Sweet Silver

by NICKOLE BROWN

1. You were in a bakery when you first saw it: hair bright as abalone, a back-lit gray kissed with lavender, a color that flashed like the white underside of leaves when strong winds flipped the color before a storm. It might not have been a natural tone, but by now, you knew: a woman blending in meant a woman forgettable, and your edges were fading, near forty, a mother of six and another on the way, your smile lost to empty root chambers and a set of false teeth, your husband lost to a game of tennis with a little white skirt. You bought a dozen of this, a dozen of that— so many mouths to feed—and before the door chime announced that lady’s departure, you asked, Excuse me, what color you got on your hair? She said, Clairol, Sweet Silver, and if anyone can name a color theirs, that’s been your color since.   2. This was the trick Lucille Ball could teach: as beauty queen, you are measured, compared to the rest, as sex symbol you age, and unless you manage a spectacular suicide, you disappear. But make yourself into a funny lady, pull your skirt up and stomp barefoot in grapes, let yourself get knocked across the stage by a loaf of bread a mile long, and you’re on to something, pile your clown red high, everybody loves you, take a bow.   3. It was an art form, really—a sculpture fit for Marie Antoinette, not a hive or a bouffant but a placement of silver curls teased to Jesus and set with aerosol. Necessary tools included rollers, clips, perm rods, dense bristle brushes, rat-tail combs, setting lotion, and a hood dryer to bake it into place. For the crowing touch, a matching Sweet Silver wiglet, securely pinned then blended on the top.   4. A whore’s bath is what she called it— once she got sick, all she could do was stand at the sink and splash clean. Her hair became a dandelion puff in the front, a shut-in’s matt in the back, and grew roots two inches long of a color none of us had ever seen. She became limp, bruised, pale, her flesh returning to water, her hair gone to weed. My uncle, he said, Your grandmama’s just given up, that’s all. And how do you like those lowlights in her hair? It was a joke— I know, I know, I know— but I could have wrapped the cord of the spray nozzle around his neck. Instead, I smiled quiet, stood behind her as she gripped her walker hard. Her face was bent in the kitchen sink, she was white-knuckled, she was shaking, and for the first time, my fingers touched her scalp. I’m hurrying, Fanny, I know, I said. Don’t I know it, Fanny, don’t I know. Just one more minute more now. I have to work these knots out.   5. What I wouldn’t do for a lock of that hair now, a bright flash of fuck all y’all to braid into the ancestral wreath. Can you see it? The intricate twists in shades of mouse, dishwater, ash, straw-broom— all the church-going, mannered tones of almost-blonde, the hair of the dead resigned to the bleak of autumn leaves long after it’s time to rake and snow is on the ground. Can you see it? There— at the strong base of the tree, that bough with seven branches forking from it, that carbonated platinum, that stainless Adriatic, the Sweet Silver of her last remaining threads. Trace your finger—you might be surprised to find the hair thinner than it looked on her, find it has more oil, not enough curl, further proof of how hard she worked to become who she was.

NICKOLE BROWN is the author of Sister and the forthcoming Fanny Says, a biography-in-poems about her grandmother, Frances Cox, from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Her work has been featured in The Writer's Chronicle, Poets & Writers, 32 Poems, The Cortland Review, Post Road, The Oxford American, and Mammoth Books' Sudden Stories anthology, among others. She also co-edited the anthology, Air Fare: Stories, Poems, & Essays on Flight. Currently, Nickole lives in Little Rock, AR, where she is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arkansas and Co-editor, with Robert Alexander, for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series at White Pine Press.