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Melita Schaum

Lizard's Tail

We were the age when dating was just finding someone to experiment with--somebody with a car, somebody with big buttonholes. We were generous with our choices, almost socialist, and passed along boyfriends once the novelty cooled and the fun of breaking up had gone south. From my friend Libby--a low-necklined, crop-topped girl from Sault Ste. Marie--I inherited a Kiowa boyfriend with black hair down to his waist.

It was gorgeous--smooth, straight, and shiny as a girl's. The first time I let it run through my hands, like river water, cool and silky, I thought I'd hit a new peak of sexual experience. Necking at the Starlite Multiplex, I would spread his hair out over the back seat and stroke it like a stole. He'd lumber his tongue around my mouth inexpertly, but I'd think of his hair between my fingers and melt.

I think his hair taught me how to love.

I would daydream about it in Trigonometry class, where Miss Steinman--beautiful and cold, a pioneer feminist in mathematics trapped in the backwater indignity of a third-rate county high school--snapped at us about sine waves and cosines, which undulated across the blackboard like tresses.

One day the principal told him he had to cut it off or he'd be sent to ROTC, where they'd cut it off anyway, and worse.

"Cut my hair or cut my soul," he mourned. "What a choice."

Never mind that, I told him, the important thing was would he give me his hair once it was cut off, since I was his girlfriend after all. Never had I known so clearly what it was to love, never felt so keenly the sharp divide between the dispensable and the essential. He said he'd have to think about it.

For a week he moped around the halls at school, and every afternoon I'd walk him home, sort of keeping my stake in the matter active. News about his hair had gotten around, and I didn't want some other girl horning in on my claim.

This boy lived on a reservation that was its own small town outside of town--a jumble of habitation on a square of scratched dirt, bare as a chickenyard. Every shack had its own Cadillac and aerial. No running water, but everybody got C-SPAN. The Native kids never seemed to have any toys, or maybe they didn't want them. For fun they roasted bullfrogs live over small fires, slowly, so they could hear their skin pop as they died.

My guy wasn't like that, but his mother was. Her name was Mamie Owlfeather, and she came from that backwoods, frog-burning stock, fueled by a cruelty slow as battery acid. I remember her face set like a millstone against me. You white girls, you take and take. she'd mutter. Take our
boys. Take what makes them men. Sometimes she'd stand at the window and talk to the glass as if there were someone on the other side listening.

The week crept by. The shearing had been arranged for a Saturday morning, but it wasn't until Friday lunch that he finally came up to me.

"My mother told me--well, she told me to go ahead. She said to give you the tail of the lizard. I guess she meant my hair. So okay. I mean, you can have it." I felt my heart grow full and, reaching up to touch his hair I remembered to smile into his eyes, to show him how much this meant to me.

I still have it--his hair--gathered and banded like a horse's tail, only velvety. Everything but the piece the hairdresser begged off him because his was the most beautiful hair she'd ever seen.

I remember how weird he looked Monday morning, his head suddenly round as a knob. We stopped dating afterwards, but I guess that's how it is in love. Libby had met some college boys and we began spending the weekends in Marquette--somebody usually had a driver's license; somebody could usually get their hands on a six-pack of Pabst. I still don't know what Mamie Owlfeather meant by a lizard's tail. All I know is she was a cranky broad, a little witchy even when she was alive.
Melita Schaum received an MFA in Creative Writing from Stanford University and currently teaches modern literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Her poems and stories have appeared in such journals as The Notre Dame Review, The Literary Review, The Denver Quarterly, and Prism International.

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