Getting my hair combed

I sat on the floor with my back leaning against mommy’s knees while she pulled the comb through my hair. Each time she pulled the comb, she pulled my head back towards her. ‘Ouch, it hurts’, I said.  I could tell that she wasn’t listening; I could almost feel her thoughts flying backward over both of our heads. I tried to look up at her without moving my head. “Still!” Her chin was up and her eyes looked towards the ceiling and I wondered what was she thinking about?

She pulled the comb through, pulled the comb through, until I thought my neck would break. Then she oiled it. She dabbed the bergamot hair grease around the edges of my scalp then throughout that mass of hair using her fingers. Smoothing with her fingers, smoothing and pulling and rubbing and smoothing, until that section of my hair felt like a long piece of silk. I closed my eyes and breathed deep smelling the bergamot. And we were like one, as she pulled and smoothed and I leaned this way and that, my eyes fluttering because of the heat in the room and on my head and the hypnotic movements making me almost fall asleep. 

I opened my eyes to slits and watch the dust motes bounce off each other in the sun light across the room. The ironing board is set up beside the window and ’michael’, our cat, is sitting next to the cooling iron looking out the window. He must feel me looking at him because he turns and looks at me and we stare at each other, both of us with our eyes like slits.

Slowly I turned my eyes to my left and try to look out the window that overlooks our courtyard. That is where Daniel is playing ’spit-spat-sputter’ in the dirt with Cliff and Tommy.  I wished that I was outside with them, even though they only let me play sometimes when they’re in a good mood. I close my eyes again and imagine the knife in my palm. ’spit-spat-sputter!’ I’m better than all three of them sometimes and they hate it. 

Mom is starting on the second braid. Only the second braid! At this rate I’ll be here all day, unless she drinks too much, gets tired and gives up half way.

The phone rings and she gets up to answer it. I breathe a sigh of relief and lean my head back on the couch. It’s grandmother. My heart tightens. There will be an argument. There will be a fight on the phone. Grandmother wants to know why we haven’t been in school, why the house is not clean, why there is no food in the refrigerator. She already knows the reason why so why does she bother to ask.

But, mommy is her love, her joy, and it breaks her heart that her little girl turned out to be an alcoholic.  So, she fusses and makes it worst for all of us. 

I love my granny but I love mommy too. I close my eyes and my ears and pretend that we are one big happy family. I’m snuggled up close to granny on her bigger than life bed and she is reading to me out of her bigger than life bible with the color pictures of Christ and Job and the fishes. I lean on her shoulder and finger her soft peppery hair and stare at the moles on her face and love fills me and surrounds me on all sides. But the shouting and the banging of the phone on the hook makes me look up and I see mommy heading for the kitchen to refresh her drink. My head starts to throb in anticipation of what’s to come.  Mommy stays away a long time and when I go to look she is lying across the bed. I put a rubber band on my hair and sneak out the house. I know she will sleep for at least an hour.

Our building is a 3 flat with six apartments. We live on the second floor overlooking the courtyard.  I leave the house and bound down the back stairs, with my mind fixed on joining the boys in the dirt. I am so focused that I do not see him until he speaks. I jump and my heart stops for a moment I am so frightened. Then I am instantly mad. It’s the weirdo from upstairs. He’s hiding in the shadows of the staircase. What is he doing there? I am so mad that he scared me that I yell at him and he laughs and grabs at me. Struggling, I push him off and run fast. When I get outdoors it’s like a dream. It is such a break from the dark and scary reality of the stairway that it’s as if it never happened but it happened just moments ago. My heart is thumping fast and I run to the boys and fall on my knees into the dust. They ignore me, although Daniel gives me a questioning look and we agree without words that I will tell him everything later.  But, now, right now, I am happy. I am ecstatic. Daniel hands me the knife. Cliff begins to protest but stops unexplainably and just looks at me. “Spit-Spat-Sputter”, I go through all ten levels without stopping, grinning like a fool. Tommy stands up suddenly, curses, and storms off. Everything breaks up but I still feel better and my heart is beating normal again. Daniel takes the knife from me and we walk back to the building together.

My brother.  I love him so much. It is just the two of us and he is sooo serious about everything. I wish he wasn’t so serious. I wish he would smile more like he use to.  I guess he is too old to smile and besides, he must look after mommy and me. He is eleven, four years older than me. He is my older brother and my best friend, after mommy. He is so smart and good looking. All the girls like him and even the boys like him. He is the best at “Spit-Spat-Sputter”, when I’m not playing, but, he taught me so, I don’t really count. He’s still popular with the girls and has lots of friends, but, he doesn’t smile as much at home anymore. Especially since Tillis died. 

Tillis was mommy’s boyfriend and he was a friend to us. He didn’t talk much but we knew that he loved us. Still, Mommy would torture him with her rants. You see; Tillis couldn’t get a regular job, he couldn’t read or write, so he worked odd jobs, anything to bring in money for mommy and us. We always had a running tab at the store on the corner and we never had enough money at the end of the month to pay it off. 

But, in the winter Tillis would wear his big heavy coat with lots of pockets. Well, Tillis was a big man anyway, but when he wore his big coat he was a giant.  He would go into the larger grocery stores, like, “Hi and Lo”, and when he came out, he would have a ham or something like that under that coat and mommy would be happy and we would eat good!

I will never forget the night Tillis died. I was asleep in mommy’s bed when she woke me up.  “Hedda, I think Tillis is dead”, “He aint dead.” I answered. “Go and see”, she said. I went into the back room where Tillis slept and touched him. I had never been that close to a dead person before.  I went back to mommy and said, “Tillis is gone”.

Tillis died from eating spoiled pork chops that mom had put under the sink. That was the end of Tillis. 

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