Radiant Red

A short story by Sheree Shatsky

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It’s evening and Juanita sits at her vanity table pressing a long piece of toilet paper to her hair. Tilting her head to the side, she pulls a couple of bobby pins free from the several pressed between her lips and clips the strip flat against her French twist. She tears another section off the roll, and then another, continuing with the rote 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. Satisfied, she sticks a diamond hairpin front and center of the papered do to add a bit of glamour she says, 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. My dad once told her that he read somewhere about a woman who found a nest of cockroaches huddled up in her own Viking-esque helmet of hairspray, but one curt wave of her sharp manicured fingernails silenced both him and the account from forever being told again. Juanita notices me sitting on the edge of the bed watching, our reversed images caught between the two mirrors. “Where did that come from?” she asks about the movie magazine I have open on my lap.

My stepmother has forgotten Stella said I could take the copy of Modern Screen home, as long as I bring it back the next time she is scheduled to have her hair done. Stella is a hairdresser who owns the shop next door to the feed store that boasts a tie up out front for horses ridden in by grizzled Florida cattle ranchers and wannabes with no other business at hand other than to story the day away. I spend most of the couple hours necessary to sculpt Juanita’s coif by thumbing through the latest Hollywood gossip tabloids, but once Stella places a warm towel at the base of Juanita’s neck and lowers her head back into the shampoo bowl, that’s my cue to sneak outside with carrots smuggled from our kitchen to feed whatever horse might be swatting flies out front. “Beauty parlor,” I answer. “Stella said it was okay. I didn’t have a chance to finish this one. And it’s about Jayne Mansfield.”

The magazine is open to a scandal piece on the death of the starlet killed in a horrific crash on a stretch of Louisiana highway earlier this summer. Jayne Mansfield was one of Juanita’s favorite film stars–second only to Ann Margaret— and she had been caught up in the particulars of the death, fixated on the pure circumstance that placed Jayne in the front seat of the ’66 Buick Electra. She often speculates the 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, scanning the story for facts to support her theory. “Says here Jayne was killed right where she sat, her head nearly ripped off.” She shakes her tissue turbaned bejeweled head in disbelief as if hearing the news for the first time, the facets of 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 went 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.”

I find the squirrel the weekend Juanita went blonde, in personal tribute to Jayne. The process from dark to light requires hours longer than the typical shampoo–set–updo, so I make certain to ration the carrots to last the duration of her reinvention. I’d been outside a couple of times to feed a roan mare with a vanilla mane, 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 kneel 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, holding out her hand, her ring finger heavy with the black onyx that once belonged to my mother, a dangling reminder that at ten years of age I still had no idea of the circumstances surrounding her death. I place the squirrel into Juanita’s smooth palm like a falling feather, biting my lip, my throat working back tears. 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 strides 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. She snatches a couple more tissues, the faint smell of acetone light on her fingertips. “Dry up those tears 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 made of pure silver, 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, in particular, that husband-wife team of ospreys always flapping around this place. Did you know they mate for life?” She gives my shoulder a quick squeeze. “Anyway, 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 Juanita’s current hypothesis regarding the accident, I clasp the box in two hands close to my heart and lead the funeral procession of one through the screen door and into the heat of the early afternoon.

The side property faces down 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, jackhammering ground the texture of concrete with methodical jabs of the silver spoon.

I dig from the outside in, scooping 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 causes her hair to look as if she stuck her finger into an electrical outlet. Ten years ago she packed up and headed north, but her car died five miles from the Georgia line. Determined to leave, she stacked her luggage on the side of the highway and stuck out her thumb, the busted radiator steaming distress. My dad 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. They married soon after, and as my father tells the story, he was hogtied humbled that this sublime creature would give a care about a pathetic widower with an infant daughter. He seems happy enough, but 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 revolved around fermented cream and the tartness of the resulting buttermilk.

Once the hole is the size of a hatbox, 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. Pulling the red yarn hair tie from my ponytail, I wrap it around the box and tie the ends into a simple shoestring bow. I drizzle streams of dirt from my fingertips in a sort of postmortem gesture, studying how the individual grains spatter against the box and stick to the yarn like glitter. Squeezing my eyes shut against a flash image of what rests inside the makeshift coffin, I think a quick prayer of protection against the fates that may befall small beings separated from their mothers and shove the rest of the dirt back inside the hole, marking the site with a mound of landscape rocks filched from the front parking lot.

I sit back on my heels, filthy, sweaty, heat flickering the back of my neck like the scorch of the bonnet hair dryer I sometimes pull down over my head to deafen the chatter of Stella’s clients while I read Modern Screen or Movie Mirror, followed up with Teen Beat, time permitting. My legs and arms are mud sticky dirty and the fit Juanita will pitch about me riding home in her new sports car will prove hellacious–the front or back seat, center or otherwise, being the last of her concerns, the new zebra upholstery seat covers her first. A whinny from around front reminds me of the couple of carrots I’ve got left to feed the horse. 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 in a question mark through the screen door, past the roan mare and around the side to Radiant Red. I kneel down, uncap the black permanent marker grabbed off Stella’s faux marble reception desk and in deliberate capitol letters, write J-A-Y-N-E across the largest stone.

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