Beauty in the Bones

An excerpt from In the Lonely Backwater

Fiction by Valerie Nieman

The kitchen at the Plantation wasn’t anything like the rest of the house. No displays of artificial flowers or gold-painted Valentine cupids holding up lamps, no bright-colored couches or polished furniture. It was a working place, my grandmother’s office.

We had moved back from that shack at the beach a few months before. The house had plenty of room for us all. I had enjoyed it at first, good cooking, and new places to explore. But that morning was a visit to hell.

I sat in one of the spindle-backed chairs, next to the enamel table where Grandma made pies.

“Now this will give your hair body, Lenore.”

Maggie, I said to myself. Call me Maggie.

Mother put her hands under my limp damp hair and lifted it. I heard her nails click together like tiny rodent teeth. She raised it up a couple of times and let it fall back.

“It’s just hopeless without some help,” she said.

A permanent wave box sat on the table, with a smiling woman pictured on the front. Her hair rolled like amber waves of grain all around the sides of the box and onto the back, like she had three times the hair of a real person. I sat wrapped in a towel with a thin plastic cape over that. Mom was laying out her implements: comb, plastic roller-things, rubber gloves, squares of tissue paper, and a jar of Vaseline.

“This won’t make me look like an old lady, will it?”

“No honey, this is a body perm. We use these bigger ones.” She showed me gray and white rods. I tried to take an interest, as though this were an experiment in Mr. Palko’s class.

My so-called mother was dressed in her oldest sweat suit, but even in that she looked beautiful. It didn’t matter, she could have worn a garbage bag. Her blond hair swayed in its ponytail as she worked around me, rubbing a layer of Vaseline along the top of my face and around my ears. She had on lipstick (bright pink), even to do this. I loved to read the names on the bottom of her lipstick tubes, all passion and roses and love and fire.

She took her comb and began marking off my head like a map, sectioning my hair, and then she began to wrap pieces of hair around the rollers.

She put on the rubber gloves and began to squirt stuff onto my head. It smelled horrible, and ran over the Vaseline wall and toward my eyes. I pulled my arm out of the plastic and rubbed it away with my sleeve.

“Well, that’s another shirt ruined,” she said with a sigh.

 I didn’t know this was dangerous. I put my arm back under the plastic and sat very still. I could feel my head itching, like the stuff was peeling the skin off me. She set the cooking timer and I watched the time crawl and crawl. This didn’t seem like a good idea now. I wondered why she hadn’t taken me to the hair salon that she went to and always came back looking like a soap opera star.

After ten minutes, she unrolled one piece, but rolled it right back up.

Finally, she was satisfied, and began to rinse the stuff out with water that was too hot. She patted my hair with a towel, and I thought, done. But there was more goo, and this felt really cold. Finally we got to rinse that out, and she began taking the rods off and tossing them on the table.

I put my hand up to feel the first parts coming free. My hair was curled up so tight.

“It will relax, honey.”

My butt ached and I really wanted for it to be over. I don’t think I had ever sat so long, not even in school. Hours and hours. But I was eager, too, to see if this would make my hair look like hers, bouncy and shiny.

She was about halfway done when Dad came in.

“How’s my girls?” He put his arms around her and danced her across the room.

“Oh, Drew, I’m a mess!”

“You are never a mess.” He squeezed her tight, and she tipped back her face and he gave her a kiss. “You are one sexy dame.”

I saw her hands go down around his bottom.

I watched the kiss get serious.

I sat there, helpless under my silly cape, my head itching and half rolled up and half down.

I saw how he rubbed himself against her.

“Fine, I’ll do it myself!” I ripped off the plastic sheet and flung it, not really at them but sort of in that direction, and I reached up and tried to figure out how those rod things came apart.

“Oh, Lenore, you will just ruin all my work!” She pulled away from Dad, and came back and really started to fly, pulling the rods out and not caring if it took half the hair off my head. She was in a hurry to get away and go upstairs with him.

I hated her. I hated the way she smelled of strong perfume. I hated how she was always checking herself in any mirror or window she walked by. I hated how her hair was perfect and stiff, how she couldn’t do anything with her hands in case she might break off a nail. I hated that she had named me stupid romantic names. I hated that she could lure my dad away from anything, any time, by touching him, or even just looking at him.

When she was finished, I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror.

That was when I understood that beauty couldn’t be added on, like frosting on a plain cake. It had to be there, in the bones.

In the Lonely Backwater Synopsis: 17-year-old Maggie struggles to shape her own identity and make a life in the ruins of her family through sailing and “fictionalizing.” When she becomes prime suspect in her beautiful cousin’s prom night murder, can even a sympathetic detective unravel the terrible secrets Maggie holds close?

<strong>Valerie Nieman</strong>
Valerie Nieman

Valerie Nieman’s In the Lonely Backwater is being called “not only a page-turning thriller but also a complex psychological portrait of a young woman dealing with guilt, betrayal, and secrecy.” To the Bones, her folk horror/mystery about coal country, was a finalist for the 2020 Manly Wade Wellman Award, joining three earlier novels, a short fiction collection, and three poetry books. She has published widely in journals, and has held state and NEA fellowships. She graduated from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte and was a creative writing professor at NC A&T State University.