Achilles. Not like the god, in French you say it like “a shill”—the ‘s’ is silent. He was my grandfather and he was strong, he could crack a walnut in one hand, he could do that until he got sick and died. I don’t remember what it was—I want to say it was his heart. I remember that they put a hospital bed in his room and that it looked funny with all the normal furniture. I remember that he looked like a child, is it a cliché, to say that dying people look like children? Because it’s more than just the way we tuck them in.
The day he died we didn’t go to his deathbed because I had lice real bad. My Mom shampooed my hair with insecticide and sat me at the dining room table and combed out all the dead lice, wiping the comb on a mottled old towel. She has a very expressive mouth and I think that’s why she didn’t do it in the bathroom. We had a vanity with a chair and everything and it would’ve been the best place for it, but she didn’t want me to watch her.
“Are there a lot?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, honey, there’s lots of these babies,” she said in her trying not to sound excited voice. It was the voice she used when she told my dad she was gonna pop his zit. “Wanna see one?”
There was a dead louse on her thumbnail, its exoskeleton was beige, like a worm. I could see the brown food inside, my blood. But I couldn’t see the part that mattered, the piercing-sucking mouthpart.
My sister stared at us. She was doing her homework at the table, because she wanted to gloat or she wanted to be near us. That morning, when my father had stood up from the table with his dirty plate and peered down at my head and said, you have lice, they had checked her too. She was hysteric, the eczema and the asthma made her meticulous about her person. Now, she stared like she wanted to see the lice and didn’t want to see them.
“Do you want to talk about Pépé?” Mom asked.
I felt itchy and sorry, but mostly for myself.
“No,” we said. We hated feelings talks.
I could feel the comb’s metal tines scrape my scalp. Well, the lice were almost gone, it would take two weeks of daily combing. It wasn’t fair. I was 11 years old—too old for lice. I was a lost boy in Peter Pan and one of the other lost boys must’ve had them. There was another girl lost boy, but most of us were boys. I had thick mouse brown hair that I never brushed. It stuck out from my head like a triangle. I had to cut it. And I knew that instead of a girl with wild eyes and wild hair, I would look like a weak chinned weak little boy. I had a crush on Eric E. He was my birdhouse project partner. I wanted to be pretty. I wanted him to think I was pretty, but nobody thought I was pretty. I wished I were a boy and had a penis. I would write my name in pee. No, I would pee in a drinking fountain.
“Are you thinking about Pépé?” Mom asked.
“No,” I said.
The phone rang and my mom grabbed the cordless, still holding the tiny comb. She stood in the doorway and nodded and asked my father eager unthinking questions, “How’s your mother? How’s your brother? How are you?”
I watched my sister flip multiplication table flashcards that my mom let her laminate at the schoolboard office. I liked to laminate pictures of whales from National Geographic. If you laminate something it says that thing is important and that you know how to take care of things that are important. We all loved the laminator. It was huge and it looked like a loom and it looked like a computer. Trimming the plastic edges with the paper cutter frightened me. I thought of a paper cutter as a finger guillotine and felt afraid of myself.
“What are you thinking about, honey?” Mom asked.
“Jane Eyre,” I said.
“Which part are you at?” she asked.
“There’s a big black dog, but I don’t know if it’s a real dog or if it’s in her head,” I said. I wanted to read but it would’ve been rude. I asked my
Mom how much she’d gone through and she tugged the section of my hair from my nape to my earlobes and said, baby, I’ve gotta go slow. So I stared at my sister, staring at her flashcards, and wished my eyes were blue like hers. Mom quizzed her on her multiplication tables, from six to ten, and she looked pleased with herself, and I hated her, the way you hate your sister.
I twisted up a tress of wet hair and imagined I could wring the lice out. I let it go and it clung to my neck, like a disgusting thing. If I were a Medusa I wouldn’t have lice. But I knew I wasn’t brave enough to be a Medusa. And I wanted to be pretty. I wondered what I would look like when I was a woman.
Mom asked Nadine to put the radio on and it was smooth and she moaned along. Allan Allman played Sade, Marvin Gaye, that kind of thing. My favourite part was the requests. Someone loves Linda, in Flint, and so the listening audience knows that Linda, of Flint, is loved.
The phone rang. This time my mom just left the comb hanging in my hair while she talked to Papa. After, she asked us about our funeral clothes and we pretended not to feel like funeral clothes are weird and boring to talk about.
When they played “My Girl “we all sang along. Mom had the most gusto and Dini had the best voice and all our voices together made a mood.
We didn’t talk for a while. I asked Mom how much hair she’d done and she drew a line on my scalp with the comb, way beneath the crown. My sister drew the same two and a half-story house with a fence that she always drew. The sun and the seagull were there, in each corner of the sky. Looking at her drawing she asked, what’s for dinner?
