by Cindy Matthews
My two-year-old squawks like a red-wing blackbird before sliding his glasses up the bridge of his nose. I cut up an orange and set the segments before him. A picture he crayoned at the babysitter’s sits in the middle of the kitchen table. Black crayon against stark white. It’s initially unclear what the picture is. Hair springs from an enormous head. A tiny mouth droops in the direction of a plump chin. A single line serves as the body. Closed eyes behind a fuzzy rendition of glasses. The face possesses an overall sadness. In a speech bubble someone has written, “Help! I’ve got lice.”
“Cory, who wrote that on your picture?”
“Bubba,” he says, a piece of orange wedged between his teeth.
Bubba, better known as Linda, is our part-time babysitter. After work, my older daughter ran into Linda’s to retrieve Cory while I remained in the van. I was in a hurry to get the girls to after-school activities. What a hurtful way to inform me about the lice.
I turn the radio on. The kitchen fills with the deep voice of a newscaster. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government has just introduced the GST, a tax he promises will be good for working Canadians. I laugh out loud. Only a millionaire would dare emphasize the perks of a national taxation program.
“Come over here, Cory.” I fold him between my legs. After a good look at his scalp, I’m unable to spot a single louse.
“Ma, itchy.” His fingernails rasp against his scalp.
“I know, honey, but try not to scratch. Be a pet and get my glasses, will you?”
I drag the floor lamp closer before Cory resumes his place between my knees. His silky blond hair lies flat against his head like a blanket resting on beach sand on a calm summer day. I part a section of hair and squint. “Linda’s right. There’s a nit,” I squeal. With fingernails on either side of the hair shaft, I tug. The nit is the size of a sesame seed. It resists a moment before it pops and lets loose. My fingertips mine the hair shafts. “Jesus,” I whisper. “There are so many.”
I slip Cory’s glasses off, strip his clothes, and place him in the tub. He balances on one foot while I adjust the water. “Close your eyes, buddy.”
I slather conditioner over his head before tugging a fine-toothed comb through his hair. With each pass, I wipe the tines until lice debris heaps a paper towel’s surface. Back and forth until my arm throbs.
“Ma, cold.” His naked body shivers under cascading water so I wrap him in a towel.
“Let’s call Daddy to pick up some Nix shampoo.”
Once Cory is dry, I rummage around for hair clippers. Cory slumps into a pout. I set him on the counter so he can watch his hair coiling off the edge of the clippers. He points at his reflection in the mirror and says, “Me. Grandpa.”
Roberta Bondar becomes the first female Canadian astronaut to enter space. The year is 1992. The same year Grandpa Otto sneaks behind the garage to puff cigarettes. People with his diagnosis generally opt to quit. Only he can’t. Or won’t. 1992. The same year head lice occupy our home. 1992. The year tattoos are inked onto Grandpa Otto’s chest. Blue targets for the radiologist.
My father began smoking when he was nine. A German-speaking Romanian, he survived World War II by bootlegging nylon stockings to prostitutes who couldn’t do without. The smoking caused him to feel ripe with maturity and diverted his attention from food.
A few days after the invasion of the lice, the walls of the house sweat. My husband is working late so the kids and I stop by Grandpa Otto’s for a brief visit. As soon as I park the van, the girls help Cory escape the clutches of his car seat so he can run to where his grandfather sits in a collapsible lawn chair. TV noise spills through an open window into the outside air. The show sounds like ‘Cheers.’
“Isn’t that your favourite?” I ask.
“A rerun,” he says.
Cory rocks from foot to foot, waiting to snuggle on Grandpa’s lap. The resemblance between them is eerie. Both wear glasses and with Cory’s newly shaved head, both are virtually bald. Their cheekbones sit high on plump faces. They study each other a while longer before Grandpa says, “I won’t break, you know. Climb aboard.”
The evening sun sparkles from behind mature spruce trees. Sky as blue as an indigo bunting frames the upper branches. I linger near a cluster of enormous flowers my mother calls Spider Plants. Their oversize heads loom over me like faces at a funeral. They must provide some kind of threat to public safety because every time we visit, she cautions us to never brush against them. It’s curious why she allows something so hazardous to remain but I’m aware she has more than plants on her mind.
