Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up in the North Carolina foothills with my mama’s beauty shop outside my bedroom window and a car mechanic’s garage across the street. Both had soda pop machines that dispensed Cheerwine and Sundrop, and I drank my fill. When I wasn’t swilling soda pop and eating bright orange Nabs from mama’s Tom’s snack jar, I walked into town and ordered ice cream at the drugstore, which shared a musty old building with the hardware store. Old men in overalls would gather on the benches outside; when I sashayed past, they nodded at me and smiled. They knew my daddy and my mama, my uncles and their wives, so I made sure to behave myself.
The Green Purse
Winnie looked forward to Saturday afternoons, when she could close up her beauty shop at 2 o’clock and leave behind all the voices that lingered there. She would step into her house next door for a tall glass of iced tea with lots of lemon. While York watched whatever sport happened to be on TV, she would flip through the latest issue of Ladies Home Journal or Redbook, sip her tea, and let all the week’s troubles slip out of her head and onto the pages of recipes and housecleaning tips. This was the one indulgence of her hectic hair-doing week, a way to chase away the picky comments about bangs snipped too short or a color that turned out too brassy.
Just as she reached for her metal money box to take into the house, she heard a car door slam.
What on earth? Winnie thought as she watched two figures emerge from a rusted-out Ford Fairlane now parked in her gravel driveway. She never had walk-ins. All the women who came to the beauty shop were regulars. She liked running her business that way: no surprise visits, no unexpected stories about marital problems or delinquent kids from women she didn’t know and trust.
She would deal with this quickly — her shop was now closed until Monday, after all — but the sight of a hunched-over old woman wearing a brown turban and a messy little girl holding her hand made Winnie stop. The cold air blasting from her window unit gave her a shiver, but she thought better of turning up the temperature. It was over 90 degrees outside, and she couldn’t bear a hot shop.
When the two stepped inside, it was the girl, no more than 8 years old and small for her age, who spoke.
“My great-granny wants her head warshed.” The child, clutching a lime green plastic purse, tugged at the old woman. “Ain’t that right, Great-Granny?”
The old woman nodded, causing her turban to slip sideways.
“Won’t nobody else do it,” the little girl said. “Mama used to do it, but she run off with a trucker last week. He fell through the stoop first, though.”
The old woman cackled at that, a rotting odor escaping her mostly toothless mouth. Winnie held her breath to keep from gagging. These were mountain people, from the hollers beyond the town limits, and she had always felt uncomfortable around their type. They were the kind that slipped into town and caused mischief, stealing hub caps and shoplifting at the Piggly Wiggly.
What can I do? Winnie thought. They were already in her shop — she couldn’t make them leave now. The little girl looked at her steadily, with sad light blue eyes.
“Well, come on over here and have a seat while I get my tools together.” Winnie pointed the child to a chair near the drink box and led the old woman to her work area. She pulled a cape, two small white towels, and a rattail comb from cabinets near the sink.
“Let’s see what I can do.” She eased the old woman into the styling chair, covered her with the plastic cape, and turned the chair to face the wall mirror. As she did, she almost slipped on the tufts of straw-colored hair littering the floor. “I apologize about the mess. I wasn’t expecting anyone and didn’t have time to sweep up.”
“You Winnie?” the child asked. “I seen it on the sign out yonder.”
“Yes I am. What’s your name?”
“I’m Bit. That’s Great-Granny. My granny, her daughter, was Sue. She’s dead of the woman cancer. My Mama is called Red Randi.” Bit clutched the shiny purse in her hands and gazed at it, as if it were a treasure. “You gonna warsh her head?”
Startled, Winnie turned back to the old woman, who had been watching her closely in the mirror. Winnie again felt cold and a little frightened. She decided to get the job done quickly.
“Yes ma’am. I’m going to wash her hair.”
“That’s good. Nobody else’ll do it. We tried six other places. They chased us out the door. One of ‘em threw those brushy rollers at us. They’s like little porky-pines, them rollers.”
“Oh. That’s terrible. Why would . . .” But Winnie knew. Money. Clearly, they couldn’t pay. Their clothes were stained and worn, they carried an odor of smoke and mustiness, and only the child had a purse — a play purse that had probably been lifted at the Five & Dime. Winnie imagined the purse was empty.
The child looked away. “I ain’t saying.”
Winnie lifted the turban and swayed momentarily, fighting to stay planted and not flee into her house.
The old woman’s hairless head was marbled with bruises and scabs. Someone had beaten her mercilessly. Winnie looked at Bit.
“Red Randi done it. Over and over.” The child held the purse tight to her chest. “Her and that trucker wanted whatever Great-Granny had. She didn’t give ‘em nothing. Not a copper penny.”
