Mom gave me Dad’s handkerchief to cover my mouth and nose. She fanned out my long hair on the bed then sprayed it with Black Flag. Yes, the very Black Flag used to kill insects. Then she wrapped it tight in a white towel. “That’ll suffocate those sons-of-bitches.”
She instructed me to remain still on the bed. I wondered why she used Black Flag on my head and not Alberto VO5.
She returned to the room. “Honey! Honey!” she called out to Dad. “Look!”
A long trail of straggling lice exited slowly from the toxic gases trapped in my head.
His room was across my grandmother’s. He paced back and forth reciting indecipherable mumble jumble. Matted hair, long sleeves, barefooted. Madness, I say, sheer madness. His eyes remained fixed on the floor he paced, retracing his steps. Occasionally he’d look up offering a vacant stare then he’d resume his march. Grandma suggested I ignore him, but his movements distracted me from the matter at hand; her failing health.
Once I heard him repeat Helene, Helene, Helene. Another time he took off his shirt. I saw a block of numbers tattooed on his forearm. His mania was starting to make sense.
“Her hair grows like tobacco plants,” exclaimed Iris. She was the no-frills hairstylist who made house calls. “Folds upon folds.”
My mother loved my thick, abundant hair and let it grow past my waistline. It was laborious to upkeep, but she was not going to allow fifth grade pranksters, who stuck a gob of gum in it, rob me of my crowning glory.
Iris pulled, tucked, and chopped off a large chunk. Any other person would have a bald spot, but not me. The tobacco-like swirls swallowed the butchered hair.
Iris charged Mom a few extra dollars for her services.
Bella stretched the elasticized material and shoved in her right leg. Then her left, much like her grandmother squeezed ground meat into casings during the high holidays. She pulled and tugged and rearranged the bulges in the midsection of her body. It’d be easier, she huffed, if she exercised and watched what she ate rather than fight the Spanx war, but the battle was not food related. Age had brought on undesirable flabs.
She smoothed her dress, satisfied everything was held tightly in place. Her eyes fixed on her neck. No amount of Spanx could stretch or hide those lines.
I waited with my mother at the admittance office on the first day of school. I was the new fifth grader. Even if I weren’t the new kid, I stuck out. There was nothing soft or round about my appearance. I was at once too much and not enough. Too much hair, sharp elbows, knock-knees, thick eyeglasses, lanky, flat chest.
Mom noticed most girls my age wore training bras. She pulled me close to her and peered down my blue first-day-of-school top. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked. “You’re being left behind!”
I tore away mortified. Everyone within earshot heard.
A mosquito net surrounds the four-poster bed and traps the still air. The tiniest movement multiplies the dense heat. My sweat dampens the bed sheets.
It’s a moonless night. I lay with eyes wide open in the dark room listening to the night creatures. Grasshoppers and crickets chirp all night. Cats meow. An occasional dog lets out a howl. Coquis croak their love song.
A dove begins a mournful coo. Soon the whole flock joins the night’s cacophony. I cover myself head to toes with the damp sheets. According to legend, doves coo at night only when they see ghosts.
“It beats me black and blue,” wails Rihanna followed by unprintable words then “must be love on the brain.”
Those words stick in my brain conjuring negative scenarios. When is it acceptable for violence to equate love? Are these allusions to the antiquated notions of bad boy overpowers helpless damsel? Or savage lovemaking between two people that cannot keep away from each other despite destructive behavior? The only image that surfaces is of a broken down Rihanna beaten to a pulp by her then boyfriend. The lyrics do not heal in this me-too generation. They perpetuate twisted interpretations of love.
Brown leaves danced and twirled before their graceful landing. One by one and in pairs they piled beneath the tree. It had been years since Ellen had witnessed the beauty of fall. Leaves in the islands fell from trees when the unforgiving sun scorched them or if the tree were dying. In Brooklyn, they turned from greens to yellows and reds. After their final descent, they lay fallow protecting roots from the inevitable winter.
Ellen inhaled deeply expecting freshly cut green grass. Alas summer had passed. Instead, musty air filled her lungs, a by-product from the accumulation of dead leaves.
The light turned yellow. A sanitation truck barreled down the avenue to beat the light. It stirred the settled leaves. Debris flew in every direction.
Instinctively Ellen shut her eyes and for once was grateful to be wearing eyeglasses. She shook her hair and picked off bits of dried leaves, stems and the occasional acorn shells. She unzipped her bomber jacket. The faux suede from the TSS fall collection was the rage of the season. TSS was the bargain store in the area, a staple in the working class neighborhood. She tugged her green sweater and wiped her glasses clean.
Old Man Monse spent most days rocking himself in his hammock and chewing tobacco then spitting into a coffee can. He only got up when it was time to relief himself but struggled to reach the latrine on time. His once erect back was hunched; his eyes fixed on the ground watching his every step. Hard to believe this was the town’s Judge; the very man who spied the pretty girls when they fetched water. Girls shuddered in fear when they’d notice the judge touch himself when he stared. Now they ridiculed Old Man Monse who had always lacked self-control.