By MANDY SHUNNARAH
NONFICTION HONORABLE MENTION
The mortician must have removed the chin hairs she had once asked me to pluck.
I leaned over the casket and couldn’t help noticing how smooth Nona’s chin was. Being in her nineties, she had lost the estrogen she needed to keep from growing sprigs of wiry white hair on her jutting granny jaw. Nona’s perfectly varnished chin fit well with her too-rouged cheeks, watercolor-painted lips, and the ten years of wrinkles the mortician had buffed out in preparation for the funeral. She didn’t smell like Necco wafers and Mounds bars anymore. Her cropped hair was tamed in a way that would have been impossible in life.
She didn’t look like my great-grandmother, but rather what my great-grandmother would have looked like if Madame Tussaud had gotten hold of her. Since she didn’t look like herself, I wasn’t far from convincing myself that there was someone else in that casket, that my Nona wasn’t really gone. Like she’d faked her death and ran off to Hawaii like she always wanted to.
Of course, Nona never told anyone that I was the one who wielded the tweezers. She didn’t want people to know she had a beard and I didn’t want people to know I plucked that beard. We had an agreement.
The plucking started harmlessly enough. One afternoon I walked across the street to her house and saw her through the glass of the burglar bar-clad door. She was shaking her fist at the TV again. The glass rattled against the bars when I knocked.
“Hey Purts!” she shouted. “Purts” being the derivative of “pretty” in the backwoods Alabama dialect she spoke. “I’ve got a hair on my chin thick as barbwire and my old eyes can’t see to get it. Pluck it for me, will you, Purts?”
“Do I have to?”
“I used to wipe your ass when you were a baby and I didn’t have to do that. Go on and get those tweezers.”
She sat back down in her weathered, threadbare recliner to see what ruling Judge Mablean of Divorce Court had laid down while I retrieved the tweezers. I stood leaning against the doorjamb, watching Judge Mablean dish it out good. I was hoping Nona would forget about that chin hair. She was in her late eighties at the time, so forgetfulness was possible.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Git this damn thing off my chin. It’s driving me crazy!”
She patted the side of the recliner and I crouched beside her. She didn’t intend to stop watching her shows over a rogue chin hair. She wanted me to pluck on a commercial break.
The hair was stark white with a bulb-like root. The hair was long. It bent stiffly when I pressed the end up against my finger. I’d want that off my chin, too.
“Alright, Nona. I’ll pluck your chin hairs but you better not tell anybody about it. I wouldn’t do this for just anybody.”
She took our secret to the grave.
We spent many good days in front of the TV, with me plucking her chin hairs during commercial breaks from the time I was twelve onward. Her television was an old Zenith model—the kind with the speaker on one side, facing the viewer, and the screen that curved outward, like it was pregnant with the little moving people inside. Most often, that old Zenith was pregnant with Jerry Springer.
The first episode of The Jerry Springer Show aired in 1990, the year I was born. With a deadbeat dad and a mom just trying to make ends meet, I spent more time with Nona than anyone else in the family. She practically raised me. And she raised me on a healthy diet of Jerry Springer and profanity.
With Nona, TV was never a spectator sport. What the FCC bleeped out, Nona shouted at full volume. She made me fluent in a slew of curses—the kind one normally learns as a rite of passage in your high school friends’ smoky basements when you’re supposed to be at marching band practice.
I made Nona proud on my first day of kindergarten. When I was forced to interact with other children as opposed to curling up in the comfort of Nona’s recliner and Jerry Springer’s calm intonation, it didn’t take me long to call a boy a “sorry son of a bitch.” The teacher asked me where I learned such colorful language, and I told her my great-grandmother taught me. I thought she, too, might be impressed with my expansive vocabulary. Instead the teacher made me apologize to the boy.
In later years I would have to call many boys sorry sons of bitches. And I wouldn’t apologize.
But don’t misunderstand me: Nona wasn’t some dirty old white trash lady slinging curses. She loved Jerry Springer for the same reason she loved NASCAR and going to the bowling alley and taking pictures of dead people in their caskets and the American flag in her curio cabinet. She loved the stories. She loved the act of remembering.
She used to tell this tall tale of her family who lived in the wilderness of Winston County, Alabama, in the middle of the Bankhead Forest, a place so rural they didn’t get electricity until the 1970s.
Back in the days of Prohibition my Uncle Jack set up a still in that old forest where he made the best moonshine in three counties. Word spread his moonshine was the stuff of dreams, and before long he got some cousins to make moonlight deliveries on horseback. Demand was high and business was good.
