Miss Rhonda Knows Hair

Baker’s Pick
Sarah Yost


Jonathan come home from college talkin’ ’bout postmodern this an’ relative that, an’ I told him, “Jonathan,” I says, “I been a single mom for the past twenty years, trying to raise you an’ Katie to be somethin’ more’n trash in the gutter, and here you come back from university soundin’ crazier than when I sent you.”

I ain’t got time for all that garbage, an’ I told him so. Yes I did. An’ now he wants to argue ever’ single little thing with me, practically callin’ me ignorant an’ doin’ his best to make me feel foolish.

Well, I told him, “Boy, you ain’t never old enough not to get smacked right clean ‘cross that face.” Thinks he’s cute with all them books. Well I tell ya, you just can’t reason with them kids these days. An’ you know it’s true that a little learnin’ is just about the worst thing can happen to a person. His head’s so dang swoll up, I’m surprised he don’t up an’ float away.

That’n Katie ain’t been up to no good. She’s gone and got herself a boyfriend. Scary thing is that child reminds me of myself when I was her age: fourteen goin’ on twenty. I tried to reason with that one too. “Katie,” I says, “you don’t wanna go an’ end up like your mama. Look at me: worked hard enough to break my back all them years, an’ I ain’t got nothin’ to show for it but a coupla unappreciative children an’ a stacka loans.”

Course she don’t hear none of what I been sayin’ neither. Just rolled them eyes like she was havin’ a seizure an’ stomped off somewhere to go git up to no good. You just can’t reason with ’em. They only believe what they’ve experienced, an’ they ain’t experienced nothin’ but bein’ spoon-fed an’ coddled all their lives. Guess that’s my fault… but I didn’t never want nothin’ but the best for them. It’s just a shame they ain’t never had no sense. Guess that’s their daddies in them.

Those are some men I don’t like to think about. Bobby was my boyfriend in high school when Jonathan happened. He looked right handsome back then, with them Tom Cruise eyes all shining an’ lookin’ directly at things, not milky-bland the way some people’s eyes is. I thought he hung the moon. Course I didn’t know no better then (just like my Katie), and was more’n happy to spread my legs wide as you please an’ grunt an’ holler good-bye to any fancy-pants dream I once had nerve enough to imagine. But just like Daddy used to say: wish in one hand, shit in the other, an’ see which one fills up first. Real life’ll fill up your hands with filthy shit faster’n you can say, “I dream of Jeannie,” or any other fool’s wish you can think of. An’ that’s what happen to me, right there at age fifteen with a bun in the oven an’ Bobby lookin’ dumber than a cow in a feedlot.

Mama an’ Daddy was ashamed, but they was Christian enough to know it’s a sin to throw your own daughter out to the wolves. They kep’ me in, away from Bobby an’ any other pryin’ eyes, and I had Jonathan safe an’ clean at Lutheran hospital in downtown Jonestown. You shoulda seen their eyes when little Jonny came out that morning. They didn’t look so ashamed no more, but looked right pleased with that little bundle. Mama helped a lot—she did the best she could, with bringing Jonathan up those first few years. An’ Daddy helped too, bringing in the money to buy him formula an’ diapers an’ all them crazy things a baby needs.

We was like a right happy family until I made that same mistake again, only this time it was with a black boy from over by the river. Darrell. He was gonna save me from dryin’ up inside like a cooked snail with all his smoothness an’ low talkin’. Well, this proved too much for Mama an’ Daddy. Because even though they was Christian, they was also Southern and old and poor and white, an’ I guess the last four just kinda swallowed up the first one.

They put me out. I didn’t have nowhere to go, Darrell done finished with me, Bobby done married, an’ I had a four-year-old an’ a newborn on my hands. Them’s the bad times, an’ I don’t much think them over. I do recall the cold rain on the asphalt an’ walkin’ a real long time an’ standin’ outside a grocery store just cryin’ an’ pleadin’ with people, till finally someone would buy me some formula or diapers or enough bread an’ lunchmeat for some sandwiches. An’ I remember travelin’ up north to the city, an’ the shelter for women and families. It smelled like collard greens and mop water and unwashed bodies, an’ all the residents shared one big room. The only privacy was just these little bitty screens that you could hear all things through, an’ there just wasn’t no peace the entire time we was there.

I wasn’t but twenty at the time. No schoolin’. An’ like I said I had me a toddler an’ an infant in tow, both gettin’ thinner an’ madder at me by the day. Christmas came an’ went without us payin’ much mind, beyond the donated gifts (a used truck an’ a tattered gray teddy bear, some undershirts, an’ toothbrushes.) We was just so lost and disjointed from our normal ways of bein’. Well, I had to make up my mind as to what I was gonna do with all this responsibility on my hands, ’cause the burden was gettin’ to be too much an’ I feared in a few more weeks of livin’ on the edge, I would just t’ump right on over that dark, jagged cliff. I was scared, for real scared, for maybe the first time in my life ’cause I didn’t know what was lurkin’ on the other side of that cliff. So I called up Mama.

