Making Waves


By Cassandra King

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The first novel by the author of acclaimed national bestseller The Sunday Wife, now reissued in paperback. In a small Alabama town in Zion County, life is finally looking up for 20-year-old Donnette Sullivan. Having just inherited her aunt’s old house and beauty shop, she’s taken over the business. Her husband, Tim, recently crippled in an accident, is beginning to cope not only with his disability but also with the loss of his dreams. Once a promising artist who gave up art for sports, Tim paints a sign for Donnette’s new shop, Making Waves, that causes ripples throughout the small southern community. In a sequence of events — sometimes funny, sometimes tragic — the lives of Donnette, Tim, and others in their small circle of family and friends are unavoidably affected. Once the waves of change surge through Zion County, the lives of its people are forever altered.


In a small Alabama town, life is finally looking up for twenty-year-old Donnette Sullivan. She's just inherited her aunt's house and beauty shop, and her recently crippled husband is beginning to cope with the loss of his dreams. Yet the opening of the shop leads to a surprising sequence of events in this story about love, friendship, betrayal, unfulfilled desires and heartbreaking losses.


I was right in the middle of washing off the rollers from Melissa Mullenix's permanent, getting ready to close up for the day, when Mr. Cleve Floyd called me. Before I could answer the phone, I had to take the neutralizer-soaked end papers off the rods then turn the sprayer on real hard to get that slick chemical solution off; otherwise they'd stink to high heaven. Plastic rollers absorb ammonia worse than anything.

Melissa's perm sure turned out pretty, though. At first I thought that might be her mama calling to tell me how much she liked it. For some reason Melissa was afraid her mama'd think it was too frizzy, which she says looks cheap. So when I finally answered the phone, I was surprised as all get-out to hear Mr. Cleve Floyd on the other end.

Mr. Cleve was not one to beat around the bush, so he got right to the point. He wanted me to come over to the funeral home and fix Miss Maudie's hair.

Normally I'm real polite, but I didn't beat around the bush either. I told him no-thank-you flat out.

"Mr. Cleve, I appreciate you thinking of me, I really do. And I loved Miss Maudie. But there's no way I can do that—no way at all," I said to him.

"The pay's good, Donnette." Mr. Cleve cleared his throat, coughing. "Hairstyling's included in our total package, so we make it worth your while to leave your shop unattended."

"You couldn't pay me enough, believe me. I can't do it, Mr. Cleve. I'm sorry," I told him, and I meant it.

Daddy always said there wasn't a Floyd in Zion County that wouldn't argue with a signpost. Way Daddy told it, every time he and Mr. Verdo Floyd came back from selling hogs in Tuscaloosa and crossed the Zion County line, Mr. Verdo'd start in, fussing: "Sign says twelve miles to Clarksville. Damn fools—ain't no such thing!" Since Mr. Cleve was a Floyd through and through, I was in for an argument.

"Now see here, young lady," he said. I could picture him with his sad funeral-parlor face, cigarette hanging from his mouth, looking real mournful, like he ought to in his business, I reckon.

"You took over that shop from Essie, you got to do her customers, girl," he continued, coughing gruffly. "Essie'd turn over in her grave you refusing to do poor old Maudie—"

"But, Mr. Cleve," I interrupted. I was raised better than to be rude, but I couldn't help myself. "I swear I can't do it! I ain't never touched a dead person before—I can't stand the thought. Miss Maudie was my third-grade teacher, Mr. Cleve." My voice was getting shrill.

Mr. Cleve sighed. "Wait just a minute, honey. Hang on, you hear?" His gravelly voice sank even lower. Deep as a grave, Daddy used to say.

I knew why he wanted me to hang on, knew for sure he was fixing to call his wife to the phone. Whatever he couldn't handle, folks said, he turned over to his wife. Since she was a Clark, people listened.

