NONFICTION January 5, 2024

The Life of a Breck Girl

My brother Jimmy’s face tells me something I’m not sure I want to know yet. The hooded eyes, the hard straight line of his mouth. He’s fifteen, seven years older. He’s been at school, at friends’ houses, on class trips and Boy Scout outings. His suspicions have been confirmed. There’s something wrong here.

My sister June and I are still like shipmates who haven’t yet set foot on land. We can see the shoreline in the distance, but surely it’s just like home. Just two years older, she assumes, as I do, that everyone shares the last of their leftover spaghetti, sleeps in pajamas that smell of sheets that need washing, and revives stale bread, wet in the oven. We’ve been out of school for weeks because of the lice in our hair. We play with our dolls and watch The Mickey Mouse Club on TV. We’ve gotten used to the snapping sound of a thumbnail squashing head lice on the back of a saucer.

Jimmy has a choir boy’s face, his prizefighter stare already perfected. He does not fall for our parents’ lies, nor does he bother to contradict them. He knows the electric bill hasn’t been paid, the kitchen will never get painted, the claims about finding a new place to live are yarns. When we want the truth about something, we ask Jimmy. The trust he garners will help him succeed later on, keep clients from doubting him when there are delays in construction, and that stare will surely be useful when he dares to set up shop in an industry controlled by the mob. He’s a man of few words, all true, so people learn to listen closely.

He’s the one who confronts Mom about our hair. “You can get stuff in the drug store to fix it,” he says, not waiting for a response, just tossing the money on the table. Mom waves him off because she already knows the cure. My sister Alice, almost ten years older, tells us she had head lice years ago, promises us they can’t eat their way through our scalp. Billy, barely a year younger than Jimmy, swears to us that the vermin babies can eat up our brain cells, and we’ll go blind and deaf. Billy brings his own brand of chaos to every situation. I’m just beginning to need glasses, and every time I squint, Billy insists the baby lice are ready with their forks on my scalp.

Alice has the same expression Jimmy does, as if she knows the truth for sure. That the place you live doesn’t have to be this way. Dishes left unwashed for days, condiments gone bad in the fridge. A father staggering home, ready to trash the place and the people in it. Lamps glued back together, blood stains left to fade on the couch. Alice has a boyfriend now, and she spends more time at his place. He’s an Irish kid, so of course Mom tries to steer her away from making the same mistake she did. “They’re only good for a song and a smile,” she says, but Alice likes the attention, the excuse to get out—and his car, a ’56 Chevy with a backseat as big as a couch.

After the treatment—a painful procedure with metal combs and harsh shampoo—I refuse to let my mother touch my hair. I beg Alice, then June, to wash it for me. By eight, I don’t need their help. I become obsessive about making it shine. Thick, clean hair that can veil my face and cascade down my back becomes a trusty camouflage. With hair like that, how can I come from such an ugly place? How can I be desperate? I steal Breck shampoo from the drugstore, hide it in my bookbag between washings. A bunch of it spills out into my history book. When it’s time to return our textbooks at the end of the year, I pretend I’ve lost it because it still smells, the scent of a promise that things can get better.

Jimmy and Alice—and Patsy too, the oldest—escape as soon as they can. Jimmy joins the Navy shortly after Patsy and Alice are gone, each marrying at sixteen. By then I don’t need their help to see the truth. I’m not seduced by the lies and excuses. I know things won’t change. Mom can't leave work early to see me in the play. She can’t get me that dress for graduation. She’s saving for a better apartment. We’ll have an empty fridge in a room with different wallpaper.

My hair is thick and long. “You have your grandmother’s hair,” my mother says, as if there may come a day when I’ll have to explain where I got such a luxurious gift. Total strangers—store clerks, nurses—will compliment my hair. The color. The cut. I’ll search their faces for signs of suspicion because by then I’ll know what Jimmy knows, that attention here went to all the wrong things: the next drink, the next bill. Eventually I'll understand who we are—the children with a hand-me-down life, born to people who can’t come up with the fare, who show up late for their jobs, who get invited only when there’s no other choice but know all the words to the songs.

In families like ours, the books say, the cycle is rarely broken. We know better than that. The force of wanting more can bust through impossibility. The degree is earned. The job secured. The memories get small. And then a child is born. Jimmy and Alice have families, so do Patsy and Billy and June and I. Eighteen children altogether, all with hair that’s thick and strong, who can trust the scent of a promise.

Mary Ann McGuigan’s essays and short stories have appeared in The Sun, Massachusetts Review, The Rumpus, X-R-A-Y, and many other journals. Her collection Pieces includes stories named for the Pushcart Prize. The second collection is due out in 2025. The New York Public Library and the Junior Library Guild rank her young-adult novels among their best books for teens. Where You Belong was a finalist for the National Book Award. For more about her writing, visit