- By Kelsey Ronan
- Tuesday, March 02, 2010
- Hits: 779
Every Saturday morning I used to drive to the donut shop on the South Side, near the branch library. I'd have two donuts and a cup of black coffee, read the newspaper and drive back with an éclair for her. She'd just be getting up when I came in, sitting up in bed or padding around the kitchen in her robe, making tea, yawning. She'd have her donut at the table, chewing thoughtfully, her mouth slightly open, while she listened to the news on the radio. After she left I couldn't stand to eat in the shop anymore. I'd sit there thinking of her blue robe with the hair dye stains on the collar and the smell of Earl Grey in the kitchen, so I started getting a half dozen donuts and a Styrofoam cup of coffee to go. I signed up to get the paper delivered, and it worked out cheaper anyway. So every Saturday morning I sit on the sofa reading the Free Press while I have the coffee and two donuts. I save another two for the evening, when I watch a movie, and the rest for Sunday.
This morning I fall asleep reading about the war and when I wake up someone's knocking at the door. The man from down the hall and his little girl are standing there. I've passed them in the hall and on the stairs a dozen times, maybe. I've never done more than nod to them. The girl is a cute little thing, seven or eight, with long black hair she wears coiled in a braid that hangs between her shoulders. She's chubby and short, like the man she lives with. I assume he's her grandfather. The spiky quills of his hair are flecked with grey and his jowls are heavy, sagging. Coming down the hall sometimes you can hear them chattering together in Spanish.
"My name is Martinez," the man says. He extends his hand, smiling. His accent is heavy, and he enunciates his words laboriously. "This is Isela."
The kid stares at me impassively, blinking. "Hello," I say.
"We have a problem," he says, and turns to the little girl, talking with her.
"My grandfather wants to know do you have good eyes," Isela says finally.
"Good eyes. Like, do you see good."
"I suppose so," I say.
"I got lice," she says. "They say I can't go back to school till I get rid of em but Papa can't see to pick em out. We need someone to help."
I don't understand what they're asking. I try to remember where the free clinic is. There used to be one on Fenton Road, near the Army surplus, but I think they closed it down. Is it on Dort Highway now? No, that's something else.
Before I can remember she asks, "Could you help us?" and I say yes without thinking anything at all.
The girl relays the information to her grandfather, talking rapidly. "I'll get the stuff," she says to me, and runs down the hall, the braid bouncing on her back. Awkwardly I nod to her grandfather, motion for him to come in. I hope his eyes are bad enough not to see the mess of this place: the newspaper strewn over the sofa and surrounding floor, the carpet I haven't vacuumed in months, the layer of dust over everything.
"Coffee?" I ask, and he smiles, nodding. I lead him to the kitchen, where he sits at the table and I rummage in the cupboards for sugar and creamer.
There's a knock at the door and I let Isela in. She surveys my cramped spaces without judgment and joins her grandfather in the kitchen. I ask if they'd like donuts. They say yes and I serve them on plates, wondering if that looks stupid.
With a mouthful of donut, Isela dumps out the contents of the bag onto my table. A bottle of shampoo, a box, combs, two thin towels with a procession of yellow ducks at their ends. She opens the box for the solution and the folded directions.
"I think I gotta wash my hair like normal first," she says, pressing the directions over to me. "Read that, please."
Isela uncoils her braid. I read the instructions aloud for them. Her grandfather chews his donut thoughtfully and stares at Isela's head.
I drag a chair over to the sink and she climbs it, bowing her head into the basin. Her hair tumbles under the faucet, water streaming over her head. I don't know much about these things but the shampoo is of poor quality; cheap dollar store stuff, bright pink with a fruity, sugary whiff that might have enticed her. Gingerly I work it into a lather, massaging lightly with my fingertips. I look to her grandfather, who smiles at me as he sucks at his coffee, nodding. I run her black hair under the faucet until the water runs clear, the gooey foam of her shampoo disappearing down my drain.
She wraps her hair in a towel, turban style, and sits at the table to finish her donut. She and her father chatter to each other in Spanish. Turning from him she asks me,
"Are you married?"
"No," I tell her. "Are you?"
She rolls her eyes. "No way. I'm too young."
"Do you have pets? Like a cat or something?"
I shake my head. "It's just me," I say.
"Me and Papa got goldfishes. He gave em to me for Christmas. I named them Sally and Ignacio, but I call Ignacio Nacho for short."
"Those are nice names," I tell her, and ask her grandfather if he'd like more coffee. He nods, smiling. I pour and he spoons the sugar in.
"Have you lived here a long time?" she wants to know.
"A few years. What about you?"
She consults with her grandfather. "Seven months now. We used to live in California. It's hotter than there and they have palm trees. Have you been there?"
"Once," I tell her. "Several years ago."
"You speak Spanish?" she asks me.
"I know hola," I say.
"Everybody knows a little. You know how to count to ten, right?"
I consider this for a minute. "Uno, dos, tres... quatro...?"