It was my turn to sigh as I held on to the phone, looking around my empty shop helplessly. Mary Frances Floyd was Aunt Essie's best customer, and with her influence in this town, she could make or break me. I knew I was beat. If Mary Frances Clark Floyd started driving to Columbus to get her hair done, then so would all the other old biddies in town, since the Clarks set the standards in Zion. I was beat, all right. I had to do it, no matter.

"Donnette, honey?" Mary Frances Floyd came on the phone. "How you doing, sweetheart?" She was one of those women with a voice thick and sweet as cane syrup.

"Well, I'm doing fine, but what I'm trying to tell Mr. Cleve is—" My voice cracked like I was fixing to cry.

"Now, sugar pie, you listen to me, you hear?"

Miss Mary Frances got even sweeter, practically purring. Actually, she was a pretty nice lady even if they did have all that money and the only funeral home in Zion County. Plus she had so much hair. She got a permanent every two months because it was so fine and there was so much of it. Her twin sister was the same way. Aunt Essie used to tell me that Mary Frances Floyd and Frances Martha Clark had enough hair between the two of them to keep her in business.

"Listen here, Donnette, I know you're scared to do your first one. I remember plain as yesterday that Essie vomited after her first one, Miss Lottie Abrams."

Well, thanks a lot, Miss Mary Frances, I thought. That's just real encouraging!

"But if you'll come on out here right now, I tell you what," she said, lowering her voice, "I'll help you. Cleve's fixing to go home for supper, so it'll be just me and you here. And Miss Maudie, of course."

"But—I never touched a dead person—I can't do it, Miss Mary Frances!"

"Well, Donnette, honey, you got to get over that. In your business, they're your customers, live or dead. Essie had a rough time, too, but she got to where she didn't mind. She said they were the only customers she had who didn't complain." She chuckled.

But when I sighed again, Miss Mary Frances got aggravated. Like all Clarks, she was used to having things her way.

"Well. Reckon we'll send to Columbus for somebody, then."

I closed my eyes. "No, ma'am, Miss Mary Frances. Don't do that. I'll come."

"Good girl! Come on now, bring your stuff, and come to the back door, okay?"

She hung up before I could say another word. I hugged the phone to me, my heart fluttering like the wings of a hummingbird. Oh, Lord, what had I got myself into? Why didn't they tell us at the beauty college we'd have things like this when we got out in the real world, got our own shop? If I had someone working for me, I could send them. But no, it was only me, and I had no choice if I was going to keep Aunt Essie's customers. Truth was I couldn't afford to lose even one customer, let alone all the blue-haired ladies in Clarksville.

I went over to the sink and finished washing the rollers, laying them out on a towel to dry. When that was done, I picked up a roller bag and began to stuff things in I'd need for Miss Maudie's hair. Setting lotion, blow-dryer, hairspray, lots of clips.

I couldn't help but smile, though. Miss Maudie, bless her sweet old heart, never had a curling iron or blow-dryer touch her head, not with her old-timey hairdo. I'd never fixed it myself, but many was the time I'd watched Aunt Essie do it. She'd part Miss Maudie's thick white hair in the middle, then take her fingers and mold it into big, deep waves. Each wave had to be painstakingly clipped in place with curved metal clips, which they don't make anymore, the kind with jagged teeth. Fortunately I inherited Aunt Essie's collection.

Then Miss Maudie'd get under the dryer so the waves could set, and Aunt Essie'd polish her tiny little fingernails, always a natural rosy-pink. Shell Pink, I remembered, and added a bottle to the roller bag. I figured they hadn't been doing Miss Maudie's fingernails at that nursing home in Tuscaloosa. She ought to have them done for the laying out, she had such pretty little hands. Usually they're crossed at the waist, with a Bible or something in them. It would be a shame for people to file by Miss Maudie's coffin and notice she needed a manicure.