“Hey,” I said.

“Rhonda? That you, girl?” Mama’s voice was real high-pitched, an’ I knew she wasn’t mad no more.

“Yeah, it’s me, Mama. I wanna come home, now, Mama.”

“Rhonda, you tell me where you at, girl, an’ I’ll come git you in the truck.”

An’ jus’ like that we was livin’ with Mama an’ Daddy again. We didn’t never talk about my time up north. The five of us lived together for near twelve years, ‘fore Mama died of the cancer. Daddy went soon after of one disease or another. He had diabetes from bad eatin’ all his life, an’ he had emphysema from smokin’, an’ he had some nerve problems from workin’ in the factory for thirty-odd years. But I think he jus’ missed Mama, an’ wanted to go on up an’ join her. An’ men’s weaker than women like that. Grief’ll kill a man quicker than it’ll kill a woman, ’cause a woman’s more used to havin’ things took from her unexpectedly.

Now we ain’t got nobody but ourselves—just be Jonathan an’ Katie an’ me at Christmas again, since Mama an’ Daddy done passed. But the good Lord giveth an’ He taketh away whenever He dang well pleases an’ He don’t consult us neither. I been mighty blessed with two healthy children, even if they is lazy an’ unappreciative an’ foul-mouthed an’ disrespectful to their own mother. At least they was born healthy an’ I thank the Lord ever’ day for that.

My boy Jonathan didn’t hardly give me no worries until he went off to university an’ come back thinkin’ he knowed it all. He was always a bright child, good in school, got me lots of compliments from all the teachers. He always said he’s goin’ someplace, an’ I’d ask him, “Where you goin’, boy?”

“I’m goin’ someplace big an’ important. Like JC Penney’s.” He said that when he was ’bout ten years old—cracked me up! He said “like JC Penney’s” like that was goin’ someplace important. But he kep’ on growin’ an’ his dreams did too, an’ now look at him! My boy got him a scholarship to university, and some loans from the government too. Worked all them figures out on his own. I wish Mama an’ Daddy had been around to see it—they’d’ve been proud.

But they always was proud of Jonathan. They favored him somethin’ awful. An’ my Katie would just look at me all puzzled, like, “Why can’t I go too, Mama?” An’ I’d always try to make it up to her, with a shrug an’ a snuggle on the couch or some Blue Bunny ice cream, but there wasn’t nothin’ I ever could do to undo all that was said an’ done in front of her very own eyes. I would scream at Mama when Daddy was at work an’ the kids was outside playin’: “You know I have two children, Mama!” But I never did say what I really felt: “Racist!” or “Love my daughter, goddammit!” I didn’t want us put out on no streets again, even if it was jus’ me an’ Katie this time.

My Katie is beautiful—that’s what’s got me worried about this here boyfriend a hers. Carmel-color hair, skin, an’ eyes to match, skin like smooth taffy, soft and shy voice; my baby is beautiful. When she was little I put her hair up in a hundred little braids, but now she wears it straightened. I like it better in curls, but she got to go with what all the other little girls are wearin’ these days: straight hair. I get all the best products at a discounted price since I do hair myself, an’ I can give her a chemical wash if she wants it.

I been doin’ hair ever since I moved back in with Daddy and Mama when Jonathan was five an’ Katie wasn’t but one yet. I got me my regulars, an’ then I got some people who come in from further out in the county. Mosta them want them awful mullet-cuts. I hate those things. Look like you got some dead animal tied down on your skull an’ hangin’ down around your shoulders. I always say, “Sure you don’t want me to even this thing up real nice?” but I says it with a smile, like I’m jokin’ so as I don’t hurt their feelin’s. Country folk is a different sort, even from us small town folk, an’ Lord knows it takes all kinds.

There ain’t nothin’ I like better than givin’ a pretty girl a nice haircut. That’s fifteen dollars wortha pleasure an’ confidence you just can’t get nowhere else—not from no man neither. This one little girl come in the other day with this long tangled mess, an’ I said to her, “Sit right down, honey, an’ we’ll get you cleaned up real nice, now.” She can’t have been but eight or nine.

