D. Jeanne Wilson
Poppa’s Purple Head
The trouble started last Saturday when Amy Devine’s father got a purple head. He had bought something at the union mission to blacken the big shiny place on top of his head, so it would match the little bits of hair that fuzzed around the edges. When he got home, Poppa rubbed the stuff on really well, but instead of his scalp turning black, it came out as purple as an Easter egg!
If they had lived in the good part of Almsville, where people had big houses with television rooms, Poppa might have watched fights until the purple wore off. Instead, he hitchhiked to Bill’s Bar and Pool, and everyone in the county saw his purple head. They carried on like they had never seen a purple head before.
That was the first thing Amy Devine heard at school on Monday morning. She was the girl whose poppa had a purple head. She heard it before the first bell, at recess, in the girls’ toilet, and even on the bus going home.
“Purple head. Purple head,” Aaron Mitchell, the nicest boy in Amy Devine’s third-grade classroom, yelled out the bus window when they stopped in front of her house. Even Aaron Mitchell! After Amy Devine banged through her kitchen door, she released tears that had been forced back all day.
Momma slammed a kettle onto the stove and bean soup sloshed out. “What in tarnation is the matter? As if I don’t have enough to bear, you come in here bawling like some old cow.”
“Poppa has a purple head.” Amy Devine threw herself down on a cot beside the cookstove and cried harder.
Just then Poppa came in. “What’s wrong with Amy Devine?” he asked in a voice that seemed loud for such a little man.
“It’s you,” Momma said. “Kids at school teased her about your purple head. Old coot. Trying to impress the women. You ain’t nothing but an old soak without any money to buy the girl a birthday present.”
If their house had been bigger, Poppa might have stomped upstairs to get away from Momma’s yelling, but there they were, stuck in that dumb little house. Yells bounced off walls, and their anger sucked up air until Amy Devine could hardly breathe. There was no way for Poppa to get away from Momma but to rush out the door.
Momma stomped out behind him. “Old horse’s ass,” she screamed. “Old horse’s ass!”
Through the open door, Amy Devine saw people turn to look at her momma, who continued to scream and wave the big metal bean spoon as if she wanted to hit Poppa. The spoon slashed the air with silver, and splattered bean soup on Momma’s wobbly arm and onto her dress, where it joined last week’s spaghetti sauce.
Poppa’s shoulders were hunched and his purple head shone in the sunlight while his feet skittered along the walk faster than Amy Devine had believed her father’s feet could go. Even when the spoon hit his back, he didn’t stop.
“Kept on going to the 7-Eleven,” Momma told her later. “He was stuffing Mars bars and Spearmint gum into his pockets, when Mr. Slater called the police and they took him to jail. Getting stuff for your birthday.”
Amy Devine stayed awake most of the night. How could she face kids at school with a momma who screamed bad words in the street and a poppa in jail? And him with a purple head!
The next day, it was just as she had feared. The words “purple head” followed her around school. They fell from the ceiling and jumped at her from corners to pound Amy Devine like hail on a picnic. Even kids who didn’t say anything were thinking “purple head” when they looked at her. Anger puffed into Amy Devine like air blown into chewing gum to make a bubble.
After all, she didn’t deserve a poppa with a purple head and a momma who yelled bad words in front of everyone. Didn’t she work hard? Write miles of stuff with a little worn-down pencil stub she’d found in the wastebasket? And didn’t Amy Devine always have to walk to the front of the room after free paper because she didn’t have one spiral notebook to her name? And her with a shoe sole that flapped with every step she took!
She flapped her way to math class and plunked down in a seat. Later, when needing to borrow a ruler from the teacher, Amy Devine eased one foot in front of the other, but each flap of her shoe seemed louder than the last. “Swish flap, swish flap, swish flap.” It was a wonder Principal Morris didn’t come snooping around to see what was going on. On the way back to her seat, she kept her head down to avoid smirks from the others, but she could still feel eyes crawling over her.
By library period she longed to go home, but was afraid the authorities might find out. Sadness and anger mounted in Amy Devine until she could scarcely drag herself down the hall. Slumping onto a library chair, she bent over and hid her face in her arms. There were not any books on those shelves that she wanted to read. Stories that had always taken her on adventures to places of magic were not written for Johnsons. Slop jars, flapping shoe soles, and poppas with purple heads were for them.
