The Boiler

Jamie Lyn Smith

HOTHEAD

But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.

I Corinthians 11:15

I was born with a big hunk of bright red hair. Not auburn, not ginger, not strawberry blonde, but just straight-up Crayola-crayon red. Granted, I arrived in 1974, and so the photos from my youth have an odd, kodachrome cast to them, as if viewed through an enormous pair of sepia-tinted sunglasses. Still. The hair is pretty dang red.

Like me, my hair resisted management: slipping out of barrettes, refusing to be tamed, curling at the edges. My mother would coat my hair with olive oil at night and I would wake up looking like a chia pet. Grandma used to chide me that my hair was the only thing louder than my laugh, and suggested with pursed lips that both the follicle and the child needed training. Red hair was loud, unruly, announced itself without meaning to—it was everything I did not want to be, and could not help.

My younger sisters were born towheaded, Gerber-lipped, chill. My mother liked to dress us in matching outfits, and often chose pastels: delicate lavenders, eggshell blues, and worst of all— pale pink. My sisters’ peaches-and-cream complexions glowed, but I looked as if I had food poisoning. In family pictures, I stand scowling like a distempered animal, my skin jaundiced by a butter-yellow terrycloth romper.

It was Easter, 1984 before I finally put my foot down with the costuming. That year, our Easter dresses were pistachio tinted dotted-swiss aberrations that poofed out over these god-awful crinolines, and required itchy white tights. I snarled and fussed, until finally my mother relented- allowing me to choose my own outfit. I wore a plaid dress, leg warmers, clogs, and crocheted poncho to church. She got her revenge—in the Easter photo, I look like the triumphant doyenne of a bohemian Scottish dance troupe, while my sisters flank me in pale-green frothy lace, decorated like cupcakes.

It wasn’t just the outside of me that was redheaded, and this is where I wonder about nature, nurture, and self-fulfilling prophesy. Nearly all my personality flaws and rash decisions were blamed consistently on my coloring— fearsome temper, too-big personality, wildness, creativity, possible witchcraft. Being a redhead gave me license to fly, and I soared, dancing this weird line between reveling in and reviling my difference, the otherness with which I was inflamed.

My sisters—The Cupcakes—were compliant good-natured girls who spent hours watching reruns of Gidget and playing mild rounds of  house and school with their creepy Cabbage Patch Dolls. I scorned The Cupcakes for the company of a neighbor kid, Jason. Before he moved away, we were far more likely to be found in the woods building a human catapult out of lumber stolen from the barn, attempting to melt down various metals over an open fire, or sharpening sticks so that he and I could joust on our bikes.

“That redhead will drive me to drink,” my mother would say, banishing me to my room for some harmless stunt or another involving the nail gun, Jason, and guerilla warfare.

Overwhelmed with my management- follicular and otherwise- my mother often delegated disciplinary matters to my stepfather. He raised me with the same misguided good intent and hapless bafflement as he did The Cupcakes. I never, ever think of him as my stepfather, although that’s what he did: he stepped up and fathered when my biological father bounced. We had a bond of mutual admiration forged in orneriness, love of diesel-fueled equipment, and a tendency to believe, “Aw hell, I can do that!” More often than not my mother’s rants about my “narrow scrapes with death, fire, and dismemberment” elicited little more than my stepfather’s raised eyebrows.

“Aw, the girl’s just high-spirited,” he’d say, “That’s a redheaded colt for ya!”

He’d slip me a low-five when my mom wasn’t looking. Later, when the poor woman retired to bed with several aspirin and a stack of Harlequin romance novels, my stepfather would laugh at my antics and explain with great patience that if I was going to make a proper moonshine factory, I’d need to craft a still, procure at least six feet of copper coil, and use a soldering iron.

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I was the first redhead born in nearly a hundred years; the last redhead was my great-grandfather. James Louis Hendrickson had twelve children: all brunette, brown-eyed, tall. Not a single redhead among his fifty grandchildren. When I was born—the first grandchild on both sides, the first great-grandchild, copper-headed—it was a sort of triumph. Sort of.

My parents were young, scared, unmarried, and in over their heads the summer of 1973 when I was misconceived. By then there was Roe vs. Wade, Marvin Gaye was crooning “Let’s Get it On”, Laugh In went off the air and Mary Tyler Moore came on, the National Archives were on fire in D.C. and plenty of soldiers were still over in Vietnam. The rest of America may have lost its virginity, but Knox County, Ohio was stuck at third- maybe even second base. Things like the counterculture, the sexual revolution, and —most importantly— The Pill hadn’t made a dent in my mother’s consciousness.

