Someone was in the tub. Georgia knew it was true because she heard water sloshing from the hall, and her Daddy didn’t allow the bathroom door to be closed unless someone was in the tub, in case someone else needed to wash his face or brush his teeth while you were on the pot. Must have been Mother; she took extra long, letting the water run while she peeled off the hairs sticking to the soap.
The bathroom was across the hall from the basement. If she stretched out her legs, Georgia could flatten her feet against the basement door to push it shut, which was handy because down there was the barber’s chair. When the men sat in it, the chair hiccupped and belched and cracked jokes she knew weren’t intended for her ears. Georgia leaned forward on her haunches, listening for whether or not Daddy had a customer, but all she could hear was the tub water teaming out of the spigot, and she jerked away from the door when she felt something move behind her.
There was a stickiness to the air, the kind that suction-cupped your bare legs to the breakfast chairs, so in the early and late hours her Daddy went out walking, searching for stray dogs and cats whose fur he said caused them to suffer in such weather. Animals he brought home to shave or groom with silver picks and whose tails he wrapped with rubber bands at the root. Tails were dust rags for collecting disease, and when they fell off, Georgia would find them all shriveled up, sometimes in the litter box. She kept a stash of them in her sock drawer because it was important to keep track of how many animals came and went, to know where things and people were and where they were not.
Before bed each night she lined up one of the stubs to her tailbone and stood sideways staring into the mirror. Oh, to arch your back and feel the stretch ripple through your spine to the tip of your tail! Georgia lay on top of the covers with Leo the Collie and the sound of his tongue scraping. As if he licked his lost tail hard enough, it might spring to life. She sprawled out beside him, back to back, and dreamed she grew a set of long ears - ears that could hear Daddy’s thoughts, so she would be ready for when he was about to shout about a fleck of cat litter in the carpeting. Shake her shoulders till her teeth rattled over who had left the peanut butter knife on the counter or hurt himself with the point of the scissors when Georgia swore she didn’t know where Mother was. Half the time, though, he read stories out loud and made toast with the crusts cut off and not knowing which half to expect was the hard part.
Her ears stayed the same, a pair of unpierced handles, but one morning she felt something new. Small and round, she pinched it between her fingers and it squished a little like the family of warts living on her elbow. There was the mama wart and all her babies poking up heads in a circle so they could keep a close eye on her whereabouts. Except it wasn’t a wart, and at first, she thought it might be part of the curse Mother had mentioned once - the monthly visitor that would slink back to wherever it came from in five to seven days. But days came and went and nothing emptied out of her. Instead there was more of her, so much more that it stretched her skin from the inside, pouring into her old parts, her fingers and toes and when all the regular places were full, the more pushed and shoved until it formed the shape of a new part – one that waved when she laughed and wilted when she cried.
She couldn’t reach to lick her tail, and the feel of it flapping on its own behind her still startled Georgia, but one thing she knew was it had to be kept clean. There was another sink in the basement next to a glass jar full of combs soaking in the blue water, but Georgia decided to wait. Mother would have to be done soon.
Mother’s picture was in the paper again. At least once a week when Daddy asked where Mother had gotten off to, Georgia thought to open the paper and point as if to say, There she is. But something told her to keep her fingers to herself. Lately, Georgia had been checking the paper everyday. Even though she hadn’t ventured farther than the front stoop in weeks, she worried someone might have caught sight of her tail and snapped a photo. Maybe the man whose name appeared under all of Mother’s pictures was following Georgia, too. A GARDEN PARTY was what the paper called it this time, yet it wasn’t a party at all – just Mother strolling by a path of tall flowers with Pearl toddling behind. Often when they were wandering through the park a flash bulb would go off and then Poof! There was Mother grinning through her new teeth. Her regular teeth had disappeared after Pearl was born. Mother explained that those old teeth were fine for a woman concentrating on bearing children, but she was done with all that - there was more to her than that. The new teeth, which, unlike Georgia’s did not push out from her pink gums in pieces but arrived all together at the same time, would help her take a fresh bite out of life.