The old lady nodded and pursed her lips.
Winnie knew she could do nothing about the abuse. Bit wouldn’t tell her their last names, most likely. She could report the beating of an old woman by one Red Randi, but even that may not have been the woman’s real name. Whatever had happened in the hollers was done, and the city police wanted nothing to do with it. Winnie could only wash away the pain.
She looked in the mirror and met the old woman’s gaze. She swiveled the chair around and laid the woman’s head in the sink. Gently, she lathered Great-Granny’s head, careful not to hurt her, not to tear the scabs or rub the bruises. The old woman never made a sound.
“Who’s those girls?” Bit pointed to a photo of Winnie’s four daughters, taken right before the youngest drowned at Lake Lure six years ago. “Them your kids?”
Winnie turned the water on as low as she could manage and began to rinse Great-Granny’s head.
“Yes,” she said.
“What’s their names?” Bit stared at Winnie and fidgeted with the purse.
Why wouldn’t the little girl be quiet while Winnie worked? She didn’t want to talk about her family, about her loss. She looked over at Bit and realized suddenly that the little girl was lonely, that this great-grandmother was probably her only confidant.
What was a beautician for but to talk to?
“The oldest one is Karen. She’s a junior-high teacher now. The next oldest is Myra, still in college and taking summer school this year. The next youngest is Ava. She’s still in high school, but she’s never at home. Too many friends to ride around with in the summer. She’s probably up at the Frostee-Freeze eating ice cream right about now.” Winnie regretted that last part as soon as she said it. Bit had looked down at her dirty knees and hugged the purse to her chest. Winnie could tell that the little girl had never had ice cream from the Frostee-Freeze.
“Why don’t you grab a pack of Nabs from the snack jar behind you. On the house.” Winnie watched Bit swirl around, lift the lid on the jar, and pull out a pack of orange cheese crackers. The little girl held it in her hands with something akin to reverence. “I’m gonna save these for later.”
Winnie nodded, raised the old woman out of the sink, and swiveled the chair to face the mirror once again.
“Who’s that littlest one?” Bit asked. “She’s got the prettiest hair, it being like gold while the others is brown headed.”
Winnie looked away from the mirror, to the shimmering heat outside the shop windows. Saying it was still hard, all these years later. Winnie thought she might never be able to say it without feeling drenched and cold.
“Her name was Audrey,” Winnie said. “She died when she was six.”
Bit’s eyes widened and her lower lip quivered as she stared at the photograph. She opened her mouth to say something, but Great-Granny spoke first, her voice as dry and crackling as corn husks. “Hush child. Leave her be.”
Bit looked down at the purse and the pack of crackers in her lap. “Yes ma’am.”
After patting dry the old woman’s head with the softest towel she could find, Winnie carefully replaced the turban and helped Great-Granny out of the chair. The whole encounter had taken only 20 minutes of her time.
Winnie walked outside with the strangers, whom she knew she would never see again, into the bright sunlight and terrible August heat. The begonias on her patio withered; their yellowing leaves drooped in the humid air. Winnie noticed a lean figure behind the wheel of the car; one arm dangled out the driver’s side window, smoke curling up from a cigarette.
“That’s my brother,” Bit said. “He’s the only one can drive us now.”
Winnie, thinking the boy behind the wheel couldn’t be any older than thirteen, nodded and said, “Y’all have a nice evening.”
Back in the chilly air of the shop, Winnie began to clean up. She didn’t want to cook tonight, so she figured she’d send York to pick up fried flounder dinners from the fish camp in Whitnel. She knew he’d agree — as he liked to say, God created heaven and earth, and then he deep-fried the hush puppies. They would eat on TV trays and watch the Lawrence Welk and Carol Burnett shows.
A knock came at the door. Winnie opened it to find Bit standing there, the pack of Nabs in one hand, the purse tightly clutched in the other. Tears ran down her dirty little face.
“Great-Granny told me, ‘You take that pocketbook to the nice lady in yonder.’” She thrust the purse at Winnie. “It’s your’n now.”
Winnie took the purse, knowing that it was an enormous sacrifice for the girl to make. Before she could thank Bit, the child ran to the car. Winnie watched the Fairlane speed away, churning up gravel and spewing smoke.
She started to undo the clasp on the green purse, to look inside and confirm what she already knew, but thought better of it. She turned the purse over in her hands, caressing its shiny plastic exterior, feeling it grow warmer and warmer against her skin. Trembling, she sat down in the styling chair and held the purse to her chest. Surely, that glass of iced tea could wait.