My mouth belonged to me.
“Your head is flat as a tape worm.”
We waited in line to get measured.
Anything over six inches was condemned as perverse and a student was sent home.
These girls lived for high hair.
She said, “Fuck your mother.”
“My mother’s dead.”
She gestured the sign of the cross over her chest and kissed her fingers.
Got roughed up later by her boyfriend. I was a tragedy rotting through schools. Dad, lame in consonants and vowels, expected me to pick up the slack when we moved to a new town. In this place, body hair was a main concern. Dad shaved his moustache in the 70s and I never grew leg hair. We were a colorless vein of Irish transparency. His strawberry hair was mute against the bitter clouds. My head was plastered yellow-limp to the shoulders wisped so thin it scarcely dabbled with a breeze.
Dad spent a week looking for legitimate jobs. I knew that wasn’t going to pan out. A girl named Rosella took me on as a possibility. “I like the way your mouth moves,” she said. “You say shit to anyone.” She had nine kids in her family and most of them “are talkers.” Handed her a cigarette the first day and she liked that too.
“Been smoking since I was six,” I said. “Used to smoke the butts my dad left in the ashtrays.”
“Gross,” she said.
“Dad says I have the lungs of an ironworker.”
“Who says stuff like that? What are you, criminals?”
I pulled out my switchblade. “Sometimes.”
Acting tough was the only way to make it in the new schools. If you’re quiet, you’re blindsided. I wanted to know when I was getting attacked and how badly it was going to hurt. I let Rosella work on my hair. She lined up the products. Their bathroom was a beauty salon.
“Can’t go out looking like a greaseball,” she said. I didn’t go anywhere. After school, I went to the public library and did my homework. I was thirteen. We were still living in the back of Dad’s van at the Walmart parking lot.
“You’re really taking to this place. Look at that hair,” Dad said.
Rosella had layered it like one of those soft serve ice cream machines that swirled around and around, but she used gluey paste to hold up the hair and then sprayed some cementlike stuff to cotton candy it higher and higher with each once over. It added a new crop of growth to the top of my head.
“Finally got a job,” Dad said. “A little art store in town. Make phone calls all day. Sell toner for word processors. Not exciting, but I’ll make some cash so we can rent a place.”
His head was gutted against his neck. He couldn’t even hold it up. I already knew where it was going. Mom was found at the bottom of three flights of stairs off the back porch less than three months ago. Dad never hugged me so much until the cameras.
“We’re partners, babe,” he kept saying. He was running out of steam. Up for three days. “Yes, Dad.” The stench of plastic and hair burned off of his being. Meth. I waited until he passed out in the van. Nabbed his Marlboros and a few dollars out of his pants pocket.
Sat outside on the curb and smoked one after another. My hair, a sculpture in wind, propped itself passive. At some point, a pair of boys around my age walked past. “You could catch a disease from that slut,” one said as they both started laughing.
I grabbed a handful of gravel and took aim. A few landed on the backs of their sweaty necks. They yelled “bitch,” then started running back at me. Nothing to lose except time. I stood up, pulled out my switchblade and waited.
Meg Tuite is author of four story collections and five chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Poetry award for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging. She teaches writing retreats and online classes hosted by Bending Genres. She is also Fiction Editor of Bending Genres and Associate Editor at Narrative: megtuite.com.