Dressed in her best suit, Mother’s pocket book swung behind her as if it were a magnet pulling her away from the cameraman back to Daddy. Georgia giggled at the idea that if the photo were a comic strip, the next frame would show Pearl balled up and wailing, having been bowled to the ground by Mother’s leather bag. Truth was the baby sister had turned out nice as a new recipe from Woman’s Day. One that Mother experimented with a few times before she finally got it right, and once she did, she never bothered to make it again.
Georgia thought Mother’s hair looked especially clean in the photograph. Her own hair was thick and ornery straight, like her Daddy’s. Pearl had wild curls white as marshmallows, and she tended to get jittery at the sight of shears, sliding her bony rump back and forth on a stack of phone books and magazines showing pictures of popular coiffures for men. Georgia held Pearl’s hands so she wouldn’t fidget herself off the barber’s chair. Daddy said “Sit still,” and Georgia made funny faces to distract her while he cleared away the curls from her eyes. He snipped and she cried as those feathery strands floated to the floor, landing on the tips of his hard black shoes and into the pocket of his work jacket. Georgia let go of Pearl’s hand when the sobs slowed to sniffles and ran her fingers through her own hair, twisting it up and posing as if a flash bulb were about to go off.
Too late, she realized Daddy was watching. Strange but so far no one had noticed her tail. She’d managed to keep it tucked under and pinned beneath her waistband until she was alone, except for Leo the Collie, in bed. Then she circled the mattress on all fours, watching the golden fur fan out behind her.
“Let me see your fingers,” he said. Georgia curled her hands toward her mouth. She had been so busy worrying about what would happen if Daddy found out she had a tail, she’d forgotten all about the way she’d been chewing her fingers. Finally, she held them out for him to inspect. The skin alongside her nails was torn and spotty, and there were little red dents where her teeth had dug in as if mining for blood. “What have I told you? Your hands are caked with germs and disease. Keep them out of your mouth or I’ll have to cut them off! And where is your mother?”
Georgia felt her tail beating down, shamed, it threatened to pop out between her knees. She squeezed her legs together and said “I am sorry, Daddy.”
Daddy smiled a little and made his scissors go Snip Snip in the air. “I know you are, and I’m going to forgive you very soon.”
Georgia climbed the stairs out of the basement fast as she could, crabwise and backwards before he thought to ask her anymore questions.
Mother had a mother too, but when she said it, it sounded like Mumma. “Are you comfortable, Mumma? Need a light, Mumma?” Gran-Mumma sat with Georgia and Pearl in the evenings when Daddy’d gone walking and Mother was out, even though Georgia was more than capable of sitting with herself and the baby sister. She wanted to ask where to tell Daddy she was going, but Mother couldn’t talk about things when she was in a hurry.
“Got to get out,” she said. “You have everything you need Mumma?” She barely waited for Gran-Mumma to answer before she started feeling for her car keys at the bottom of her pocket book and blotting her lips in the cabinet mirror next to the front door. Behind the mirror was where Daddy kept a shaving cup full of quarters to pay the paperboy and the box of rubber bands. After Mother left, Gran-Mumma sucked on skinny cigarettes and lassoed Pearl with rings of chalky smoke.
When Jimmy Ryan came to collect his paper money, Pearl was bouncing on Gran-Mumma’s lap, so Georgia had to enter the mirror herself. He knocked and all the dogs raced to her side. Leo the Collie barked and jumped and clawed at the storm door, and the sound was like a foot falling through ice. Georgia’s tail wagged hard against her spine as if in time with Leo’s heart. Each night while Leo licked a puddle onto her bedspread, she chased her tail - circling the mattress one last time before blowing it a kiss and twisting the bands at the root - sad but certain she was wrong to want more. It surprised her how little it hurt, a pinch and a throb – a pain tiny as the hangnails she stripped from her cuticles with her teeth - and by morning the tail was loose, shrinking into a withered finger, a dead thing beside her on the sheet. But by lunch it fought to point straight out of her culottes when Daddy asked where Mother had gotten off to and later flicked fast against her thighs when Mother came home to start supper. No matter how tightly she wound the rubber bands, or how many of them she used, the tail always returned. She’d gotten used to walking backwards out of a room and standing flush to the lumpy walls, but answering the door was tricky – especially with Gran-Mumma bouncing the baby sister five feet away.