When my mother told her boyfriend she was pregnant, he dumped her, accused her of sleeping around and denied culpability. She took my biological father to court for breach of promise and child support, but again- it was the seventies, so there was no DNA, only a blood test that was nebulously reliable.

She brought me into the courtroom, where the judge got a gander at my hair and a sub-gander at my biological father’s matching mop. It’s my understanding that there wasn’t much of a trial left to be had. Paternity was established by follicle. For my mother, my hair provided both victory in court, and a constant reminder of a man who did her really, really wrong.

To make matters more painful for my mother, while my paternity case was in litigation, Craig married another woman- a redhead. They celebrated the birth of their daughter – red haired, blue eyed, pretty as a lark—with an announcement in the local paper including a family photo that showcased brand-new wedding rings on their interlocking fingers. By 1974 there were no scarlet letters, stocks or whippings for adulterers…but a scarlet-headed, fatherless child was no different a letter when you were twenty and desperately single—and your ex bandied about town with his new wife and daughter.

So my mother put me in my grandparents’ care until she married. No one made a bigger deal of my red hair than my grandfather. He meant no harm, drawing attention to it every chance he got- for him, it was a great point of pride— “There’s my girl!” his voice would boom, “It’s the redhead!” I believe now that the love he professed for my red hair was a move to claim me, to affirm my belonging, perhaps even to teach me to be kinder to myself. This was not the least bit comforting when the entire fourth grade referred to your frizzy orange mop as “Tang.”

The unwanted attention my hair drew aggravated a host of nagging questions I could not answer:  Who was I? Was I maybe a witch? Would I grow up to be a “frisky little sorrel filly” like the dirty old man in the park suggested? Would my inherent nature- perhaps evil, nefarious, and shirking as my absent biological father’s- somehow rise to the surface?

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Having red hair seemed to in some strange way erase all bounds of civil behavior- one would never, for example, approach a total stranger in a supermarket line and ask her “Whoa! Where’d you get that magnificent pimple?” or declare “I just love obese women!” Why was it then socially acceptable to harass little bright scarlet me—struggling to be unobtrusive, minding my own business, trying not to glow in the dark— by bellowing, “Hey! Where’d you get that red hair?” or, worse yet- ruffling my mane and chortling, “I just love that carrot top!”

Oh and Good Lord have mercy, the questions. When I was a little girl, they were fairly innocuous. In adolescence men began to say increasingly alarming things to me in a tone that both terrified and outraged me.

“I just love redheads.”

“My wife is a redhead you know…”

“Does the carpet match the drapes?”

“Well hello, fire crotch.”

“Hey- red!! Show me that burning bush.”

“Redheaded women buck like goats.” (Et tu, James Joyce?…and eff you, too. I know Joyce wasn’t directly addressing me, but I **loved** Ulysses until that damn line, at which point the entire Joyce Honors Seminar side-eyed me, smirking, while I held the book over my face, casually propping it up with a middle finger and staring down anyone who made the mistake of eye contact.)

Some of these nasty things were said to me at work, some at parties, some in bars, some at family reunions, some waiting in line at the DMV, and once – in a cloakroom, where my boss tried to feel me up on the premise that every other redhead he hired had given him a blow job, so why not me?

I further resented my hair for the cultural comparisons and associations red hair elicited: a saloon girl, a fallen woman, the poster from Reefer Madness, that crazed ginger in the orgy at the end of Clockwork Orange—- although, I never really minded being thrown in the same lot as the stripper Tempest Storm (her autobiography is amazing). It is tiresome, though that every female with red hair is portrayed as whorish, garish, hyper sexualized, criminally insane or all the above. I have yet to date a man who has not complimented me on my hair, often in some kind of anticipation that I will be sexually wilder, capable of inducing a spectacular degree of ecstasy simply because of the amount of pheomelanin raging in my follicles.

Every redhead I know has these kinds of stories. Many stories are far worse than mine.

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Much as I hated what I endured—the teasing, the sly winks, the gross comments from mouth-breathing degenerates—I could never bring myself to change my hair color. (Ok, I used to indulge in the occasional box of henna, but to my horror it only made the hair redder, and me, angrier). I couldn’t be me- and ostensibly this outrageous- without my cussed red hair.

