i used to sketch inside my notebook with colored pencil. Sketches of the Pacolet River, Mama cutting hair, Nana slipping open a boiled peanut with her gnarled hands. But now, I collect everything I can get my hands on—old newspapers, pieces of cardboard, bottle wrappers, wire. Now, I turn my notebook into collage.
Most of the girls I go to school with have more money than me, but that ain’t saying much. They go on vacations with their families to Myrtle Beach on the weekends, coming back to school on Monday carrying plastic containers filled with hermit crabs, their shells decorated in neon puffy paint. One time, this girl, Evelyn, gave me one when we were alone in the bathroom, right before Algebra. It was smaller than the other ones, and the painted flower on its shell looked smudged. I carried it in my lunch bag all day, and when I got home, I put it in a yogurt container filled with leaves. It died a few days later.
Most of the girls I go to school with only want to talk about getting boyfriends, and then kissing them, and then pulling out, and stuff like that. I don’t know about pulling out yet, but I know kissing one is like putting a slimy frog arm in your mouth, ’cause one time I did kiss a boy. Well, maybe more than one time. His name’s Gabriel. But he had to move. His family is always moving. He gave me a dead moth wrapped in tissue paper. It almost looked like a butterfly, it really did. The tissue paper was all different shades, sort of like the color of a peach ripening, and sweet smelling like some rich lady perfume, and also kind of like the sky when Nana crashed us into that tree. He said he found the moth in one of the window ledges while painting with his Dad.
“Smashed it real light,” he said. “With the palm of my hand. So I could save the body. Kinda like taxidermy.”
I still got the moth. I keep it in a safe place, and he still writes me letters from all the places he moves to. I’m going to send him this collage I’ve been working on, when I’m done, made up entirely of model’s legs. “Leg Flower” is what I’m calling it.
When Gabriel and I used to kiss, we’d hang out at this one house his Dad was working on in Hampton Heights. It was an old house that was getting restored, and it was filled with all these brand new appliances. Appliances my Mama would have died to own.
We’d lie on the floor and tell each other stories about the people we thought would move in when his Father was done with the restoration.
“They’ll be the richest family in Spartanburg,” Gabriel would say.
“The Mom and Dad will have cars without any dents in ’em, and they’ll always run. Those kids ain’t ever gonna be late to school,” I’d say.
“And they’ll never move,” Gabriel would say. “Just grow and grow on up here, like kudzu.”
And then, Gabriel would ask me to pull off my eye patch, and I’d remove it, just for him, in front of all those shiny appliances.
“Oh, that ain’t nothin’,” he’d say.
“Just sort of Frankensteinish,” I’d say, laughing, while his fingertips pulsated like sunlight, right over my scarred, sealed eye.
My Mama cuts people’s hair for a living. They come over to the house, and my Mama cuts their hair in the living room. Sometimes, after I get home from school, I help arrange the curlers or measure out the colored dye, pouring it into what looks like plastic ketchup bottles. The women sit with dye on their heads for forty minutes or so, looking absolutely ridiculous as they wait. Hair shimmering in colors like purpely eggplant or egg yolk yellow. Long after these women leave, long after my Mama has thoroughly swept the floor, pieces of hair still stick to my feet.
“Pirate bitch,” the girls at school call me.
Sometimes, my Mama has to cut their Mama’s hair.
Evelyn comes along while her Mama gets a haircut. They come a lot ’cause her Mama likes to keep her hair real short and out of her eyes since she’s been driving trucks for UPS.
My Mama tells us to go play, and in my room Evelyn likes to put on my make-up. My Mama’s hand-me-downs. The make-up I haven’t worn since Nana crashed us. She looks real pretty and grown up in it and all, but she always asks me about the accident, and when she asks, she’s usually put on too much of my lipstick, so her teeth look like they’ve been smeared with pomegranate jelly.
I always tell her about it. The way I’ve learned to tell everyone about it. Without too much feeling. I say that Mama had a hair permanent to do, and it was raining, and so she’d asked Nana to pick me up from school that day, and that Nana had crashed us into a tree two blocks from our house, and that the tree branches came through the window, and that a whole lot of branch and glass got stuck in my eye, and that the doctors had figured out that Nana had taken her sleeping pill instead of her multi-vitamin that afternoon, and so she’d fallen asleep and done crashed us.
