Book Excerpt: 'Lit' by Mary Karr

Photo: Book Excerpt: Lit, by Mary Karr

Excerpt appears courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Before the rehearsal dinner, I'm lying in a shampoo chair with my head in the black sink, neck arched upward in a perfect position to have my throat cut, and I catch a distant whiff of marijuana.

Mother, I think.

With that single word, an unease comes shimmering into my solar plexus. My stylist, Richard, who's been vigorously scrubbing my scalp, twists my soapy hair into a unicorn horn, saying, Maybe you should wear it like this down the aisle. I interrupt him, rising up. Do you smell that? I say.

What? he says.

Pot, I say.

Lifting his nose in the air, he gives a stuffed-up snuffle, then says, Allergies.

It's dusk, and I've warned Richard and his beautician colleague Curtis in advance not to offer Mother and me their usual convivial glass of wine. Twice.

Reluctantly, I lie back down, but some engine of vigilance has been kick-started in my middle, and it's starting to rumble. I say, Curtis wouldn't give her marijuana. Curtis can't afford marijuana, Richard says, adding, It's probably floating up from the alley.

And with that, I tell him how -- visiting me once at college -- Mother got gunched out of her brains with my pals. In my twenties, she sat in on a poetry workshop with Etheridge, and afterward, I found her on his back step sharing a blunt with him and a bunch of young brothers. Which embarrassed me at the time, since she flirted like a saloon floozy, but also since her lack of maternal posture always unconsciously felt like some failure of mine on the child front.

By the end of the Mother stories, Richard's finger-combing through the suds in my hair with warm water has sent an ease from the scalp down my spine and along my limbs. She's in good hands with Curtis, Richard says. He's wrapped my hair in a towel, and I sit upright.

And there's nobody else here?

We closed the shop for you two. Very exclusive, Richard says, adding, we have caught kids getting high in the alley before.

Not long after, Curtis swans in, giving off an odor of patchouli oil as he rifles a drawer. He says, Your mom's a riot. I'm gonna visit her in Texas. She knows a place I can buy ostrich-skin cowboy boots.

I'm sure she does, I say.

Some time later, when Curtis presents her, I see he's jacked her hair up into a concoction only a drag queen could relish. Her eyes are glassy, and her neck has that bobblehead swivel.

Mother! I say.

Don't I look precious? she says, hands on her hips.

You look high!

Do you think? Curtis says. She made me do it that high.

Mother tips her head coquettishly, which, with the giant hairdo, has the effect of a topiary starting to topple over. She says, We smoked a little maryjane.

Then we're in Warren's tiny backseat. As he navigates the river road traffic to the Ritz, I'm violently trying to de-escalate her hair. Why now, Mother? I say, almost in tears. Why'd you have to start now?

Ow, she says. She's holding her ears as I tug. Don't ruin your mascara.

You reek of marijuana, I say.

The city of Cambridge is sliding away behind us. At the boathouse, we pass somebody hauling a lone scull from the water. I apologize to Warren as I work at the vast rats' nest of her head.

I don't smell anything, he says. With Warren, you can never know if this is impeccable denial or politeness. Maybe at all those heavydrinking WASP country club events, he'd learned to ignore the average soused-up human.

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