by A.R. Robins
From Spring 2018
I taught Jack how to French braid his hair. Lana don’t remember because she likes to forget everything she disapproves of, everything that frightens her. It’s why she is educated with a good husband. She learned how to forget what wasn’t good for her to remember, and I’m sure my going to Uncle Jack’s several times a week frightened her.
I remember her asking me about what went on when I visited him, all suspicious, like the time she asked me what happens when Daddy would say goodnight to me in my room. He said goodnight to both of us the way he did, and because she was older and more like a woman, it was worse for her. But that’s how she found out what he liked to do with me, by asking me questions. That’s the difference between us, I guess, she asks questions. Anyway, she told on him, so Momma moved us to Bolinger to be close to Grandma.
She don’t remember, but around the time I started talking to Jack, she started her questions, and she was right to question—I know that. For starters, he wasn’t a blood relative but one of Grandpa’s children from a separate marriage. He was also a recluse who didn’t know how to read. Maybe anyone would wonder about a girl going to a middle-aged man’s house alone, but I guess I never learned to think like that, despite all the wickedness that’s been done to me.
And Momma didn’t like him. He’d come visit Momma cause Momma was the only one in the family who knew he was actually a girl name Jackie, and he’d usually give her a little money so she could buy him makeup and earrings and stuff like that. Momma would always roll her eyes when she’d see his large body walking up the gravel road to our house, but she never told Grandma about him being a girl. She’d just roll her eyes and say it wasn’t anyone’s business.
We lived in an actual house in those days, not a double-wide like when Momma was married to Daddy, but a house that creaked all over like it had a soul. Uncle Jack lived in a house too, a yellow one on Grandma’s property, about two blocks from us. I say blocks, but really they were just patches of grass with shrunken peeling houses sprinkled here and there. Bolinger was small with something like seventy people living in it. Most of the houses were rundown or abandoned, leaning and sagging into the earth, and Uncle Jack’s house was like that. Lana said once that Uncle Jack probably came over to see Momma in order to get some air-conditioning, but I knew his house wasn’t stuffy or too hot because there were a few holes in his wall in the living room placed just so that the air moved around. Lana didn’t know that because they weren’t as visible on the outside, and she never came to see him. She made him come to her those weeks she tried teaching him how to read.
He didn’t ask me to braid his hair in Momma’s living room, and if he had, Momma might have told him to leave me alone. She didn’t like Uncle Jack. He annoyed her with his whining about actually being a woman and not having pantyhose large enough to fit him. Momma didn’t like talking about girl stuff. She had a short haircut, and she wore men’s clothes, and she liked to belch and fart in front of Grandma just to annoy her. When she was married, she wore makeup and owned a few dresses, but I don’t think she ever cared too much about being pretty. Looking at it now, she probably had a similar problem to Jack’s, but for whatever reason she didn’t need anyone to buy men’s clothes for her. It’s always easier to be a man, I guess.
No, Jack asked me to braid his hair at the post office, the only place in Bolinger that wasn’t a house or a trailer. It sat in the center of town, and I’d go there and pet the dogs that collected themselves around the building. Those dogs never belonged to no one, as far as I could tell, but they were friendly, so I’d hide bologna in my pocket and feed little slices to the lucky ones that saw me first. That’s what I was doing the afternoon Jack asked me to help him with his hair.
I had on my pigtail French braids, tied with pink rubber bands. I taught myself how to do French braids from a magazine I had swiped from Walmart about a week before. I swiped the rubber bands too, as well as some of those nose strips that were supposed to keep my pores clean. That Walmart was an hour away, so I had to learn real fast how to swipe stuff cause we rarely went there. I was pretty good. You don’t realize how hard it is to swipe a magazine. You gotta put it in the back of your pants and walk upright so it balances just so and blends into your back. It’s better when you have a jacket, but I didn’t have one then. That’s how good I was.
Lana was terrible at it. I could always tell she was hiding something she’d stolen by the way she walked, all awkward like a zombie, even if it was just cigarettes from Momma’s purse. She didn’t ever get caught, so I guess she wasn’t all that bad, but I was a real natural, which is why I had more stuff than her. She was always borrowing my stuff or asking me for cigarettes. I learned to swipe cigarettes from the gas station about two miles from Bolinger, so I never had to steal from Momma. I’d just walk there and swipe a few packs when I had some time.
At the post office Jack told me he liked my braids.
“I ain’t never seen pink rubber bands,” he said. He wasn’t using his Jackie voice, even though there weren’t no one around but me and the dogs.
“You like them?” I asked.
“I do. You look good with those braids. You think you could braid my hair like that?”
I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t. I’ve never been too suspicious about people. That’s how I’m like my Grandma. She’s trusting. She took a beating from every man who gave her a child, and so have I except the first one made it to where I can’t have children. I guess that makes me sort of lucky. People like me don’t need children.
I gave the last of my bologna to a Pitbull that I named Princess, and then I took Jack’s mail. We walked together to his house and talked about the weather, how green everything looks when it is summer and spring and how dandelions are the best flowers because they are yellow and grow just about everywhere. Yellow was Jack’s favorite color.
He said he knew how to make a crown out of dandelions, and I told him I could too, but I didn’t realize then that I didn’t really know how. We picked a bunch of dandelions on our way to his house and we put them in a pile in his living room floor, a warped wooden floor with nails jutting up here and there. You had to wear shoes in that house or risk a bloody foot. We each made a crown from our bundle of dandelions, and I put the rest of them in a tumbler glass I had to wash from his sink. I made my crown by tying the stems together in knots, and the ends of the stem would peak over the tops of the blossoms all awkward until I cut them with a pair of scissors. Jack knew how to weave them together so that you couldn’t see any stems, and each blossom sort of melted into the other. His flower crowns were the first pieces of art I had ever seen.
