It started on what was otherwise a typical Thursday: sixty-two degrees, partly sunny, a cool breeze moving in from the West. All the makings of a fine spring afternoon. The #456 bus from Mason Elementary School was running a few minutes late, which was right on schedule per usual. Stop-and-go traffic always made the school buses run a little behind. One of its last stops was on 8 Mile Road. Many of the surrounding buildings had bars on their windows and graffiti on the outside walls. The street was filled with potholes big enough to swallow whole tires. There was trash pinned against fences and stuck to the sides of dumpsters. Blight is not a word I use lightly, but the area was thick with it. Outsiders would consider the place dangerous for children, but for a fourth-grader named Special, it was no big deal. The girl paid no mind. The bus pulled over and opened its doors. Special ran down the creaky steps with a giant smile on her face.
If you happened to be in the neighborhood at the time, you would have recognized Special as the one with all the bows pinned in her hair. Six, to be precise, attached at the end of her six braided pigtails. She carried a purple book bag with a unicorn sticker on the bottom right corner (fifty cents at the Family Dollar checkout next to the beef jerky). Usually, Special took her time to get to her mama’s work, whistling her favorite songs and waving to strangers who didn’t give a good goddam about some little girl being all cheery. That day was different, though. That day, her little feet skipped across the parking lot as fast as they could. She swung open the door to the Ace of Fades beauty salon, clinking the bells at the top of the frame, announcing her presence to all who could hear it.
“Mama! Mama! Guess what I made?”
Her mama, Ianchelle, was busy cutting a client’s hair. “What is it, Special?” she said. The woman whose hair she was styling was also interested.
Special sat down at one of the unoccupied hair washing stations. She unzipped her book bag and removed a mysterious object. It was a pink ball, about the size of a softball, with a beak and two eyes attached to the front. Purple feathers were glued to the sides to make wings. Pipe cleaners had been bent and attached to the bottom for legs. It was a bird, a pink feathered-creature that could have only been conceived from the wonderful mind of a ten-year-old girl.
“It’s beautiful,” Ianchelle said, then to the salon: “My baby’s so talented.”
Special nodded. “Paper mushy.”
“Yeah, paper mushy.” She handed Ianchelle the bird.
Ianchelle examined the intricate work Special had done with her project: the glued edges, the paint choices, her autograph scribbled on the bottom in black Sharpie. It was the cutest thing.
The woman sitting in the chair began to laugh. She leaned over and whispered to Special. “Papier-mâché. That’s what you call it, dear. Pay-per mah-shay.”
“Paper mushy is better,” Special said. “The other way sounds like paper machete.”
The woman laughed again. It was a loud enough cackle that the other hair-dressers shot a look over at Special, wondering what joke they had missed.
“You can call it whatever you want,” the woman said. “Aren’t you just adorable?”
Special tilted her head and smiled.
“Does it have a name?” Ianchelle asked.
“It’s a girl and her name is Ivory,” Special said.
“Uh-huh, that’s it. Ivory.”
“She’s lovely,” the woman said.
“We’ll put her in the living room by the window so she can look outside and watch the other birds,” Ianchelle said.
“Oh, what a great idea,” Special said. She hugged Ianchelle. Ianchelle forgot that she still had scissors in her hands and set them on the counter before wrapping her arms around Special.
“I need to keep working for a little while. Can you go play with Ivory while you wait for me?”
Special took Ivory to the waiting area toward the front of the salon and sat on a bench. The original design for Ivory had been a cat. Somewhere along the way, the ball that was supposed to be the cat’s head ended up becoming a bird. Perhaps, it had been too difficult for Special to create the torso and the tail for the cat, but that’s simply the ramblings of an old man who has no business speculating about why she changed her mind.
I understand these details might have helped enrich the story, but I never got to see Ivory so I want to stick to the facts. I told you that I like to add a little flavor, but too much flavor and the whole thing becomes suspect, like tossing salt onto spent meat. Special was happy with Ivory. That’s all that mattered. Not where the idea came from or what it could have been, but what it was. Toys didn’t always have to be bought, they could be made—made from nothing but some paper and some glue.
Ivory was different.
Ivory was unique.
Just like Special.