I decided I'd better find Tim and tell him where I was going. I knew he was home, because when I was finishing Melissa's permanent I heard his pickup pull up in the driveway. Melissa heard it too, and she about broke her neck trying to catch a glimpse of him, till I yanked her back in the chair. It was funny that Tim still had that effect on the girls around here.

I locked the shop door, though no one in Clarksville locked doors. But I had fifty dollars in the money box because I not only did Melissa's perm, I'd also cut and styled Ellis's hair as well as doing two shampoos and sets. Not bad with me just opening up. I was pleased with the way everyone turned out, too, especially Ellis. She was going to a reception at the country club in Mt. Zion and wanted to make a good impression. As if she had to worry about that now that she was a Clark, since they own everything and everyone in Zion County.

Miss Mary Frances was a Clark before she married Mr. Cleve. Her brother Mr. Harris Clark set them up in the funeral home business when Joe Ray Johnson died and left it. One thing you could say for them Clarks, rich as they are, Mr. Harris made them all work at something. Well, all except Sonny. Daddy used to say Sonny Clark wasn't worth the bullet it'd take to shoot him. But I'm not so sure about that myself. I know one thing he's good for.

I left the shop and crossed the big front porch, going to the kitchen in back. Me and Tim sure were lucky to get Aunt Essie's house when we got the shop, even luckier to get out of our little trailer. We'd just bought the shop from Aunt Essie when she up and died and left the house to me. It like to have killed my cousin Joleen, the selfish pig, but I for one didn't care a bit. Everybody in town swore Joleen'd get some big-shot lawyer and contest the will, but she never did. She's too lazy, and ever since she left Dinky and ran off with Clerment Windham, she has got all the money she can spend. At least she and Clerment moved to Huntsville and I don't have to see her again, thank the Lord. Everyone knows Joleen can't stand the house anyway, so why'd she want it, except to keep me from getting it? She couldn't sell it—nobody moves in to Clarksville; they move out instead. No, Joleen was just jealous of me and Aunt Essie, always had been. Personally I think Dinky's better off and she and snooty old Clerment Windham deserve each other.

I'd most likely find Tim in the kitchen. Soon as he gets off work, he either wants to eat or screw.

"Tim, honey, where are you?" I called out as I entered the kitchen from the back door.

Sure enough, there sat Tim at the table, eating a piece of the lemon icebox pie I bought at Piggly Wiggly, eating it right out of the box it came in. If Tim wasn't so gorgeous, his lack of manners would be more noticeable. But he can't help it, considering the way he was raised—it was a wonder he even knew how to use a fork. The Sullivan boys had to raise themselves out there in the sticks, with no woman around, mother or grandma or anything. Just Old Man Sullivan, who was so bad to drink he finally drank himself to death. Poor Tim, it was a miracle he turned out so good. All the Sullivan boys have, really.

"You're going to ruin your supper, honey," I said to him, sounding ill as a hornet. I was still tense from my conversation with the Floyds, still dreading going to the funeral home. I especially didn't want to go once I'd seen Tim sitting there in his jeans, shirt off, wolfing down that pie. He has the most gorgeous body, in spite of the scars and the lame arm—lean and tanned and muscular. Sometimes I just can't keep my hands off of him, even after two years of marriage.

Tim looked up in surprise at my ill-sounding voice. "Where you fixing to go?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. I was still standing just inside the door, with the roller bag in one hand and my purse in the other.

"I got to go to the funeral home." I didn't know why, but suddenly I didn't want to tell Tim what I had to do.

"You going right now? It's almost supper time." 'Course he'd be worried about his supper.

"I'll be back in plenty of time. Thought I'd fry that fish you caught Sunday."

Tim stuffed a piece of pie in his mouth and talked with his mouth full. "I'm gonna go to the field in a little while and watch football practice."

"Again?" was all I could say. My stomach sank, though. Oh, Lord, not again!

"Coach asked me to. He's starting Tommy at quarterback against County High."