After we made our flower crowns, I combed his hair and braided it in one long, black, French braid. It didn’t take too long because his hair was thin, so thin you could see patches of his pale scalp all over, but he kept it long enough that the braid fell to the middle of his back. I put his flower crown on top of his head. The yellow blossoms sort of covered up the bald spots.
“Baby, go to my dresser in the bedroom and find my Flirty Pink lipstick.”
He was using his Jackie voice, light and breathy. I think his Jackie voice sounded like Grandma even though he weren’t related to her in any way. She didn’t even raise him cause he was almost grown when she married Grandpa.
I can see why he idolized her, though. She was a charming woman for someone of her caliber. She could wear anything and make it look pretty, and her cakes were always nice and round, like in the magazines at Walmart. She was an artist too even though she was every bit as white trash as the rest of Bolinger.
I went to Jack’s bedroom and searched the top of his dresser for any kind of lipstick that was labeled “Flirty Pink.” His bedroom didn’t have much in it but a mattress on the floor and an old dresser covered in makeup and earrings, but his curtains are really what I remember the most. Faded black and covered with male clown faces in black and white makeup. They were the kind of curtains a child might have in his bedroom, and I wonder now if Grandma sewed them for him. I asked him about the curtains, and he told me that those faces were Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley.
“Haven’t you heard of Kiss?” he asked me.
I told him I hadn’t, so before I could put on his lipstick, he sauntered to his radio and put on one of his many cassette tapes stacked in the corner of his living room. I don’t know if he had anything else to listen to but Kiss tapes cause we never listened to anything else. I didn’t mind. I didn’t love them like he did, but I still thought they were good. They had this upbeat, happy sound, despite all their dark makeup. He put on the song “I Was Made for Loving You,” which had a rhythmic disco beat. The vocalist had a high and bright voice that filled up all the spaces of that living room.
When Jack sat down again, I applied his Flirty Pink lipstick on his thin lips and gave him the earrings I was wearing, some dangling pink stones I had swiped from a girl’s bedroom during a birthday party I had no business being invited to. She didn’t need them, and I didn’t either, so I told Jack he could have them, and he told me I was the sweetest girl in the world.
“So, what do you think?” he asked me, his voice as high and hopeful as the song spilling around us. Honestly, he didn’t look much like a girl. He was wearing overalls and a white undershirt, and his body was large and squashy. His face, framed slightly with those yellow flowers, was hard like a man’s, and his lips were too thin to really show off his lipstick. But I didn’t tell him all that because I guess he already knew, and in any case, an ugly woman still needs to be told she is pretty, so that’s what I told him.
This became something like a ritual for about a year or two, except we didn’t always make flower crowns, and sometimes he’d wear some new earrings he asked Momma to buy him. He never dressed up in girl’s clothing or asked me about my period or talked about bras and panties the way other girls at school did. He didn’t talk to me the way he talked to Momma, either, like two girlfriends dishing the dirt about women problems, except it was mostly him talking when he came to visit.
With me, he was more like a child playing dress up, and I liked coming to visit because I was not the little girl he pretended I was. I hadn’t been for a long time, not with my small breasts sore and burning every month and my having slept with all the boys between the ages of 16 and 24 who lived in Bolinger. I liked pretending I was a little girl, a girl I might have been if I hadn’t been born me. The kind of girl who had Barbies on her bed but pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio in her locker. He was the only man I’ve known who enjoyed spending time with me without needing something from me. I guess maybe this is because he was actually a woman, but maybe not.
We moved away from Bolinger some time when I turned seventeen. I had already stopped visiting Jack by that time except at Christmas and on his birthday. When I did see him, we didn’t play with makeup or hair braiding. We had graduated to coffee and chit chat, but he was still special to me. He was like a grandmother.Grandma had already passed away by then, and I never told him that he was like her . He would have liked to know that he was like her. The only difference between my visits with him and Momma’s visits with Grandma was that he still listened to Kiss, and Grandma always kept the TV on so Grandpa could watch his programs.
We moved out of Bolinger to be near Lana, who had already moved out of the house and had earned her degree. It took her two tries, but she did it, and this made Momma move us to Maryville where Lana stayed for the rest of her life. After I graduated high school, which was its own miracle since Maryville was a larger school with little patience for girls like me who skipped class and smoked in the parking lot, I moved to St. Joe, and then after Momma died and after I got tired of listening to Lana tell me how I needed to get my life in order, I moved to Utah to marry Bobby. Didn’t marry another one after Bobby, though that don’t mean I never let another man hurt me the way he did.
Life has a way of working you over and bending you in ways you don’t want to be bent, like I’m a willow tree in a tornado storm, and I’m taking a beating but I won’t never be pulled away from the storm cause of my nature. Lana wasn’t no tree, didn’t like to be bent about, so she figured out how to keep the wrong men away from her, figured out how to work around her dyslexia and major in law, figured out how to jump through every hoop there was so she could earn scholarships for being poor, even figured out how to open a bank account.
Sometimes she’ll call me on the phone and tell me that she is so lonely, so lonely she can’t stand it, even with her kind husband and her precious daughter, and I don’t tell her it is because she has surrounded herself with people who want the same things from her that everyone else wants except they don’t use plain words. She’s tricked herself into thinking that the people around her are different from Daddy. I don’t tell her that I’m no different and neither is she. Just I’m more aware of the reasons why it all happens, and she’s better at keeping herself safe. I’m no different and neither is she. Never met anyone different, except Jack. He wanted simple things like makeup and earrings, but mostly what he wanted he couldn’t get from anyone.