The closest I ever came to parting company with it, was when I sold it. I left my small hometown the summer after my freshman year of college and went to live in Chicago. I was ready for not just change, but transformation: eager to live in a city, to escape the cornfields, forests, and trade the chaw-chomping good old boys of my youth for glib urban professionals who owned more than one suit, and knew how to pronounce the names of all the wines on the menu. My roommate, intent upon aiding my Liza-Doolittle makeover, set me up with an appointment at a high dollar salon where Tony, the stylist, promptly offered me a free cut and $350 for my locks- waist length, never permed or colored, healthy and thick as rope.

“Cash?” I asked. Tony nodded, smiling without showing his teeth.

“Cut it,” I said.

Tony put it in a braid that hung down my back, something my mother had done nightly when I was a child. The scissors beat their wings around my cheekbones, cool metal skimming my neck. Tony lifted and trimmed and snipped and tugged, pronounced me “not the least bit tender-headed.”  I could not bear to look, keeping my gaze averted to my lap on the wispy pile of hair accumulating there. Finally, Tony sighed in pleasure, rubbed some sort of lavender- scented product into my scalp, and showed me myself in the mirror. I remember running my hands through it and thinking of an old horror film.

Mia Farrow. Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.

Tony and the other stylists gathered around the chair, cooing and complimenting me, passing around and petting at the long braid now detached from my body. He handed me seven crisp, whispering fifty dollar bills. I suppressed the urge to wail.

I hardly recognized my own reflection in the storefront windows when I made my way home. Coworkers gasped when they saw me. Men stopped holding the door for me at the supermarket, offering to carry my groceries, and giving up their seat on the El. My parents sent me a postcard in response to the snapshot I mailed them, that said “TOO SKINNY. EAT SOMETHING. NO MORE HAIRCUTS! P.S. —DAD WORRIED YOU ARE GAY.”

Unfortunately, my shorn scalp did nothing to abate the redhead comments, but relieved of my big wig of red hair – and to a degree, my appearance of femininity- I felt off-balance. When I tried to brush my short little baby-doll hairs, I would automatically extend my arms too far, tugging at hair that wasn’t there any more, and leave unsightly scratches at the nape of my neck. I had one style and one look with this pixie-girl business. No more ponytails, messy buns, braids, barrettes, clips, or headbands for me: I was a one-trick pony. A roan, with no mane to comb.  

A few weeks later I bumped into Tony on the street in Lincoln Park. He took my face in his hands, tilted it to the light and said I should come back in for a trim, then asked me how I felt.

“Like Samson,” I said.

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I wonder sometimes if my life might have been different if I were blonde; then again it certainly would have been different if I were, you know, calm. By the time I was thirty, I had a solid reputation for a short fuse- – a tendency to ignite that got me into trouble, whether commuting on public transit, standing in beer lines at concerts, picnicking at a nude beach on Lake Austin. En route to meet colleagues for happy hour, a stranger stopped in front of me on 57th street declared that he loved redheads, and licked my hair. My coworker’s boyfriend witnessed the whole thing from the window of a bodega, later reporting to Kalli that before he could get outside he’d seen me belt the offender with my handbag while pedestrian traffic made a wide, wide berth around me.

“Why didn’t you help her?” Kalli demanded.

“Help her?” he said. “She was chasing him down the street screaming I’LL KILL YOU!”

These sorts of anecdotes were funny only because, miraculously, I somehow tended to escape unharmed, if not unhinged. Friends started to say things to me like, “Perhaps you should be more careful,” or “You know, you could have been killed…” and even, “Please, for the love of God, stop being such a jerk.”

“James means fierce, “ I’d say, shrugging off friends’ suggestions I tone things down a bit. “I guess if the hairs on my head are numbered, I’ll keep the Good Lord busy counting them.”

The fact of the matter- and the problem—is that I prided myself on the outrageous behavior that red hair allowed me just as much as I resented the unwanted attention. The red-tinted glasses through which I viewed the world let me thrive on a certain perverse satisfaction in imagining myself to be some sort of badass force to be reckoned with.

It was wearing on everyone- except, it seemed, on me. My friends began to look tired when I regaled them with yet another story about putting some perv in his place. My friend Susan confronted me after I had a spat with a woman at Whole Foods.

“You get angry about everything,” she said. “The woman was in a wheelchair.”

“So what?” I countered. “I would have let her ditch me in line, if she’d asked instead of just cutting in. But when that bitch called me a nasty ginger—”

“You were being a nasty ginger.”

“That isn’t the point.”

“Perhaps,” Susan said. “It would have been better for her to just call you an asshole.”

