If you have seen monkeys preen and pick nits out of each other's fur, you will know that they sporadically look up at a jolt and dart their eyeballs side to side as though they might have to dash off quickly. Well, that look always seems to me a guilty one, like they'll get caught doing something naughty. I feel a little like that right now, to tell you of the comfort and pleasure I took as a child poring over my Dad's scalp after a long day of yard work, or my sister's lush mane on a school night if she let me in her room for a spell.
I was the resident preener in my home. It was a specialty of mine to find small things.
I have hawk eyes, my mother used to say. If you need to find an earring back lost in a high pile rug, I am the one to call. Get Laurie in here. If I couldn't find it after a zen-like surveillance, gazing from key vantage points in the room, I would get on my hands and knees and root into the shafts of pile with my fingers splayed out stiff until I found the thing, sparkling on the yellowed carpet backing, winking back at me. Mission accomplished.
Whenever I could get the chance, I gladly and meticulously searched for flecks of dirt on the scalps of my father and sister. Like checks of matte glitter, I would lift minuscule bits of dirt out by gently scooping it under the sliver of my fingernail. This was best done when either client was at end of a work shift, and before a bath or shower. Not wanting to be a nuisance, I ensured to ask sweetly, "Can I pick your scalp?" I would raise my eyebrows to emphasize that I was providing a needed service, a cleaning, and a micro-massage all in one. Truth is, I didn't want to show my eagerness too much. I may have gotten more out of it than they did.
This was an intimacy I could get that may have been more parasitic than it was symbiotic.
The best time to get Dad was on a Sunday when he would watch the auto races on TV while us kids took turns bathing after hours of yard work. He would crack open a beer and plant himself down with an Ahhhh after turning on the tube. Being the littlest and thus, the first one out of the tub, I would seize the opportunity and sidle up next to him, half his height and girth. Standing behind him on the couch, I rested one side of my body against the back of the coarse cushions to sure myself up so I had both hands free. I know the smell of scalp. It comes from a closeness that can at once repel and draw one near, a scent so familiar it seems a shame to wash it down the drain obliterated with soap. Yet, one so shameful that you have to coil it out from under your fingernails with a toothpick. It's not often you get that close to someone.
Doing my sister's scalp was a cherished commitment that could keep me up well past my bedtime. She was in high school already and generally behind a closed door. I had a much earlier bedtime but struggled to get to sleep on my own across the hall, in a big room by myself. Occasionally she would unlatch the door and let me into her room for a grooming session. Before I could arrive, she would have flopped onto her belly on her wide bed, legs bent and feet wafting the air, absorbed in a book. Few words were exchanged. I would sit on the small of her back, straddling her sides with my knees up and head leaned way forward to look in between segments of her silky hair like a jeweler studying a gem. As though part of a separate mechanism, my elbows and forearms moved rapidly, fingers shuttling chunks of hair out and away from her crown like a loom until the crop was clear of soil and I would lay the three sections down, into tightly plaited rows. It could take up to three hours to do the whole scalp if she let me. Too often she would shoo me off when she finished a chapter or my sitting on her made her back sweaty. I might have been dismissed with a curt, "Ok, go away now." Before leaving I would run a skinny index finger down the center of each cornrow to unravel my work and leave her locks loose again. The parts I didn't get to clean stayed with me as I slunk off the bed and crossed the landing like a lowered drawbridge back to my room.
Dad didn't have nearly as much hair so the transaction didn't seem fair. I could see the flecks from far away. With him, it felt like a particularly good score when I could find a reflective, almost translucent speck that must have been a bit of mica.
I knew about dirt. I knew how dirt and sand are what rocks are made of. One of my brothers and I used to pass time in the yard cracking rocks. It was a trade we practiced now and then on the side of the hill between the driveway and the chicken coop, but a bit higher up, past the pen where the ducks and geese meandered around. We seemed to choose this activity when we were tired of fighting or a bit bored but hadn't been called back in the house yet. It was a quiet task. We gathered a selection of large stones into our sweatshirt hems as we mounted the slope to the top to where much bigger rocks cropped out of a clearing in the trees. Systematically we split the rocks into two or three pieces, looking to see what kind of sparkles might be revealed inside. We hoped against reason to find a random geode that held a secret crystalline cave on the inside. I don't think our wish was granted but periodically we could lift one smoking half a stone up to the other's nose to take a quick sniff and say gun powder.
I cracked rocks alone sometimes too. That way I could get the better perch to sit on. One stone that jutted out from the hill was shaped like a metal smith's anvil but with a seat built right in. You could sit on the hollowed out lower ledge and use the higher part with a flattish surface to hold the small rock still with one hand and crack down hard on it with a bigger, tougher rock with the other. These big round stones we used like mallets were the kind our dog Bandy would yelp at and roll across the yard all day long, finally to gnaw on it like a gobstopper. He did this all his life until there were yellow spots in his muzzle where the fangs should have been. Before settling down to gnash his teeth on the stones, he would pursue them for a while, nosing them across the lawn like a reel mower. Ruh Ruh Ruh he would call into the forsythia bush until one of us came over to fetch him a rock to roll. Dad threw them under there because they got caught up in the real lawnmower and made a racket you could hear from the side of the hill, followed by the mower stopping momentarily and then firing up again after a few gurgles of the throttle.