One night those dirty revenuers showed up at the still. “Give us the moonshine recipe and we won’t lock you up. Think hard, Jack. You got an old mama to take care of.” Those revenuers were liars and cheaters worse’n the crim’nals they put behind bars. But Uncle Jack wasn’t having none of it. He jumped on his horse and sped off before they knew what was coming.
The revenuers followed on their horses and shot Uncle Jack’s horse in the leg. Jack’s horse bucked, threw him to the ground and trampled him. They say there was a hoof print like a bowl carved out’a his chest when he died.
Jack’s mother, the Widow DeFoor, got word her son was dead, and the still burned to the ground in the ruckus. She bided her time until stories of other revenuer-raided stills eclipsed Jack’s memory. Then she hatched a plan of revenge.
One day she called up the sheriff saying she needed help with this, that, and the other. It was a small town. People looked out for each other.
When the sheriff arrived, the Widow DeFoor said, “I’ve got possums rooting around in my vegetable garden, eating up my crops. I want you to shoot ’em dead.” She was so old no one knew her age, but everyone assumed she was damn near a hundred. Said she needed the sheriff to shoot the possum since eyes weren’t worth having at her age.
As the sheriff set up watch on the back porch waiting on the possum to turn up, the Widow DeFoor joined him outside for company, standing behind his chair. They talked like old friends until she said, “I ain’t got a dipper for my soup. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is getting soup into a bowl without a dipper. It’d sure be nice to have a real big dipper…” He didn’t see what she had in her hand until—
WHAM! She took a cast iron skillet to the back of his head, killing him instantly.
She might have looked like a little old lady, but a life of hard labor will toughen you up good. She buried him in her vegetable garden, right where the possums had supposedly been rooting around.
Years later, after Widow DeFoor’s death, they found a skull in her soup pot. She’d dug the sheriff up and made his skull into a dipper. Clean as a whistle.
NASCAR was born out of the need to make fast cars to outrun revenuers, and I like to think that every time Nona cheered for Rusty Wallace to cross the finish, she was cheering for Uncle Jack, too, in her own way.
That was a long yarn by Nona’s standards, so I had to extract that drama over many commercial breaks and many threats to quit plucking her chin hairs.
There were other stories Nona told, too, and ones she couldn’t tell. She could never tell about her brother Walton who went down in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. She started crying as soon as she said his name, no matter how many years passed after his death.
Her tears brought out my most callous self. I cared nothing for her sorrow—I wanted the story. I wanted all her stories. Even the ones she didn’t want to give.
“Nona! It’s been like a hundred years since Walton died! Come on. Just tell it, please?”
“I can’t, Purts. I just can’t,” she said, dabbing at her eyes and nodding toward the American flag folded into a neat triangle in the curio cabinet. “I just can’t.”
Then there were the stories she told too readily.
“I’ll never forget on the day you were born. It was my birthday, y’know, and you were the best present. My great grandbaby borned on my birthday; imagine that! Anyway, I had this sprained ankle big as a football and I couldn’t get nowhere on it so I called your Uncle Gene—”
This is about the time I started rolling my eyes because she told this story at every available opportunity and refused to be interrupted in her telling. When there was no opening to tell people how I was born on her birthday, she created one. Even going with her to the grocery store was an excuse to tell the cashier. The bank teller at the drive-up window would nod and say, “Oh, yes ma’am, that’s a fine story. Glad you got your sweet grandbaby with you.” And Nona would always correct “Great grandbaby! Great!”
“Jesus, Nona. We’ve heard that one a million times. Tell something else!”
“Well, if you don’t want to hear it, don’t listen.”
She would only tell a tale when it suited her. If you asked for a story, you’d never get one.
Curled up in her guest bedroom, up too late past my bedtime and too old for bedtime stories, I’d say, “Nona, will you tell me a story?”
“Oh baby, you know I ain’t got no stories.”
She’d tuck me in and turn AM radio to the Cajun music station. I’d fall asleep to men with accordions singing in French and the plastic clack of the digital flip clock as the minutes ticked by.
A cette heure moi je voudrais
Demander pour tu t’en reviens.
Me pardonner pour tout ça j’ai fait,
Et tout le tracas que je t’ai donné
Je m’ai perdu dans la vie.
Et je peux jamais me trouver
Les années peut changer
Mais je vais jamais t’oublier.
The years may go by, but I’ll never forget you. Les années peut changer, mais je vais jamais t’oublier.
“You know I ain’t got no stories,” she’d say. But she had all the stories. Ninety-six years of them.
The other day I found a wiry hair on my own chin. Maybe I’ve got stories, too.
Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though she calls Birmingham, Alabama, home. She writes creative nonfiction essays and book news. Her writing has been published in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, PANK Magazine, and Deep South Magazine. You can find more of her work at her website, offthebeatenshelf.com.