“You’re in charge,” Mom said. Nadine beamed because she was bossy. Mom knew how to appeal to us. She appealed to everyone, she always said, it’s not hard to be nice. There were no more frozen entrees so Nadine said, toast, and we said, toast. And I was grateful that she put the baguette under the broiler instead of toasting the Weight Watchers bread. I ate slowly, because I was hungry but disgusted. Mom kept pushing my head down and saying, I’ve gotta get some light on the subject. But it was hard to eat with my head bowed.
“Shit,” Mom said. A louse fell out of my hair onto the dining room table. It scurried onto the napkin and onto my toast and got stuck in the peanut butter. Its posterior, which was most of it, twitched. We all stared at it. Against the rich ochre of the peanut butter you could see that my blood was very dark.
Mom said, “Oh, honey.”
The louse twitched still. I didn’t want my body anymore. White crumbs fell from my mouth, white louse eggs fell from my hair. Mom said, Dini, throw away the toast, and she whimpered with every breath until she dropped it the bin.
“Those lice are fuckers,” Mom said. Nadine’s eyebrows went up. “Call them what you want.”
“They’re mother fuckers,” I said and Mom grinned.
“Mother fuckers,” Mom said. And I wanted to crawl into her grinning mouth.
“Mother fuckers! Mother fuckers! Mother fuckers!” we screamed. We were all looking at the towel that was moist with what my mother had been wiping on it. The bugs and eggs she’d gathered from my damp hair in her comb. Mom touched the small of my back and I was glad she was touching me.
“That feels better,” she said. She liked to identify a mood to make sure it was a worthy one. It was an annoying habit, but right then it was right.
Nadine’s eyes looked crazed. She didn’t even take the lords name in vain. If someone said, oh my god, she would say: God can hear you. Say, I’m sorry God. Mom kept trying to make her stop.
“You said mother fucker,” I said. She blushed and tore a sheet of paper from her drawing pad.
The phone rang. Mom gasped and said, “take us off your list of people you call.”
“You said mother fucker,” I said, all smug.
“Mom made me,” she said and centered her sheet of paper on the Map of the World placemat that Mom had laminated.
“Whatever,” I said and Mom sighed. I hated myself for being small. Mom pushed my head down further and kept combing. Nadine drew two more houses, one was orange and one was purple. There was the sun and there was the seagull in each corner, did they strike a balance?
Mom only had three sections left when Papa called to say Pépé was dead. She hugged my sister and then she hugged me, craning her neck away, and squeezing.
“I’m gonna miss the way he ate,” Nadine said. Mémé would be unhappy with nobody to feed. Everybody was always saying how observant Nadine was. I thought of all the things I wouldn’t notice if she didn’t tell me to.
“He always ate three muskrats,” Mom said. They were as big as a rabbit so I never knew how he could eat three at the muskrat boil, and sit there after like it was natural, when Mononcle Vic, and Mononcle Zéphir, and Papa and the others could only eat one. And I heard my sister and my mother talking the way you talk to someone you love, because their voice makes you feel safe.
Mom finished and said, we’re finished, and put the towel in a garbage bag, and tied it off with a wretched bow. She said no one would want to use it, even after she washed it.
I took it out back to the dog shit garbage, so the lice would freeze. I looked at the shed for a while, because I liked the way the slanting snow piled on one side and made it slouch. The porch roof collapsing made a very loud noise. A harrowing crack and then there was the whoosh of falling. Seeing the roof pull away from the house, and the sky filling the sky, was shocking.
I remember feeling something spinal and unbearable. Like brain freeze without the freeze. I remember the porch roof covered most of the snowy yard—it looked like a smaller snowy yard. Now the larger yard was liminal.
When Mom and Dini came out I was laughing. Dini stood before the roof and she turned to face us, and to face the roof, and to face us, her little body like a cup without a saucer.
“It’s because we said motherfuckers,” she said.
Mom laughed too and I laughed and Dini didn’t mind for once, that we were laughing at her. Mom held onto me, her long arms folded around my neck, her hands bracing my shoulders, the bare edges of me, her breasts a pillow for my brain, which was still in my strange skull, and she shook, and I shook, with laughter, and I felt the weirdness of this orb, how bulbous it felt in the back.
Our faces rose with laughter, until we were all looking at the sky.
After that, I no longer lay awake, afraid of dying in my sleep. I knew that dying would wake me up. This didn’t help me sleep. No, I lay awake still, for longer now than before, until the sun rose, sore in the red sky. I wanted to make my dreams, and I did. I dreamt I was the Lady of Shallot, floating along in my rickety rowboat, seated still as it dipped back and forth, pooling with water, finding its level below, until the rowboat was gone, and I was supine, but unsinking, floating still, because my gowns were made of gossamers’ wings, and weighed nothing, they pulled me along a little, catching the currents, making me look this way and that, like a little girl whose got your fingers in her grip.
I fought sleep still, because I felt like it.