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On Seventeen in Appalachia

by Rachel M. Hanson

Issue Two: May 23, 2019

I stepped out of the house at dusk, still able to see shrub oaks thinned out for winter, fame flower dead on the ground, dunn clay so wet the smell of it seemed settled in my skin. At my back, pastures spread far, darkened where dairy cows huddled for warmth in a slow January drizzle. I crossed the road, walked the length of my neighbor’s yard and knocked on his door, asking to play the piano. I’d played when I was younger, when one of the houses we rented had an upright in the living room. Here, at my neighbors, I hoped to remember how to play, and for the briefest moments, have some space to be more than second-mother to my siblings. Earlier in the day when I was taking out the trash, my neighbor had called out to feel free to come over and take a break when I found time to slip away. He said he was sad to see someone as young as myself so work-worn.


It wasn’t until I was sitting on the piano bench that I noticed, when my neighbor pointed it out, how my hair fell near my hips. I looked down at the frayed ends and couldn’t recall the last time it’d been trimmed. He touched it, said it was soft, lovely untethered. I gave an uneasy smile, told myself he didn’t mean to leave his hands there so long because I’d hoped to speak to anyone who wouldn’t ask me for a thing, though I see now there was a question in his fingertips.

It didn’t take long for him to show me the crack he kept hidden inside a pot on top of the refrigerator. He let me hold it—the small milky colored rocks kept in a baggie, told me how it must be boiled, made liquid in a spoon. I did not show my surprise, handled the drugs and the information as if it were no big deal. Because I was never sure what was normal and what was not, I’d been trying to learn how to keep a straight face when I wasn’t sure how to react to a situation. Still, I looked across the way, back to where my little siblings lay sleeping under the covers I’d tucked them into. My instinct told me to move towards them, so I did, slowly, as if that had been my plan all along, before I held the drugs. But on the front porch steps my neighbor stopped me and pressed a small bottle of gold schnapps in my hand: “A girl should have a present on her birthday.”

I didn’t go back inside our house immediately, but walked around to the back yard and sat beneath the largest of two oak trees whose limbs stretch too far over the tin roof of the house, and reached far across the barbed wire fence that separated our property from the farmer’s next door. There was something about the cold, that low calling wind, that told me I would not last in Tennessee much longer.

That night I shared the booze with my older brother at the kitchen table, both of us wondering if the gold were real. We said “here’s to us,” drank fast, the cinnamon burn stretching grins on our faces, freezing there when our mother rang from the hospital—another mental break-down. She offered me a belabored breath after managing a “I guess I should be saying happy birthday.” I hated her for it—that sigh. I passed the phone to my brother, took scissors to the bathroom—cut my hair.


Rachel M. Hanson has published prose and poems in The Iowa Review, Ninth Letter, Meridian, Juked, The Minnesota Review, American Literary Review, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. She is a former Olive B. O’Connor fellow in nonfiction at Colgate University, and she holds an MFA from the University of Utah and a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. Rachel is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

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