Wednesday, August 02, 2006

the silk scarf*

*the aforementioned fiction -- one of my short stories. (Shhh.)

"Be patient," her mother called over her shoulder at Katy. "You're the older child. I expect more from you."

Katy's mother wore a silk scarf over her hair when she drove. She was making some kind of picky adjustment to the curling tendrils at her temples as she issued this edict. In the back seat, next to Katy, a small blond boy with what her mother called a peaches-and-cream complexion smirked, twisting his beautiful face up at his big sister in an ugly mocking grimace.

"Ha," he mouthed noiselessly, and nudged her leg cruelly, shaking with silent mirth.

Her mother drove carefully, back straight, hands clenching the steering wheel with inflexible determination. Because she knew her mother hated driving Katy clamped her mouth shut and said no more. The air in the car was close and too warm, pressing down on them all in an unfriendly, pushy way. Rich people, she knew, had cars with air conditioning. They didn't have to roll down the windows, the way their father liked to do, and smell the rude gust of air rushing in over cow pastures and dwindling creek beds, a scent that tousled the hair and abraded the skin somehow, leaving a body feeling sort of sandblasted and tired.

Her mother, however, drove with one window rolled down just a crack so as not to dislodge the silk scarf. Most of the time, Katy realized, her mother's hair remained shrouded or pinned or otherwise tortured into some unnatural shape, like the embalmed butterflies her one aunt collected and kept under glass.

At home her mother wore the scarf over fat pink plastic rollers. How Katy hated those rollers: unfriendly toothed spindles clamped with bobby pins waiting expectantly to be unrolled for some glamorous outing that somehow never seemed to materialize.

Two hours ago her mother had asked their father to drive them to the doctor's office for Katy's appointment. You've been looking for work for two weeks now, she'd pleaded. Can't you stay home today and help me? You know I hate to drive. Why won't you?

They'd exchanged words. He'd thrown her home hair dryer, the kind with the plastic cap and hose attachment like the kind they have in salons, to the floor in a fury; he'd picked up her big green box of pink rollers and thrown them across the room with such force that the box split open and the baby-pink plastic shells tumbled out in a torrent like so much ammunition. They rolled and clattered and spun over the floor in all directions, spilling out into the hallway and down the stairs.

"Look what you've done," her mother breathed in that even, measured tone she only used when furious. Her calm unnerved even Katy, more than her father's temper. It made her mother seem the more dangerous of the two, though Katy couldn't exactly explain why.

Katy sat rigid in her room, listening as her father pounded heavily away from all of them. She thought she heard him stumble on a stray curler, but he must have recovered himself.

The front door slammed behind him.

Katy crept out into the hallway and carefully, delicately, began plucking up the errant pink plastic rollers scattered like marbles across the floor. Her mother, brushing her hair in the mirror this way and that, ordered calmly without turning:

"Leave them be."

"But they're everywhere," Katy protested. "You'll trip on them. It's messy."

"He threw them," her mother said, unperturbed, "So he can be the one to pick them up. And not one of us will help him! Not one! If these curlers stay here until you're twenty, you'll just have to live with it! Do you understand me?"

Katy nodded meekly. There was so much she would never understand, not even the smallest bit.

Look at her mother now: humming along with something on the radio, signalling carefully, circling the block twice to find a parking space that wouldn't require her to put the car in reverse. You would think such drama had never occured. You would surely never imagine her home hair salon was lying in pieces on the bathroom floor.

The opthamologist said Katy needed eyeglasses. He'd suspected her of lying, of deliberately claiming not to see; as if eyeglasses were all anyone needed to see clearly, Katy thought sulkily. She very much disliked the opthamologist. He smiled too much, as if he were wise and tolerant and understood everything of temper tantrums and broken hair dryers and little girls who obviously don't get enough attention.

She deliberately lingered over choosing the frames -- rainbow-speckled octagonal frames that, she reasoned, would match anything and everything she chose to wear, because matching is important. The receptionist gave her a case for the glasses with a cartoon of a little girl in a pouffy dress on it. The girl had her hands behind her back, looking down at the ground and smiling shyly. The caption read, YOU DON'T HAVE TO UNDERSTAND ME -- JUST LOVE ME.

When they got home again, her father's car was in the driveway. He'd made spaghetti; the pleasant smell of Ragu and garlic bread filled the kitchen as they walked into it. Katy watched as her mother leaned forward to kiss her husband on the cheek; his hand stayed at the small of her back in a confiding, comfortable way that made Katy avert her eyes uneasily. It made her feel a little sick to see her parents so chummy again -- as if she'd wasted something expensive with all her (she could see now) needless worrying.

She ran upstairs to throw her Minnie Mouse purse on the bed and saw, with an odd mixture of disappointment and relief, that every trace of the morning's quarrel had been erased. The big green box had been painstakingly glued; the pink plastic curlers stacked carefully inside it like firewood. The tan hair dryer with the hose attachment and cap lay neatly inside the bathroom vanity, a benign, insipid sort of dragon once more.

Katy checked her steps coming back to the kitchen: it was important not to appear too anxious, too ready to appease by informing her mother of the transformation. Her mother seemed to have forgotten about it anyway; she was still smiling, seated at the table like an honored guest, removing the scarf and spreading it across her lap like a napkin, patting it in a fond kind of way, as if it were a kitten or a very small child.

Katy got a pair of glasses, she said. Show Daddy your glasses, Katy.

So this was the glamour the scarf had been holding all this time in reserve for -- the overly sentimental, crushingly emotional reunion of husband and wife. Katy felt something bitter choke her throat in a mean, selfish, not-very-grateful way.

Rebelliously -- and she'd been so good all day! -- she had the wildest urge to break the rainbow-speckled glasses that matched everything and anything, break them beyond repair and make them all understand some things can't be apologized away later, no matter how hard they'd try.

But she didn't. She produced the glasses, and tried them on, and pirouetted prettily as her father applauded and called her his Katydid, which ordinarily would have pleased her.

Her only revenge -- she hadn't her father's courage for acts of decision -- would be to refuse to wear them at every turn. It was a satisfaction, somehow, to watch them frown and ask her, in great puzzlement, why she'd insist on walking around half-blind instead.

And she couldn't exactly explain that, either.