I check my watch, never daring to stay too long at these visits. Grandpa Otto frequently falls prey to fatigue. A distinctive odour penetrates where we sit. It dangles in the clammy space between us. It offers a pungent, sweet smell of imminence, a final, lasting impression despite its fleeting attitude. I tap the face of my watch to beg the seconds to zip by.
“How are you feeling today, Dad?” I’m careful to modulate my voice. To ask with confidence is to heal.
“Grandpa,” Cory says, with great certainly. It was only last week when Cory mastered his grandfather’s name. He pokes a finger into my father’s belly.
“Careful, eh?” I say.
Grandpa Otto waves away my concern. His position on the lawn chair is rigid, like a stiff breeze might topple him over. The chair is flimsy with woven plastic slats that have frayed over time. The slats are so threadbare, they’ll slice your legs if you move the wrong way. Grandpa Otto’s legs are thin and pale, and poke from his shorts like branches from a willow tree.
“What have you been up to?” I ask, wanting to immediately strangle the words. Knowing my father as well as I do, he’s likely been finalizing arrangements for his funeral.
I once knew a woman who insisted on putting everything in order prior to her impending departure. From the obituary to the visitation to the funeral to the tasty squares and cucumber sandwiches. So, she planned her own wake. She didn’t want to leave anything to chance or her step-children.
My father’s slip-on sandals cause his feet to appear shrunken. A sweaty sleeveless undershirt stretches over his protruding belly. Despite the illness, he’s so far managed to maintain a healthy weight. A few coarse, white hairs sprout from his scalp. Despite efforts to conceal it, his face looks as if he’s in the throes of significant pain. A departing man’s thinking stance.
Even though the tumours on his lungs zap his energy and leave him feeble, he still has quick hands. His fingers, stained yellow, carve through the muggy air and snatch something off the patio. It’s the colour and size of a licorice nib. Whatever it is, he can contain it in a fist. Cory’s sisters stop blowing bubbles and watch with wide eyes. Jealousy is an evolutionary process. First came Carolyn, the opening act, almost eight years before. Then Kathleen, the middle child whose destiny was to be distinct. Then little Cory—unique simply for his gender.
Grandpa Otto’s lips form an insidious grin. He leans forward and fakes a move like he’s going to tickle Cory. A deep chortle escapes my son’s lips. They have played this tickle game before. Grandpa Otto feigns a right, clutches the waistband of Cory’s stretchy shorts, and dumps the contents of his fist into Cory’s underwear.
“Go find it, boy.”
Cory squeals. He pats himself with spirited enthusiasm before leaping into a crooked jig. All the while, he and Grandpa share giggles. Cory’s face turns into an avatar. He’s a frog, his tongue flicking in and out, the action sure to ambush the treasure hiding in his pants. He jumps up and down to convince whatever is trapped to leave.
“Ow,” Cory says. He pinches something from his shorts and strains to view it through his glasses. Adrenaline or the excitement of locating the cricket causes him to leap into the air and knock his grandfather’s flimsy chair.
“Whoa, there,” Grandpa Otto says. Bleakness mixes with concern and settles on my father’s face. Soon the chair resumes its wobble. With a stroke of acumen, Grandpa Otto thrusts his arms and legs out to try and save himself from the inevitable. But it’s too late. He crumbles like a discarded cigarette pack on the ground.
I run to my father’s side. “Are you okay?” I ask. “Cory, really, you must be more careful.”
My mother calls from the shadows of the screen door where she’s been supervising all this time. She wears a peach coloured blouse reminiscent of an anti-nausea pill. Her voice squawks like a crazed bird during spring migration. “Pick him up. He mustn’t bleed.” I’m bathed in the panic of her voice.
My head snaps up and I order the kids into the van. There’s no point staying. My mother’s anxiety will mix with his and consume us all. My father’s fall is a trap. There is a part of him seeking an excuse to be weak, not only from the cancer, but from his waning ability to counter what he cannot change.
“Come inside now, Otto. Enough is enough,” my mother says. I sense her eyes piercing through me. I’ve become the enemy. “Take them home,” she says about the children. The buckles of their seatbelts clip into place.
