Juanita sits at her vanity table pressing a long strip of toilet paper to her hair. Tilting her head to the side, I watch her pull a couple of bobby pins free from the several pressed between her lips and clip the piece flat against her French twist. She tears another section off the roll, and then another, continuing with the bedtime ritual designed to protect her style while sleeping. Her eyes close in dreamy slits while her nimble fingers press and pin, press and pin. After her hair is completely concealed, she flicks on the lights of the makeup mirror to clearly detect any wayward hairs that may have escaped the white frothy upsweep. As the finishing touch, she sticks a diamond hairpin front and center of the papered do to add a bit of glamour, a bit of pizazz. She holds up a plastic hand mirror to scrutinize the back where the twist coils against itself, the section of the hairstyle most susceptible to damage during the night and douses the area with a liberal swirl of Aqua Net. I asked her once why she went to the bother of papering her hair every night when pulling on a hairnet would do the trick, but she looked down her nose to inform me that common women resort to common practices.
Juanita notices me sitting on the edge of the bed watching her, our reversed images caught between the two mirrors. “Where did that come from?” she asks about the movie magazine on my lap, open to a scandal piece on the death of a Hollywood starlet killed in a horrific crash on a stretch of Louisiana highway earlier this summer.
“Beauty parlor,” I answer. “Stella said it was okay.” My stepmother has forgotten her hairdresser said I could take the copy of Modern Screen home, as long as I bring it back the next time Juanita is scheduled to have her hair done. “I didn’t have a chance to finish this one. And it’s about Jayne Mansfield.”
The actress is one of Juanita’s favorite film stars—second only to Ann Margaret—and she has been caught up in the particulars of Jayne’s death, fixated on the pure circumstance that placed her in the front seat of the ’66 Buick Electra. Since the accident hit the news, Juanita has spent hours speculating that Jayne’s decision to sit between the driver and her fellow passenger rendered the actress somehow out of control of her own fate.
“Let me see that,” she demands and scans the story for facts to support her theory. “Says here Jayne was killed right where she sat, her head nearly ripped off.” Juanita shakes her tissue-turbaned bejeweled head in disbelief as if hearing the news for the first time, the diamond hairpin scattering prisms of colored light. Handing me back the magazine, she says, “Make sure this gets back to Stella. And don’t you ever forget,” she rants on, looking me straight in the face with her third eye diamond. “Never sit in the middle—front or back—of any car. It’s a death seat.”
Stella owns the shop next door to a feed store that boasts a tie-up out front for horses ridden in by local cattle ranchers and cowboy wannabes with no other business at hand other than to story the day away. Juanita has a standing appointment every other Saturday morning at ten o’clock sharp and I tag along to devour the latest Hollywood gossip tabloids stacked in neat piles by the bonnet hair dryers, but after she is settled and distracted by Stella’s hands in her hair, I sneak out to feed treats to the horses swatting flies out in front of the shop.
It’s not so much that I’m mad about horses like other girls my age who would give anything to have their own. In fact, the animals scare me a bit, all big-eyed with giant teeth. It’s more about the satisfaction I get pulling a fast one on Juanita, stealing the carrots or apples or whatever else I can smuggle out the door and later watching her fuss when she misses the food, kneeling on the sticky linoleum with her head of tall hair bent back in the fridge, rifling around with her elaborate manicured nails in search of what had long been digested in the belly of the beast. Sometimes I even offer to help her look, but she shushes me off fuming that somebody is eating her out of house and home, in this case a concrete block ranch house with a yard full of fire ants where she finds herself eternally trapped. It’s all I can do to back out of the kitchen and keep a straight face.
I find the squirrel the weekend Juanita went blonde out of respect to the deceased Jayne. The process from dark to light requires hours longer than the typical shampoo-set-updo, so I raid the refrigerator to stuff my pockets full of celery sticks to last the duration of her reinvention. I’d been outside the shop a couple of times to feed a pretty filly, but the third trip out, I notice a miniscule peanut-looking sort of thing half-tucked under the dripping water trough—wet, slimy, nearly drowned. I reach down and slide my hand under the wisp of a body. It wriggles a bit, more of a flutter. I can see its heart beating slow against its onion-skin chest. “Hang on, hang on,” I whisper, rushing into the shop, my hands cupped in a cradle.
Juanita sits in the chair reading Confidential, Stella combing her out. I shove the creature under her nose, blocking a photograph of Elvis. Stella leans close to take a look, the pink plastic comb stuck mid length in the glimmer of processed hair color. “Good Lord, child, what in the world is that? Some sort of caterpillar?”
I shrug my shoulders. “I think it’s a baby squirrel. I’m not sure what’s happened to it.”
“Give it to me,” Juanita says, her ring finger heavy with the black onyx my mother wore as her wedding ring. I hand the squirrel over, biting my lip. She examines the small body and lowers her face close to brush an eyelash across the creature’s abdomen. It heaves a breath and is still.
“Stella, excuse me,” she says and walks over to the manicurist station, her salon cape draped over her like a shield. I watch her dip a single cotton ball into nail polish remover and before I can get a word out, she presses it square on the squirrel’s snout. It didn’t even twitch, gone before knowing life existed. She wraps the body in a few tissues and slides the corpse inside the empty nail polish box Stella offers. Juanita hands it to me, the shade Radiant Red stamped in purple ink across the white lid. “It’s best not to get close when you know in the end that your heart will break.”
I stare at the box and back at her, my throat working back angry tears. She snatches a couple more tissues, the faint smell of acetone light on her fingertips. “Dry up those tears right now and go on out and bury it, maybe somewhere on the side of the shop. That okay with you, Stella?”
