I should have known things were going down fast when Mom gave herself that perm, the acrid chemical sting hitting us in the eyes and burning our nostrils red-raw. Dad and I stood on the icy front step for air while she turbaned her head in clear plastic, calling out spoilers through the tiny bathroom window that we were in for a real treat.
“She’s going to lose all that pretty hair, by the smells of it,” my Dad said, shaking his head in bewilderment. I imagined the follicles on her head fizzing and popping as each pink curler fell to the floor, skizzy hair still wrapped tight and looking like something out of an old mummy’s tomb.
Then she bought contacts. Hard little disks balanced on each finger tip and placed directly onto her eyeballs, her face stretched in concentration, her eyes wide and rolled back like a horror film doll possessed. Blinking, she turned to me, ta-da!, solution streaming down her cheeks. I handed her a tissue from the back of the toilet, wondering at all this effort when your day is spent with a man, a boy and a bunch of pigs sent to slaughter every winter. A bleak world that deserved no such finery.
Previously Mom had never been altogether concerned with fashion, opting instead for practicality. Corduroys with Dad’s work shirts tucked in and high rubber boots for feeding the pigs. Her enormous, square glasses with brown tinted tops made me think of a friendly bug, but now they sat stuffed in the back of the bathroom drawer with the Q-tips and half empty Vaseline jar. Two eyes bulging and staring every time you wanted to clean your ears or enjoy a little time to yourself. If you follow my meaning.
Dad kept remarking on her spiffiness. Look at you, getting all spiffed up! Queen coming for dinner? He stood back, a stunned smile on his face while she twirled in her new dress.
“It’s got shoulder pads,” she said. “For a strong silhouette.” She did a quick two step, then laughed and swiped at the air like we were the silly ones.
But I felt no such frivolity. A bubbling concern welled within me. A sad goodbye building, like Christmas afternoon and all the good parts are over. You know what comes next? You know. Take down the tree, toss the tinsel in the trash like you don’t give a damn, eat the last crumbs of Christmas baking even though there’s a stale softness to it all. Grandparents leave, TV’s turned off, back to the pigs.
“Well, Brenda, that is one fine dress.” My Dad adjusted his belt and looked into the kitchen. “Guess it’s time to tie on the old feed bag, hey?”
“Oh, Ray, let’s go out tonight. It’s been so long.”
I could see my Dad tally up the numbers in his head for such an excursion. How many bags of corn yet to buy, what was owed on the water bill, the extra man we’d have to hire come Spring. And then Mom tried something new: grabbing her purse and marching swiftly to the car without a word. A silent demand, the only recourse being obedience or watching her sit out in the cold station wagon til her nose turned red and we all felt fools.
We went to Smitty’s where they served breakfast all day. I ordered pancakes, Dad ordered roast chicken and Mom ordered Ceasar salad.
“What, just a salad?” My dad sucked his face back at the absurdity.
“Ray,” she whispered. “I’m watching my figure.”
He eyed her up and down. “Well you look fine. Don’t you know?”
No she didn’t looked fine. She looked like one of those rainbow eyed ladies in the doctor’s office magazines with bright shiny lips. Hair crusted into some great geological formation, collar up against an imaginary wind. I wanted nothing to do with it, but my Dad seemed only mildly perplexed, supper being at the forefront of his thinking.
I was still buttoning my shirt when I came downstairs some days later. Dad sat at the table, a note hanging limply from his hand. He looked out the window—brittle, frost-white fields against a harsh, gray dawn. Craggy, naked trees breaking the sky like cracks in old pottery.
“Guess she wants to see places,” he said. “Guess she’s feeling a little…” he looked down at the note through his glasses. “Stifled.” He tapped at it, two pokes. “Says she’ll send postcards, but we only got them two magnets.” He thumbed towards the fridge.
A-OK Plumbing, we meet your plumbing needs with style! and Smitty’s—Breakfast ALL DAY.
I imagined her, glamorous and assured in some sun drenched city, eating salads, her hair teased back into a magically round do that neither wind nor rain could spoil. Vivacious Brunette, the box of dye said, and to me vivacious meant laughing at nearly everything, tinkling out the odd clever punchline, revealing cleavage on purpose but accidental. She would meet her new tribe, I thought. The boy would have one of those spikey haircuts that fell long in back. He would wear a jean jacket with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, his shoes would gleam with the brightness of a thousand stars. I looked at my Timberlands, caked with pig muck, those very pigs now coursing through the cells of our town folk, adding fat to their bellies and salting their blood.
“I’ll pick up some magnets in town,” I offered.
“She’ll come back to visit.”
“We can get us one of them new VCRs before then. Remember how she wanted that?”
I nodded, but I knew better. She was long gone.