red lipstick

by Elizabeth Burton

Callie stood cradling her granddaughter on her hip, watching the woman from the Board make little checkmarks in her book. The woman’s smile looked glued on, something she took off at the end of the day like her hat or those stockings she wore. Callie didn’t see any use for stockings, but she figured the fancy woman with all the questions knew best. At least that’s what the lady told her, that she and the Board knew what was best for Callie’s daughter.

Promiscuous, they called Dorrinda. Callie wasn’t sure what that meant. She reckoned it must mean forced down on the dirt and pushed into the way fourteen-year-old Dorrinda had been by that man. Maybe it also took in the weeks of being afraid to go outside or the tears when her monthly didn’t come. Callie remembered her own first time, a promiscuous by a boy in her class. She’d dropped out of eighth grade for the shame of it all. Only when she met her now-husband, a church man, had she felt as safe as she figured any woman ever did. Now he was gone, drafted to some place called Korea.

“You can keep the child,” the Board lady said, like she was handing Callie a great gift, “but we’ve got to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

“So what are we going to do?” It was a relief to have someone like the fancy woman, someone from the North Carolina Eugenics Board, which Callie thought might just be the next thing to God, tell her what was right.

The woman’s smile broadened. Callie blinked at the whiteness of her teeth against her red lipstick. Dorrinda had saved up to buy that same color before the promiscuous. “It’s what all the girls wear,” she’d said.

“We’re going to sign these papers so Dorrinda can be sterilized.”

The word sounded nice to Callie, clean as she ran it over her tongue. “And that’ll mean the promiscuous can’t happen?” No man could ever hurt Dorrinda again, Callie thought. She’d be safe. At the woman’s nod, Callie rushed out her feelings before the woman could take the miracle away. “Then I want the baby sterilized, too.”

The woman’s smile never left her lips. “Oh, we’ll keep our eye on her,” she said. “That’s a promise.”

Elizabeth Burton lives in Kentucky, USA, with her husband and two willful dogs. She holds an MFA from Spalding University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Roanoke Review, ChautauquaThe Louisville ReviewThe MacGuffinValparaiso Fiction ReviewEllipsisZine’s Three, and formercactus. 

Find out more about Elizabeth and her work at or connect with her on Twitter @eburton_writes.

Image close-up from a lipstick advertisement in Vanity Fair, 1955.