“Which tree was it?” Evelyn asks.
And I always say I don’t remember. Even though I walk by it everyday.
Today is Saturday. So I have to get up early with Mama to go buy things at the Beauty Supply for her customers. Mama says she needs more rollers for permanents, more foil sheets for highlighting, more hair coloring, and more plastic gloves.
I don’t mind going with Mama ’cause afterwards she takes me to Waffle House, and since I bring my notebook along, Mama looks at the collages I’m working on. We used to go to all these different Waffle Houses ’round Spartanburg, ’cause Mama thought it’d be fun to try different ones and all, compare decorations, managers, and waitresses. Now, we go to the one closest to the Beauty Supply. I never tell Mama why I always insist on going to that one now, but I know she knows. I hate having to answer questions about my eye patch and hear, when those waitresses think I can’t hear, “Well, bless her heart. She don’t know no better,” all the time.
Mama used to want to be an artist, that’s why she loves art and all and can tell me a lot when she’s looking through my notebook. She’s real good with her hands, good at building things too, but she says ever since she’s been cutting hair, her hands get kind of shaky when she tries to draw. She used to go to the Community College nearby, took a painting class, and was in a small group show there, a long time ago, before Dad left and before Nana came to live with us. It got written down in the newspaper and all, and she looked so pretty. She really did. Her hair was still a deep brown, ain’t none of that grey was in it, and she wore a dress and everything.
Today I hand her the collage I want to send to Gabriel. Before setting it down, she wipes the table off with a napkin, even though the waitress just wiped off the table in front of us, before we sat down.
“Dee, I can’t believe you’ve got the patience to cut out all these here legs,” she says. “How much more do you have to go on this?”
“Right now, I got 76 legs, an’ I done cut up all my fashion magazines. I’d say I’m gonna need 24 more to make it go all the way around, so I can turn it into a Leg Flower.”
Mama smiles and looks real long and hard at me. It’s this look she looks at me with sometimes. Her eyes sort of sparkle and get more of that green color in ’em. And she don’t look as tired and worn down.
After Mama and I finish our breakfast and button up our coats, (’cause the air’s starting to get kind of chilly outside, now that it’s almost turning Fall), we walk on out into the parking lot, and Mama says to me, “Dee, you should have an art show with all them collages you got going on in your notebook.”
“Mama, we ain’t living in New York,” I say, laughing.
Mrs. Grace, our art teacher, now she used to live in New York. She went to college there, and she tells us about all the things you can do there, about all the galleries. She had to move back ’cause she missed her home, and her husband’s business is here. New York, she said, wasn’t no place to raise children, and it cost too much money. Her apartment was more than $1,800, and it was only one room with just a tiny window looking out at a brick wall. Mama cuts her hair too sometimes, and I heard that Mrs. Grace thinks that her husband’s been sneaking around on her with another woman. I’m sure everyone here in town already knows if that’s true.
Mama laughs, “But, your sweet sixteen’s comin’ up, and I’ve been tryin’ to figure out somethin’ real nice we could do. And, I think this here is it. We could turn the front room of the house, where I cut my hair, into a little gallery and all. You could invite your friends, and I could maybe invite some of my customers. It could be like an openin’ night. I could cook a little somethin’ up. What do you think? I think it’d be real nice.”
“I think that’s stupid, Mama,” I say. “Ain’t nobody want to come to our nasty old house, with Nana falling asleep all the time on herself, and you know I ain’t got no friends. My only friend had to move.”
Before the accident Mama would’ve slapped me for talking back. But now, she just drives us home with the radio on real loud and all, without saying nothing.
The next day at school Evelyn’s in the bathroom, brushing her hair with a few of the girls that call me Pirate Bitch. Usually when this happens, I try and hold it or else walk to the other bathroom way down at the other side of the school, but today I really got to go. So I don’t look none of them in the eye, just quickly close the stall door, and take care of my business. I figure I’ll stay inside the stall and just wait for ’em to leave.
“Come on Pirate Bitch, what’s takin’ you so long?” I can hear one of ’em say. “You takin’ a shit? You know if you run out of toilet paper, you can always use your eye patch.”
The girls are laughing and hooting and hollering, trying to get me to come out. I don’t want to, but I know they ain’t gonna have it any other way. I can even hear Evelyn whispering telling them to hush, and that they should just leave, ain’t no sense being late to class and getting in trouble, just to mess with me.
