Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Graduation

Margaret A. Frey


Lily Akers was ready to close up when the girl came in. She'd been ready to close for the last hour, but the tiny shop had been buzzing all day. Might think she was the only beauty parlor in Somerset Township, but the shop paid the bills and for that she was grateful.

Still, she wished Sally Purcell and her daughter Julia had trotted their business down the road. She could say she was closing, flip her door sign with an apologetic smile and shrug, but before the thought was fully-hatched, Sally's sizeable bulk pushed through the screen door. The woman waved her fleshy arms around, while Julia stood sullen and silent, a sallow-skinned lump of a girl.

"You sure have improved the place, Lily. Business must be good. Unless you've come into a secret inheritance." The woman laughed in a high, brittle way.

"Business is good enough. I'd planned to shut down a bit early what with Georgie's graduation and-"

"How's that boy of yours? Heard he's headed to college. Seems like yesterday that Julia and Georgie were racing around on tricycles. And here's my Julia, ready to graduate. Marry, too. Marrying into the
Harrison family, you know, the youngest boy, Roger. Takes my breath away, I tell you. I would've called for an appointment, Lily. I hate to put you out, but Julia here, stubborn about all this natural beauty nonsense, could use a touchup, don't you think? A little blush on her cheeks, maybe one of
those pretty French braids. I'd do it myself, but I'm all thumbs and . . . ."

Sally's voice droned on. Somebody ought to take her breath away! Lily smiled politely, pretended she was paying attention but the whole time she watched Julia. The girl was plain as dishwater, but there was something else, something she couldn't quite get her head around.

"And, of course, I'd bring in the whole bridal party. Even with that scholarship, Georgie will need extra cash, so I wouldn't think--"

"Fine, fine." Lily waved a five-dollar bill. "Why don't you go down the street and pick up some coffee, easy with the sugar on mine."

Sally snatched the money with a toothy grin. "See, Julia? If there's one person you can count on it's Lily Akers. Be right back."

"Don't rush," Lily said.

After the screen door slapped shut, Lily turned to Julia. "So, what did you have in mind?"

The girl shrugged. "Whatever you think's best, Miz Lily."

Lily motioned for her to take a seat then took a brush to the girl's limp hair. "A French braid would be pretty. I could weave a ribbon through the braid, pick up the color of your . . . ." She caught her breath then, nearly dropping the brush. A faint but undeniable band of bruising encircled the
girl's neck.

"Who did this?"

Face pinched with fear, Julia looked up. "He didn't mean it, Miz Akers. He said it was a mistake. He even cried after and said he was sorry. Mama said I need to watch my mouth, not rile him up. She said young men get riled up easy."

Easy, Lily thought. Yes, it was easy for her Jake, too. Easy to explain the bruises away, easy to say he was sorry. Jobs were scarce, money nonexistent. There were all sorts of things to rile a man up. Jake was riled the day she threw him out. One swipe at Georgie was the final insult.

"You could cancel the wedding, Julia. You could call it off."

Julia's eyes welled up. "Oh, I can't do that. Mama says this is my one chance at a good life. The Harrisons are a fine family, and even I know I'm not the prettiest girl around. I'm lucky Roger loves me. Sometimes, I can barely believe it myself. He didn't mean to hurt me. Once we're married it'll be different. I know it will."

Lily could have told the girl different. She could have provided lurid examples, but she remembered her own naive notions. How do you tell a child, particularly one not your own, that for some men love is not enough to change things, least of all themselves?

"I hope that's the case, Julia. I really do."

Lily was nearly finished with Julia's hair when Sally returned. She'd made Julia's plait wide and low with several wispy tendrils, used powder on the bruises, and then brushed the girl's cheeks with a soft pink blusher. She even used a shimmer of gray shadow to highlight the girl's eyes. Julia smiled at the result. If you squinted, the girl looked almost pretty.

"You're an absolute magician, Lily!" Sally said. "I've never seen the girl look so sweet." The woman rummaged in her purse and handed Lily two twenties.

"That's too much, Sally. Twenty dollars will do fine."

"No, we put you out and I want to do what's right." Sally smiled but her gaze was hard, pointed. She pushed the money into Lily's hand. "I insist. I'm willing to pay for inconvenience." Her gaze shifted to Julia. "Come on, girl. You mustn't keep that young man waiting."

Julia swung from the styling chair. "Thank you, Miz Akers."

Lily forced a smile. "You take care, child."

She watched mother and daughter hustle down the steps, sail through the gate and disappear around the corner. She stood like that for several seconds, then stared down at Sally's money with an overwhelming sense of fatigue. She slipped the bills to the back of the cash drawer, after which she locked up shop.

Pausing at the front gate, Lily watched a dust devil zigzag along the curb, kicking up a cloud of debris. She looked away uneasily and hurried on, eager to give Georgie a hug now, a soft kiss on the cheek before she graduated and took that first step into a perplexing, often inexplicable world.

___

Margaret A. Frey, a native of South Jersey, was transplanted to the foothills of the Smoky Mountains a decade ago. Her work has been published online and in print, most recently in Kaleidoscope and Foliate Oak. Future work will appear in KenAgain.  Margaret lives with her husband and canine literary critics, all of whom prefer walking to writing.

© Margaret A. Frey

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012