En route, lingering heat makes the pavement ahead of us appear to wobble. My confidence as the dutiful daughter melts with it. I aim the air conditioner vent directly at me before popping a Fred Penner cassette into the tape deck. I chew my bottom lip to the beat of the music as I attempt to commit the evening to memory.
In public school, the students crafted a system of sorting the poor, dirty kids from regular ones. We labeled the dirty ones ‘cootie-heads.’ We never sat with them at lunch or called them over to play. Cootie-heads didn’t get invited to birthday parties or sleepovers. Cooties. A shameful word for lice. So, when cooties invade a second time, it’s humiliating. Ours is not a dirty home. People have discovered lice on the scalps of Egyptian mummies. Cleopatra had a nit comb made of gold.
Scientists call head lice ectoparasites making them equal opportunity invaders. Their modus operandi is to latch on. Pediculus humanus capitis will remain on a host until overcrowding forces them to migrate, generally to freshly washed hair.
By the second lice event, the stench of insecticide permeates the drywall. Incessant nit-picking causes double-vision. Favourite stuffed animals like Gundy Bear and Tickle Me Elmo find themselves in the bottom of the freezer. Pillow cases soak in diluted bleach. Between picking, I itch my own scalp with a plastic ruler, and pray.
Grandpa Otto rings our house later that afternoon.
After a quick hello, I say, “We’ve got goddamned lice again.” All I want is a little sympathy.
“During the war everyone had lice. You get used to them.”
The receiver balances between my shoulder and head as I wonder at the fortitude of those able to survive that.
“I just want my clean house back. And my life.”
“Every person wants something he can’t have,” he says.
Lice choose the worst time to come visit.
“Have you tried massaging the hair with oil and covering it with a swim cap? Those buggers will be gone by morning,” he says.
My daughters play a board game at the kitchen table. Blond hair cascades over their shoulders. I clutch a pair of scissors, the metal soothing and cold against my palm. I’m ravenous to chop their hair but for their sakes, I don’t.
My father sounds quite lucid today. Clear-headed and rational. Last time we spoke on the telephone he stopped mid-sentence and then couldn’t articulate another complete thought. I don’t want to talk about lice with my father ever again. Surely there is something more relevant and impactful for our waning time together. There are moments when life ticks by with episodic lethargy, like fuzzy images on 8 mm home movies. Of one thing I am certain. There’s no desire to associate my father’s exodus with the double-delousing event of 1992.
Around age five, I was terrified to lose my eyesight. I was convinced one day I would be able to see and then, poof, never again. Blind, I’d surely get lost in the woods by my house or slip and drown in the pond behind the chicken barns. My anxiety wasn’t about getting old or diseases that could kill. My parents’ survival was as constant as the universe. Life simply went on. My parents and I, we had all the time together we needed. Until now.
Strident coughing explodes from the telephone receiver. The moist sound causes my ear to feel sticky.
“You’re getting much worse,” I say, unsure what else to add.
“You could say that,” he says. “Today has been inconceivable, actually.”
Last week my mother told me she’d discovered a pile of bloody phlegm in the bathroom garbage.
“He’s been spitting up again,” she said. “He’s going to die soon, you know.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t say die. It’s harsh.”
“You want harsh? You prefer pass away? How about expire? Pack it in?” Her voice shrieks with apprehension-filled anger.
She bears an immensity of conflicting emotions. Gravity sits trapped between angry words expelled with staccato force. I experience her ire each time I sit with my father. Better, though, to project rage at me than at this ailing excuse for a man. An urgency remains to say something amazing, comforting even, in an effort to wipe away her angst, but I sit drowning in my own.
She said, “He prefers ‘kick the bucket,’ wouldn’t you know?”
When I was in public school, we moved to Mitchell where my father had bought a hotel. It had been his dream to work in hospitality and to one day own his own pub. I despised him for making me move halfway through my grade six year. The kids in the new school immediately rejected me. In a small town where surnames like Smith and Jones prevailed, my Eastern European looks and unique surname were too out of the ordinary to be accepted. First day there they stuck me with the label ‘Cootie head.’ By the third day, they’d discovered my father’s name was Otto, a name that defined me ever more.
“I want to drop by,” I tell my father a few days later. I hate talking on the telephone. “Won’t get there today, though.”