Tim pushed back the hair that was always falling across his forehead, white-blond hair a girl would kill for. You can't duplicate that color with Clairol. I had to turn my back to keep from going to him, going and putting my hands into that soft sweet hair of his. Lord, Lord—after two years!

"What you going to the funeral home for?" Tim asked, reaching into the box for another piece of pie.

Since I never lie to him, I just said, "Miss Maudie died."

"Oh, yeah—I heard that. She was a sweet old thing, wasn't she? She always liked me a lot for some reason."

I nodded, smiling. "She was especially nice to us after the accident. She called me not too long ago from the nursing home, just to see how you were doing." We both fell silent a minute, remembering, then I reached for the door.

"Well, I got to go on." I called back to him as I went out the door and down the back steps, "Why don't you go ahead and clean the fish, get them all ready before you leave?"

I got quickly into my car and cranked it up. It was hot as hell, suffocating hot, even though I parked under a shade tree. I swear I hate summer worse than anything! I can't wait for fall and cooler weather, though half the time in west Alabama it's November before it comes. I pulled the car out onto the Columbus Highway and the air-conditioning kicked in, making me feel a little better.

Zion Funeral Home is only three miles out from town, on the four-lane highway to Columbus, Mississippi. It stands alone in a grassy field, nothing else around. Across the highway Robby Burkhalter's turned an old Shell station into a tacky video rental store, but other than that, the funeral home looks kind of funny all by itself with only a few scraggly pine trees nearby.

It's not a pretty building: flat-roofed and red brick, with white columns and a gravel driveway in front, big floodlights on the funeral home sign, even in the daytime. It has never been named anything nice and comforting either, like Heavenly Rest or Beyond the Sunset. Just plain old Zion Funeral Home.

I like the funeral home in Columbus—a big old house that use to be an antebellum mansion. When I was at the technical college in Columbus, taking my beauty course, my instructor's husband died and we all went to the funeral home to pay our respects. Lord, was it something! The house itself looked like Miss Melanie's in Gone With the Wind. They had a little bitty brass sign out front, otherwise you'd never have known it was a funeral home at all. Inside you couldn't tell it, either. There were real flowers, not silk, in big oriental-looking vases in the foyer, and everything was decorated in shades of rose and dark green.

Best of all were the rooms they put folks in for the laying out. They were real personal-like, with nice furnishings and antiques. Even the Kleenex boxes were in fancy cross-stitched holders. It made you think you were there for a friendly visit instead of in a set-up room with a coffin in the middle. I sure liked it better than Zion Funeral Home. Made a body not mind being laid out in a setting like that.

I pulled the car into the driveway and started to circle the building, going around back like Miss Mary Frances told me to. Next to the funeral home was a brand-new graveyard, but only about ten people were buried there. It's mainly for drifters or Yankees or people who move into town with no family in Zion County. Everyone else's buried in Clarksville on the hill, in the big shady cemetery in the old section of town. There, everybody has tombstones. Here all the poor things have are little markers with their last names on them. In front of each one's a plastic wreath of red roses or white lilies, not azalea bushes and things like folks plant by the graves in Clarksville Cemetery. Why, when Miss Dorothy Davis died, her daughters dug up her whole flower garden and planted her azaleas, gardenias, and rose bushes all around the plot. Folks claim you can see Miss Dorothy there among them like she always was in life.

I parked right next to the hearse. That thing gave me the creeps every time I saw it, but there was no other place to park. Miss Mary Frances's big black Lincoln Continental was taking up the rest of the space. The only other thing in back was a cotton field, and I couldn't park out there.

I grabbed my purse and the roller bag and jumped out of the car, being careful not to look at the big white hearse as I walked to the back door.

The door opened when I got to it and I jumped, startled. However, it was just Miss Mary Frances, standing there holding the back door open for me.

"Donnette, honey, come in this way," she whispered to me. Now why on earth she was whispering, I couldn't imagine. Daddy always said none of the Clark women had the sense God promised a billy goat.