One of the girls crawls halfway underneath my stall, and looks up at me. She’s wearing tons of glittery eye shadow, and her skin’s real greasy and covered in tiny pimples.
“Well if you ain’t coming out, this here backpack of yours is,” she says.
I just stay inside that stall, trying to figure out what the best thing for me to do is. And I can hear ’em laughing and rifling through my backpack. I can hear the crinkling sounds of my lunch bag. My orange bouncing all across the floor. “What’s this crazy crap?” I hear one of ’em say. And that’s when I know they’ve got hold of my notebook and all my collage works. “This is weird. What is this? Some kinda voodoo hoodoo shit? Is she some sorta serial killer, cutting up all them legs?”
And then Mrs. Grace comes into the bathroom. I know it’s her, ’cause I can tell by the sound of her high heels click-clacking on the floor.
“What is going on here?” she says. “Classes have already started. Who is hiding in that bathroom? Come on, get out of there. Let me have a look at you.”
I open up the stall and walk on out, and Mrs. Grace stares straight at me. Then she looks down toward her high heel. Leg Flower is underneath it. She picks it up and looks at it real hard, tracing the empty space where the legs still need to be with her fingers. And then she looks around, at all the girls, and all my collages spread out across the bathroom floor.
“I asked a question. What is going on here?” she says.
The girls are looking at me, and I’m sort of looking at the girls, and I don’t want to be no rat, so I say to Mrs. Grace, “We was just playing is all.”
She looks at me, and I know she don’t believe me. “Well, pick up this art work and get to class, all of you,” she says.
Mrs. Grace stands there watching as everyone picks up my artwork. Evelyn’s the one who hands me my notebook with all my collages safely back inside and whispers, “I’m real sorry, Dee. This stuff sure is pretty.”
After school, I take a real long walk. I walk to the house that Gabriel’s dad used to work on. It’s all done now, and it’s painted a real nice plum purple, but no one’s moved in yet, and the For Sale sign is still up in front. Leaves are falling off the trees, and scattering on down the street. The day is warm and breezy at the same time, and I can see amber-colored dust, like sparkles floating in the air.
“When Gabriel gave me that moth, he read me something that this writer lady named Virginia Woolf wrote. He was always reading things. But, I still remember what this Virginia lady said about a kind of moth, “They’re hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies or somber like their own species. Nevertheless the specimen, with his narrow hay-colored wings, fringed with a tassel of the same color, seemed to be content with life.”
I stand in front of that house for a moment, reciting those lines over and over in my head, and I can feel Gabriel’s fingertips on my eyelid, like sunlight. “Oh, that ain’t nothin’,” I can hear him say.
When I get home, I find Mrs. Grace in our living room. Mama’s putting curlers into her hair, and they’re laughing and having a real good time, like they’re old friends. Nana’s asleep on one of the rocking chairs. The hair on her head looks like feathers on a baby bird.
“Dee,” Mrs. Grace says. “I brought you something.” She holds out a white sealed envelope that was resting on her lap. I walk over to her and take it out of her hand.
“Thanks,” I say, ’cause I don’t know what to say. I’m embarrassed and feel real shy. Mama’s smiling, as she winds another section of Mrs. Grace’s hair up in one of ’em rollers, and I know they both must have been talking about me or something like that, ’cause they’re both acting real strange.
And then Mrs. Grace says, “Your Mama is a real sweetheart, taking me on such short notice. I have this thing to go to with my husband tonight, and—”
“I think your hair looks real nice the way it always is,” I say to Mrs. Grace.
And then I walk into my room and close the door. I sit down on my bed and open up the envelope. Cut-out model’s legs. Tons of ’em.
Zoë Miller is a graduate from The New School University. Her short stories and poems have appeared in 12th Street and pax americana. She will be pursuing her MFA in fiction at the University of Minnesota this Fall.
“I grew up in Los Angeles and lived in apartments that had balconies overlooking crowded courtyards. Later, living in Brooklyn, I had a fire escape I liked to sit on. Now, living in South Carolina, I spend a lot of time on my front porch. Mostly, drinking cheap white wine and staring off into the branches of a magnolia tree filled with shards of setting sun, bright red cardinals, and fireflies.”