"Cinqo, seix, siete, ocho, nueve, des," she concludes triumphantly. Her grandfather laughs and they talk together. I think how nice the language is, that I don't mind not knowing what they're saying.
Isela unravels her towel turban, letting her hair fall around her shoulders. She pats her scalp, the ends falling over her shoulders, the back of her head. "I think it's dry enough," she concludes, and hands me the bottle of solution.
I stand behind her, squeezing the chemical onto her tiny pink scalp. I apply liberally behind her ears and along the back of her neck, like the directions say. I part her hair and massage it along the roots of her hair. A live one scurries across her scalp and I squeeze it between my nails, wiping it off on a napkin. I work the solution over her head until the bottle is empty. I wash my hands in the sink.
"Ten minutes, right?" She twists around to see the time on the microwave. "So at one... thirty... three we wash it out."
I sit back down at the table. Martinez smiles at me, nods.
"Your apartment smells different," Isela observes.
"Different to ours," she expands. I begin to imagine what their place smells like. Perhaps her Papa cooks and the warm smell of spices and fried meat lingers after dinner. Perhaps he never cleans and the rooms have that sharp smell of mothballs and neglect these rooms are quickly gathering.
Islea announces it is 1:33 and gets back up on the chair, bending dutifully into the sink. The water rushes back through her hair and I move my hands through it, washing the stickiness away. A few lice fall into the sink and swirl down the drain. I move my hands from the vulnerable curve of her neck to the ends of her hair, letting the water stream through it.
I put the second towel around her neck and she sits regally at the table, her hands in her lap. I begin combing through the thicket of her hair, occasionally catching on the kinks. I part and diligently comb through each section, sometimes catching a dead louse in the fine teeth and sliding it down to the ends, where I wipe the it off onto a napkin. Once a row of dead collects her grandfather leans over the napkin, squinting. He lifts his head, grimacing, and speaks to her harshly. Her voice rises shrilly in protest and he shakes his old head, refusing to argue. I hover over her, working intently. All I see is the forest of dark hair sprouting thick and endless from the soft skin of her scalp.
When I've worked over the whole of her head I step aside, placing the comb on the table in front of her. "Done?" she says. "Yes," I tell her. She speaks to her grandfather and the two stand, gathering their things back in the bag. Martinez extends his hand and pumps mine firmly. "Thank you," he says.
He jams his hands in his pockets and rummages for something, removing a few crumpled bills. He holds them out to me, nodding earnestly.
"I couldn't," I say. "Really."
He nods again, bringing the money closer to me.
I hold my hands up in surrender, shaking my head. "No, please. We're neighbors. It's no problem."
He shrugs and stuffs the bills back into his pocket. Isela coils her hair back into its braid. I walk them to the door.
"Thank you," her grandfather repeats. "Thank you much."
Isela stands behind him, smoothes her hand over her braid.
"If you need anything else, let me know," I say to them.
"Thanks," Isela says, and they turn down the hall.
I shut the door and go back into the kitchen. I push the chairs back in, put the plates and cups in the sink. I take the two napkins littered with lice and crumple them carefully. I take them to the bathroom and flush them down the toilet. I sit down on the couch and pick the newspaper up.
I look over the weather forecast, the shifting blues and oranges and reds over the outline of the country. Eighty degrees in California. I think about when she and I went to Los Angeles together. She hated it, and at night in our hotel room we talked about how we should have gone to New York instead. It was too sprawling, she said, too ugly, too much like home. She criticized the empty sidewalks and inadequate subways, the cars jamming the roads. The day before we were to fly home we went out to Venice Beach. There were plenty of people cycling and walking here, but they were the wrong people — too apparently moneyed, too fashionably dressed. The bright houses too picturesque, with swim suits drying on their balconies, tumbling down to the beach where the sand that day in June was covered, blanket to blanket.
We walked down the long pier jutting into the ocean, past the Mexicans with their folding chairs and portable radios, their lines cast into the glittering blue water. A few slow low-flying planes circled above, advertising beer and chiropractors on their long white tails.
At the end of the pier a crowd of men had gathered. A man at the very end stood beside his cooler at the railing, hefted in his arms a sleek, sharp-finned fish almost as long as his own body — a shark, perhaps not fully grown. Blood dripped from its mouth onto the stained planks of the pier. The men gestured, laughed, took photographs. The man who'd caught it let the creature heave to the planks, bloodying itself a little more. Lying still on the boards its mouth opened and closed in soundless gasps, its lidless eyes wide. Another man wrestled with it, gathered it slipping into his arms. He held it, grinning for another photo, and let it fall gasping to the pier once more. Then another man and another, each time the shark bloodier, its gasps slower.
"Let's go," I said to her, but she wouldn't. The annoyance in her eyes was gone, replaced with something like fascination, pure and wondering. The shark was dropped finally and the first man knelt in front of it, drawing a knife swiftly across its underside. The blood pooled over his shoes — the mouth of the shark stilled. The crowd slowly dispersed back to their poles and coolers.
We walked back down the pier without a word.
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