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Photo of a Nine-Year-Old Girl Smoking by Kat Moore


With “Photo of a Nine-Year-Old Girl Smoking,” Kat Moore delivers a compelling character in narrator Lisa. Through exquisite interiority and rich detail, we learn that this girl yearns to grow up, to be older so she can escape. The child voice, with its muddle of innocence and longed-for maturity, coupled with a child character’s profound lack of agency, is difficult to impart as well as Moore has done here in a 600-word flash. In a moment of deep dramatic irony, Lisa sees in photographer Mary Ellen Mark a sliver of hope. Be sure to read Moore’s author’s note for a discussion of the famous photograph that inspired this piece, and Moore’s background research into the real girl who Mark captured thirty years ago in her vulnerability and defiance.  —CRAFT


 

Inspired from a photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Lisa’s sitting in the baby pool with chubby Annie even though they aren’t babies anymore. The plastic green pool is in the driveway of Annie’s Aunt Jean’s house. Lisa is nine and reads Judy Blume and stands in front of the bathroom mirror stuffing hand towels inside her training bra until she is as big as Dolly Parton. She also puts maxi pads in her purse and one in her panties, just in case, because Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret taught her to always be prepared. She likes the feel of the pad between her thighs. But now in her two piece turquoise bathing suit, sitting in the cool water, the cotton’s all soggy and feels like those wet wads of tissue that the older kids throw on the bathroom ceiling. She can’t just wiggle it out because someone may see. She can’t go down the street to her apartment where her mom sits outside with a beer nestled between her legs or step inside Annie’s to dispose of it because there’s a photographer somewhere in the neighborhood, from LIFE Magazine, the magazine that if you buy a subscription you get a neon telephone that lights up when it rings. It’s possible, that at any moment now, the photographer could turn onto Lisa’s street, and if she goes inside, even for a second, she may miss it all. Lisa wants her picture taken. It’s why she put on purple eye shadow and frosted lip-gloss. It’s why she got Annie’s older cousin, Sheila, to glue hot-pink press-on nails to her fingers. Annie sits in the pool with her stomach poking through her wet T-shirt, one roll flapping over another.

A group of kids round the corner and in the middle Lisa sees a tall, slim lady with brown hair smooth like the rocks in the creek and shining like water in the sun. The woman carries a fancy camera in her hands, and as she walks, she pops off the lens and hands it to the man keeping in step with her. She reaches into a leather satchel draped over her arm and pulls out another lens. Lisa knows she has to do something to stand out, to be different, and maybe the nails and makeup aren’t enough. Annie’s Aunt Jean comes out the side door puffing on her cigarette. Lisa runs over, dripping water, and snatches the cigarette from Aunt Jean’s hands and sucks in and then blows out with her mouth in a perfect O. Little Miss Fancy, Aunt Jean says and puts her finger through one of the smoke rings.

Then the photography lady is there, gliding across Annie’s Aunt Jean’s driveway in her clean, slick, black shoes and billowy pants with perfect hems. She stops in front of Lisa.

What’s your name? She asks.

Lisa Ann.

I’m Mary. May I take your picture?

Yeah, that’d be okay.

Mary raises the camera. Lisa steps back into the pool and brings the cigarette to her lips and breathes in. The camera clicks each time Mary pushes the button. Lisa exhales and smoke cascades out her mouth and across the top of her bathing suit and out over her pink press-on nails. She is tired of Atoka, Tennessee and the backhand of her mother and the battery-acid taste of the whisky she steals from under the bathroom sink. In this moment she believes that someone will see this picture of her, this picture of a little girl breathing fire, and this someone will come for her and take her away.

 


KAT MOORE has essays in Brevity, Entropy, Hippocampus, Salt Hill, New South, Whiskey Island, The Rumpus, and others, as well as forthcoming in Diagram, and Passages North. She also has fiction in Hobart and CHEAP POP.

 

Author’s Note

This story started with a photo by the late Mary Ellen Mark. I researched the photo and found that the little girl had grown up to a life of foster care, addiction, and crime. In an interview with NPR, the girl, then a woman, said that when the photo was taken, she had hoped someone would see it, and come get her. I have found that the interior lives of young girls are rarely taken seriously. Having been a young girl myself, this is something that I am interested in writing. I wasn’t sure if what I was going to write would be an essay or a short story. What interested me the most was the photo. This split second captured in time. So I returned to the photo and decided on flash fiction. Flash doesn’t tell a whole story. Flash, like the flash of a camera, captures a moment in time. I chose fiction over the essay because I didn’t want to claim that I knew what was going on inside the girl, though, in a way I knew, because she and I were similar.

Something in this photo, as Barthes would say, wounded me. I understood the girl, why she was dressed like that, why the smoking. I understood she wanted attention, and knew what would get attention, and that just being a girl needing help wouldn’t get her seen. Young girls have a hard time feeling seen. A photo is static, still, the subject will not move or change within the frame. I wanted to give this photo an echo, a momentum, propelled by the girl. The sentence structure goes back and forth from short declarative sentences that cause the story to slow, to longer sentences with clauses that tumble forward in a rush. This pattern mimics longings. The urgency to go somewhere else that makes the blood pump, the stuck-ness that quells it. I wanted to present her essence beyond press-on nails and wet hair. I wanted to reveal her longing. Little girls have longings.

I included the things that nine-year-old girls think about. Like hoping for periods because the older girls all have them, and because most girls have read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. A few years ago, when I taught middle school, all my girl students had read that book when they were nine or ten, and still loved it. I read it when I was nine. Girls are far more perceptive than what the world thinks of them, and I wanted to capture the interiority, the voice, the way her feelings are deep even if she can’t yet articulate them fully. I named her Lisa, and set it in a rural town near my hometown of Memphis, TN. Lisa is part the girl in the real photo, and partly me, and all the other girls who had to grow up too fast when no one came and took them away to some place better.

 


KAT MOORE has essays in Brevity, Entropy, Hippocampus, Salt Hill, New South, Whiskey Island, The Rumpus, and others, as well as forthcoming in Diagram, and Passages North. She also has fiction in Hobart and CHEAP POP.