Amy Devine sat with her head down until the bell rang for art class. She did not want to go to another class but wanted only to go home, where she could hide for the rest of her life. Swallowing, she took a deep breath and forced back tears. She would not cry. She would not cry. Johnsons did not cry. Tears forced back left a vacuum that filled with anger.
It wasn’t one bit fair for a hard worker like her, who had already read twelve library books, to have to walk around in ugly old shoes and to have embarrassing parents. And hadn’t she tried to be good? After Josh Tremor had spit on her, she only kicked him once. Just as her foot hit his leg, she remembered what Molly Crayton, who went to Sunday school and knew all about God, had said: “Amy Devine, God wants you to be good. He doesn’t think much of all this fighting.”
Even though Amy Devine wanted to kick Josh Tremor again, while he was bent over rubbing his leg, she had turned away. God probably hadn’t appreciated her turning one bit and, like everyone else, thought the Johnsons were a dumb bunch.
Her anger strengthened; became hot, forceful. Marching to the front of the room, not caring about a noisy shoe, she snatched a sheet of free paper and a box of broken crayons that another child had discarded. Storming back to her desk, she plopped down and started to draw.
“Hey, Amy Devine,” Josh Tremor called. “Why don’t you draw a picture of a man with a purple head?”
Giggles of other children caused a roar in her head. With her worn-down pencil, she slashed out a picture of a tiny house, sky, trees, car, sun, people, and then took out her purple crayon and colored purple sky, purple grass, purple people.
“Oh, Amy Devine!” Miss Mackey’s voice was not as sweet as usual. It was not a voice that made the teacher sound like she thought Amy Devine was a hard worker, but rather a voice that accused her of being a dumb girl with a poppa who had a purple head. “Why are you coloring everything purple?” she asked.
The room blurred and pain seared Amy Devine’s stomach. “Horse’s ass,” she yelled.
Grabbing a crayon, she slashed streaks of purple over her arms and blouse, and then dragged it again and again over her head and down her cheeks.
When Miss Mackey reached for Amy Devine’s hand, she turned the crayon into a weapon. Stabbing wildly at the teacher’s arm and dress, she streaked them with purple.
Miss Macky turned to Joe Bundon, “Go after the principal, Joe,” she said. “Now!”
Amy Devine could hear her own labored breathing. She looked up to see the teacher backed up against the blackboard, her arms and dress striped with purple, and tears streaming.
Amy Devine looked with horror at the purple crayon in her hand. She had made dear Miss Mackey cry! Dropping the crayon to the floor, she put her head down on the desk and sobbed.
That night, stretched out on her cot in the kitchen, Amy Devine longed for sleep so she could forget the day, but the window stared at her like a big eye and kept her awake. If only the window had a curtain, so no one could look in. Not the kids who had made fun of Poppa’s purple head and most certainly not the authorities.
Momma was mad because Principal Morris had told her that Amy Devine might be a disturbed child. “There is no staying for you tonight,” she had told Jake Simmons, who had been keeping her company since Poppa was in jail. “Amy Devine took some kind of a fit, and now the school is sending the authorities to check us out.”
When Momma got to the words “the authorities,” she sounded scared and her eyes slanted to the right as if she were making sure the authorities were not creeping up on her.
And now, this very minute, everyone from school might be hurrying toward the window to see a disturbed girl. “There’s Amy Devine,” they would say. “She has to sleep on a cot in the kitchen because her house only has two rooms.”
Everyone would be sure to notice her clothes were in Kroger boxes under the cot, and not folded in drawers that pulled in and out. Aaron Mitchell might see she used a slop jar instead of a bathroom! She whimpered and scrunched her eyes tight shut, but behind closed lids, the window filled with pointing fingers, curious eyes, and laughing mouths.
