great-grandmother’s hair into a more uniform Afro.
John Anderson wanders in looking for his daughter. “Wow, look at you two.”
Priscilla stands back, proud. “Much better, right Grammy May?”
“Yes, although I look like some old sixties radical, which at my age is probably not such a great idea.”
“Maybe we can get your hair cut this week while I’m visiting.”
John looks concerned. “I don’t want you two driving much while I’m at the conference. Just to the diner and church, please.”
They understand why he feels this way. His wife Michelle—Priscilla’s mother and Mabel’s granddaughter—was killed three months ago when a tractor trailer swerved in front of her as she drove to the supermarket. John and Michelle were hosting Ole Miss faculty friends for a cookout at their home. John, a sociology professor, is suffering from survivor’s guilt, feeling he should have been the one driving to Kroger for more hamburger buns, not his wife.
Mabel once again utters: “Oh, dear.”
The three of them head into the living room. Grammy May’s modern home is tucked into a steep incline overlooking Sardis Lake, about an hour north of Oxford, Mississippi. She had the house built in 1968 as a reward for her stressful life as a touring musician. Louis Kahn designed the two-story home, which features floor-to-ceiling windows fronting the lake, and many surprising alcoves where one can escape to read. When Priscilla was two years old, she crowned her great-grandmother with the humorous name Grammy May. Priscilla would stand for hours gazing at the Grammy Awards lining the shelves behind the Steinway piano. The name stuck and now everyone calls her Grammy May.