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Ann Clark-Moore - Haircut

            “Did you get a good earful, Harriet? Stop listening in!” the phone slams down, and Sarah can hear it upstairs as she huddles in bed, trying to make a pocket of warmth in the little cold bed.

            “Harriet on the line again?” The voice raises from the heating grate, directly from the living room below.

            “Of course.” Her mother’s usually warm contralto is acid with irritation. She hears a coffee cup—it’s always a coffee cup because her mother drinks nothing else—bang onto a table, probably her mother’s end table by the couch. There is a snick of a lighter.

            “What did the teacher say?”

            “Oh, you won’t believe this. He said he was doing us a favor. He was breaking a bad habit and that we should have Sarah sent to the school psychologist.”

            Sarah touches the ends of her hair, just under her ears. They feel sharp.

            “Do you want to call the principal and complain? Or do you want me to take care of it?”

            There is a sharp intake of breath. “No, Dan, I don’t want you to get involved. I know how you get. It’s just hair; it’ll grow back.”

            Sarah is shivering. It is only October, and her parents won’t turn on the furnace until November, no matter what the temperature, though each year they go to what they call “the city,” which is Lowville, to the Ames store and buy fluffy new blankets. But the blankets are acrylic, and the first time through the wash, they flatten down to nothing and begin to shred. Her neck feels cold without her hair.

            Now the can hear her parents counting out the money for the next day and checking the remaining money for the week. They do this every night. Sarah’s mom will pack a lunch for her, but a little blue and white carton of milk will cost a nickel. Her father has already paid his five dollars this week to the other three men he shares a ride with to the Pettibone plant in Rome, and he will also carry a sack lunch, but h will take a quarter for two coffees. They are nearly out of milk and cigarettes. Sarah knows that Tareytons cost 35 cents; she has run into Great American enough times to get a pack for her mother. She doesn’t know how much milk costs because until last year, Mercer’s Dairy delivered milk directly into an insulated box on the front porch, even this far out of town. Then, suddenly, they stopped, and everyone had to buy cardboard cartons at the store, but at least the milk didn’t freeze while they were at school.

            “Kiki, I know you can’t go without cigarettes,” her father is saying. “The last time you tried, you were pretty awful.” Sarah knows that when her father uses her mother’s nickname, Kiki, things are either really good or really bad. This sounds pretty bad.

            “Well, we only have ninety-eight cents. I can’t give Sarah powered milk on her oatmeal again. She hates it, and I don’t feel right about it.”

            “I’ll ask Ray if he can loan me a dollar or two tomorrow. Don’t worry about it.”

            “But then, how will we pay it back? I don’t want you to start gambling again.”

            Sarah misses the furnace not just for the heat, but for the times when the blower comes on and covers the sound of her parents’ endless worry. The huge farmhouse is filled with cold, worry, and aching hunger. She is always hungry.

            That morning her mother had given her a bowl of plain oatmeal and milk, but by eleven she felt like knives were carving her insides. She put the tip of one of her long braids in her mouth without thinking. She’d been doing this for months, maybe years, and adults would tease her. “Say, what flavor is your hair? Chocolate or vanilla?” Then they’d laugh, amused by their own joke. But Mr. .Wason didn’t laugh.

            Mr. Wason was the third grade teacher no one wanted to have. He was the strict one. The one the middle-schoolers told stories about on the bus. That once he’d slammed a kid’s head into a desk and broken his nose and that he’d smashed a boy into a wall. That he threw chalk and erasers when students weren’t paying attention.

            He was a short, blonde man with sharp blue eyes and oddly pink lips. At first, girl students might be confused into thinking he was pretty, “cute” even. But then he would begin to teach in his own way. He would ridicule a prissy boy until that boy lost control of his bladder in the classroom one hot September day. He refused to let Valerie Sims go to the nurse and she passed out and lost a tooth when she collided with a desk. There was a hot, nasty satisfaction in his eyes that Sarah couldn’t quite explain after Mr. Wason reduced Tim Sanders, who stuttered, to hysterics by making him read out loud in front of the class. When you’re eight years old, you just say, “Mr. Wason is mean.”