Anyway, I also understood that rocks could be broken-up into gravel. I was entrusted with the job of sifting gravel through a sieve Dad made out of galvanized mesh staple-gunned onto a wooden frame. It laid on top of the wheelbarrow and I stood in between the greyed wooden handles to do the sorting. I was too far down the assembly line to remember what the job of the week or month was. It must have been to lay the groundwork for the brick walkway or something. It only occurs to me now that maybe he was just keeping me busy.
This skill would come in handy years later when I had to sift fifty-pound bags of red kidney and white beans at the bakery where I worked.
They couldn't bake the beans New England style without having first eliminated the risk of a random stone breaking someone's tooth. Of all the jobs I had there on summer afternoons in my teenage years, bean sifting was one of my favorites. I had a system. I would scoop out a couple of pounds of the dried beans from the sack on the floor and sprinkle it out into an even bed in a stainless steel tray. I ran my fingers up and down like tractor teeth, then side to side. Two sounds came together: the dull collision of the matte bean husks against one another and the higher pitch rake of it all against the metal tray bottom. I always found a stone. Almost always. I felt a little disappointed when I didn't because then my time seemed worthless if I hadn't saved the family business that employed me from a disgruntled customer. Doing this behind-the-scenes work made me feel like part of the team, a necessary cog. Another upside was that I could read the black-eyed peas like rune stones. In the belly part of the little fetus shapes where black spots and no two were alike. I would get mesmerized staring down over the lot, looking for more than the outlier bit of brown or grey rock, but for hidden portraits. Over time I had a little collection set high up on the top of the old cast iron stove in the back room. They looked like the legume-shaped heads my eldest brother drew in his cartoon birthday cards. I found Elvis, Rasputin, a billy goat. Once I showed the collection to one of the other employees, a tall in-law who loped around his wife's family's business with an air of perpetual boredom. I don't think he saw what I saw, it was like pointing out shapes in the clouds. After he rolled his basset hound eyes at me shrugged and murmured, "Whatever floats your boat". I caught the trace of a smile in three-quarter view as he sauntered back to the front to check the pies.
Flash forward over forty years later to a time when my mastery of sifting and preening was put to the test.
It turns out head lice is not merely an infrequent inconvenience of primary school children in Mallorca, Spain, but an epidemic stuck on a rinse and repeat cycle. My daughter's hair is a rich brunette like my sister's, thick, a bit coarse, and plentiful. I would clip clamp lamps from my studio to the sides of the bathroom countertop as my searchlights. With spare towels draped to keep the toxic repellent away from her tender skin and a movie on the tablet to distract her, I set to work. I parted the hair in quadrants with the metal comb provided in the delousing kit and then each quadrant into thirds. I combed and combed until full-grown lice jumped out from the burning foam. We got so accustomed to the ritual, I could do the whole procedure in an hour and a half. I became an aficionado at discerning a slightly translucent egg attached firmly to a strand from a bit of loose scalp or dander from the over-conditioning ritual she was prone to at her father's house. For too many years of her early education, we had anywhere from five to ten lice outbreaks. Mallorca's air was dank six months out of the year which made for a perfect breeding ground. Combine this with the fact that parents of school-age children simply don't read the newsletters from the assistant principal. Just kidding, there were no newsletters. I was on a different planet where lice and mold reign and my fine-tooth-comb search party efforts were in vain. It would be only a matter of weeks before I found my little girl re-infested. One bone-cold night, home alone in our rambling apartment in the heart of Palma de Mallorca, I began scratching my head like a madwoman. I thought I must just be paranoid. I knew I was not hallucinating when I saw a host of beige adult louse skittering in the sink bowl, half dead, half alive. I frantically pulled the pointy comb hard through my hair, scratching up my scalp until flecks of flesh mixed with pinhead size spots of blood and sparse locks of splintered red strands fell to the bowl. My head vibrated so much from the violation I couldn't get to sleep that night with the lamp lights of San Miguel streaming onto the ornate crown molding on the ceiling.
In the bright morning sun, standing in line in front of the primary school to wait for the gates to open, I looked down onto her classmates' heads to see an active colony of lice cruising through their hair. It was an unending battle. Some weeks outbreaks ravaged her year group so badly, we resigned ourselves to only partially rinsing out the toxic treatment and I would pull her damp hair back into super-tight french braids. I hope these would serve as barrier walls to deflect the parasites. My dirt hunting skills were no match for these living things. They had a greater appetite for scalp than I did.