Excerpt – A Root Beer Season

from A Root Beer Season
by Inge Bremer-Trueman


June 1967

Hannah was in hot water before Mom even had her hands out of the sink. She gasped as she reached blindly for a tea towel.

“Oh, my God,” I thought. “This isn’t going to be good.”

Mom gripped the edge of the countertop.

Dummkopf! What did you do to your hair!”

“What do you mean?” Hannah placed a hand on her hip and furrowed her brow, her other hand twirling a golden strand at the base of her neck.

“Your hair,” Mom said again. “What you have done?”

“Nothing. Me and Jane just curled it. Don’t you like it?”

“I mean the colour.  I don’t care if you curl it. You have coloured it. Und don’t lie to me.”

“Just a little,” Hannah said defensively. “You can hardly notice it. It’s only one shade lighter.”

I closed my textbook. Hunger was beginning to short-circuit my brain but I was determined to stay focused, at least until supper. I was sitting on the pine bench that wrapped itself around two sides of our kitchen table, cramming Greek mythology. I didn’t much like school, but I found this stuff kind of fascinating. Sometimes I’d imagine myself as Hecate slapping a hex on everyone who’d ever pissed me off. Other times though, carried away in a swell of naked joy, I’d be the goddess, Diana, and I’d keep all the little children in the world snug as bugs and filled with milk. And everyone would have their own Ookpik doll.

I marveled at the coincidence though. Here was me, Sonja, trying to stuff my brain with all the minutiae of Medusa and there was Hannah, filling up our kitchen with serpent hair. I squinted until I could hardly see Hannah across the room. Her evil curls, jabbing at the sunshine, magically turned into a million snakes.

Mein Gott!” said Mom, still threatening to completely unhinge. “What will they think of us in church? Even the Greeks knew in their olden times that only whores make their hair yellow.”

I flipped to the index in my textbook and ran my finger through the ‘Hs’ where whores should have been. There was nothing there. The closest thing was Hobart, Tasmania and something about shape-shifters, whatever they were. Hey! Wasn’t that where those devils came from? I leaned back into the bench, picked at a fingernail and waited for the holy war to begin.

“The ancient Greeks dyed their hair?” Hannah was incredulous. “With what?”

“This I don’t remember exactly. I think it was potassium mit some golden flower and Flocken of gold und, und …it does not matter with what. You don’t make me change the subject! In our church we do not dye our hair!”

I opened my eyes wide and decided Hannah’s hair looked nice. But still, what could she have been thinking? She’d lived in this family long enough to know that erupting into our house with yellow hair would have Mom exploding like one of those Erinyes bitches from the Netherworld, cursing and flogging and going all berserk. God! Hannah! Haven’t you been listening? Don’t you remember those endless Schlumpe lectures that we’d get every Saturday morning during Mom’s cleaning-manias?

Occasionally on Sunday, after lunch, we’d get it all over again if it happened to be one of those unfortunate times that Ursula Witz dared to strut into the house of the Lord with her hair dyed an even brassier shade of her usual raving red.

Lieber Gott,” Mom would say. “That Ursula, she will not go to Heaven. She give her good parents so much shame.”

I didn’t think Ursula was so bad. She was just a little more worldly, that’s all. Sometimes, I’d follow her behind the church into a grove of tall skinny birch trees and if she wasn’t cranky she’d let me have a puff off her cigarette. But just as often she’d tell me to fuck off before I even got around the corner. Ursula’s parents weren’t as self-righteous as most of the other grown-ups in church for whom dying one’s hair rated right up there with wearing lipstick and watching the TV they’d secretly propped in front of a stinky old sofa in their basement.

“I like your hair,” I said to Hannah.

Hannah was seventeen. I wished I was already seventeen, but I’d have to wait another two years. I watched her dance past Mom, over to the cupboard for a glass and then to the fridge for the milk.

Nadia, our thirteen year-old sister appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. She was wearing a baggy yellow sweater I hadn’t seen since Hannah had pitched it into the “people-poorer-than-us” bag two years ago.

“That looks like crap,” said Hannah.

Nadia pulled a face at her and turned to Mom. “I’m going to Justine’s, okay?”

Mom said, “Not now. In twenty minutes we will eat.”