 She suggested I take up breathing exercises and get acupuncture. Others suggested yoga and meditation, less caffeine, Bible study, more sex, a vacation, getting my thyroid tested. I never paused my kvetching long enough to listen, let alone consider that my so-called red problem wasn’t really a problem at all—but one that others might be eager to trade, swapping their mountain of suffering for the molehill of pettiness I perched on, shouting and fighting windmills with my handbag. For a time, in my mind, I believed my scenes were defensible on the premise that prickliness was me: each red hair hackling in alert, my way of growling Beware of Dog.

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There’s no denying I was entirely, overly sensitive and that my cantankerousness was inexcusable. These are the kinds of things, though, that make me wonder about nature, versus nurture. To what degree is my hypersensitivity simply the result of “search for the devil and she will appear”? To what extent is my exasperation a reasonable outcome after spending a lifetime of St. Patrick’s Days explaining over and over again that I am not Irish, I’m from Ohio? As for how St. Patrick’s Day affects temperament, I challenge you, reader, to spend a full sun’s journey during which strangers pinch you and coworkers talk you like you just fell off a Lucky Charms Cereal Box….and we’ll see what a jolly good sport you are by lunchtime. I was fed up with that nonsense by the time I was ten; by the time I was thirty I’d learned to wear a hat all day and take lunch at my desk when the dreaded holiday came round.

I skipped the office party, of course, and worked late in my classroom, dreading the long walk home up Second Avenue, past the row of Irish bars. When I could put it off no longer, I went to fetch my things from the main office. There were leftovers from the festivities— a plate of sugar-cookie shamrocks with Kelly-green icing and a few half-eaten loaves of soda bread scattered around, some parsnip chips. A string of foil Irishmen sagged from the ceiling, their spindly legs and rusty beards gently bobbing in the breeze from the heat vents.

“What’s all this?” I groused, digging through the mess to try to find a book I’d left on the table that morning. My friend Kalli was also gathering up her things. “It was a party,” she said. “We missed you, Smith.”  

I launched into a tirade about my hatred of the holiday and my hair. Normally people cut me off, but she just packed up the cookies, wrapped the soda bread in plastic baggies and cleaned the table- listening through my entire misanthropic and anti-follicate recitation.

“I never knew all that about you,” she said. “But then again… nobody knows anything about you. They’re not allowed to.”

“Thanks,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say. She was right. This was true. I was awful, a lot. And a lot more awful than I needed to be.

Kalli shrugged and smiled. “I wish you didn’t hate it,” she said. Her face was wry and her voice tentative, as if extending a hand she worried I might bite. “I—hope you don’t mind my saying this, but I think red hair is beautiful.”  

Her kindness took all the wind out of my careening mills. For the first time in years—maybe ever— I said, and meant, “I never mind hearing it from my friends.”

I don’t remember the walk home that night, or feeling particularly nonplussed or light on my feet, or inexorably changed. But what I do remember is cringing—then, in the teacher’s lounge and now also— to think of the pettiness that fueled me in my misspent, reddened blush of youth. I mistook my own flame for inflammation. I remember thinking about how foolish and how useless was the quaint and convenient notion that I could do no better by others or by myself because of some random genetic trait. The problem was never my hair, the problem was a combination of my unwillingness, or inability, or bewilderment over how to channel the energy and vitality and sheer red volume of myself into a flame that lit up the room, instead of a wildfire that left a swath of scorched earth.

It feels ridiculous to look back at how long it took me to learn to accept a sincere compliment and take a joke, for God’s sake. Other than the guy I hit with my purse (who I maintain to this day, totally had it coming) it’s embarrassing now to recall how I crushed the enthusiasm of others because of my own resentment; and how long it took me to learn that graciousness costs me nothing, but a lack of generosity is an ever-mounting debt that can never be paid in full.

My hair is long again, longer than it’s been since I was a little girl, when my mother combed and braided it into submission each night into tight twin pigtails that I curled around my head before I went to sleep, dreaming of what I would become and who I was to be. But now there are long, white strands creeping into my crimson mane, and while I have no desire to return to my former, surly-girl self, oh, oh, oh- what I would give for this hair to stay that red, forever.


Jamie Lyn Smith is a native of Knox County, Ohio. An alumnus of Kenyon College and Fordham University, she is the recipient of a University Fellowship from The Ohio State University, where she completed her MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Pinch, American Literary Review, The Low Valley Review, The Boiler, The Watershed Review and Barely South. She currently teaches Creative Writing at Bluffton University, where she edits Bridge: The Bluffton University Literary Journal. Jamie Lyn is working on two new projectsEver After, a collection of short stories, and her first novel, Appalachia.