“Why sure, hon,” the hairdresser says and hurries back to the break room, separated from the salon by a gold brocade curtain. I hear drawers open and shut, the jangle of junk that accompanies a search for something specific.
“Found something to dig with!” she sings out and returns with a spoon, the initial “S” engraved on the stem in curlicue. “It’s a good thing you’ve done, sweetheart,” Stella says, “rescuing that pitiful doodlebug before something else got to it—the pair of hawks always flapping around this place, in particular. Saw one with a snake in its mouth the other day, if you can believe that, and something else I’ve heard about hawks? They mate for life.” She gives my shoulder a quick squeeze. “Anyway, enough of that. Once you’re finished, I want you to pick out any magazine you want for keeps, that is, if it’s okay with Juanita.”
Juanita nods and settles back into the chair, flipping through her magazine to an exposé piece titled “Larger than Life: Jayne Mansfield.” “She had such beautiful hair,” Stella says, making the sign of the cross. Without waiting to hear the current hypothesis regarding the accident, I clasp the box close to my heart and run out the screen door into the heat of the early afternoon, thinking Juanita would find the hate I feel for her indeed quite common.
The side of the property faces an all-day sun and, with the exception of the scrub palmetto, most everything green prior to the start of the summer is the color of burnt butter. I pick a spot close to the building where strays are less likely to poach the remains and start digging from the outside in. I scoop out gray sand sprinkled with fragments of white shell, fossils from prehistoric times when the land was covered with water, though Juanita tells me this state was and is nothing but a swamp and the shells are nothing but fancy gravel used as fill dirt to prevent anything heavier than a mosquito from sinking straight down through to the aquifer.
She detests Florida for all sorts of reasons, most often citing as number one the heat and humidity that cause her hair to look as if she stuck her finger into an electrical outlet. Years ago she slapped down one hundred dollars for a decrepit truck and swore to drive herself out of the state or drive herself crazy. She packed up and drove north headed toward anywhere else, somewhere without oranges or cattle or beaches, somewhere predictable and clean, a place with museums and coffee shops, cinema and five-course dinners and the glamour she craved, but her dreams and the truck died five miles south of the Georgia line. Dead set and determined to leave, she stacked her luggage on the side of the highway and stuck out her thumb, the busted radiator signaling distress. My father pulled over to help her out and, as if struck by a bolt from the big blue, was instantaneously smitten by this beauty of a bartender. He loaded up her things and drove Juanita over to his mother’s house to stay in the spare room until she could figure out what to do next, but within a few weeks, he talked her into marrying him with the promise of settling in Atlanta.
As my father tells the story, he was hog-tied humbled that this sublime creature would consider such an offer from a pathetic widower with an infant daughter. He seems happy enough, but the years between promise and reality find Juanita still stuck in the rural armpit of the state she hates. Not a day goes by that Juanita doesn’t blame my dad for thwarting her escape from a place where an offhand discussion of culture typically revolves around fermented cream and the tartness of the resulting buttermilk. She portrayed herself bigger and better than this backwards place, yet here she stayed saddled with a plumber for a husband and me, her ten-year-old stepdaughter shadowed by a dead mother she never knew.
As soon as the hole is big enough, I decorate the inside walls with a few of the larger shell fragments and set the nail polish box down inside the warm earth. It looks like a piece of beauty parlor trash, blown free from the dumpster. I pull the red yarn hair tie from my ponytail to wrap around the makeshift coffin and as I do, something shifts inside. I drop the box and scoot back fast, my ears thudding with my heartbeat.
I catch my breath and peer into the hole. The box is still.
Squeezing my eyes shut against a flash image of a dead squirrel rising from the grave like Jesus, I pick up the nail polish box and give it a gentle shake. Something inside slides to a rest against the end flap. A thin layer of cardboard is all that separates me from whatever is moving. My stomach lurching, my fingers trembling, I hold the box away from me as far as I can and pull open the flap.
Out falls my mother’s black onyx that Juanita has claimed as her own. The ring was a smidge too large for her slim finger and had slipped off in odd places all over the house, but losing the ring inside the squirrel coffin was the oddest place of all. I stick the ring back into the box and think about my real mother, who died giving me life.
I tie the hair yarn in a bow and set the box back inside the grave. Drizzling streams of dirt from my fingertips in a sort of postmortem gesture, I think a quick prayer of protection against the fates that may befall small beings separated from their mothers. I bury the box and mark the site with a mound of landscape rocks borrowed from the front parking lot.
I sit back on my heels, filthy, sweaty, heat flickering against the back of my neck. My legs and arms are mud-sticky dirty and the hissy fit Juanita will pitch about me riding home in her new sports car will prove hard to bear—the front or back seat, center or otherwise, being the last of her concerns, the zebra upholstery seat covers her first. Perhaps she will have missed the ring by then and Stella and I can help her search the car. I laugh just thinking about Juanita breaking a sweat rummaging between the seats and under the floor mats in search of something that was never hers.
A whinny from around front reminds me of the treats left to feed the horse, but one detail remains left to do. I run inside the shop and right back out, with, “Girl, how in the bejesus did you get that dirty digging a simple hole?” trailing me like a question mark through the screen door, past the horse and around the side to the grave. I kneel down, uncap the black permanent marker grabbed off Stella’s reception desk and in deliberate capital letters write J-A-Y-N-E across the center stone. I admire the inscription and head over to feed the filly the last of the celery sticks the freshly coiffed Juanita plans to fill with cream cheese and serve up as fancy hors d’oeuvres before tonight’s dinner of franks and beans.