“Good. Better up,” he says. I’m not sure what he means. Better up? Or did he mean batter up? Either way, I’m confused.
He coughs again and can’t stop. His wheezes are long and deep. I wonder where my mother is. Why she hasn’t offered to get him a drink or something. When he finally stops, I tell him I can’t come because of the nits.
“Tried. Tomorrow,” he says.
I shake my head. Is the time ripe to explain how much he means to me? How I’ll miss him? That the next election won’t be the same if we can’t argue politics. I listen for a breath. His breath. Only one doesn’t come.
“I love you,” I say to a dial tone.
All traces of lice vanish by the end of the week. It was so much worse than the first time. Clearly we hadn’t been careful enough.
A few days later I sit outside my father’s house. He has visibly withered. His hands are limp in his lap, the skin loose and spotted. His attempts to speak are feeble but not for lack of effort. Once he does manage to get a word out, his voice is scratchy, like whisper-yelling. Some of his word choices make sense and some don’t. Sores have erupted over his face. Deep worry lines etch his forehead and his usually moist eyes are a dull grey. The trees near the patio sway with the chatter of thirsty birds.
“Goddamned birds. Don’t go. I mean, stop.” he says. He flaps his hands in frustration. His bird-curse falls flat.
I plunge fingers in my ears hoping he’ll follow suit. Instead, his chin slumps to his chest and his eyelids droop. He’s in a morphine haze.
“Hey, kids.” I tug a kite from my backpack. “See if you can’t figure out how to fly this. Grandpa Otto and I will be right here.”
The three scamper off, better off playing than boarding the pity-train. The sound of the birds intensifies as the children’s voices fade.
“License. Gone,” he says while his eyes remain closed.
“What? Who took it?”
“Government cocksuckers. Doctor.”
The cancer is in his brain. He’s been blanking out. Having seizures. Losing his balance. Falling down. The doctor had no choice. But I agree with my father. His doctor is a cocksucker.
As I sit on the lawn chair, I pay attention to the aches that ride my bones. My father’s typically ruddy face has completely drained of colour. A gust of wind sends a fluffy cloud between the sun and me, leaving me to shiver. There’s the zingy smell of rain in the offing, a pungent odour reminiscent of a recently extinguished candle.
“You need help getting to appointments?” I ask.
“No. No more. Treatments. Done.” Non-negotiable.
His reaction to losing his license is more zealous than to the diagnosis. The lung cancer produced disbelief, then anger, and finally resignation. I remind myself to breathe. The distilled voices of my children playing in the nearby field ride a blast of wind. My three. I half-heartedly listen as they squabble over turns. They are his legacy. How challenging it is to know with virtual certainty that tomorrow could be your last. I lean forward and caress his hand in mine, thumb-stroking a gentle rhythm along a ridge of knuckles.
A cloud above us carries the colour of a bruise.
My father straightens in the chair. “I’m going to need you,” he says, his string of coherent thoughts improving, “to come around. Make sure your mother eats.” He pauses a moment. “Takes her pills.” His eyes flicker left and right like he’s taking some final snapshots.
My mind flips as I consider managing my mother’s complex medication regimen and treatment plan. Zyprexa. Seroquel. Risperidone. There could be more. I’m not sure. For bipolar disorder. I don’t know what to say. I’m too wrung out.
I can’t look at him anymore. Terror has a potent energy. I sit next to this man whose plummet to the unknown is well underway and I’m powerless to alter his destiny. It’s no one’s fault. As we roost on our respective chairs, we wait in the clichéd, heavy silence of expectation and neglect to say what’s really on our minds.
Cindy Matthews has worked as a chamber maid, potato peeler, data entry operator, teacher, and vice-principal of special education programs. She writes, paints, and instructs online courses for teachers in Ontario, Canada. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Canada, USA, UK, South Africa, and Australia. “Clutched by the Hair” was awarded Top 3 in the 2015 Desi Writers’ Lounge Fiction Writing Contest. “Ringo,” a creative nonfiction piece, was awarded third prize at the 2015 Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop Writing Contest. “Nothing by Mouth”
was shortlisted in the 2014 Event Magazine Non-Fiction Contest. Find her at https://www.facebook.com/CindyIsabelMatthews or @Matthec1957.