Well, I washed her hair in the warm water, an’ I used the best shampoo and conditioner, even though Clara says only use that on the twenty-dollar cuts. I sudded up her head an’ rinsed it clean, takin’ my time to make sure her hair’d be real nice an’ soft when I dried it. Then I led her back to my station, helpin’ her with the towel on her head ’cause she was real awkward with it, never havin’ had her hair cut before. I sat her down an’ asked, “Well, honey, how short do you want to go?” That poor child just shrugged her bony little shoulders and refused to meet my eyes. Her mama was outside smokin’ a cigarette, an’ I popped my head outside the door. “Ma’am, how short do you want that child’s hair?”

She laughed that phlegmy smoker’s laugh that Daddy used to have. It made my skin crawl like I walked straight into a nasty patcha basement cobwebs. “It don’t matter none, Miss Rhonda, I just want that girl’s messa hair cleaned up.”

“I’ll just clean off the split ends, then.”

The poor child’s head was still bowed when I come back in to my station.

“Your mama said to just trim up them split ends—won’t be too much shorter a’tall,” I smiled.

She seemed to put her head up a little then, an’ I think I felt her mood lighten. I knew she was scared: like I said, it didn’t look like she’d ever got her hair cut before.

Well, I took them scissors and carefully trimmed away layer after layer of her dried, broken hair ends until only a neat, clean edge hung down right at her shoulder. Now her chin was up a little higher an’ I said, “Okay, sugar, I’m just gonna put in some mousse an’ give you a hot blow-dry an’ you’ll be done.” She looked right pretty when I finished an’ you could see she felt a bit bigger, just by the way she held herself up a little straighter’n taller. “You’ll look right pretty for the holidays,” I smiled.

“Thank you, Miss Rhonda.” That little girl’s smile was as small an’ pink as a mouse’s tongue.

Well I knowed better than to try an’ tell Katie or Jonathan about how good it felt makin’ this little girl smile her faint little smile. They wouldn’t even hear me a’tall, but scowl off into the distance like they got somethin’ real important to think about, an’ I’m just wastin’ their time an’ suckin’ up all the good air they got left to breathe. So I didn’t bother to tell ’em. When Christmas came I just put on my smilin’ face that can’t no one stop from shinin’ an’ grinnin’ like I ain’t got no care in the world an’ asked them all sortsa questions about what they been doin’ until they got tireda talkin’ about themselves. Then I just sat quiet an’ kep’ smilin’ at the dinner table, the Christmas tree all blinkin’ an’ twinklin’ its rainbow colors in the corner an’ them kids just slidin’ their mash potatoes an’ corn pudding around like they ain’t even hungry. Least they could find somethin’ to say to each other, you’d’ve thought!

“What’chall thinkin’ ’bout?” I asked, trying’ to strike up some conversation.

“You don’t want to know,” Jonathan said all sulky.

Katie didn’t say nothin’.

“Well if you got somethin’ to say, boy, g’on an’ say it.” I was gettin’ plain fed up with their danged rotten attitudes.

“I’m getting engaged.”

“Well now why wouldn’t I wanna know a thing like that? You must be crazy, child! Come here an’ give your mama a kiss!” But he didn’t move an inch—he didn’t even smile. He just narrowed them blue eyes like he was makin’ thin little ice slits.

“You don’t get it.”

I was struck cold. “What don’t I get, son?”

He pushed back his plate an’ leaned back in his chair with arms crossed. He was lookin’ real mean—meaner, even, than I’d ever seen my own daddy look.

“I’m not bringing her back here.”

“I wouldn’t’ve expected you to.” But I spoke too quickly, like I was too eager to please. The look on his face was amused: pure hate. Where did this all come from?

“No. I mean I’m not ever bringing her back here. Not even for a weekend.” I looked at Katie. She was jus’ starin’ at her food with her head propped up on an elbow, just like she had been before Jonathan even started speakin’. I wondered if she’d even heard him.

“Well if that’s how you feel.” I felt dizzy, but I wasn’t goin’ to fight it. I knew there’d be no use. “Just know you both is always welcome to come see me. Anytime. Don’t need no reason.”

He laughed a dry little laugh, like a cough, an’ got up from the table. “I doubt we’ll have any reason to come to this podunk Kentucky town,” he was sayin’ over his shoulder. Katie followed him out an’ they both went into their separate rooms, closed and locked their doors.

I looked ’round at the dishes needin’ to be cleared and cleaned and felt jus’ plain exhausted, like I hadn’t slep’ in twenty-some-odd years.

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Sarah Yost teaches reading and writing to seventh graders in Louisville, Kentucky. She graduated from Colgate University in 2004 with a BA in English and Religion and the University of Louisville in 2007 with an MA in Middle School Reading and Writing. Her work also appears in Eclectica Magazine and The Orange Room Review. E-mail: yost19[at]gmail.com