“Now what do you want?” Georgia hid her body behind the door and peeked her head around the edge. “Daddy says if you can’t manage to land our paper on the stoop, he’s inclined to stop paying you altogether.” Her voice leeched through the pinholes of the screen, and she cupped her hand to keep the sun, which was beginning to sink into a slot behind Jimmy’s head, out of her eyes.
“Your Mama’s become a regular celebrity,” Jimmy Ryan said, almost squeaking. Wasn’t it just like him to say a thing like that? Jimmy Ryan, who thought he was so funny, pulling her ponytail in class and pretending to be attacked by a swarm of killer bees while clinging to the rusted out chains of the swing set at recess. She did not laugh. Not even when he slapped so hard at his face, he smashed his eyeglasses in two. Now here he was, a mouse come to squeak about indecencies on her front stoop. His nose wiggled while he talked, aggravating the tape between his eyes, and he didn’t even have the common courtesy to use his big ears in a more useful fashion so as to block out the sun.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she said. “You want your money or what?”
“I ran into your daddy on the street. He paid me.”
Georgia turned the quarters over in her palm. Slippery from sweat, one slipped from her grip and seesawed back and forth on the linoleum until finally it came to a silent stop.
“Daddy paid you?” Her stomach turned over like a sick fish. Had Jimmy mentioned that business about Mother being a celebrity to Daddy? She knew Daddy had noticed the pictures, but he didn’t need to be reminded that other people could see them, too.
“Did I stutter?” Jimmy Ryan kicked the metal base of the screen door and shook his head as if disappointed. “I mean, yes. Yes, he did, indeed.”
Georgia heard something strange in his voice. Something soft as if it longed to be stroked, but arguing had always been their way. Words shot between them like spitballs, each one aiming for an insult that would stick. She would not be fooled by a sly attempt at sweetness.
“Why are you here, then?”
“To see you, I guess. I don’t know,” he said but ran off before she could respond.
Georgia went to the window and watched him hoist his bicycle from the curb. Her tail danced at the sight of his pointy shoulders, his legs like the spokes holding him up, skinny and spinning so fast his feet kept slipping from the pedals. And for the first time, she thought there might be more in him, too. After all, Jimmy tended not to say kind things. Daddy tended not to stray from his usual path, and Mother insisted on posing for that man behind the camera, the one in the snappy suit whose smile you could see reflecting in her eyes. But now Daddy had crossed paths with Jimmy who had not come to collect money for the paper or pick a fight but to kick the screen door and talk of sweet I don’t knows. If a girl could grow a tail then maybe Mother could forget about the cameraman. Turn the car around and pick-up Daddy on a street neither of them had ever seen. Drive through the melting sun together, lavawise - making their way slowly but steadily toward home.
“What was that all about?” shouted Gran-Mumma over the sound of Pearl banging an ashtray against the TV screen.
Georgia backed into the hallway and shrugged her shoulders, pantomiming her new favorite words.
That night, when Mother and Daddy and Pearl were asleep, Georgia brushed her tail. She decided she would show it to them over a plate of soft-boiled eggs, and they would see what she had seen. How impossible things could happen. She would invite Jimmy Ryan to sit on her stoop and show him her tail, too. Tomorrow, she would stop biting her fingers. But, first, she needed a clean slate. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she slipped the rubber bands from her robe pocket. Twisted them around her wrists and stretched out next to Leo. She petted him past the pinch, beyond the place of tiny pain. In the morning, she would hide the shriveled old hands – push them beneath her pillow with her chin and wait for a fresh pair, for this new way of feeling to take root.
Bridgette Shade lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and is the Fiction Editor for the independent literary journal, Weave Magazine. Her work has been featured on Prosody, an NPR affiliate radio program showcasing the work of poets and writers. Her fiction has recently appeared in Clapboard House, The Oral Tradition, Voices from the Attic, and is forthcoming this spring in Compass Rose.
This piece was selected by guest editor Laura E. Davis. Laura E. Davis is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the City of Champions. She is currently an MFA candidate in poetry and nonfiction at Chatham University. She has read her poetry on the weekly radio show Prosody. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Splinter Generation, Redactions, Meadowland Review, The Ante Review, Pear Noir!, and dotdotdash. She teaches gifted education for a local charter school and is the Founding Editor of Weave Magazine.