"I brought my rollers and things with me, Miss Mary Frances," I told her as I went through the door she was holding open for me. And lo and behold, there I was whispering too! I guess something about this place made you want to be real quiet.

Mary Frances Floyd stood and looked at me carefully after she let me into the little hall, I reckon deciding if I was really going to do this. I just stood there like an idiot and stared back at her, blinking my eyes in the darkness of the hallway. Miss Mary Frances's a tall, big-bosomed woman in her sixties, with the Clarks' sharp blue eyes behind silver-framed glasses, making her look kind of bug-eyed. Her hair's about all gray so Aunt Essie colored it Precious Platinum and pulled it in a stiff French twist, the way she's worn it for years. As befitting a Clark, even for ever-day wear Miss Mary Frances dressed fit to kill, and today was no exception. Her dress was a pretty shade of aqua, and she had on lots of aqua eyeshadow to match, magnified by her glasses. I'd have to find a polite way of telling her that at her age she shouldn't be wearing frosted eyeshadow—it shows up every line. A muted earth tone would be better.

"Come on, sugar," she said to me finally, grabbing my arm. "Miss Maudie's back here. She's the only one here now."

She turned down the hallway and I followed close behind her. It was dark except for little globe lamps on the wall, the hall papered with really dreary, dark wallpaper. I didn't like this place one bit.

Miss Mary Frances stopped before a closed door that had a small brass sign on it: KEEP OUT. She turned to me before opening the door.

"Donnette, the hardest thing is to wash the hair. Usually we use a dry shampoo unless they've been sick a long time and it's too dirty for that. Since it's your first time, I went ahead and washed her hair for you, but next time that will be part of it, you understand."

She opened the door and took my arm again, feeling that I needed to be pulled in, I guess.

The room was bigger than I expected and very cold, cold as a refrigerator. I glanced around quickly and noticed that it looked like a doctor's office, with examination tables, big hanging lights, and lots of strange-looking equipment. I wouldn't look at any of that equipment, turning my eyes away soon as I saw strange hoses and things hanging above one of the tables. Instead I stared at the aqua-silk back of Mary Frances's dress. Oh, God, the room smelled funny! Unless that was Miss Mary Frances's perfume.

Miss Mary Frances stopped right in front of me as she led me toward the back of the room, and I almost ran into her.

"Also, honey," she said to me in her loud whisper, "I did you another favor, too. Since Miss Maudie's hair's so thick and would take so long to dry, I went ahead and set it for you, too. I told you I'd help you since it was your first. I do believe it looks real natural the way I fixed it."

As she said this to me, Miss Mary Frances moved out of my way.

Right in front of me, on a long metal table, was Miss Maudie. I was so completely startled that I just stared down at her. Then I caught my breath and let it out real slow, relieved.

Oh, my God, it wasn't Miss Maudie after all! It was some horrible dummy they'd made to look like her. It didn't even look that much like her, but instead was a small, shriveled old dummy, way too little to be Miss Maudie. Though her eyes were closed, her white lifeless face was slack and her jaw sagged, making her mouth hang partly open. They'd dressed her boney shrunken body in a navy blue dress, with white lace at the collar and cuffs, like something Miss Maudie would wear. And Miss Maudie's cameo, the one she'd never go without, was pinned ever so neatly at the neck. But she looked funny all dressed up, because she had no shoes on. The dummy had no shoes or stockings on—she was barefooted! The neat dark dress was way too long for her, and I started to laugh. Her little wax feet looked so silly, sticking out at the bottom of her dress. I started to laugh real loud, and Miss Mary Frances grabbed my arm, hard.

"Donnette—," she gasped. "What on earth—?"

I dropped the roller bag and my hand flew up to my mouth to try and stop the laughter. I saw then that all around the shrunken wax face was pincurls, held in place with little plastic clips. Miss Mary Frances had fixed up the dummy of Miss Maudie with thick white pincurls.