            “Take your hair out of your mouth, Miss Carr.” Mr. Wason snapped one day, and it was clear he was not amused by Sarah’s habit. But September was warm, and things at home weren’t bad, so it was easier to remember not to chew on her braids. As the weather got meaner, Sarah had forgotten more often, however.

            “Go to the board, and write, ‘I am a hair sucker’ a hundred times, and if you miss your bus, you can walk home.” Of course, Mr. Wason neither knew nor cared that Sarah lived five miles from town. A week later, he jerked her braid from her mouth, jarring her teeth with the metal brad on the elastic.

            “The next time I catch you sucking your braids, I’ll cut them off. Don’t think I won’t,” he growled. And today, well, she had been forgetful.

            Sarah had been thinking of lunch, which would be peanut butter on Wonder bread and milk, but she was looking forward to it anyway. Sometimes Valerie Sims would give her one of her Devil Dogs because she said she was full, which Sarah knew wasn’t the case but didn’t keep her from taking it, and sometimes the lady at the lunch counter would let her trade up to chocolate milk “for a smile.”

            She felt a sharp tug and then a lightness on the right side of her head and then a jerk on the right. Mr. Wason was holding the huge cast-iron shears he cut construction paper for art projects, and her two-foot long braids had slithered to the tile floor.

            “Pick those up and put them in the trash where they belong.”

            Her head felt light, and she couldn’t move. With his free hand, Mr. Wason shoved her.

            “I said, pick them up and throw them out. Do. It. Now.”

            Her scuffed Maryjanes clicked on the tile, and she gathered her hair. It was clumsy. The braids were long and she almost dropped them.

            At lunch, Valerie offered her both of her Devil Dogs, and Sarah ate them.

            “What happened to your hair? Did you cut your hair?” her mother had screamed, and when she had explained, her mother had chain-smoked three cigarettes and then cleaned t he entire downstairs. Finally she had taken her sewing shears and attempted to even the ends of Sarah’s hair.

            “Mom? Are you swearing?”

            “Of course not. You know I don’t swear.”

            “Oh. Because I thought you were swearing.”

            “I don’t swear.” Her mother set the shears down. “This is the best I can do. After you wash your hair tomorrow, it’s going to curl. I’m sorry.”

            The next morning, Sarah’s hair was a tight cap of brown curls and as short as a boy’s, and her mother looked at her and ran into the bathroom, locked the door and didn’t come out for fifteen minutes.

            “Were you crying?” Sarah asked.

            “No, of course, not. Why would I be crying?” She handed Sarah the several times re-used paper sack with her lunch. “Make sure you give Mr. Wason this.” It was a gleaming white envelope. “Don’t forget.”

            The kids on the bus all wanted to touch her hair and made her tell what Mr. Wason had said and done. Then they made her tell it again to the kid who got on the bus at later stops. When she got to school, the older students pointed. Miss Maguire, who had the classroom next to Mr. Wason, was standing in the hallway and shook her head. Sarah’s stomach started to hurt.

            She put her sack lunch into her desk and lowered the wooden top, then marched up to Mr. Wason’s desk and gave him the envelope.

            “What is this, Miss Carr?”

            “It’s from my mother.” She turned and went to her desk. She watched as Mr. Wason opened the envelope and took out a paper. He began to read. At first Sarah thought he looked angry; his blue eyes were even sharper. But then his hands shook a little and his mouth went straight and thin and his face was the same color as the yellow chalk he used to correct the white chalked math problems the students did on the board. He set the paper down on the desk as if it were something bad, and Sarah thought he would throw it into the dark metal trash basket, like her braids, but then, he carefully folded it and put it back in the envelope and placed it in the center desk drawer. He stared at the top of his desk and just kept staring. Class was supposed to start, should have started two minutes ago, and Mr. Wason was still staring, and now Sarah was wondering what was in the envelope because her mother didn’t swear.

            Class still wasn’t starting. Now her father would be asking Ray for a dollar or two so her mother could have cigarettes. Sarah reached for a braid that wasn’t there, sneaked a look at Mr. Wason, who was still looking at his desk. Whispers were rising in the class like blown snow, and class should have started ten minutes ago.  Sarah picked up her Faber #2 and considered it, looked at Mr. Wason, and nibbled her pencil. It tasted fine.