“What’d you do with your hair, dummy?” Nadia approached Hannah and poked a finger up one of the curls before Hannah could slap it away. “You look just like Justine’s poodle.”

“Get lost, you twerp,” said Hannah.

Frankly, I was surprised Nadia had even noticed Hannah’s brand new hair. She was more like Dad when it came to girly stuff; you practically had to rub their noses into what you wanted them to notice. You’d think at thirteen, Nadia’s feminine side would be starting to blossom but so far all her fantasies lay somewhere between owning her own horse and adopting a pet chimpanzee.

Mom pulled the wiener pot out from under the stove with as much noise as possible and kicked the drawer shut.

She turned to Hannah. “You go now and make it away.” She dropped the pot into the sink and turned on the tap. Then, in a quieter, hopeful voice, “It is Javex?”

“Washing machine bleach doesn’t work,” said Hannah. She reached across the widest part of the counter and switched on the radio. The sound of Frank and Nancy Sinatra singing Something Stupid filled the kitchen. Mom pushed her aside and turned it off.

“The radio is full of Schmutz and Sonja is learning,” she said.

I ignored the face Hannah made at me.  Mom said, “You go now in the bath and make it away.”

“Make what away?” asked Hannah.

“Your hair, Dummkopf. Make it away!” Mom was screaming now.

Hannah let out an exasperated sigh. “I can’t make it away. It has to grow out.”

“Even in the old country everyone know yellow hair is for whores,” Mom muttered as Hannah stomped down the hall.

The kitchen was quiet now except for the clatter of dishes and an occasional sigh from Mom.  She placed a stack of plates on the table and dropped a fistful of cutlery beside it. “Why does everyone defy me?” Her tone was so despairing I was compelled to look up. When our eyes met, she pursed her lips and shuffled back to the kitchen. I picked up my pen and began a new doodle in my Social Studies scribbler. When she came back with four cups, their handles laced through her fingers, she said, “I just want for you what is best.”

I offered her a half smile. She said, “Bitte, move your homework now and make for me the table.” I started to gather up my books. “What you are learning?” she asked.

I showed her the cover of my textbook before answering. “I didn’t know you knew stuff about ancient Greece,” I said.

“Oh, ja. I know about many things. What is it you are learning?” She leaned toward the book, lifting her chin so she could look at it through her bifocals. I pushed it closer to her. “I don’t know exactly if this is history or social studies, but our teacher really likes Greek mythology so we have to like it too.”

I shoved my scribbler into the textbook and pushed them to the side of the table. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, if Mom doesn’t kill Hannah, I’ll dye my hair a shade lighter too. My hair was just as dirty blonde as Hannah’s had been. We all had the same hair, except for Brigitte. She was the oldest of us girls – twenty and a perfect square. Her hair was a brown, like cocoa, and she kept it short, cut right above her ears. It looked like boy hair used to look before they all started growing it long just to make my parents crazy.

Mom let out a long sigh and pointing to my textbook said, “When I was a student, I was also very interested in that.” We hardly ever talked about school, and I suspect she was trying to calm herself by starting a cuddly conversation with me.

“You did?” I played along. “You studied this stuff too?”

Ja, of course. School in Germany is named Gymnasium, and that has come from the Greek. Mein Gott. You think you are the first to learn of the old Greek?”

“Well, no, I just never imagined you in school before, that’s all.”

“Also, in the school, I was very smart.” She wiped her hands on her apron and headed for the fridge, returning with the jar of mustard. “I also wanted to go to the university. But then the war comes.”

“Oh.” I peered up at her to see if there was a lecture lurking behind her words. Her war stories always left me drained and depressed and wondering why I felt so guilty even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.

“But that was long time before. The Greeks, they have many, many gods and that is damnation and now I have become a real Christian.”

“The Greeks don’t believe that now,” I said. “And besides, I thought you were always a real Christian.”

“No, no, not always. Before the Gemeinde found me, I was Lutheran.”

Instead of going where that bit of brain-twisting logic should have taken me, I brought my fist up under my nose and let out a small, throat-clearing cough.

“Make for me the table,” Mom said again and headed for the stove.


Copyright © Inge Bremer-Trueman, 2013