"No, no," I cried. "That ain't right—no, Miss Mary Frances!"

I couldn't help myself, causing Miss Mary Frances to grab both my arms even harder.

"Oh, honey, I know, I know," she crooned. "But the poor thing is better off—"

"No, ma'am—that's not Miss Maudie—what have you done with her?"

I was crying for good now, tears rolling down my cheeks. So that was what funeral homes did—replaced people with wax dummies made to look like them, laid out in coffins. Now I knew why dead people always looked so unreal.

Miss Mary Frances was about to panic, I could tell. "Donnette, stop this—you are hysterical—let me get you out of here!" She tried to pull me closer to her, but I pushed away and stared at her.

"If y'all are going to fix her up to look like Miss Maudie, the least you can do is get her right." I sobbed loudly, no longer remembering to whisper.

Miss Mary Frances dropped my arms and stepped back, looking at me as though I'd lost my mind. "What in God's name—" was all she could say.

Still sobbing, I turned back to look at the dummy again. Very slowly and carefully, I stepped over to her.

Bending down, I forced myself to look at the dummy of Miss Maudie, staring at the colorless waxen face. The snow-white hair of big fat curls held in place with pink and blue clips was a glaring contrast to the dummy face. I made myself stop sobbing by taking deep breaths as I stared down at it. Then, reaching out with trembling hands, I touched the pincurled hair gingerly. Still damp.

"Miss Mary Frances?" My voice was trembling so much I could barely hear it myself. Miss Mary Frances leaned closer to me so she could catch what I said. "Could I have some water, please?"

Miss Mary Frances looked paler than Miss Maudie. "Water, hell! I'm going to get you and me both a shot of whiskey. Cleve always keeps some back here."

I couldn't help it, that really made me laugh. Maybe I was hysterical after all. "No, ma'am—I don't want to drink it. I need to wet Miss Maudie's hair again."

Miss Mary Frances stared at me, but she turned quickly and went over to a sink in the back of the room where I heard water running. I took another deep breath and began to pull myself together. Reaching down below the table, I picked the roller bag up off the floor.

With shaking hands, I took a comb and began to comb through the dummy's thick white curls after I yanked the plastic clips out. Miss Mary Frances came up beside me then and quietly handed me the glass of water.

I dipped the comb down in the water glass and combed through the hair to wet it, being real careful to look only at the hair and not at the white wax face. Miss Mary Frances then pushed a stool up for me, and I sank down gratefully. It was only after I sat down that I realized how badly shaken I was. My hand shook so hard that drops of water fell from the comb, splattering on the metal table.

Then, as slowly and as carefully as I ever saw Aunt Essie do it, I set Miss Maudie's hair in big neat waves, clipping each one in place with the curved metal clips. It took me a long time because I couldn't stop my hands from shaking, but finally I'd made perfect waves all around the face of the dummy. I got hairspray and sprayed the waves thoroughly, and for a minute the sharp misty smell of hairspray covered the other smell. Mary Frances Floyd must have held her breath the whole time, because when I finished, I heard her let out a trembling breath.

I then took the bottle of Shell Pink nail polish from the roller bag. Biting my lip, I reached ever so carefully for Miss Maudie's withered hand, which lay beside her on the metal table. Her little hand was white as marble and ice-cold, so I took it into my palm as though it was a fragile baby bird.

Carefully I polished the tiny nails Shell Pink. When I finished that hand, I laid it back down beside her, then I reached across the navy blue dress for the left hand and polished those nails, too.


On Sale
Apr 7, 2004
Page Count
304 pages
Hachette Books

Cassandra King

About the Author

Cassandra King is the author of The Sunday Wife, The Same Sweet Girls and Queen of Broken Hearts. A native of Lower Alabama, she lives in the Low Country of South Carolina with her husband, novelist Pat Conroy.

Learn more about this author