Miss Mackey might look in with big sad eyes. How could Amy Devine have tried to color dear Miss Mackey? She must truly be a disturbed girl. The word “disturbed” flashed in purple neon above her. She leaped from the cot and, scarcely noticing icy linoleum beneath bare feet, rummaged through a basket of clothes. Quick! Find something to cover the window. Hurry, hurry! Dig through clothes. Hide the eyes! Towels too small. Shirts too small. Hurry! Hurry! Momma’s robe of pink satin? Yes, it would do. Clutching the robe, her breath uneven, her hands shaking, she rushed to hang it over the curtain rod left behind by a previous tenant.
Back on her cot, with the window safely covered, Amy Devine still could not sleep. What kind of girl would call the best teacher in the world a bad word? A disturbed girl, of course. Disturbed. Disturbed. The word circled her, whispered, and hissed. Disturbed, disturbed.
Amy Devine clasped her hands over her ears but still heard the frightening word. She forced herself to concentrate on Momma’s yard-sale robe that hung at the window, all pink and silky. A nearby streetlight gleamed through the glass causing the robe to glow but without Momma in it, Amy Devine felt lonely. Anger evaporated leaving sadness.
“Baby, don’t talk bad about me and Poppa to the authorities,” Momma had begged earlier. Leaning from the kitchen chair, she had pulled Amy Devine into her lap. “Don’t let them take away my little girl.”
Momma’s body had felt like a soft fat cushion, and her cheeks were shiny with tears. It wouldn’t be bad living with Momma and Poppa if their strangeness didn’t spill out of the house for everyone to see. Maybe, when older, she could get a top job at Wal-Mart and save up money to add more rooms onto the house. Miss Mackey would believe she could do it.
“Amy Devine will make something of herself,” the teacher had once said with a smile that made a rosy valentine around Amy Devine’s heart.
Now Amy Devine thought of building an entire house. It would be a castle with a television room for Poppa and a laundry room for Momma. If Poppa got another purple head, she would paint the castle to match. If neighbors didn’t like purple, she would just yell “Horse’s ass,” then go inside and slam the door.
Or maybe she wouldn’t. She thought about Miss Mackey, standing at the front of the room, looking calm and beautiful in her clean dress. Miss Mackey would never say “horse’s ass.” Maybe Amy Devine wouldn’t say it either. She might say something nice like “horse’s mane,” and speak softly, like Miss Mackey, and then quietly close the door. She would, however, pull the castle door tight to keep out people who didn’t understand the Johnsons.
Miss Mackey would absolutely know that Amy Devine could earn enough to build a castle. Once, the teacher had said Amy Devine was original, and although she was not sure what original meant, Miss Mackey’s voice let her know it was a good thing. She would let the teacher into the castle.
“Come right in,” Amy Devine would say.
Miss Mackey would smile, walk in, and sit on the beautiful red couch beside an original girl. She would not be one bit afraid or even angry. When Amy Devine had forgotten her pencil and couldn’t pay her lunch bill, Miss Mackey didn’t get mad like other teachers. She still smiled, and her eyes seemed to say, “I like you.” Amy Devine would not be surprised if the teacher even loved her a tiny bit. When Miss Mackey had looked at the purple picture, she might have been about to hold it up and say, “Look what an original girl made.”
And, Poppa? Would he have stolen candy for her birthday present if he didn’t care about her? Perhaps the reason Momma had tears was because she worried that the authorities would take Amy Devine away. Her Momma and Poppa yelled at her so much, she had never considered they might love her. But maybe they did. Maybe they all loved her: Momma so big and soft, Miss Mackey with her smiling eyes, and Poppa with his purple head.
“I love you, Momma,” Amy Devine whispered. “And oh, Miss Mackey, I do love you so.”
A streetlight glimmered over the foot of her cot. As she snuggled under the cover, Amy Devine could see Momma’s stove, where beans and onions often simmered; the sink with its cold-water spigot, where she washed her hair to keep it clean and shiny; and the little table Poppa made from scraps of lumber.
“I love you too, Poppa,” Amy Devine said. “And I love your purple head.”
In a dusky corner of the room, so hidden in shadows that Amy Devine caught only a glimpse of them, stood the authorities. They smiled.
Copyright © 2014 D. Jeanne Wilson
D. Jeanne Wilson writes from her hilltop home in rural West Virginia. After years as an elementary teacher, Girl Scout, 4-H, and church youth leader, her published stories often feature children.